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John Lydgate's Prologue to the Siege of Thebes


1-17 The opening is an elaborate imitation of Chaucer's CT I, 1-11 with its description of springtime based on astrology and planetary positions in the Zodiac; yet the first sixty-five lines can scarcely be punctuated, since this wayward sentence never quite manages to yield a main clause. The Middle English encyclopedia On the Properties of Things provides traditional lore concerning the Sun (pp. 484-89), Saturn (pp. 479-80), the Moon (pp. 489-97), and Jupiter (p. 480) as well as the workings of the zodiacus (pp. 460-73). An exact date of April 27, 1421, has been calculated by Johnstone Parr, "Astronomical Dating for Some of Lydgate's Poems," PMLA 67 (1952), 253-56. "Olde colde Saturnus" is mentioned in Chaucer's Boece (IV, m 1), though more fully described in The Knight's Tale (CT I, 2443-69) as a destructive force, here befitting Lydgate's Theban tragedy that will follow.

18-37 Lydgate recalls the mixed company of Chaucer's original pilgrims and the variety of their tales, some courtly, some religious, and some bawdy, told at various stages in their journey from Southwark to Canterbury.

28 The Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook offered a trio of low-brow fabliaux following the Knight's account of Thebes's defeat at the hands of Duke Theseus, an account which Lydgate will supplement in his own tale for the homeward journey.

32-36 Lydgate conflates the Pardoner with his traveling companion, the Summoner. The Pardoner was beardless and glassy-eyed from drinking (CT I, 684-90) - see Bowers (1990) - but it was the Summoner who had a "piled berd" and "a fyr-reed cherubynnes face" (CT I, 624-27) symptomatic of venereal leprosy. It was also the Summoner who told a tale to anger the Friar (CT III, 1665-2294).

40-57 Chaucer, who died in 1400, is absent from the pilgrim company in this continuation. Granting him instead a memorial presence, Lydgate praises Chaucer as the first great national poet of Britain, one chiefly admired in the early fifteenth century for his elegant style and sententious materials. See Lois Ebin, "Lydgate's Views on Poetry," Annuale Mediaevale 18 (1977), 76-105. That Chaucer could avoid "the chaf" and offer "the trewe piked greyn" recalls the Nun's Priest's advice at the end of his tale: "Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille" (CT VII, 3443).

58-65 The pilgrims originally convened at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (CT I, 19-27) where the Host, Harry Bailly, initiated a tale-telling competition to enliven the journey to Canterbury, offering himself as the guide and judge (CT I, 788-809).

67 Chaucer's pilgrims never actually arrived in Canterbury; the last recognizable place-name was "Bobbe-up-and-down" or Harbledown, two miles outside of town (CT IX, 2).

71-72 Lydgate indicates he undertook this pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in fulfillment of a vow to do so if he recovered from an illness, perhaps by medicating himself with Canterbury Water, also known as "Becket Water," a bizarre medicinal concoction of well-water and minute traces of St. Thomas's blood and brains sponged from the cathedral floor after his murder. See CT I, 17-18: "The hooly blisful martir for to seke / That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke."

73-76 In contrast to Chaucer's Monk, who had rich clothes and a fine horse sporting a bridle outfitted with jingling bells (CT VII, 2794-95), Lydgate's exaggeration of his scant means (also lines 85-91 and 102-04) may form a plea for more generous patronage, but is more likely a response to contemporary criticism of monastic luxury, particularly Henry V's efforts at reforming the Benedictines in 1421; see Pantin (1933), pp. 111-15, and E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961), pp. 196-97. Lydgate is habited in the black of the Benedictine order.

79 This characterization of the Host as "her governour" is picked up from the General Prologue where Harry Bailly offered "that he wolde been oure governour" (CT I, 813).

82-84 The Host had originally addressed Chaucer's Monk: "Wher shal I calle yow my lord daun John / Or daun Thomas, or elles daun Albon?" (CT VII, 1929-30). "Daun" or Don was a title appropriate to a monk who had earned the university degree of Master of Arts (Dominus). It is generally believed Lydgate studied at Oxford during the 1390s and again about 1406, most likely at Gloucester College, the Benedictine institution with close ties to his home monastery. Since Bury St. Edmunds was located in Suffolk, the Host makes the point of welcoming the monk into Kent.

90-91 Wearing a thread-bare hood as does the Clerk of Oxford (CT I, 290), Lydgate can travel after dark without fear of being robbed by highwaymen, as Chaucer himself was robbed along the Canterbury road in 1390. Harry Bailly had warned stragglers to beware of thieves (CT IX, 6-8).

92-95 Lydgate gives his actual name and identifies himself as a monk of Bury. If he is also truthful about being nearly fifty, and if the poem was composed between 1420 and 1422, then we have better internal evidence for dating his birth than we have for Chaucer himself. Lydgate is quick to add he is not ashamed to be on pilgrimage, a ritual criticized only by heretic Lollards; see Hudson, pp. 301-09.

98-104 Gluttonous monks were much criticized for indulgence in rich cuisine; for example, Chaucer's Monk, CT I, 200-06. Here the Host urges these delicacies upon Lydgate, who seems to have fed in a "feynt pasture" (line 104), whereas originally the Host chided the Monk for grazing in a "gentil pasture" (CT VII, 1933).

109-18 The Host's crude remarks on diet and sleep recall his brusque personality throughout Chaucer's Tales and, also, Pertelote's comments on the causes of Chauntecleer's dream (CT VII, 2923-69). Hede clothes that wrap around (line 109) suggest scarves worn turban-like around the head, much the fashion for slumber-attire in Lydgate's day; see plate A (BL Royal MS 15.D.I) in Dorothy Hartley, Medieval Costume and Life (London: B. T. Batsford, 1931), p. 130.

114-18 On "colic's passion" as intestinal blockage, see On the Properties of Things, p. 252: "And in this gut [the colon] is bred a wel gret sikenes that hatte colica passio, and cometh of grete streitnes of that gut othir of gadrenge of grete and of coolde humours, and so of stoppinge of that gut withinne." The encyclopedia also describes the medicinal values of spices including fennel (pp. 959-60), anise (p. 909), and coriander (p. 933).

120-25 The Host's orders that Lydgate not rise at midnight for Matins and that he observe Prime by departing with the other pilgrims indicate the tale-telling project is taking precedence over the monk's Divine Office. Thus the Host insists that Lydgate lay aside his profession (line 132). The orloger was a mechanical clock which chimed the hours so that monks would know when to rise to sing their offices at night.

128-45 The Host insists they continue the tale-telling game when they proceed the next morning out of Canterbury, as they had agreed in Southwark (CT I, 794-95). Now subject to a new rule and a "newe lawe" (line 130), Lydgate is informed that he must prepare to offer a tale.

150-55 Setting out at dawn, the pilgrims intend to break their fast with an early dinner around noon at Ospringe, which was approximately ten miles along the road toward London, less than midway between Boughton-under-Blean (CT VIII, 556) and Sittingbourne (CT III, 847), a standard stopping-place for meals.

165-68 Harry Bailly had told the Clerk "precheth nat, as freres doon in Lente" (CT IV, 12) and had asked Chaucer the pilgrim for "a tale of myrthe" (CT VII, 706). Here the Host will be granted only half of his request; while Lydgate does not tell a religious tale, the destruction of Thebes hardly qualifies as a "tale of myrthe."

169 Lydgate apparently had a big nose.

183 The poet's admission of unworthiness forms a gesture of humility typical of other pilgrim-narrators; see the Franklin, CT V, 716-28.

188-90 The Theban events are given parallel dating with the Old Testament career of Joshua, in a manner avoided by Chaucer in his Greek narratives, The Knight's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde; David Anderson, "Theban History in Chaucer's Troilus," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 4 (1982), 109-33. King Amphion was said to have raised the walls of the city through the powerful music of his lyre; see CT I, 1545-49 and IV, 1716.

(BL Arundel 119, fols. 1a-4a)

Whan brighte Phebus passed was the Ram
Myd of Aprille and into Bole cam,
And Satourn old with his frosty face
In Virgyne taken had his place,
Malencolik and slowgh of mocioun,
And was also in thoposicioun
Of Lucina, the mone moyst and pale,
That many shour fro hevene made avale;
Whan Aurora was in the morowe red,
And Jubiter in the Crabbes hed
Hath take his paleys and his mansioun,
The lusty tyme and joly fressh sesoun
Whan that Flora, the noble myghty quene,
The soyl hath clad in newe tendre grene
With her floures craftyly y-meynt,
Braunch and bough with red and whit depeynt,
Fletinge the bawme on hilles and on valys -
The tyme in soth whan Canterbury talys
Complet and told at many sondry stage
Of estatis in the pilgrimage,
Everich man lik to his degré,
Some of desport, some of moralité,
Some of knyghthode, love and gentillesse,
And some also of perfit holynesse,
And some also in soth of ribaudye
To make laughter in the companye -
Ech admitted, for non wold other greve -
Lich as the Cook, the Millere and the Reve
Aquytte hemsilf, shortly to conclude,
Boystously in her teermes rude,
Whan thei hadde wel dronken of the bolle;
And ek also with his pylled nolle,
The Pardowner, beerdlees al his chyn,
Glasy-eyed, and face of Cherubyn,
Tellyng a tale to angre with the Frere,
As opynly the storie can yow lere,
Word for word with every circumstaunce,
Echon y-write and put in remembraunce
By hym that was, yif I shal not feyne,
Floure of poetes thorghout al Breteyne,
Which sothly hadde most of excellence
In rethorike and in eloquence -
Rede his making, who list the trouthe fynde! -
Which never shal appallen in my mynde,
But alwey fressh ben in my memoyre,
To who be gove pris, honure, and gloyre
Of wel seyinge, first in oure language,
Chief registrer of this pilgrimage,
Al that was tolde, forgeting noght at al
Feyned talis nor thing historial,
With many proverbe divers and unkouth,
Be rehersaile of his sugrid mouth,
Of eche thyng keping in substaunce
The sentence hool withoute variance,
Voyding the chaf, sothly for to seyn,
Enlumynyng the trewe piked greyn
Be crafty writinge of his sawes swete,
Fro the tyme that thei ded mete
First the pylgrimes, sothly everichon,
At the Tabbard assembled, on be on,
And fro Suthwerk, shortly forto saye,
To Canterbury ridyng on her weie,
Tellynge a tale, as I reherce can,
Lich as the Hoste assigned every man,
None so hardy his biddyng disobeye.
   And this whil that the pilgrymes leye
At Canterbury, wel louged on and all,
I not in soth what I may it call -
Hap or Fortune - in conclusioun
That me byfil to entren into toun,
The holy seynt pleynly to visite
Aftere siknesse, my vowes to aquyte,
In a cope of blak and not of grene,
On a palfrey slender, long and lene,
With rusty brydel mad nat for the sale,
My man toforn with a voide male
Which of Fortune took myn inne anon
Where the pylgrymes were logged everichon.
   The same tyme her governour, the Host,
Stonding in hall, ful of wynde and bost,
Lich to a man wonder sterne and fers,
Which spake to me and seide anon, "Daun Pers,
Daun Domynyk, Daun Godfrey or Clement,
Ye be welcom newly into Kent,
Thogh youre bridel have neither boos ne belle.
Besechinge you that ye wil me telle
First youre name, and of what contré -
Withoute mor, shortly that ye be -
That loke so pale, al devoyde of blood,
Upon youre hede a wonder thred-bare hood,
Wel araied for to ride late."
   I answerde my name was Lydgate,
Monk of Bery, nygh fyfty yere of age -
"Come to this toune to do my pilgrimage,
As I have hight. I ha therof no shame!"
   "Daun John," quod he, "wel broke ye youre name!
Thogh ye be soul, beth right glad and light,
Preiying you soupe with us tonyght,
And ye shal han made at youre devis
A gret puddyng or a rounde hagys,
A Franch-mole, a tansey, or a froyse.
To ben a monk, sclender is youre koyse!
Ye han be seke, I dar myn hede assure,
Or late fed in a feynt pasture.
Lift up youre hed, be glad, tak no sorowe!
And ye shal hom ride with us tomorowe,
I seye, whan ye rested han your fille.
Aftere soper, slepe wol do non ille.
Wrappe wel youre hede clothes rounde about.
Strong notty ale wol mak you route.
Tak a pylow that ye lye not lowe;
Yif nede be, spar not to blowe!
To holde wynde, be myn opynyoun,
Wil engendre collis passioun
And make men to greven on her roppys
Whan thei han filled her mawes and her croppys.
But toward nyght, ete some fenel rede,
Annys, comyn, or coriandre sede,
And lik as I pouer have and myght,
I charge yow rise not at mydnyght,
Thogh it so be the moone shyne cler.
I wol mysilf be youre orloger
Tomorow erly, whan I se my tyme,
For we wol forth parcel afore pryme;
A company, parde, shal do you good!
What? Look up, monk! For by kokkis blood,
Thow shalt be mery, whoso that sey nay.
For tomorowe, anoon as it is day,
And that it gynne in the est to dawe,
Thow shalt be bound to a newe lawe
Att goyng oute of Canterbury toune,
And leyn aside thy professioun.
Thou shalt not chese nor thisilf withdrawe,
Yif eny myrth be founden in thy mawe,
Lyk the custom of this compenye.
For non so proude that dar me denye,
Knight nor knave, chanon, prest ne nonne,
To telle a tale pleynly as thei konne,
Whan I assigne and se tyme opportune.
And for that we our purpoos wil contune,
We wil homward the same custome use,
And thow shalt not platly the excuse.
Be now wel war; stody wel tonyght!
But for al this, be of herte light;
Thy wit shal be the sharper and the bet!"
   And we anon were to soper set
And served wel unto oure plesaunce;
And sone after, be good governaunce,
Unto bed goth every maner wight.
   And towarde morowe anon as it was light,
Every pilgryme both bet and wors,
As bad our Hoste, toke anon his hors
Whan the sonne roos in the est ful clyere,
Fully in purpoos to come to dynere
Unto Osspryng and breke there oure faste.
   And whan we weren from Canterbury paste
Noght the space of a bowe draught,
Our Hoost in hast hath my bridel raught
And to me seide, as it were in game:
"Come forth, Daun John, be your Cristene name,
And lat us make some manere myrth or play!
Shet youre portoos, a twenty devel way!
Is no disport so to patere and seie.
It wol make youre lippes wonder dreye.
Tel some tale, and make therof jape,
For be my rouncy, thow shalt not eskape.
But prech not of non holynesse;
Ginne some tale of myrth or of gladnesse,
And nodde not with thyn hevy bekke.
Telle us somethyng that draweth to effekke
Only of joye. Make no lenger lette!"
   And whan I saugh it wolde be no bette,
I obeyde unto his biddynge,
So as the lawe me bonde in al thinge,
And as I coude with a pale cheere,
My tale I gan anon, as ye shal here.
   "Sirs," quod I, "sith of your curteseye
I entred am into your companye
And admitted, a tale for to telle,
By hym that hath pouer to compelle -
I mene our Host, governour and guyde -
Of yow echon ridyng her beside,
Thogh that my wit barayn be and dull,
I wol reherce a story wonderful
Towchinge the siege and destruccioun
Of worthy Thebees, the myghty royal toun,
Bylt and begonne of olde antiquité
Upon the tyme of worthy Josué
Be dyligence of Kyng Amphioun,
Chief cause first of his fundacioun,
For which his fame which nevere shal away,
In honure floureth yit unto this day,
And in story remembred is and preised . . .
i.e., sun; Aries; (see note)
In middle; Taurus
slow; motion
the opposition
Diana; moon
many a shower; fall
Dawn; morning
Jupiter; Cancer's
artfully combined
Suffusing; balm-scent
indeed; tales; (see note)
Are performed
Every; social estate
included; insult
Such; (see note)
Conducted themselves
their expressions
balding scalp; (see note)
if; falsify
(see note)
poetry; whoever desires
given praise
By narration
meaning whole
Eliminating; say
selected kernels
By artful; expressions
did; (see note)
one by one
their way
lodged one; (see note)
don't know
(St. Thomas à Becket) sincerely; (see note)
vows to fulfil
cloak; (see note)
not worth selling
servant in front; empty purse
Who by chance arranged my lodging
every one
their; (Harry Bailly); (see note)
boastful speech
Like; fierce
Who; Don; (see note)
amazingly; (see note)
(see note)
(Bury St. Edmunds); nearly
vowed; have
alone; happy
dine; (see note)
have; desire
French-cake; omelette; pancake
slender; body
sick; guarantee
(see note)
nutty; snore
If; fart
colic's; (see note)
in their guts
bellies; gullets
red fennel
anise; cumin
(see note)
as a group; 6 a.m.
i.e., God's blood
as soon as; (see note)
east; dawn
have no choice
If; stomach
canon; priest
fully; know how
flatly yourself
alert; study
soon; by
morning; (see note)
day's first meal
draw (arrow's flight)
Shut; breviary
[It] is; say paternosters
jest; (see note)
by; horse
beak (nose); (see note)
each; here
sterile; (see note)
Pertaining to
Joshua; (see note)
Go To The Ploughman's Tale, introduction
Go To The Ploughman's Tale, text