Back to top

General Introduction


1 My discussion of the Fabula centers on Lydgate’s specific use of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy rather than on the more general fifteenth-century Boethianism so cogently described by David Lawton in “Dullness in the Fifteenth Century,” whereby, in a world governed by Fortune, the poet-speaker humbly protests his rhetorical inadequacy while also offering advice and warnings to princes. Both the Fabula and the Guy may be seen as participating generally in this “pervasive Boethianism” (Lerer, Chaucer and his Readers, p.13; see also Sponsler, “Lydgate and London’s Public Culture,” p. 21). In Guy, for example, Lydgate briefly protests his “dullness” in the humility topos which ends the poem (lines 583–92), and the Fabula, in its depiction of the Syrian merchant’s fall, offers itself as a “mirror,” though not particularly for princes (lines 664–65). Neither poem is of the same scale, scope, or purpose as the major Lydgatean works, particularly the Fall of Princes or the Troy Book, as discussed by Lawton.

2 Each is given some attention in the book-length treatments of Lydgate by Pearsall, John Lydgate, Schirmer, John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century, and Ebin, John Lydgate. Articles including discussion of the Fabula are Cooper, “‘His guttys wer out shake,’” Farvolden, “‘Love Can No Frenship,’”and Stretter, “Rewriting Perfect Friendship.” Treatments of Lydgate’s Guy are included in V. Richmond, Legend of Guy of Warwick, A. S. G. Edwards, “Speculum Guy de Warwick,” and Hardman, “Lydgate’s Uneasy Syntax.”

3 The Fabula is based on a tale from Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis, the Guy on the chronicle of Gerard Cornubiensis. See the individual introductions in this volume, pp. 8–9 and p. 88.

4 See Farvolden, “Love Can No Frenship,” and Stretter, “Rewriting Perfect Friendship.”

5 See, for example, Pearsall, John Lydgate, pp. 202–04, Ebin, John Lydgate, pp. 111–12, and Schirmer, John Lydgate: A Study (who classifies it as a “pious tale,” p. 268).

6 Medieval historical writing emphasized accuracy and “truth.” See Given-Wilson, Chronicles, especially the first chapter, “Telling the Truth,” pp. 1–20. See also Galloway, “Writing History,” for a useful introduction to English medieval historical writing.

7 Susan Crane Dannenbaum usefully analyzes the co-mingling of hagiography and romance in Anglo-Norman and Middle English romance versions of the Guy legend and other exemplary or pious romances, including a detailed comparison between the AN and ME versions of Guy and the Life of St. Alexis, which share several striking parallels. See Dannenbaum, “Exemplary Romance,” especially pp. 357–63. See also her Insular Romance, pp. 92–133, which expands her discussion. On the co-mingling of romance and hagiography see also Childress, “Between Romance and Legend”; Hopkins, The Sinful Knights, pp. 20–31 and pp. 70–118 (on the romance Guy); Wogan-Browne, “'Bet . . . to . . . rede’”; and Woodcock, “Crossovers,” pp. 146–50. Dalrymple’s discussion of pious formulae in Middle English romance is also relevant; see Language and Piety, especially pp. 120–38. Dalrymple twice very briefly mentions Lydgate’s Guy. Both times, he interestingly asserts that the poem is a hagiographic treatment of the Guy tale. See pp. 121, 139–40.

8 Edwards, “Speculum Guy de Warwick,” p. 89.

9 Lydgate’s style has occasioned much discussion, from early editors of his work (see, for example, Schick’s introduction to the Temple of Glas, or Schleich and Zupitza’s introduction to the Fabula), to the present. An essential work is still Pearsall, John Lydgate. See also Pearsall’s “Lydgate as Innovator.” Among the many discussions of this multi-faceted topic, see Lois Ebin, Illuminator, on the components of Lydgate’s high style, pp. 19–48; Hardman, “Uneasy Syntax”; Lerer, Chaucer and his Readers, on Lydgate’s aureation and laureate poetics, pp. 35–46; Mitchell, “Gower and Lydgate,” on rhetorical context, pp. 576–83; Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power, on Lydgate’s laureate style, pp. 54–61; Norton-Smith, John Lydgate: Poems, pp. 192–95; Scanlon, “Lydgate’s Poetics”; and D. Vance Smith, “Lydgate’s Refrain.”

10 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 204.

11 Schick, Introduction to Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, p. cxxxvi.

12 Lydgate’s first major work, the Troy Book, was commissioned in 1412 by the future King Henry V, the Fall of Princes in 1431 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Edmund and Fremund for Abbot Curteys, who commissioned it as a gift for Henry VI, in 1433. Many scholars discuss Lydgate’s patrons. A useful recent summary is provided by Meyer-Lee, pp. 50–51. See also the chapter in Pearsall’s John Lydgate, entitled “Laureate Lydgate,” pp. 160–91.

13 Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power, p. 51.

14 See further the Introduction to Guy in this volume, p. 92n43.

15 See the Introduction to Fabula, pp. 23–25.

16 See Pearsall, Bio-Bibliography, pp. 50–51.

17 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 160. On Lydgate’s unofficial laureate status and connections with the Lancastrian court, see Pearsall’s chapter “Laureate Lydgate,” pp. 160–91, and his Bio-Bibliography, pp. 28–32. See also Meyer Lee, Poets and Power, pp. 49–87; Mortimer, Narrative Tragedy, especially pp. 51–94; Nolan, Public Culture, especially pp. 10–20, 71–75; Patterson, “Making Identities”; Straker, “Propaganda”; and Strohm, “Lancastrian Court.” Most introductions to Lydgate and his poetry also include discussion of the social and political culture. See, for example, Ebin, John Lydgate, especially pp. 1–16; Gray, “Hoccleve and Lydgate”; Mitchell, “Gower and Lydgate”; Simpson, “Energies”; and Simpson, “John Lydgate.”

18 Sponsler, ed., Mummings and Entertainments, p. 4. Pearsall, however, suggests caution in “assuming too readily that [Lydgate] was a frequent visitor in society” (Bio-Bibliography, p. 22), noting that his absences from the monastery, other than those periods when he was at Oxford or Hatfield Broad Oak, would have been the exception rather than the rule. See pp. 21–22.

19 See Pearsall, Bio-Bibliography, pp. 15–28 for an overview of these parts of Lydgate’s life.

20 This oft-quoted number can be found in any number of sources. See, for example, Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 4; Renoir and Benson, p. 1809; Simpson, “Energies,” p. 44; Mitchell, “Gower and Lydgate,” p. 583n2; and Strohm, “Lancastrian Court,” p. 652.

21 These dates are taken from Pearsall’s Bio-Bibliography, pp. 50–51.

22 Norton-Smith, John Lydgate: Poems, p. x.

23 For these manuscripts, along with brief descriptions, see the introductions in this volume. For the Fabula, see pp. 25–28, and for Guy, see pp. 100–104.

24 The Fabula and a work that may be Lydgate’s Guy both appear in the inventory of books owned by Sir John Paston. See Lester, “Books of a Fifteenth-Century English Gentleman,” p. 202. Among these books are two that contain works entitled “Warwyk,” “Balade [. . .] off Guy & Colbronde,” and “[. . .] Marchauntes” (Items 1 and 5). It is impossible to say whether these first two refer specifically to Lydgate’s poem of Guy, but the reference to “Marchauntes” is almost certainly to the English versionof the Fabula’s title, “A/The Tale of Two Marchauntes.” See Lester, p. 204, and Breeze, “Libelle,” pp. 230–31, who does not mention Lester. Other books in Sir John’s inventory include works on heraldry and chivalry as well as didactic and other courtly works, including romances, suggesting that the Fabula and Guy appealed to contemporary taste, particularly, perhaps, to a family like the Pastons, social-climbing gentry who enjoyed rubbing shoulders with nobility and seemed particularly to enjoy works on chivalry and romance. See the lists in Lester, pp. 202–06, 211–12; see also Johnston, Romance and the Gentry, pp. 30–32, who provides a brief overview of the Pastons’ books. The Pastons and their circle seem to have been particularly interested in Lydgate; the Temple of Glas was at one time thought to have Paston connections, and Lydgate’s “Epistle to Sibille” was probably written for Sibille Boys, a member of the Paston circle. See Bale, “A Norfolk Gentlewoman.” On the Pastons, see Davis, ed., Paston Letters and Papers; Barber, ed., The Pastons: A Family in the Wars of the Roses; Castor, Blood and Roses; and C. Richmond, The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century (3 vols).

25 See J. Zupitza, ed. “Lydgate’s Leben des Guy von Warwick” and G. Schleich and J. Zupitza, Lydgate’s Fabula Duorum Mercatorum. Zupitza’s edition of Guy (based on British Library, Laud Misc. 683) is not collated with that of other Guy manuscripts, though he provides a brief introduction and notes. F. N. Robinson’s 1899 printing of Guy from Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Eng 530 should also be noted here. Robinson collated the text with Zupitza as well as with that of Leiden, University Library MS Vossius Germ. Gall. Q.9 and provided a useful, though now dated, introduction. See Robinson, “On Two Manuscripts.”

26 MacCracken, ed., The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. Part II. Secular Poems. Items 21 and 22.

27 Schleich and Zupitza omit the Leiden manuscript (V) from their edition of the Fabula, and MacCracken omits Cambridge MS Hh.4.12 (C) from his. MacCracken omits the Peterborough manuscript (P) from his edition of the Guy. See further the “Manuscripts” section of each individual introduction in this volume (pp. 25–28 and 100–104).
The two narrative poems in this volume by John Lydgate (ca. 1371–1449) might at first seem an unusual pairing. The Fabula Duorum Mercatorum, an English poem despite its Latin title, has at its narrative core the conflict between amor and amicitia, love and friendship. Drawing on medical lore, courtly love convention, and Boethian philosophy,1 it is a polished and accomplished romance. Guy of Warwick, on the other hand, relates in chronicle fashion the final episode in the life of the titular pilgrim knight, one of England’s greatest and most familiar heroes. The Fabula is set in the exotic east, its central characters presented as courtly lovers; Guy is firmly anchored in England, its central character presented as a real-life Warwick ancestor and his story as part of “real” history. Although they differ in subject matter, style, and genre, the two poems have several features in common. Both are relatively short, accessible narrative works that deserve to be better known but have received little scholarly scrutiny.2 Both are very likely from the same period in Lydgate’s career, the 1420s; both exhibit typical features of Lydgate’s style, though to different effect; and both exhibit a mixture of genres. Both have at their heart an exemplary thrust and both are based on an earlier source, the Fabula on a very brief twelfth-century exemplum and the Guy on a Latin prose chronicle.3 In each case, Lydgate’s treatment of his source governs his purposes, style, and approach.

In the Fabula, Lydgate completely transforms his source, expanding a short didactic tale exemplifying the perfect friend into an elevated narrative. In its literary allusiveness and its treatment of love, friendship, and fortune, the Fabula takes up a number of significant medieval themes and bears comparison with the best works of its type. In its resolution of the love triangle, it can be seen as an answer to Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, for example,4 and in its explicit evocation of the Consolation of Philosophy it invites comparison to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In genre it most closely resembles a romance, as I have termed it above, but it retains something of the exemplum it is based on, and it is often described under the label of a fable or didactic poem,5 though it is certainly more complex than these labels imply. The poem’s exemplarity and moral thrust arises from the conduct of the two merchants who rise above their own self-interest in the service of a larger ideal, which at poem’s end elicits a murderer’s confession and prompts a “wise, worthy king” (line 857) to see into the truth of things and render true justice. In Guy of Warwick, by contrast, the tone and approach are meant to evoke history and chronicle. Here, Lydgate does not so much transform as shape his source to articulate the political desires of a patron. The poem is, at least in part, designed to assert the Warwick ancestral claims of Margaret de Talbot, daughter of Richard Beauchamp, thirteenth Earl of Warwick. A number of its significant features are attributable to this patronage, including the choice of a chronicle rather than a romance source, an insistence on the authority of the chronicler,6 and the presentation of Guy himself as noble hero, brave knight, devout pilgrim, and Warwick ancestor in equal measure. He is an exemplar of all that is best in a particularly English hero. The exemplary and moral thrust of the poem arises from this balanced presentation as well as from its warnings about pride and tyranny, against which only the virtuous, with God’s help, may stand. Like the Fabula, Guy of Warwick is also difficult to pin down generically. Many medieval versions of the Guy legend were romances that often had strong hagiographical elements, but Lydgate’s Guy, based on the chronicle tradition that had inserted Guy into actual history, downplays hagiography.7 The poem resists categorization into one particular genre; it is neither romance nor saint’s life, though in the view of A. S. G. Edwards, it contains “elements of both.”8

The rhetorical style of each poem suits its subject matter and purpose. The Fabula is a good example of Lydgate’s elaborate, rhetorical style, consisting of — though not necessarily limited to — elevated, aureate diction, amplification, didactic digression, wide-ranging, often encyclopedic references and allusions, and loose, paratactic syntax.9 In the Fabula, Lydgate successfully harnesses these devices to transform the original exemplum into something new. The poem is, as Pearsall says, a superb exercise of style.10 In the Guy, on the other hand, the digressions and amplifications are often more overtly didactic, and the syntax is particularly problematic. Sentences are loose and paratactic in the extreme and often substitute infinitives or participial phrases for finite verbs. Josef Schick’s oft-quoted criticism of Lydgate’s excessive anacoluthon uses an example from Guy: “There is . . . no instance of the anacoluthon in [the Temple of Glas] quite so bad as the beginning of Guy of Warwick where . . . not only the predicate of the sentence is wanting, but the subject as well.”11 This difficult syntax may be due in part to Lydgate’s source, which Lydgate was translating from convoluted medieval Latin prose into English poetry. The style and approach suit a poem that seeks to embed its hero firmly in history and underline Margaret’s ancestral claims.

Guy of Warwick also illustrates Lydgate’s position as a sought-after poet who wrote many poems on commission for some of the most important and powerful people in England. Lydgate wrote several of his lengthiest and most important works for members of the royal family, for example: the Troy Book for the future Henry V, the Fall of Princes for Henry’s brother, Humphrey of Gloucester, The Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund for the young Henry VI.12 He also wrote in a variety of genres for other nobility, gentry, civic officials, and merchants; as Robert Meyer-Lee puts it “[n]o other English poet was patronized so consistently by the dominant political figures of his day nor by so broad a spectrum of society.”13 Margaret’s father, Richard, Earl of Warwick, was himself a patron of Lydgate’s. A powerful political figure and guardian of the infant Henry VI, Richard commissioned The Title and Pedigree of Henry VI, designed to demonstrate Henry’s rightful kingship over England and France. Lydgate’s Guy implicitly alludes to Richard in its praise of the “Olde erle of Warwik” (line 316).14 The Fabula, by contrast, offers no evidence with respect to a possible patron, circumstances of composition, or occasion, aside from a possible suggestion of a contemporary situation in its final lines.15 Both poems were probably written during the decade of the 1420s, and though more is known about the context and occasion of Guy than of the Fabula, there is no real certainty about the specific date of either one.

If both poems do belong to the 1420s, they were written during a particularly busy and productive period of Lydgate’s life, after he had written the massive Troy Book, Life of our Lady, and the Siege of Thebes, all complete by 1422, and before he began the Fall of Princes in 1431.16 During the 1420s, Lydgate produced many shorter works on commission, shorter political and occasional poems as well as the dramatic entertainments known as mummings or disguisings. During this period, as Pearsall says, Lydgate “had the de facto status of an ‘official’ poet . . . who could be relied upon to produce something appropriately dignified for any occasion.”17 Lydgate seems to have led “an active and public life.”18 Born in about 1371 in the small village of Lydgate, Suffolk, and becoming a Benedictine monk when he was about fifteen at the great monastery of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, he attended Gloucester college in Oxford where he met the future King Henry V, traveled to Paris, spent time in London, and was for several years prior at Hatfield Broad Oak.19 His poetic output is extraordinary for its quantity (over 145,000 lines)20 and its variety. Lydgate wrote in every genre: historical epic, de casibus tragedy, saints’ lives, dramatic entertainments, courtly works, political poetry, religious verse, and numerous short didactic poems. His long career — he seems to have died in 1449 — is punctuated by many major works, among them the Troy Book (1412–20), the Siege of Thebes (1421–22), the Fall of Princes (1431–38), and the Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund (1434–36) and of SS Albon and Amphibalus (1439).21 These achievements cannot be underestimated, but as John Norton-Smith has remarked, “it is the shorter, occasional poems treating public and private matters that show Lydgate at his best.”22 It is not the purpose of this edition to maintain that these two shorter poems do indeed show Lydgate at his best — though I would argue that the Fabula comes close to fitting the bill — but rather to present two works that are each in some way representative of Lydgate and that together illustrate some of his most characteristic moves.

Editorial Procedure

The Fabula and the Guy of Warwick survive in seven manuscripts each,23 suggesting that both enjoyed some contemporary popularity.24 In preparing this edition, I have examined all of the manuscripts, either in person or by means of digital, online, or microfilm copies. Both poems were first edited in the late nineteenth century, Guy in 1873 by Julius Zupitza (though this is not a critical edition) and the Fabula in 1897 by Zupitza and Schleich.25 The standard critical edition of both poems is that of H. N. MacCracken, who included both works in his 1934 edition of Lydgate’s shorter poems.26 None of the previous editions collate all seven of the extant manuscripts for each poem.27 Though I have followed H. N. MacCracken in my choice of base texts, I have newly edited each poem from the manuscript, collating the text with the other six manuscripts in each case. I have checked the texts and collations against MacCracken, from whose readings I sometimes differ.

I have tried to present each poem in an accessible, readable form, following modern English capitalization and punctuation conventions, and providing what I hope are helpful glosses and commentary. Each text follows the reading of the base manuscript, in each case the best of the seven manuscripts within which each poem is extant; these choices are explained in the “Notes on the Text” in each individual introduction. I have emended each text very little and only when not to do so would compromise meaning or cause confusion. These few emendations are recorded in the textual notes to each work, which also record substantive variants from all other manuscripts. In accordance with METS editorial guidelines, I have used modern English spelling conventions for words with v/u and i/ j, and have provided modern equivalents for thorns, yoghs, and eths. I have also brought into conformity with modern English spelling y/g, f/ff, w when it is a vowel, the/thee and of/off. Where they occur at the beginning of a word and signal a capital letter, double ffs become F, and when e at the end of a word receives syllabic value it is marked with an accent (e.g., cité). Where the scribe has used Roman numerals, I have spelled them out. Word division is also regularized; examples specific to each text are detailed in the individual “Notes on the Text.”

Go To Introduction to Fabula Duorum Mercatorum