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John Lydgate: Saint Austin at Compton: Introduction


1 The title The Legend of Saint Austin at Compton, in McCracken's standard edition (pp. ii, xxv, 193), has no manuscript authority, but has been widely adopted, although usually in shortened form, St. Austin at Compton (e.g., by Schirmer, John Lydgate, p. 160), which we also use below. Our discussion of Lydgate's poem is rather longer than most of the others in this volume, owing to the complexity of its background and the virtual absence of critical scholarship on the poem or its sources.

2 Apart from the Marian miracle collections, one of the earliest collections of exempla is the Dialogue of Miracles by Caesarius of Heisterbach. See the translation by Scott and Bland. On exempla and Marian miracles, see the Introduction to I(b), above.

3 E.g., the copy of the Latin Compton legend, henceforth Narratio, in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 177, which also included, among many other works or parts of works, a fourteenth-century life of Thomas Becket and Petrarch's story of patient Griselda.

4 See Cooke's comprehensive survey and bibliography, in MWME 9.3268-3328.

5 See the edition by Peterson. The story of St. Andrew and the devil, which in the Legenda aurea and its vernacular derivatives is appended to the apostle's life, originated as a separate tale. See I(b), above, St. Andrew and the Three Questions.

6 See lines 343-52 of the present text and the corresponding explanatory note, below.

7 For this and other examples of the genre, see Boyd, Middle English Miracles of the Virgin. For additional comments, see the Introduction to I(b), above.

8 Bede's Ecclesiastical History, ed. Colgrave and Mynors, pp. 68-117, 134-45. In Bede's account also, Austin is quite overshadowed by the figure of Gregory, whose life Bede narrates in a long separate chapter at the beginning of Book 2 (pp. 122-35). See most recently Thacker, "In Gregory's Shadow?"

9 AS, Maius 6.375-95 (BHL 777). A new edition is in progress by Richard Sharpe.

10 In the explanatory notes to Saint Austin at Compton, quotations from the Latin legend, Narratio mirabilis de sententia excommunicationis et beati Augustini Apostoli qualiter resuscitauit duos mortuos, as three manuscripts entitle it, are from the text in London, British Library MS Harley 105 (from St. Augustine's, Canterbury), as printed in Whatley, "John Lydgate's Saint Austin at Compton," pp. 223-27.

11 Among the abridged versions are two from the fourteenth century: one incorporated in the life of Augustine in John of Tynemouth's Sanctilogium Anglie (later printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1516 as Nova legenda Anglie, ed. Horstmann); another in the "Chronicle of John of Brompton," (ed. AS, Maius 3.396) a fifteenth-century compilation from fourteenth-century sources, which Walter Schirmer believed, erroneously, to be Lydgate's source for his poem (see note 25, below). While Lydgate may have known the Brompton version (or its exemplar), his main source was the unpublished full version. Some of the evidence for this statement is cited in the notes on the text below. For a fuller discussion, see Whatley, "John Lydgate's Saint Austin at Compton," pp. 194-200. On John of Brompton and John of Tynemouth, see Sharpe, A Handlist, pp. 220 and 333-34.

12 See the explanatory note on the text, line 144, below.

13 "Tithe" is from OE teoða, "tenth"; compare Latin decima. The Christian system of tithing evolved slowly until by the later Middle Ages it involved a complex system of annual assessments on produce or income from land and livestock, and also from income derived from other modes of production. For an excellent summary, with bibliography, see James A. Brundage's article "Tithes," in Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages, 12.62-65.

14 According to Bede's account (Bede's Ecclesiastical History, ed. Colgrave and Mynors, pp. 68-69), Austin and his Italian companions at one point wished to abandon their mission because of their fears of the barbarian Angles. The SEL version of Austin's life attributes this trepidation rather to their ignorance of the Angles' language. See DM 1.214, St. Augustine of Canterbury, lines 15-16.

15 Since it was known to John of Tynemouth in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, the Compton miracle must date from the early fourteenth century or before; at least two of the surviving manuscript copies of the Narratio have been judged to be in thirteenth-century hands (those in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 149, and Dublin, Trinity College Library MS 332); see Marvin L. Colker, Trinity College Library, Dublin, 1.672, who dates the hand in the second half of the thirteenth century.

16 Prior to the thirteenth century, incomes from tithes were often diverted to churches outside the parish of their origin or into the hands of layfolk or monasteries. The great attempt to revive and reform pastoral activity in the thirteenth century, after the Second Lateran Council, clearly required a reform of the tithing system so as to provide adequate incomes for the pastoral clergy and their churches. Constable has argued that actual non-payment of tithes by lay people was rarely a problem, rather that tithe disputes were more often unseemly legal struggles to control how the considerable incomes from tithing were to be spent. But this is certainly not the impression gained from late-medieval sermon literature and other documents. See, e.g., Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, pp. 365-66; Preaching in Medieval England, pp. 73-74; and Thomson, "Tithe Disputes in Later Medieval London."

17 For some examples, see Whatley, "John Lydgate's Saint Austin at Compton," pp. 211-12nn50-51.

18 See the useful note on this line in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Benson, p. 819.

19 Dialogues 2.23, trans. White, pp. 190-91.

20 Gregory's Dialogues contains other anecdotes of forcible ejection of the unworthy from graves in churches: e.g., 4.52-53, trans. Gardner, The Dialogues of Saint Gregory, pp. 246-48.

21 See the Middle English version in Arnoldus of Liége, An Alphabet of Tales, ed. Banks, 1.215-16.

22 John Bromyard (also John de Bromyarde), Summa praedicantium, E.9 (Excommunicatio).7, art. 3 (fol. 228r). There is no modern edition of Bromyard's work.

23 Walter Map, De nugis curialium, ed. James., pp. 206-07 (Distinctio 2.30).

24 Patermuthias is said to have visited a desert monastery stricken by the plague, where the following incident then occurred:
He went into the house where one of the sick brothers was, and finding him already dead, went up to the bed and prayed and kissed him and asked which he preferred, to go to God, or to continue in the flesh. The brother sat up and said to him, "It is better to depart and to be with Christ. (Phil. 1.23) To live in the flesh is not essential for me." "Then sleep in peace, my child," he said "and intercede with God for me." The brother, just as he was, immediately lay back and died.
The Lives of the Desert Fathers, trans. Russell, p. 84.

25 Other notable poet-hagiographers of Lydgate's era are Osbern Bokenham and John Capgrave. For editions of Lydgate's works and critical scholarship, see the bibliography by Alain Renoir and C. David Benson in MWME 6.1809-20, 2071-2175. On Lydgate's hagiographies, see the critical studies by Schirmer (John Lydgate, trans. Keep, pp. 149-72 [on Saint Austin at Compton, pp. 160-61]) and Pearsall (John Lydgate, pp. 275-92 [on Saint Austin at Compton, pp. 279-80]). The standard edition of Lydgate's minor poems, including most of the works referred to below, is that of MacCracken, The Minor Poems of John Lydgate.

26 Four of these were apparently commissioned: viz., by the armorers' guild of London (George); Lady March (Margaret); St. Edmund's Abbey, Bury (Petronilla); anonymous (Giles). On the possibly "occasional" nature of Saint Austin at Compton, see below. For a new edition of Lydgate's poem on St. Margaret, see Reames, et al., Middle English Legends of Women Saints, pp. 147-68.

27 See Whatley, "John Lydgate's Saint Austin at Compton," pp. 194-96.

28 Pearsall, John Lydgate, pp. 279-80; compare Schirmer, John Lydgate, pp. 160-61.

29 Readers will discover that the number four is a recurring motif in the poem and, seemingly, an aspect of its structural design. Discounting the poet's envoi, the poem amounts to exactly four hundred lines, in 8-line stanzas.

30 For example, in 1426, the Cambridge University dons who wrote a formal justification of personal tithes, in the complicated case of Friar William Russell, cited Abraham's offering to Melchisedech, not vice versa. See Henry Chichele, The Register of Henry Chichele 3.136.

31 See the explanatory note on Saint Austin at Compton, line 374.

32 Augustine, City of God 16.37, trans. Bettenson, pp. 700-01.

33 On Lydgate's aureate style, especially in his Marian lyrics, see Pearsall, John Lydgate, pp. 262-63, 268-75. See also Lydgate, Poems, ed. Norton-Smith, pp. 192-95. Pearsall (p. 280) labels Lydgate's shorter hagiographic narratives "sub-aureate."
A Miracle

John Lydgate's poem relating the miracle at "Compton" performed by St. Austin - Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury1 - differs from most of the other selections in this volume in being not a complete life of the saint but a single episode from it, or, as Lydgate calls it, a "miracle" (line 404). Miracle stories, frequently illustrating or demonstrating a particular theological problem or ecclesiastical theme, may be extracts from saints' lives proper, or, as in this case, a miracle story attributed to the saint and added to his hagiographical "dossier" long after it was complete. Earlier examples in this volume are the episodes of St. Andrew and the Three Questions (I[b]) and St. Jerome and the Lion (III[b]). Such stories often circulated independently, either as items in large systematic collections of Latin exempla (didactic anecdotes compiled for the use of preachers and writers of theological and devotional tracts),2 or copied haphazardly, for their intrinsic interest as they came to hand, into the numerous miscellanies of literary or devotional texts surviving from medieval libraries.3 Some of these hagiographical short stories were rendered into Middle English, usually as whole collections,4 but occasionally standing alone as does the present work of Lydgate, or the alliterative poem Saint Erkenwald5 with which it shares certain plot features and a mutual indebtedness to the legend of Pope Gregory and the Emperor Trajan.6 Chaucer's Prioress's Tale exemplifies an affiliated genre, the Marian miracle.7

St. Austin, Confessor Bishop (feast day May 26)

"Austin" is the common Middle English and early Modern English name of Augustine, archbishop of Canterbury (597-604/05). He was the leader of the Roman missionaries who landed in Kent in 597 to begin the re-establishment of the Christian religion over a century after its retreat, in the face of the advancing heathen Angles, from lowland Britain into the mountains and moors of the extreme West and Southwest. As the first archbishop of Canterbury, and reputedly a worker of miracles, Austin stood fair to become one of the principal saints of his adopted land, like other missionary saints including Denis and Martin in France, Boniface in Germany, Patrick in Ireland, or David in Wales. But for various reasons, although he was honored in medieval English calendars, and enjoyed high status at the ancient Canterbury abbey where he was buried and which came to bear his name, Austin's Canterbury cult never quite managed to win real national prominence. Among the Anglo-Saxons, for example, he was always overshadowed by the real architect of the Roman mission, Pope Gregory the Great, whose first Latin vita was composed in Northumberland in the seventh century. By contrast there is no trace of a formal life of Austin, apart from some chapters in Bede's Ecclesiastical History that describe the archbishop's mission (largely taken up with his lengthy correspondence with Pope Gregory),8 until the Historia Sancti Augustini composed at Canterbury by the monk Goscelin around 1095, almost half a millennium after Austin's death.9 It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that an unknown thirteenth-century author chose to give Austin the central role in the legend of the miracle at Compton.

The Narratio and Its Sources10

Preserved in full in nine manuscript copies of the late thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, and in briefer form in several others,11 the Latin Narratio ("narrative") purports to take place during Austin's episcopacy (597-604) while he is on a visit to a village named "Cumeton," supposedly near Woodstock, north of Oxford.12 It involves a conflict between the parish priest and the local secular lord of the manor, who refuses to pay his tithes13 (a form of ecclesiastical taxation on his agricultural produce and other income), despite the threat of excommunication (expulsion from membership in the church). After an initial, fruitless attempt to change the layman's mind, Austin begins to celebrate mass for the assembled congregation and issues the customary command for any excommunicated persons to vacate the church. Immediately a hideous corpse rises from a tomb inside the church, leaves the building and takes up a position outside the churchyard for the rest of the service. After Mass, as the terrified congregation looks on, Austin questions the walking dead man, who reveals he was lord of the village in the days of the Christianized Roman-Britons, died excommunicate for failure to pay his tithes, and has been suffering the tortures of the infernal prison-house (presumably Purgatory) ever since. Austin, weeping like everyone else by now, has the cadaver show the way to the grave of the priest who pronounced the original sentence of excommunication; he then resuscitates the dead priest and orders him to scourge the dead lord and absolve him of his sin, after which the layman's corpse returns peacefully to his tomb. Austin asks the risen priest if he would like to return to the world and help him with his missionary work. But the priest demurs, preferring the repose of death and his soul's joyful existence with God to the labor and distress of life on earth. Austin wishes him well, consigns him to his tomb once more, receives the penitence and conversion of the present lord of the village, who becomes his disciple, and the story ends.

We know nothing as to where or by whom this legend was composed, and our estimate as to its late-thirteenth-century date is only tentative. The story is almost certainly fictitious, as witnessed not only in its bizarre resuscitations of 150-year-old corpses, but also in its blatant anachronisms. A strict tithing system, such as is presupposed by the actions of the two priests and bishop in the legend, did not emerge until the Carolingian era in Europe, and excommunication for withholding tithes, for example, does not seem to have been a feature of the ecclesiastical scene in England until the later Middle Ages. The Narratio also states at the outset that Austin is traveling among the benighted heathen English to convert them to the faith, and yet in Compton itself Christianity is apparently so well established that the missionary bishop has nothing to do but celebrate Mass and adjudicate in a tithes dispute, which he manages to do without the aid of his Frankish interpreters.14 Given the uneasy fit between the legend and its supposed sixth-century context, it is not surprising that there is no record of it prior to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. If there had been any earlier trace of it, Goscelin of Canterbury, hungry for materials with which to expand on what he found in Bede for his Historia Sancti Augustini, would almost certainly have used it. Instead, in one of the earliest manuscripts of Goscelin's hagiographic works, the legend had to be inserted by a later (probably fourteenth-century) hand as a supplement to the saint's life proper (London, British Library, Harley MS 105, folios 65-67). Not until the mid-fourteenth century do we find the Narratio incorporated into the abbreviated life of Augustine written by John of Tynemouth for his legendary of British saints, Sanctilogium Anglie. We can only conclude that rather than being a genuine ancient tradition about Austin, the legend was synthesized some time in the later thirteenth century15 out of various source materials (discussed below), either to promote Austin's cult, or, as seems more likely, to further the efforts of church authorities (as exemplified in the Lambeth Constitutions of 1281) to regularize the use of excommunication against various forms of resistance to church law, and rigorously to enforce the payment of tithes for the support of the parish clergy.16 For the Narratio survives not only appended to or incorporated in copies of the saint's life but also and more frequently as an exemplum in collections of materials intended for preachers.17 If this was the case, however, the author's creative instincts ran beyond his didactic aim, for the second half of the story turns away from ideas of justice and punishment according to law to focus rather on human and divine compassion and forgiveness, and on blissful indifference to life in the world. The story's apparent ambivalence towards the practice of excommunication for non-payment of tithes is echoed in the reluctance of Chaucer's idealized Parson "to cursen for his tithes" in the General Prologue (CT I[A]486).18

Unlike many exempla, the Narratio is a complex narrative and seems to reflect more than one source tradition. One ultimate source is probably an episode in the late-sixth-century life of St. Benedict of Nursia by Pope Gregory the Great,19 according to which the corpses of two nuns would leave their graves in a church every time the officiating deacon, just before the Eucharist began, asked non-communicants to depart. This was happening because the nuns had died without repenting of sins for which Benedict had merely threatened them with excommunication. The problem is resolved only after he arranges for prayers to be said on their behalf during Mass and the nuns henceforth lie quiet in their graves. Gregory tells this story ostensibly to illustrate Benedict's holiness by showing the power of his words, even his informal utterances, but the pope also interprets it as reflecting the power given by Jesus to his church, in the person of Peter, "to bind and to loose" (Matthew 16:19).20 The episode was frequently excerpted in the later Middle Ages, and it stands alone in a variety of contexts quite independent of Benedict, especially in alphabetically organized collections of exempla such as the thirteenth-century Alphabetum narrationum by Arnold of Liège,21 and in another more massive preachers' handbook, of the fourteenth century, John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium.22

Another story that anticipates elements of the Narratio, this time from the twelfth century, is not strictly speaking hagiographical at all, but occurs in a more miscellaneous collection of tales, Walter Map's De nugis curialium, or Courtiers' Trifles (1181-92). Many of these are satirical in nature, but some of them are simply "marvels" (prodigia) of a sort commonly found in otherwise serious works of history or topography by contemporary authors. One of Map's prodigia provides the closest individual analogue to Saint Austin at Compton that I have so far found. He tells how a Northumbrian knight is frightened when visited by the wretched corpse of his long-dead father one summer evening after dinner, but the hellish thing insists it means no harm and bids the son send for the priest. When he arrives, a considerable crowd of people having gathered, the dead man falls at his feet and confesses to unrighteous withholding of tithes (decimarum iniusta retencione) during his lifetime, because of which he has been suffering under a general sentence of excommunication pronounced by the priest on all such offenders. As a result of the church's common prayers for the dead, however, and the alms of good people, he has now been permitted to ask for absolution to end his suffering. The priest absolves him and the corpse returns to his grave which closes over him, presumably for good.23

One can see easily enough that the anonymous author of the Compton miracle has combined several elements occurring in the Map story (resuscitated corpse, excommunicated for tithe retention in an earlier generation; corpse inspires fear but reassures its interlocutor; crowd of onlookers; priest sent for; ritual absolution; corpse returns to grave), with some of the elements of the earlier story by Gregory the Great (liturgical setting; command forbidding excommunicates from attending Mass; saint's intervention secures peace and reconciliation for the dead). In addition to switching the saint's role from Benedict to Austin of Canterbury, and from nuns to a knight, locating the action in an obscure English village, the author makes the story doubly interesting by dealing with not one but two conflicts over tithing, one in the present, the other in the far-distant past; this in turn means that in order for the dead man to be absolved there must be a second miracle of resuscitation, initiated by the saint when he summons the dead priest to confront the excommunicate. While this doubtless is designed to impress upon the public the efficacy of excommunication even by a lowly parish priest, it also gives the storyteller the opportunity to introduce yet another motif: namely contemptus mundi, reflected in the priest's polite rejection of Austin's invitation to serve the church militant, preferring as he does the blissful state of repose that the just enjoy beyond the grave. An early example of this story type is told in the life of an Egyptian abbot, Patermuthius, in the fifth-century collection of desert saints' lives, Historia monachorum (The Story of the Monks), an important source of monastic spirituality and exempla throughout the Middle Ages.24 This provides a rather wry, ironic twist to the ending and seems to further dissipate the didactic force of the earlier part of the story. An exemplum on the dangers of false tithing and the dread power of excommunication turns into a celebration of mercy and forgiveness, the salvation of sinners, and the power of prayer to affect the world beyond the grave.

John Lydgate

John Lydgate (1370?-1451?) was the most prolific and, in his time, the best-known of the early-fifteenth-century English poets who flourished in the generation after Chaucer, Langland, and Gower. Today he is recognized chiefly (and still largely deprecated) for his massive Chaucerian courtly epics, such as his Troy Book, Siege of Thebes, Fall of Princes, and Temple of Glass. But while he was, like Chaucer, a secular court poet with aristocratic patrons, he was also a monk and priest and, as a result, was perhaps better fitted than his master would have been to give voice to the more conventionally devout spirit of the new century. He differed markedly from his illustrious predecessors, for example, by writing a good deal of verse hagiography, including some long and elaborate narrative poems on the Virgin Mary, and the English saints Edmund, Fremund, and Alban.25 In addition, he wrote a number of shorter hagiographic pieces, including brief versions of the hagiographic legends of George, Giles, Margaret, and Petronilla, as well as individual miracles of the Virgin Mary and Austin of Canterbury.26 When or why he wrote Saint Austin is uncertain, but probably in the second quarter of the fifteenth century, i.e., later rather than earlier in his career.27 Readers of the poem below will quickly see the large contrast in style between its latinate diction and elaborate crafting, aimed at an audience of sophisticated readers, and the homely diction and plain style of the South English Legendary lives printed above.

Tithes and Typology

Among the many distinctive features of Lydgate's handling of his Latin source, only the lengthy proem (lines 1-72) will be discussed here, leaving other matters for comment in the notes and elsewhere. Earlier critics have complained that in the proem, as elsewhere in the poem, the narrative line is overwhelmed by the "flamboyance of decoration."28 Lydgate's language is, admittedly, an obstacle sometimes to rapid reading, but one senses it would present less of a problem to readers more accustomed than we are to the liturgical Latin and biblical culture of the later Middle Ages. His preamble is actually a fascinating meditation on the mysterious relationship between tithing, the Passion, the Eucharist, and salvation. It is worth noting that from the traditional biblical "authorities" for the custom of tithing, Lydgate selects four29 in particular that are of much wider application than some others, implying from the outset that the legend itself transcends its narrow didactic focus on tithing and excommunication. Rather than highlight the more practical and materialistic Old and New Testament passages on tithing (such as Deuteronomy 14:22-23, Malachias 3:10, Luke 10:7, 1 Timothy 5:18, or 1 Corinthians 9:13-14), Lydgate alludes to four contexts (Cain and Abel, Abraham and Melchisedech, Isaac and Jacob, and Jacob's vision) which, while they were held to have specific meaning for tithing, are also well-known figural "types" or foreshadowings of the central mystery of the Christian faith, the redemption through Christ's body and blood. Thus the story of Abel's sacrificial offering to God (Genesis 4:3-4) was seen in Lydgate's time not only as a model of devout tithing, as in the well-known Wakefield mystery play, but it was also, more prominently, the first great type or figure, to use Lydgate's term, of Christ's sacrifice of Himself to God, and of the Eucharist that re-enacts it. Similarly, Melchisedech's offering of bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), to which Lydgate devotes his second stanza, is a type of the Eucharist rather than of tithing per se, Melchisedech being regarded as the archetypal priest of God's church. In one of the most familiar and ancient parts of the Catholic Mass, as the celebrant offers the bread and wine to God for consecration just prior to the prayers for the dead, the offerings of Abel and Melchisedech are invoked along with Abraham's offering of his son:
Moreover we pray that you deign to . . . accept this spotless victim [the "host"], just as you saw fit to accept the gifts of your righteous child, Abel, and the sacrifice of our father Abraham, and the holy sacrifice that your highest priest Melchisedech offered to you.
It is interesting in this respect that Lydgate does not mention Abraham's offering, to Melchisedech, of an actual tithe of his war booty (Genesis 14:20), which was the usual reference point here for the justification of tithing.30

The third and fourth parts of Lydgate's biblical "fundacioun" for tithing (lines 29-52) are equally rich in broader meanings, both involving the patriarch Jacob. Lydgate first alludes to Jacob's vision of the heavenly ladder which he saw while sleeping on his pillow of stone (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob vows to give a tithe of his wealth to God if he is permitted eventually to return home to "his father's house"; but the vision at Bethel was important in Christian doctrine and poetry for various other reasons beside tithing, including the typology of the contemplative life,31 which the dead British priest eulogizes ecstatically near the end of Lydgate's poem, amusingly transforming Jacob's pillow of "cold stone" into four pillows representing the three spiritual virtues plus the soul's desire for God (lines 369-76). Jacob, as the younger brother who inherited the blessing intended for his elder brother Esau, and who anointed his stone pillow with oil, was also a type of the Christian Church of the Gentiles inheriting the promise forfeited by the Jewish Synagogue. Appropriately, therefore, Lydgate in Saint Austin at Compton (lines 49-52), with explicit reference to the mystic importance of bread, wine, and oil, recalls as his final biblical type the blessing Isaac pronounced on Jacob (Genesis 27:27-29). Blind Isaac's blessing, in which he compares the smell of his son to that of a field blessed by God and the dew of Heaven, rich with the promise of corn and wine, was interpreted as "the proclamation of Christ among all the nations," the dew as the Word of God, the rich soil as the multitudes of people who hear it, and the corn and wine as the sacrament of Christ's body and blood.32 By the end of this litany of biblical types, the practice of tithing the fruits of the earth has been subsumed into a larger meditation on the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread and wine, which was used to re-enact Christ's death on the Cross for the salvation of sinful mankind, and of which tithing itself may be seen as a symbol. Tithing is just one manifestation of the cycle of offering and sacrificing that is at the heart of the Christian faith and the economy of redemption and salvation. People give up, sacrifice, part of their incomes to make their own oblation, in effect, of bread and wine to the clergy and church, who are thereby enabled in turn to offer continually to God the Eucharistic prayers and the sacrificial oblation of Christ's body and blood. As Lydgate says himself (lines 14-16), if we sift through all the typology of sacred offerings, we find all of them, and the entire Christian faith, symbolized and foreshadowed in the priest-king Melchisedech's bread and wine. The legendary narrative that follows the preamble, while it is a didactic exemplum on tithing and excommunication, is also a dramatization of the meaning of the Incarnation and Crucifixion, the intersection of divine justice and mercy, which transformed the image of death from that of a fearful, fetid nightmare to a blissful sleep.

The Text

Lydgate's Saint Austin at Compton is preserved in six manuscripts, all of which MacCracken collated for his standard edition of the Minor Poems. Our edition follows his in taking as the base text Harley 2255, a mid-fifteenth-century collection, possibly produced at Lydgate's own abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, containing mainly religious poetry by Lydgate, with a special emphasis on the shorter hagiographic narratives. We have checked MacCracken's edition against Harley 2255 and found few real errors, but ours is a more conservative rendering of the manuscript than his, rejecting all but two (lines 313 and 390) of his emendations, such as his inconsistent attempts to regularize meter (e.g., by adding final-e); we have also omitted his modern stanza numbers and marginal plot summary, along with the subtitle, Offre vp yowre Dymes, which is not in the manuscript. Aside from the necessary glossing and notes on meaning and content, and modernizing of capitalization, our main addition to the medieval text is punctuation, where we differ substantially not only from the manuscript but also from MacCracken in places. Our punctuation is simply an attempt to make better sense of Lydgate's syntax.


The dialect of the text requires little comment, displaying, like Simon Winter's Life of Saint Jerome, typical features of the mixed dialect of the greater London area (i.e., Southeast Midlands) of the mid- to late fifteenth century. However, the Benedictine Lydgate's style is more ornate, his diction altogether richer and more Latinate-French than that of his more ascetic Bridgettine contemporary. Saint Austin at Compton abounds in words like conduite (line 35, "lead"), condigne (line 44, "fitting"), adverte (line 71, "notice"), spectacle (line 132, "glass"), emprise (line 151, "command"), etc., although it stops short of the high "aureate" style found in some of his Marian poetry.33 Lydgate's syntax is frequently artificial to the point of obscurity, more like Latin than English, in that he often inverts the typical English word order of Subject-Verb-Object, and one sometimes has to hunt for the verb at a considerable distance from its object (e.g., in the first stanza, ground in line 2 is the object of Abel began in line 5). Occasionally, he imitates the Latin ablative absolute construction (lines 201, 204) and expected verbs and prepositions are sometimes simply omitted (e.g., lines 53, 206). We have therefore provided rather more help in translating lines and sentences than would normally be necessary in a work of the late Middle English period.

Indexed in

IMEV 1875.


London, British Library MS Harley 2255, fols. 24r-32v.

Previous editions

Lydgate. The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. Ed. MacCracken Pp. 193-206.

Go To John Lydgate, Saint Austin at Compton