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The Politics of Beastly Language: John Lydgate as Fabulist and Translator.

IN A COPY OF JOHN LYDGATE'S SIEGE OF THEBES, there is a woodcut of the author with the Canterbury pilgrims. (1) This picture visually supports the poem itself, in which Lydgate has placed himself alongside the pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury. This portrait showing the author as character in his or her own text, conflating the author with the text, reflects the growing concern with the figure of the author in the fifteenth century. In England this concern centered on John Lydgate, the most important English poet of the century. Indeed Lydgate himself was preoccupied with the "image" of the author, often presenting himself as a follower in the traces of his "master" Chaucer. (2)

One of Claire Sponsler's principal accomplishments as a scholar, and one for which I am grateful, is her reclamation, along with a handful of other contemporary scholars, of Lydgate's status and reputation as a writer. This is no mean feat in the face of a general disapprobation of Lydgate among critics, who have characterized fifteenth-century English poetry, and Lydgate's oeuvre in particular, as "dull" and "conservative." This view is encapsulated by David Lawton, who conveys the "consensus of earlier criticism that saw fifteenth-century English poets as reverse alchemists transmuting Chaucerian gold into Lydgatean lead. The fifteenth century becomes a literary prolepsis of the Slough of Despond occupying, to quote E. P. Hammond, 'the years between Chaucer's death and the Elizabethan fluorescence, before the middle class had taken form or received education,' a time when 'English literature was in the hands of the conservatives.'" (3) The last few decades have seen, however, a flourishing interest in Lydgate's work if not that of his fellow fifteenth-century English poets. Professor Sponsler, along with others such as Maura Nolan, has been at the vanguard of this new critical attention that takes issue with the common perception that Lydgate's poetry is dull.

Professor Sponsler has also pointed out the "public" nature of numerous Lydgatean texts, distinguishing them from the Chaucerian poetry that characterizes the fourteenth century. She asserts, for example, that Lydgate's pageant-centered works "reinterpret the public event[s]... through inscription into the cultural field of vernacular poetry," (4) wherein they can "come to life once again as performances." (5) This performative character of Lydgate's verse reflects, of course, a keen awareness of audience, and Lydgate wrote, for most of his career, not only politically themed works at the behest of noble and royal patrons (6) but also texts expressly for a civic audience, such as his Mumming for the Mercers of London and Mumming for the Goldsmiths of London. (7) Maura Nolans John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture, as its title suggests, examines Lydgate and his work in the context of the public sphere. Nolan writes in her introduction that Lydgate's poetry serves as a self-promotion for the state, for the English polity in the fifteenth century, particularly in the years following Henry V's death:
Already known as an able promoter of English and regnal interests from
his work for Henry V, especially the massive Troy Book, Lydgate
produced during the years of the minority--what Derek Pearsall has
called his "laureate" period--a whole series of texts designed to
bolster and support the authority of the child on the throne. These
texts have typically been read as expressions of the Lancastrian
penchant for self-promotion: the regime during the minority
experimented with a wide variety of forms of propaganda, including
coins, pictorial images, royal spectacles, and written texts. Indeed,
some of them are quite straightforward advertisements for Henrican
kingship. (8)

This essay will examine Lydgate's work in the context of public culture, but the texts under consideration reveal different public concerns than are commonly ascribed to Lydgate. Specifically, I will look at two of Lydgate's beast fables and analyze them vis-a-vis their principal sources; thus the essay will be concerned with the discipline of translation and Lydgate's abilities and proclivities as a translator. One of Lydgate's sources is the Aesopian collection of twelfth-century French poet Marie de France, but writing in the fifteenth century and occupying a different sociocultural position from that of Marie (and from that of Chaucer, a more indirect source), Lydgate, rather than calling attention to himself as an individual artist and translator, instead examines his role as writer in the public sphere, with its attendant obligations and risks. In his fable translations he produces fables more reflective of contemporary culture than those of Marie.

My position in this study is that Lydgate's fables reflect a conscious concern with contemporary social conditions and with his proper position in fifteenth-century English society and that these concerns are closely tied to notions of authorship and translation. The conception of Lydgate as translator, particularly in his early, more obscure texts, has been relatively unexplored by critics, some of whom note that in his later works Lydgate addresses his multiple and conflicting roles as a writer, court poet, and translator as one intimately connected with the royal family, particularly Henry, Prince of Wales (soon to become King Henry V). Yet Lydgate was also a provincial monk with loyalties incongruous with his other obligations, and in his fables, written very early in his career and thus probably before he became so closely associated with the court, he demonstrates less an interest in, and sympathy for, the elite classes and the London nobility and manifests concerns that correspond more with his position as a provincial cleric. Although at least obliquely associated with regnal interests in that he was a monk at one of the larger, more important monasteries of late-medieval England, Lydgate was not yet a "court poet" when he wrote his fables. In his fables Lydgate conveys a more independent streak than in his later, more prominent work.

Although reflecting a self-consciousness in his use of his name, Lydgate in his fable translations is less anxious about his identity as an author than is Marie de France, his principal source. In his fables he attempts to reconcile the artistic voice with the expectations and demands of the public, but this public, unlike that associated with his later, more celebrated texts, is more interested in the pastoral than in pageantry. Below I examine this pastoral concern and also address the perception of Lydgate as a rewriter following in the formidable footsteps of Chaucer. I demonstrate that one of Lydgate's strategies for self-advertisement is, perhaps ironically, his manifest representation of himself and his writing vis-a-vis Chaucer and the other auctors who preceded him. An additional method of self-promotion Lydgate employs is, also ironically, his exploitation, to an extreme degree, of the modesty topos regarding not only his merit as a poet but also his use of the English language in the face of French and Latin literary hegemony.

Although not known for his fables, Lydgate is nevertheless, along with Marie, Chaucer, William Caxton, and Robert Henryson, one of the most important vernacular fabulists, and translators, of the Middle Ages. Lydgate's nine fables, despite their inordinate length when compared to other medieval fables, account for a small fraction of his voluminous total output. Best known for writing The Fall of Princes, The Siege of Thebes, and The Troy Book, all of which are translations (the first two from French, the latter from Latin), Lydgate also wrote the hopes Fabules, a collection of seven Aesopian fables, and the two "moral" fables The Churl and the Bird and The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose, both of which were published by Caxton. All of these fables in the hands of Lydgate, writing in the early fifteenth century, reflect a conscious awareness of and interest in contemporary political and cultural issues. It is generally agreed that Lydgate probably composed the fables while still virtually unknown as a writer, very early in his career, likely before 1410, during his clerical tenure at Oxford. (9) These poems markedly differ from Lydgate's later, more "mature" works considered his master-works--the thematic content and the moralizing of Lydgate's fables reflect a consciousness of and empathy not for the aristocracy and royal circles and patrons so commonly associated with The Fall of Princes, The Siege of Thebes, and The Troy Book, but rather for the common farmer and other peasant classes. These fables, written as they were while Lydgate was still a young man, underscore his own nonaristocratic background and manifest his own sociopolitical interests before he became a prominent author and confidant of King Henry V.

Modern critical opinion of Lydgate's fables, as of his poetry in general, has varied dramatically, with The Churl and the Bird and The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose often receiving approbation and the hopes Fabules generally ignored or dismissed. A statement from one of the editors of the early twentieth-century The Cambridge History of English and American Literature exemplifies this inconsistency:
The beast-fable had something in it peculiarly suitable to Lydgate's
kind of genius (as, indeed, to medieval genius generally), and this
fact is in favour of his Aesop and of the two poems (among his best)
which are called The Churl and the Bird and The Horse, the Sheep and
the Goose. Of these two pieces, both very favourite examples of the
moral tale of eastern origin which was disseminated through Europe
widely by various collections as well as in individual specimens. The
Churl is couched in rime royal and The Horse in the same metre, with an
envoy or moralitas in octaves... . The actual Aesop--a small collection
of Aesopic fables which is sometimes assigned to Lydgate's earliest
period, perhaps to his residence at Oxford--is pointless enough, and
contrasts very unfavourably with Henderson's. (10)

The self-contradiction in the above comment is obvious (as is the sentence fragment), and, particularly when it comes to the Aesopian fables, the editors clearly tilt the scales in favor of Henryson, or "Henderson," and his Morall Fabillis. Moreover, Derek Pearsall, who in 1970 published one of the pioneering monographs on Lydgate's work, still considered an influential study, is dismissive of hopes Fabules, devoting only six pages to the collection, in which he devotes more space to praising, and examining, the fables of Henryson and remarking at every turn their exceeding superiority to those of Lydgate, the subject of his study, than to examining Lydgate's fables themselves. (11) Lydgate's fables, more than a century after The Cambridge History was published, still have received scant praise or attention, but they merit a close examination, particularly within a context of cultural study and of medieval translation.

For any scholar interested in medieval translation, Lydgate's extant works provide a wealth of material, for not only did Lydgate translate on a massive scale, he also wrote occasionally about translation. One can find a few passages from his various books of poetry in which he comments on his translations, statements often self-deprecatory about his abilities as a translator (the conventional modesty topos employed by many medieval writers, including Chaucer). One such text that reveals this humble attitude while also serving as a dedication and request for patronage for his translations, is Lydgate's epilogue, or "envoy" to his Daunce of Machabree (or Danse Macabre), found in part three of the Fall of Princes. The second (and final) stanza reads thus:
Out of the French I drough it of entent,
Not word by word but following in substaunce,
And from Paris to Engeland it sent,
Only of purpose you to do plesaunce.
Rude of langage, I was not borne in France,--
Haue me excused, my name is Iohn Lidgate;
Of ther tong I haue no suffisance,
Her curious miters in Englishe to translate. (665-72)

To conclude the Daunce of Machabree, and book three of the Fall, with this commentary on translation suggests the significance of translation for Lydgate; indeed the last word of the book is "translate." In the preceding stanza of the Lenuoye, Lydgate also writes,
Lowely I pray with all myne heart entere
To correcte where-as ye se need;
For nought elles I aske for my mede
But goodly support of this translacion. (659-62)

Lydgate here puts himself in the position of the traditional literary translator: he takes on the role of subordinate, suggesting that his text is not an original creation and, moreover, that it may indeed even be incorrect or inaccurate and in need of his patron "to correcte" any mistakes or inaccuracies. This notion of a translation's being "correct" or not merits examining, and it is all the more interesting voiced here in Lydgate's concluding envoy to his version of the Danse Macabre because it seems to contradict his claim made in the envoys second stanza that he has translated, not "word by word" but in "substaunce" only. If a translator's goal is to convey or transfer the substance, or perhaps "sense," of a text and not to produce precise synonyms or reproduce proximate syntax, then why would he show obvious concern over the "correctness" of his translation? Was Lydgate's knowledge of French so "rude" that he felt reticent even about a "sense for sense" translation? Or is his humble entreaty to his patron simply the conventional dedication for a medieval writer/translator? We can assume that Lydgate, educated in one of the leading monasteries of England at the turn of the fifteenth century, was schooled in Latin and French. Schirmer states that Lydgate "had a sound knowledge of Latin, and mastered French; it was by means of French translations that he became acquainted with works in Italian." (12) Although the linguistic modesty topos expressed by medieval English writers is indeed a convention, it nevertheless expresses a real anxiety on the part of these translators about their use of English. For not only was English in the fifteenth century still seen as an unpoetic or "unliterary" language, lacking the prestige of Latin or French, it was also an unstable, evolving language with distinctly different dialects in different regions of England. Awareness of these shortcomings, or perceived shortcomings, induced a linguistic tension amongst English authors of the period.

The question of Lydgate's exact source for his fables has been a common one: unlike Caxton's corpus, there is less certainty about which specific collection on which Lydgate based his hopes Fabules or The Churl and the Bird and The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose. In his monograph of Lydgate's work Derek Pearsall traces the probable lineage of Lydgate's Aesopic fables while at the same time depreciating it:
Romulus was the source of all medieval knowledge of the Aesopic fables;
he was turned back into verse by an unknown "Walter" in the twelfth
century, and Walter's version was the basis for the Esopus Moralisatus
of the thirteenth century, which added much extra moralisation, and
proved the most popular of all the collections. It is difficult, and
not important, to know what was Lydgate's precise source, but it was
probably some French or Latin version of this last descendant of
Romulus. (13)

For those interested in medieval translation or in tracing the influence of a medieval genre, body, or work of literature upon a later work or group of works, Pearsall's ascription of no importance to Lydgate's source sounds disingenuous.

The "French version" to which Pearsall refers is likely the collection of Marie de France, a position taken by numerous scholars. In his study of the medieval English fabulists, Edward Wheatley indicates that "Lydgate used at least three texts other than the verse Romulus: Marie de France's Fables (which was evidently his primary source), Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, and the verse Romulus with a scholastic commentary. The verbal parallels with Marie's collection are so close that Lydgate could have had a copy of the work before him as he wrote." (14) Wheatley then goes on to point out some of the similarities between Marie's collection and that of Lydgate, particularly examining the prologues, which exemplify the "projects of appropriation and translation" of each author. To support the view that Marie was Lydgate's principal source, Wheatley specifically looks at Lydgate's use in his collection's opening stanza of several English cognates of Marie's diction found in her first ten verses while also noting both authors' express self-identification in their prologues by stating their names. (15) Although Aesopic fables enjoyed immense popularity in medieval Europe (note the numerous manuscripts of Marie's fables circulating in France and England from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries), those of Lydgate were not, evidently, extremely popular--only one fifteenth-century manuscript contains all seven of his hopes Fabules (MS Harley 2251), with just one other manuscript containing any of them (MS Trinity College Cambridge, with five and a half fables). (16) Even today, with the upsurge of scholarly interest in Lydgate, his fables have received scant critical attention.


An appropriate starting point, then, would be "The Cock and the Jacinth," Fable I of Isopes Fabules. In this tale (better known to modern readers as "The Cock and the Jewel"), a rooster is strutting and scratching in the barnyard one day and comes across a gem gleaming amidst the dungheap. Examining the jacinth, he rejects it, muttering, "No doubt you are precious to any human who may find you, but as for me, I prize one grain of barleycorn more than a mountain of jewels!"

Unlike Marie's brief version of this fable, Lydgate's prolix text elaborates a detailed description of the cock, in which the cock is manifestly presented from the beginning as a hero. Lydgate's mock epic laboriously catalogues the manifold virtues of the cock, praising him at every turn. The first stanza reads thus:
The Cok of kynde ha[thorn]e a crest rede
Shape lyke a crowne, token of gret noblesse,
By whyche he ha[thorn]e, whyle hit stont on hys hede,
As clerkis seyn, corage & hardynes,
And of hys berde melancolyk felnes :
Aboute hys nek by mercyall apparayll
Nature ha[thorn]e yeue hym a stately auentayll. (1-7) (17)

Elsewhere in Lydgate's fable the cock is a "champion," a "proud capten," "hardy as a lyon," "stable as a geaunt, opon a grounde of trou[thorn]e." The epic imagery runs through practically every stanza. A typical example is the following:
Bete[thorn] hys wyngis, aforn or he do syng
Bit sluggy hertis out of [thorn]eyr slepe to wake,
When Lucyfer toward be dawning
Lawgheth in be orient & ha[thorn]e [thorn]e west forsake
To chase awey [thorn]e mighty clowdys blake:
Towarde Aurora [thorn]ys foule, who take[thorn] kepe,
Byddy[thorn] folk ayene awake out of [thorn]eyr slepe. (71-77)

To further enhance the stature of this "morall champion" who is "ayene all vyces" (95), Lydgate invokes Chaucer's fable The Nun's Priest's Tale:
"And, for because hys brest ys strong & cleere
And on hys tipto dyspose[thorn] for to syng,
He ys of poettis callyd Chaunceleer.
And, as myn auctour remembre[thorn] by wrytyng,..." (99-102)

This patent allusion to Chaucer's rooster and to "myn auctor" reflects Lydgate's concern with ideas of authorship and where he stands, in relation to the father of English fiction, in the late-medieval conception of the author. Although a poet's attempt to articulate his or her role and status as a writer in the late Middle Ages was a complex undertaking in a time when notions of authorship were fluid and unstable, the effect of Lydgate's patrilineal strategy according to some critics was to demean himself in the eyes of his fifteenth-century readership. As Andrew Higl states,
He had not helped his own cause through his personal characterization
in relationship to Chaucer. He refers to Chaucer as "Father Chaucer."
... Lydgate elevates Chaucer to a position of authority and
infantilizes himself. In addition to his infantilization, title pages
often name Lydgate as translator--not author. Many of the titles for
works such as The Fall of Princes refer to Boccaccio as the poet and
Lydgate only as monk and translator. He lacks auctoritas. (18)

Higl's view of Lydgate as self-conscious minion is problematic; the notion of "only a translator" and translators' lacking auctoritas is negated when one recognizes that Chaucer himself was a translator, his Nun's Priest's Tale before which Lydgate "infantilizes himself" a clear and verifiable example of a translation.

As a translator Lydgate certainly demonstrates originality in his version of the tale, manifestly departing from his sources. In his principal source, "Del cok e de la gemme" from the Fables of Marie de France, the cock is presented in ascetic terms as a mean creature who, rather than wearing a crown and ascending a dais, instead "munta / Sur un femer e si grata; / Sulum nature se purchacot" (climbed a dungheap, scratched around / In nature's way, as he best could" (1-3). Moreover, Marie's cock is a stark, solitary figure while Lydgate's rooster, tellingly, is "With hys wyues about hym euerychone" (107). Not only does Lydgate's opening portrait of the cock recall Chaucer's Chaunticleer, who, as the Nun's Priest's Tale opens, is surrounded by his many wives, one of which, Pertelote, remains a central character throughout the tale, it also presents the cock in a public sphere, as part of a group yet nonetheless the central figure in that group. This portrait of the cock, seen in light of Lydgate's position as more of a public poet than Marie, or Chaucer, bears some significance: whereas Marie's cock is diligent in order to simply survive, Lydgate's cock, not worrying about survival, seems to be working for others, in a sense. What he discovers is a commercial object that others may be interested in--the fruits of his labor, like the fruits of Lydgate's work as an author. For Lydgate the provincial monk, an object of strictly commercial, monetary value holds little value for him.

Lydgate's version of "The Cock and the Jacinth" differs from the other vernacular adaptations of medieval fabulists in other ways. One of these original features is Lydgate's affinity for moralizing and offering commentary within the narrative itself rather than waiting for the conclusion to comment on the action, motives, or character of the figures in his fables. For example, about halfway through the narrative of "The Cock and the Jacinth," Lydgate writes of the cock,
He yaue ensample, whyche gretly may auayle,
As he was oonly taught by nature,
To auoyde slou[thorn]e by dylygent trauayle,
By honest labour hys lyuelood to procure.
For, who woll [thorn]ryue, labour must endure;
For idylnes & froward negligence
Make[thorn] sturdy beggars for lak of [thorn]eyr dyspence. (113-19)

This stanza, like many in Lydgate's Aesopian fable narratives, is marked not by action but by extolling the virtues of the principal animal character, who stands as a symbol for these virtues. Lydgate then reinforces his moral--"The virtuous man is one who avoids idleness and labors not for wordly riches but for his own sustenance"--in the concluding "Lennuoy" or "Envoy." This motif of "suffisaunce" runs through the entire seven-fable hopes Fabules collection.

Interestingly, Lydgate's cock, like Marie's, has no use for the precious stone and thus leaves it where he has found it:
For me [thorn]ou shalt in bys place abyde,
With the I haue lyght or nought to donne.

To take [thorn]ys stone to me hit were but veyn:
Set more store (I haue hit of nature)
Among rude chaffe to shrape for my pasture. (162-63, 173-75)

Unlike Marie, however, who as moralizing narrator at the conclusion of the fable admonishes the cock for devaluing the gem, Lydgate lauds the rooster, praising him for "eschewing vyce," which for him the jewel represents. And in contrast to the other fifteenth-century English fabulist, William Caxton, who imbues the jacinth with both moral and, ultimately, pecuniary value, asserting that it symbolizes wisdom and, concomitantly, his book of fables that he is publishing, for Lydgate the jewel has no value whatsoever, material or moral. Indeed, he ascribes an inherently immoral quality to the jasp and uses it as a spur to homilize on the vice of idleness. Lydgate identifies closely with the cock, having already identified himself as the author/narrator and having asked God and grace for "suffysaunce" in producing his book. The motif is a recurrent major pattern running through hopes Fabules; as a group the tales espouse the economic state of "suffisaunce" for the lowest levels of society while railing against the most powerful who oppress the lower classes either through juridical miscarriage or through tyranny.


Like hopes Fabules, Lydgate's The Churl and the Bird was composed early in Lydgate's writing career. Walter Schirmer writes that "The Complaint of the Black Knight and The Flour of Curtesye are thought to have been written in the years 1400-2. ... From the same period dates The Churl and the Bird, a fable that may well be regarded as a parergon, and which carried on the tradition of Chaucer." (19) Lydgate's main sources for The Churl and the Bird are "Donnei des Amants," a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman debate poem, and "Les Trois Savoirs," an Anglo-Norman version of the fable of the churl and the bird. These two texts effectively constitute a single version of the story, overlapping to a great degree. Neil Cartlidge convincingly argues for the two poems as Lydgate's source by cataloguing a number of close parallels between the French texts and Lydgate's fable, and then concluding, "This demonstration of similarities could be extended, but it should be sufficiently clear that the resemblances are detailed enough to establish that Lydgate's work is effectively a translation and development of the story as it is told in the Donnei and the Trois Savoirs. No other analogue bears such close comparison." Cartlidge finalizes his claim by stating, "The conclusion must be that Lydgate was working directly from the version contained in the Donnei and Trois Savoirs." (20) An additional source is Le Lai de L'Oiselet, (21) an analogue of the two poems above, also from the thirteenth century. All three texts are strikingly similar, and some lines, passages, and elements of The Churl and the Bird parallel those of Le Lai de L'Oiselet quite closely (and no less closely than with the Donnei or the Trois Savoirs). Moreover, various Latin versions of Le Lai de L'Oiselet were circulating throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages in the Disciplina clericalis and Aesopic fable collections (Caxton's Aesop, which contains a Oiselet fable, and his immediate source Julien Macho's Esope, and Macho's source Steinhowel's Aesop are all Disciplina-type collections) and thus it is likely that Lydgate, whose primary source was, of course, a "Frenssh" version of the story, was quite familiar with the Oiselet tale.

Though not one of hopes Fabules, Lydgate's The Churl and the Bird is nonetheless a beast fable and morally instructive exemplar, and a tale that merits study, particularly in terms of translation. This is a poem, in some ways, about fable and its nature and function. This text recounts the story of a churl who one day traps a beautiful songbird and thrusts it into a cage, intending to keep her there for his daily entertainment. The bird openly laments her captivity and protests to her captor, ultimately tricking the churl into releasing her by promising him three great "wisdoms" in exchange for her being freed first. Immediately after her release and short flight to the treetop, the bird pronounces her saws to the now-grieving churl, pointed proverbs all three of which serve to mock the foolish churl for his credulity and sorrow.

In the poem's opening stanzas Lydgate reflects on the role of stories and examples, writing in the opening lines,
Problemys, liknessis & figures
Which previd been fructuous of sentence.
And han auctoritees groundid on scriptures
Bi resemblaunces of notable apparence,
With moralites concludying in prudence (1-5) (22)

He then remarks upon the beast fable itself:
And semblably poetes laureate,
Bi dirk parables ful convenyent,
Feyne that briddis & bestis of estat--
As roial eglis & leones--bi assent
Sent out writtis to hold a parlement,
And maade decrees breffly for to sey,
Som to haue lordship, & som to obey (15-21)

The patent allusion to Chaucer's Parlement of Foules lends an air of gravitas to the introduction, suggesting the moral lesson to follow. Lydgate here, and, more significantly, in the poem's fifth stanza, aligns himself with his poetic forebears who wrote fables, suggesting that fabulists like himself use a variety of figurative devices to furtively convey their meanings:
Poetes write wondirful liknessis,
And vndir covert kepte hem silf ful cloos;
Bestis thei take, & fowlis, to witnessis,
Of whoos feynyng fables first arroos;--
And heere I cast vnto my purpoos
Out of Frenssh a tale to translate,
Which in a paunflet I radde & sauh but late (29-35)

Inter alia, Lydgate in these lines describes what he sees as the distinctive techniques of the fabulist: "covert" manipulation and similitude, notions that reflect a principal theme of The Churl and the Bird. The passage above is similar to the opening of Isopes Fabules, wherein Lydgate mentions fables by name and reflects on their nature.

The Churl and the Bird serves as an excellent example of Lydgate's sociopolitical awareness, and the second and third stanzas above exemplify this point. The poem is essentially a conflation of various versions of the churl and the bird tale with other traditional stories and parables, such as "How the Trees Elected a King," found, among other sources, in the biblical book of Judges (9:8-15). Lydgate uses as exposition this parable in the poem's second stanza, immediately preceding the passage, quoted above (lines 15-21), wherein he introduces the idea of contemporary monarchy, noting how it now must take into consideration parliament and work with this body, but, more significantly, suggesting that poets, specifically fabulists, must "feyne" their stories and hide their political statements under cover of allegory, specifically in the form of the beast fable. In a discourse on the fable, Augustine's contemporary Macrobius writes,
Fables--the very word betrays their confession of falsity--serve two
purposes: either merely to gratify the ear or to encourage the reader
to good works.... The [latter] group, those that draw the reader's
attention to certain kinds of virtue, are divided into two types. As
for the first, its content is grounded in fiction and the very telling
of the story cloaked in lies. (23)

As reflected in fables such as "The Wolfe and the Lambe," Lydgate was clearly concerned with unequal power relations and, at least early in his career, demonstrated an affinity for the rustic, peasant life, and the beast fable becomes for him an ideal vehicle for voicing this view. This notion points to an additional sense of the concept of freedom, conveyed as a major theme of the poem, which I discuss further below.

The Churl and the Bird merits close scrutiny as well because of its reference to translation, which certainly has a principal place in the poem, in that Lydgate essentially frames the poem with the subject of translation, devoting the final stanza of the poem's Lenvoie to a commentary on translation in addition to the remarks of the early passage. These passages, although brief, are pointed because they comprise two of just three instances in the nine fables of Lydgate in which he actually uses the word "translation" or "translate." In the poem's concluding stanza, we see Lydgate discussing translation, ostensibly in association with patronage, a common and important trope in medieval literature:
Go, litel quaier, & recomaunde me
Vn-to my maistir with humble affeccioun;
Beseche hym lowly, of mercy & pite,
Of thi rude makyng to have compassioun ;
And as touchyng thi translacioun
Out of the Frenssh, how-euyr the Englysh be,
All thyng is seide vndir correccioun
With supportacioun of your benyngnyte. (379-86)

These lines sound remarkably like Lydgate's conclusion to the Daunce of Machabree, noted above, but, more intriguingly, they also adumbrate Caxton's almost identical concluding lines in his well-known Prologue to Eneydos. Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, they echo Chaucer's "Go, litel bok" stanza near the conclusion of Troilus and Criseyde. Viewed in this context, the line "Vn-to my maistir with humble affeccioun" takes on new import: although no name is given to identify Lydgate's "maistir," it is reasonable to assume that this may be a reference to Chaucer. As noted above, Lydgate does describe Chaucer as his "master" on several occasions throughout his poetry. (24)

A close reading of the fable will help illuminate its subtleties. In the tale, set in a small village garden, a churl one day decides to trap a beautiful songbird who daily sings "a verray heuenly melodie" from the branches of a laurel tree. The churl, pleased with himself for capturing the bird whose song he can now enjoy at home, thrusts her into a small cage, whereby the bird tells the churl that she can no longer sing now that she is out of her natural habitat and confined to a cage, and that if he releases her, she will be sure to repair to the laurel every morning and "fresshly syng with lusty notis cleer" for the churl's enjoyment. The churl retorts that she can either sing merrily in the cage, or else be fleeced and roasted or baked for dinner. The resourceful bird then proposes that she will exchange three "greete wisdames" for her liberty but insists that the churl must free her before learning these profound truths. Finally assenting, the churl releases the bird, who promptly flies high up into the tree and then pronounces her three wisdoms: "First, do not be too credulous and believe every tale that you hear, for many tales are untrue; second, do not desire that which is impossible; and third, don't sorrow over lost treasure, which 'in no wise may recured be.'" The bird then calls the churl a fool, mocking him for letting her go, stating that within her body lies a precious stone, lost forever to him. The churl reacts to this information dramatically, dolorously grieving over this lost "tresour late in [his] kepying," whereupon the bird chastises him further for completely forgetting the three wise saw she had just taught him. She concludes her "lesson" with a final insult:
I hold hym mad that bryngith foorth an harpe, Ther-on
to teche a rude, for-dullid asse;
And mad is he that syngith a fool a masse; And he
most mad that dooth his besynesse
To teche a cherl termys of gentilnesse (339-43)

Thus the narrative, for all practical purposes, ends.

In Lydgates concluding "Lenvoie," he essentially reiterates, to the reader, the bird's maxims and reasserts the theme of suffisaunce vs. worldly richessc so prominent throughout his hopes Fabules. He also elaborates the idea of freedom, upon which the bird discourses throughout the narrative, not only during her captivity but also in her concluding homily addressed to the churl. Early in the tale, just after being seized and caged, the bird asserts,
"And though my cage forged were of gold,
And the pynaclis of berel & cristall,
I remembre a prouerbe seid of old,
'Who lesith his fredam, in soth, he lesith all;
For I haue leuer vpon a braunche small
Meryly to syng among the woodis grene,
Than in a cage of siluer briht and shene (92-98)

And in the "Lenvoie" Lydgate also writes:
Whoo hath freedam, hath al suffisaunce,
Better is freedam with litel in gladnesse,
Than to be thral in al wordly richesse (376-78)

This brief discourse on freedom is marked by Lydgate's critique of worldly riches and those who become enthralled to such. The bird makes numerous references to prisoun and other similar aspects of entrapment, a prominent theme running through hopes Fabules. The hopes Fabules depict this notion in a rather straightforward manner, but The Churl and the Bird examines the idea of entrapment in a much more nuanced, ironic way.

Indeed The Churl and the Bird, like hopes Fabules, can be seen as a social commentary in which Lydgate exhibits an antipathy for materialistic possessions and respect for the poorer, peasant classes and their simple way of life. Granted, the churl is certainly churlish and a dupe of the first order, but nonetheless Lydgate shows an affinity for those of the churl's station, perhaps trying to draw a distinction between the covetous, insensitive churl and the industrious peasant laborer who is satisfied with merely having "suffisaunce" and not interested in worldly possessions, understanding, and valuing, instead a liberty from possessions:
"The labourer is gladder at his plow,
Erly on morwe to feede hym on bacoun,
Than som man is, that hath tresour inow
Of all deyntes, plente & foisoun,
And hath no fredam, with his pocessioun,
To gon at large, but as a bere at stake,
To passe his boundis, but if he leve take (127-33)

The idea of freedom that Lydgate expresses here, through the didactic bird, is paradoxical--it is not the rich who are free and their laborers plowing their fields who are in bondage, but rather the contrary; possessions and treasure are a form of tyranny, and those who have them are chained to these possessions as a bear to a stake. The bird seems to be telling the churl, "You have everything that you could possibly need, but you don't recognize this because you are enslaved to the idea of material wealth." This ironic notion of society's being imprisoned by material success and ambition is cleverly conveyed by Lydgate. And this idea is wholly original to Lydgate's translation; nowhere in the three source poems do we see this sense of freedom and bondage expressed.

The bird eventually reduces the churl to tears with her invective, disdainfully saying,
To heeryn a wisdam thyn eris ben half deeff,
Lik an asse that liseth on a harpe,
Thou maist go pypen in a ivy leeff;
Bett is to me to syngyn on thornes sharpe,
Than in a cage, with a cherl to karpe. (274-78)

The bird's insulting language, along with Lydgate's characterization of the churl as dull witted yet proud, greedy, and domineering, impart an aspect of comic realism to the poem, underscoring its ability to delight, a quality so characteristic of the beast fable along with its instructive character.

The Churl and the Bird more subtly even than hopes Fabules conveys the suitability of the beast tale for not only expressing social critique but for exploring more prosodic issues--issues of ironic language and interpretation--which, through the beasts' quickness of wit, make these tales ideal models of edifying yet entertaining stories. And, like Lydgate's Aesopian fables, The Churl and the Bird examines questions of authorship and translation or rewriting, and the tenuous position of the "truth-teller." Lydgate's animal tales, which may be the earliest extant poems by Lydgate, show that even early in his career he was concerned about making a name for himself as a poet, but in a derivative way. In his prologue to Isopes Fabules, Lydgate modestly and inconspicuously subordinates himself as a follower of his source, yet at the same time unabashedly calls attention to himself as a translator:
For whyche I cast to follow [thorn]ys poete
And hys fables in Englyssh to translate,
And, bough I haue no rethoryk swete,
Haue me excusyd: I was born in Lydgate. (29-32)

Within the same stanza Lydgate is both adhering to the conventional modesty topos yet also identifying himself by name; the effect of this passage is a sort of inverse self-advertisement. Lydgate's beast fables thus adumbrate his more prominent works that would foreground his name as one of the most important and celebrated English poets for late medieval audiences. Writing in the sixteenth century, John Bale translated a Latin epitaph for Lydgate that he attributed to Nicolas Brigham, which reads:
Dead to the world, living above,
Lydgate lies here entombed in an urn,
He who was in former times famed,
Throughout Britain, for poetry. (25)


University of Wisconsin--Platteville


(1) See Anthony Bale's From Translator to Laureate: Imagining the Medieval Author (London: Blackwell, 2008), 1. Bale points out that this picture is used for the cover of the Riverside Chaucer paperback.

(2) Lydgate refers to Chaucer as "master" on several occasions. He first describes Chaucer as "master" in A Critical Edition of John Lyndgate's The Life of Our Lady, ed. Joseph A. Lauritis, Ralph Klinefelter, and Vernon F. Gallagher (Duquesne U. Press, 1961), line 1628.

(3) See David Lawton's "Dullness and the Fifteenth Century," English Literary History 54 (1987): 761, in which Lawton cites numerous negative scholarly comments on the poetry of the period. It should be noted here that Lawton takes issue with the common perception that fifteenth-century English poetry was "dull" or necessarily "conservative."

(4) Claire Sponsler, The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater, (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 131.

(5) Ibid., 166.

(6) For example, Walter F. Schirmer tells us that Lydgate's Troy Book was commissioned by King Henry V in 1412 and his Fall of Princes was commissioned by Duke Humfrey in 1431. See Schirmer, John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the Fifteenth Century, trans. Ann E. Keep (U. of California Press, 1961), 42, 209.

(7) See Claire Sponsler's 'Alien Nation: London's Aliens and Lydgate's Mummings for the Mercers and Goldsmiths," in The Post-Colonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen (New York: St. Martin's, 2000), 229-42.

(8) Maura Nolan, John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), 1-2.

(9) Schirmer, John Lydgate, 22, states that Lydgate's Aesop was written during his years at Oxford and that it "must be regarded as his first work."

(10) George Saintsbury, "The English Chaucerians," The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, ed. A. W. Ward et al., vol. 2 (Cambridge U. Press, 1908).

(11) Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (London: Routledge, 1970).

(12) Ibid., 22.

(13) Ibid., 193.

(14) Edward Wheatley, Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer, and His Followers (U. Press of Florida, 2000), 125.

(15) Ibid., 126-27.

(16) Ibid., 128.

(17) All quotations from "The Cock and the Jacinth" are taken from Isopes Fabules: The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, part 2, ed. H. N. MacCracken (Oxford U. Press, 1934). Line numbers cited parenthetically in text.

(18) Andrew Higl, "Printing Power: Selling Lydgate, Gower, and Chaucer," Essays in Medieval Studies 23 (2006): 65.

(19) Schirmer, John Lydgate, 37.

(20) Neil Cartlidge, "The Source of John Lydgate's The Churl and the Bird," Notes and Queries 44 (1997): 23-24.

(21) See Lenora D. Wolfgang, "Caxton's Aesop: The Origin and Evolution of a Fable," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 135.1 (March, 1991), 73-79.

(22) All quotations from The Churl and the Bird are taken from The Churl and the Bird: The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, part 2, ed. H.N. MacCracken (Oxford U. Press, 1934). Line numbers cited parenthetically in text.

(23) John C. Jacobs, ed. and trans., The Fables of Odo of Cheriton (Syracuse U. Press, 1985), 1.

(24) See note 2 above.

(25) See Alexandra Gillespie, Print Culture and the Medieval Author (Oxford U. Press, 2006), 229.
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Author:Garrett, Richard
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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