John Lydgate and the making of public culture by Maura Nolan

By Maura Nolan

In the course of the 15th century John Lydgate was once the main well-known poet in England, filling commissions for the courtroom, the aristocracy, and the guilds. He wrote for an elite London readership that used to be traditionally very small, yet that observed itself as dominating the cultural lifetime of the state. hence the hot literary kinds and modes built by means of Lydgate and his contemporaries contributed to shaping the advance of English public tradition within the 15th century. Maura Nolan offers a big re-interpretation of Lydgate's paintings and of his imperative position within the constructing literary tradition of his time.

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The result of this mixing of sources, especially when combined with the extreme delicacy of the historical situation to which Lydgate was responding, is a text that strongly resists attempts to pigeonhole it as a propagandistic exemplum. I begin the book with Serpent of Division not only because it is one of the first, if not the first, written texts we have from the minority, but also because its status as a prose exemplum means that it lacks the protective coloration of verse embellishment and ornamentation and thus aptly illustrates the point that even Lydgate’s seemingly simple texts are far from being monologic and straightforward.

That is why, though none of Lydgate’s actual writing during the minority became widely known, the principles subtending his use of form – its relation to sovereignty, its exclusivity, its representativeness – were to last. In the end, to make a claim, as I do, for the centrality of these neglected works is to make the slightly contrarian assertion that in their elitism lies their significance, then and now. It is in the forms at work in these particularly functional texts that historicity declares itself, as that which solicits and demands not simply an instrumental response – pure propaganda – but also an aesthetic surplus, something extra.

Lydgate’s writing demands a critical practice that refuses to jettison the old (traditional modes of scholarship, for example, or residual understandings of the social whole) while simultaneously embracing the newness of the past, its capacity to surprise, to cast up the unexpected – in short, to remain, despite all attempts to fix it, contingent and unpredictable. ’’57 Such histories are precisely what I am concerned with here. Each of the texts I describe in this book challenges topical readings even as it betrays its historical origin.

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