Stephen R. Reimer

title.none: Lydgate, The Life of St. Edmund King and Martyr (Stephen R. Reimer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0611.008 06.11.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephen R. Reimer, University of Alberta, Stephen.Reimer@UAlberta.Ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Lydgate, John. Introduction by A.S.G. Edwards. The Life of St. Edmund King and Martyr: John Lydgate's Illustrated Verse Life Presented to Henry VI: A Facsimilie of British Library MS Harley 2278. London: Folio Society/ British Library, 2004. Pp. xxiii, 240. $100.00 (pb) 0-7123-4871-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.11.08

Lydgate, John. Introduction by A.S.G. Edwards. The Life of St. Edmund King and Martyr: John Lydgate's Illustrated Verse Life Presented to Henry VI: A Facsimilie of British Library MS Harley 2278. London: Folio Society/ British Library, 2004. Pp. xxiii, 240. $100.00 (pb) 0-7123-4871-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Stephen R. Reimer
University of Alberta

British Library MS Harley 2278 is one of the great treasures among the illuminated manuscripts in the Library's collections. The colour and gold facsimile here being reviewed will be much appreciated, not only by those interested in the works of John Lydgate, but also by those who study medieval art (this is a prime example of work of Margaret Rickert's "East Anglian school" of manuscript painting), fifteenth- century English paleography, and medieval hagiography. The manuscript is a deluxe copy of Lydgate's Lives of SS. Edmund and Fremund, in English verse (in rhyme royal stanzas, with some passages in eight- line "monk's stanzas"), accompanied by 120 illuminations to illustrate the story. The manuscript was produced in East Anglia--perhaps in the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds or, at least, under the patronage of its abbot--in the second quarter of the fifteenth-century.

Lydgate's version of the life of the patron of the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds was produced in commemoration of a visit by King Henry VI (then a boy of 12 years of age) and his court during the period from Christmas to St. George's Day (21 April) in 1433-34. As Lydgate, a monk of Bury abbey, explains in his poem, Abbot Curteys called on him to produce an English version of Edmund's life as a gift for the king, and it seems likely that Harley 2278 is the presentation copy. Moreover, the King's visit is represented in the manuscript by an illustration showing him kneeling at the shrine of St. Edmund.

The life of Edmund here is coupled with that of St. Fremund, supposedly Edmund's nephew (though he is a Warwickshire saint), and chosen by God to take vengeance upon the Danes for the slaying of Edmund. Lydgate thus invents a new form of a "double" saints life, a pattern which he re-used some years later when Abbot Whethamstede of St. Albans commissioned him to do an English life of St. Alban: Lydgate produced a second "double" life, his Lives of SS. Alban and Amphibal.

The reproduction of the pages of Harley 2278 in this facsimile edition is obviously done with considerable care, and the colours throughout are vibrant and consistent. I have not had the opportunity since the publication of the book to set the facsimile side by side with the manuscript, but I have worked with the manuscript in the past, and this certainly appears, as far as memory serves, to be a faithful reproduction. It would be valuable to have a section of the introduction, or a separate "technical" preface, in which the techniques of the reproduction were described, especially with respect to what procedures were followed by way of "quality control." The verso of the title page gives the names of the photographer and the supervisor of the reproduction, but there is nothing else in the volume about the processes behind the facsimile, and this is a pity.

The introduction by A. S. G. Edwards focuses on the manuscript and its contents; he offers a relatively short and general introduction, summarizing the current state of scholarship on the occasion of the poem, the legend that it retells, the manuscript, and, more particularly, the manuscript's illustrative and decorative features. The emphasis in the Introduction, in which the longest section is dedicated to a discussion of the illustrations, seems appropriate, since the facsimile being introduced will be of interest to art historians as much as to literary scholars.

No new discoveries or startling opinions are reported here: this is a survey of current scholarly opinion, scrupulously documented for the reader who wishes to pursue further any of the topics covered. Edwards is quite certain that Harley 2278 is the presentation copy of the manuscript, prepared for Henry VI; other scholars have perhaps hedged such claims a little more, but it is a not unreasonable position to take. There is further one point upon which Edwards calls for further work to be done--the question of the specific sources from which Lydgate may be working, especially the possible connection between this English text and the Latin compilation of Edmund's vita in MS Bodley 240 (p. 7)--but Edwards does not himself undertake such a project here.

While there is a general description of the poem and a summary of its plot (again, this is appropriate given that the facsimile will be of interest even to many who are not familiar with the poem), there is little here on the narrative and symbolic patterns in the story, nor on the language in which it is told. Certainly on the language we can expect something more substantial in the Introduction to the forthcoming Early English Text Society edition of the poem being prepared by Professor Edwards and Anthony Bale.

Simultaneously with the publication of the British Library edition, the Folio Society produced a version of the same facsimile, in an edition limited to 1010 copies, bound in goat's hide. The first volume contains the facsimile, identical to that in the British Library edition except for gilt edging; the companion volume includes the introduction, a transcription of Lydgate's text (page by page, as in the manuscript), with glossary and notes, all by A. S. G. Edwards. The introduction is an abridged version of the introduction to the British Library edition, revised for a different audience: technical details and footnotes are removed, and the bibliography is reduced to a mere handful of items. Unlike the British Library version, the Folio Society edition includes a full page-by-page transcription of the text, accompanied by glosses and commentary. The commentary upon the text includes English translations of Latin passages, the identification of Biblical allusions, explanations of proper names, and a few comparative references to other Lydgate texts.

The British Library facsimile is a lovely reproduction of an important late medieval English manuscript, and the publication of this facsimile is a very welcome event. This is a book which research libraries and scholars who are interested in medieval English manuscripts will want to add to their collections.