John Capgrave's Fifteenth Century

John Capgrave's Fifteenth Century

John Capgrave's Fifteenth Century

John Capgrave's Fifteenth Century


Britain of the fifteenth century was rife with social change, religious dissent, and political upheaval. Amid this ferment lived John Capgrave--Austin friar, doctor of theology, leading figure in East Anglian society, and noted author. Nowhere are the tensions and anxieties of this critical period, spanning the close of the medieval and the dawn of early modern eras, more eloquently conveyed than in Capgrave's works.

John Capgrave's Fifteenth Century is the first book to explore the major themes of Capgrave's writings and to relate those themes to fifteenth-century political and cultural debates. Focusing on Capgrave's later works, especially those in English and addressed to lay audiences, it teases out thematic threads that are closely interwoven in Capgrave's Middle English oeuvre: piety, intellectualism, gender, and social responsibility. It refutes the still-prevalent view of Capgrave as a religious and political reactionary and shows, rather, that he used traditional genres to promote his own independent viewpoint on some of the most pressing controversies of his day, including debates over vernacular theology, orthodoxy and dissent, lay (and particularly female) spirituality, and the state of the kingdom under Henry VI.

The book situates Capgrave as a figure both in the vibrant literary culture of East Anglia and in European intellectual history. John Capgrave's Fifteenth Century offers a fresh view of orthodoxy and dissent in late medieval England and will interest students of hagiography, religious and cultural history, and Lancastrian politics and society.


East Anglia—a region variously defined, but including the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire, with the cathedral cities of Norwich and Ely and the university town of Cambridge—was a center of fifteenthcentury English culture. It was home to such well-known authors as John Lydgate, Margery Kempe, and Osbern Bokenham; to the Pastons, famous for their family letters; and to a host of anonymous poets and dramatists. Bibliophiles among the East Anglian gentry collected the recognized masterpieces of literature, philosophy, and religion, but they also commissioned new works. a strong lay interest in spirituality found expression not only in the autobiography of Kempe and the Revelations of Julian of Norwich but also in the popularity of the Lollard heresy, whose suppression preoccupied Bishop Alnwick of Norwich from 1428 to 1431. Amid this ferment lived John Capgrave, an Augustinian friar, scholar, and prolific author. Capgrave’s works, addressed to readers from kings to middle-class laywomen, are a window into the mind of an innovative thinker and into the cultural moment that produced him.

My fascination with Capgrave began in the mid-1980s, when I was beginning the research that led to my 1997 monograph, Virgin Martyrs. Capgrave’s Life of Saint Katherine stood out among the hundreds of Latin and vernacular virgin martyr legends I had been reading. I was startled by the range of issues covered (childrearing practices, parent-child relationships, the origin and nature of government, the value of education, the feasibility of gynecocracy), intrigued by the complexity of Capgrave’s heroine, and surprised by his willingness to engage abstruse theological issues at a time when the English Church vigorously discouraged theologizing in the vernacular. Capgrave’s extraordinary virgin martyr legend led me to his other writings, where I encountered themes and strategies similar to those that fascinated me in Katherine. I became convinced that the received view of Capgrave as a religious and political reactionary was wrong; to the contrary, Capgrave was using traditional historical and hagiographical genres to engage in some of the most pressing controversies of the 1420s through 1460s, including debates over vernacular theology, orthodoxy and dissent . . .

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