In 2008 Dr Sheila Delaney, the leading expert on the fifteenth-century English Augustinian, Osbern Bokenham O.S.A., sketched him thus: "All but forgotten for centuries, the writings of Osbern Bokenham (1392/1393 -- 1467 ) began to attract a first round of scholarly attention in the 1990s."
She continued, "Stimulating the interest of medievalists are the author's proto-humanistic learning, his use of Chaucer, his Yorkist loyalty in a Lancastrian age, and his production of an all-female legendary (series of saints’ lives) commissioned in part by ladies of the local gentry and nobility. Also contributing to Bokenham's newfound reputation is a recent spate of scholarly interest in medieval views of virginity and saints, and in the hitherto neglected fifteenth century."
Osbern Bokenham was born on 6th October 1392, the year in which the most famous of English Augustinians, John Capgrave, was also born.
His place of birth was near a "pryory of blake [black] canons" (a priory of black Canons). This is taken to be the priory of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine at Bokenham, now called Old Buckenham, Norfolk (and only twelve kilometres from the Suffolk border).
He spent five years as a young man in Italy, chiefly at Venice, making frequent pilgrimages to the great Italian centres of devotional life, with Rome included among them. Neither how this was made financially possible nor anything about his family background is any longer known. From one line in his writings, it is deduced that he wore glasses.
His five years in Italy were spent amidst a generation to which the memory of the Italian author and early proponent of humanism, Francesco Petrarch (who died in 1374) was still fresh. This must have been in itself something of a liberal education for Bokenham, He is known to have read the Latin classical writings of both Cicero and Ovid.
The early English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400, had still been alive during Bokenham’s boyhood. In Chaucer's day, the official court language in England was still French. By choosing to write in English, Chaucer had demonstrated the splendid possibilities in the developing English language, which for more than three centuries had in England been a mere rustic vernacular. (Here are the two first lines of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer: “When that Aprill with the shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”)
Bokenham entered the Order of Saint Augustine at Clare Priory, Suffolk, and remained based there all his life.
His admission to the Order of Saint Augustine was within the period of the Order's greatest intellectual activity in England, when Dr John Lowe O.S.A. (who died as Bishop of Rochester in 1436) was making such valuable additions to the great library in the convento of the Austin Friars in London.
As an Augustinian, by 1427 Bokenham had obtained a Doctor of Divinity, most probably via the Augustinian convento in Cambridge.
In 1434 and 1438 he visited Rome. In 1445 he then undertook a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, Spain, which was financed by an English nobleman. At some stage of his life, he also visited Wales.
Keeping his European travels in mind, here at the onset it is important to indicated the influence of European humanism on Bokenham and other fifteenth-century English Augustinians such as John Capgrave O.S.A.. Bokenham displayed humanist credentials, which he no doubt assimilated on his journeys to the Continent.
For example, he was one of the first who translated from Latin into poetic English the De consulatu Stilichonis of Claudianus, dedicating it in 1445 to Richard Duke of York. (In the opening paragraph above, Dr Shelia Delaney was noted in 2008 as describing Bokenham as a "proto-humanist.") Although still medieval in form, the influence of humanism is also perceptible in Bokenham's poetic cycle Legendys of Hooly Wummen, which was composed by this same Augustinian with an extraordinary metric variety. (Continued on the next page.)