England of the fifteenth century was rife with social change, religious dissent, and political upheaval. Amid this ferment lived John Capgrave O.S.A. — Austin (Augustinian) friar, doctor of theology, a leading figure in the society of East Anglia, a noted and prolific author, an outstanding religious leader.
He was such a saintly person that it has been stated that King Henry VII wished him to be canonized. In fact, some of this friar's early biographers refer to him as "Beatus", which was an allusion to this wish of Henry VII.
Nowhere are the tensions and anxieties of this critical period, spanning the close of the medieval age and the dawn of early modern eras, more eloquently conveyed than in Capgrave's written works.
John Capgrave, the learned and travelled friar of Lynn in Norfolk, England, was the best known man of letters of his time - the generation of his fellow-author Osbern Bokenham O.S.A., and the one after Geoffrey Chaucer.
One of the most learned men of his day, he was a distinguished theologian, philosopher, and historian.
Capgrave also tried his hand at poetry. Speaking of himself, he versed:
Oute of the world to my profit I cam
Onto the brotherhood wich I am inne,
God gave me grace never for to blame,
To folwe the steppes of my Faders before
Wiche to the rule of Austin were swore.
Translated into contemporary English, the poem reads:
Out of the world of profit I came
Into the brotherhood which I am in,
God gave me grace never to blame
To follow the steps of my Fathers before
Which to the Rule of Augustine were sworn.
Capgrave was a notable figure both in the vibrant literary culture of England and in European intellectual history. He has also proved to be the most prolific writer of all English Augustinians.
He was born at Lynn in Norfolk, England on the 21st April 1393. Thirty-seven miles north of Cambridge, Lynn was a thriving port on the estuary of the Ouse River in northwestern Norfolk.
Lynn stood at the south-eastern tip of the great English estuary known as the Wash. The town was in medieval times called Bishop's
Lynn. This is because it was taken under the wing of the Bishop of Norwich in the late eleventh century, one of the earliest of numerous deliberate seigneurial foundations of "new towns" that took place between that time and the mid-thirteenth century. (When Henry VIII subsequently took over the lordship of the town it was renamed
Of all the religious orders in
Lynn, only the Augustinians (Austin Friars) were able to secure a site close within the built-up section of the town. Their convent is not mentioned in the Newland survey of ca.1267-1283, although the Austin Friars of Lynn are listed in the probate of a will written in 1276. Eventually their site incorporated a church, chapter house, and residence.
In Lynn, the Austin Friars occupied a large, well-appointed building near the marketplace, and were thoroughly engaged with urban life. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature describes late medieval Lynn as a prosperous port, under the lordship of the Bishop of Norwich but largely run by a wealthy mercantile elite. It was a gateway to northern Europe, witnessing a continual traffic of merchants and pilgrims, and its monasteries and friaries were connected to international networks of learning and culture.
Fifteenth-century East Anglia was a literate and pious society in which clerics and the lay elite were a receptive audience for the edifying yet entertaining literature produced by clerical authors such as Capgrave, John Lydgate (circa 1370 - 1451), and Osbern Bokenham.
Confusion about many details in the life of John Capgrave persisted until the meticulous research of Alberic de Meijer O.S.A. (see footnotes on a subsequent page) sixty years ago, although a few historical ambiguities still remain.
The problem was compounded for writers as long ago as the sixteenth century by the existence of another English Austin Friar and scholar also named John Capgrave a generation previous to the Capgrave being studied here. This later even led to an unfounded but oft-repeated theory that these two Augustinians may have been related to one another as an uncle and nephew.
The opening initial of Capgrave's commentary In Exodum, depicting the author kneeling before the duke, who paid for its production. From a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
(Continued on the next page.)