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 major 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 6 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 when the memory of the Italian author and early proponent of humanism, Francesco Petrarch (who died in 1374) was still very 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. The same humanistic influence is apparent in the care the author shows in writing clearly and without artifice, in his moderate use of images and references to Greek mythology, in many texts from ancient authors, and in his learned digressions he also gives some personal notes indicating be made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as well as two journeys to Italy.
It is not clear, however, if he was sent on these journeys by his superiors or was attracted by the desire to learn, as was common among many of his contemporaries. Bokenham was praised for his knowledge of the writings of Cicero and Ovid, as well as for his interest in following the English poets of his time. With his warm and sincere erudition as well as a good sense of humour, he demonstrated literary talent of often a superior quality. His natural and spontaneous style places him well above his well-known contemporary, the Benedictine monk John Lydgate (c. 1370 – c. 1451). Whereas Lydgate in his attempt to imitate in English the syntax and rhythm of the Latin period produced an artificial style that was both unnatural and obscure, Bokenham showed preference for a natural and clear style that was surely due to his desire to capture the dialect of his native region of Suffolk, of which his cycle of legends constitutes an excellent example.
As an accomplished traveller Bokenham was, no doubt, an interesting narrator at Clare Castle, where the royal family and leading Englishmen gathered in the summer, and where the Augustinians served as chaplains. Once the poetical gifts of Bokenham became known, many noble ladies vied for his rhymed lives of their patron saints. Written as separate works, these were collated as the Lyvys of Seyntys (“Lives of Saints”). Among them are thirteen that have survived because they were transcribed in 1447 for a nunnery in Cambridge into a compilation known as the Legendys of Hooly Wummen ("Legends of Holy Women”). These constitute the only known medieval collection of women saints written in English. It seems possible that Bokenham followed the selection and arrangement pattern in Geoffrey Chaucer's Legend of Good Women for his own array of saints.
Photo (at right): Medieval books are here seen still stored as they were centuries ago. Each book is individually chained to the bookcase. This photo was taken at Hereford Cathedral, England.
The circumstances whereby Bokenham wrote this work are known. On 7th September 1443 Bokenham began writing a life of St Margaret in English verse for his friend and fellow friar. Thomas Burgh of Canterbury. The work sparked off a local demand for similar English lives of female saints, and Bokenham received a series of subsequent commissions from prominent members of the East Anglian gentry and nobility. For instance, at a party on Twelfth Night 1445, Dame Isabel Bourchier, sister of Richard, Duke of York, requested that Bokenham compose a life of Mary Magdalen, a saint for whom she had a particular devotion.
Other noblewomen commissioned lives of their patron saints, such as Elizabeth de Vere, wife of the twelfth earl of Oxford, who requested a life of St Elizabeth of Hungary. The result of these individual commissions is a collection of thirteen lives of female saints in verse, which were assembled and copied into a single manuscript in Cambridge in 1447.This manuscript was given to a local nunnery, but now are in the British Library, listed as MS Arundel 372. This work is now known by the modern editorial title the Legends of Holy Women. The work opens with the life of Saint Margaret, which he began on 7th September 1443 at the request of his fellow friar, Thomas Burgh. Bokenham was then fifty years of age. This work was followed by the rhymed lives of Saints Ann, Christiana, the 11,000 virgins, Faith, Agnes, Dorothy, Mary Magdalen, Katherine, Cecily, Agatha, Lucy and Elizabeth.
He was a conservative writer, who eschewed the morally and theologically complex hagiography of John Capgrave O.S.A. and other contemporaries. He seems not to have written very much poetry until he was fifty years of age. Katherine Howard, to whom Bokenham dedicated his poem "St Katherine" may with great probability be identified as the wife of John Howard of Stoke Neyland, sixteen miles south east of Clare, who in 1483 became the Duke of Norfolk. Katherine was a daughter of Sir William de Moleyna of Stoke Poges.
The language, described by its author as "of Suthfolke speche" (Suffolk speech), is forced into the exotic form of ottava rima (rhyming octaves). Because material written in fifteenth-century English dialects is so rare, the historical value of the writing of Bokenham is inestimable in assisting the understanding of the evolution of English literature. For his lives of these saints, Bokenham translated from Latin their biographies that appeared in the Legenda Aurea (written about 1260) of the Dominican friar who was Bishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230 – c. 1298).
From the Legenda Aurea, Bokenham translated freely from the Latin text, and also added materials he found in other sources, and included comments that revealed something of his own personality and situation. For example, he mentions his own sickness, his troubles as a copyist, and laments that he was not given the talent of Chaucer, whose work he greatly admired and whose eloquence he praised in glowing terms. This writing style makes Bokenham the most personal, simple and natural English poet of the fifteenth century. Some of this was intentionally done by him as a reaction against the latinizing formality of some of his contemporary poets.
Not that he was unable to write in Latin as well. On 1st May 1456 he wrote Dialogue betwixt a secular asking and a Frere (friar) answering at the grave of Dame Joan of Acre. This is a very important source for the history of Clare Priory. This manuscript, which still exists, is written in both Latin and English, and richly decorated on parchment. Another of his works was called Mappula Anglicae, which covered the rhymed lives of English saints such as Cedde, Felix and Oswald.
It contained seventeen chapters, and was anonymous, except that Bokenham stated that, if taken in sequence, the first letter in each chapter spelt out the name of the author. It reads OSBERNUS BOKEN_HAM. Chapter 15 is missing. His source for this work was a vast Latin work by Higden called Polychronicon.
Bokenham was the first English hagiographer to give Augustine's mother Monica a life of her own, and that life bears comparison with the extended account of Monica by John Capgrave O.S.A. in his Life of St Augustine. Bokenham also composed a Life of Augustine. His life of the learned St Barbara is similar to Capgrave's Katherine in its intricate plotting, theological disquisitions, and moral complexity. In addition to his saints' lives, Bokenham wrote a geographical treatise in Middle English, the Mappula Angliae. He is also thought to have authored a translation of Claudian's fifth-century panegyric De Consulatu Stilichonis and "Dialogue at the Grave," which recounts the ancestors and descendants of an early major benefactor of Clare Priory, Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I.
Before writing his Legends of Holy Women Bokenham produced the Life of St Anne, also in ballad-rhyme. To give a sample of his English, the opening lines are included below. In it he laments that he has not the creative skills of the poets of the English language Gower, Chaucer (then both dead) and the Benedictine monk, John Lydgate (then still living):
Translation assistance for the above lines and the rest of the poem is available online at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/Teams/51sr.htm
For further Reading
Life of St Anne of Alexandria (Online). By Osbern Bokenham. The fifteenth-century verse retelling of Anne's life by Osbern Bokenham (1393-1464) shows much more interest in Anne's own character and virtues, and in her human experience. Bokenham, an Austin (Augustinian) friar at Clare Priory in East Anglia, dedicated most of his accounts of female saints to laywomen from prominent families in the vicinity.
In the case of St Anne, he wrote for Katherine Clopton Denston, daughter and sister of wealthy cloth merchants whose family portraits survive in the parish church of nearby Long Melford, where they were major donors. Katherine and her husband John Denston, a local landowner and civil servant, had just one child, a daughter named after St Anne, and Bokenham spells out one purpose of his account in the closing lines, when he invokes the saint's help in fulfilling their desire for a second child, a son.
But it is clearly not just St Anne's role as an intercessor that makes her life relevant, in Bokenham's view, to women like his friend Katherine Denston. His account goes well beyond its sources in its sympathetic attention to the marriage between Anne and Joachim - adding passages, for instance, which emphasize how well matched they are in age, rank, and virtue (lines 229-50), how dearly Anne loves her husband (336-49), and how joyful she is when he returns from his long absence (567-73). Thus Bokenham reassuringly suggests through St Anne that laypeople can have a good and loving marriage without forfeiting the possibility of holiness. (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/44sr.htm )
Text by TEAMS Texts, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003 is online at:http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/51sr.htm
On 28th March 1461 and again in 1463 he was appointed president (i.e., delegate in place of the Prior General) of a forthcoming Augustinian Provincial Chapter in England. He lived until probably 1464, when he would have been seventy-two years old. A rhymed dialogue about the foundation of Clare Priory was written in 1460. Its verse is characteristic of an Augustinian who lived there, Osbern Bokenham O.S.A..
Because it was once thought that Bokenham was dead by 1460, the verse was not attributed to him. He is recorded, however, by Augustinian documents in Rome as still being alive in 1463.
This Augnet website will next deal with Bokenham’s translation of Legenda Aurea (mentioned above). This he accomplished at Clare Priory, most likely between the years 1450 and 1455. The Legenda Aurea was a compilation of wonder stories. Not historical or critical in purpose, it was more of a devotional book, rather than historical biography. An English translation of parts of Legenda Aurea is available online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend
About a thousand manuscript copies still survive, but Bokenham’s translation into Suffolk dialect of fourteenth-century English is unique. His translation was preserved in one very artistically-executed manuscript, which was only rediscovered and identified again in the year 2004. William Caxton’s slightly later translation of the Legenda Aurea into English were printed in 1483, 1487 and 1493. The printing press was invented in 1440, and from 1470 to 1530 it was the most often printed book in Europe; by 1550 there were over 150 printed editions of it, covering most European languages. Bokenham’s limited edition of one handwritten copy was unique in a number of ways, and most recently so for being lost for 450 years until 2004.
This folio-sized presentation manuscript, even in its fragmentary condition, contains over 170 prose and verse lives of saints translated and adapted by Bokenham. Highlights include seventeen verse lives (nine also witnessed in his Legends of Holy Women), sixteen lives of English saints (including verse lives of Audrey of Ely and Winnifred), and a lengthy, highly-original prose Life of Thomas Becket. This manuscript, almost certainly presented to Cecily Neville, mother of the Yorkist kings of England, both strengthens our knowledge of Bokenham as a Yorkist poet and complicates how we might interpret his relationship to Yorkist partisans.
Also of note is Bokenham's obvious Augustinian stance in his Legenda Aurea. The work contains a substantial number of lives of saints who were venerated particularly or exclusively by the Augustinian friars, and while it is not surprising for an Austin Friar to compose such Lives, it is more remarkable when those Lives are inserted into a legendary gifted to a powerful noblewoman. It has been stated that this group of Lives will prove a rich resource for exploring a previously undervalued part of Bokenham's hagiography -- his professional identity as an Austin Friar -- and for enriching our understanding of monastic and fraternal self-presentation in the fifteenth century.
Osbern Bokenham. A succinct biography that refers also to another literary English Augustinian, John Capgrave. http://capgrave.com/Bokenham.html
Osbern Bokenham. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osbern_Bokenam
Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England. The Anglo-Saxon Saints were ideal conduits for late medieval fashioning of the glorious past of England. http://www.medievalhistories.com/anglo-saxon-saints-lives-as-history-writing-in-late-medieval-england