Over the past decade, John Lydgate has begun to emerge from Chaucer's shadow. The fifteenth-century Lydgate, a monk of Bury St. Edmunds as well as court poet and ambassador for Henrys IV, V, and VI, wrote thousands of lines in hundreds of poems that ranged in length and subject matter from the tomic Fall of Thebes to short lyrics of Marian devotion. Once thought a dull fifteenth-century inheritor of Chaucer, he now fascinates for his imbrications in Lancastrian politics and as a figure of poetic transition. His poetry, once deemed overwrought, is now ornately "aureate" and has been positioned as foundational to the poetic developments of Thomas Wyatt and the poet laureates of Tudor and Stuart England (see Meyer-Lee 2007). The monk-poet, who gave us the first use in English of "talent" in reference to individual poetic achievement, has also become a central figure in studies of fifteenth-century material and public culture (see, e.g., Cooper and Denny-Brown 2008; Nolan 2005). Given this increased critical attention, a new volume of some of Lydgate's more understudied poetry is welcome.
Claire Sponsler's John Lydgate: Mummings and Entertainments presents texts that cross between poetry and drama. The titular mummings and [End Page 395] entertainments were verse forms performed with varying degrees of somatic elements. If that definition seems broad, it reflects the fact that myriad, often interchangeable terms, such as bille, balade, desguysing, sotelte, and procession, served as labels for the texts. The edition's included texts might have been performed for a variety of purposes and audiences, some paid for by guilds, others marking royal celebrations. Lydgate's mummings and entertainments contest conventional delineations of genre, audience, and purpose, making them evocatively protean texts.
Divided into six short sections, Sponsler's introduction is informative given its brevity. It opens with manuscript background on the included texts, as well as biographical sketches of Lydgate and his anthologizer, John Shirley. A subsequent section on "Performance" uses the relatively scant textual evidence that exists to summarize the texts' possible organizers, performers, and audiences. Finally, two short sections on "Style" and "The Text" round out the introduction. Given the attention to performance in this volume, the section on style feels too brief; it defines all the texts in terms of Lydgate's "aureate" manner, leaving off closer explication of the texts' language for closing "Explanatory Notes." The introduction's footnotes tend toward older criticism, though Sponsler engages more recent criticism in the explanatory notes. More explicit engagement in the introduction with, as two examples, Maura Nolan's (2005) attention to the role of Lydgate's mummings and entertainments in creating a fifteenth-century "public culture" and Robert Meyer-Lee's (2007) recent argument that Lydgate establishes an English tradition of laureate poetry would have nicely complemented Sponsler's efforts to situate Lydgate's texts within the significant political, social, and literary shifts of the fifteenth century.
The bibliography is helpfully extensive, with sections comprising entries on manuscripts, sources and contemporary works, biographical sources, editions, and criticism, including a good number of recent critical works on Lydgate despite the challenge of doing so in the face of a quickly moving field. The volume provides both explanatory and textual notes, which flesh out the introduction with much more detailed commentary specific to each piece. A short glossary complements the prevalent in-text glossing. It is a slim volume, including only fifteen texts, with the longest, "Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London," coming in at just under 540 lines. The selectivity is understandable, given the goal of the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages (TEAMS) of providing texts difficult to find in student editions. As Sponsler herself points out, however, the range of possible material for inclusion is great because of the variety of poetic and [End Page 396] artistic categories that Lydgate's work crosses. Ultimately, Sponsler chooses only "texts that were mimetic in some way and that featured both oral and visual display" (1, emphasis mine). Thus...