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  • Lydgate’s Jailbird
  • Corey Sparks

A cage went in search of a bird.

Robert Hass1

God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.

Jacques Deval2

In john lydgate’s fifteenth-century beast fable, “The Churl and the Bird,” a captive songbird laments her confinement, a hindrance to her will that destroys poetic joys. Arguing for her freedom, she complains to her churl(ish) captor that:

Song & prisoun haue noon accordaunce,Trowistow I wole syngen in prisoun?Song procedith of ioie & plesaunce,And prisoun causith deth & destruccioun;Ryngyng of ffeteris makith no mery soun;Or how shold he be glad or iocounde,Ageyn his wil that lith in cheynes bounde?3 [End Page 77]

Having been caged by a gardening churl, who imagines refreshing music at his beck and call, the confined songbird clearly opposes imprisonment to poetic production. She argues that song can only be produced under conditions of joy and pleasure, and that prison affords no such condition. Instead, captivity constrains the otherwise happy—because naturally free—will. According to the newly minted jailbird’s very logical account, a constrained will cannot produce pleasing song. If one’s happiness, which is located in the pleasures of exercising one’s will, is taken away, then one cannot produce “mery soun,” anything pleasing to oneself or anyone else.

The songbird’s willful protest against her captivity succinctly captures Lydgate’s interest in how the space of the medieval prison raises questions about the unsettled (and thus unsettling) boundaries between discipline and desire, between what one may be forced to do and what one wants to do. In this essay I thus seek to deepen our understanding of the spatial imaginaries implicated in medieval prisons, explicating one late medieval poet’s imagining of what a prison is and does. While engaged with a single poem, my larger argument points toward broader issues related to literary history as well as the history of prisons. Attending to Lydgate’s careful thinking about the will in this poem suggests how the history of the prison and literary history are interconnected beyond literary works specifically known to have been written in prison. Literary works that take up questions about the will’s capacious motivations and concomitant need for discipline speak directly to the evolving functions and contested meanings of late medieval imprisonment and captivity. Finally, because Lydgate’s poem uses the birdcage as a figure for the medieval prison, this essay engages recent thinking in animal studies about the ways medieval animal figuration can give us something more than mere anthropocentrism. Lydgate, the peripatetic poet-monk of Bury St. Edmunds, a monastery closely associated with the Lancastrian dynasty, hardly pretends that “The Churl and the Bird” provides an autobiographical accounting of confinement, but he nevertheless gives us a compelling co-construction of the nature of imprisonment and poetic making in the later Middle Ages.4 [End Page 78]

As my opening passage shows, Lydgate’s jailbird articulates a logic of the cage in which confinement is easily imagined as posing a problem for the will of the captive. From simple stocks to elaborately sealed rooms, technologies of confinement restrict the will because they restrain the captive body. I understand the will as residing at the borders of the body: the ability to desire something and enact it in the world. Defining the will in this way stresses its status in the Middle Ages as a faculty of self that is both internal, pertaining to psychological dimensions, and external, pertaining to issues of agency. Moreover, this definition highlights the position of the will in medieval and contemporary debates about the extent to which people have the capacity to act and how they may be held responsible for their own actions. Spaces of confinement are a problem for those confined precisely because they take away the ability to exercise the will for one’s own purposes. Careful to keep the confined body in view, historians of the medieval prison often retain an opposition between confinement and exercise of the will. Discussing imprisonment, Edward M. Peters argues, “Imprisonment of any sort and for whatever purpose is in essence the public...


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pp. 77-101
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