- Lydgate's Fabula Duorum Mercatorum and Guy of Warwyck ed. by Pamela Farvolden
Should one wish to introduce the poetry of John Lydgate to students, particularly to undergraduates, this is the text to use. The book is beautifully produced with a miniature on the cover from Arundel 119 (folio 1), the British Library copy of Lydgate's Siege of Thebes; it is in large format with plenty of marginal space for marking up by students (even in other languages like Chinese, which I see from time to time). The volume has a clearly written and accessible general introduction to John Lydgate. We learn, for example, that Lydgate in his day was 'a sought-after poet who wrote many poems on commission for some of the most important and powerful people in England' (p. 3). There are also separate introductions to the texts with descriptions of each of the seven MSS that survive for both.
Farvolden brings together two narrative poems that at first seem to have little connection, but, as she points out, both are romances, both were composed about the same period of Lydgate's writing career (she suggests the 1420s), both change or [End Page 76] elaborate details from their earlier sources—giving very different emphases—and both provide (extreme) examples of virtuous action. Both are also short and teachable texts.
The Fabula Duorum Mercatorum (The Tale of Two Merchants) examines the exemplary friendship of a merchant from Egypt and another from Baldac (Baghdad). The story derives from the Disciplina Clericalis, the magnificent twelfth-century collection of tales compiled and translated from Arabic to Latin by Petrus Alfonsi. In short, the man from Baghdad becomes ill on his visit to the Egyptian merchant and is diagnosed with love sickness. The Syrian has fallen for the bride the Egyptian intends for himself, but the latter gentleman freely gives the lady with her dowry to his friend ('I gyf hir thee: have, tak hir by the hond' [l. 420]). Later, the Egyptian loses his wealth and travels to Baldac, where he is about to be wrongly executed for a murder, but his Syrian friend exonerates him and the true murderer confesses. Lydgate's version elaborates these bare bones with romance and courtly love conventions, large helpings of Boethian philosophy, and an exploration of the larger questions of love, friendship, generosity, and loyalty (not to mention a 150-line discourse on the symptoms of love sickness). This story could be read as an interesting counterpoint to Chaucer's Knight's Tale and also to Book I of Troilus, as Farvolden points out, and deserves to be better known.
While the Fabula Duorum Mercatorum seems to have been written for a wealthy mercantile readership, Lydgate's version of the story of Guy of Warwick was composed for Margaret, the eldest daughter of Richard Beauchamp (1382–1439), Earl of Warwick, from his first marriage. The Beauchamp family claimed the fictional Guy as an ancestor, and there are several Guy stories written for the Beauchamp family circle, including Lydgate's poem, the Irish Life of Sir Guy, composed before 1449, and the Rommant de Guy de Warwick of about 1445, along with an undated fifteenth-century Guy of Warwick (now Cambridge University Library MS ff.2.38). Lydgate's Guy focuses on the end of the story, and was, as Lydgate says, translated from a Latin prose chronicle of 'Gerard Cornubyence' (p. 122, l. 572, a reference to the Historia Guidonis de Warewyke composed by Gerard of Cornwall [fl. 1350]). The stoic fortitude shown in Lydgate's story by Felice, whose husband, Guy, soon after their marriage takes on the guise of a poor pilgrim, or 'Goddis knight' (p. 112, l. 195), leaving her pregnant with their son, and whom she recognizes only at the moment of his death, may have provided one model for Margaret when her husband, the fiery-tempered John Talbot familiar from Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI, and their son John...