Princes, Be Good!
Celebrating the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio's birth with John Lydgate's Fall of Princes.
John Lydgate's Fall of Princes is a version of Giovanni Boccaccio's Latin prose De casibus vivorum et feminarum illustrium, in English verse, via the intermediary French translation by Laurent de Premierfait, De cas des nobles hommes et femmes (c. 1409). Lydgate was a poet and the prior of Hatfield Regis. He wrote the Fall of Princes between 1431 and 1439 as a commission for Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.
Boccaccio's original poem, written between 1355 and 1360 with modifications up to 1375, is a treatise in nine books on the caprice of Fortuna (Fortune). The author recounts tragic events in the lives of notable men and women from biblical, classical, and medieval history, from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the capture of King John of France by the English at Poitiers in 1356. Through the stories, De casibus provided moral lessons for readers, demonstrating both models of virtue and examples of vice to avoid.
Miniature of two Benedictine monks kneeling before St Edmund enthroned; John Lydgate is identified as the monk on the right who holds a scroll reading 'dann Iohn lydgate'. From John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 5r
In his Fall of Princes, Lydgate did not simply translate Boccaccio's De casibus. Influenced by Premierfait's French translation of the text, as well as his own studies, Lydgate added stories from other authors including Ovid, Petrarch, Chaucer, and Gower. Focusing on the results of evil-doing in particular, the Fall of Princes became a kind of manual of advice for rulers on how to regulate their own lives and moral behaviour. Lydgate's poem proved to be tremendously popular; a remarkable number of copies of the text were made in the second half of the fifteenth century. 38 manuscript versions and nine fragments are currently known, as well as some extracts included in other manuscripts.
Here are some of our favourite miniatures from an illustrated copy of the Fall of Princes made c. 1450-1460, now Harley MS 1766. This copy was made about ten years after the poem was written by Lydgate, and was produced by the Edmund-Fremund Scribe and a team of local artists, probably in the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The manuscript is beautifully decorated with 156 marginal miniatures accompanying various episodes in the text. Many of these miniatures depict the tragic deaths of the characters described, which include suicides, hangings, stabbings, and various kinds of fatal falls.
Miniature of the Explusion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 13r
Miniature of Oedipus, dressed in royal garments, tearing out his own eyes, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 48r
Miniature of Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, committing suicide after realising that Oedipus was 'her own husband and son both', from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 50r
Miniature of Sardanapalus, the last king of Assyria, reputed to be a decadent and lascivious ruler, represented throwing himself from the doorway of his palace into a fire, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 117r
Miniature of Haman, minister of the Persian empire under King Ahasuerus, being hanged from the same pole that he had set up to kill Mordecai (from Esther 7:10), from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 141v
Miniature of King Arthur, the figure of an ideal king, enthroned in royal robes, receiving emissaries from Rome, from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c. 1450 - c. 1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 217r
You can read more about this manuscript in: Henry Bergen, Lydgate's Fall of Princes, 4 vol. (London, 1924-27); Giovanni Boccaccio: Catalogue of an Exhibition held in the Reference Division of the British Library 3 October to 31 December 1975 (London, 1975), no. 39; Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts 1390-1490, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 6, 2 vols. (London, 1996), no. 110; Sarah L. Pittaway, 'The Political Appropriation of Lydgate's Fall of Princes: A Manuscript Study of British Library, MS Harley 1766' (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham, 2011) [passim].
- Maria Alicia Trivigno