John Capgrave is one of the few medieval authors whose birthday we know. As he composed his universal history known as the Abbreviation of Chronicles, he recorded that on 21 April 1393, “the friar who made these annotations was born.” And lest this entry be overlooked amidst the doings of the powerful, he inserted his personal nota bene mark, a trefoil, beside it in the margin.
The Abbreviation of Chronicles, completed circa 1463, was the final work of a long and distinguished scholarly career. Indeed, the sixteenth-century antiquarian John Bale called Capgrave “the most learned of all the Augustinians.” Capgrave entered the Austin friary of his native Lynn, Norfolk, when he was about 17. During the 1420s, he studied at Cambridge, and after becoming a doctor of theology, he began to write. His earliest writings were voluminous commentaries on the Bible written in Latin, but his later works were mostly in Middle English and more popular in orientation. They include saints’ lives, a guide for pilgrims to Rome, and the Abbreviation of Chronicles. Historians of the English language have noted that he was one of the first English authors to aim for orthographical consistency, and the OED cites Capgrave’s writings for the earliest recorded usages of 117 words, including “expression,” “correct,” “monstrous,” “dynasty,” “ripen,” and “narrative.” All of his works except his Life of Saint Katherine survive in manuscripts he wrote and/or corrected himself.
Capgrave’s East Anglia was a cultural center, home to such well-known authors as John Lydgate, Margery Kempe, and Osbern Bokenham; to the Pastons, famous for their family letters; and to a host of anonymous poets and dramatists. Bibliophiles among the East Anglian gentry collected the recognized masterpieces of literature, philosophy, and religion, but they also commissioned new works by local authors, including Capgrave. A strong interest in spirituality among the East Anglian laity found expression not only in Kempe’s autobiography and in the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, but also in enthusiasm for the Lollard heresy, whose suppression preoccupied Bishop Alnwick of Norwich from 1428 to 1431.
Doubtless encouraged by this vibrant milieu, Capgrave refashioned traditional genres in surprising ways. His Abbreviation of Chronicles deals with more than the usual political and religious events; it is also a cultural and intellectual history—the first in the English language. Its “annotations” record the invention of the Latin, Egyptian, and Hebrew alphabets; mark contributions to the fields of astronomy, medicine, music, and theology; and commemorate poets, playwrights, and philosophers. His guide to Rome vivifies the edifices of the Holy City by relaying anecdotes about those who once frequented them, from Cecilia, the devout reader of Scripture, to George, the slayer of the dragon. When writing about holy women, Capgrave eschews the conventional obsession with virginity and instead celebrates those who enriched their communities materially, spiritually, or intellectually, whether as teachers, parents, spouses, visionaries, or benefactresses. His Book of the Illustrious Henries, written for Henry VI, is one among many biographical anthologies of classical and medieval times, but where prior anthologizers collected biographies of emperors, prelates, or saints, Capgrave was the first I know of to collect lives of people with the same name.
Capgrave’s greatest contribution to English literature is his life of Katherine of Alexandria, the legendary fourth-century queen and martyr renowned for defeating 50 pagan philosophers in a public debate orchestrated by the Emperor Maxentius. Capgrave embroidered the plot he inherited into a verse narrative of more than 8,000 lines that details Katherine’s upbringing and the difficulties she experiences as a woman governing a far-flung realm before turning to the conventional account of her spectacular trial and death. What is most remarkable about Capgrave’s Katherine is that she is far from perfect. A pampered only child, she has been left for 18 years to do as she pleased—and what she pleased to do was study. When her father dies, she wishes neither to marry nor to attend to the tedious business of ruling the realm she has inherited. Her self-indulgence, Capgrave shows, leaves her kingdom vulnerable to Maxentius’s occupation and leads to her martyrdom. In its moral complexity and in its nuanced portrait of a young woman torn between what she feels called to do and what society sets as her duty, Capgrave’s narrative is unparalleled in any saint’s life. It may also be read as prescient political commentary; by the time Capgrave was writing, Henry VI was being criticized for excessive piety and disdain for the business of kingship, flaws that would bring chaos to England and overthrow to Henry just as they had to Alexandria and Katherine.
One of the most appealing aspects of Capgrave’s character is that, in keeping with the spirit of his order, he viewed service to the community as inseparable from scholarship. Capgrave loved books and learning. He boasts of how he checks his facts, consults multiple sources, and weighs conflicting accounts of the same events to arrive at an accurate result. But he also makes clear that it’s not enough to be a passionate and conscientious scholar: learning must serve others, and thereby God. His Katherine is transmuted from willful adolescent into Christian heroine only when she leaves her books and uses her knowledge to challenge tyranny, to inspire, and to convert. Although many of Capgrave’s day decried anything beyond basic religious education of laypeople as liable to lead to independent thought and thence heresy, Capgrave wrote of theological matters in English and celebrated saints who used their knowledge to educate others. In so doing, he promoted an informed, intellectualized faith as the best weapon in the war against error.
Featured image credit: Leaf from Book of Hours circa 1460 depicting Catherine of Alexandria, Walters Art Museum. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.