or Awdelay was a priest
A priest is a person authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as a mediatory agent between humans and deities. They also have the authority or power to administer religious rites; in particular, rites of sacrifice to, and propitiation of, a deity or deities...
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...
from Haughmond Abbey
Haughmond Abbey at Haughmond Hill in Shropshire, otherwise known as the Abbey of Saint John the Evangelist, was founded in about 1100 AD. A statue of St John with his emblem can be found carved into the arches of the chapter house. His image also appeared on the Abbey's great seal.-History:The...
Shropshire is a county in the West Midlands region of England. For Eurostat purposes, the county is a NUTS 3 region and is one of four counties or unitary districts that comprise the "Shropshire and Staffordshire" NUTS 2 region. It borders Wales to the west...
; he is one of the few English poets of the period whose name is known to us. Some of the first Christmas carol
A Christmas carol is a carol whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas or the winter season in general and which are traditionally sung in the period before Christmas.-History:...
s recorded in English appear among his works.
The little that is known to us about Audelay's life comes mainly from the manuscript MS. Douce 302 (now in the Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library , the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library...
). The manuscript also contains the text of all sixty-two of his surviving poems.
The dialect of Middle English
Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century....
used in MS. Douce 302 is local to Staffordshire
Staffordshire is a landlocked county in the West Midlands region of England. For Eurostat purposes, the county is a NUTS 3 region and is one of four counties or unitary districts that comprise the "Shropshire and Staffordshire" NUTS 2 region. Part of the National Forest lies within its borders...
, and it has been suggested that Audelay may therefore have come from the Staffordshire village of Audley
Audley is a rural village approximately four miles north west of the town of Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, England. It is the centre of Audley Rural parish....
. However, the earliest biographical record of Audelay places him in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...
in 1417, when he was part of the household of Lord Richard Lestrange, 7th Baron Strange
Baron Strange is a title that has been created several times in the Peerage of England. Two creations, one in 1295 and another in 1325, had only one holder each, upon the death of whom they became extinct. Two of the creations are still extant, however...
-History:Knockin is a village and civil parish located on the B4396 in Shropshire, England. It comprises mainly historic detached buildings in a rural setting. Much of Knockin was owned by the Earl of Bradford until it was sold off in lots to meet other financial demands. The Earl still owns the...
. Lestrange was made to do public penance for his involvement in a brawl at St Dunstan-in-the-East
St Dunstan-in-the-East was a Church of England parish church on St Dunstan's Hill, half way between London Bridge and the Tower of London in the City of London. The church was largely destroyed in the Second World War and the ruins are now a public garden....
church on Easter Sunday in which a parishioner was killed, and was accompanied on his penance by Audelay, his chaplain. It has been suggested that the penitential character of Audelay's poetry may have been influenced by his desire to atone for his involvement in Lestrange's public shame: as the family's chaplain he would have felt particular responsibility.
According to a date noted in MS. Douce 302, by 1426 Audelay was in effective retirement as a chantry priest at Haughmond Abbey. In lines repeated several times throughout the manuscript, Audelay states that he was by that time very old, infirm, deaf, and blind
Blindness is the condition of lacking visual perception due to physiological or neurological factors.Various scales have been developed to describe the extent of vision loss and define blindness...
. The manuscript concludes with the following lines of rather rough verse, perhaps composed by the scribe
A scribe is a person who writes books or documents by hand as a profession and helps the city keep track of its records. The profession, previously found in all literate cultures in some form, lost most of its importance and status with the advent of printing...
after Audelay's death:
- No mon this book he take away,
- Ne kutt owt no leef, y say for why;
- For hyt is sacrilege, sirus, y ȝow say,
- He beth accursed in the dede truly;
- Ȝif ȝe wil have any copi,
- Askus leeve and ȝe shul have,
- To pray for hym specialy,
- That hyt made ȝour soules to save,
- Jon the blynde Awdelay
- The furst prest to the Lord Strange he was,
- Of thys chauntre here in this place
- That make thys bok by Goddus grace,
- Deef, syk, blynd, as he lay,
- Cujus anime propicietur Deus
(Translation: None must take this book away / Or cut out any page, I'll tell you why; / For it is sacrilege, sirs, I tell you / He will be accursed in the deed; / If you would have a copy / Ask leave, and you will have, / To pray especially for him / That made it [the book] to save your souls / John the blind Audelay; / He was the first priest [chaplain] to the Lord Strange / Of this chantry
Chantry is the English term for a fund established to pay for a priest to celebrate sung Masses for a specified purpose, generally for the soul of the deceased donor. Chantries were endowed with lands given by donors, the income from which maintained the chantry priest...
/ That made this book by the grace of God / As he lay deaf, sick, and blind / On whose soul God have mercy)
It is therefore possible that the manuscript either represents a collection of Audelay's poems assembled on his orders at the end of his life or that it was dictated by him.
Much of Audelay's work as contained in MS. Douce 302 consists of devotional carols
A carol is a festive song, generally religious but not necessarily connected with church worship, and often with a dance-like or popular character....
(one of which, There is a flower
, has been set to music by both John Rutter
John Milford Rutter CBE is a British composer, conductor, editor, arranger and record producer, mainly of choral music.-Biography:Born in London, Rutter was educated at Highgate School, where a fellow pupil was John Tavener. He read music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the...
and Stanley Vann
William Stanley Vann FRCO, ARCM was an English composer, organist, choral conductor, and choir trainer, primarily in the Anglican cathedral tradition.-Early life:...
): Audelay is recognised as a significant figure in the history of the English carol. He occasionally takes on more secular themes, such as in a spirited poem in praise of Henry VI
Henry VI was King of England from 1422 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471, and disputed King of France from 1422 to 1453. Until 1437, his realm was governed by regents. Contemporaneous accounts described him as peaceful and pious, not suited for the violent dynastic civil wars, known as the Wars...
, and in a piece titled Cantalena de puericia
, writes of the innocence of childhood, wishing he were a child again:
- And God wold graunt me my prayer,
- A child ayene I wold I were.
- Fore pride in herte he hatis all one;
- Worchip ne reuerens kepis he non;
- Ne he is wroþ with no mon;
- In charete is alle his chere. (1–6)
Much of Audelay's poetry is concerned with the theme of repentance; he seems to have had a particular fondness for Saint Winifred, a local saint who was credited with both the power to free criminals from their shackles (perhaps significant in view of Audelay's possible feelings of guilt over Lestrange's transgression) and the power to cure blindness. Audelay also appears to have been strongly concerned with the exposure of priests to accusations of heresy, and particularly of Lollardy
Lollardy was a political and religious movement that existed from the mid-14th century to the English Reformation. The term "Lollard" refers to the followers of John Wycliffe, a prominent theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the Church, especially his...
, in the wake of Archbishop Thomas Arundel's Constitutions
: he directs an untitled satirical
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...
dialogue (usually known as Marcol and Salamon
) against certain aspects of the church hierarchy, incorporating references to the great satirical poem Piers Plowman
Piers Plowman or Visio Willelmi de Petro Plowman is the title of a Middle English allegorical narrative poem by William Langland. It is written in unrhymed alliterative verse divided into sections called "passus"...
The two most remarkable and accomplished poems in the manuscript are both long exercises in a late form of alliterative verse
In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal structuring device to unify lines of poetry, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. The most commonly studied traditions of alliterative verse are those found in the oldest literature of many Germanic...
with a superimposed rhyme-scheme: Pater Noster
and The Three Dead Kings
The Three Dead Kings, also known by its Latin title De Tribus Regibus Mortuis or as The Three Living and the Three Dead, is a 15th-century Middle English poem. It is found in the manuscript MS. Douce 302, and its authorship is sometimes attributed to a Shropshire priest, John Audelay...
. Some modern commentators have suggested that these poems cannot be by Audelay, as they show a very high level of technical skill not immediately apparent in other poems in the manuscript, but others have maintained that they were most probably Audelay's own work.
- Until recently, the only complete edition of Audelay's poems was The Poems of John Audelay , ed. by E.K. Whiting (Early English Text Society, Original Series, No. 184) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931.
- A recent edition has been produced by Susanna Fein for the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages: POEMS AND CAROLS (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302) by John the Blind Audelay edited by Susanna Greer Fein. Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS/Western Michigan, 2009.
- In conjunction with this new edition, Fein edited a collection of essays by scholars in the field on major issues in Audelay scholarship: My wyl and my wrytyng : essays on John the Blind Audelay, ed. Susanna Greer Fein, Kalamazoo : Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2009.