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"Henry, Duke of Lancaster"


Henry, Duke of Lancaster: 
The Book of Holy Medicines
(Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines)


Translated by Catherine Batt

The early twentieth-century's investment in chivalry has produced some remarkably successful modern translations of aristocratic biographies, such as the Life of William Marshal, the Life of the Black Prince by the Chandos Herald, Froissart's Chronicles, and others. More recent interest in religion, politics, and devotional sensibility allows the Duke of Lancaster's confessional book to come to the anglophone table as the hitherto ignored and different type of aristocratic "autobiography" that it is.

Henry, duke of Lancaster, one of the most powerful aristocrats of his time, wrote his devotional treatise on the remedies for sins in 1354, at the urging, he tells us, 'of some of my good friends.' Its narrator implores Christ, as divine physician, to supply his blood as medicine for the wounds of sin Henry has sustained. The exposition of this central metaphor (and of other imagery) is so minutely detailed as to make the Book a fine resource for medical and cultural historians and literary scholars alike. As the work of a lay author and courtier, it is an important witness to the late medieval trend in which aristocrats, civil servants (such as Chaucer) and others joined the ranks of clerics and monks in authorship.  As an allegorical and personal account of confession by a layman, it offers a unique glimpse of lay internalization and appropriation of pastoral teaching on confession, and of the sensibility of a late medieval aristocrat writing in an era of pestilence and, arguably, in a developing guilt culture. Its rhetorical and literary strategies build on and anticipate the method of French and Middle English works (including Piers Plowman). It is also an important document of court culture in the generation immediately before Chaucer (it was as an elegy for Blanche, Henry's daughter-in-law, that Chaucer composed his first major poem, The Book of the Duchess between 1368 and 1372).

An extract from the Book of Holy Medicines has appeared in a recent anthology (tr. M. Teresa Tavormina) in Cultures of Piety: Medieval English Devotional Literature in Translation, ed. Anne Clark Bartlett and Thomas Bestul (Ithaca and London, 1999), but no full translation in English exists.


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