Here begynnethe the boke calledde Iohn bocas
John Lydgate, a poet and Benedictine monk of the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds, followed in the footsteps of Geoffrey Chaucer and was equally revered in the 15th and 16th centuries. Lydgate’s most influential work—and his longest at over 36,000 lines—is Fall of Princes, an adaptation into English of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, which was written about 1358. The theme of this great medieval text is the mutability of fortune; by Fortune’s wheel, great men rise and fall. Starting with Adam and Eve, this almost encyclopaedic collection of stories drawn from legend and history reflects a pessimistic, fatalistic view of life with history repeating itself in a long series of tragedies.
At the behest of “good” Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, Lord Protector of young King Henry VI and patron of learning and the arts, Lydgate translated and greatly expanded upon De Casibus. Laurent de Premierfait’s French adaptation of Boccaccio served as his source. Lydgate uses the stories (and dialogue between stories) to provide moral lessons for English nobility. The more than thirty surviving manuscripts and four printed editions by the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign testify to the immense popularity of Fall of Princes.
Richard Pynson published this first edition of Fall of Princes (and the second in 1527). It is a beautiful book with nine half-page illustrations printed from the woodblocks used in Laurent’s 1483 French edition. An emigrant from Normandy and a one-time assistant to William Caxton, Pynson printed more than 500 books in England during his lifetime, the first in 1492 and he died in 1529. His work was typically of higher quality than his contemporaries. He became the King’s Printer in 1506 and was the principal source of legal texts printed for the English market.
Only seventeen other copies of the first edition of this important work of English medieval literature are recorded. The present copy is from the library of the Marquess of Bute, but without his mark of ownership. It is missing an initial blank and one other leaf (a8). The first two leaves are re-margined on three sides with minor loss of text. There is some loss of text on leaf H1 and the printer’s mark on the final page (H4) is mounted.
Chrzanowski 1494b *