Trinity College Library, Cambridge

John Lydgate, Medieval Graffiti and Mythological Beasts

We are excited to learn that graffiti in a Suffolk church has recently been identified as the work of the poet and priest, John Lydgate (1370?–1451?).

Trinity College Library holds a number of manuscripts containing texts by Lydgate including his Troy Book or Siege of Troy (O.5.2) and one of the oldest copies of The Siege of Thebes (R.4.20), as well as collections of ballads and poems.

The Troy Book was commissioned by the Prince Hal.  By the time the translation was complete eight years later he had been crowned Henry V.  Manuscript O.5.2 includes an illustration of an enthroned King being presented with a book by a monk.

O.5.2, f.38r

Similar illustrations can be found in other copies of the Troy Book including one at the John Rylands University Library where the monk is identified as Lydgate himself.

Manuscript R.3.19 is a collection of Lydgate’s poems and contains, on ff.157v-159r, reference to the mythological animals Bicorne and Chichevache.  The Chichevache originated in French folklore and was a beast usually depicted as a hungry-looking cow which fed on faithful wives and was always lean.  It was referred to in the Clerk’s Tale by Chaucer:

R.3.3, f. 53v (left column)

“O noble wives, full of great prudence,
Let no humility nail down your tongue,
Nor let any clerk have cause or eagerness
To write about you a story of such marvel
As of patient and kind Griselda,
Lest Chichevache swallow you in her entrails!” (lines 1183-1188)

The counterpart of the Chichevache, the Bicorne (or Bigorne), fed on henpecked husbands and was always fat.  It was often depicted as a plump panther, sometimes with a human face.  Lydgate may have been the first to refer to the Bicorne.  A later note in the manuscript by the antiquarian John Stow indicates that these references were compiled by Lydgate “at the request of a worthy citizen of London to be painted in a parlour”.  For further discussion see here.

Visual representations of the Bicorne include an image from a 17th-century Dutch text (Chichevache known here as Scherminckel) at the Rijks Museum and on a Spanish misericords.