Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by J. Churton Collins
John Capgrave (1393–1464)
 
[John Capgrave, an extensive contributor to the prose literature of the fifteenth century, was born at Lynn in Norfolk on the 21st of April 1393. After receiving his education either at Cambridge, as seems most probable, or at Oxford, or possibly at both Universities, he entered the priesthood in his twenty-fourth year, and appears to have resided for a time in London. But he seems to have settled early at the Friary at Lynn, devoting himself to those theological and historical studies of which his works are the record. Shortly after taking the degree of Doctor of Divinity at Oxford he was elected Provincial of his Order in England, and it is likely that during the latter years of his life he was head of the Friary where he had resided so long. Beyond the facts that he witnessed the embarkation of the Princess Philippa when she sailed to Norway, that he was personally acquainted with William Millington, the first Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and that he visited Rome, nothing more is known of his life. He died at Lynn, 12th August 1464, aged seventy years. By far the greater portion of his writings remains in manuscript; but his principal work in English, The Chronicle of England, has been edited in the Master of the Rolls Series by the Rev, Francis Charles Hingeston (1858), and his principal Latin work, the Liber de Illustribus Henricis, by the same editor for the same series.]  1
 
THE INTEREST of Capgrave is purely historical. A place has been assigned to him in this volume, not because his writings have any intrinsic value from a literary point of view, but because no work illustrating the development of English prose literature would be complete without some notice of an author who is our earliest important historian in the vernacular, and who contributed so extensively to theology and history. The work in which he is seen most to advantage is the Liber de Illustribus Henricis, but as this is in Latin the scope of the present collection does not admit of extracts from it. His chief work in English—indeed the only work which has been printed in its entirety—is his Chronicle of England. It commences, as was usual with such works in those days, with the Creation, and it is continued in the form of annals, more or less meagre, to the reign of Richard II. From that point the narrative becomes much fuller, and is pursued in the form of regular history to the year 1418. The Chronicle is dedicated to Edward IV.  2
  Capgrave stands midway between two important eras in the development of English prose composition—between the era initiated by John de Trevisa, the pseudo Mandeville, Chaucer, and Wycliffe, which may be said to have culminated in the chief work of Reginald Pecock, and the era initiated by his immediate successors, Sir Thomas Malory, whose Morte d’Arthur was completed in 1473, and Sir John Fortescue, whose Governance of England was written about 1476. But in point of style Capgrave is as inferior to his predecessors as he is to his successors. Incomparably inferior in point of vigour, grace, rhythm, and copiousness and choice of words to the composition of the chief contemporaries of Chaucer, his style as compared with that of Pecock seems almost a relapse into barbarism. Without vigour or colour, without grace or ornament, his style is singularly jejune and feeble. Here and there, indeed, a neatly turned sentence and a rhythmic paragraph indicate that the example of his more accomplished predecessors had not been without effect. Considering how much our language had been enriched by Chaucer and Lydgate in verse, and by Pecock and others in prose, it is surprising that Capgrave’s vocabulary should be so limited; and limited it is in a remarkable degree. But the explanation of his literary deficiencies is no doubt partly to be found in the temper of the man himself, and partly in the fact that his life was passed, not at any of the centres of culture, but in a remote and obscure corner of the provinces. His temper is the temper of the pedant and the monk, neither curious nor intelligent when important matters are in question, but scrupulous about trifles, and delighting uncritically to record them; inordinately superstitious, narrow alike in sympathy and in understanding, without grasp and without vigour. It is, however, due to him to say that, if he abuses the Wycliffites and the Lollards, he is no friend to Papal aggression, and this circumstance, and this only, connects him with the party of progress.  3
 
 
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