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


Translated by Catherine Batt

Publication Information

Henry of Grosmont, first Duke of Lancaster (c. 1310-1361), was a lay aristocrat, not a professed religious. His Livre de seyntz medicines (Book of Holy Medicines) was finished in 1354 in the Duke’s forties.  Compared with other spiritual works by laypeople in late medieval England, such as those of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, it is relatively unknown. But it requires attention in the context of such writings and not only with the chivalric biographies such as those of the Black Prince or Sir Geoffroi de Charny, with which it has sometimes been aligned: Henry of Lancaster’s Book enforces our rethinking of oppositions between chivalric and spiritual careers. At once systematic and highly inventive and exploratory, The Book of Holy Medicines is an account of sin and its works in the fallible human person. It expresses the penitent’s desperate longing for a closer, cleaner relation with Christ, in which the filth of his culpable heart can be replaced, in a sort of performative imaginative surgery, with blood from Christ’s. Henry’s Book thinks in exuberant allegories: the heart is a whirlpool, a market place, a foxhole from which to hunt out vermin, an apple to be presented back to Christ who has enabled its return from the bitter death (dure mort) entailed by Adam’s first transgressive bite (mordure). Drawing on long established traditions of psycho-physiological penitential discourse, and the spiritual formation of the confessional, the Livre is dazzling in its metaphoric invention and constant accretion of meaning to its connective lexical network of puns, echoes and allusions.

What makes this book still more remarkable is that Henry of Lancaster was one of the most senior noblemen of the kingdom: a friend, councilor, envoy and diplomat of Edward III, a founding member of the Order of the Garter, the father of John of Gaunt’s duchess Blanche (about whom Chaucer would write his own first major poem, probably in the 1360s), a seasoned military campaigner in Scotland, in Aquitaine, where he was the king’s lieutenant, in Brittany, and in the Prussian crusades.  For us to be able to experience the piety of a layperson of this status and experience on his own terms and at his own initiative is rare: high status laypeople had much of their confessional and spiritual meditation done with the help of their clerical and religious staff., from whom any written texts they wanted could be required.  The Book of Holy Medicines is a uniquely important witness to the thought and response of a medieval nobleman, a kind of spiritual analogue to Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo, but it is also a classic of literate spirituality that deserves to be better known. It is unsurprising to see a military campaigner’s use of the metaphors of sin as wounds that require the skills of Christ the supreme physician: equally efforts to escape the world might be expected on the part of someone who as Lancaster says himself, has had so much more than his share of it. But it is rarer to see such qualities as mark Henry of Lancaster’s Book: worthy of comparison with Julian of Norwich for its exploration of language as a means to knowing God and his creation, it is also worthy of comparison with Margery Kempe for the fascinating and challenging way in which the very biographical details that might most fascinate us- Lancaster’s prowess in hunting and the lists, his ownership of gold statuettes of Tristran and Isolde, his experience in military field hospitals, his former youthful lean blondeness and delight in dancing- are transmuted, re-ordered re-assessed in the priorities of spiritual life.

Catherine Batt’s is the first ever full translation of Henry of Lancaster into modern English. She performs a remarkable act of creative cultural and imaginative transposition, setting Lancaster’s Book, its language, modes of thought and invention fully before us as the sophisticated, moving, and engaging work it is, while her substantial notes evoke the text’s world of literary and culture practice, and her substantial introduction remaps the later fourteenth-century landscape of religious writing in new ways.