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The Canon of John Lydgate Project


The Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund: Introduction

William Curteys, Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds
William Curteys, brother of Bury St. Edmunds; cellarer, 1417-1426; prior, 1426-1429; abbot, 1429-1446.

Even when cellarer, Curteys was a great one for organization and record keeping, and when he became abbot he required similar efforts of his subordinates. The registers of his period as abbot are extant: see British Library MSS Addit. 14848 (Part 1) and Addit. 7096 (Part 2). Curteys was also very concerned, not least because of repeated challenges by the Bishop of Norwich, to maintain the Abbey's ancient privileges, including its freedom from control by the bishop; he ordered and updated the abbey's records of its ancient charters, and commissioned Lydgate to produce an English translation of some of the principal charters (the "Cartae versificatae" printed by Arnold, Memorials 3: 215-237).

The period of Curteys's abbacy is also a significant one for building projects in the monastery. One significant project was the repair of the towers and west front of the church, parts of which had collapsed in two incidents in 1430. Also in 1430 Curteys built the Abbey's first library, perhaps above the cloister but the exact location is not certain; this was the first attempt to bring all of the Abbey's books and records together in one location, and the library was built to house some 2000 books (see M. R. James; also the Victoria County History article on Bury, p. 71). Curteys then went on to build up the library collection with a program of manuscript production, which may, in part, have been the origins of the "Lydgate factory" and the "Bury style" of manuscript.

Heale describes the period of Curteys's abbacy as a period of reform, of renewed discipline and spirtuality, at Bury, which contradicts popular conceptions of the laxity of late medieval monasteries. There seems to have been something of a local reform movement in which are prominent the names of Abbot Curteys, of John Lydgate, and Henry Kirkstede ("Boston of Bury": sometime librarian of the monastery and master of the novices, who is probably the compiler of MS Bodley 240, a collection of materials, including Latin lives of St. Edmund, for use in the training of novitiate).

Part 1 of Abbot Curteys's Register includes a full description of the visit by Henry VI in 1433-1434 which was the occasion of Lydgate's translation of the Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund ("De adventu regis Henrici VI ad monasterium de Sancto Edmundo 1433"; in London, British Library, MS Addit. 14848, ff. 128r-128v; the Latin text was printed by Ord).

Goodwin, in his short book describing The Abbey of St. Edmundsbury, offers a description of the Curteys's character: "William Curteys, who guided the abbey's destinies from 1429 to 1446, is described by his contemporaries as a perfect paragon of virtue and versatility. There seemed no limit to the breadth of his interests or the range of his activities. A keen collector of books, an enthusiastic builder and an able administer, he adorned everything he touched. His long business experience did not, as in the case of Abbot Samson, blunt his appreciation of the gentler virtues. His piety, integrity and moral earnestness were respected throughout the country [Goodwin cites Arnold's Memorials, 3: 264]. His very saintliness was the more esteemed in that it was leavened with intolerance, for he was a well known persecutor of the Lollards. A strict disciplinarian with a passion for order, he was appointed visitor in 1431 of all the Benedictine houses in East Anglia [Memorials of Old Suffolk, p. 96]" (Goodwin p. 68; Curteys's position as Benedictine visitor is also mentioned in the Victoria County History article on Bury, p. 71). Thomas Arnold gives a similar account of the abbot's character in the Introduction to vol. 3 of his Memorials of St. Edmund's Abbey.

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© 1995 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Last revised: 9 Nov. 1995

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