John Audelay (or Awdelay; died ca. 1426) was a priest and poet from Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire; he is one of the few English poets of the period whose name is known to us. Some of the first Christmas carols recorded in English appear among his works.
The little that is known to us about Audelay's life comes mainly from the manuscript MS. Douce 302 (now in the Bodleian Library). The manuscript contains the text of all sixty-two of his surviving poems. The dialect of Middle English used in MS. Douce 302 is local to Staffordshire, and it has been suggested that Audelay may therefore have come from the Staffordshire village of Audley. However, the earliest biographical record of Audelay places him in London in 1417, when he was part of the household of Lord Richard Lestrange, 7th Baron Strange of Knockin.
Lestrange was made to do public penance for his involvement in a brawl at St Dunstan-in-the-East church on Easter Sunday in which a parishioner was killed, and was accompanied on his penance by Audelay, his chaplain. It has been suggested that the penitential character of Audelay's poetry may have been influenced by his desire to atone for his involvement in Lestrange's public shame: as the family's chaplain he would have felt particular responsibility.
According to a date noted in MS. Douce 302, by 1426 Audelay was in effective retirement as a chantry priest at Haughmond Abbey. In lines repeated several times throughout the manuscript, Audelay states that he was by that time very old, infirm, deaf, and blind. The manuscript concludes with the following lines of rather rough verse, perhaps composed by the scribe after Audelay's death:
- No mon this book he take away,
- Ne kutt owt no leef, y say for why;
- For hyt is sacrilege, sirus, y ȝow say,
- He beth accursed in the dede truly;
- Ȝif ȝe wil have any copi,
- Askus leeve and ȝe shul have,
- To pray for hym specialy,
- That hyt made ȝour soules to save,
- Jon the blynde Awdelay
- The furst prest to the Lord Strange he was,
- Of thys chauntre here in this place
- That make thys bok by Goddus grace,
- Deef, syk, blynd, as he lay,
- Cujus anime propicietur Deus
(Translation: None must take this book away / Or cut out any page, I'll tell you why; / For it is sacrilege, sirs, I tell you / He will be accursed in the deed; / If you would have a copy / Ask leave, and you will have, / To pray especially for him / That made it [the book] to save your souls / John the blind Audelay; / He was the first priest [chaplain] to the Lord Strange / Of this chantry / That made this book by the grace of God / As he lay deaf, sick, and blind / On whose soul God have mercy)
It is therefore possible that the manuscript either represents a collection of Audelay's poems assembled on his orders at the end of his life or that it was dictated by him.
Much of Audelay's work as contained in MS. Douce 302 consists of devotional carols (one of which, There is a flower, has been set to music by both John Rutter and Stanley Vann): Audelay is recognised as a significant figure in the history of the English carol. He occasionally takes on more secular themes, such as in a spirited poem in praise of Henry VI, and in a piece titled Cantalena de puericia, writes of the innocence of childhood, wishing he were a child again:
- And God wold graunt me my prayer,
- A child ayene I wold I were.
- Fore pride in herte he hatis all one;
- Worchip ne reuerens kepis he non;
- Ne he is wroþ with no mon;
- In charete is alle his chere. (1–6)
Much of Audelay's poetry is concerned with the theme of repentance; he seems to have had a particular fondness for Saint Winifred, a local saint who was credited with both the power to free criminals from their shackles (perhaps significant in view of Audelay's possible feelings of guilt over Lestrange's transgression) and the power to cure blindness. Audelay also appears to have been strongly concerned with the exposure of priests to accusations of heresy, and particularly of Lollardy, in the wake of Archbishop Thomas Arundel's Constitutions: he directs an untitled satirical dialogue (usually known as Marcol and Salamon) against certain aspects of the church hierarchy, incorporating references to the great satirical poem Piers Plowman.
The two most remarkable and accomplished poems in the manuscript are both long exercises in a late form of alliterative verse with a superimposed rhyme-scheme: Pater Noster and The Three Dead Kings. Some modern commentators have suggested that these poems cannot be by Audelay, as they show a very high level of technical skill not immediately apparent in other poems in the manuscript, but others have maintained that they were most probably Audelay's own work.
- Until recently, the only complete edition of Audelay's poems was The Poems of John Audelay, ed. by E.K. Whiting (Early English Text Society, Original Series, No. 184) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931.
- A recent edition has been produced by Susanna Fein for the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages: POEMS AND CAROLS (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302) by John the Blind Audelay edited by Susanna Greer Fein. Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS/Western Michigan, 2009.
- In conjunction with this new edition, Fein edited a collection of essays by scholars in the field on major issues in Audelay scholarship: My wyl and my wrytyng : essays on John the Blind Audelay, ed. Susanna Greer Fein, Kalamazoo : Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2009.
- Miles, Clement, Christmas customs and traditions, Courier Dover Publications (1976); ISBN 0-486-23354-5, pp. 47–48
- Fein, S. Good Ends in the Audelay Manuscript, Yearbook of English Studies 33 (2003), 97–119.
- Bennett, Michael, John Audelay: Some New Evidence on His Life and Works, Chaucer Review, 16 (1981–1982), 344 – 355. Audelay had not only taken part in the penance, but had been present at the incident itself.
- Halliwell, J. O. The poems of John Audelay: A Specimen of the Shropshire Dialect in the Fifteenth Century, The Percy Society, 1844, pp. x–xi
- Stanley, E. The Verse Forms of Jon the Blynde Awdelay in Cooper & Mapstone (eds.) The Long Fifteenth Century, Oxford: OUP, 1997, p.105
- Stanley, p.108
- The first two lines are the carol's burden; these are lines repeated as a refrain.
- Jones, W. Swete May, Soulis Leche: The Winifred Carol of John Audelay , Essays in Medieval Studies, v.14, 65 – 72
- Bose, M. 'Religious Authority and Dissent', in Brown, P (ed.) A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture, c. 1350–c. 1500, Blackwell, 2007, pp. 50–51
- Stanley, p.114