Between 1431 and 1438, the Benedictine monk and poet John Lydgate (b. c. 1370, d. c. 1451) wrote The Fall of Princes, a Middle English poem recounting the lives and tragic deaths of figures from history, legend, classical mythology, and the Bible. The poem is composed of 9 books and over 36,000 lines and based on a Latin work, De Casibus Virorum Illustratium (On the fates of famous men) by Giovanni Boccaccio.
Like many surviving Lydgate manuscripts from this period, this copy of the poem was probably produced in Suffolk, near the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, where Lydgate had been admitted as a monk in 1382. The beginning of the poem is marked by an illustration, showing two Benedictine monks kneeling before an enthroned St Edmund, the patron saint of the Abbey (Image No. 1). The monk on the right holds a scroll inscribed with Lydgate’s name.
Lavish decoration appears throughout the manuscript, with numerous illustrations accompanying the various tales of heroic and tragic figures included in the poem’s narrative. One, for example, depicts the Fall in Eden (Image No. 2), showing the moment Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent to take the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Here, the serpent is represented as a half-human figure wrapped around the Tree itself. Another image shows the Greek musician Orpheus and his lover Eurydice (Image No. 3), just before she is bitten by a snake and dies.