Swete May, Soulis Leche: The Winifred Carol of John Audelay
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 14 (1997)
Ella Keats Whiting, editor of the first complete edition of the poems of John Audelay, admits that his work is distinguished more by its earnestness than by its originality. While this seems the faintest of praise, Whiting is quick to credit Audelay for his fondness for metrical experimentation, particularly in his use of the carol, of which he is the earliest named writer in English. The varied content of Audelay’s carols illustrates the versatility of the genre and underscores R. L. Greene’s pronouncement that “the carol [is] distinguished by its form rather than by its subject.” Hagiography, on the other hand, is defined strictly by subject, but varies in its structure. The flexibility of its presentation is demonstrated by Audelay’s poems, in which the lives and deeds of the saints frequently intersect with his favorite metrical form. Of the fourteen or so poems on saintly subjects found throughout Audelay’s work, half are composed as carols. The most notable of these depicts the martyrdom and miracles of St Winifred. Her significance warrants three appearances in Audelay’s manuscript: along with her carol, she is hailed in an extensive salutary poem, and is mentioned briefly in another carol which extols the virtue of chastity. Audelay’s preference for Winifred was certainly in part due to what Michael Bennett describes as “local patriotism” for a saint whose shrine lay in a nearby district. However, the illuminating historical and personal factors which Bennett uncovers in his examination of Audelay’s life and poetry may also explain Audelay’s marked devotion to the saint.