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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VII. Reformation and Renascence in Scotland

§ 1. The reformation in Scotland

IN the year 1528, three events occurred in Scotland, which, as the near future was to prove, were fraught with pregnant consequences alike for the state and for the national religion and national literature. In that year, James V, after a long tutelage, became master of his kingdom; Patrick Hamilton, the “protomartyr” of the Scottish reformation, was burnt; and Sir David Lyndsay published his first work, The Dreme. Taken together, these three events point to the fact that Scotland was entering on a new phase of her national life, and at the same time indicate the character of the coming revolution. From the transformation thus to be wrought in the national aims and ideals the chief Scottish literature of the period received its distinctive stamp, and we have but to recall its representative productions—those of the anonymous authors of The Gude and Godlie Ballatis, of John Knox and of George Buchanan—to realise the gulf that separates it from the period immediately preceding.

From James I to Gavin Douglas, Scottish literature had been mainly imitative, borrowing its spirit, its models and its themes from Chaucer and other sources. The characteristic aim of this literature had, on the whole, been pleasure and amusement; and, if it touched on evils in the state, in the church or in society, it had no direct and conscious purpose of assailing the institutions under which the nation had lived since the beginning of the Middle Ages. Totally different were the character and aim of the representative literature of the period which may be dated from the publication of Lyndsay’s Dreme in 1528 to the union of the crowns in 1603. The literature of this period was in the closest touch with the national life, and was the direct expression of the convictions and passions of that section of the nation which was eventually to control its destinies and to inform the national spirit. Not pleasure or amusement but strenuous purpose directed to practical results was the motive and note of this later period; its aim was to reach the heart of the people, and the forms which it assumed were exclusively determined by the consideration of this end.

Between the years 1520 and 1530, there were already indications that a crisis was approaching in the national history which would involve a fundamental change in traditional modes of thought on all the great questions concerning human life. The problem which the nation had to face was whether it would abide by its ancient religion or adopt the teaching of Luther, the writings of whose followers were finding their way into the country at every convenient port. But this question involved another of almost equally far-reaching importance—was France or England to be Scotland’s future ally? Should the old alliance with France be maintained, the country must hold fast to existing institutions; there would be no change of religion and no essential change in hereditary habits of thought and sentiment. Throughout the period now opening, these were the great issues that preoccupied the nation, and it was from the conflict between them that the most important literary productions of the age received their impulse, their tone and their characteristic forms.

The literature produced under these conditions was essentially a reformation literature, and its relation to the movement of the reformation is its predominating characteristic. Nevertheless, though Scotland received her most powerful impulse from the reformation, the renascence did not leave her wholly untouched, though conditions peculiar to herself prevented her from deriving the full benefit of that movement. Her scanty population and her limited resources were in themselves impediments to the expansion of the spirit which was the main result of the revival of learning. The total population of Scotland in the sixteenth century cannot have been much over 500,000, of whom only about half used a Teutonic form of speech. Out of such a total there could be but a small proportion who, by natural aptitude and by fortunate circumstances, were in a position to profit by the new current that was quickening the other nations of western Europe. The poverty of the country, due to the nature of the soil rather than to any lack of strenuousness on the part of its people, equally hindered the development of a rich and various national life. Scotland now possessed three universities; but to equip these in accordance with the new ideals of the time was beyond her resources, and the same difficulty stood in the way of maintaining great schools such as the renascence had originated in other countries. Finally, the renascence was checked in Scotland, more than in any other country, by the special conditions under which the reformation was here accomplished. From the beginning to the end of the struggle, the Scottish reformers had to contend against the consistent opposition of the crown, and it was only as the result of civil war that the victory of their cause was at length assured. Thus, at the period when the renascence was in full tide, Scotland was spending her energies in a contest which absorbed the best minds of the country; and a variety of causes debarred her from an adequate participation in that humanism which, in other countries, was widening the scope of thought and action, and enriching literature with new forms and new ideas. Nevertheless, though the renascence failed in any marked degree to affect the general national life, it found, both in literature and in action, distinguished representatives who had fully imbibed its spirit.