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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

§ 16. Hector Boece

The works that have been enumerated belong, for the most part, to the main stream of the reformation literature, which may be regarded as the distinctive product of the period. Parallel with this main stream, however, there was another class of writings which, in greater or less degree, and more or less directly, proceeded from the secular movement of the renascence. It is a noteworthy fact in the history of Scotland from the earliest Middle Ages, that, sooner or later, she came under the influence of every new development in western Christendom. Especially since the war of independence against England, which had thrown her into the arms of France, her intercourse with the continent had been close and continuous. From the middle of the fourteenth century, there had been a constant stream of Scottish students to the university of Paris and to other universities of France, with the result that every novelty in the spheres of thought or action speedily found its way into Scotland. It was to be expected, therefore, that the revival of learning would not leave Scotsmen untouched, and in one distinguished Scot its influence is manifest. This was Hector Boece, a native of Dundee, and subsequently the first principal of the newly founded university of Aberdeen. Boece was a member of the university of Paris during the greater part of the last two decades of the fifteenth century, and was the esteemed fellow student and friend of Erasmus—a fact which, in itself, suggests that Boece’s sympathies were with the new ideals of the time. And the character of his two published works, his Vitae Episcoporum Murthlacensium et Aberdonensium (1522), and his Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), show conclusively that he had studied the classical writers in the new spirit. While his contemporary, John Major, who also studied at Paris, wrote his History of Greater Britain in the traditional style of the medieval chroniclers, Boece deliberately made Livy his model and endeavoured to reproduce his manner and method. His sole concern, indeed, was to present his subject in the most attractive form of which it was capable, and his one aim to prove to the world that Scotland and her people had a history which surpassed that of every other country in point of interest and antiquity. His name is now a byword for the inventive chronicler; but he was not so regarded by his contemporaries, and, even so late as the eighteenth century, his astounding narrative of fabulous kings and natural wonders was seriously accepted by the majority of his countrymen. Translated into French by Nicolas d’Arfeville, cosmographer to Henri II, Boece found wide currency on the continent, and in France, to the present day, many prevalent impressions of Scotland are traceable to his lively fancy. In England, Boece had still greater good fortune; his tale of Macbeth and Duncan, taken from him by Holinshed, supplied Shakespeare with the plot of his great tragedy, as well as with those vivid touches of local colour which abound in the play.

But Boece’s History is memorable for another reason besides its wide currency and its audacious fictions: it gave occasion to the first book in Scottish prose which has come down to us. At the instance of James V, who thus followed the example of other princes of the renascence, it was translated into Scots (1536) by John Bellenden, archdeacon of Moray, one of the many versifiers who haunted the court. Bellenden proved an admirable translator—his flowing and picturesque style doing full justice to his original, while he added so much in Boece’s own manner that he further adapted it to the tastes of the time. Also by the command of James—another illustration of the influence of the renascence in Scotland—Bellenden undertook a Scottish translation of all the existing books of Livy, though only five were actually completed. Besides being a translator, Bellenden has claims as a poet on the strength of the versified prologues to his Livy and Boece’s History and other pieces, and it is specially for his skill in verse that his contemporary, Sir David Lyndsay, commends him as

  • The cunnying clark, quhilk writith craftelie,
  • The plant of poetis, callit Ballendyne,
  • Quhose ornat warkis my wit can nocht defyne.