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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

§ 17. George Buchanan

In the works of Boece and Bellenden, the influence of the revival of learning is distinctly apparent, but it is in George Buchanan that Scotland has its pre-eminent representative of the movement known as humanism. By his contemporaries, both in England and on the continent, Buchanan’s mastery of Latin, equally in prose and verse, was acknowledged with emphatic unanimity. Poetarum nostri saeculi facile princeps—so he was described by Henri Estienne, and the eulogy, approvingly repeated by Camden, was generally regarded as just by the scholars of every country. And for fully two centuries after his death his fame suffered little diminution. In the seventeenth century, Saumaise speaks of him as “the greatest man of his age,” and Grotius calls him Scotiae illud numen. As a writer of history, Dryden declared that Buchanan was “comparable to any of the moderns and excelled by few of the ancients.” In the eighteenth century, according to Warton, he was still “a popular modern classic,” and Dr. Johnson, not a genial critic of Scotsmen in general, conceded that “Buchanan not only had great knowledge of the Latin, but was a great poetical genius.” As pre-eminently, therefore, as Knox represents the reformation in Scotland, Buchanan represents the revival of letters.

Born in 1506 or 1507, at Killearn in Stirlingshire, Buchanan was sent in his fifteenth year to the university of Paris, where, during two years, he was assiduously trained in the composition of Latin verse. Returning to Scotland, he attended the lectures of John Major in the university of St. Andrews, whom, in the true spirit of humanism, he describes as “teaching the art of sophistry rather than dialectics.” A second sojourn in Paris (1525–35?), extending to about ten years, decided his future career; thenceforward, his life was to be that of the typical scholar of the renascence—a life devoted to the study of the classical writers and the interpretation of them to his contemporaries as a consecrated vocation. It was Buchanan’s lifelong conviction, which he shared with most scholars of his time, that Latin must eventually become the literary language of Christendom, and that it would be disastrous to literature should it prove otherwise. What his new reading of the Bible was to Knox, pura oratio, the language of Cicero or of Vergil was to Buchanan.

With few exceptions, the writings of Buchanan were prompted by some immediate occasion of the moment. As far as we know, it was during his second residence in Paris that he began to throw off those shorter poems mainly directed against idle and dissolute monks and priests, or against opponents of the new studies which had resulted from the revival of learning. At this period, the struggle between the champions of the old and the new studies was at its height in the schools of Paris, and it was in the teeth of the most vehement opposition on the part of the university that Francis I, in 1530, founded the Collèe Royal for the study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew. With all the energy of his ardent temper, Buchanan threw himself on the side of the reformers. In caustic epigrams he denounced the obscurantism of those who opposed the study of the classical writers as these were now interpreted through the labours of the Italian humanists. But his most effectual contribution to the cause of the new studies at this time was his translation into Latin of Linacre’s Grammar, published in Paris in 1533, which ran through seven editions before the close of the century. In the dedication of the book to his pupil the earl of Cassillis, he takes the opportunity of stating the reasons for its publication, and his words deserve to be quoted as illustrating the ideals to which his life was dedicated and as clearly defining the position of the adversaries with whom he waged a lifelong battle.

  • “But I am perfectly aware,” he says, “that in translating this book many will think that I have given myself quite unnecessary trouble. We have already too many of such books, these persons will say, and, moreover, they add, can anything be said worth the saying which is not to be found in authors who have long enjoyed the approval of the schools? As for the novelties which make a large portion of this book, such as the remarks on the declensions of nouns, of relatives, and certain moods and tenses of verbs, they think them mere useless trifling. Such criticism can only come of sheer ignorance or the blindest prejudice, that will listen only to its own suggestions, and gravely maintains that departure from tradition in such matters is to be regarded as a proof not so much of foolish self-confidence as of actual impiety. From these persons, so wise in their own conceit, I appeal to all men of real learning and sincere love of letters, confident that to all such Linacre will generally commend himself.”
  • To the same period of his second residence in Paris belongs a poem, the first in his Book of Elegies, which calls for special mention as a valuable historical document of the time. The poem is entitled, Quam misera sit conditio docentium literas humaniores Lutetiae. In vivid terms it describes the round of the daily duties of a regent in a Paris college, the squalid conditions of the class-rooms, the behaviour of the pupils, the insubordination of the chance comers (errones, galoches) who are permitted to attend the lessons and the grumbling of parents “that their sons learn nothing and that fees must still be paid.”

    Another migration in Buchanan’s wandering career gave rise to three poems which had a determining influence on the future course of his life. In 1535, he returned to Scotland with his pupil, the earl of Cassillis, and, during his residence in the country with that nobleman, he translated into Latin verse a pasquinade of Dunbar, How Dumbar wes desyrd to be ane freir, but which Buchanan entitled simply Somnium. In this poem, a pungent attack on the Franciscan order, St. Francis, its founder, appears in a dream, and beseeches him to don the habit. The reply of the poet is that he can be an honester man as he is, though, if St. Francis could promise him a bishopric, he would gladly listen to his proposals. It was Buchanan’s first declaration of war against the great order—the worst enemies, as he considered them, of reform in religion and learning. His engagement with Cassillis having expired, Buchanan was on the point of returning to France, when an offer came to him from James V to become tutor to the lord James Stewart, one of James’s natural sons, not to be confounded with another natural son of the same name, afterwards the regent Moray. Like his immediate predecessors, James was a patron of poets, and took pleasure in their effusions. As James’s public policy showed, he was a true son of the church, but he happened to have a personal grudge against the Franciscans, and he charged Buchanan to sharpen his pen against the order. Against his own inclination, for, by his previous satire, he had already provoked that formidable body, he wrote the piece entitled Palinodia, in which, according to his own account, he sought to express himself with such ambiguity as at once to satisfy the king and not to give further offence to the Franciscans. In point of fact, the satire is a more deadly attack than the Somnium on the vices and obscurantism of the order. But even this scathing satire did not satisfy James, and he demanded another “which should not only prick the skin, but probe the vitals.” The result was Franciscanus, the longest and most elaborate of all Buchanan’s satires. All the charges that were then generally brought against that body, their contempt of their own rules, their rapacity, their frauds on the public—are here set forth with a far keener purpose to wound than appears in the contemporary satire of Lyndsay. The poem was not completed at this time, and it was not till Buchanan’s final return to Scotland, in 1560, that he put the finishing touches to it, and published it with a dedication to the regent Moray. Though it was not now printed, however, the Franciscans were aware of its existence, and not even the authority of the king could secure him from their vengeance. Supported by cardinal Beaton, the most powerful churchman in the country, they accused him of heretical opinions, and James was constrained to commit him to prison, from which, however, by James’s own connivance, he escaped across the Border into England.

    Arrived in London, Buchanan, according to his own account, found Henry VIII “burning Protestant and Catholic alike, on the same day and in the same fire,” though, in a poem addressed to Henry at this time, he ascribes to him all the virtues of an Alfred or a St. Louis. In another set of verses, accompanied with a collection of his poems, he sought to commend himself to Henry’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, then all powerful, and gives a pitiful account of his own fortunes as one

  • Qui vagus, exul, inops, terra jactatur et unda
  • Per mala quae fallax omnia mundus habet.
  • As Cromwell made no response to his appeal, and as England was hardly a safe place for one of his opinions, under the pretence of proceeding to Germany he took ship for France, but only to find his arch enemy Beaton in Paris. An invitation to become a professor in the newly founded Collège de Guyenne at Bordeaux relieved him from immediate want and danger, and there, for the next three years, we find him as one of the précepteurs domestiques attached to the college. Expressly founded for instruction in the new studies, this institution had already gained the repute of being the best of its kind in France, and among other pupils attracted to it was Montaigne, who himself tells us that he had Buchanan “ce grand poète escossois” as one of his précepteurs de chambre.

    Now in surroundings that were congenial to him, and in association with colleagues of tastes kindred to his own, Buchanan was stimulated to productions on a more ambitious scale than anything he had hitherto attempted. As his poetic gifts and his command of Latin were regarded as unrivalled, to him was entrusted the task of being the spokesman of the college on all public occasions. When the emperor Charles V passed through Bordeaux on his memorable visit to Francis I, it was Buchanan who was commissioned to hail the illustrious guest in a congratulatory ode—a task which he brilliantly accomplished in one of his Sylvae—Ad Carolum V Imperatorem, Burdegalae hospitio publico susceptum, nomine Scholae Burdegalensis. By a rule of the college, each professor was expected to compose a Latin play every year, to be acted by the pupils under his charge, and, in the performance of this duty, Buchanan produced four plays during his residence in Bordeaux. Two of these were translations of the Medea and Alcestis of Euripides, primarily undertaken, Buchanan himself tells us, to improve his scholarship in Greek, for in Greek, it is significant, Buchanan was self-taught. The other two plays, Jephthes and Baptistes, are original compositions, modelled on the classical examples, and expressly written to enforce that pietas literata which was the ideal of all the schools that, like the Collège de Guyenne, had recently been founded in France. In Buchanan’s judgment, the former, founded on the story of Jephthah’s vow, is the better drama, and in none of his productions has he risen to a higher strain of moral intensity and elevation of thought and expression. It is in the Baptistes, however, that we find the fullest and hardiest expression of the convictions which, frequently at his own peril, he consistently proclaimed throughout his whole career. The principal character, John the Baptist, is the fiery apostle of precisely those doctrines of political and religious liberty which were then perturbing Christendom, and his death at the hands of Herod is pointed as the moral of all religious and political tyranny.

    Buchanan must have known that it was at his own risk that he expressed these opinions in such a city as Bordeaux—where heresy had, indeed, lately appeared, and where, about the date of the appearance of Baptistes, a heretic had actually been burned. It was doubtless, therefore, for reasons connected with his personal safety, that he left Bordeaux in 1542–3, between which date and 1547 we all but lose sight of him. To this period, however, belongs a poem which deserves special attention as being the most minutely personal of his productions and as illustrating what is notable throughout his life—the affection and regard in which he was held by the most distinguished scholars of the time. The poem, entitled Ad Ptolemaeum Luxium Tastaeum et Jacobum Taevium cum articulari morbo laboravit, was written on his sick bed, where he had lain for a year between life and death, and its burden is that his sufferings had been made light by the tender attention of friends, whose names and special services he enumerates in glowing remembrance.

    In 1547, Buchanan received an invitation which was to lead to the most eventuful experience in his chequered career and to the production of the most memorable of all his works. The invitation was to join a band of scholars, intended to complete the staff of teachers in the university of Coimbra in Portugal, which had been remodelled by king John III. Buchanan accepted the offer, but, within a year, the Jesuits, then supreme in Portugal, obtained control over the university, and Buchanan and others were accused of heresy and conveyed to the Inquisition in Lisbon. During a year and a half, Buchanan was repeatedly under examination by the inquisitors, mainly on the charge of eating meat in Lent and of satirising the Franciscans. Convinced at length that, though he had been an erring son of the church, he was no heretic, they allowed him his liberty, but on the condition that he should spend six months in a neighbouring monastery in some penitential exercise. The penance which he chose, or which was imposed upon him, was his Psalmorum Davidis Paraphrasis Poetica—the work which more than any other has secured to him his eminent place among modern Latin poets. Buchanan’s translation of the Psalms may fairly be considered one of the representative books of the sixteenth century, expressing, as it does, in consummate form, the conjunction of piety and learning which was the ideal of the best type of humanist. Versified translations of the Psalms were the favourite exercise of the scholars of every country, but, by general consent, Buchanan was acknowledged to have surpassed all competitors in the felicity of his rendering, and it was on the title-page of their editions of his translation that Henri and Robert Estienne assigned him the distinction above referred to, of being poetarum nostri saeculi facile princeps. As a manual at once of piety and scholarship, it was received with universal acclamation. In Buchanan’s own lifetime it was introduced into the schools of Germany and an edition, set to music, was published in 1595. Till within recent years, it was read in every school in Scotland where Latin was taught, and among educated Scotsmen of every shade of opinion it became their treasured companion, to which they had recourse for religious edification and solace.

    On the expiry of his time of penance in the monastery, Buchanan was at liberty to leave Portugal, and his first thought was to seek a home in England, now a protestant country under the rule of Edward VI. The distracted state of England, however, as he tells us, offered little prospect of peaceful employment to scholars, and, once more, he sought a haven in France—his second home, as he always considered it. In one of his most beautiful poems, Adventus in Galliam, he expresses his delight on finding himself again on its hospitable soil. “Buchanan,” says de Thou, “was born by the banks of the Blane in the country of the Lennox, but he was of us by adoption,” and, in the glowing tributes he pays in these lines to the French and their country, Buchanan fully justified the statement. To the same period, also, belong his odes on the capture of Calais from the English and of Metz from Germany, in which he speaks with all the fervour and pride of a Frenchman in his country’s triumph. In 1555, Buchanan had been appointed tutor to Timoleon du Cossé, son of Charles du Cossé, comte de Brissac, one of the marshals of France, and the connection gave occasion to the most elaborate of all his poems—the poem entitled De Sphaera. All Buchanan’s more serious productions are informed by a strenuous didactic purpose, and it was primarily for the instruction of his pupil that De Sphaera was undertaken. Its theme is the exposition of the Ptolemaic cosmogony in opposition to the system which had recently been promulgated by Copernicus, and which, with few exceptions, had been rejected by learned and unlearned as impious and irrational. The poem was intended as its author’s greatest stroke for durable fame, and in its execution he has lavished all his learning and all the poetic art at his command. As we have it, it consists of five books, the last two of which are unfinished; and it remains as a curious memorial of a literary ambition which strangely mistook the course of the world’s thought, equally regarding its theme and the language in which it is written.

    Towards the year 1560, there came a change in Buchanan’s opinions which divides his life in twain. Hitherto, though he had spoken freely of monks and priests, he had remained a member of the church of Rome, but, from a special study of the Bible, as he tells us, he now became convinced that the truth was to be found in protestant teaching. As Scotland adopted protestantism as its national religion in 1560, after an exile of more than twenty years he returned to his native country. Now, as always, his new associations prompted him to renewed production. During the first six years after his return to Scotland, it was queen Mary who was the chief inspirer of his muse. Before he left France, he had already celebrated her marriage with Francis I in an Epithalamium containing the famous description of his countrymen beginning

  • Illa pharetratis est propria gloria Scotis,
  • which are among the best known lines he has written. To Mary, also, he now dedicated the second edition of his translation of the Psalms in the most admired of all his shorter poems, the epigram beginning
  • Nympha, Caledoniae quae nunc feliciter orae
  • Missa per innumeros sceptra tueris avos.
  • Till 1567, he remained in close connection with the court, reading the classics with Mary in her leisure hours, composing a masque on the occasion of her marriage with Darnley, and celebrating the birth of her son, afterwards James VI, in a Genethliacon in which he did not conceal his opinions regarding the duties of rulers to their subjects.

    The murder of Darnley, the head, be it noted, of Buchanan’s own clan, converted him into a bitter enemy of Mary, as, like all protestants, he believed that she was accessory to the crime. Henceforward, therefore, he identified himself with the political and religious party which drove her from the throne, and it was in the interests of that party that his subsequent writings were mainly produced. In his Detectio, written at the request of the protestant lords, he has presented their case against Mary with a vehemence of statement which can only be understood and justified by comparison with the polemical writings of contemporary scholars. In the service of the same cause, he produced the only two pieces which he wrote in vernacular Scots—Chamaeleon, a satire on Maitland of Lethington, and the Admonition to the trew Lordis, a warning to the protestant lords themselves regarding their past and future policy. What is noteworthy in these two pamphlets is that Buchanan shows the same mastery of the Scottish language as he does of Latin, and their periodic sentences are an exact reproduction of his Latin models. But Buchanan’s greatest literary achievement of this period was his Rerum Scoticarum Historia, published in 1582, the year of his death, in which he related the history of Scotland from its origin till the death of the regent Lennox in 1571. Dedicated to James VI, with whose education he had been entrusted, the underlying object of the book is the inculcation of those principles of political and religious liberty of which Buchanan had been the consistent champion throughout his career. By the leading scholars of Europe it was adjudged to be a work of transcendent merit, and even in the eighteenth century it was seriously debated whether Caesar, Livy, or Sallust had been his model. In this History, which for fully two centuries kept its place as a standard authority, Buchanan had appealed both to scholars and protestant theologians, and in another work, De Jure Regni apud Scotos (1579), he made a still wider appeal on questions which were then agitating every country in Christendom. Written in the form of a dialogue (between Thomas Maitland and Buchanan) this treatise is, virtually, an apology for the Scottish reformation, and, as a classic exposition of protestant political theory, it found wide acceptance both in Britain and on the continent—Dryden in the following century even accusing Milton of having embodied it in his Defence of the People of England.

    “No man,” says archbishop Spottiswoode, “did better merit of his nation for learning, nor thereby did bring it to more glory,” and this is Buchanan’s specific and pre-eminent claim to the regard of his countrymen. Read as classics by all educated Scotsmen, his works, prose and verse, perpetuated the study of Latin, which, to the comparative neglect of Greek, remained a rooted tradition in the curriculum of a learned education in Scotland. Scotland, as has already been said, owing to conditions peculiar to itself, was more powerfully affected by the reformation than by the renascence, yet, through the work of Buchanan, and of others of kindred tastes, though less distinguished than himself, one result, at least, was secured from both movements: religion has ever been associated with learning in the mind of the Scottish people.