Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 5. The Gude and Godlie Ballatis

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

VII. Reformation and Renascence in Scotland

§ 5. The Gude and Godlie Ballatis

It was about the year 1546 that there appeared a little volume which, after the Bible itself, did more for the spread of reformation doctrines than any other book published in Scotland. As no copy of this edition has been preserved, we can only conjecture its contents from the first edition of which we possess a specimen—that of 1567, apparently an enlarged edition of the original. The book generally known in Scotland as The Gude and Godlie Ballatis is, next to Knox’s Historie of the reformatioun, the most memorable literary monument of the period in vernacular Scots. The chief share in the production of this volume, also known as The Dundee Book, may, almost with certainty, be assigned to three brothers, James, John and Robert Wedderburn, sons of a rich Dundee merchant, all of whom had studied at the university of St. Andrews, and were for a time exiled for their attachment to the reformed doctrines. Besides a metrical translation of the Psalms, the book contained a number of Spirituall Sangis and Plesand Ballatis, the object of which was to convey instruction in points of faith, to stimulate devotion and to stigmatise the iniquities and errors of the Roman church. Of both songs and ballads, fully one half are more or less close translations from the popular German productions which had their origin in the Lutheran movement. But the most remarkable pieces in the book are those which adapt current secular songs and ballads to spiritual uses, appropriating the airs, measures, initial lines or choruses of the originals. This consecration of profane effusions was not unknown in the medieval church, and for the immediate object in view a more effective literary form could not have been devised. At a time when books were dear and were, in general, little read, these Godly Ballads, set to popular tunes, served at once the purpose of a pamphlet and a sermon, conveying instruction, while, at the same time, they roused to battle. What amazes the reader of the present day in these compositions is the grotesque blending of religion with all the coarseness and scurrility of the age. Yet this incongruity is only a proof of the intense conviction of their authors: in the message they had to proclaim they believed there was an effectual safeguard against all evil consequences, and that in the contrast between the flesh and the spirit the truth would only be made more manifest. Moreover, there is an accent and a strain in the Ballads which is not to be found in Lyndsay even in his highest mood. Even when he is most in earnest, Lyndsay never passes beyond the zeal of the social reformer. In the Ballads, on the other hand, there is often present a yearning pathos as of soul speaking to soul, which transmutes and purifies their coarsest elements, and transfuses the whole with a spiritual rapture. And the influence that the Ballads exercised—mainly on the inhabitants of the towns, which almost universally declared for the reformation—proves that the writers had not misjudged their readers. For fullyhalf a century, though unsanctioned by ecclesiastical authority, the Ballads held their place as the spiritual songs of the reformation church.