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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

§ 7. Historie of the reformation in Scotland

Like all his other works, Knox’s Historie of the reformatioun in Scotland was suggested by an immediate occasion and was written to serve a special purpose. Its express aim was to justify the proceedings of the protestant leaders who had been the chief instruments in overthrowing the ancient religion, and it was at their desire that he undertook the task. His book, therefore, is essentially that of an apologist and not of a historian; and he makes no disguise of the fact. That right and justice were all on one side and that those who opposed the reformation were blinded either by folly or iniquity, is his unflinching contention from the first sentence to the last. So transparent is this assumption, however, that it hardly misleads the reader; and through what he may consider the perversion of characters and events he cannot fail to discern their salient and essential traits. Thus, in the most remarkable parts of Knox’s book, his interviews with queen Mary, the weak points in his own cause and in his own personal character are as manifest as those of his adversary. The History consists of five books, the last of which, however, is so inferior in vigour to the others that its materials must have been put together by another hand. It is in the first book, which traces the beginning and progress of the reformation in Scotland, that Knox displays his most striking gifts as a writer—such passages as those describing the rout of Solway Moss, the mission and death of George Wishart and the battle of Pinkie being the nearest anticipation of Carlyle to be found in English literature. In the second and third books, we have one of the earliest examples of an appeal to historical documents as vouchers for the truth of the narrative: fully three-fourths of these books consisting of papers supplied by the leaders of the reformation in Scotland and England. But it is the fourth book that has made the most vivid impression on the national memory, and may be said to have created the prevalent conception of the Scottish reformation. The theme of this book is the return of Mary to Scotland, and the compromise that followed between her and the reforming leaders. Here we have the reports of the dramatic interviews between Mary and Knox, and of his fulminations from the pulpit in the church of St. Giles, and here, also, those characterisations of Mary and other leading personages which are written for all time. What Sainte-Beuve said if the Memoirs of Saint-Simon may be said with even greater truth of Knox’s History: the periods before and after that which he describes are dim and obscure by comparison. And it is a further tribute to the literary interest and importance of the book, that it is the first original work in prose which Scotland had yet produced. There had been translations and compilations in prose, but there had not, as yet, been any work which bore the stamp of individual genius and which might serve as a model for Knox’s undertaking. In this fact, and in his long residence in England and association with Englishmen abroad, we have the explanation of the diction—the anglicised Scots—which was made a reproach to him by his Catholic adversaries.