‘Scotland on the Early Modern European Cultural Map’ – Prof Alasdair MacDonald and Dr Steven Reid

Published on: Author: andrew Leave a comment

On the 22nd of January 2019, the Centre had the pleasure of welcoming Prof Alasdair MacDonald (Emeritus Professor of English Language and Literature of the Middle Ages, University of Groningen), and our very own Dr Steven Reid (Senior Lecturer in Scottish History, University of Glasgow). The focus of the evening was ‘Scotland on the Early Modern European Cultural Map’, with Prof MacDonald telling us about the 17th Century poet, George Lauder (1603 – 1670), and Dr Reid exploring the neo-Latin poems dedicated to James IV and his reign (c. 1566 – c. 1603). Prof Gerard Carruthers welcomed everyone to the event and introduced the speakers to the room, which was filled to capacity, so much so that many people were still eagerly waiting in the wings to grab a seat.

George Lauder (1603-1670): Life and Writings
Professor MacDonald’s new book:
George Lauder (1603-1670): Life and Writings (Boydell & Brewer)

Prof Macdonald opened the evening by asking, ‘why is George Lauder so unknown?’. He addressed that there is a common misconception about Scottish Literature, which he describes as ‘the idea of the hourglass’: vast amounts of literature seen to be produced before and after the 17th Century, but very little of anything shown to be within it. For Lauder, this is especially unusual, as there are over 6,000 lines of poetry attributed to him and yet he only has a brief note in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; earlier poets such as Robert Henryson (1425-1500) and William Dunbar (1459-1520) have far fewer known lines of poetry but have a much larger literary presence. Lauder moved out of Scotland aged 19 to establish himself in London solely as a poet, but ended up joining the army instead. He consequently spent far more time travelling around Europe: countries such as France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The long-running European wars meant that Lauder married twice whilst on the continent, and had nine children in total: including five sons, who all died with the exception of one who returned with the Glorious Revolution (1688). It is within this distinctly European context that Prof MacDonald emphasised Lauder’s creative influences and outputs.

He describes Lauder as ‘a university wit’ and ‘the Scottish version of John Donne’, stating no one else at the time had turned neo-Latin verse into the vernacular form. The satirical neo-Latin verse was developed in the Renaissance papal courts. In light of this, Prof MacDonald questioned, ‘how Scottish is George Lauder?’: his writing, the thoughts he presents and the style which he uses to present them? Lauder’s poetry not only translates and imitates the satirical neo-Latin form, but also touches upon military life, as well as Scottish politics. Prof MacDonald further explained that by studying the sales lists from Lauder’s death, we can gauge his literary influences: books were found to be covering history, philosophy, military, mathematics and even some related to medicine, whilst those on English Literature heavily featured metaphysic poetry. The argument that Lauder would not have had access to Scots works is undermined by Prof MacDonald’s assertion that he would have been able to read almost every single manuscript of early Scots verse through the Earls of Lauderdale’s library. We see then that Lauder actively chose not to write in Scots, which leaves us to question: Where was the place of Scotland in Europe during the 17th Century?

Prof MacDonald highlighted that Scots regularly travelled to live on the continent – and some eventually returned – whilst there was also a large presence of Scots working in London, which leads us to the idea of being ‘Scotto-British’, or a ‘Scotto-British European’. Although some people see this identity as being negative, with the movement away from Scotland and the Scots language, MacDonald asserts that the positives of being included within this Early Modern European map helped to explore this sense of Scottish identity and culture.

Image result for james vi portrait
James VI (National Portrait Gallery)

Dr Reid then introduced us to the neo-Latin poems dedicated to James IV and his reign, specifically looking to the essays of James IV published in Edinburgh. He showed us that no other references to the King’s name were apparent within the essays, except within the opening poems themselves. The eight poems that are included as a way to preface the essays can be further used to unveil the ways in which James IV was being represented: more specifically asking, how do the three smaller, neo-Latin poems reveal the young King’s identity?

Hidden within these texts were statements depicting the King and his destiny to rule over the British Isles. This would be particularly prevalent within a European context, with Latin being more widely read in these areas of the world, and therefore making an even larger statement of King James IV’s authority within this European map. Dr Reid asked us to think about the impact of these statements in light of this widespread audience, and what kind of message these Latin texts would be sending out especially when these poems were written in response to – or on the indication of – particular royal occasions. Some examples include poems written about James IV’s birth, marriage, coronation and eventually death. The neo-Latin ‘culture looks outward to France’, and to the rest of Europe, integrating these European intellectual movements from the likes of the Italian and German societies within the context of the British Isles. The level of Latin publication surpassed that of the vernacular until the end of the 1630’s, when it went into steep decline with the arrival of the Jacobean era.

Dr Reid elaborated on his work for the project, ‘Bridging the Continental Divide: neo-Latin and its cultural role in Jacobean Scotland as seen in the Delitiae Poetum Scotorum (1637)’. With its focus on all major royal poems known before 1603, and includes poets such as George Buchanan, Patrick Adamson, Thomas Maitland and Henry Anderson. Not only do the poems that were explored through this project highlight the various perspectives that the poets had on their country, their king and ultimately with each other, it showed the relationship that the poets had with this Early Modern European map: Dr Reid highlighted that every single Scottish neo-Latin poet had some sort of connection with France. Scoto-Latin in this culture is, as Dr Reid stated, ‘still a great unknown’, however, it can be clearly seen how Scotland fits within this Early Modern European map through the continual social and cultural connections these poets expressed through their works. We can certainly say that we more thoroughly appreciate the significance of 17th Century literature: the ‘hourglass’ of Scottish Literature must surely be growing in size.

Hannah Pyle

Scottish Literature

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.