http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Northern Light: Polaris, an Introduction

The Editors

Following Northern Paths 

Royal 20 E IX   f. 4   Diagram

Where to go next? A diagram for determining the Earth’s true north from the north star Polaris in the Rotz Atlas (London, British Library MS Royal 20 E IX), f. 4 (detail). France and London, c. 1532-45.

[1] The Journal of the Northern Renaissance is delighted to welcome you to Polaris, a new feature dedicated to short polemics, position pieces, interviews, and conference and research reports. We hope these pages will provide a forum for dialogues and debates to develop, offering our authors and readers the chance to come together to discuss the Renaissance in the North. Comments are open on each post: please do contribute your own thoughts and responses. 

[2] Polaris is, we hope, a new way for JNR to tackle the questions that first gave rise to its creation. JNR originated in impulses not only to valorise but also to problematise and deconstruct what we mean by the ‘Northern Renaissance’. This umbrella term, used sometimes quite differently across different disciplines to demarcate distinctive periods and geographies, requires continual questioning. Does the very notion of a ‘northern renaissance’  not suggest an anachronistic inheriting of paradigms of a Southern European derivation? What are the implications for the study of cultural life in Northern Europe of the explosion of interest in the twenty-first century  in the notion of a global renaissance?  And, conversely, might a renewed focus on the particularities of the north serve to prick what Douglas Bruster, here in JNR, has characterised as ‘the new globalism’s bubble‘? In one of Polaris‘ inaugural posts, Heather Madar (Humboldt State) takes up the topic of ‘The Global Renaissance and the North‘. This, we hope, will be just the first of many examples of how Polaris will not only complement JNR‘s more formal explorations of alternative conceptualisations, geographies and periodisations, but also further JNR‘s ongoing move beyond its literary origins to such fields as art history, visual and material cultures, cultural studies, ritual studies, and, in JNR‘s most recent issue, the thinking and representation of number.

[3] At this point, then, we turn to you, our reader, in your other capacity, as writer. Would you be interested in this new writing opportunity available through the JNR? For Polaris’s launch, we have invited scholars, archivists and other academic figures to write on topics of their own choosing – and just as we have invited them, we would like to ask you too to contribute, either by replying to these posts (which can be done through the comments, or, if you would like to reply at greater length, through a separate, follow-up post) or by proposing and submitting your own. Posts on Polaris are shorter than journal articles, typically ranging from 750 to 3,000 words. They may adopt the typical style and format of academic articles, but we also want to present as open a platform as possible, and to take full advantage of being online by incorporating audio and visual material. We invite opinion and position pieces on the full range of cultural production across the Northern Renaissance. By opening posts to (moderated) comments, we also hope to further stimulate a real exchange of ideas, offering contributors the chance to receive scholarly (and perhaps also occasionally not-so-scholarly) feedback quickly online.

[4] For Polaris‘s launch we have four opening contributions. Coming from both senior and junior scholars, from both north and south, and from both sides of the Atlantic, they embody the diversity of voices we hope to maintain in the years to come. Heather Madar’s discussion of the Northern Renaissance within a global context has already been mentioned. Demmy Verbeke (KU Leuven) writes – very appropriately for a digital platform – upon the connections between the digital humanities and Renaissance scholarship. Ed Simon (LeHigh) has used Polaris to discuss the Mesoamerican mirror of Elizabethan court figure John Dee. Dimitra Koutla (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) writes on political theory in the essays of Michel de Montaigne. 

[5] JNR exists to provoke new discussion on the Northern Renaissance, and we feel that Polaris is a new and exciting way for us to do this – to open it up and give scholars a new platform for commentaries and analyses for which a longer article might not be appropriate. We are looking for topics which you feel are relevant, and wish to write on – ranging from specific case studies of texts, objects and events to broader considerations of the geographical or chronological limits of the Northern Renaissance.

[6] We aim to release content for Polaris regularly, and hope you will be interested in joining us in this venture, as a reader, a contributor, or both. If you are interested in the possibilities raised by Polaris, and have  a proposal for a post or series of posts, please email northernrenaissance@gmail.com, including ‘Polaris’ in the subject line.

Renaissance Studies, Digital Humanities and the Library

Demmy Verbeke

Aletheia, a system for ground truthing.

Looking for patterns through digital mechanisms.

[1] To me, personally, Renaissance Studies has always been a multidisciplinary affair. Renaissance Studies are mostly defined by time (i.e. the various possible meanings of ‘Renaissance’) sometimes in combination with spatial boundaries (e.g. ‘the Italian Renaissance’ or ‘the Northern Renaissance’, as is the case with the journal associated to this blog), but never by object. Literary texts, archival documents, pieces of art, musical compositions, … are all studied in Renaissance Studies, so they bring together elements from literary studies, linguistics, history, musicology, art history, and many more. I admitted a couple of years ago (Verbeke 2009) that few of us can boast competence in enough fields to call ourselves a true Renaissance scholar, since we tend to specialize in one or a limited number of sub-disciplines. But I do not see this is as a real problem, as long as we also draw on outside expertise when confronted with the multidisciplinary reality of our field of research.

[2] It will then also come as no surprise that Renaissance Studies have been relatively quick in welcoming the Digital Humanities. Not only can the methodology of Digital Humanities help to grasp the diversity of the research field known as Renaissance Studies, but the scholarly tradition of this field of research tends to be as multidisciplinary and collaborative as the Digital Humanities are. This is easily illustrated in an array of well-known or lesser-known projects which might not all call themselves ‘Digital Humanities projects’, but which others might thus qualify, such as Architectura (http://architectura.cesr.univ-tours.fr), the Map of London (http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/index.htm), the Medici Archive Project (http://www.medici.org), Mesolore (http://www.mesolore.org), Renaissance Cultural Crossroads (http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/rcc) or the Venice Time Machine (in which the Renaissance is only one of the timeframes treated, http://vtm.epfl.ch).

[3] What we see in a lot of these projects is driven by the multidisciplinary nature of the research field, which occasions the collaboration which we notice in most successful Digital Humanities projects. And this collaboration is not just academics working together with other academics, but also academics working together with IT people and with the people working in the institutions which house the objects studied, such as libraries, archives and museums. I defend such a collaboration not only because experience teaches that it tends to yield the best results, but also because it helps to position the institution again at the centre of research (Verbeke 2014, Truyen and Verbeke 2015). This would imply incorporating elements from research & development within the workings of the institution in question. In my opinion, R&D and service are complementary, rather than exclusive, in such a setting. Researchers frequently turn to, e.g., their university’s library for support in digital scholarship. If academic librarians want to avoid having to turn away these requests, then they need to proactively garner competence, develop workflows, and prepare an (at the very least basic) digital infrastructure. Obviously, few institutions have money and staff to spare to fully prepare for requests which are not even expressed yet, but good will (both from an institution’s administration and from the researchers themselves) goes a long way to providing a context in which the staff of a library, an archive or a museum feels encouraged and empowered to get actively involved in research projects by accepting responsibility for work packages devoted to tasks which are traditionally expected of them anyway, such as preservation, curation, discovery, dissemination and/or digitization (Showers 2012).

[4] One example in this context is Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Named Entity Recognition (NER) for non-mainstream materials such as manuscripts and early printed books. Renaissance scholars turning to a library or archive for the provision of Renaissance texts typically want one of two things. Either they want the original documents (e.g. because these documents have not been digitized yet or because they do a type of research which is still not obvious in a digital world, such as studying Renaissance watermarks or book bindings), or they want a fully digitized corpus which they can search and/or manipulate as they see fit. Full digitization starts with captioning the original document in high-quality, but goes further than that, e.g. by providing an automated transcription of the text through OCR (so that it also becomes fully searchable) or by automatically recognizing all names of individuals, places or organisations through NER (which also enables building automated indices). The problem is that the technology does not yet follow the desire of Renaissance scholars in the sense that both OCR and NER for books in non-mainstream typefaces (such as early printed books) or non-mainstream languages (such as Neo-Latin or Renaissance French) – let alone OCR and NER for manuscripts of a similar nature – are not developed enough yet. However, this does not mean that this has to remain so: several teams are working in several places on the problem of OCR and  NER for non-mainstream materials, and the results yielded, for instance, by the Early Modern OCR Project (http://emop.tamu.edu) prove that we might be closer to a solution than originally thought.

[5] The European Union in its turn also recognizes the need for mass digitisation of textual material which would benefit researchers and thus also, amongst others, Renaissance scholars. One of the initiatives taken was the support action succeed (http://www.succeed-project.eu), initiated to promote the take-up and validation of research results in mass digitisation, e.g. by assisting libraries which test, evaluate and integrate digitisation tools. One of these libraries is the University Library of the KU Leuven, which tested a range of OCR- and NER-tools for rare prints in (old) Dutch in 2013-14. The results of this project were presented at library conferences such as ELAG2014 (Bath, 10-13 June 2014), Digital Humanities conferences such as DH2014 (Lausanne, 8-12 July 2014) and the closing conference devoted to Succeed in Digitisation. Spreading Excellence (Paris, 28 November 2014); but perhaps more important is the fact that this project provided an opportunity to further develop OCR and NER for non-mainstream materials and to integrate OCR and NER in the digitisation workflow at the University Library of KU Leuven. The problem of OCR and NER for Renaissance texts might still be far from solved, but the fulfilment of the desires of Renaissance scholars has become a tiny bit closer in Leuven.

KU Leuven, April 2015

Texts cited

Showers 2012 = . Ben Showers, ‘Does the Library Have a Role to Play in the Digital Humanities?’ [http://infteam.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2012/02/23/does-the-library-have-a-role-to-play-in-the-digital-humanities].

Truyen and Verbeke 2015 = Fred Truyen and Demmy Verbeke, ‘The library as a valued partner in Digital Humanities projects: The example of EuropeanaPhotography’, accepted for publication in Art Libraries Journal (2015), 28-33.

Verbeke 2009 = Demmy Verbeke, ‘The need for Latin textual scholarship in Renaissance musicology’, Music and Letters 90 (2009), 205-214 [doi: 10.1093/ml/gcn091]

Verbeke 2014 = Demmy Verbeke, ‘The opportunistic librarian’, dh+lib [http://acrl.ala.org/dh/2014/08/06/opportunistic-librarian]

About the author

Since 2012, Demmy Verbeke has been working as head librarian at KU Leuven (first of the Faculty of Arts and since 2015 of Artes), where he also teaches Heuristics and Methodology. He is the author of Latin Letters and Poems in Motet Collections by Franco-Flemish Composers (c. 1550 – c. 1600) (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2010) and produced numerous articles and chapters discussing the history of the book, Renaissance humanism (especially in the Low Countries and England) and the Classical Tradition. His current research focuses on the history and future of the book, library management (particularly in the field of research/academic libraries) and scholarly communication.

The Global Renaissance and the North

Heather Madar

Detail of the globe in Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533). London, the National Gallery.

[1]  The 2000s have seen a proliferation of scholarship on the so-called global Renaissance. Seen as originating from sources as diverse as Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II and scholarly and curatorial attention to the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, geo-political events of the early 2000s, particularly in the wake of 9/11, are seen as providing a particular stimulus. A parallel focus in Medieval scholarship in this same time frame, the postcolonial middle ages, similarly reframed study of the Middle Ages. Global Renaissance scholarship understands the world of the 15th to 17th centuries to be much more culturally fluid than has been traditionally recognized, seeing the notion of fixed – rather than permeable – boundaries between East and West to be later fictions. The interactions and influences of non-European cultures with Renaissance-era Europe, whether artistic, diplomatic, economic, cultural or intellectual, are explored and global Renaissance scholars make strong claims for the broader and enduring significance of those interactions.

[2]  Jerry Brotton, for example, whose 2003 book The Renaissance Bazaar undoubtedly helped to popularize the term, framed the global Renaissance as a paradigm shift in conceptualizing the Renaissance, arguing that key touchstones of Renaissance culture, whether literary, artistic or intellectual, came into being only as a result of cross-cultural exchange.[1] Moreover, in Brotton’s view, Renaissance Europe conceived of itself in a fundamental way through comparison (rather than opposition – a more Saidian model) to the East. Gerald McLean similarly states that “the confluence of artistic, literary, scientific and cultural developments that made the Renaissance. . .can be fully understood only in light of Christian Europe’s relations with eastern and Islamic cultures.”[2] He goes on to claim that “the Renaissance would have been entirely different, if not impossible, had it not been for direct and regular contact with the eastern, largely Muslim world.”[3] If the Renaissance is understood as fed and shaped in fundamental ways through such interactions, which left their indelible traces on Renaissance cultural production, global Renaissance scholarships sees these traces as having been heretofore largely ignored, an omission it seeks to correct. In the process, the master narrative of the Renaissance is amended, European exceptionalism is challenged, and the spatial scope of the world of the Renaissance is reframed.

[3] The success of global Renaissance studies seems evident in the mass of scholarly publications of the past decade plus that take a more expansive view of the Renaissance and explicitly examine cultural exchange and its traces on Renaissance cultural productions. In more anecdotal, yet potentially telling signs of shifts in the academy, a casual glance at many job listings in Renaissance fields reveals a new need for aspiring candidates to engage with the global Renaissance, the Atlantic world or the larger Mediterranean world. The Sixteenth Century Society meanwhile now explicitly names Ottomanists as being within its purview.

[4]  Yet the global Renaissance turn has not gone without criticism. Douglas Bruster, in a review for the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, offered a trenchant critique of global Renaissance studies, which he sees as representing a scholarly fad whose peak has already passed.[4] Others have offered more incremental critiques, suggesting that the grand claims of some global Renaissance scholarship overreach. James Harper, who refers to the “revisionist Global Village model” of scholars like Brotton and Lisa Jardine, proposes that the results of cross-cultural contact were considerably more limited, and warns of presentism and a desire to recast the past in our own (global) image.[5] Oleg Grabar, focusing specifically on the visual arts, sees the major accomplishments of Renaissance art as unaffected by transculturalism, whose impact he describes as “quite limited” and as restricted to “minor themes.”[6]

[5] The question of the global Renaissance paradigm shift and the potential for ongoing scholarship in this vein is clearly contested. As an art historian engaged with global Renaissance concerns in connection with northern Europe, particularly Germany and Austria, I have found global Renaissance scholarship, while enticing, to be somewhat problematic in its potential applications to the north, and its focus to be limited. The dominance of Italy, particularly Venice, in art historical discussions of the global Renaissance is undisputable, despite references to the internationalism of key northern works like Holbein’s Ambassadors.[7] Indeed, a gesture to the presence of Turkish carpets, Arabic (or pseudo-Kufic) script and Islamic metalwork in Italian Renaissance paintings is a common rhetorical shorthand in the literature for the significance and scope of such cross-cultural interactions. Renaissance England has received considerable attention in global Renaissance scholarship, particularly in literary studies.[8] Yet the role of northern centers like Bruges, Antwerp, Nuremberg, Strasbourg or Vienna in the global Renaissance seems to have been largely overlooked. Given the stated interest of some global Renaissance scholars in deconstructing the master myth of the Renaissance, it is hardly surprising that the north receives short shrift, given the traditional focus of that myth on Italy.

[6]  So whither the North? Should Northern Renaissance studies explore the presence of material objects from the Muslim world in northern paintings? Stress the genuine, if fragmented and ultimately unfulfilled global interests of Maximilian I? Recall the international economic interests of trading families like the Welsers of Augsburg, whose funds supported the voyage of the German merchant Balthasar Springer to India? Further explore the careers of Northern artists such as Melchior Lorck or Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose travels to the Ottoman world tend to be eclipsed by the more widely known travels of Italian artists like Gentile Bellini? Look to travel literature by continental northern European writers or the presence of Ottoman subject matter in literary texts, such as the French Renaissance drama La Soltane? Would such further examinations tell us something new and distinct about the north or the northern Renaissance in this period?

[7] Certainly, more work can be done here. These are only a few, comparatively well-known examples of transculturalism in Northern Europe during the Renaissance. The larger presence of global interests and exchange in the cultural, economic and political fabric of Northern Europe in this period also could be further stressed, better understood and added to the typically Italo and Anglo-centric discussions of the global Renaissance. Yet clearly a larger question about the lasting significance of global Renaissance studies remains. While I do not pretend to answer it here, will such (arguably needed) northern contributions to the global Renaissance canon further enrich and expand our understanding of the north and/or the Renaissance in truly transformational ways? Or will they remain interesting footnotes that merely document, in Oleg Grabar’s words, “proto-turqueries?”[9]

Humboldt State University, April 2015


[1] Brotton, Jerry. The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[2] McLean, Gerald. “Introduction,” in Re-Orienting the Renaissance, ed. Gerald McLean, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005, p. 2.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4] Bruster, Douglas. “Review Article: The New Globalism’s Bubble – Review of A Companion to the Global Renaissance,” in Journal of the Northern Renaissance 2 (2010), n.p.. Jyotsna Singh’s Introduction to the text reviewed by Bruster, A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, ed. Jyotsna Singh, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 1-28, also provides a useful overview of the aims and conclusions of global Renaissance scholarship.

[5] Harper, James. “Introduction,” The ‘Turk’ and Islam in the Western Eye: Visual Imagery Before Orientalism, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 5-6. In addition to The Renaissance Bazaar, works by Brotton and Jardine relating to the global Renaissance include Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, New York: W. W. Norton, 1998, Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton, Global Interests: Renaissance Art Between East and West, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000 and Jerry Brotton, Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World, London: Reaktion, 1997.

[6] Grabar, Oleg. “Review,” The Art Bulletin 85:1 (2003), 190.

[7] See for example Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797, ed. Stefano Carboni, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, Rosamond Mack, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Renaissance Art, 1300-1600, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, and Deborah Howard, Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture 1100-1500, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

[8] See, for example, the contributions to A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, cited above, as well as works by Daniel Vitkus and Nabil Matar.

[9] Grabar, ibid, 192.

About the Author:

Heather Madar is Associate Professor of Art History at Humboldt State University, where she works on sixteenth-century German art, and the art of the Northern Renaissance more broadly. Her scholarly interests centre upon prints and print culture in sixteenth-century Germany, upon art and political ideology, and upon cross-cultural interactions in the Renaissance between Western Europe and the Muslim world and their reflection in visual art. She is currently working on a book-length project on Ottoman imagery in sixteenth-century prints.

The Demystification of Authority in Michel de Montaigne’s Essays

Dimitra Koutla

Peter Paul Rubens, <em>The Fall of Phaeton</em> (1604-5), Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art

Peter Paul Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton. 1604/5. Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art

[1] Michel de Montaigne’s Essays are not an apology or a vindication of a particular theory or state order. Montaigne was a member of a wealthy French merchant family, whose title and land were actually bought, not inherited and he was always careful to maintain a distance from his king, drawing a line between allegiance and blind obedience. The Essays were written between 1571, when Montaigne retired from his position in the Parlement of Bordeaux which he had held for thirteen years, and 1592, the time of his death. The style is informal, Montaigne’s prose is smooth and personal, but the value of this great work goes far beyond that of a journal. Indeed, scattered throughout the Essays, often concealed behind Montaigne’s ironic style, is an innovative political theory.

[2] As I will argue, the heart of Montaigne’s political philosophy lies in one of the most striking statements in the Essays regarding authority, which was conventionally accepted as the divinely ordained royal power; but not by Montaigne: “laws remain in credit not because they are just, but because they are laws. That is the mystic foundation of their authority; they have no other” (‘Of Experience’, 821). [1] This “radical relativism”, as Jonathan Dollimore argues, infuses Montaigne’s theory not only of law, but of the nature of nobility as well (Dollimore 1989: 15).

[3] Let us begin by examining what Montaigne writes about the virtue of nobility. The most striking feature of his theory is, in my opinion, his separation of essence and external appearances. To put it in other words, Montaigne shows an insightful awareness of what a poststructuralist would term the constructedness and contingency of nobility. Indeed, Montaigne stresses that all external markers of royalty are “only coats of paint, which make no essential difference […] so the emperor whose pomp dazzles you in public […] see him behind the curtain, he is nothing but an ordinary man, and perhaps viler than the least of his subjects” (‘Of the Inequality that is Between Us’, 191). Furthermore, Montaigne claims that nobility is not synonymous with virtue, that nobility cannot alter the depraved nature of a man, and further argues that if a king “is ill-born, the empire of the universe could not dress him up” (‘Of the Inequality’, 192). [2]

[4] But what is it that makes people fail to see that “a peasant and a king, a nobleman and a plebeian […] they are different, so to speak, only in their breeches?” (‘Of the Inequality’, 191). Montaigne has elsewhere written that “habit stupefies the senses” and it “puts to sleep the eye of our judgment” (‘Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law’, 78). If this statement seems familiar, and out of place in the mouth of a sixteenth-century man, it is because it is eerily close to modern conceptions of the function of ideology. [3] In fact, Dollimore observes that Montaigne, among other writers of the period, seems to be “aware of what approximates to the notion of false-consciousness- that is, the powerful internalization of false belief which keeps individuals in ‘awe’ and unaware of the contradictions in their lives” (Dollimore 1989: 16). That is quite true of Montaigne, as his understanding of the function of ideology is remarkable: “the laws of conscience, which we say are born of nature, are born of custom. Each man, holding in inward veneration the opinions and the behaviour approved and accepted around him, cannot break loose from them without remorse, or apply himself to them without self-satisfaction” (‘Of Custom’, 83).

[5] The solution Montaigne proposes is rather implied, than explicitly stated. In order to demonstrate the essential equality among people, we should remove the external markers of nobility. In the essay “On sumptuary laws” Montaigne innocently argues that “the way in which our laws try to regulate vain and insane expenditures for the table and for clothes seems to be opposed to their purpose […] Let kings boldly abandon these marks of greatness; they have enough others; such excesses are more excusable in any other than a prince” (‘On Sumptuary Laws’, 196). But Montaigne’s main concern is not to stifle the desire of his fellow countrymen for expensive clothes and jewels, but to remove those superficial features that act as markers of royalty, and induce the awe of the lower classes and conceal the essential equality of all people. That is precisely the crux of his argument, as David Lewis Schaefer illustrates: “by recommending that kings avoid these distinguishing expenditures, Montaigne seems to aim at making their natural equality to their subjects more visible to all” (Schaefer 1981: 65).

[6] Having disputed the authority and intrinsic virtue of kings, Montaigne delivers the final blow by exposing the legal institutions as a faulty façade that attempts to conceal the total absence of the virtue of justice. Additionally, Montaigne points to the devastating effects of having an abundance of laws:

Who has seen children trying to divide a mass of quicksilver into a certain number of parts? The more they press it and knead it and try to constrain it to their will, the more they provoke the independence of the spirited metal […] this is the same; for by subdividing these subtleties they teach men to increase their doubts […] it is evident from experience that so many interpretations disperse the truth and shatter it (‘Of Experience’, 817).

As Dollimore explains: “[d]iversity for Montaigne simply refutes the belief ‘that there be some [laws] firme, perpetuall and immovable, which they call naturall, and by the condition of their proper essence, are imprinted in mankind’; it does this because there is not one of these so-called laws which is not ‘impugned or disallowed, not by one nation, but by many’” (Dollimore 1989: 15-16).

[7] Moreover, Montaigne argues that the virtue of justice is very far from its manifestations in the courts of law. Where his contemporaries abided by the Aristotelian criterion of evident goodness and accepted as just what was practiced by the state order, Montaigne is more skeptical: “there is nothing just in itself, [that] laws and customs shape justice” (‘Of Experience’, 821). Laws for Montaigne have no authority other than that which they make for themselves; laws are not a manifestation of God’s wisdom, or even the decrees of wise, learned men: “They are often made by fools, more often by people who, in their hatred of equality, are wanting in equity; but always by men, vain and irresolute authors. There is nothing so grossly and widely and ordinarily faulty as the laws” (‘Of Experience’, 821).

[8] Paradoxically, due to their faulty nature, Montaigne claims that laws can encourage lawlessness: “[t]heir commands are so confused and inconsistent that are some excuse for both disobedience and faulty interpretation, administration and observance” (‘Of Experience’, 821). Even the virtue of justice is not an objectively held ideal, but it becomes distorted when it is enmeshed in the corrupt legal institutions: “[j]ustice in itself, natural and universal, is regulated otherwise and more nobly than that other, special, national justice, constrained to the need of our governments. We have no solid and exact image of true law and genuine justice; we use the shadow and reflections of it [Cicero]” (‘Of the useful and the honorable’, 602). [4] Therefore, laws are more often than not unjust and even nonsensical, and kings are ordinary men, elevated only by convention. So, what does Montaigne suggest should be done to improve those gross injustices he observes in the world around him?

[9] Surprisingly, Montaigne expresses an extreme fear of change and innovation. “[i]t is very doubtful whether there can be such evident profit in changing an accepted law, of whatever sort it may be, as there is harm in disturbing it […] I am disgusted with innovation, in whatever guise, and with reason, for I have seen very harmful effects of it” (‘Of Custom’, 86). This attitude cannot be attributed to a potential conservatism of Montaigne’s theory; there must be a more convincing explanation. Dollimore likewise observes this disparity between Montaigne’s theory which “undermine[s] the ideological basis of law” and his constant warning against change (Dollimore 1989: 22). The direction that Dollimore points to is very illuminating; as he argues, “Montaigne’s warning against change may itself testify to the radical implications of his writing, implications which he may have been unwilling to allow politically but which others were not. We need to recognize then how a writer can be intellectually radical without necessarily being politically so” (Dollimore,1989: 22).

[10] So what is the context of Montaigne’s Essays? France in the sixteenth century was torn apart by wars of religion, between Catholics and the Huguenots, a strife that soon took the form of a civil war, as political differences combined with the bitter religious enmities. As Ulrich Langer explains: “the violent conflicts of the second half of the sixteenth century were motivated primarily by the differences in religious faith, but the military aspect of the conflict was often more complicated, as clientele arrangements and ‘friendships’ between noble families traversed confessional differences” (Langer, 2005, 11). Indeed, the cause of Montaigne’s pessimism in the prospect of change is not philosophical, but pragmatic. And his insistence on the adherence to the existing laws, however faulty or unjust these may be, is quite prominent in his theory: “[t]he Christian religion has all the marks of the utmost justice and utility, but none more apparent than the precise recommendation of obedience to the magistrate and maintenance of the government” (‘Of Custom’, 87-8).  Langer adds another dimension to Montaigne’s philosophical skepticism by stating that his “ ‘conservatism’ is also produced by the necessity of surviving in a dangerous period of conflict and of making choices among the options of which each was more unpleasant than the others” (Langer 2005: 22). To put it in simpler terms, Montaigne’s fear of change was not merely a philosophical inclination towards skepticism; more importantly, it was a matter of survival.

[11] In conclusion, Montaigne’s position in relation to authority is rather problematic. While he was a member of the Parlement of Bordeaux for 13 years, and also served as advisor to  King Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre, his loyalty was limited only to himself. He refused to compromise his honour and his sense of justice for any grand cause, a point he mentions constantly in his Essays. For Montaigne, law was the corrupt product of vain and ignorant men, but obedience was nevertheless necessary. It is perhaps this ambivalence that led to his expression of such an innovative political theory, which sadly could not be applied to the turbulent milieu of sixteenth-century Europe, a dangerous era for unconventional thinkers.

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, April 2015


Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).

de Montaigne, Michel.  The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne, trans by Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957).

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (New York: Harvester, 1989).

Langer, Ullrich. ‘Montaigne’s Political and Religious Context’, The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, ed. By Ullrich Langer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 9-26.

Schaefer, David Lewis. ‘Of Cannibals and Kings: Montaigne’s Egalitarianism’, The Review of Politics 43.1 (1981), 43-74.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V, ed. by T.W. Craik (London: Routledge, 1995).


[1] All quotations of Montaigne’s essays are from de Montaigne, 1957. Future references are to individual essay titles within the collection, indicated by essay title and page.

[2] The influence of Montaigne in Early Modern England is out of this short essay’s scope, but one striking passage from William Shakespeare’s Henry V is worth mentioning. Here, we can observe how the King himself feels trapped and oppressed by the very markers of his royal authority, which he perceives as a deceitful façade that masks his human essence. To further emphasise this point, the speech is delivered while Henry is in disguise among his troops, the night before the battle at Agincourt:

                                                      O hard condition,
Twin born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more,
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents, what are they comings-in?
What is thy soul, O adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men,
Wherein art thou less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing?                                       (4.1.230-246)

[3] The term ‘ideology’ is here employed in the Althusserian sense. As explained in his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, ideology can be defined in two ways. Negatively, as the representation of “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” . And positively, as a set of “material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus”  (Althusser 1971: 162-169).

[4] Italics in original.

About the author

Dimitra Koutla is a doctoral student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The topic of her thesis is a post-structuralist analysis of Early Modern English colonialist discourses, with an emphasis on ideologies of space (philosophy, literature and cartography). Her academic interests include Early Modern philosophy, Early Modern English colonialism, Early Modern English literature (in particular instances that can be analysed from a post-colonial perspective and the pastoral), theories of identity, the creation of nation-states in Europe, Marxism, Post-structuralism, Cultural Materialism, political geography and historiography.

Notes on John Dee’s Aztec Mirror

Ed Simon

“…this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.”
Prospero, The Tempest

Dr. Dee’s Aztec obsidian mirror.

Figure 1: Dr. Dee’s Aztec obsidian mirror. London, British Museum.

[1] In the British Museum – away from the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles with their legions of selfie-taking tourists – is a shiny, jet-black obsidian mirror (Figure 1). Not much bigger than any standard hand mirror, the artifact is circular with a hole-bored handle at the top. A beautiful, dark, reflective black, it was forged from volcanic Mexican obsidian which the Aztecs associated with their god Tezcatlipoca, lord of divination (among other things). This is a ritual object, and its exact provenance is unknown. The conquering Spanish brought back things like this by the boatload while they plundered Aztec gold to become the world’s first truly global empire (and in the process they imported disease, war, and slavery). The Aztecs had used obsidian stones just like this one for prophetic purposes over the course of generations. Now, spirited away from a destroyed and subjugated civilization they journeyed to a profoundly different culture where they would create new stories, and generate new prophecies. This particular mirror was owned by the eighteenth-century gothic writer, architect, and son of the former Prime Minister, Sir. Horace Walpole. He affixed a label to the mirror which simply stated “The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits …”

[2] Dr. John Dee has long fascinated students of the Renaissance. A sixteenth-century magus, Dee straddled the now-seemingly contrary realms of the occult and science. The great Warburg scholar Dame Frances Yates claimed that his massive library was the very mind of the Renaissance. But his was an esoteric knowledge, even during an esoteric age. Not quite at home in the classical humanism of his fellow rhetoric-minded colleagues, Dee longed to create the English equivalent of the Neo-Platonist and hermetic academies which had thrived in Florence a century before. His was a counter-Renaissance, indebted not to Erasmus and More but rather Ficino and Mirandola. And Dee’s sectarian allegiances, seemingly malleable depending on the denomination of whatever land he should happen to find himself in, was focused on a type of positivist magic. He longed for a scientific method of the occult. Dee was notorious in his own time – seemingly respected as brilliant but also chided for his lack of publication and feared for the secrets he may have divined. Yet while his name is not included among those innovators of what came to be called science – Kepler, Brahe, Copernicus, Bacon – he could include himself among their own slightly-occult circles (indeed he personally knew all of them save for Copernicus). In that shadow-land that is the emergence of modernity, Dee can count himself as being both last of the Chaldeans and one of the first of the moderns. His fortunes had a tendency to rise and fall as irregularly as fortuna’s wheel turned. He found himself imprisoned under Mary I and he begged the witch-craft obsessed James I to try him for sorcery (as that was the crime he was most often accused of) so that he could clear his name. Unique unluckiness that he had, he found himself persecuted when he didn’t want to be, and not persecuted when he did. And while some courtiers at Westminster were friendly to him, and some were not, he always had the confidence of his most beloved monarch who ruled between that frosty Catholic inquisitor Mary and the fearful Protestant literalist James: the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Elizabeth. It was Dee who decided the day of her coronation, it was Dee who always had her confidence as astrologer, and it was Dee (perhaps looking into his black American mirror) who first christened a land for Elizabeth across the ocean as being “the British Empire.”

John Dee2

Figure 2: Title page to Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica featuring his personal occult glyph. Wikimedia Commons

[3] Dee endures at the margins of accepted history. Two generations ago he was revived as a subject of proper academic study by Yates, but there is still something unacceptable or ghostly about him. His name appears in just too many weird books in the occult section of the suburban mega-bookstore. He may have travelled in the same circles as Francis Bacon, but Bacon gets credit for identifying and defining the contours of the burgeoning scientific revolution; Dee is associated with “Enochian magic” and speaking to angels through a crystal ball (Figure 2). There is a gulf between him and us today, and because of it he stills seems dangerous, still lacks respectability. His vision is at times shockingly contemporary, the sober advocate of calendar reform, an instrumental figure in advocating mathematics as a universal language, the proponent of new cartographic methods. But there are always those pesky angels in our peripheral vision. And while we as scholars are encouraged to not project modern day prejudices anachronistically onto the past, to not diagnose or pathologize behavior that comes from an incredibly different culture (for the past as they say is a type of foreign country) Dee can try our patience with his seeming naivety. It’s hard not to feel a bit of condescension over the man who accepted at face value his scrivening partner Edward Kelley’s news that the angels had informed him that God required them to wife swap. And then it’s hard not to feel a bit heartbroken when Dee matter-of-factly informs his silent journal that the task was achieved after initial protestations from his wife.

John Dee’s occult “Enochian” alphabet, the language he believed existed in Eden.

Figure 3: John Dee’s occult “Enochian” alphabet, the language he believed existed in Eden.

[4] In his curiosity he is intensely admirable. Dee was motivated by a faith that beneath the seeming random nature of everyday life – the tragedies, the violence, and the sadness – there was a universal order and that man could understand it and improve upon his world. We mustn’t forget that this is a belief in progress, and whether progress actually is real or not it is intensely modern a faith. But we also must acknowledge that Dee believed this wasn’t just achieved through mathematics or natural science, but through his divination, his crystal ball, his obsidian mirror. Dee was the founder of Enochian magic, he invented with Kelley (or discovered depending on your perspective) a divine Adamic language that was spoken by the angels and named after the mysterious figure Enoch who it is written of in the Bible that “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:22). It’s the strange language of the Hebrew Scriptures, a culture even more foreign and harder to interpret than Dee’s. There is something moving in Enoch, the father of Methuselah, and the first person to not die, to presumably ascend to heaven like Mary mother of Jesus, Christ, or Muhammad after him. Enoch “was not; for God took him.” From these few inscrutable lines an entire Apocrypha grew out of Enoch. He appears in Ethiopic scriptures, in Old Slavonic religions texts, in rabbinic Midrash. In the kabbalah it is argued that Enoch was transformed into the “lesser Yahweh,” the angel Metatron – God’s very voice. It’s this, the language of this creature’s tongue that whispers in Dee’s ear. It’s the letters of this angel’s alphabet that Dee reads in Tezcatlipoca’s mirror (Figure 3).

John Dee

Figure 4: Dr John Dee, by an unknown artist. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum. Image: wikimedia commons

[5] And yet his seemingly ungrateful fellow countrymen did not distinguish between the good angels and bad demons when it came to the supernatural communications he and Kelley supposedly received through objects like the British Museum’s mirror. One can imagine Dee’s face staring into that volcanic blackness, “the smoky mirror” (as Tezcatlipoca’s names translates from Nahutal). What we would see in that dark reflection is a man who evokes the characters he is often associated with, a cross between Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero (Figure 4). Sunken and tired eyes, a long, prominent aquiline nose and any trace of a facial expression hidden under the costume of a pointed wizard’s beard. On his seemingly hairless head a simple academic skull-cap, around his neck the frilled collar of the Elizabethan attendant to courtiers that he was, and his clothing the austere black of the Puritans who reviled him. We do not know who had possession of the mirror between Dr. Dee and Sir Walpole, perhaps more provocatively we do not know who had possession of it between its arrival in Europe and Dee’s acquiring of it. Other than that antiquarian Walpole’s brief note, we do not even know if Dee actually owned it. Tezcatlipoca’s reputation as being a god who can only be depicted in a smoky mirror endures, for smoke obscures, confuses, stings the eyes. While a mirror is supposed to clearly reflect smoke smudges into uncertainty. Much like Dee, the mirror exists in a fundamentally mysterious zone. What does the mirror mean? Does it make any argument, or like a carnival mirror merely defer questions and answers back on themselves, providing us with no closure but with an opportunity to ruminate, to divine if you will?

[6] It is important that Dee’s possession was an object from a specific place, and that place was the Americas. And it was made by a particular people, by the Aztecs, Indians. Whether defenders or denigrators of the Indians, whether de las Casas or Cortez (or their contemporary proxies), it’s often taken as a teleological given, an inevitable outcome that the indigenous would be conquered by Europeans. And yet nothing could be further from the truth, to assume that the Indians’ defeat was a guarantee is to assault them and to do violence to their memory. Well into the eighteenth century the interior of America was well under native control. It was the Europeans of the time who saw their own march of conquest as inevitable and we’re heirs to that opinion. If any one event can be taken to have enshrined in the European imagination their promised and prophetic future dominion over the fourth part of the world it was Cortez’ destruction of the Aztec. Enhanced by Spanish and generally European propaganda in the five centuries since it happened, the mythopoeic significance of the event shouldn’t be discounted as a foundational legend on the creation of our brave new world that has such people in it. To begin with, the discovery, or rather invention of America (as the critic Edmundo O’Gorman has it) was such a profound shift in the cosmology of the western imagination that arguably even the Copernican Revolution or the Reformation itself seem insignificant in its light. To learn that an entire undiscovered hemisphere filled with unknown people lay beyond the western horizon must have been shocking to common people in a way that astronomy with its complex epicycles and its orbits couldn’t be. It was, as one Spanish explorer had it: “the greatest event since the creation of the world.” The old Trinitarian three-continent geography had been disrupted, the very literal existence of the Americas was a challenge, if not a heresy, that demanded an answer. It should not be minimized – the profound affect this land to the west had on the European consciousness. Indeed it was new in a way that could charitably only be understood as mythic. John Mandeville’s medieval voyages may have been to a constructed India, but India was always known to be real. China was known by the Romans (who traded with her). Africa may have been a “dark continent,” but it was there. And always Prester John was somewhere with the ten tribes of Israel across the boulder filled Sambation. But America was something different, something that required a new myth but could only be discussed in the language of old: Cockaigne, paradise, Eden.

[7] And in the construction of that myth various beliefs were projected onto this “new” world, which declared it both paradise and fallen world. But that such lands existed was challenging enough, to find a civilization as the Aztecs with its triumphant city of Tenochtitlan must have strained the cognitive abilities of the Spanish who came upon it. Central to the myth of Spanish dominance has been the old chestnut of Cortez being mistaken as the god Quetzalcoatl by Montezuma. But our evidence for the actuality of this is from second-hand sources, Dominicans and Franciscans recording the syncretic beliefs of a subjugated people a generation later. That this white skinned eastern god journeying from the east should seem so messianic is not hard to understand. The Aztecs story has never been told in a western tongue, it is just as blank as their obsidian mirror. And as that mirror reflects back what its viewers wish to see the Spanish read their triumphant victory over the indigenous as providential proof of the white-man’s inevitable dominion over this new world. That this was accomplished not by a few hundred starving conquistadors but indeed thousands of Indian troops rebelling against Tenochtitlan, and of course with the hidden microbes that would seem like “magic bullets” (to borrow Greenblatt’s phrase) to both Cortez and Montezuma is not part of our myth. But it was there, in a land west of More’s Utopia (which Vasco de Quinoa would try and make a reality in Mexico the very year More lay his head on the block) where contingencies and mistakes of history happen. It was first here that the Spanish and then the rest of Europe would first fully create an imaginary land they christened America.

[8] It seems prescient that Dee’s vision was potentially so shaped by an object from the New World, from America. Dee’s historical mirror-image, his oppositional twin Francis Bacon, imagined a perfect society named Bensalem in his proto-novel New Atlantis. The citizens of Bensalem – which lay to the west off the coast of Peru – like so many others Bacon envisions utopia as American – are ruled by the empirical discoveries of the scientists who labor in a university known as Salomon’s House. In Bensalem the structuring system is one of scientific positivism. Decisions are rationally made by recourse to a combination of both deduction and induction. Theories are formulated, tested experimentally and observationally, discarded if proven wrong and accepted if the evidence is in favor of them. Bacon was a Christian of course, so his Bensalemites are as well (and a profoundly multicultural group to boot), though almost incidentally and the story of their conversion is secondary, if not borderline comical. It’s clear that what rules Bensalem is a form of science. But for Bacon, for whom knowledge was power, this is not a neutral or disinterested science, but a system that exists to utilize the natural world for the benefit of man. Perhaps more than even a scientific utopia it is a technocratic utopia. Bacon makes clear that his imaginary American “New Atlantis” is predictive of where he thinks technology designed through empirical science could lead humanity. So what does Bacon’s America look like, what does his future look like? A Bensalemite explains to their visitors that what is possible are “high towers,” and “the producing also of new artificial metals,” to make fruit that is “greater and sweeter, and of differing taste, smell, color, and figure.” There are “heats, in imitation of the suns,” that in New Atlantis it is possible to “represent and imitate all articulate sounds,” that there is “flying in the air,” and “ships and boats for going under water.” Most tellingly there are “houses of deceits of the senses, where we represent all manner of feats of juggling, false apparitions, impostures and illusions.” America has oft-been represented as that land of continual, almost garish progress, a technologically addicted society ruled by a never-ending desire for novelty. For a contemporary reader it is eerie to read of Bacon’s society with its skyscrapers, its synthetic materials, seeming nuclear power, recorded sound, airplanes, submarines and most telling of all movie theaters (or TV, or computers…..).

[9] But it’s only a mistake of historical perspective that has us seeing Dee as so different from Bacon. After all, Dee believed that the universe was orderly and understandable, that mathematics could describe it, explain it, and predict it, that tools could be developed that changed and improved life. What was his obsidian mirror but a calculating machine, a computer? It was after all a type of technology, a black mirror as enigmatic as the computer screen turned off reflecting our own distorted faces back at ourselves. But Dee, for all of his professional silence, was too outspoken in his private writings. Bacon had the good sense to have faith in future generations to solve these problems and to invent these technologies, Dee’s arrogance was such that his system was already complete. Instead of scrivening mirrors we have computers and they operate not on unseen angels but on unseen electrons. Because of his failures Dee remains modernity’s dark and forgotten twin. We are able to live in a world that he could conceive of, but one which he could have never invented.

Lehigh University, April 2015

About the author

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

Ralph Hanna (ed.), The Buke of the Howlat by Richard Holland (Boydell and Brewer, 2014)

Ralph Hanna (ed.), The Buke of the Howlat by Richard Holland  (Woodbridge and Rochester: Boydell and Brewer, 2014). ISBN: 9781897976395, 226 pp., $70.00.

Reviewed by Helen F. Smith

[1] The Buke of the Howlat is a 1,003 line poem written in early Scots in the fifteenth century by Richard Holland. Holland, who was priest and canon of Kirkwell in 1457, can be found in catalogues of the great dead poets of Scotland, and Hanna has observed that ‘the finest Middle Scots poets engaged with The Howlat’ (p. 15). This includes poets such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and even Lekpreuik’s 1571 edition of Barbour’s Bruce.

[2] The oldest extant alliterative poem in Scots, The Buke of the Howlat is written in thirteen-line stanzas that are a distinctive feature of Scots tradition, known as ‘rouncefallis’ by King James VI (p. 45). The poem is evocative of Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules in presenting a hierarchy of birds within a governmental metaphor. Within the poem, which is a comic allegory, an owl who feels deformed with ugliness appeals to the Pope (a peacock) to help improve his appearance. The Pope calls a council made up of bishops and ecclesiastical dignitaries, the Emperor (an eagle) and other representatives. After a banquet is held with a series of entertainers, including a musical mavis and merle; a juggling jay; a rook reciting a rhapsody on the genealogy of Irish Kings in mock Gaelic; and two mocking fools (a tuchet and a golk), the owl’s request is finally granted. The owl’s new plumage is made up of feathers from each of the present birds, but when the owl becomes arrogant, the birds pray that he is changed back by Nature. Consequently, the owl reflects sorrowfully on his pride and vanity. Despite this central focus on the owl, Hanna is careful to note that this bird is not the ‘unique target of the poem’s satire’ continuing that the other birds are ‘just as silly’ as the owl in their intention to amend Nature’s creation (p. 32). He argues that the moral ‘is not concerned with social climbing and its ill effects’ but instead that ‘human pride rests on precisely colores, engagement with the merely decorative’ (p. 33). Human beings are just like the owl, in pursuing impermanent objects rather than eternal truths, and ‘thus are not spiritually proper’ (p. 33).

[3] The poem also includes an interlude, which tells of the career of Sir James Douglas. Hanna has noted that ‘Holland plays upon the Douglases’ connection to generative nature’ (p. 30), thus linking this eminent family to the theme of nature which appears throughout the text (embodied by the allegorical character Nature). Hanna describes this as being the ‘heart’ of the entire poem, since it concerns James’ service, carrying the heart of Robert Bruce to Palestine, an action through which ‘he expresses his own heart, faithful to the death’ (p. 35).

[4] This new edition of the poem by Ralph Hanna is based upon three early witnesses to the text: Cambridge University Library, Sel. l. 19 (ll. 537-99); National Library of Scotland, MS 16500, fols 213r-28v; and National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates’ l. l. 6, fols 302r-10v. In his introduction to the poem, Hanna provides information on: the three sources of the text; the author and date; Holland’s language; literary sources and Holland’s poem; Holland’s verse; and editing the text. Unusually, an exact provenance can be assigned to the text, for, as Hanna points out, in the concluding stanza the poet ‘wittily insures the transmission of his name by including it in the rhyming position’ (p. 10). As this stanza associates Richard Holland with the household of the Earl of Moray, Archibald Douglas and his wife, Elizabeth Dunbar, Hanna’s edition includes a family tree of the ‘Black’ Douglases. This is not the only historical insight the text provides, for many studies have read the poem through the ‘lens of contemporary Scottish politics’ notes Hanna, which has afforded the text a ‘narrower chronological placement’ (pp. 12-13). These historical details refer to the heraldic devices of the humanised birds, such as the description of the papal arms (ll. 339-51), which are ‘associable with the antipope Felix V’ (p. 13).

[5] On Holland’s language, the editor provides an account of some the linguistic features of the text, explained with transcriptions from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Whilst Hanna points out that the reader might expect Holland’s language to correspond with well known features of late medieval Scots, his rhyme scheme actually relies upon some pronunciations identified with ‘scribes located in fringe areas of western and southwestern Yorkshire’ (p. 17). He thus makes further discussion of what he refers to as Holland’s marginal yet persistent ‘Anglicisms’ (p. 17) later in his introduction. Similarly, in his section on Holland’s verse, Hanna goes into lengthy detail about the rhyme scheme, and how this works linguistically.

[6] In his section on the literary sources for Holland’s poem, Hanna argues that the poem is not merely a fable, for it ‘engages in a standard example of a specific type of amplificatio’ (p. 23). Whilst he acknowledges that the source of the poem is ‘a commonplace fable for schoolboys’ he notes that this type of text was ‘regularly imported into adult contexts as a preacher’s exemplum’ (p. 24). Hanna goes on to suggest that the text ‘involves recourse to literary works more august than the fable tradition’ (p. 25). This interpretation of the complexity of the style and function of the poem is made convincing by Hanna’s insightful explanation and understanding of the central moral of the text, on human spiritual impairment in pursuing material objects above eternal truths, as described above.

[7] On the layout of this edition of The Buke of the Howlat, the line numbers of the poem are referenced alongside the text in five-line increments and Hanna also helpfully includes a reference to the corresponding folio number and side. Whilst an insightful textual commentary and a glossary are included, it is a shame that these do not also appear alongside the text instead of in separate sections towards the end of the book.

[8] Overall, The Buke of the Howlat is an enjoyable Scots poem with a compelling introduction by Ralph Hanna.

University of Edinburgh, April 2015