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Editorial: Natio Scota

Editorial: Natio Scota

Alessandra Petrina

[1] Natio Scota was the name chosen for the Thirteenth International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, which took place in Padua in July 2011. It was the first time that the ‘Scottish Conference’ had migrated to Italy; by an interesting coincidence it was hosted by the first university to admit, in 1534, the existence of a Natio Scota, a group of students sharing the same Scottish national identity – even if this birth was only the result of chance, or political calculation, as a recent study has made clear (Piovan, forthcoming). This coincidence suggested the opportunity to study the meeting of two strands in medieval and early modern Scottish literature: the definition of a literary canon, and the definition of the Scottish nation. Attempting an assessment of Scottish literature means above all dealing with a definition of this literature within a strongly defined national context: literature and nation grow together, and each contributes to the other’s definition. This was what we asked conference participants to consider in the papers that were presented, and in the lively discussions that took place over those five days.

[2] With sixty papers being presented, the themes and discussions ranged widely, and the conference offered an opportunity to assess the state of critical enquiry into Medieval and Renaissance cultural production in Scotland; the theme of the existence, formation and vindication of a Scottish nation remained present throughout, and was translated into literary terms through discussions of the Scottish canon, an issue that has been the object of critical discussion since Roderick J. Lyall’s seminal study in 1991. Here Lyall contended that the Scottish literary canon had erred on the side of nationalism, ‘privileging works which foreground their Scottishness at the expense of texts which are more universal in their style and/or content’ (Lyall 1991: 2). The issue involved not simply style and theme, but also language, as poetry and prose in Older Scots tended to occupy a dominant position in critical studies, incidentally giving priority to the debate on Anglo-Scottish literary relations over a possibly more propitious setting of Scottish literature (in one of its many languages) in a wider European context. The risk, clearly envisaged by Lyall, was that of a ‘coalescence, not to say complicity, in the canon-forming processes of English and Scottish literature’ (Lyall 1991: 15), while it was certainly time to envisage medieval Scottish literature as one more vernacular contribution to the European Middle Ages.

[3] In the twenty years between Lyall’s exhortation and the Padua conference, there has been a radical change in attitude on the part of scholars and critics dealing with late medieval and early modern Scottish works, a change reflected in the papers presented here. The present issue of JNR includes a small selection of the conference papers, but even within this range it will be seen that many of the issues under discussion in Padua are being re-presented here, allowing us to gauge the progress of Scottish studies since, and partly thanks to, Lyall’s own work. The early modern period in particular has benefited from attentive study and from an increase in scholarly editions, starting with the impressive work undertaken by the Scottish Text Society and drawing on earlier, epoch-making studies such as Helena Mennie Shire’s work on the relation between politics, poetry and music at the court of James VI (Shire 1969): the conference constituted also an opportunity to present much work in progress on editions of the works of John Stewart of Baldynneis, the Maitland Quarto, the satirical literature of the Reformation, and a corpus of comic and parodic poems; at the same time scholarly research has brought about the re-discovery of late sixteenth-century poets such as Elizabeth Melville, while electronic publication offers dazzling new opportunities in the editing and analysis of texts. The relation between literature and religion has been reconsidered in a recent collection of essays studying Scottish works across the divide between Middle Ages and Renaissance (Houwen 2012); literature composed at the court of James VI has been newly assessed in the articles collected and edited by David Parkinson (Parkinson 2012), while the study of Scottish literature in Latin has received new impulse thanks to forthcoming volumes and projects (Johnson and Petrina, forthcoming; see also the ‘New Vistas’ project directed by Alasdair A. MacDonald and John Flood). More comprehensive works such as the 2012 Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature include an evaluation of the appearance and progress of Scottish studies (Carruthers and McIlvanney 2013: 248-60), while the forthcoming International Companion to Scottish Poetry promises equal attention to works in Gaelic, Norse and Latin, as well as in English and Scots (Sassi, forthcoming). Above all, we are asked to reconsider the positioning of Scottish literature within its European context, by reflecting not only on the cultural exchanges between Scotland and its close or less close neighbours, but also on the role played by politics and religion in the creation and implementation of a new literary language, thanks to its influence on collective imagery and modes of thought.

[4] Aptly enough, the present collection opens with Michael Bath’s study of the celebrations accompanying the baptism of Prince Henry in Stirling in 1594. Bath’s study draws on the description of the event written by William Fowler, who supervised the celebration and organized the entertainments in his role as Secretary to the Queen (interestingly, his description was printed, shortly after the baptism, in slightly different versions in Edinburgh and London), as well as on a tradition of studies on festivities and trionfi that has hitherto privileged English celebrations over Scottish ones (Anglo 1969; Orgel and Strong 1973). The Stirling entertainment, however, is set even more firmly in an international context by focusing on its analogies with contemporary French celebrations, especially as concerns the use of emblems and the marine pageantry. All this shows the strength of ‘the cultural commerce between Scotland and France in the sixteenth century’, and suggests a sharing of mythological symbols and of humanist iconography that offers a new setting for Scotland’s display of power in a propagandistic context in the late sixteenth century.

[5] If Bath uses a long-forgotten text by William Fowler to study the role of symbolism at the court of James VI, the contributions that follow show equal attention to works that a few decades ago would have been considered minor, but that offer a unique and novel approach to literary culture, revealing unexplored facets of Scottish early modern imagination. We go back to more traditional literary texts in Janet Hadley Williams’s contribution, dedicated to comic verse in Older Scots, and especially to the ‘Quha doutis?’ poem appearing in the Bannatyne miscellany. Through her analysis, Hadley Williams also offers an exemplary instance of the modern editor at work on a medieval Scottish text. Her close reading and use of analogies ranging from Aristides and Columella to Sacrobosco and Gavin Douglas offer useful clues for an identification of the time and cultural setting in which the poem was composed. The contribution thus welcomes back a long-forgotten poem within the canonical folds of early modern literature, highlighting at the same time the universality of some of its themes (the dream vision, the moralitas) and the peculiar Scottishness of some of its modes. Curious sounds, strange smells, fantastic shapes connote the dream atmosphere of this poem; dream-like classifications and eldritch sounds appear in another little-studied text, the ‘Monologue recreative’ set at the centre of the fifteenth-century Complaynt of Scotland and studied here by Luuk Houwen, who examines the animal catalogues contained in the monologue in the light of his knowledge of medieval bestiaries and the Scottish heraldic tradition. Houwen brings this text back into a wider European tradition by showing the influence of ars grammatica on this text through a close analysis of its rhetorical and stylistic traits, and identifying in Alain Chartier’s Quadrilogue invective a possible source. Houwen’s conclusions (‘here we have an author who is not only heavily indebted to medieval traditions but also one who is innovative enough to develop these traditions into something new and special’) appear to insist once again on the theme of the relation between tradition and innovation, which in the case of Scottish literature is profoundly embedded in the relation between local and international culture.

[6] The observation of nature and the use of literature to investigate the natural world is also the object of Karen Jillings’s study, dedicated to late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century literature on healing waters. As in the case of the previous contributions, the choice of generally overlooked texts allows Jillings to explore areas often considered only tangential to literary criticism, such as the use of vernacular in scientific writing; the impact of medicine on Renaissance humanism in Scotland; the development of medical education in Scottish universities, and the international models these universities followed. In her study we also see the progress that is made in early modern Scottish culture between a medieval, ‘gnostic’, authority-based approach to scientific issues and more modern, empirical attitudes, reflecting an international trend but at the same time forcing the scientist to concentrate on national, even local features through observation and experimentation. In this case, too, the scholar’s conclusion is that, by focussing on topical traits, these writers entered the ‘dynamic picture’ of European medical writing.

[7] The contribution that follows, on the other hand, concentrates on a poem that proclaims its European outlook in its very subject. Robert Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice represents a fascinating mixture of classical tradition and medieval interpretation of the myth, and Beatrice Mameli reads the poem proposing first an outline of the impact of the Orpheus myth in the British Isles, both in literary and in iconographic terms. In following the Boethius-Trivet reading of the myth, Henryson never forgets concomitant literary interpretations of the story, and Mameli posits the analysis of Henryson’s mediation between various sources (both classical and medieval) as a key to understanding the relation between author and intended audience. Through her analysis of the various characters of the poems, Mameli highlights the contradictions inherent in their representations – contradictions that morph into an ironic commentary on the mutable nature of the myth, an attitude that could evidently be appreciated by an erudite and sophisticated audience.

[8] Another romance, set in comparison with the tradition it is supposed to derive from, is discussed in the contribution that follows. Rhiannon Purdie reads Roswall and Lillian in relation with the early modern ballad ‘The Lord of Learne’, re-positioning such a relation through the proposal of a new chronology for the two texts, and highlighting the structural and thematic differences between the two texts. In this way what is challenged is the very ‘medieval nature’ of Roswall and Lillian, and, by extension, of chivalric romance, or indeed, the separateness in time of romance and ballad. It is a welcome reminder that the often re-proposed divide between medieval and early modern, already successfully challenged in the English context (as briefly but persuasively shown in Cooper 2006), is even less meaningful in Scottish literary history. 

[9] This issue of JNR offers one last exploration of obscure, un-canonical corners in its last contribution, in which Jamie Reid Baxter discusses Francis Hamilton’s religious verse. The essay offers also an exploration of the nature of the sonnet in seventeenth-century religious poetry in Scotland: Reid Baxter carefully disentangles Biblical echoes, Calvinist overtones, and personal and political allusions, uncovering a complex autobiographical background that constantly informs Hamilton’s poetry. At the same time as this early modern versifier is reclaimed into the literary canon, the critic asks us to reconsider our own attitudes as modern readers when approaching a medieval or early modern text. What we discover at the end of this variegated, polyphonic journey into Natio Scota is that the construction of a canon may indeed tell us more about modern reading attitudes than about the formation of a cultural tradition.

Università di Padova, Italy


Anglo, Sydney. 1969. Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Carruthers, Gerald, and Liam McIlvanney (eds). 2013. The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Cooper, Helen. 2006. Shakespeare and the Middle Ages. An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at the University of Cambridge, 29 April 2005 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Houwen, Luuk (ed.). 2012. Literature and Religion in Late Medieval and Early Modern Scotland. Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald (Leuven: Peeters)

Johnson, Ian, and Alessandra Petrina (eds). Forthcoming. Scottish Latinitas.

Lyall, Roderick J.. 1991. ‘“A New Maid Channoun”? Redefining the Canonical in Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Literature’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 26: 1-18.

Mennie Shire, Helena. 1969. Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under King James VI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Orgel, Stephen, and Roy Strong. 1973. Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet)

Parkinson, David J. (ed.). 2012. James VI and I, Literature and Scotland. Tides of Change, 1567-1625 (Leuven: Peeters)

Piovan, Francesco. Forthcoming. ‘Autonomy by Imposition. The Birth of the Natio Scota in the Law Faculty of the University of Padua (1534)’, in The Italian University in the Renaissance, special issue of Renaissance Studies, ed. by David Rundle and Alessandra Petrina

Sassi, Carla (ed.). Forthcoming. The International Companion to Scottish Poetry (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies)

Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown (eds.), Lydgate Matters. Poetry and Material Culture in the Fifteenth Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown (eds.), Lydgate Matters. Poetry and Material Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.  ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-7674-1. Hbk. 223 pp.; 2 b/w ills., £42.50.

Reviewed by Alessandra Petrina

[1]  Lydgate Matters is the latest of a small but constant stream of publications that, in recent years, have attested to sustained critical interest in the fifteenth-century poet. The matter of Lydgate appears to be of more relevance to cultural historians than literary critics; it is perhaps to be regretted that readings of Lydgate still depend on Derek Pearsall’s dictum that his vast output ‘needs understanding as a historical phenomenon’. Unsurprisingly, D. Vance Smith writes in his conclusion to the present book that ‘it has taken almost forty years, but Lydgate is finally recovering from Pearsall’ (185). The present volume, a collection of essays centring on a discussion of ‘what his poetry has to teach us about the role of the material – in quite a number of senses – in the later Middle Ages’ (1) once more evokes the familiar paradox: an excellent pretext for discussions on social issues, material culture, political and religious controversy or the development of humanism in England, Lydgate’s poetic output seems of less relevance as a text. Taken as an object of study, it mutates and vanishes, mirroring the changing influence it exercised in its immediate afterlife; this is shown by the political use to which The Fall of Princes was put once completed, or the fate of the religious poems, no longer published in English for a long time after 1534. This interpretation, however, may also become a limitation for literary critics; when Michelle Warren writes that ‘material culture offers an especially effective means of dismantling the aesthetic hierarchies that have made ‘style’ the basis of literary history’ (113) she is not only somewhat forcing the theoretical point, but also offering an unnecessary alibi for Lydgate scholars. To take up once more Warren’s words, the analysis of materialism does not challenge the idea of mediocrity as applied to Lydgate’s work; it simply removes the issue.

[2]  By setting matter at its centre, the editors of this volume have made an intelligent choice, granting a unifying theme while leaving scope for more traditional literary investigation. David Lawton’s influential article ‘Dullness and the Fifteenth Century’ (1987) asked scholars to reconsider the rhetorical attitude of fifteenth-century poets, whose distance from more familiar models has for a long time blinded modern readers to the late medieval writers’ use of the humility topos as a strategy to enter the public arena, re-defining from the start the relation between poet and patron or – the great novelty of the English fifteenth century – between the poem and its public consumption. Lawton’s suggestion is taken up by Claire Sponsler in the opening essay of the collection, which moves from Lydgate’s status as a monk to discuss the controversial issue of his impact on contemporary readers. As a writer belonging to an elite culture and writing primarily for an elite audience, Lydgate requires a radical re-drawing of the boundaries between elite and popular culture, given that in a number of instances (the most important being the surprising popularity of The Fall of Princes, attested by the number of extant manuscripts) his influence appears to have gone well beyond his intended audience; Sponsler proposes to examine the apparent paradox ‘by moving beyond the idea of imagined publics to an examination of the actual audiences for Lydgate’s public poems’ (15). Her analysis focuses on Lydgate’s writing for public entertainments, in the context of London’s idiosyncratic approach to civic festivities as an articulation of the relationship between the city and central political power. The evidence for Sponsler’s analysis is unfortunately limited essentially to Lydgate’s own texts and to Shirley’s or Stow’s comments or reactions; there is very little specific information on the circumstances in which, for instance, Lydgate’s mummings were played. The critic, however, proposes a new and refreshing reading of the authorial voice in the entertainments, referring also to John Shirley’s Lydgatean manuscripts and their circulation. In the end little is proved beyond the fact that ‘Lydgate’s entertainments for Londoners speak only falteringly in a common voice’ (27), but the impression of this reader is that the critic, constrained within the limit of a relatively short essay, makes here a number of suggestions towards a more comprehensive re-assessment of these texts.

[3]  Andrea Denny-Brown considers Bycorne and Chychevache, setting it in the tradition of misogynistic texts, while analysing its collocation within a larger discourse on virtues and vices, particularly avarice and coveitise. The richness of its references to French and English texts, and the exploration of contemporary visual references, help the reader to a clearer understanding of this often forgotten poem. Denny-Brown links the theme of devouring to wider issues of physical and spiritual appetite, and to ritual fasting in the liturgical year. The connection suggested between this motif and an anti-Lollard polemic (as Lollard sermons would not advocate fasting, which could engender avarice) appears tenuous, as it is worked out simply through the use of a word, chyncherie, which has obvious phonetic analogies with Chichevache, but has too few occurrences in late-medieval English literature to posses authentic evocative power. The link between chyncherie and the adoration of false gods is likewise strained, so that the representation of Lydgate’s monstrous beasts as ‘golden cows’ is not altogether convincing. Denny-Brown’s reading highlights the fundamental dichotomy between Lydgate’s frequent recourse to occasional poems as a favourite form of literary expression and the critical attempt to reconstruct the poet’s production as ideologically consistent.

[4]  London comes back as a central theme in Paul Strohm’s essay, which connects ‘Lydgate’s view of a purified city, a city of grand vistas and improved thoroughfares’ (59) to the problem of sewage in the large and royal medieval city. Strohm discusses the practical as well as symbolic values associated with a clean and well-flushed city, moving to an analysis of the Troy Book as an enactment of the metaphor of cleansing applied to the body politic. The episode he focuses on is the preservation of Hector’s body after his death – a nice instance of microcosm in that Lydgate, making use of Galenic theory, goes beyond Guido’s original and turns the dead and preserved body into an instance of vegetable, autonomous life. The next step is a parallel between the Priam-Hector relationship and the one between Chaucer and Lydgate, by which point we have moved rather far from London. The critic’s elegance of style and ease of reference carry through what might have been a perilous tour de force; the analogy between the well-plumbed city and the well-irrigated colon is successfully established, re-affirming Lydgate’s status as political poet. Washing and cleansing come back as the subjects of Maura Nolan’s essay, concentrating on what the critic calls ‘Lydgate’s worst poem’, the ‘Tretise for Lauandres’. The essay is a fine counterpoint to Strohm’s: the metaphor of cleanliness is successfully employed to express Lydgate’s ideology, this time on the religious rather than the civic level. Nolan uses both text analysis and a survey of manuscript collocation and circulation, strengthening her hypothesis and applying it to a wider corpus of Lydgatean poems. Set together, the two essays affirm the centrality of the preoccupation with purgation in Lydgate’s thought. This allows Nolan a memorable concluding passage on the relationship between modern readers and medieval manuscripts that brings forth a compelling evaluation of ‘the true density of the medieval poem’ (84): it is one of the high points of this volume.

[5]  We go back to Lydgate’s longer and more famous poems with Lisa Cooper’s essay, which studies the Pilgrimage of the Life of Man as an instance of estates literature and of anti-Lollard propaganda. The wide scope of this analysis is perhaps responsible for some lack of focus and a few repetitions; Lydgate’s poem, a translation of Deguileville’s even more complex test, is a formidable challenge, and the introduction of comparisons with manuscript illuminations and contemporary texts such as Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes does not always help to clarify the issue, nor does the critic establish a significant difference in ideological content between the Pilgrimage and its source text. The same problem with focus seems to besiege the following essay, Michelle Warren’s comparison of Lydgate’s texts with the literary production of Henry Lovelich, skinner and minor poet. Warren identifies ‘craft’ as one of the themes of a group of Lydgate’s poems that highlight the connection between the writer and the London world of artisans, and identifies common trends between Lovelich’s belonging to an old and influential London guild (which included members of the royal family) and Lydgate’s literary activity for the London merchant class. But some of the lines along which the comparison is worked are generic (the fact that both poets depended on patronage reflects little more than the common trend of English literary life at the time) and the references to disparate fields of enquiries, from manuscript analysis to historicism to work on metric and ‘style’ do not help a rather weak case.

[6]  Moving to the opposite end of the spectrum, Jennifer Floyd takes as subject matter of her work a tiny detail, John Shirley’s allusion to a ‘steyned halle’ in his headnote to Lydgate’s Legend of St George. More than one contributor in this volume refers to John Shirley and uses his words as evidence, which shows how far an investigation of Lydgatean matters should take into account material that is marginal to the poetic texts: notes, illuminations, iconographic material, manuscript evidence and historic background all help to illuminate the yet underestimated achievement of one of the most rewarding poets of late medieval England, as well as, Floyd notes, ‘a key player in the London scene’ (141). Floyd’s analysis starts from a fundamentally unproven hypothesis – that Lydgate’s Legend was written to be inscribed on the textile to which the expression ‘steyned halle’ refers – but in spite of the tenuousness of the premise, it allows her an interesting exploration of the role of guilds (in this case, the London Armourers’) in contemporary literary production. As in the case of the previous essay, it is a welcome reminder that medieval patronage is not a prerogative of the aristocracy and the church.

[7]  After this long excursus on Lydgate the Londoner, John Ganim’s essay brings back to us Lydgate the monk, dedicated to a defence and definition of his abbey, Bury St Edmunds, in the lines of the two poems he dedicated to the abbey’s patron saint. Through a description of Bury’s status and role in contemporary politics, Ganim sheds light on the role one of its most famous sons played, through his commissioned and occasional poetry, in the negotiations of power in contemporary England. It is a proof of this critic’s range of reference and critical acumen that the analysis also serves as a vindication of Lydgate’s poetic ability. It should also be noted that, unlike what happens in other essays in the collection, here Lydgate’s poetry is discussed as a form of archival record rather than a performative adjunct to civic and religious activities – yet another point on which future Lydgate studies would do well to elaborate, as it fits so unexpectedly well with his activity as a translator. D. Vance Smith’s concluding essay seems to take up Ganim’s challenge by offering, at last, a full-bodied evaluation of Lydgate’s writing in literary terms, inscribing his poem within ‘this persistence of the presence … a charming, even heroic, refusal to submit to its aporia’ (186) that constitutes a triumphant vindication of the medieval poet’s modernity.

[8]  If this volume prompts more questions than it answers, this is surely a good sign: other recent contributions, acknowledged in this volume, have shown critical restlessness in the matter of Lydgate. There is still much work to be done, not least towards a clearer definition of the Lydgate canon and a still lacking overall assessment of his work; but there is little doubt that the essays included here suggest new and stimulating directions for Lydgate criticism, and implicitly a rereading of the ‘dull’ fifteenth century.

Università degli Studi di Padova, November 2009