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William Calin, The Lily and the Thistle: The French Tradition and the Older Literature of Scotland – Essays in Criticism (University of Toronto Press, 2014)

William Calin, The Lily and the Thistle: The French Tradition and the Older Literature of Scotland – Essays in Criticism (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-4426-4665-0, 432 pp. $70.00.

Reviewed by Emily Wingfield


[1] In the eighty years since Janet M. Smith published The French Background of Middle Scots Literature (1934) relatively little work has been done on the influence of French on medieval and early modern Scottish literature; with the exception of some notable articles by scholars such as R.D.S. Jack and Priscilla Bawcutt, most scholarship has instead focused on the influence of Italian, Latin or English literary culture. Calin’s The Lily and the Thistle – in many ways a companion or ‘sequel’ to his The French Tradition and the Literature of Medieval England (1994) – is therefore a timely and welcome return to a topic eminently worthy of study.

[2] The book is divided into four parts (with a series of independent chapters within each part). Part 1 makes a case for reading James I’s Kingis Quair, Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, Douglas’ Palice of Honour, Dunbar’s Thrissill and the Rois and Goldyn Targe and John Rolland’s lesser known Court of Venus, alongside the French dit amoureux tradition. It is well known that texts in that tradition by writers such as Machaut and Froissart had a large impact on those Middle English writers such as Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate with whom subsequent Scottish authors engaged but Calin here proposes that the Scottish and French material should be read directly alongside one another rather than simply through the lens of a Middle English intermediary. In some cases, this is more successful than others. Thus the symbolism of the Tudor rose still strikes me as a more likely context for Dunbar’s Thrissill and the Rose than French texts rich in floral imagery or allegory (such as Gerbert de Montreuil’s Le Roman de la Violette) and Rolland’s Court of Venus was, I suspect, written under the more direct influence of Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas rather than the French Belle Dame sans Mercy Cycle. However, Calin makes a very convincing case for the influence on James I’s Kingis Quair of Machaut’s Remède de Fortune, La Fonteinne amoureuse and Le Confort d’Ami, and Froissart’s Le Paradis d’Amour, Le Dit dou Bleu Chevalier and La Prison amoureuse, and he finds useful analogues for Henryson’s Testament in both the aforementioned Belle Dame sans Mercy Cycle and in a series of French texts that engage with leprosy (e.g. Beroul’s Roman de Tristan, Ami et Amile, La Queste del Saint Graal and the romance, Jaufre). Interesting parallels are also drawn between Douglas’ Palice of Honour, the dit amoureux tradition, and French ‘Honour poems’ such as Octovien de Saint-Gelais’ Séjour d’Honneur, but I have some reservations about the influence of the latter’s Les Énéydes de Virgille translatez (1509) on Douglas’ Eneados.

[3] Part 2 brings together a collection of comic, satiric and didactic texts and examines the French sources and/or analogues of Henryson’s Morall Fabillis, Dunbar’s Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo and various ‘court’ poems, Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, Testament of the Papyngo and Squyer Meldrum, the little-known Freiris of Berwik, and King Hart. In the first chapter, Calin reasserts the influence of Old French fable collections (Isopets) and Marie de France’s Fables on Henryson’s Fabillis (and along the way makes the interesting suggestion that the lion might stand for Aesop and the mouse for Henryson in ‘The Lion and the Mouse’). In the second chapter, Calin positions Dunbar’s Tretis firmly within the French chanson de mal mariée tradition and draws parallels too with several bawdy French fabliaux and Jean de Meun’s part of Le Roman de la Rose. Links are also made to three later French texts (Le Fèvre’s Lamentations de Matheolus, Deschamps’ Le Miroir de mariage, and Les XV Joies de mariage) before, in the final half of the chapter, a case is made for seeing Dunbar and Deschamps as kindred poetic spirits. Subsequently, Calin detects in Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre the influence of French farce, moralité, and sottie (and the combination of all three in Pierre Gringore’s Le Jeu du Prince des Sotz et de Mère Sotte) and draws parallels between the Testament of the Papyngo and Jean Lemaire de Belges’ Les Épîtres de l’Amant Vert. The Freiris of Berwick is then usefully compared to the French Le Povre Clerc and King Hart, somewhat more tenuously, to René d’Anjou’s Le Livre du Cuer d’amours espris.

[4] In the third section of the book, Calin analyses five romances: Fergus, Lancelot of the Laik, Golagros and Gawane, Rauf Coilyear and Eger and Grime. Fergus is not often studied as part of the Scottish romance corpus but Calin sets a useful precedent in doing so and suggests that the text ‘be considered the rough equivalent in Scotland of the Anglo-Norman romance in England’ (p. 179; c.f. p. 5). The next two chapters on Lancelot and Golagros reassert prior critical arguments about the importance in the Scots translations of advice to princes elements that are either minimal or not present in the original French versions. Analogues for Rauf Coilyear are sought in certain rustic Christian warriors in the French chanson de geste tradition and Calin’s overall reading of the romance attends well to its blend of comic motifs and more serious political themes. In the final chapter, he successfully compares and contrasts Eger and Grime to the chanson de geste and romance versions of the Ami and Amile story (already discussed in relation to Henryson’s Testament).

[5] In Part 4, Calin turns his attention to material by Mary Queen of Scots, James VI, William Alexander and William Drummond of Hawthornden. In the first chapter he offers a brief but tantalising reassessment of French language material ascribed to Mary Queen of Scots, including the infamous Casket Sonnets, which he places both in the general French context of fin’amor and more specific context of writing by female love poets such as Louise Labé. In the second chapter, he examines the many uses James VI made of French writers (especially Guillaume de Saluste du Bartas) and argues that James was deliberately ‘writing against’ the influence of his mother and her writings by self-consciously constructing himself as a Protestant and epic poet. The next chapter provides a much-needed reassessment of Alexander’s Monarchicke Tragedies by placing them in the wider context of French humanist tragedies popular in the Sir Philip Sidney/Countess of Pembroke coterie. The Tragedy of Darius is, for instance, read productively as a synthetic response to Daire and Alexandre by Jacques de La Taille; one only regrets that Calin did not discuss the earlier Scots Alexander tradition in Part 3 since a number of useful comparisons (especially concerning the significant role of female characters and questions of statecraft) might have been drawn. Finally, Calin makes a case for the significant influence across Drummond’s corpus of French (and not just Italian) writers and the chapter ends with a detailed consideration of the use Drummond made in his Flowers of Sion of works by Ronsard, such as his Hymne de l’Éternité and Hymne de la Justice, and a fruitful comparison of Drummond’s Forth Feasting (a panegyric on James VI/I’s first return to Scotland in 1617) and Ronsard’s Panegyrique de la Renommée (in praise of King Henri III).

[6] As convincing and thought-provoking as most of Calin’s comparative readings are, he does not always consider in sufficient detail how the Scottish writers he studies accessed the French material cited as sources and analogues. The chapter on James I’s Kingis Quair is particularly strong because of the attention Calin pays to James’ probable access to texts in the dit amoureux tradition during his imprisonment in England – perhaps alongside Charles d’Orléans – and sojourn in France with Henry V, but such analysis is often lacking in subsequent chapters. It would also be helpful if translations of French quotations were provided.

[7] That said, the wide-ranging The Lily and the Thistle will certainly make a significant contribution to the field and no doubt bring about a reassessment of the sources for and influences behind some of the most well known Older Scots literature. It should also prompt much-needed further study of the role of the French language and culture in medieval Scotland. Groundbreaking work has emerged in recent years on the so-called ‘French of England’ by scholars such as Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Ardis Butterfield. The Lily and the Thistle will, I hope, form a vanguard for a similar study of the ‘French of Scotland’.

University of Birmingham, June 2014