Scotland’s forgotten language

Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (Sp Coll Mu48-f.31-32)

Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (Sp Coll Mu48-f.31-32)

In a talk to the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society next Thursday, Scotland’s Forgotten Language: Latin Print Culture in Renaissance and Reformation Scotland, the University of Glasgow’s Dr Steven Reid will look back to the 16th and 17th centuries and the important role Latin played in the lives of many Scots. In contrast with our contemporary Anglophone culture, renaissance-era Scots were arguably more likely to engage with the ideas, and emulate the fashions, of continental Europeans than their English neighbours*. Many educated Scots saw themselves as part of an international humanist community fascinated by the classical past. The obvious language of publication for many, therefore, was neo-Latin, a European lingua franca. In support of Dr Reid’s talk, we will shed light on a few interesting examples of early Scottish-authored Latin works held here in Special Collections.

The only sensible place to start is with a modest little two-volume work entitled Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (hereafter DPS) published in Amsterdam in 1637, of which Special Collections holds three copies. The DPS is, in fact, the largest anthology of neo-Latin poetry ever produced, collecting together the works of thirty seven different Scottish poets. Importantly though, it is also the subject of an ongoing AHRC-funded project (which Dr Reid leads) researching the place of Latin in early modern Scotland. The DPS is a strange beast – a mishmash of reprints of well know and widely available works, poems previously published but scarce, and a small number of never before published poems. Since most Scots neo-Latinists relied on continental printing houses to publish their work (see ** for possible reasons why), Dr Reid attributes the DPS’s odd make-up to the fact that the project’s brainchild, Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit, relied on overseas correspondents to send him the latest and best Scots verse issued from the presses. When this tactic failed (as it apparently did too often) he packed the work with popular, but well-known ‘filler’ already available in Scotland. But despite its obvious flaws (e.g. it also fails to include some of the most prominent neo-Latinists like George Buchanan), the DPS, Reid argues, remains a vitally important source of evidence highlighting parts of the intellectual and courtly life of early modern Scotland. ***

Boece's Explicatio quorundam vocabulorum (Sp Coll Bl5-h.9)

Boece’s Explicatio quorundam vocabulorum (Sp Coll Bl5-h.9)

However, Scots didn’t wait until the 17th century to make their impact in print. Although there are no Scottish incunabula (i.e. books printed before 1501. Nb. The first book printed in Scotland is produced in 1508), we do hold continental Latin incunables by Scottish authors. Scottish-born Montpellier physician Bernard de Gordon’s (fl. 1260-1318) Practica, seu Lilium medicinae is one example. This medieval medical text must have circulated for many years in copies written out by hand before the arrival of the printing press made possible our two Italian-printed copies, one from Ferrara, the other Venice.

Continental travel and a continental education were of prime importance to Scots in the early 16th century, with Paris and its university often playing an important role. It is unsurprising therefore, that some of the most important early Latin works by Scottish authors also issue from the Parisian press. **** We’ve picked out a few interesting examples by prominent Scottish authors:

Early provenance in Boece's Explicatio quorundam vocabulorum (Sp Coll Bl5-h.9)

Early provenance in Boece’s Explicatio quorundam vocabulorum (Sp Coll Bl5-h.9)

Hector Boece (c. 1465-1536): Scottish historian Hector Boece studied at the University of Paris in the late 15th century, before returning home to teach at King’s College Aberdeen. In addition to holding copies of his most well known and celebrated work, Scotorum historia, printed in Paris in 1527 (we’ve previously blogged about a Scots language translation), Special Collections holds the apparently unique surviving copy of Boece’s first book, Explicatio quorundam vocabulorum ad cognitionem dialecticos conducentium opera *5. This small text on logic, probably printed in Paris in 1519, bears several early marks of ownership and has seen considerable use. It is now missing its titlepage and bears many early marginal comments on the text (most unfortunately partially cropped by a later, careless, binder).

Inscription and tarnished arms of William Hay in Mair's 1521 Historia majoris Britanniae (Sp Coll Bl6-i.20)

Inscription and tarnished arms of William Hay in Mair’s 1521 Historia majoris Britanniae (Sp Coll Bl6-i.20)

John Mair (c. 1467-1550): historian, philosopher and Principal of Glasgow University, Mair was one of Boece’s contemporaries at the University of Paris. Perhaps his most well known work is Historia majoris Britanniae tam Angliae quam Scotiae which was published in 1521 by celebrated Paris printer Jodocus Badius Ascensius who also issued Boece’s Scotorum Historia a few years later. Special Collections holds several copies of this 1521 printing, including a copy with the 16th century ownership inscription and arms of William Hay, Canon of Aberdeen. It has been contended that this might be the same William Hay who was a fellow student of Boece’s and Mair’s at the University of Paris, and who succeeded Boece as Principal of King’s College, Aberdeen.

Titlepage of Manderston's Bipartitum, with early manuscript verse on facing page (Sp Coll BE6-b.11)

Titlepage of Manderston’s Bipartitum, with early manuscript verse on facing page (Sp Coll BE6-b.11)

William Manderston (c. 1485-1552): a Glasgow University graduate who went on to study in Paris alongside Mair, philosopher and logician Manderston rose to become Rector of the University of Paris. We hold a very interesting copy of his second work, Bipartitum in morali philosophia opusculum published in Paris in 1518. The work bears numerous early marks of ownership by students and staff at St. Salvator’s College in St Andrews, testifying to the fact that it was brought to Scotland at an early date. Of particular interest are the 50 plus pages of 16th-century manuscript notes, which include verses of religious poetry possibly written by Scottish student John Burnet c. 1529.

Plantin 1567 edition of Buchanan's Psalms (Sp Coll BC19-h.17)

Plantin 1567 edition of Buchanan’s Psalms (Sp Coll BC19-h.17)

George Buchanan (1506-1582): Buchanan is recognised as perhaps the pre-eminent Scottish neo-Latinist of his generation and was one of the most admired poets in the whole of Europe. Having studied under Mair at St. Andrews, Buchanan travelled to the University of Paris, where he studied and later taught. One of his most celebrated works of poetry was a metrical Latin translation of the Psalms. We hold examples from several different editions, including the 1567 edition printed in Antwerp by the Plantin press. By the 1560s Antwerp had overtaken Paris as the source of most continentally printed Latin books imported into Scotland, and there is evidence that Buchanan’s Antwerp-printed Psalms were in high demand, particularly from members of the Scottish Kirk and from universities.*6 For an overview of other Buchanan books held in Special Collections see our online exhibition.

Mark Alexander Boyd's Epistolae heroides et hymni with false imprint and ornament removed (Sp Coll 732)

Mark Alexander Boyd’s Epistolae heroides et hymni with false imprint and ornament removed (Sp Coll 732)

Many other Scots – some living at home and some abroad – published important Latin works during the period on which Dr Reid will focus. For example Special Collections holds interesting early Latin texts by Patrick Adamson, Andrew Melville, John Leech, Arthur Johnston, David Wedderburn and another former Principal of Glasgow University, Robert Boyd of Trochrigg. However, we’d like to finish by highlighting a fascinating little collection of poetry and prose published by Scottish humanist Mark Alexander Boyd (1563-1601). Epistolae heroides et hymni contains a range of classically-tinged poems inspired by Ovid, dedications to important Scottish men including James VI and Patrick Sharp, then Principal of Glasgow University, and even a treatise on the nature and training of poets. The work was published in La Rochelle by Jérôme Haultin in 1592 but bears a false imprint claiming to have been printed in Antwerp *7. La Rochelle was an infamous Huguenot hotbed in the 16th century and it was common for controversial protestant texts printed there to bear false imprints to help evade detection. In this instance, despite the content being unlikely to offend, the false imprint of Antwerp – a safe Catholic city – has been added, in all likelihood to allow the book to circulate among the less wary French Catholic market who would have been deterred by a La Rochelle imprint.*8

Manuscript fragments visible in binding of Boyd (Sp Coll 732)

Manuscript fragments visible in binding of Boyd (Sp Coll 732)

However this is not the only interesting feature of this book. The copy survives in a very tatty early vellum binding, the front cover of which has deteriorated to reveal a front board comprising several early manuscript documents pasted together, and an even earlier manuscript text written on the reverse side of the vellum cover. Early manuscript ownership inscriptions for a Robert Lyndsay and Alex Purves suggest that the book may have found its way back to Scotland at an early date. However only close, expert analysis of the manuscript fragments may tell us if they are French, Scottish or from somewhere else altogether – a definite project for someone out there. You perhaps?

Details of Dr Reid’s talk can be found on the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society website.


*Jonquil Bevan, ‘Scotland’ in Barnard, J. and McKenzie, D.F. (eds.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume IV, 1557-1695 (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), p. 688.

**Why did Scottish neo-Latinists (Scotstarvit and the DPS included) rely on continental printing houses to produce their books? Well, the simple answer is that continental printers were more experienced at Latin printing than Scottish printers, and more established. The printing press didn’t arrive in Scotland till the early years of the 16th century, and once introduced, output remained low. On average, fewer than ten titles were produced annually until the 1570s and only 350 titles printed throughout the century. The Scottish booktrade, therefore, was provincial and simply lacked the connections and distribution chain of the major print houses in Paris, Antwerp or Amsterdam. There is also the matter of quality: Scottish (and indeed English) printers were far more accustomed to printing books in the vernacular and their Latin work was often error strewn. University of Glasgow Principal Robert Baillie for example, commented in a letter of 1658 that the “Latine that is printed either here [Scotland] or at London, is … exceedingly ill done” moving him to send his manuscripts to the Dutch Elzevir press and recommending others to do likewise. Those Scots wishing to read Latin texts were well served by a sophisticated trade importing books (officially encouraged by the authorities deliberately forgoing customs duty), mostly from France before 1560 and subsequently the Low Countries (Antwerp until 1585, Amsterdam and other northern towns after that). See: Margaret Lane Ford, ‘Importation of printed books into England and Scotland’ in Helinga, L. and Trapp, J.P. (eds.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume III, 1400-1557 (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) p. 193 ; Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven; London: YUP, 2010) p. 263; Alastair J. Mann, The Scottish book trade 1500-1720 (East Linton, Tuckwell, 2000) pp. 73-76, 136-138; The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, v3 (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1842) p.382.

***Steven J. Reid, ‘”Quasi Sibyllae Folia Dispersa”: The anatomy of the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (1637) in Williams, Janet Hadley and McClure, J. |Derrick (eds.), Fresche fontanis: Studies in the culture of medieval and early modern Scotland (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

****Margaret Lane Ford, ‘Importation of printed books into England and Scotland’ in Helinga, L. and Trapp, J.P. (eds.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume III, 1400-1557 (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) p. 194

*5 Nicola Royan, ‘Boece , Hector (c.1465–1536)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [, accessed 28 March 2014]

*6 Alastair J. Mann, The Scottish book trade 1500-1720 (East Linton, Tuckwell, 2000) pp. 73, 211

*7 Nicola Royan, ‘Boyd, Mark Alexander (1563–1601)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 28 March 2014]

*8 Many thanks to Malcolm Walsby, Université Rennes 2 (@lankian on Twitter) providing this explanation for a false imprint. His comments to me on this in full are:

“On the case in hand, I think that we have a tactic similar to that employed by the Genevan presses. Everyone in the sixteenth century knew that La Rochelle was a centre of protestant printing. This was fine (and, in fact, quite useful) for religious books or polemical works which were aimed at a safely Calvinist/ Protestant readership. But in the case of more general works it was a severe handicap. How could you rival the production of Paris, Lyon, or indeed Antwerp, if the Catholic market was de facto closed to you because you were a Protestant printer? Well, one solution to the problem was to print anonymously, to cheat with the address or to use a false imprint.

Thus in Geneva, the classical works were often just printed with the publisher’s name, or in the case of the Estienne or the de Tournes with misleading captions (respectively styling themselves as “of Paris” or “of Lyon”). Here, Jérôme Haultin goes one further and pretends to be printing in Antwerp, a safely Catholic city, but one whose books would have been less familiar to the French than those printed with Paris or Lyon type. This allows the book to circulate amongst the less wary and allows his bales to avoid interception.”


Categories: Special Collections

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: