Richard Moll

title.none: Bawcutt, Medieval Scottish Poetry (Richard Moll)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.016 07.10.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Moll, University of Western Ontario,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Bawcutt, Priscilla and Janet Hadley Williams. A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry. Woodbridge, U.K. Rochester N.Y.: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. xi, 229. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-096-0 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.16

Bawcutt, Priscilla and Janet Hadley Williams. A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry. Woodbridge, U.K. Rochester N.Y.: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. xi, 229. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-096-0 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Richard Moll
University of Western Ontario

As many of the contributors to this comprehensive volume comment, Scottish poetry has not received the same sustained critical attention as Middle English verse. This Companion shows, however, that quality work is being carried out on a diverse and fascinating corpus and the collection invites and rewards participation in this scholarly project.

Like most such projects, The Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry is organized around several central literary figures and a collection of minor voices arranged by genre. After a brief introduction in which the editors outline Scottish poetic traditions of the Middle Ages (which, in keeping with common Scottish practice, is here extended well into the sixteenth century), chapter 1 provides a prcis of late medieval Scottish history. Elizabeth Ewan focuses on the problems and contrasts faced by a remote country plagued by a series of royal minorities which also aspired to play a significant role in European politics and culture. This necessarily brief introduction also includes paragraphs on the state and reformation of the church, education, the role of women and the economic status of towns.

The discussion of poetry proper begins in chapter 2 and follows a roughly chronological progression which begins with Barbour's Bruce and ends with the work of Sir David Lindsay. Most of the contributions are descriptive, but a few do make substantive arguments. R. James Goldstein (chapter 2), for example, discusses the ethical nature of medieval historiography, a genre which often sees the individual life, whether of Bruce, Wallace or a series of kings, not only as an organizing narrative principle, but also as an exemplum for the reader. Rhiannon Purdie (chapter 11) also addresses generic concerns in her discussion of medieval Scottish romance. Purdie looks at formal structural details, such as verse form, but also at thematic concerns such as a tendency toward advice for rulers (which is witnessed in both Rauf Coilyear and Golagros and Gawane) and argues for a distinctive Scottish romance tradition. Purdie supports this claim by pointing to the close-knit community of romance writers and readers which is attested through intertextual references and poems such as Dunbar's "Lament for the Makars."

The intertextuality of Scottish verse generally is also stressed by Janet Hadley Williams in her discussion of Sir David Lindsay (chapter 12). After a brief biography, Williams outlines Lindsay's debts to other Scottish poets, notably Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas, and to English models. It is that interaction with Middle English traditions, and European traditions generally, which is the most recurring theme of the collection. Nicola Royan (chapter 3) places Richard Holland's The Buke of the Howlat firmly within an insular literary context, showing, for example, how its structure and verse form mirror The Awntyrs off Arthure and Golagros and Gawane while its content draws on Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (among others). Similarly, Julia Boffey's analysis of Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 24 (which contains The Kingis Quair and other Scottish verse along with texts by Chaucer, Lydgate and Hoccleve) places all of these texts (both Scottish and English) within a "British" community of readers and a European community of writers. Joanna Martin (chapter 5) treats Sir Gilbert Hay's Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour, outlining the intertextual nature of Hay's work which weaves its French sources with shorter exempla to form a coherent narrative but (at times) an ambiguous portrait of Alexander himself. She concludes by considering both the poem's relationship to larger European traditions of Alexander and the continued popularity of his narrative in medieval Scotland.

By emphasizing Scottish verse's debt/relationship to Middle English traditions contributors are often forced to grapple with the term "Scots Chaucerians" and this is felt no more clearly than in the two chapters devoted to Robert Henryson. These are also the two chapters most clearly engaged with current critical debates. Roderick J. Lyall (chapter 6) explores the Morall Fabillis by outlining recent structural readings of the poem. As with the discussions of Holland and Hay, Lyall stresses the European nature of Henryson's collection which draws not only on the most popular Aesop collections (particularly the elegiac Romulus) but also on The Nun's Priest's Tale, the Roman de Renart and others. Ann M. McKim (chapter 7) then takes up Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice and The Testament of Cresseid. The Testament must be one of the most analyzed of Scottish poems and it receives the lion's share of attention here as McKim outlines debates concerning date, genre, meaning, role of the narrator, the assessment of Cresseid and the relationship between Henryson's and Chaucer's poems.

In contrast, chapter 8 is devoted to one of the most neglected fields: religious verse. Priscilla Bawcutt describes the range of materials including Walter Kennedy, William of Touris and a variety of Marian verses. The chapter is essentially a list and bibliography of texts since little critical commentary exists.

Finally, chapters by John Burrow (chapter 9) and Douglas Gray (chapter 10) focus on the rhetorical sophistication of Scottish verse. Burrow divides William Dunbar's work into three categories, laudatory poems, vituperative poems and petitions and deftly and eloquently explores Dunbar's complex rhetoric, which moves from aureate Latinism to vulgar insults in the low style. This overview of Dunbar's many poems reveals a poet in command of his diction, his many and diverse verse forms and his language. Gray touches on Gavin Douglas's Palice of Honour but focuses on the Eneados and its relationship to Virgil's original. As in Chapter 9, Gray outlines Douglas's rhetorical technique as his translation mimics, expands and at times competes with Virgilian eloquence.

A useful "Guide to Further Reading," arranged by topic, facilitates further study on any of the texts discussed. My only criticism of the volume is that its audience is not clear. Many of the texts under consideration are summarized thoroughly, and at one point Williams feels the need to define "genres" as "kinds of verse" (187). These details presumably assume an audience new to the field. Much of the quoted Old French and Latin, however, goes untranslated, and even the Scots texts, many of which are challenging for those not used to the language, could have benefited from the occasional gloss. On the whole, however, this will be a useful reference tool for any student approaching Scots texts for the first time. The practitioner of Middle English will also find hidden gems which enrich our understanding of British traditions. If there has been a modern tendency to view Scottish poetry as isolated or derivative (as the term "Scots Chaucerians" sometimes implies), this volume reveals a tightly knit community of poets who were also deeply engaged participants in the literary culture of medieval Europe.