03.04.19, McDonald, History, Literature, and Music in Scotland, 700-1560

Main Article Content

James Goldstein

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.019


McDonald, Andrew, ed.. History, Literature, and Music in Scotland, 700-1560. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Pp. xx, 234. ISBN: 0-8020-3601-5.

Reviewed by:
James Goldstein
Auburn University

As the editor of this well-produced and informative collection explains, the volume began life as a one-day symposium on medieval Scotland held at the University of Toronto in early 1998. With its participants mostly based in North America and especially Canada, the occasion and resulting volume are meant to demonstrate that the study of medieval Scotland has come of age on this side of the Atlantic. As is often the case with such collections, the volume does not have a single focus by period, discipline, theme, or theoretical agenda. Instead, it samples the kind of empirically based work that currently thrives in a field that remains somewhat marginalized within North American academia. Although the majority of essays are by historians, the volume includes work from specialists in literature and music as well. If few readers are likely to be equally interested in all the diverse topics and disciplines represented in the individual essays, those with a commitment to early Scotland will be rewarded by reading the entire volume, which offers up-to-date and reliable scholarship on a wide range of fascinating topics. In addition, readers with primarily commitments outside of medieval Scotland but who are engaged in early medieval history, women's studies, early music, or Middle English literature, will no doubt wish to read selected chapters from the book. Because no one reviewer is likely to have all the specialized competences needed to assess the merits of such a wide range of research, I should make clear that my review comes from the perspective of a scholar who specializes in Middle Scots literature and whose philological competence does not include Gaelic or Scandinavian languages, which the ideal reviewer of the earlier historical studies would need. The editor begins the volume with an introduction, "Medieval Scotland and the New Millennium," which ably surveys the development of scholarly attention to medieval Scotland from the nineteenth-century pioneers to the first important modern Scottish historiography in the 1960s, soon followed by major work by historians from the 1970s through the 1990s, who mapped the field and opened the way for the more specialized historical research that the last few decades have seen. As McDonald rightly observes, one consequence of this work has been "the broadening scope of British history" (8). The first part of the introduction could serve as a useful overview for a newcomer to the field. The remainder of the introduction summarizes the individual essays, looking for broader themes that offer some continuities: how important to good scholarship is the creative use of all the available sources (especially crucial for periods and places where primary documentation is limited); how medieval Scotland was closely connected economically, politically, and culturally to other medieval societies; and how the "sub-themes" of gender, and entertainment and culture are attracting important new work. The weight of the collection as a whole, though, clearly falls on historical research, with literature and music lagging far behind.

In Chapter 1, "The Scottish Gaze," Benjamin T. Hudson, a leading expert on early Gaelic Scotland, offers a masterly overview of how a specifically Scottish perspective may be gleaned from early chronicles, annals, king lists, hagiography, and other sources of history that were either composed in Scotland or written by Scots abroad from the sixth through eleventh centuries. Moreover, it was a perspective that over time shifted from looking westward toward Ireland in the earlier centuries to registering multiple areas of interest in the later ones. Many readers will no doubt find interesting Hudson's subtle analysis of the political and legal implications of a number of Gaelic texts, and the evidence for the survival of pre-Christian ideas of kingship (51). My only reservation is that the trendy word gaze in the title doesn't belong there and risks giving some readers false hopes for an analysis of early medieval subjectivity.

In Chapter 2, "Earls and Saints: Early Christianity in Norse Orkney and the Legend of Magnus Erlendsson," George M. Brunsden focuses on the Orkneyinga Saga and two other sources to study the life of Magnus Erlendsson (c. 1075- c. 1116), which offer "a tantalizing picture of an individual who became Orkney's native saint after dying a martyr's death" (64). Soon after his martyrdom the saint's cult associated him with healing and other powers that continued to be sought well into the nineteenth century. In an essay otherwise carefully written for the most part, Brunsden misleadingly writes that an episode in the Longer Magnus Saga, in which Magnus is "being tempted by worldliness[,] resembles the Gospel of Saint Matthew, possibly the first piece of hagiography ever produced" (69). Students of hagiography and premodern sexuality, however, will no doubt find of interest the sagas' account of the earl's chaste marriage (73).

The editor's own contribution is Chapter 3, "'Soldiers Most Unfortunate': Gaelic and Scoto-Norse Opponents of the Canmore Dynasty, c. 1100-c. 1230" (the quotation in the first part of the title comes from verses on the death of Somerled, a powerful ruler in the Western Isles). The theme of this chapter is the fascinating story of resistance and hostility toward encroachments by the Scottish monarchy on power in the periphery, an early and well-known example of which took place in 1057 when Malcolm III killed Macbeth. Other episodes in this grim history include William I's blinding and castration of the son of a Caithness earl who opposed him (101), and the murder of an infant MacWilliam in 1230 (102). Although I doubt that much insistence is needed at this late date, McDonald emphasizes that viewing these struggles as pitting Celts against Normans "is oversimplified" (105). But the conclusion of the essay rightly stresses that the dangers twelfth-century Scottish kings faced from their enemies to the north and west are often under-appreciated, because the surviving chronicles tended to be written from the perspective of the victors.

In Chapter 4, "'Off quhat nacioun art thow?': National Identity in Blind Hary's Wallace," Richard J. Moll offers what is to my knowledge the first article-length study of this important fifteenth-century Middle Scots text since I devoted two chapters to it in my 1995 book [[1]]. On the whole, his essay provides an illuminating discussion of the poem's complex conception of Scottish national identity. Since Moll has chosen to focus on the poem's political agendas and the imagined relation between multi-ethnic and national identities, he must engage my own work directly. His sometimes emphatically worded (though always courteous) disagreements make it somewhat awkward to review the chapter, and readers of this journal need to be aware of my own potentially biased view. In showing how Blind Hary at times "ignores the ethnic and linguistic differences between the highlands and lowlands and presents an image of united Scottish 'blud'" (131), Moll clearly has borrowed a great deal from my own work, as he dutifully acknowledges. Indeed, given the continued neglect of the poem by scholars, it seems entirely appropriate that much of the first part of the essay in effect re-introduces the poem and its interest in nationality to its potential readers, which necessarily leads him to repeat many of my own arguments, though often, to his credit, extending the analysis to characters and episodes that received little attention in my book, such as the fictionalized figure of Macfadyan (129-31).

However, in the second half of the essay, Moll to my mind misleadingly presents (or fails to mention) key points of my argument. (Readers for whom this particular scholarly dispute is of no interest may skip the rest of this paragraph.) According to Moll, for example, "Goldstein does not attempt to explain why Hary would invent two rebellious Scottish lords if he did not want to depict the internal strife of Scotland" (134). Readers of his essay unfamiliar with my own work would never suspect the extent to which I not only agree that Hary is willing to show internal conflict among the Scots but I insist on it. Indeed, I have analyzed in some detail the consequences of the poet's invention of a Scottish identity for Amer de Valence [[2]], a figure Moll virtually neglects but who is far more important to assessing the poem's nationalist ideology than the fictional Macfadyan. Nor would Moll's readers ever learn that the object of my analysis is "the political unconscious" of the text. Thus I borrow from Fredric Jameson's adaptation of Greimas's "semiological rectangle." Any attempt to evaluate my argument without acknowledging its theoretical approach would be like assessing a critical edition without commenting on the editorial principles employed to decide among variant readings. For example, I argue that creating a historically false Scottish identity for Amer is one way the narrative imaginatively resolves its own intolerable ideological double-binds. Fantasizing the constitutionally revolutionary idea of Wallace's temporary crowning as king at the end of the poem is another. That point is entirely neglected when Moll concludes his essay by insisting that my claim the poem is "'antiroyalist' stretches the evidence and ignores Hary's preoccupation with the evils of internal strife" (138). In overstating his case (I do not "ignore" the poet's recognition of "the evils of internal strife) and in neglecting to clarify the larger context of my suggestion, his conclusion seems both inaccurate and misleading to me. The fundamental difference between Moll's thesis and my own seems to hinge on his disagreement (135) with my claim that Hary's central (conscious) aim was to incite hatred of the English. Such a critical dispute, in itself, is a healthy one for scholarship and I welcome it. But it must be left to the critical judgment of those readers who care about such matters to decide for themselves. Meanwhile, if Moll's essay serves to ignite new interest in The Wallace, no one would be more pleased than I.

In "Carnival at Court and Dunbar in the Underworld" (the only other contribution by a literary scholar), Mary E. Robbins devotes the fifth chapter to a study of William Dunbar's well-known nightmare vision in two parts (or a linked pair of poems) that begins "Off Februar the fyiftene nycht," the first part presenting a dance of the seven deadly sins in Hell, the second a burlesque tournament between a "sowtar" (shoemaker) and tailor. (For some reason, Robbins excludes the closely related poem sometimes called "The Amendis to the Telyouris and Soutaris"; Kinsley's edition prints all three poems under the title "Fasternis Evin in Hell.")[[3]] Robbins wishes to show that the dance and tournament portions are more closely connected thematically if not tonally than previous scholars have suggested (145), and she uses the Bakhtinian concept of carnival to make the case. Although her insistence that these entertainments performed an important social function at court is to be commended, at times her observations border on the pedestrian, as for example when she summarizes in the concluding paragraph: "A major difficulty in discussing this poem lies in striking the necessary balance between its functions as both entertainment and instruction" (161). The notion that "death and its associated images" are now "distant to most modern readers except in print" (161), however, seems peculiar at best.

Fortunately, the volume picks up with the next chapter, Elizabeth Ewan's "'Many Injurious Words': Defamation and Gender in Late Medieval Scotland" (for which the author received the Royal Historical Society's David Berry Prize in Scottish History for 2000). For me this is the most rewarding essay of the volume, as Ewan examines evidence from a variety of sources for pre-1560 Scotland to piece together a complex picture of the slanders, insults, and defamations that late-medieval Scots hurled at each other, the gendered social spaces in which they occurred, and how burgh and church authorities dealt with such disruptions to public order. Although the records often do not record the exact words used, Ewan provides some lively examples, as in a case c. 1539 of a church court official who suddenly found himself accused during a heated testimony of taking part in "swiffing" ('swiving,' i.e. 'fornicating') one of the parties to a dispute. Ewan comments: "one can imagine the intake of breath as these words were reported -- and perhaps the amusement of the scribe as he for once carefully recorded the words" (166). Well-informed by recent research on defamation in early-modern England that has suggested a "crisis in gender relations," Ewan cautiously concludes that it is premature to decide whether Scotland shows evidence of a similar crisis. In all, this fine essay deserves a wide audience among social and literary historians.

In Chapter 7, "Tudor Family Politics in Early Sixteenth-Century Scotland," Margaret McIntyre focuses on Margaret Tudor (1489-1541), sister of Henry VIII, and the complex politics in which she was immersed during and after her first marriage to James IV, especially during the internal divisions that characterized James V's minority. Offering an important corrective to traditionally dismissive interpretations of Margaret's career as a public figure, McIntyre's fine essay is vigorously argued and one of a handful in the volume that deserves a wide readership. As her survey of the queen's treatment by historians from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries clearly establishes, the views have almost without exception "ranged from indifference to outright hostility" (191). It is especially sad to learn that the Victorian historian M. A. E. Green's 1852 discussion "remains the most balanced account of Margaret's life to date" (193). When McIntyre singles out a 1998 essay by Louise Fradenburg as the only recent account of value, it is gratifying to see her willingness to chastise fellow historians for "too frequently dismiss[ing]" the "postmodern methodology" of a literary scholar like Fradenburg (195). The remainder of the essay presents a long overdue, sympathetic analysis of Margaret's career, focusing on the impact her financial exigencies made on her life choices, on her difficult negotiation of her dual national identities, and on how she constantly had to contend with misogynistic attitudes towards powerful women. The latter especially helps explain why so much of her sixteenth-century and later reputation is filtered through suspicions regarding her sexuality.

Finally, the volume concludes with Andrea Budgey, "Commeationis et affinitatis gratia: Medieval Musical Relations between Scotland and Ireland." Budgey's scholarship is thorough and careful: she ranges with ease through primary and secondary sources in several languages. Interestingly, the note on contributors identifies her as a scholar and performer of early music. As one whose own musical abilities are mediocre at best, I have always admired that rare breed of person with the talent to combine performance with scholarship. Readers familiar with the famous but tantalizing remarks about music in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Topographia Hibernica will find that Budgey's careful analysis sheds much new light on the twelfth-century historian's statement. Although her sometimes technical discussion of the varieties of music, instruments, and performance styles suggests that the essay is unlikely to attract the kind of audience whose main contact with Scottish music occurs through attending the Highland games that have become so popular in North America, the essay doesn't require any previous training in musicology or theory to understand, and anyone who seeks a well-informed and clearly written account of what can be known about music in medieval and early-modern Scotland will want to seek out Budgey's fine contribution.

In short, this collection contains samples of cutting edge scholarship ranging over almost a thousand years of Scottish history and culture. Specialists should welcome it, and some of the essays deserve to acquire a much wider audience. The book is also extremely well produced and includes a number of useful maps and tables. The publisher should be commended for its willingness to risk the bottom line in bringing such a decidedly unfashionable collection to light.


[[1]] R. James Goldstein, The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland (Lincoln, NE: 1995).

[[2]] Goldstein, 247-48.

[[3]] James Kinsley, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar (Oxford, 1979), no. 52; Kinsley's edition has been superseded by that of Priscilla Bawcutt, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar, Association for Scottish Literary Studies 27-28, 2 vols. (Glasgow, 1998), which appeared too late for Robbins to cite.

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Author Biography

James Goldstein

Auburn University