The Poet in the Print Shop

A couple of years ago I was reading the account book of Robert Freebairn’s print shop in Edinburgh (because what could be more thrilling?) and came across some unusual entries.  In amongst the regular business of the shop – “for a new barr-shaft to the press”, “for ten fathom of cords for hanging books”, “for carrying paper”, “for Drink & Bread this Week to encourage [the apprentices] to work” – were several entries relating to the physician, heterodox thinker, and poet Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713).

On 28 March 1713, Thomas Ruddiman – who moonlighted as Freebairn’s clerk when he wasn’t busy being librarian to the Faculty of Advocates – noted “Poem for Dr Pitcairn” and immediately below it, “press thrice wrought”.  On 16 May he recorded a “Poem of Dr Pitcairn’s on my Lord Drummond’s Son 4 times wrought” and on 3 October two more “Poem[s] of Dr Pitcairn”.  Pitcairne is known for his habit of publishing poems as single broadside sheets, but I was intrigued by this suggestion that they had gone through the press multiple times (a suggestion confirmed by the relatively high costs of these impressions, 1s. 6d. for the printing of the 28 March poem and 2s. for that of 16 May, compared, say, to the 3s. weekly wage of Freebairn’s journeymen).  Why was Freebairn taking so much trouble over these jobs?

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Pitcairne’s final job at Freebairn’s press before his death later in October 1713 (NLS MS 763, fol. 47v).

The answer may lie with the state of Edinburgh printing at the beginning of the eighteenth century.  That state was pretty poor.  The average was bare competence and many printers couldn’t manage even that.  Freebairn was, on the whole, one of the more accomplished pressmen of his generation, but even his work tends to have only a workmanlike mise-en-page combined with frequent uneven inking, overprinting, crooked pages, etc.  The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if Pitcairne was himself overseeing the printing of his poems and demanding a higher standard of quality than was usually brought to the Edinburgh print trade?


An example of Edinburgh printing from this period.  Not exactly the Doves Press.

Those of Pitcairne’s broadsides which survive seem to confirm this idea.  While their quality varies, overall they strike me as being both artistically and typographically superior to the ordinary printing of their day.  Some, in particular, aim for a very pleasing epigraphic effect, a bit like John Sparrow’s Lapidaria series in the twentieth century.

So far I’ve only consulted digitised copies of the broadsides – which are notoriously useless for saying much about the letterpress behind a text – but I’m planning an expedition to the National Library to look at several in more detail and I hope that will be able to tell me a bit more about Pitcairne’s “thrice wrought” poems.  It may be that we’re looking at a forgotten moment in the history of printing-as-art and will need to adjust our understandings of Pitcairne in light of it.

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A slight overprint and some inking problems on the ‘B’ in ‘Britannam’, but possibly something new on the Edinburgh stage?

I should also say – just to blow a small blast on my own trumpet – that I’ll be talking in more detail about Pitcairne, his broadsides, and the printers behind them at the “Using Letterpress” workshop being held in Dublin’s National Print Museum on 17 November.  It’ll be a blast, at least, that is, if you like bibliographical minutiae!

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Joys of Data Entry

A few months ago I mentioned that one of the chapters of my new book would be about the public reception of the early Enlightenment texts I’m writing on.  Now, the spreadsheet of subscribers to Scottish books (c.1700-1740) continues to grow apace and, indeed, that’s what I’m trying to finish so I can move forward to actually interpreting the data and writing something about it.


The raw material.

Spreadsheets, databases, and statistical analyses are not really my cup of tea.  I find them cool and often helpful, but left to my own devices I’d much rather dig deep into a single text.  For this chapter, though, that’s not an option.  It’s all very well to write about “sexy things I’ve found in the archives”, but I also want to make a convincing argument that these particular sexy things were in the mainstream of Scottish intellectual culture.  That means producing some statistics.

And so I’ve been experiencing the joys of data entry for the last week or two: plugging the raw data of eighteenth-century subscription lists into an ever-growing spreadsheet and separating out that data so that I can easily search on a person’s name, occupation, place of residence, and which book or books they subscribed for.  It’s not the most intellectually stimulating occupation, but the more I do it the more I realise that producing the dataset is actually an important part of its interpretation.  As I tap away at my keyboard, in between sips of coffee, I begin to see patterns: a certain group of individuals has subscribed to all three of these books, a particular locality is predominant amongst the subscribers to another, this kinship group has gone heavily into subscription culture while another nearby remains aloof.

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In progress, but making progress.

In the best sort of way, the process has both generated questions and made me think about what I’m trying to do in a different way.  I’ve come to realise that while (thankfully!) my initial premise as to the widespread engagement with subscription culture across Scotland was true, the particularities of it are very different from what I’ve expected.  I also now want to understand things which I wasn’t even aware of before: how was knowledge of a subscription passed around a specific community?  Why are some relatively rural localities heavily over-represented while others are entirely absent?  How did Scots abroad come to know of and then engage with a subscription drive?  Why are comparatively few scholars (in fact, authors of other books published by subscription) represented on surviving subscription lists?

So perhaps data entry and statistical analysis isn’t so bad after all.  Who knows, I might even put a graph or two into the final chapter . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

An Excursus into Bookbinding: MacLehose of Glasgow

A couple of days ago, I had bindings on my mind.  I’d been discussing Scottish bindings with a friend and that evening found myself looking at my own library for any which stood out from the ordinary run.  Pulling a couple of volumes off the shelves, the third Miscellany of the Spalding Club (Aberdeen, 1846) and an odd volume of the Bannatyne Club edition of Spalding’s Troubles (Edinburgh, 1829), I was struck to see the same unintrusive binders’ stamp in each: “MACLEHOSE GLASGOW”.

Maclehose 1

I was intrigued.  Both bindings, though comparatively simple, were well-executed and rather beautiful.  Who was MacLehose, I wondered, and how did he fit into the longer history of Scottish fine binding?

Maclehose 2

Miscellany of the Spalding Club on the left, Spalding’s Troubles on the right.

MacLehose, it proved, was none other than James MacLehose (1811-1885), the well-known Glasgow publisher and bookseller who, according to the ODNB, had opened a fine bindery alongside his other business concerns in 1862.  An 1892 article in The British Bookmaker provides some insight into the nature of his workshop:

“[N]o ordinary trade work is done. All the books bound here are either the firm’s own work, or the work of private customers . . . Levant, morocco, and a special calf are the principal styles, hand finished and single lettered, and though many of the books are elaborately bound with special designs, a large share are in the severely plain style which finds favour particularly in Scotland”.

Examples of MacLehose’s more elaborate bindings can be seen in Glasgow and London but I suspect that my volumes are more representative of the “severely plain style” mentioned.  The beauty of the bindings comes from carefully executed gold rules and heavily textured calf or goat rather than from a profusion of tooling.  In the case of Spalding’s Troubles the binder has even incorporated the original brown paper binding common to Bannatyne Club volumes into their own work.

Maclehose 3a

Maclehose 3b

Details of the spines: a trifle lavish above, rather more restrained below.

In both cases, these club publications have been rebound; each would have come into the world in a rather more modest trade binding.  The surviving provenance makes it possible to at least hazard a guess as to who may have sent them off to Glasgow for improvement.  In the case of the Miscellany, this is one of a number of volumes I’ve come across from the lately dispersed library of the Benedictine Abbey at Fort Augustus near Inverness.  Although not all items from the abbey library appear to have been rebound, I wonder if this might have been a case of the monks splashing out?

Maclehose 4

Is there a story behind the never-completed shelf label?

Spalding’s Troubles also boasts a bookplate: a fine heraldic woodcut proclaiming its owner to be one David Murray.  Murray (1842-1928) was a Glaswegian lawyer, antiquary, bibliophile, and namesake of the University of Glasgow’s book-collecting prize.  He donated most of his library to the university shortly before his death but this volume seems to have escaped.  Given its provenance, it was presumably Murray who had it rebound.

Maclehose 5

So, what can we learn from this?  This sort of investigation opens up intriguing windows onto how books were valued and presented in nineteenth-century Scotland, as well as providing some examples of the book binder’s art from a period which is less heavily studied than earlier centuries.  But I think it also provides a lesson in informed book collecting.  I bought both of these volumes for a few pounds each, purely for their contents and their value as part of a scholarly reference library, and I very much doubt that their sellers were any more aware than I of what made them interesting as physical artefacts.  Now, though, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more examples of MacLehose’s art.  It may be “severely plain” for the most part, but it has the beauty of fine craftsmanship and is a still-to-be-explored chapter in the nineteenth-century Scottish book trade.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Protean Chapter

There was one chapter of my doctoral thesis I just couldn’t crack. I must have rewritten it four or five times, hating it every time, and the incarnation which finally made its way into my first book had more or less nothing in common with the initial draft other than subject. My basic problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to talk about a difficult text – Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme – but I think most writers have had the experience of the “difficult chapter”, the one that keeps changing and shifting underneath your hands in spite of your best efforts to bring it to some kind of final form.

Right now I’m dealing with another difficult chapter. When I drew up the plan for this book I knew I wanted to say something about a genre I’d loosely and anachronistically defined as “local history”, the sort of antiquarian or geographical text which focuses on a specific area – be that burgh, parish, county, whatever – and I thought I had a good idea of what that would look like. As I researched the chapter, though, the texts and concepts I wanted to address within that remit kept changing and now as I’ve been outlining it preparatory to doing a generative draft, they’ve been changing again.

Title page from Theatrum Scotiae by John Slezer 1693.

Slezer’s Theatrum Scotiae, one of the key texts I’ll be discussing in this chapter.

Some of that change naturally came from honing my research questions. Some sources which had originally seemed relevant came to be less so, while others proved to be far more central than I’d expected. There have been other matters to consider in the process as well. Any discussion of Scottish geography or chorography would be incomplete without Robert Sibbald, but I’ve been trying not to let Sibbald and his thousand and one projects dominate this chapter; in a book that’s meant to survey an entire intellectual movement I think it’s important to discuss a variety of scholars and their texts. But spending more time (and words) on texts I had been thinking less about at the beginning of the project has opened up new avenues of research and other ways of thinking about the material. I’ve now added a new writer altogether – a previously unknown female érudit whose writings include not only a geographical text, but also contributions to Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire – which has not only affected this chapter but has led to discoveries altering some of my arguments in a subsequent chapter. At what point do you stop researching and revising and start writing?

For me, I think I’ve finally reached that tipping point. Yes, I could spend a day or two in the NLS and come up with yet another iteration of the chapter outline, but I think I know what I need to say and it’s that which matters more than exactly how I say it and with what suite of primary sources. The protean chapter isn’t finished yet, but it’s getting there.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Mural Monuments in Crail

XI James Lumsden 1

The funeral monument of James Lumsden of Airdrie (d. 1598) in Crail Kirkyard – one of the grander pieces of monumental sculpture in Fife.

I’ve been interested in the remarkable early modern epigraphic landscape of Crail kirkyard (in the East Neuk of Fife) for about as long as I’ve been interested in carved stones.  A while ago I wrote a small piece on Crail, comparing its carved stones with analogous wooden relics for the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework, and I’m now very pleased to be giving a paper to the Crail History Society next week on the same topic.  I’ll be looking specifically at how we can track local monuments’ deterioration through comparing their current condition with a series of photographs taken by Erskine Beveridge in the 1890s, but I’m moderately optimistic that the talk won’t actually be as dry as it sounds!

For anyone interested, the paper will be given in the Legion Hall, Nethergate, Crail, at 7.30pm, Tuesday, 13 June.  Hecklers always welcome . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

On Generative Writing

Almost a month ago, I talked about planning my summer writing goals and, especially, the book chapter I wanted to write first: a look at the reception of French archival and textual theories in early Enlightenment Scotland. I finished a first draft of that chapter earlier today and thought that now might be a good time – in line with my longer-term intention of documenting the writing process – to say something about how I got from point A to point B.

As with most research and writing innovations, it was The Historian who introduced me to generative writing. The idea is very simple: do your very best to throw away any desire to edit, footnote, tidy, or reflect on your writing as you go and just hammer out the words at breakneck speed. In reality, of course, it’s a little more complicated and there’s quite a lot of literature on the internet about different variations of the method (you can see some of these here, here, and here). Most academic contexts for generative writing seem to be along the lines of a one or two hour group writing session, but when The Historian participated in a “Thesis Boot Camp” for doctoral students at St Andrews in which their goal was to write 20,000 words over three days I decided I’d give it a go as well. To my immense surprise, I finished the long weekend with two draft chapters in hand and ever since I’ve used the technique as a means of getting myself through the initial draft.

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Egregious picture: It was lack of funds rather than lack of generative writing which stopped Anderson from producing his Diplomata on time (courtesy National Library of Scotland).

That doesn’t just mean starting with a blank page and ending with 10,000 words, though. For this chapter, as for others, I started with a general idea of the topic in hand (in this case, a chapter about the reception of French diplomatic scholarship in Scotland). Then I asked myself some basic questions about the chapter, borrowed ultimately from the writing pedagogy of Dr. Peta Freestone: What are the main points it needs to cover? What resources and/or evidence will I need to draw on to demonstrate these points and convince my reader? And how does this chapter relate to my overall argument? To those basic questions I also added the additional query of “who does this chapter introduce?” One of the pleasures and challenges of writing this book has been in helping my (notional) readers to get to know a host of obscure Scottish thinkers of the early eighteenth century and I’ve been doing my best to make that happen in an orderly and non-confusing fashion. Once I’d answered those questions to my satisfaction, I started working on an outline of the chapter. This went through about three iterations, each more detailed than the last, until earlier this week I had in hand a 1,500 word or so paragraph-by-paragraph outline of what I wanted to say. It was only then that I began to write.

Like quite a lot of other people who take this approach, I try to structure my writing time using the Pomodoro technique. Its effectively a way of making sure you work hard while still pacing yourself, a bit like setting a sustainable rating in a long-distance rowing race. The idea is that you work – focusing your entire mind on the matter at hand – for twenty-five minutes, take a break for five minutes, work for another twenty-five minutes, another five minute break, and so on until you’ve done a full “set” of four pomodoros (pomodori?), four twenty-five minute rounds. When I’ve prepared properly, I can pretty consistently write about 650 words in the course of one pomodoro, so going into a piece of work it’s relatively easy to figure out how much time I need to set aside. In this case, though, I actually over-budgeted on time, anticipating the chapter would take twelve pomodoros when it only came out to nine.

And that’s more or less that. I now have about 9,800 words, making a complete first draft of this chapter. It’s a mess, to be sure – full of place holders, notes saying “[CHECK THIS]”, tags indicating that I need to come back and flesh out a particular point in more detail, almost no footnotes, etc. – but it’s also something to work with, and I find that’s the most important thing. I’ll let it sit for a couple of weeks before I begin revising it and if I manage to keep to schedule by then I’ll have started work on the next chapter. Ever closer to a complete draft . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Back to the Book

When I signed my book contract in February, I wrote that I hoped to blog on the experience of completing The First Scottish Enlightenment. Predictably, term-time intervened and I’ve had little enough progress to report over the last few months. Now that marking is (mostly) over, though, and I have only one or two pressing deadlines to keep me occupied, I thought I would return to the subject and say a little about what I’ve been doing and what I’m planning to do.

For the last year or so I’ve found myself mapping my research and writing schedule ever more meticulously. I’d set longterm goals for myself before, but the sobering sight of the Historian from The Historian’s Desk preparing a colour-coded thirty-six week thesis completion plan and then completing it on the dot encouraged me to be more precise and detailed than I had been previously. Now I draw up a week-by-week plan at the beginning of each semester and at the start of the summer holiday, laying out what I know or can anticipate about my teaching and administrative responsibilities and trying to fit research around those in a reasonably sensible way. I can think of many friends who would find this an appalling way to live life, but for me it helps maintain equilibrium, lets me know what I ought to be doing and when, and gives a larger view of projects and how they’ll be completed.

A couple of weeks ago, then, I did this for the coming summer. While the new book is far from being the only project I need to be getting on with over the next few months, it’s certainly the main one and much of my planning consisted of deciding (a) how much I could reasonably expect to write, (b) which chapters I wanted to write, and (c) what I needed to do to make that happen. In terms of how much, I wavered between three and four chapters as an ideal goal, eventually settling on four. That’s a lot to get done in four months, I know, and it may not happen, so in settling on the which I decided to focus on chapters for which I’d already finished (or almost finished) the research and for which I had substantial notes, outlines, or even portions already to hand.

The chapter I want to write first looks at the new forms of textual scholarship developed by the Congregation of Saint Maur in France, their peak in the works of Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), and their reception in Scotland from the 1690s through the 1750s. I’m planning to organise it around a series of key texts and events which were, I think, definitive in conditioning how Maurist scholarship was received by Scots: the stage-managed “verification” of a medieval charter before the Jacobite court in 1694, James Anderson’s lifelong attempt to create a Scottish guide to diplomatic along the lines of Mabillon’s De re diplomatica, Patrick Abercromby and Robert Keith’s histories of late medieval and reformation Scotland, the long-running debate over the legitimacy of Robert III (which was, of course, not really about the legitimacy of a fourteenth-century king at all, but about forms of government and their implications), and, finally, the creation of a series of forgeries of medieval documents by Marianus Brockie.


A bust of one of the key figures of the next chapter, Jean Mabillon, in one of its key locations, the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris (courtesy French Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0).

It’s a chunky beast, to be sure, but it’s one that’s central to my larger argument and which I’ve already put quite a lot of thought into. I’m aiming to have a draft complete by the end of May. Fingers crossed . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

What David Drummond Read

One chapter of my new book is devoted to the reception of the historical-antiquarian works I study. As part of that I’ve been putting together a sprawling spreadsheet of the 4,000 or so persons known to have subscribed for scholarly texts published in Edinburgh between 1708 (when publication by subscription seems to have first been used by a Scottish printer) and 1740. This sort of data entry is not a glamorous exercise, by any means, but the reward of being able to see who cared about what book and when is well worth it.

Many heavy subscribers are unsurprising. David Freebairn the bookseller appears regularly, as do wealthy collectors like the Earls of Dundonald and Forfar or learned ones like Duncan Forbes of Culloden and James Erskine of Grange. Sometimes, though, you come across less familiar faces and it’s the reconstruction of their habits and contexts I’ve found most rewarding.

One name which appears on seven different subscription lists between 1708 and 1728, the heart of my period of study, is “Mr. David Drummond, Advocate”.

Subscription List

“Mr. David Drummond, Advocate”, situated within a bevy of Drummonds who subscribed to the second volume of George Mackenzie’s Lives and Characters of the Most Eminent Writers of the Scots Nation in 1711.

Drummond’s subscription history begins with volumes 1 and 2 of Mackenzie’s Lives and Characters (1708, 1711), continues with the two volumes of the Catholic historian Patrick Abercromby’s Martial Atchievements of the Scots Nation (1711, 1715), returns to the third and final volume of Mackenzie’s work (1722), and finishes off with James Freebairn’s translation of The Life of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland and France (1725) and a new edition of Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s History of Scotland (1728). Altogether, solid evidence of a man fascinated by the history of his country.

But who was Drummond? What sort of person was reading these books? The son of a minister, Drummond was a Jacobite and was imprisoned in the Edinburgh Tolbooth for “some time” beginning in December 1689. It may even have been during this imprisonment that he prepared a scribal copy of his cousin Viscount Strathallan’s genealogy of the Drummonds, early evidence of his historical interests. Although described as an advocate in the subscription lists, he had ceased to practice after refusing to take the Oaths of Loyalty to the Williamite regime, instead serving as treasurer to the Bank of Scotland and assisting in the management of the estates of his exiled kinsman, the arch-Jacobite Earl of Perth.

Archers Uniform

The rather dashing uniform of the Royal Company of Archers, of which Drummond was a member (Wikipedia, Public Domain).

Drummond was also a friend of the Episcopal, Jacobite poet Archibald Pitcairne, who addressed several poems to him, as well being acquainted with Allan Ramsay and the other poets and gentlemen associated with the Royal Company of Archers, of which Drummond served as president in the fateful year of 1715. He died in February 1740, still treasurer of the Bank of Scotland, and left behind a son who he had sent to my own alma mater of Balliol College, Oxford, as a Snell Exhibitioner in 1717 (strongly suggesting the family were Episcopalians).

de Medina, John Baptist, 1659-1710; Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713), FRCSEd (1701)

Drummond’s friend, the bibulous poet Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713) as painted by John Baptist de Medina (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh).

On the one hand, a two-paragraph biography such as this one may seem like pretty thin soup on which to sup. But on the other, even these fragments can tell us a great detail. They reveal a man who was at the heart of early Enlightenment Scottish culture, with links to poets, historians, and politicians whose contributions defined Scotland in this period. In many ways, Drummond represents the revisionary image of early eighteenth-century Scotland which my new book will be arguing for: Episcopal, Jacobite, well-educated, with links to the north of Scotland, and deeply fascinated by his country’s past.  The pleasure and the reward of working through the subscription lists I mentioned above lies in the snapshots they offer of people like Drummond: a forgotten reading public who devoured the publications I study.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Teaching Older Scottish Literature

This afternoon I found myself filling out paperwork with a lighter mood than usually attends such activities.  Why?  I was writing the course description for a new fourth-year module I’ve been wanting to teach for a very long time: Scottish literature from Renaissance to Enlightenment.  My own exposure to the period as an undergraduate was one delightful week on the Makars in the midst of an otherwise uneventful medieval survey course and I’ve been keen to do everything I can to create a module which is both accessible and fully representative of the amazing texts produced by Scots during this period so that my own students won’t have to rely upon fortuitous library forays to discover Arthur Johnston or William Drummond or Elizabeth Melville.

The wishing is easy, the doing, I’ve found, is rather more difficult, although not for the reasons I initially thought.  When I first began designing the module I anticipated that the main problem would be access to texts.  After all, there was no Norton Anthology of Scottish Literature to provide a single easy-access core text.  Instead, the authors I wanted to teach were scattered across a wide variety of obscure and expensive editions, most of which were almost certainly not held by the local university library, and much as I liked and respected Jack and Rozendaal’s Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature, I wanted to run a course with different emphases and different writers than their work allowed for.


My own – by now rather battered – copy of the Mercat Anthology.

I really needn’t have worried.  The funny thing about early modern Scottish literature is that the vast majority of standard editions were published in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.  That’s a problem in and of itself, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, but it’s also an advantage: most of the authors I wanted to teach existed in at least reasonably decent critical editions which were long since out of copyright and available on or Google Books.  Beyond that, the National Library’s outstanding Publications by Scottish Clubs digitisation project has made a wealth of valuable teaching material freely accessible.  With the Scottish Text Society’s publications open access through the 1940s, I could count on good editions of Drummond, Alexander, Montgomerie, Mure, Stewart of Baldynneis, the Maitland Manuscripts, the Bannatyne Manuscript, and a host of others.


The iconic maroon and green covers of the old STS publications.  Also the iconic red rot on the spines!

In the end, the difficulty lay not in securing editions of the texts, but in finding ways of making those texts accessible to my students.  Early modern Scotland was a nation of four languages – Scots, Gaelic, Latin, and English – of which I’ll be lucky if my students speak two (to be fair, I have more Scots speakers in my classes at Stirling than at some of my previous institutions, so I can’t complain too much).  The problem I came up against was negotiating the process of finding decent translations or – for Scots material – finding ways of glossing and making accessible texts which would otherwise be a challenge even for the most determined student.  Jeremy Smith’s Older Scots: A Linguistic Reader will be one crucial tool for making the teaching of older Scots a reality, but I’m still not satisfied with the options available for teaching sources originally in Gaelic and Latin.

Johnston snip

Even the work of Arthur Johnston, one of Scotland’s best Latin poets, is not yet available in a satisfactory English translation (text here from his Poemata Omnia, published at Middelburg in 1642).

Ultimately, I suppose it comes back to the question of canonicity and the canon-industry which I discussed last month.  The apparatus simply isn’t there to do everything I’d like to do.  Still, I plan to do what I can.  Older Scottish literature is becoming more accessible every year and I’m looking forward to making the most of that access by opening up for my students at least a selection of the wonderful texts which were produced in this period.  If even one comes away with a new-found love for the rhythm and flavour of Dunbar or Buchanan or Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, that will be victory enough.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Canon Industry

Several years ago I went to a lecture in Cambridge given by Norman Davies, the historian of Central and Eastern Europe.  The most memorable part of that evening was when my wife and I – both starving students at the time – ate so many canapés at the reception afterwards that a grim-faced member of college staff pointedly removed the tray from our vicinity.  Aside from that, though, I was struck by some observations Davies made on how particular academic viewpoints are perpetuated.  They began, he said, with individual scholars doing good, original work.  In a few years’ time, that work filtered down through the field.  A decade later it became naturalised into major overviews of the subject.  Two decades later it was incorporated into textbooks.  Three decades later it was probably obsolete, but we were still teaching it to students because the juggernaut of canonicity had reached critical velocity.


The joke never gets old (or does it?).  Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle (public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia).

I was reminded of this relationship between the canonical and the tools of teaching and research a few weeks ago.  A couple of colleagues and I were having a chat with a very nice representative from one of the major producers of textbooks for English Literature undergraduate teaching and he was showing us an all-singing, all-dancing student edition, complete with online apparatus that would allow you to flick back and forth between the edited page and facsimiles of the original printed texts.  It was a fine piece of scholarship and a fantastic teaching aid, but it reminded me of Davies’s comments; the canonical isn’t just what we attach cultural value to, it’s also a complex edifice of student editions, anthologies, textbooks, critical readers, and so on and so forth.  In some ways it’s the twenty-first-century equivalent of the publishing impetuses which William St. Clair has identified as central to the development of the literary canon in the nineteenth century.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  If anything, it’s encouraging.  Thirty years ago or more, a few scholars started challenging the older canon and demanding the study of more women authors; now we have Cambridge Companions to Aphra Behn and Norton Critical Editions of Margery Kempe.  While real gender parity in literary studies is still a long way away, there’s no doubt that progress has been made, not least because, as Davies said, once the stone begins to roll, it develops a momentum all of its own.  As someone who spends quite a lot of his time championing the value and importance of non-canonical texts, that gives me hope, hope that with enough articles and lectures and blog posts and hallway syllabus discussions I might one day see a Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Melville or a Norton Critical Edition of Alexander Montgomerie.  One can always dream!

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams