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Was There A Scottish Renaissance? – Scottish Review of Books
by Rosemary Goring

Was There A Scottish Renaissance?

November 26, 2013 | by Rosemary Goring

For most of us, the question of whether or not Scotland ever had a Renaissance is academic in every sense. After all, so many centuries later, who cares, and why, indeed, should we? As Dr Andrea Thomas writes in the opening paragraph of her engrossing, eye-opening history, ‘the associations with Italy are so strong that the very idea of a Renaissance in Scotland has sometimes seemed absurd.’

How right she is. The leap of imagination required to bridge not merely the miles but the magnificence of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and those at work in the chilly, backward north – a place less famous for encouraging the arts than for censuring and stifling them – requires a mental athleticism few of us possess.

Fortunately, Thomas makes strenuous effort redundant. A natural storyteller whose relaxed style masks exhaustive research, with the help of sumptuous illustrations she lays out her cards, chapter by chapter, eventually to reveal a royal flush that demonstrates conclusively that not only did the Renaissance reach Scotland, but once over the border it actively flourished. This revelation may initially leave some lukewarm, but not the least of Thomas’s skills is her ability to turn the significance of a silver coin or a carefully carved corbel into something far more important than a single piece in a jigsaw. As Glory and Honour proceeds, the reader is not only quickly persuaded of her argument, but grows eager for further illumination of this period, which she brings alive with panache.

Under her hand, the century and a half from around the 1450s emerges as arguably the most fascinating in this country’s never dull history. Such is the vividness of the portrait she paints there are points when it feels as if until recently the past has been viewed through a fog, and only now is visible in full, glorious colour. That she is aware of that too, is evident. Commenting on two of the greatest poets of the sixteenth century, she writes, ‘through the vivid, varied and engaging poetry of Dunbar and Lindsay, the Renaissance courts of James IV and V may be reanimated for modern readers.’

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But as she shows, in other realms Scotland was also in full Renaissance mode, be it jewellery, tapestries, panel paintings, buildings, gardens, courtly manners or pageantry. Sadly, though, it is literature that has been handed down more safely to later generations than those arts and attitudes that were destroyed or extirpated by those self-righteous, moralising vandals, the Protestant reformers. Such was their distaste for any sign of Catholic excess that they tried to wipe the cultural slate clean in a bonfire of vanities that has yet to be rivalled. Not surprisingly, a constant refrain in this history is that had it not been for the Reformation, Scotland’s Renaissance heritage would be far richer. As scores were burned and song schools closed, one distraught composer of the period, Thomas Wode, wailed that ‘music shall perish in this land utterly’. Without doubt it was severely curtailed, simplified and stifled, and may indeed have been one of the arts worst affected by reforming zeal. And yet, despite the widespread destruction of what was seen as pernicious papist influence in art, philosophy, crafts and sacred music, sufficient traces of the Renaissance have survived intact, or almost.

Each chapter reveals the crucial role of the Stuart kings in cultivating renaissance art and attitudes. James IV has always been held up as a Renaissance prince and arch-moderniser, but Thomas shows that his father, son and grandson were each in their way instrumental in fostering links with Italy, France and the Low Countries from whence Renaissance ideas sprang. It’s notable that James IV’s Renaissance credentials blossomed after his marriage to Margaret Tudor, but none was more influenced by a spouse than James V, whose two French wives, one tragically short-lived, brought a strong flavour of sophisticated courtly France to their new home.

Starting with architecture, such as the magnificent courtyard facades at Falkland palace built by James V – ‘the earliest wholly Renaissance architectural scheme in the British Isles’ – Thomas picks her way through the rubble of centuries of wanton destruction, and innocent renovation or loss. Much of her evidence comes from royal houses or possessions, such as Stirling Castle or Linlithgow Palace, partly because royals were in the best position to commission new and expensive works, but equally because those of the aristocracy who also did so passed their lands, houses and possessions onto heirs, whose rebuilding and refashioning no doubt destroyed a great deal of work from this most exquisite and revealing period.

Only one arena, it seems, was safe from the fanatics’ flames. Portraits, Thomas tells us, were left unscathed, because Protestants deemed strength of character to be of vital significance, and portraits gave an insight into the sitter’s personality, or lack of. Thanks to this moral dispensation, some magnificent artworks remain, among them Hugo van der Goes’s Trinity Altarpiece (1478-9), in which James III kneels with a dour Saint Andrew at his shoulder, facing his wife Margaret of Denmark. Bringing a breath of the fading gothic age with it, van der Goes’s work, Thomas writes, ‘is a masterpiece of the northern Renaissance and gives some indication of a lost artistic heritage.’

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That notion of a world we have lost haunts this work, and it is impossible not to speculate about what sort of aesthetic culture Scotland might have enjoyed in the late sixteenth century and beyond had the Calvinists not gained the upper hand. In fact, to judge from an act passed in 1617, Parliament sometimes found it necessary to curb the Protestant passion for the spartan, as when it ‘required all parish kirks to provide at the very least a jug and basin for baptism and a cup for communion’. It was a far cry from the days of splendidly wrought Renaissance communion ware, as seen in the beautiful Galloway Mazer. This delectable open goblet of delicately tooled silver bears the decidedly inappropriate inscription: ‘Ane good name is to be chosen above great riches and loving favour is above silver and above moste fine golde’. At this point one feels some sympathy with the reformers’ ire, if not their methods.

While Thomas scores no cheap political points against the Protestants, she is keen to point out that although the scope of public education blossomed under the Kirk’s aegis, there was already a steady programme of improving access to education. This was in large part thanks to the intervention of William Elphinstone, the open-minded Bishop of Aberdeen. This towering intellectual and compassionate figure deserves a place as one of Scotland’s founding fathers for his emphasis on humanist ideals and the importance of education – not least, interestingly, for the landed and moneyed classes, who were clearly in dire need of cultural sandpapering. The Education Act of 1496 that he initiated specifically included the eldest sons of ‘barons and freeholders that are of substance’ in its exhortation to send them to grammar schools and university, in order that they might behave more peacefully, ‘through which Justice may reign universally through all the realm…’ Thus the importance of the commonweal was already acknowledged, giving a place to the needs of ordinary people – even women, whose education was advocated by the most enlightened, again for the good of all.

Talk of the Renaissance is most often dominated by discussion of the arts, but in one of the most illuminating chapters, Thomas looks at the influence of Italian and French ideas on an arena that was of prime political importance for the country’s fortunes. Renaissance warfare was to be the undoing of Scotland at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, thanks to James IV’s mania for modern gadgetry – among them ships, artillery, weaponry and battle formations. In his and his son James V’s love of jousting, and their fascination with the machinery of war, one catches a raw glimpse of these times: an era soaked in danger, sweat and blood. It’s a mood decidedly at odds with the artistic finery that decorated their homes, or the humanist outlook with which they tempered their commands.

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Thomas’s survey of ships, cannonry, battlements, fortifications and guns gets to the very heart of this treacherous and in many ways still primitive age. It is fascinating to read, for instance, that ‘for about a century, between the 1440s and 1540, the Scottish crown worked a minor miracle as it managed to keep up with European developments in ballistics, fortifications and naval power and to “punch above its weight” in international relations…’ Only when Scotland had switched allegiance from France and thrown its lot in with England, she writes, does Scotland drop out of ‘the Renaissance arms race’. It seems very Scottish however that, with its cannons relegated to the dungeons, and its foundries closed, the country’s locksmiths and clockmakers turned their talents to handguns. One of the most beautiful of the many stunning images in this book is a pair of brass pistols with fishtail butts, made for Louis XIII of France by James Low of Dundee in 1611. This is but one small example of the ways in which Scotland kept its head above water during the political travails of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That it did so not just with spirit but with great artistic elegance, shows that the lessons of the Renaissance had been taken to heart.

Glory and Honour: The Renaissance in Scotland 

Andrea Thomas

Birlinn, £25, 230pp hardback, ISBN: 978 1 84158 872 8

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