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‘To speik off science, craft or sapience’: Knowledge and Temporality in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland

Workshop organized by Regina G. Scheibe, B01 ‘Artefacts, Treasures and Ruins – Materiality and Historicity in the Literature of the English and Scottish Middle Ages’ (Head: Prof. Dr. Andrew James Johnston), and held on 3-4 September 2015


Picture by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Picture by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge


Workshop report by Jan-Peer Hartmann and Regina G. Scheibe

This international two-day symposium brought together scholars from the fields of pre-modern Scottish literature, history, and archaeology. It focused on late medieval Scottish perceptions of knowledge, and here particularly on the relation of knowledge to concepts of time, history and historicity, and on the aesthetic and performative strategies through which knowledge is fixed, transmitted and transformed didactically, aspects which, on a more abstract and systematic level, were largely neglected by scholars of the Older Scots period (1375-1700) in the past. Hence, the basic aims of the workshop were (1) to explore to what degree medieval and renaissance Scottish authors reflected on knowledge, (2) to discuss the kind(s) of knowledge transfer that took place during the Older Scots period, and (3) to reflect on aspects of time in Older Scots concepts of knowledge.

Alasdair A. MacDonald (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and University of Glasgow) argued in his paper on ‘The Functionalisation of (Pseudo-) Encyclopedic Knowledge in Selected Texts of Older Scots Literature’ that in literary works of the relevant period, encyclopedic knowledge could be converted from the level of content into a literary motif which sought to entertain the readers rather than to instruct them. In some Older Scots poems, and this concerns particularly works which contain lists, this even led to invented knowledge being employed as effectively as actual knowledge.

The application of the Xenophonian and Aristotelian concepts of oikonomia and chrematistikē and of medieval insights into the faculty psychology of dream visions, as we find them not only in Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame and his prologue to The Legend of Good Women, but also in Gavin Douglas’s Palice of Honour, was a central concern in Wolfram Keller’s ‘“Re-Medievalizing” the Oikos: Mental Household Management in Late Medieval Dream Visions’ (Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin). Linking poetic skill to aspects of economic knowledge, he noted a more nuanced and ambiguous reflection of the aforementioned concepts in Douglas’s work than in the earlier poems of the English author, reflecting a revived interest in oikonomia in the fifteenth century.

In his presentation ‘False Fables and Exemplary Truth: Henryson’s Fables’, Luuk A. J. R. Houwen (Ruhr-Universität Bochum) retraced the semantics of the word fable and emphasized the intertextual aspects in Robert Henryson’s Morall Fabillis. The fact that the Middle Scots poet transformed his knowledge of a variety of ancient and medieval literary and didactic texts when composing his work led the speaker to propose that literary critics should rather apply the term animal tales, and not the term animal fables, when referring to Henryson’s story collection.

David J. Parkinson’s presentation ‘Style-Switching as Performative Strategy’ (University of Saskatchewan) aimed at tracing the knowledge involved in the process of style-switching in major Older Scots works, such as Hary’s Wallace and William Dunbar’s Schir, ӡe haue mony seruitouris. Focusing on the performative strategies employed in the relevant texts, he noted that style-switching interrupts the reader’s predicted expectations of the genres in which they work, and hence it expands, complicates or subverts the kinds of knowledge such genres normally convey in pre-modern Scottish verse. By doing so, style-switching not only enriches our knowledge of the application and function of style in Older Scots poems, but also points to a dynamic approach to the recording and conveying of such knowledge.

In her paper ‘“In Tiberus Tyme”: The Past and Its Uses in Older Scots Comic Verse’, Janet Hadley Williams (Australian National University) discussed late medieval Scottish perceptions of historical knowledge and their relation to concepts of time as they are presented in the so-called “elriche fantasyis”, a variety of Older Scots comic poems which is characterized by an interaction of the uncanny with a more familiar world and by a delight in wordplay. References to the time of the Roman emperor Tiberius, to the period of the giants and to fairies in The Gyre Carling, for instance, merge with echoes of the Middle English romance The Siege of Jerusalem, resulting in a distortion of the periodization of time and preparing the reader for an entertainingly improbable, yet internally consistent tale.

Within Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, poetry is perceived as a mode of knowledge and functions as an aesthetic and performative strategy to pose questions about the purpose of fiction, the nature of the human, the quality of divine justice, and the relationship of knowledge and temporality. In her presentation on ‘Love’s Knowledge and The Testament of Cresseid’, Elizabeth Elliott (University of Aberdeen) explored this strategic use of poetry in Henryson’s work in light of Martha Nussbaum’s theorisation of the role of emotion as a vital component in ethical judgement and understanding, thus illustrating that the Scottish poet used emotion to cognitive ends, which seems to provide interesting parallels to modern theories of faculty psychology.

In her paper ‘“The Present Warld”: Knowledge and the World in the Poetry of William Lauder’ Joanna M. Martin (University of Nottingham) explored the shifting attitudes towards knowledge and learning in the pre- and post-Reformation poetry of the Perthshire minister and writer William Lauder (c 1520–1572). In his earlier writings, Lauder tended to view the contribution of knowledge to the world optimistically and in secular terms, believing that sapience comes from a commitment to society and thus the common good. In his later, Calvinist-influenced poetry, he emphasized the conscience of the individual and deplored what he regarded as a contemptuous attitude of Scottish society towards learning and science. Identifying ‘true sapience’ as the knowledge of one’s spiritual destiny which is rooted in religious self-reflection, his post-Reformation work combines a belief in the doctrine of salvation by divine election with a positive attitude towards knowledge and learning. By exploring both the continuities and the shifts in Lauder’s attitude towards knowledge and science, Martin presented a convincing case study from a time of social, political and religious upheaval.

In her reading of William Dunbar’s penitential poems, Kate Ash (University of Manchester) linked penitential practice, as presented in Dunbar’s Maner of Going to Confession and The Table of Confession, to late medieval perceptions of faculty psychology, which were used to prepare the individual for spiritual cleansing. Ash argued in her paper ‘Reaping the Mind: Memory, Self-Knowledge and Confessional Practice in Late-Medieval Scotland’ that Dunbar makes memory the central vehicle for contrition and spiritual self-governing by asking his readers or listeners to organize their memories in such a way as to collectively serve as a record of the individual’s past. Thus, confession becomes a performative strategy not only of the reader’s or listener’s self-knowledge, but also of the medieval knowledge of faculty psychology.

After expounding the medieval view that aesthetic knowledge was acquired by sensory experiences, R. James Goldstein’s (Auburn University) paper ‘Rhetorical Ductus and Middle Scots Aesthetics’ examined the way medieval reflections on aesthetics influenced and shaped Middle Scots poetry. Using as his examples poems by Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, Goldstein demonstrated how rhetorical ductus and varietas guide the readers or listeners through a poem and contribute to the multisensory experience that poetry was thought to induce in them. Drawing on recent work by Mary Carruthers and G. Gabrielle Starr, he argued that medieval insights into aesthetics may be fruitfully linked to cognitive neuroscience.

As head of the National Museum of Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit, Stuart Campbell was especially interested in mediating between text-based approaches, material culture/archaeology and questions of social impact and perception, all relevant to the aims of our own research project and the Collaborative Research Centre as a whole. Campbell’s paper ‘The Meaning and Language of Objects – Transmission of Knowledge through Material Culture in Medieval Scotland’ explored the various ways in which objects express and transmit cultural knowledge. Objects, Campbell argued, reference common cultural understanding in a symbolic or visual manner that requires knowledge on the part of the user and spectator. They can be instrumental in changing societies, but can also themselves be transformed by existing knowledge and when they come into contact with a new culture.

Anne McKim (University of Waikato) explored questions of temporality and different modes of knowing raised in Older Scots historiography and literature, with special focus on John Barbour’s Bruce. Her paper ‘“Bot Wyt Ye Weill Withoutyn Lesing”: Knowing and Truth-Telling in Older Scots Historiography’ traced the different discourses employed in the Bruce to present different types of historical knowledge and contrasted Barbour’s confidence of being able to fix and communicate knowledge of the past with his epistemological doubts about the reliability of prophecies and fortune-telling.

In her paper ‘Transmitting the Past: Genealogy and Textuality in Medieval Scottish Historiography’ Katherine Terrell (Hamilton College) examined medieval Scottish chronicles from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries and discussed the ways in which different forms of evidence were used to transmit historical knowledge. She identified two distinct forms of evidence employed by chroniclers: the textual and the genealogical, each of which offers a different kind of truth-value. While the textual evidence suggests an illusion of objectivity, the genealogical truth is primarily emotional in that it suggests ideological and genetic continuity with the present. While both forms of evidence often occur in one and the same work, Terrell argues that the genealogical mode was in fact favoured by Scottish chroniclers as it established a link between past and present in a kind of ‘familial communion’.

Roger Mason (University of St Andrews) explored notions of ‘historical truth’ as discussed in the works of sixteenth-century Scottish historians, such as the scholastic theologian John Mair, the humanist Hector Boece, the pro-Catholic John Leslie and the anti-Catholic George Buchanan. His paper ‘Time, Truth and the Uses of History: Chronicling the Past in Renaissance Scotland’ traced these writers’ diverse approaches to historical writing, their varied understandings of time, truth and the use of history, and how they interacted both with the social and political trends of their time and with each other.

In summary, the workshop was marked by the realisation that reflections on knowledge and on various forms of knowledge transfer were central concerns of Older Scots writers and that the levels of knowledge, temporality and historicity were not merely strongly intertwined and employed for aesthetic, performative and didactic purposes, but that all these levels can ultimately be related to medieval insights into faculty psychology and profound questions of truth-value.