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The Scot Abroad
Chapter 1 - The Scholar and the Author - Part 3

A certain George Conoeus, or Cone, a Scot, published at Rome a small book, on the condition of his Roman Catholic brethren undergoing persecution in Scotland. The tenor of his story is the lustre and eminence of his native land while it adhered to the old faith, and to this text he preaches on the lives and triumphs of Erigena, Mariamus, and many of the others already referred to. He mentions many of his countrymen, eminent members of his own Church abroad, who perhaps had interesting histories if one knew a little more than this author’s brief reference to them, such are Georgius Mortimerus, Forbesii Fratres, Rogerus Lyndessius, Gulielmus Mordocus, &c. Most of these had undergone some hardship for the truth; and of Gulielmus Jonstonus it is said that he was poisoned by the heretics in his native land. He tells, per contra, how some of these heretics were punished, by burning or otherwise, for the abominable opinions entertained by them, and how they were nevertheless called martyrs by their benighted fellow-heretics. And here he brings in certainly one of the oddest ideas that one-sided ingenuity ever brought to its aid in polemical contest: there never is any grand work of the Deity but the enemy of mankind imitates it, and so the holy and purifying institution of martyrdom being founded, the devil forthwith sets to and gets up a spurious imitation of it.

James Laing, or Langius, another of the vehement Scots controversialists on the same side, devotes the concentrated power of his wrath on Luther, Calvin, and the Continental reformers. He looks across occasionally, however, to his old home, from which he was a refugee, and in the middle of a few bitter enough execrations against those who have the upper hand, he laments the departed glory of his country with a kind of fervid grief.

I hope Sir Thomas Urquhart requires no introduction to the reader as a genial and accomplished writer, however much his dealings with Rabelais in the capacity of translator may have twisted both his method of thought and his style of writing into a circuitous kind of eccentricity. His books are saturated throughout with nationality, and the spirit in which he wrote is transparent enough in this short passage.

He says that when, in passing through France, Spain, and Italy, "for speaking some of these languages with the livelyness of the country accent, they would have had him pass for a native, he plainly told them, without making bones thereof, that truly he thought he had as much honour by his own country, which did countervalue the riches and fertility of those nations by the valour, learning, and honesty wherein it did parallel, if not surpass them; which assertion of his was with pregnant reasons so well backed by him, that he was not much gainesaid therein by any in all those kingdoms." This spirited passage is to be found in his ‘Discovery of a most exquisite Jewel, more precious than diamonds enchased in gold ‘—the work which contains his notices of Crichton. In his ‘Logopandecteision’ we find him repeating his pregnant reasons, and affording examples of his method of backing them :— "Since ever I understood anything, knowing that the welfare of the body of a government consisteth in the entireness of its noble parts, I always endeavoured to employ the best of my brain and heart towards the furtherance of the honour of that country unto which I did owe my birth. In prosecuting whereof, as the heart is primum vivens, so was it my heart which, in my younger years, before my braines were ripened for eminent undertakings, gave me courage for adventuring in a forrain climat, thrice to enter the lists gainst men of three several nations, to vindicate my native country from the calumnies wherewith they had aspersed it."

He was, of course, victorious and magnanimous.

It was from the hands of Sir Thomas Urquhart that the world accepted of an idol which, after a period of worship, it cast down, but so hastily, as it was discovered, that it had to be again set up, but rather in surly justice than the old devout admiration. It was that strange flighty turgidness of style which Urquhart had caught by working so much on Rabelais, that for a time eclipsed his hero in the public estimation. The word went forth that the whole affair was a piece of nonsense. I refer to that James Crichton who is commonly called "the Admirable," although the title admirabilis conferred on him by the University of Paris is better translated by his biographer Urquhart in the term wonderful. He came of a remarkable race, who at that time promised, like the Douglases in earlier, and the Campbells in later, days, to overshadow Scotland. Near the capital, their power and magnificence are still attested by the ruins of Crichton Castle, so expressively described in ‘Marmion.’ James Crichton came of a branch established beside the Loch of Cluny, on the eastern verge of the Perthshire Highlands; another detachment of the family, posted at Frendraught, in Aberdeenshire, continued a deadly struggle for supremacy with the Gordons, until, in the mysterious tragedy known as "the burning of Frendraught," they dug the grave of their own fortunes.

The supposition entertained for a brief period, that Crichton was a merely mythical personage, has been so thoroughly dispersed by Mr Fraser Tytler, backed by other inquirers, that the doubts about his existence, and even about the extent of his accomplishments, have dropped out of literature; and the biographical dictionaries restore the champion to his old place. Of course, every one is free to deny that any of his achievements as a scholastic disputant, a mime, or a swordsman, were gained in a sphere of exertion worthy of a great man. But it may be said of these, as of the writings which created the scholastic philosophy, that they were great deeds in their day, and that he who performed them best was greatest among his fellows. We cannot doubt the wonderful and totally unrivalled feats of the Scottish wanderer, since they were attested by contemporaries whose praises were quite spontaneous, and who had no prejudices or partialities to be gratified by his elevation. To hold that in going from place to place challenging in a public manner all who ventured to dispute with him, he showed arrogance and ostentation, is to overlook a prominent feature of the times. The publication of a pamphlet announcing bold opinions which challenge controversy, is not more arrogant at the present day, than the posting of theses challenging a disputation on the gate of a university, was counted to be in the sixteenth century. Robert Reid, a Scotsman, and an ancestor of Thomas the Metaphysician, collected and published the theses he had maintained among the Continental universities. The practice has been rendered memorable by the theses plastered by Luther on the gates of Nurenberg Church. No doubt we can now see how open such a practice was to ridicule; and indeed it came under the wild lash of Rabelais, who laughed at things centuries before they became ridiculous to other people. For a purpose which will presently appear, I quote the history of Pantagruel's challenges, written a few years before those of Crichton:-

"Thereupon in all the Carrefours—that is, throughout all the four quarters, streets, and corners of the city—he set up conclusions to the number of nine thousand seven hundred and sixty-foure, in all manner of learning, touching in them the hardest doubts that are in any science. And first of all, in the Fodder Street, he held dispute against all the regents or fellowes of colledges, artists or masters of arts, and oratours, and did so gallantly, that he overthrew them and set them all upon their tailes. He went afterwards to the Sorbonne, where he maintained argument against all the theologians or divines, for the space of six weeks, from four o’clock in the morning until six in the evening, except an interval of two hours to refresh themselves and take their repast. And at this were present the greater part of the lords of the court, the masters of requests, presidents, counsellors; those of the accompts, secretaries, advocates, and others; as also the sheriffs of the said town, with the physicians and professors of the canon law. Among which it is to be remarked, that the greater part were stubborn jades, and in their opinions obstinate: but he took such course with them, that for all their ergo’s and fellacies, he put their backs to the wall, gravelled them in the deepest questions, and made it visibly appear to the world that, compared with him, they were but monkies, and a knot of muffled calves. Whereupon every body began to keep a bustling noise and talk of his so marvelous knowledge, through all degrees of persons in both sexes, even to the very laundresses, brokers, roast-meat sellers, penknife makers, and others, who, when he passed along the street, would say, ‘That is he,’ in which he took delight, as Demoathenes, the prince of Greek orators, did, when an old crouching wife, pointing at him with her fingers, said, ‘That is the malt"

Now, observe, this passage is quoted from the translation of Rabelais made by that Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, who gives us the most full and picturesque account of Crichton. When, therefore, he describes, in the following terms, the manner in which his hero conducted himself on the same spot, one cannot help believing that he must have had Rabelais’s ridicule in view; and it is difficult to escape the impression that, through all his laudations, we can see his tongue in his cheek. Sir Thomas tells us:-

"To so great a height and vast extent of praise did the never-the-much-extolled reputation of the seraphic wit of that eximious man attaine, for his commanding to be affixed programmes on all the gates of the schools, halls, and colleges of that famous university, as also on all the chief pillars and posts standing before the houses of the most renowned men for literature, resident within the precincts of the walls and suburbs of that most populous and magnificent city, inviting them all (or any whoever else versed in any kind of scholastick faculty) to prepare, at nine o’clock in the morning of such a day, month, and year, as by computation came to be just six weeks after the date of the affixes, to the common school at the College of Navarre, where (at the prefixed term) he should (God willing) be ready to answer to what should be propounded to him concerning any science, liberal art, discipline, or faculty, practical or theoretic, not excluding the theological or jurisprudential habits, though grounded but upon the testimonies of God and man; and that in any of these twelve languages—Hebrew, Syriack, Arabeck, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, Dutch, Flemish, and Slavonian, in either verse or prose, at the discretion of the disputant; which high enterprise and hardy undertaking, by way of challenge to the learnedest men in the world, damped the wits of many able scholars to consider, whether it was the attempt of a fanatick spirit, or lofty design of a well-poised judgment; yet, after a few days’ inquiry concerning him, when information was got of his incomparable endowments, all the choicest and most profound philosophers, mathematicians, naturalists, mediciners, alchymists, apothecaries, surgeons, doctors of both civil and canon law, and divines, both for controversies and positive doctrine, together with the primest gramarians, rhetoricians, logicians, and others, professors of arts and disciplines at Paris, plyed their studys in their private cells, for the space of a month, exceeding had and with huge paines and labour set all their braines awork how to contrive the knottiest arguments and most difficult questions could be devised, thereby to puzzle him in the resolving of them, meander him in his answers, put him out of his medium, and drive him to a nonplus."

This passage will serve a purpose as much in the manner of the saying as in what is said, since it was written by a Scotsman who wandered through many of the Continental nations, and who indeed appears to have aimed at a reputation very like that of his hero. Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty gives us some idea of his familiarity with Continental nations, in the account of his library—what a delightful library it must have been!—to be found in his ‘Logopandecteision.’ "There were not," he says, "three works therein which were not of mine own purchase, and all of them together, in the order wherein I had ranked them, compiled like to a complete nosegay of flowers which, in my travels, I had gathered out of the gardens of sixteen several kingdoms." We shall yet again have to meet with its owner and his vivid nationality. In the mean time I call up another figure.

The climax of preposterous nationalism, and, I fear I must say, of insolent mendacity, was reached by the pen of Thomas Dempster. He was evidently a man cut out for extremes. His contemporaries bear an almost frightened-looking testimony to his size and strength, and the marks of ferocity stamped upon his dusky visage. One of the events of his varied life at once introduces us to a man who would not stand upon trifles. Once, in the course of his Continental wanderings, he found himself in possession of power—as sub-principal, it has been said, of the College of Beauvais, in the University of Paris. Taking umbrage at one of the students for fighting a duel—one of the enjoyments of life which Dempster desired to monopolise to himself—he caused the young gentleman’s points to be untrussed, and proceeded to exercise discipline in the primitive dorsal fashion. The aggrieved youth had powerful relations, and an armed attack was made on the college to avenge his insults. But Dempster armed his students and fortified the college walls so effectively that he was enabled, not only to hold his post, but to capture some of his assailants, and commit them as prisoners to the belfry. It appears, however, that, like many other bold actions, this was more immediately successful than strictly legal; and certain ugly demonstrations in the court of the Chatelain suggested to Dempster the necessity of retreating to some other establishment in the vast literary republic of which he was a distinguished ornament—welcome wherever he appeared.

His experience in the scholar life of the age was ample and varied. He imbibed a tinge of the Anglican system at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. Besides serving and commanding in different colleges at Paris, he held office at Louvain, Rome, Douay, Tournay, Navarre, Toulouse, Montpelier, Pisa, and Bologna. A man who has performed important functions in all these places may well be called a citizen of the world. At the same time, his connections with them were generally of a kind not likely to pass from the memory of those who came in contact with him. He was a sort of roving Bentley, who, not contented with sitting down surrounded by the hostility of nearly all the members of one university, went about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he might attack and insult, and left behind him wherever he went the open wounds of his sword, or of his scarcely less direful pen, scattered thickly around him. He was one of those who, as Anthony Arnauld said of himself, are to expect tranquillity only in a removal from that sublunary world in which, like pieces of clockwork wound up, they are doomed to a ceaseless motion during their vitality. He wrote some minor works pretty powerfully tinged with nationality. His great triumph was, however, the biographical dictionary, which he was pleased to call a literary history of Scotland.

Such an array of illustrious names was probably never elsewhere attributed to one nation. He not only sweeps in the whole flock of Irish saints, but makes a general raid on the Bollandists, and carries off all the names that suit his fancy. He not only was not fastidious about the evidence of their Scottish birth, but would have found it hard to prove, in many instances, that they ever had existence; and perhaps, in the choice of fabulous names, he had the better chance of evading detection, since there was no other country to which they could be revindicated. Following the course of the alphabet, his first names are, St Abel, St Adam, St Adannan, St Adalbertus, St Adelmus, St Aidanus, St Adalgisus, and St Antbodus; and some hundred or so of such exotic names have we to encounter ere we come to such as Alexander Alesius, Alexander Abernethaeus, and Robertus Aitonus. There are, besides the doubtful and fabulous names, some that notoriously belong to our neighbours—as the venerable Bede, St Bruno, Boethius the Roman moralist, and Macrobius—being tempted in this last case probably by the home sound of the first syllable, which, however, he knew very well to be Greek. Take him away from his nationalities, and Dempster presented himself as a great scholar digging to the heart of many difficult parts of learning. It must indeed have been difficult for Italian scholars to refuse assent to anything said about his own country by the first writer of the age on the history and antiquities of theirs—by the author of the ‘Calendarium Romanum’ and the ‘Etruria Regalia,’ and the editor of the Roman Antiquities of Rosinus.

The rather audacious but always real and scholar-like vauntings of Dempster were subsequently vulgarised and caricatured by a blundering blockhead, "George Mackenzie, M.D., Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh." He burdened literature with three portentous folios, which he called ‘The Lives and Characters of the most Eminent Writers of the Scots Nation, with an abstract and catalogue of their works, their various editions, and the judgment of the learned concerning them.’ His method of filling his pages is not uncommon, though few have carried it to so extravagant an excellence. He gets his hand on a monk, supposed to have such-and-such a name, supposed to be born at such a date, and supposed to be a native of Scotland—an identification utterly vague and unsatisfactory. He manages, however, to keep it down to the solid earth by attaching to it a long history of monachism and the several monastic orders, injudiciously plagiarised from the commonest authors who had previously dealt with that matter. In his life of James Bassantin, professor in the University of Paris in the early part of the sixteenth century, and a great mathematician and astronomer according to the light of his times, it is pleasant enough to find the biographer, in much reverence and amazement, repeating Sir James Melville’s story of his astrological predictions about Queen Mary’s journey into England. But he becomes intolerable when, after announcing the branches of exact science in which Bassantin wrote, he proceeds as if taking credit for moderation: "We shall only take notice of the rise and progress of astronomy, in which our author exceeded all the mathematicians of his age." One of his great efforts he calls ‘The Life of Clement, the First Founder of the University of Paris,’ of whom he says, It is certain "that he was born and had his education in Scotland "—a statement altogether about as true as any of the tales of the ‘Thousand and one Nights.’ But we could take all such romancing in good part, like that of Boece and his brethren, were it not that it brings you to—" During his residence at the Court of France he was engaged in two controversies, the one concerning images, and the other about Arianism;" and so he gives us the history of the Iconoclast and Arian controversies. He goes not beyond reasonable bounds, perhaps, in giving an account of the Council of Basle as appropriate to the Abbot of Dundrennan, who was the Scots representative there. But the same cannot be said for his gravely incorporating the fabulous Boetian history of this country, although he seems to take credit for giving it only once, saying, "Since I am to give an account of several authors that have written the history of our nation, that I may avoid needless repetitions, I shall here give the reader an abridgement of our history from the first foundation of our monarchy," &c. Towards the conclusion of his third volume there is an announcement of a rather menacing tendency, but containing the comforting elements of futurity and uncertainty. He says: "I designed, in the account of this learned linguist’s life, to have inserted a dissertation on the origine, progress, and different dialects of the most ancient and useful languages; but this volume having already swelled to a sufficient bulk, and many persons of quality and learning urging the publication of it, I am forced to delay it till an opportunity offers in the fourth volume." The world is under some obligation to these persons of quality and learning, as well as to whatever accidents may have concurred to stifle that fourth volume.

Let us amuse ourselves with one specimen—one is quite enough—of the manner in which Dr George Mackenzie dresses up a Scottish celebrity. The instance, James Bonaventura Hepburn, was born, it appears, at his father’s rectory of Oldhamstocks in Haddingtonshire in 1573. He entered a monastery of the Minims or Eremites in Avignon, and became librarian of the Oriental books and manuscripts of the Vatican. "He could have travelled," says Mackenzie, "over the whole earth, and spoke to each nation in their own language." Yes, and if the biographer’s whole story were true, in a good many more languages than ever were listened to on earth. His chief performance was the ‘Golden Branch,’ which Mackenzie says he saw. His description is full enough, and becomes tedious; so the concluding portion of his enumeration of the seventy-two languages in which the Virgin’s praises are sung may suffice:-

"The fourth column contains the Chaldaick, the Palaestin, the Cananaan, the Persian, the African, the Arabick, the Indian, the Turkish, the Rabinical, the German-Rabinical, the Galilean, the Spanish Rabinical, the Afro-Rabinical, the Hebrao-Arabick, the Syro-Hebraick, the Mystical.

"In the fifth column are the Seraphic, the Super-celestial, the Angelical, the Enochean, the Punick, the Hebrew, the Samaritan, the Mosaick, the Judaeo-Samaritan, the Idumaean, the Halo-Rabinick, the Brachman, the Adamaean, the Solomonick, the Noachick alphabets.

"Our author was so expert in all these languages, so as to be able to write in each of them.

"Now, these are all the languages (and they are the most of the known habitable world) in which our author has given us a specimen of his knowledge, and which evidently demonstrates that he was not only the greatest linguist of his own age, but of any age that has been since the creation of the world; and may be reckoned amongst those prodigies of mankind that seem to go beyond the ordinary limits of nature. Dempster says that he is mentioned with great honour by Vincentius Blancus, a noble Venetian, in his ‘Book of Letters;’ and, as we have already observed, he is highly commended by that learned Doctor of the Canon Law, James Gaffarel, in his book of ‘Unheard-of Curiosities,’ published in Latin at Hamburg, anno 1676."

Something answering to the ‘Book of Letters,’ by the noble Venetian, does exist; it seems to be a commentary on the letters upon the handle of a knife which had belonged to St Peter—no doubt a valuable relic preserved in some religious house. I profess no further acquaintance with this work—no doubt very curious in its way—except the finding of its title in the catalogue of the British Museum. The other source of information, Gaffarel’s ‘Unheard-of Curiosities,’ may be said, on the other hand, to belong to popular literature. It is a favourite with all admirers of the kind of credulousness that becomes picturesque by its sheer excess. It is to be found in many languages, and some of its admirers do not regret that English is among them. I suspect, however, none of them have found in it anything about James Bonaventura Hepburn. It may, perhaps be to the point that Gaffarel refers several times to Heurneus, a name which represents a certain learned Otho van Heurn of Utrecht.

Now, though the whole character might seem an impudent fabrication, there really was such a person as this James Hepburn. He published a small Hebrew Lexicon, which, for aught that I know to the contrary, may have its merits. As to the truth of the assertion that he published anything containing a piece of fine writing in each of the seventy-two languages referred to—which was, perhaps, within the capacity of the intellectual digestive powers of Mackenzie’s contemporaries—at the present day let any one who pleases try if he can swallow it.

But, in fact, down to the period when they began to compete with their English fellow-citizens in vernacular literature, Scottish authors, even if their proper labours were not historical, seem as if they could scarcely avoid some boastful reference to "the ancient nation." Take up, for instance, a stolid quarto on the philosophy of medicine, by William Davidson. There is a world of wandering theories and analogies taken from astrology, alchymy, necromancy, and all the imaginative sciences now exploded; and, in exemplification of some of the recondite principles laid down in the more than 600 preceding pages, we have a scientific adjustment—a sort of horoscope—of the course of events which placed the ancient race of the kings of Scotland on the throne of England, where they have their proper place as the representatives of his brave countrymen. Thomas Bell, a scholir who no doubt belonged to the old fighting Border clan of that name, wrote a text-book in Latin on the institutions of the old Romans. When expounding the nature of their warlike operations, he thinks it proper to give the young student an opportunity of knowing the victorious career of the most ancient and illustrious nation in the world—his own; which, not content with its victories over England, has carried the terror of its arms into every land; like old Rome herself, casting down the tyrant and succouring the oppressed.

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