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A Forgotten Scottish Scholar of the Sixteenth
N Smollett's comedy, The Reprisal, published in 1757, one of the characters, a Scottish ensign in the French service, makes this remark to his companion-in-arms, an Irish lieutenant of the name of Ochlabber, Hoot, fie! Captain Ochlabber, whare's a' your philosophy? Did ye never read Seneca De Consolatione, or Volusenus, my countryman, De Tranquillitate Animi?' It was not very likely that an Irish lieutenant should have heard of Volusenus, and still less likely that he had read his principal work. At least, only six years before the appearance of Smollett's play, a Principal of the university of Edinburgh, Dr. William Wishart, had published a new edition of Volusenus's book, accompanied by a prefatory epistle in which the writer asks this question, 'How many to-day have heard anything of Volusenus?' If we go back a century earlier, we find that Volusenus was then no better known, even in his native country. In 1637 had appeared a previous issue of his book, and the editor, David Echlin, physician to Henrietta Maria, begins his dedication as follows: How much not only his parent Scotland, prolific in such geniuses, but all the nations of the earth, owe to Florentius Volusenus, this one little book of his amply testifies.' In view of the immense debt the world owed to Volusenus, however, it is somewhat curious to find the editor taking credit to himself for rescuing Volusenus from the jaws of Orcus.' These testimonies may suffice to prove that, though Volusenus may have been known to a few scholars, he had no place in the memories of the mass of his countrymen as one of the distinguished ornaments of their nation. Be it added that of the Scottish historians who wrote in
1 Delivered as an Introductory Lecture to the Class of Ancient (Scottish) History in the University of Edinburgh.
2 Dr. John Ward of Gresham College, London.
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only one, Calderwood, mentions his name.1
In recent years, Florence Wilson, for such is his name in the vernacular, has attracted the attention of three distinguished scholars, all of whom recognised in him a rare and choice spirit whom his countrymen do not well to forget. It fell to Professor Robertson Smith to write an account of Wilson for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he became so interested in the task that he made a special investigation of Wilson's career, with the result that he discovered two productions from his hand which had hitherto escaped notice. The late Dr. R. C. Christie, whose life was devoted to the study of the sixteenth century, and whose biography of the printer Étienne Dolet is the monument of his labours, also found in Wilson a subject of such interest that he contributed a sketch of him to the Dictionary of National Biography, in which he throws new light on certain periods of Wilson's career. Finally, a French historian, M. Ferdinand Buisson, well known for his services to primary education in France, has given a picture of Wilson and his surroundings which puts it beyond doubt that he was one of whom his country had reason to be proud.2
In the sixteenth century it was not the custom to write a twovolume biography of every person more or less distinguished immediately on his decease. At the close of his long life, George Buchanan wrote a brief sketch of his own career; and it was a wise precaution, since that sketch is the foundation of every biography that can be written of him. In the case of even the most notable scholars, a page or two prefixed to their works by some one more or less intimately acquainted with them is for the most part the sole record we have of their lives. So it is in the case of Florence Wilson, of whom we have a page of biography from the
1 Calderwood's account of Wilson is as follows: Florence Wilsone, a Black frier, in Elgine of Murrey, threw off his monkish habite this yeere, (1539,) and fled out of the countrie. He was a learned man, and of great expectatioun, as Gesnerus gathered, partlie frome his workes, and partlie by conference with him at Lions. The yeere following, as he maketh mentioun in his Bibliothecke, when he was in England, he had some conference with the Bishop of Rochester. The bishop tooke him to have beene a merchaunt. But after some conference he perceaved him to be a learned man, and burst forth in these words, "I mervel that the hereticks can interprete the Scriptures so perfytelie!" (Historie of the Kirk of Scotland, i. pp. 133-4.)
2 Sébastien Castellion, sa Vie et son Euvre (Paris, 1892), vol. i. pp. 35-6.
hand of one who wrote some seventy years after his death.1 Fortunately there are other stray sources of information which give us glimpses of him at certain periods of his life that are of special interest and significance. Anything approaching a detailed biography of him, indeed, is impossible with the materials at our disposal, yet, such as it is, our information presents us with a career and a personality which seems to have impressed and fascinated personages of the highest note, equally in the world of learning and of diplomacy.
Of Wilson's parentage we know nothing-his biographer making the bare statement that he was of good family. Nor have we any trustworthy record either of the date or the place of his birth. As to the date, all that we can safely say is that he was born in the opening years of the sixteenth century, and thus was the contemporary of George Buchanan, who was born in 1506 or 1507, and with whom in later life he came to be in friendly relations. From a passage in his chief work we incidentally learn the part of the country with which at least a part of his youth was associated. He there represents himself as walking on the banks of the river Lossie in company with one William Ogilvie, who was to be his life-long friend, and discussing the eternal problems of human life and destiny. As at the period when these discussions took place, he had studied philosophy for four years, we may infer that he had completed his course at some university where philosophy was taught.
In the sixteenth century, in Scotland, households did not frequently migrate from one part of the country to another. Under the conditions of feudal society the successive generations remained of necessity attached to the neighbourhood where they had originally struck root. It seems a fairly safe inference, therefore, that on the completion of his university course Wilson returned to his native district and his paternal home. And if the inference be correct, he was fortunate in the region of his birth. The Scottish historians, who wrote in the sixteenth century, celebrate
1The biographer was Thomas Wilson, advocate, son-in-law of Archbishop Adamson. The biography is attached to his edition of Adamson's Works (Adamsoni Poemata Sacra, Lond. 1619, 4to).
2 His biographer gives no date, but specifies the place of his birth as the banks of the Lossie, not far from Elgin.' This statement was probably based on a passage in De Animi Tranquillitate referred to below.
3 De Animi Tranquillitate (ed. 1751), p. 100.
the district of Moray as the garden of Scotland, unsurpassed elsewhere for the fertility of its soil and the beauty of its scenery. In Wilson's day natural scenery was not the object of aesthetic contemplation which it is in ours, but in a simple, human way they found their own pleasure in it, as their writings abundantly testify. Long afterwards, when settled in France, he recalled the beauties of his early haunts-the hills clothed with woods, the fertile fields and the neighbouring lake, Loch Spynie, frequented by swans.1
More important, in view of his subsequent career, is the fact that in the neighbouring town of Elgin he would find advantages which few other towns in Scotland could then offer. There was its cathedral, the most beautiful edifice of its kind in the country, though in Wilson's day it bore the marks of the sacrilegious hand of the Wolf of Badenoch, who in the previous century had avenged himself on the Bishop of Moray by ravaging his temple. In the cathedral and the community of ecclesiastics attached to it he would see the Church of Rome represented in its most august form, and the impression they made upon him appears in his description of the Temple of Peace, constructed of Parian marble, and where heathen virtue found its home. In Elgin, also, towards the end of the previous century, 1489, the Chapter of the cathedral had founded a school which from the richness of the diocese of Moray was likely to have been one of the best in the country. As in all the cathedral schools of the time, Latin would be the main subject of study, and, if it were taught as it was taught in other schools of which we have the record, the aptest pupils would acquire a colloquial use of the Latin language which made them citizens of educated Europe. The Latin taught at Elgin in Wilson's day would, of course, be the medieval Latin of the Church, and not that language as it had come to be written by the Latin humanists of the fifteenth century. In an interesting passage in his Dialogue Wilson expresses the consciousness of his disadvantage in not having been trained in the latest lights of the revival of letters. To the two interlocutors who desire him to expound his philosophy of life he apologises for himself as a barbarian, born and reared in an alien tongue and alien manners—that is to say, among the remote Britons; and late and superficially tinctured with that learning which for them is foreign and acquired." In point of fact, wherever he acquired the accomplishment, Wilson came to write Latin with a correctness 1 lb. p. 101. 2 lb. pp. 101 et seq. 3 lb. p. 19.
which gained the applause of his contemporary scholars; and he even criticises Erasmus for the negligence of his Latin style.1 And we shall see that at a turning-point of his career the choiceness and elegance of his Latin speech gained him the friendship and patronage of one of the great princes of the Church, accomplished in all the learning of the age.
Indirectly from Wilson himself we learn that he studied at the University of Aberdeen, then the best equipped of the three universities that had been founded in Scotland during the fifteenth century. Under the munificent patronage of Bishop Elphinstone, its founder, it had a staff of thirty-six teachers—all, be
noted, members of the Collegiate Church of Aberdeen. At its head was a scholar of dubious fame in our literary annals, Hector Boyce, who deserves a passing reference as the earliest known representative in Scotland of what is designated humanism. Born in Dundee about 1465, he had studied in Paris, where he subsequently taught philosophy in one of its most famous schools, the Collège Montaigu. Of all the colleges in the University of Paris, Montaigu had the reputation of being most hostile to the new lights of the time, and Erasmus bitterly rails against it as the stronghold of effete studies. The philosophy which Boyce taught in Montaigu, therefore, must have been the trifling dialectic into which scholasticism had degenerated at the close of the fifteenth century. But what is singular is that he writes a Latin style which in vocabulary and construction has nothing in common with the Latin of the schoolmen, as we have it, for example, in the writings of his contemporary, John Major. Boyce had evidently taken as his models the classical writers of Rome, more especially Livy, whom in his History of Scotland he obviously sought to emulate. Of that remarkable history this is not the occasion to speak. Here we are only concerned with the fact that Boyce belonged to a class of persons who are found in every age. By his natural instincts he was in full sympathy with the new tendencies of his time, but from early training and associations he could not entirely free himself from the trammels of the past.
As philosophy was the subject on which Boyce prelected, it is probable that it was at his feet Wilson sat during his university
1 De Aniwi Tranquillitate (ed. 1751), p. 250.
2 In a letter addressed later in life to his friend John Ogilvie, Wilson sends his greetings to Hector Boyce, whom, therefore, he must have known in his youth. Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, viii. Sept. 10, 1859.)