Textual Afterlives: Barbour's Bruce and Hary's Wallace

By Smith, Jeremy | Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Textual Afterlives: Barbour's Bruce and Hary's Wallace


Smith, Jeremy, Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature


Texts, through time, deploy the past for different audiences; sociocultural and linguistic changes affect their reception and recuperation. This chapter traces the afterlives of two medieval Scottish texts with highly significant post-medieval impacts, John Barbour's The Bruce and "Blind" Hary's Wallace.

Keywords: authenticity, historical pragmatics, Jacobitism, literacy, manuscript, print, Protestantism, punctuation, Romanticism, sentiment, textual criticism, Union.

The textual afterlives of medieval literature

It is a truism of many disciplines that, when a cultural artefact comes down to us from the past - a poem, piece of music, painting, sculpture, tapestry - its "authenticity" as a witness for its own time may be remarked upon but it is also, of course, situated within twenty-firstcentury culture. A piece of "early" music is, for instance, just as much part of our contemporary cultural capital as a composition from our own time. When a gallery of medieval art is created for the twentyfirst century, the pieces on display interact with their present-day setting to produce a distinctive (in many ways potentially problematic) cultural experience, as in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, for example, where medieval doorways are incorporated into the building's architecture. And the ways in which (say) a medieval poem is presented in subsequent centuries relate dynamically to the changing ways in which the past is integrated within broader cultural/national narratives and imperatives. In sum, the present is always in dynamic dialogue with the past.

At least two such dialogues were current in eighteenth-century Britain. One approach to the past was impatient: the Enlightenment required a "clearing away [of] the rubbish" (to use Roy Porter's evocative formulation; see Porter 2001: 48ff), in which 1688 was a decisive break and an assertion of modernity. Another view was an antiquarian engagement which sentimentalised the past, finding expression in "Gothick" art and literature and, at the end of the period, in Romantic re-creations of medieval culture; characteristic expressions of this engagement are Gray's reworking of Norse literature, Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry and, later still, Pugin's rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster. These two approaches, of course, interacted in complex ways; many radical thinkers, for instance, found in the past not simply "rubbish" but rather exemplary figures who could be repurposed as challenges to the perceived corruptions of their own time. Thus (for instance) both Home Tooke and Leigh Hunt venerated the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great as a legendary champion of ancient liberties, and it is no coincidence that late Victorian radicals such as William Morris admired the Middle Ages - conveniently distant in time - as a period of physical cleanliness and moral clarity.

The creation of the British state at the beginning of the eighteenth century, through the Act of Union of 1707, added extra complexities. It is at least arguable that, throughout the eighteenth century, Scotland was the locus for an especially extreme clash between these two approaches to the past. On the one hand was the Scottish Enlightenment, represented by the appearance of thinkers such as Beattie, Hume and Smith, and physically by the creation of, for example, Edinburgh's New Town, and associated with the intellectual primacy in the British Isles of the great Scottish universities and the appearance of a vigorous publishing industry: a confident expression of Scottish culture within a unionist setting. On the other were traditionalists who looked back to before 1688: the Jacobites, whose risings in 1715 and (especially) 1745 threatened to overthrow the British state and replace it with a very different polity based on older values of kinship and deference. Only at the end of the eighteenth century was this clash resolved, with the integration of a failed Jacobitism within a safer, sentimental cultural narrative and the rise of new, revolutionary and Romantic threats to the enlightened world. …

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