The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

RODERICK J. LYALL


33. Alexander Allan (Alesius) and the Development
of a Protestant Aesthetics

The importance of the Biblical Psalms for the development in the sixteenth century of a distinctively Protestant poetics is now fairly well understood, due in no small measure to the recent work of such scholars as Barbara Lewalski and John N. King.1 The rhetoric of self-abnegation and divine praise, punctuated with frequent allusions to political oppression, corresponded so well with the devotional priorities and secular circumstances of early Protestants that it was natural that they should not only translate them into their own vernaculars, but also take them as models for ‘original’ spiritual verse. In taking the Psalms as the sum of the devotional experience offered by the Bible, Reforming writers were, of course, doing no more than echo the views of many of the Church Fathers; but the argument acquired greater point in the sixteenth-century context. It is taken up by both Luther and Calvin, and was reflected in the many vernacular versions of the Psalms which were published all over Protestant Europe. Again, this was essentially a condnuadon of a late medieval practice; but again it acquired new ideological significance within the framework of the Reformation debate. In some ways, the re-emergence of the psalms as a source of rhetorical inspiration encouraged the growing importance of the ‘plain style’ in Protestant poetry; but the lessons offered by these texts were not as univocal as we might suppose, as we shall see in a moment.

Among the many texts articulating this emerging Protestant aesthetics, one early and generally neglected instance is the De Autore et Vtiiitate Psalmorum Oratio given by the Scottish Lutheran Alexander Allan, or Alesius, in Frankfurt-an-derOder in 1541, and published there by Johann Hanaw in November of that year. Alesius had been professor of theology at the newly-established university of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder since the beginning of 1540, having been recommended for the post by Melanchthon himself.2 By June 1540 he had given what appears to have been an inaugural lecture, a work on educational reform entitled De restituendis scholis.3 His first regular lectures appear to have been on the Epistle

1 Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton 1979), esp. pp. 39–53; John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton 1982), pp. 209–25. For an earlier, and influential, discussion of the subject, see Hallett Smith, ‘English Metrical Psalms in the Sixteenth Century and their Literary Significance’, HLQ (1946), 268–70.

2 Melanchthon’s letter of recommendation, dated 1 December 1539, is printed in Corpus Reformatorum, III, 842–44.

3 This work was published in Frankfurt/Oder in 1540, again by Johannes Hanaw; the only known surviving copy is in Edinburgh University Library (RE.5.31). A copy formerly in the Saxon State Library has been missing since 1945. The De restituendis scholis was reprinted among Melanchthon’s

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