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Manners and Mustard: Ideas of Political Decline in Sixteenth-Century Scotland

  • David Allan (a1)

With an acidity wholly typical of the Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson was to observe that “oats,” which “in England is commonly given to horses … in Scotland supports the people.” It has not unnaturally been the assumption of posterity that most eighteenth-century Scotsmen, by then the self-confident inhabitants of a newly civilised and enlightened community, would have been suitably offended by what has since become a notorious imputation of national plainness and pauperism. Yet there are, I want to suggest, substantial grounds for doubting this apparently straightforward conclusion. The meagreness of the early-modern Scottish diet had in fact always been a matter for the most determined moral pride. The elderly Jacobite, Mackintosh of Borlum, for example, had as recently as the 1720s responded to the increasing sophistication of the post-Union table with open disdain: “Formerly I had been served with two or three substantial dishes of beef, mutton, and fowl, garnished with their own wholesome gravy,” the suspicious old laird complained, but “I am now served up little expensive ashets with English pickles, Indian mangoes, and anchovy sauces.” Robert Monro of Opisdale, too, writing nearly a century before, in the 1630s, had described with palpable moral outrage the flagrant indiscipline and consequent military weakness of those Scottish soldiers in the armies of Gustavus Adolphus whose “stomackes could not digest a Gammon of Bacon or cold Beefe without mustard, so farre [they] were out of use.” And in Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814), surely the most influential examination of the national culture ever composed, it is also obvious that that patriotic pedant, the Baron of Bradwardine, offering hospitality to his young visitor at Tully-Veolan, the seat of ancient Scottish virtue, finds himself by no means embarrassed at being unable to “rival the luxuries of [his] English table.”

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1 Johnson, Samuel, Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755).

2 Quoted in that treasure-trove of colourful anecdotes, Graham, H. G., The Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1937), 13. Augustan Scotsmen of the old school had also viewed the new and dangerously “southern” fashion of tea drinking with both moral dismay and political alarm: It was at first dismissed, apparently, as little other than “an expensive unpleasant drug.” Ramsay, John, Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century, Allardyce, A., ed., 2 vols. (London, 1888), II, 7273. For concern in the 1760s among “the commoner sort” of fictional Dalmailing about tea, “the new luxury,” see Galt, John, Annals of the Parish, Kinsley, J., ed. (London, 1967), 12.

3 Moraro, Robert, Monro His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment, etc. (London, 1637), I, 47. Another hater of mustard was Robert Burton in England, who in the 1620s famously attacked the substance as one of those “sharp and sour things, luscious and over-sweet,” adding, “as sweet things are obstructive, so these are corrosive” (The Anatomy of Melancholy, Jackson, H., ed. [London, 1979], I, vii).

4 Sir Scott, Walter, Waverley, Hook, A., ed. (Harmondsworth, 1985), 88. It is significant that Scott also noted (ibid., 501), that the real eighteenth-century Jacobite leader, Lord Lovat, was famous for preserving his clansmen from the debilitating effects of what he deemed “outlandish luxuries.” The same contrast of “the modern dejeune” with “the magnificence and solidity of the preparation” of Lady Margaret Bellenden's seventeenth-century table— “no tea, no coffee, no variety of rolls, but solid and substantial viands”—is used by Scott to great political effect in Old Mortality, Calder, A., ed. (Harmondsworth, 1975), 174.

5 The crucial formative influence of sixteenth-century humanist and presbyterian scholarship over early-modern and Enlightenment thinking in general is discussed in my Virtue, Learning, and the Scottish Enlightenment: Ideas of Scholarship in Early Modern History (Edinburgh, 1993). See also Mason, R. A., “Scotching the Brut: Politics, History, and National Myth in Sixteenth-Century Scotland,” in Scotland and England, 1286–1815, Mason, R. A., ed. (Edinburgh, 1987), 6084, on scholarship in the period. Lynch, M., “The Age of Renaissance and Reformation,” in Why Scottish History Matters, Mitcheson, R., ed. (Edinburgh, 1991), 2636, ably encapsulates recent thinking on the intellectual life of the sixteenth century. An excellent collection of new essays on this subject has appeared as Scots and Britons: Scottish Political Thought and the Union of 1603, Mason, R. A., ed. (Cambridge, 1994).

6 Post-Renaissance political thought, and particularly the republican tradition with which we shall here be most concerned, has received much general treatment. See, for example, Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N.J., 1975), and Burns, J. H., ed., Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700 (Cambridge, 1991), esp. 30–41, 46–51, 59–65, 443–75. A most interesting recent contribution to its understanding has been Bock, G., Skinner, Q., and Viroli, M., eds., Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge, 1990). Its significance in sixteenth-century Scotland, however, has been less fully explored, but see Allan, , Virtue, esp. 32–44, for a discussion of its intellectual significaiwe, and also Williamson, A. H., Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI: The Apocalypse, the Union, and the Shaping of Scotland's Public Culture (Edinburgh, 1979).

7 Fordur, John of, Chronicle of the Scottish Nation, 2 vols., W, F, . and Skene, F. J. H., ed. and trans. (Edinburgh, 1872), I, 38. Fordun's discussion of Scottish manners is explicitly indebted to two ancient sources, Isidore of Seville's Liber Etymologicarum and Solinus's De Situ et Memorabilia Orbis.

8 Froissart, Jean, Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and the Adjoining Countries, Johnes, T., ed. and trans., 2 vols. (London, 1848), I, 18. Another foreign visitor struck by the effects of a plain diet among the Scots and Æneas Silvius Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, who in his Commentarii Rerum Memorabilium, following a visit to Scotland in the 1430s, observed that “they eat flesh and fish to repletion, and bread only as a dainty. The men are small in stature, bold and forward in temper” quoted in Brown, P. Hume, Early Travellers in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1891), 27.

9 See MacQueen, J., “The Literature of Fifteenth-Century Scotland,” in Scottish Society in the Fifteenth Century, Brown, J. M., ed. (London, 1977), 184208. Fordun's original text was not finally published until the appearance in 1759 of Walter Goodall's edition of the Scotichronicon. A modem multivolume translation and critical edition is currently emerging under the stewardship of D. E. R. Watt and Aberdeen University Press.

10 See Burns, J. H., “New Light on John Major,” Innes Review, 5:1 (1954), 83100.

11 Recent studies of Major's social and political ideas in a Scottish context have been Burns, J. H., “Politia Regalis et Optima: The Political Ideas of John Major,” History of Political Thought, 2:1 (1981), 3161, and Mason, R. A., “Kingship, Nobility, and Anglo-Scottish Union: John Major's History of Greater Britain,” Innes Review, 41:2 (1991), 183222. Modern interest in Major as a figure of European importance began in such accounts as those of Laski, Harold in the Cambridge Medieval History (1964), 8 vols., VIII, 638, and in Figgis, J. N., Studies of Political Thought from Gerson to Grotitis, 1414–1625, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1916), especially 48. Location of Major in a mainstream intellectual tradition linking medieval conciliarist theology to modern liberal political theory has been achieved by Oakley, F. A., “On the Road from Constance to 1688: The Political Thought of John Major and George Buchanan,” Journal of British Studies, 1:2 (1962), 131. See also Skinner, Q., The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1978), I, 65, for a definitive placing of Major's theory of popular sovereignty.

12 Major, John, A History of Greater Britain, England as well as Scotland, Constable, A., ed. and trans. (Edinburgh, 1892), 23n.

13 16id., 8–12.

14 ibid., 12.

15 ibid., 40–41.

16 ibid., 44–45.

17 Ibid., 47.

19 Ibid., 48. Fordun's judgment of the “highlanders and people of the islands” was that they were basically a “savage and untamed nation, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving, of a docile and warm disposition” (Chronicle, I, 38).

20 Major, , History, 49. On the centrality of such activities to the life of the medieval nobility, see Cummins, J., The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (London, 1988).

21 Boece and Bellenden have regrettably received only a fraction of the modern historical attention devoted to the more temperate and cosmopolitan John Major. The outstanding analysis of Boece in his Scottish context remains Mason, R. A., “Kingship and Commonweal: Political Thought and Ideology in Reformation Scotland” (Ph.D. disser., University of Edinburgh, 1983), to which my own understanding is much indebted.

22 The revisionist literature of recent years has maintained that fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Scotland was by no means possessed of a feeble and foolish monarchy or an overmighty nobility. These, it is argued, were the fond imaginings of contemporary and later scholars like Boece, Lindsay of Pitscottie, Buchanan, Knox, and, as late as the eighteenth century, William Maitland and William Duff, who were motivated either by strong protestant feeling to identify an impious and corrupt royal court as the root of all modem evil or by Crown patronage itself to excoriate the king's most dangerous and influential subjects. On the reality, see Wormald, J., “Taming the Magnates?” in Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland, Stringer, K. J., ed. (Edinburgh, 1985), 270–80, and idem.Court, Kirk, and Community, 1470–1625 (Edinburgh, 1974), as well as Macdougall, N. A. T., “The Sources: A Reappraisal of the Legend,” in Scottish Society, Brown, , ed., 1032, the origins of this tenacious myth. An attempt to rehabilitate the older interpretation is Brown's, M. H.Scotland Tamed? Kings and Magnates in Late Medieval Scotland: A Review of Recent Work,” Inns Review, 15:2 (1994), 120–46.

23 Boece, Hector, The History and Chronicles of Scotland, Bellenden, J., ed. and trans., 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1821), I, li.

24 Ibid., I, liv.

25 Ibid., I, lv.

28 Ibid., I, lvi.

29 For a source, see Froissart's claim that “in time of war … they will live for a long time on flesh half sodden, without bread, and will drink the river-water without wine,” each carrying with himself only a little bag of oatmeal.” Chronicles, I, 18.

30 Boece, , History, lvi.

31 Ross, Alexander, The History of the World-The Second Book in Six Parts (London, 1652), 5.

32 Boece, , History, lix.

33 Ibid., lix–lx.

34 Ibid., lx.

37 Ibid., lxi.

38 Late Renaissance philosophy, and its conception of wisdom in particular as the sustaining ideal of political society, has recently been given erudite treatment in Bradshaw's, Brendan discussion of “Transalpine Humanism,” in Cambridge History of Political Thought, Burns, , ed., esp. 106–13. Statements such as Erasmus's, Praise of Folly (1507), Vives's, Juan LuisIntroductio ad Sapientiam (1524), and Sir Elyot's, ThomasOf the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man (1533) can be seen as having emphasised the centrality of the intellect and reason in the public life of the healthy community, a position with which Bellenden's fearsome and exactly contemporary attacks on the irrational implications of sensuous indulgence obviously coheres.

39 See especially Grant, I. F., Social and Economic Development of Scotland before 1603 (Edinburgh, 1930), 555, and Gibson, A. and Smout, T. C., “Scottish Food and Scottish History, 1500–1800,” in Scottish Society, 1500–1800, Houston, R. A. and Whyte, I. D., eds. (Cambridge, 1989), 5984. The discrepancy between Bellenden's extravagant accusations in particular and the facts of gradual dietary decline in practice during this period are perhaps less disturbing when it is remembered, as Brown, Hume, (Scotland in the Time of Queen Mary [London, 1904], 6) noted, that neither Boece nor Buchanan nor Major nor even Bishop Lesley among the country's great sixteenth-century historians, “had a personal knowledge of the country as a whole.” Indeed, all four spent much time abroad, one (Lesley) writing his definitive history of Scotland when living in France and another (Major) shortly after his return. Moral expectations, political assumptions, half truths and rumour consequently form the background to many of the social and cultural observations in these works.

40 An outstanding modern intellectual biography is MacFarlane, I. D., Buchanan (London, 1981). Cast by Skinner, , Foundations of Modern Political Thought, II, 341n., as “by far the most radical of the Calvinist revolutionaries,” Buchanan and his position in the history of political thought have been secured by detailed modern examination, as, for example, in Oakley, , “On the Road from Constance to 1688,” and in Burns, , ed., Cambridge History of Political Thought, esp. 215–18.

41 Buchanan, George, The History of Scotland, 6 vols., Aikman, J., ed. and trans. (Edinburgh, 18281830), I, 4041. If Buchanan echoed the earlier patriot, Bellenden, in conceiving of the hunt as an emblem of Scotsmen's moral vitality, it is intriguing, looking forwards in Scottish history, that in 1715 the Earl of Mar actually used a hunting party as a cover for the gathering of the Jacobite clansmen loyal to the Old Pretender, and, indeed, that in Waverley, Scott's fiction imagines the Young Pretender's forces engaging in the same evocative activity immediately prior to the 1745 rebellion. The hunt, apparently, was ever a political statement among patriotic Scotsmen.

42 Buchanan, , History, I, 57.

43 Ibid., I, 57–58.

44 Fletcher, Andrew, A Discourse Concerning Militia's and Standing Armies (London, 1697), 4. Orthography original.

45 Buchanan, , History, I, 58.

47 Buchanan, George, De Jure Regni apud Scotos Dialogos, Philalethes, , ed. and trans. (London, 1680), 27.“Peace hath its own dangers no less than Wars,” agreed William Drummond, History of Scotland (London, 1655), 17, prefacing a predictable discussion of luxury and political decline by the country's greatest seventeenth-century man of letters.

48 Buchanan, , History, II, 180.

49 Ibid., II, 264.

50 Mackenzie, George, Lives and Characters of the Most Eminent Writers of the Scots Nation, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1708 1722), I, 313.

51 Sir Craig, Thomas, De Unione Regnrum ?rita?niae Tractatus, Terry, C. S., ed. and trans. (Edinburgh, 1909), 389.

52 Ibid., 417.

54 Ibid., 417–18.

55 Ibid., 413.

56 Ibid., 414.

57 Ibid., 416. The reference is to Horace's observation, Pauper enim non est, cui mum suppetet usus.” Epistles, 12.1.

58 Craig, , De Unione Regnrum, 416.

59 Ibid., 418.

60 16id., 447. Scott, , Waverley, 146, would also later equate the simple repast provided for his hero in a Highland setting with that of a Scythian camp.

61 Borlum was not unique in Augustan Scotland in equating expensive food with political deracination. Sir Sibbald, Robert (Historical Inquiries concerning the Roman Monuments and Antiquities of Scotland [Edinburgh, 1707], 2), though himself a notable promoter of Scotland's incipient Enlightenment, could not resist upbraiding the ancient Britons for their having yielded “to the soft Pleasures of Vice, building Sumptuous Galleries and Baths and making costly Feasts and fine Intertainments,” thus condemning themselves to subjection precisely by having so willingly embraced what he saw as “the Points and Means of ingaging them in Slavery and Bondage.”

62 Duff, William, A History of Scotland (London, 1749, sig-alv). Duff was not alone in continuing this line of attack in an enlightened age that took the causal link between manners and political developments to be, if anything, even more axiomatic. Maitland, William (The History and Antiquities of Scotland, 2 vols. [London, 1757], II, 610), for example, railed against I, James of Scotland for his “Masques, banquetings, sumptuous apparel, revellings, and nocturnal pleasures.” Adam Ferguson (The History of the Roman Republic, 3 vols. [London, 1783]), meanwhile, like Craig, looked directly back to late republican Rome for evidence of the dire political effects of creeping luxuriousness and sensual self-indulgence.

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