George Buchanan, Michaelmas Term 2009

January 11, 2010

Buchanan's poem on the capture: lacking the four lines which end the poem in later editions

A series of seminars organized by CEMS in conjunction with Stephen Harrison (Classics) and David Norbrook (English) explored the writings of George Buchanan (1506-82). His poetry, it emerged from Stephen Harrison’s careful disentangling of his classical allusions, offered a dual temporal focus: his Horatian odes on contemporary affairs would allude to a trouble-spot in his own Europe with terms recognizably borrowed from Horace’s naming of the same place in antiquity. Far from stifling Buchanan’s creativity, Professor Harrison argued, his emulation of the great Latin poets produced work that could stand with the classical canon – a strong claim in a seminar-room where the presence of the late Eduard Fraenkel could still be felt. The poems of Miscellaneorum Liber, which we studied in the annotated parallel text in Philip Ford’s George Buchanan: Prince of Poets (Aberdeen, 1982), revealed sides of Buchanan that might surprise those who know him mainly for the fierce Protestant didacticism of his late political writings, including scurrilous portrayals of erotic low-life and a celebration of the role of the ultra-Catholic Guise family in the French reconquest of Calais. (Steven Gunn, a Tudor historian, was able to assure us that Buchanan’s military details were accurate.) The seminar also included discussion of the early anti-clerical satire Franciscanus and lively presentations by Claire Landiss on the Rerum Scoticarum Historia and by Leah Whittington, a visiting student from Princeton, on the Baptistes. It was good to learn that a new complete edition of Buchanan’s poems is under way for the first time in nearly three hundred years; the seminar showed how difficult this task would be, given Buchanan’s pan-European experience and reception, but also how much there is still to explore in these fascinating writings.

One of the poems considered in the class addressed Camille de Morel, a woman neo-Latin poet who was reading Buchanan shortly before her death in 1611. We can hear more about her in Philip Ford’s paper in the seminar on ‘The Reading of Hebrew and Jewish Texts in the Early Modern Period’ on March 11. Jane Stevenson, author of Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, will be speaking in the Early Modern Literature Graduate Seminar on 2 March.

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