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George Buchanan, Scholar
by [?]

FOOTNOTE: {328} So says Dr. Irving, writing in 1817. I have, however, tried in vain to get a sight of this book. I need not tell Scotch scholars how much I am indebted throughout this article to Dr. David living’s erudite second edition of Buchanan’s Life.

The story of his life is easily traced. When an old man, he himself wrote down the main events of it, at the request of his friends; and his sketch has been filled out by commentators, if not always favourable, at least erudite. Born in 1506, at the Moss, in Killearn–where an obelisk to his memory, so one reads, has been erected in this century–of a family “rather ancient than rich,” his father dead in the prime of manhood, his grandfather a spendthrift, he and his seven brothers and sisters were brought up by a widowed mother, Agnes Heriot–of whom one wishes to know more; for the rule that great sons have great mothers probably holds good in her case. George gave signs, while at the village school, of future scholarship; and when he was only fourteen, his uncle James sent him to the University of Paris. Those were hard times; and the youths, or rather boys, who meant to become scholars, had a cruel life of it, cast desperately out on the wide world to beg and starve, either into self-restraint and success, or into ruin of body and soul. And a cruel life George had. Within two years he was down in a severe illness, his uncle dead, his supplies stopped; and the boy of sixteen got home, he does not tell how. Then he tried soldiering; and was with Albany’s French Auxiliaries at the ineffectual attack on Wark Castle. Marching back through deep snow, he got a fresh illness, which kept him in bed all winter. Then he and his brother were sent to St. Andrew’s, where he got his B.A. at nineteen. The next summer he went to France once more; and “fell,” he says, “into the flames of the Lutheran sect, which was then spreading far and wide.” Two years of penury followed; and then three years of schoolmastering in the College of St. Barbe, which he has immortalised–at least for the few who care to read modern Latin poetry–in his elegy on ‘The Miseries of a Parisian Teacher of the Humanities.’ The wretched regent master, pale and suffering, sits up all night preparing his lecture, biting his nails, and thumping his desk; and falls asleep for a few minutes, to start up at the sound of the four o’clock bell, and be in school by five, his Virgil in one hand, and his rod in the other, trying to do work on his own account at old manuscripts, and bawling all the while at his wretched boys, who cheat him, and pay each other to answer to truants’ names. The class is all wrong. “One is barefoot, another’s shoe is burst, another cries, another writes home. Then comes the rod, the sound of blows and howls; and the day passes in tears.” “Then mass, then another lesson, then more blows; there is hardly time to eat.”–I have no space to finish the picture of the stupid misery which, Buchanan says, was ruining his intellect, while it starved his body. However, happier days came. Gilbert Kennedy, Earl of Cassilis, who seems to have been a noble young gentleman, took him as his tutor for the next five years; and with him he went back to Scotland.

But there his plain speaking got him, as it did more than once afterward, into trouble. He took it into his head to write, in imitation of Dunbar, a Latin poem, in which St. Francis asks him in a dream to become a Grey Friar, and Buchanan answered in language which had the unpleasant fault of being too clever, and–to judge from contemporary evidence–only too true. The friars said nothing at first: but when King James made Buchanan tutor to one of his natural sons, they, “men professing meekness, took the matter somewhat more angrily than befitted men so pious in the opinion of the people.” So Buchanan himself puts it: but, to do the poor friars justice, they must have been angels, not men, if they did not writhe somewhat under the scourge which he had laid on them. To be told that there was hardly a place in heaven for monks, was hard to hear and bear. They accused him to the king of heresy: but not being then in favour with James, they got no answer, and Buchanan was commanded to repeat the castigation. Having found out that the friars were not to be touched with impunity, he wrote, he says, a short and ambiguous poem. But the king, who loved a joke, demanded something sharp and stinging, and Buchanan obeyed by writing, but not publishing, the ‘Franciscans,’ a long satire, compared to which the ‘Somnium’ was bland and merciful. The storm rose. Cardinal Beaton, Buchanan says, wanted to buy him of the king, and then, of course, burn him, as he had just burnt five poor souls: so, knowing James’s avarice, he fled to England, through freebooters and pestilence.