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General Introduction

General Introduction: FOOTNOTES

1 Now NLS Advocates MS 31.4.3. For an accessible version, see Fac-Simile of an Ancient Heraldic Manuscript, ed. Laing.

2 ODNB, “Lyndsay, Sir David (c. 1486–1555).”

3 Fac-Simile of an Ancient Heraldic Manuscript, ed. Laing, pp. 7–10. Lyndsay also cites Hector, Arthur, Julius Caesar, and Alexander amongst heroes whose legends he told to the young King James (The Dreme, ed. Hadley Williams, lines 32–35).

4 Selected Poems, ed. Hadley Williams, pp. 101–08.

5 See OED court (n.), sense II. Mapstone’s now-classic challenge, “Was there a Court Literature in Fifteenth-Century Scotland?” focuses on this primary sense of “court.” She concludes that, with very few exceptions (the Complaint edited here being one of them), the royal court had relatively little influence on the Scots literature of this century, which she demonstrates to have been largely of provincial origin, where origins can be traced at all.

6 Hasler, Court Poetry, p. 2.

7 The constitution of the International Courtly Literature Society likewise emphasizes this broader range of meaning with its stated remit “to promote the study of courts and court-related cultures, with particular reference to the written records of medieval Europe” (italics ours).

8 Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry, p. 7. For a specifically Scottish study, see Stevenson, Chivalry and Knighthood in Scotland.

9 Keen, Chivalry, p. 2.

10 Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry, p. 9.

11 Keen, Chivalry, p. 2.

12 Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry, p. 11.

13 The seminal work is Mapstone, “Advice to Princes Tradition.” See also Premodern Scotland, eds. Martin and Wingfield.

14 Well-known examples of the same trope include lines 1–32 of Barbour’s Bruce and lines 1–7 of Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice; see also the note to these lines of the Historie.

15 Lyndsay also engages with the theme in his Armorial, where he goes to some lengths to justify his inclusion of the arms of forfeited families; one reason is so that “nobill mene” can “behald and . . . considder ye causs” of the crimes and “tak exempill to eschew in tyme cumyng sic exorbitant transgressionis aganis yair princis” (Fac-Simile of an Ancient Heraldic Manuscript, ed. Laing, p. 66).

16 See notes to the Historie, lines 102–03, 633, 691–98, 710–848, 856, and 1055.

17 See Macafee and Aitken, “History of Scots to 1700,” and Corbett, McClure, and Stuart-Smith, “A Brief History of Scots,” pp. 1–12.

18 See DOST scottis (adj.), sense 2.

19 See Smith, Linguistic Reader, p. 8, and McClure, “Scottis, Inglis, Suddroun,” pp. 53–55.

20 Eneados, ed. Coldwell, 2:6, lines 117–18.

21 Aitken, Concise Scots Dictionary, p. xiii (slightly updated by Macafee in “History of Scots to 1700,” §1.1.3).

22 For more comprehensive discussion of these and other distinctive features of Older Scots, see Macafee and Aitken, “History of Scots to 1700,” §3 “Characteristics of Older Scots”; and Smith, Linguistic Reader, pp. 18–50 and Appendix: “The First Hundred Words.” See also Parkinson, “Henryson’s Language,” in his Introduction to Complete Works, pp. 12–25.

As its title suggests, this volume brings together six poems on courtly and chivalric themes from late medieval Scotland. Three of these are anonymous and date from the fifteenth century: the Balletis of the Nine Nobles (c. 1438–47); Complaint for the Death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland (c. 1445–60); and the Talis of the Fyve Bestes (c. 1480–1520). The other three items — the Answer to the Kingis Flyting (c. 1535–36), The Historie of Squyer Meldrum, and its appended Testament of Squyer Meldrum (both re-dated here to c. 1540–47) — were all written in the first half of the sixteenth century by the poet and herald Sir David Lyndsay (c. 1486–1555), who had a prominent career at the court of James V. All six poems have been researched, edited, and interpreted anew: the Complaint and Balletis are here presented for the first time as a scholarly edition.

Despite the obvious differences between them in terms of date and authorship, our six Scottish pieces exist very much in dialogue with one another and offer new ways of thinking about notions of courtly and chivalric literature. The latest author, Sir David Lyndsay, can even be seen to represent in himself the core values and concerns of the poems in this collection. In October 1542 he was officially appointed Lyon king of arms, and in the same year he completed an illustrated armorial register, i.e., a formal register of the coats of arms of Scottish families, which he expanded to include key foreign nobles and even some literary figures.1 As J. K. McGinley has observed, “[s]trikingly, the text of the armorial register is almost entirely composed in the vernacular, indicating a strong commitment on Lyndsay’s part to championing the authority of his mother tongue even for such an official and ceremonial purpose.”2 Lyndsay’s interest in, and knowledge of, wider vernacular literary traditions is evident throughout the register. He thus includes “the armys off ye nyne maist nobill,” those figures from Biblical, Classical, and earlier medieval history (Alexander, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon) who form the subject of the Balletis of the Nine Nobles, edited here.3 Alongside the arms of James I’s wife, Joan Beaufort (d. 1445), the Armorial mentions their daughter Margaret, who was “spousit with ye dalphyne of france”; this is the princess Margaret whose death is lamented in the Complaint edited here. In terms of genre, the latter poem anticipates Lyndsay’s own Deploratioun of the Deith of Quene Magdalene, written on the occasion of the death of James V’s first wife, Madeleine de Valois (1520–37),4 and also (in less serious form) The Testament of Squyer Meldrum edited here.

A primary meaning of court is the entourage of a monarch or a powerful noble, and the place of residence, temporary or otherwise, of such an entourage.5 (The related sense of court as a seat of justice or administration is less relevant here.) The court has a much broader cultural significance than this, however. Antony Hasler has described it recently as “a political institution with a firm location in history,” but also “a term describing a loose set of attitudes and values . . . the court of our imagining is inescapably multiple: political institution, symbolic focus, literary trope.”6 The range of meaning for the adjective courtly is broader still. Although the Oxford English Dictionary retains a sense of connection to a royal or noble court with its senses, “Of, pertaining to, or connected with the Court,” and “of persons (or their manners): Having the manners or breeding befitting the Court; polished, refined, or a high-bred courtesy” (all of which senses are relevant to the poems edited here), the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue offers a simpler primary definition of “Courtly, courteous; refined, elegant,” with no direct link to the person or place of the King.7 The two poems in the present collection which are “courtly” in the most literal sense are of course the Complaint for the Death of Margaret and Lyndsay’s Answer to the Kingis Flyting, with their direct connections to the royal courts of Scotland and France. Yet even here, the Complaint can also be seen to apply royal and governmental structures metaphorically to Death’s “duellyng” (line 10), to the “parliament” where we will each “ansuere” after death (lines 144–45), and to the manner in which God governs the Earth. Elsewhere, there are two courts in the Talis of the Fyve Bestes, but the imagined splendor of the lion-king’s court is undercut by the far less royal roost over which the cock “bair the governans” (line 172). Lyndsay’s brief comic Flyting, meanwhile, is courtly in the most baldly literal sense of being written about, and to, the king, and yet the startlingly coarse language of some of its lines — such as the moment Lyndsay describes his king as “Ay fukkand lyke ane furious fornicatour” (line 49) — is probably the last thing that comes to most readers’ minds when they think of “courtly poetry.”

Like his Scottish poetic forebear, William Dunbar, Sir David Lyndsay was a court poet. Although he was employed for diplomatic and administrative rather than poetic services, he nevertheless wrote from within about the royal court in whose employ he spent much of his adult life, and we might therefore profitably study him alongside fifteenth-century writers from south of the border such as John Skelton (c. 1460–1529), Stephen Hawes (b. c. 1474, d. before 1529), Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503–42), and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (1516/17–47). Lyndsay’s very public career at court means that we have a great deal of contextual information to aid in the interpretation of his poems, but the origins of the three poems from the fifteenth century are far less certain. There is nothing in the limited evidence available to suggest that the Balletis of the Nine Nobles or Talis of the Fyve Bestes were written by writers connected to the court. The Complaint for the Death of Princess Margaret is a more complicated case, despite its royal subject. Its author is unknown, as is the author of the Latin chronicle in which it appears; it is not clear whether Latin chronicler and Scots poet are the same person. The chronicler reveals, however, that he became familiar with Margaret whilst spending time at the French court where she resided, and the same is most probably true of the Complaint’s author. We know that Margaret formed part of a royal and female literary coterie at the French royal court and that she associated therein with administrators who — like Lyndsay — combined careers as court servants with writing of poetry. As such, this volume brings together several kinds of court literature, but all remain firmly of, albeit not always from, the court in terms of their values and concerns.

The other adjective used in the title to this volume — “chivalric” — has a slightly different status in that, as Richard Kaeuper points out:
. . . the very term chivalry was continually and confidently spoken and written throughout half a medieval millennium. Not all the terms we employ as modern scholars studying those centuries can make this claim to reality in the society they are meant to describe.8
Medieval writers may have used the term with confidence, but this still does not make it particularly easy to define. Both Richard Kaeuper and Maurice Keen stress its firm connection to “the martial world of the mounted warrior.”9 The term “chivalry” can refer most literally to knightly deeds of valor or the collective body of knights themselves,10 but it also “cannot be divorced from aristocracy, because knights commonly were men of high lineage: and from the middle of the twelfth century on it very frequently carries ethical or religious overtones.”11 Most broadly, chivalry can be said to consist of “the clusters of general principles and practices that most knights accepted and could aspire to follow” as well as the enduring fundamental values to be found within such principles and practices.12 This last is what “chivalric literature” encodes, explores, or interrogates. In texts such as the Balletis of the Nine Nobles, Talis of the Fyve Bestes, and the Squyer Meldrum poems we see as much questioning of chivalric values as we do emulation. Robert Bruce is, for instance, explicitly offered as a Tenth Worthy in the Balletis, but in ending with a riddle addressed to a plural audience — “Yhe gude men at thir balletis redis, / Demis ye quha dochtiast was in dedis” (lines 61–62) — the poem invites and remains open to a variety of answers. The Talis of the Fyve Bestes tackle questions of proper princely or chivalric conduct through tales of such figures as Alexander the Great (one of the Nine Nobles described in the Balletis) or Scottish national hero William Wallace. Writing in the sixteenth century, Sir David Lyndsay uses the by-then faintly archaic form of medieval metrical romance to extol, but ultimately question the chivalric virtues represented by Squire Meldrum.

Notions of “courtly” and “chivalric” start to coalesce the further one moves away from their more literal senses, with the values and ideals that each was held to represent lending themselves to much wider application. One expression of this is the theme of “good governance.” In recent years it has become a critical commonplace to see Older Scots literature as being particularly concerned with good governance, both of the self and others, and it certainly does play a prominent part in the texts edited here.13 Lyndsay’s Historie of Squyer Meldrum, for instance, opens (lines 1–10) with a traditional summary of the writer’s role as preserver of reputations both good and ill.14 In drawing attention to literature’s ability to provide cautionary tales (albeit slightly tongue in cheek here) Lyndsay presents the reading and writing of literature as an ethical activity requiring the application of correct and careful moral judgement, and this impulse can be seen even more clearly in the way that he adapts the comic flyting form in his Answer to the Kingis Flyting in order to offer the hot-blooded young king a gentle warning against excessive sexual promiscuity.15 This ethical or advisory role is even more prominent in the earlier texts in this volume, whether they engage with fictional characters or real historical figures. The Complaint for the Death of Princess of Margaret presents the daughter of James I as a model of female and specifically royal good behavior, while the text as a whole offers broader social commentary and advice on how best to govern others. The Balletis of the Nine Nobles presents the Nine Worthies as models of the kind of chivalric behavior emulated by Lyndsay’s Squire Meldrum. Throughout the Talis of the Fyve Bestes we are invited to scrutinize the behavior of characters who prove unable to set public duty above private desire, while Lyndsay touches on this same theme by highlighting the quiet virtue of Meldrum’s later years, when public service as a sheriff-depute and as a doctor have taken the place of more glamorous chivalric exploits.

The theme of good governance is itself bound up with another theme found at the heart of these texts: independence and sovereignty, which can be approached from a personal or national perspective. National sovereignty is at the core of the Talis of the Fyve Bestes in “The Hartis Tale”’s account of the Scottish national hero William Wallace’s career and posthumous ascent to heaven, and in “The Baris Tale”’s narration of Alexander’s failed attempt to conquer the city of Lapsat, which notably echoes the sentiments and vocabulary of medieval Scotland’s key political document, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. The Balletis of the Nine Nobles, meanwhile, offers the Scottish King Robert Bruce as an additional and implicitly superior “Worthy,” whilst the Complaint for the Death of Princess Margaret documents the exemplary role the young princess played in a crucial political alliance. Lyndsay is careful to set Meldrum’s chivalric adventures in his Historie against the sober background of Scotland’s rumbling conflict with Henry VIII’s England, whether in English-held Carrickfergus in Ireland, or on the battlefields of France, with whom Scotland was allied. Meldrum is positioned, and indeed positions himself, as a singular representative of Scottish sovereignty and martial prowess, a quasi-national hero, and his implicit parallel to William Wallace is underlined by the many allusions in the Historie to Hary’s Wallace.16 His fortune takes a turn for the worse, however, when (like his literary models Arthur and Lancelot) he fails to maintain independence and sovereignty in the much more private matter of love.

In this volume, we set out to introduce the writing of Sir David Lyndsay and his anonymous poetic forebears to a new audience, and to offer more advanced scholars freshly and/or uniquely edited Older Scots texts on a wide range of courtly and chivalric themes. The fifteenth-century anonymous poems Balletis of the Nine Nobles, The Complaint on the Death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland, and The Talis of the Fyve Bestes were edited by Emily Wingfield, and Lyndsay’s Answer to the Kingis Flyting and the Historie and Testament of Squyer Meldrum were edited by Rhiannon Purdie.


Before setting out a brief guide to some of the distinctive features of Older Scots as they appear in the six poems edited here, it would be as well to explain the term “Older Scots” itself.17 “Scots” as it is now used refers to the descendant of Old Northumbrian (the northernmost dialect of Old English) spoken in Scotland. Until the very end of the fifteenth century, Scottish writers of what we now call “Scots” referred to this vernacular as “Inglis,” i.e., English, the better to distinguish it from the Gaelic language. (Although the Gaelic language itself was more often called Erse, i.e., “Irish,” the term “Scottis” was often used to describe the Gaelic-speaking peoples in the west of Scotland,18 so confusion could result).19 It was only from the beginning of the sixteenth century that the term “Scottis” gained currency for the Old English-derived language we now call Scots. Its adoption was encouraged by prominent writers such as Gavin Douglas who, in his Prologue to his Older Scots translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, apologized for having to use “Sum bastard Latyn, French or Inglys oyss [usage], / Quhar scant was Scottis — I had nane other choys” (Some false Latin, French or English usage, where Scots was scarce — I had no other choice).20

As for “Older Scots,” this is the term used to describe Scots from its beginnings to 1700 by the standard dictionary covering early Scots usage, the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST). A. J. Aitken, the most prominent twentieth-century scholar of Scots and a senior editor of DOST, subdivided this lengthy period into “Pre-literary Scots” (i.e., before the c. 1375 appearance of Barbour’s Bruce), “Early Scots” (1375–1450), and “Middle Scots” (1450–1700).21 The labeling of the eras of Scots language and literature is thus difficult to align with that of English language and literary periods, and confusion can result. While most people would be happy enough to label the Talis of the Fyve Bestis (dating from the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) as a “Middle Scots” text, they may balk at having to apply the different label of “Early Scots” to the earlier fifteenth-century Balletis of the Nine Nobles edited here, especially when linguistic differences are scarcely apparent to a non-expert. They may be similarly confused to learn that Sir David Lyndsay’s poems from the 1520–50s are still held to be written in “Middle Scots,” although the works of his contemporaries in England — Skelton, Wyatt, and Surrey, for example — are universally considered to be in Early Modern English. It is for this reason that the misleading term “Middle Scots” has been falling out of fashion in recent scholarship in favor of the non-divisive “Older Scots,” the term championed by DOST. “Older Scots” (OSc) is thus the term used throughout the present volume.

Reading Older Scots can present a challenge to the unwary reader who, perhaps flushed with confidence from reading some Middle English, turns to Older Scots expecting something similar. Since all of the texts edited here are presented with generous marginal glosses, the problem of unfamiliar vocabulary is minimized. But a knowledge of some of the distinctive spelling conventions of Scots will greatly ease the reading experience, as will some awareness of key differences between the pronunciation (and therefore spellings) of words common to southern Middle English and Older Scots (readers familiar with northern varieties of Middle English may, on the other hand, feel quite at home reading Older Scots). Beyond these two categories, there are a few common words which are either distinctively Scots, or have unexpected alternative senses in Scots. The following is by no means a comprehensive description of the characteristics of Older Scots; it is merely a list of key features intended to ease the reading of the six glossed poems edited here.22


OSc a, ai / MdnE o

Middle and Modern English long o corresponds to Older Scots long a: ane, anis, ga, hale, mare, na, twa (one, once, go, whole, more, no, two). That this is a difference of pronunciation is confirmed by rhymes such as the “Unicornis Tale,” schame; hame (shame; home, lines 225–26).

OSc u, ui / MdnE oo, ou

Middle and Modern English long oo or ou corresponds to Older Scots u: gude (good), blude (blood); pure (poor); bukis (books).

OSc diacritic -i-

Vowel length in Older Scots is sometimes indicated by a final -e as in Middle English usage, e.g., mare “more,” but as in Northern Middle English, Older Scots might instead use a diacritic i, e.g., baith (both); wait (know, corresponding to Middle English wot, wote); raid (pa.t. rode); loif (glorify); boist (boast); oist (host); pruif (prove); forsuith (forsooth). The use of diacritic -i- to mark vowel length becomes increasingly common in the sixteenth century, and is a regular feature of the Lyndsay poems edited here.

OSc i/y

Note that, as in Middle English, vowels i and y are used interchangeably in spelling.


OSc Quh- for MdnE Wh-

This reflects the aspirated pronunciation that still obtains in most dialects of Modern Scots: quhilk (which); quha, quham, quhais (who, whom, whose, where it is combined with OSc long a as described above; see also the variant form quhome whom); quhat (what); quhen (when); quhar, quhare, quhair (where); quhy (why); quhether (whether); quhill (until).

OSc medial -ch- for MdnE -gh-

This consonant was always pronounced in Older Scots, as it still is in broad Scots (i.e., more strongly dialectal Scots) today: micht (might); knicht (knight); brocht (brought); faucht (fought); fechtand (fighting; see below on the present participle ending -and).

OSc s- or sch- for MdnE sh-

Sch- was the standard OSc spelling for this consonant, e.g., schaw (show); schort (short); schip (ship); scheild (shield); schure (pa.t. sheared); flesche (flesh); worschipe (worship).

It was also habitually used for certain words such as schir (sir), perhaps reflecting a more aspirated pronunciation.

On the other hand, modal verbs sal, suld (shall, should) are normally spelled with a single s-.

OSc f for MdnE v

This would seem to reflect a genuine unvoiced pronunciation: leif (leave); greif (grieve); luif/luf/luffe, luiffit/luffit/lufit, luifferis (love, loved, lovers); haf (have); gaf (gave); remuf (remove); resaif (receive).

Noun and Verb Endings

Both singular and plural verbs, 2nd and 3rd person, normally end with -is (sometimes -es or -s) in the present tense; see the final couplet of the Balletis:

Yhe gude men at thir balletis redis, (present plural)

Demis ye quha dochtiast was in dedis (imperative plural)

(You good men who read these verses, / judge who was the most valiant)

-is, -it, -in: unstressed endings are most often written with -i-:

Plural or genitive nouns: richtis (rights); bemis (beams); wyfis (wives or wife’s); mennis (men’s).

Past tense or weak past participles with -it: lichtit (lighted); passit (passed); lukit (looked); unrekkynit (unreckoned, uncounted).

Strong past participles with -in: takin (taken); gevin (given); cassin (cast).

Present participles normally end in -and (beside occasional -ing, as in MdnE)

E.g., syngand (singing); fechtand (fighting); haifand (having).

Note that the verbal noun normally ends in -ing, e.g., his departing (his departing/departure)

Common Words

aganis, egaynis (prep.) against

ay (adv.) always, ever

als (adv., conj.) also, as

at (rel. pron., conj.) that, which, who

aucht (num.) eight

awin (adj.) own

bot (prep., adv., conj.) but, except, only

but (prep.) without

couth (aux. v.) could (but also sometimes used for simple past tense, e.g., my leg couth bleid; my leg did bleed, Fyve Bestes line 236)

deed, dede, deid (n.) death

gang (v.) go

gar, ger (v.); gart (pa.t.) make [something happen]

gif (conj.) if

hes (v.) has, had (sing. and pl.)

hie (adj., adv.) high

hir (pron.) her

ilk (adj.) every

intil, intill (prep.) in, into

ma (adv.) more

maist (adj.) most

mon (v.) must

nocht (n.) nothing

nocht (adv.) not

our (prep.) over, above

quhill (conj.) until (not “while”)

richt (adv.) very

scho (pron.) she

sen (prep. and conj.) since, after

sex (num.) six

sik (adj.) such

syn (adv.) then, afterwards

swa (adv. and conj.) so, thus

tan (p.p.) taken

thir (dem. pl.) these

thocht (conj.) although

til, till (prep.) to

yhe (pron.) ye (MdnE “you”)

wald (v.) would

wes (pa.t.) was, were (sing. and pl.)

war (pa.t. or subj.) were

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