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Significant Scots
John Ballentyne


BALLENTYNE, (or Bellenden,) JOHN,—otherwise spelt Ballanden and Ballentyn—an eminent poet of the reign of James V., and the translator of Boece’s Latin History, and of the first five books of Livy, into the vernacular language of his time, was a native of Lothian, and appears to have been born towards the close of the 15th century. He studied at the university of St Andrews, where his name is thus entered in the records: "1508, Jo. Balletyn nae Lau(doniae)." It is probable that he remained there for several years, which was necessary before he could be laureated. His education was afterwards completed at the university of Paris, where he took the degree of Doctor of Divinity; and as has been remarked by his biographer, (Works of Bellenden, I., xxxvii,) "the effects of his residence upon the continent may be traced both in his idiom and language."

He returned to Scotland during the minority of James V., and became attached to the establishment of that monarch as "Clerk of his Comptis." This appears from "the Proheme of the Cosmographe," prefixed to his translation of Boece, in which he says: -

And first occurrit to my remembering,
How that I wes in service with the king;
But to his grace in yeris tenderest,
Clerk of his compts, thoucht I wes indign (unworthy,)
With hart and hand and every other thing
That micht him pleis in my maner best;
Quhill hie invy me from his service kest,
Be thame that had the court in governing,
As bird but plumes heryit of the nest.

The biographer of Ballentyne, above quoted, supposed that he must have been the "Maister Johnne Ballentyne," who, in 1528, was "secretar and servitour" to Archibald Earl of Angus, and in that capacity appeared before parliament to state his master’s reasons for not answering the summons of treason which had been issued against him. We can scarecely, however, reconcile the circumstance of his being then a "Douglas’s man," with the favour he is found to have enjoyed a few years after with James V., whose antipathy to that family was so great as probably to extend to all its connections. However this may be, Ballentyne is thus celebrated, in 1530, as a court poet, by Sir David Lyndsay, who had been in youth his fellow-student at St Andrews, and was afterwards his fellow-servant in the household of the king:

But now of late has start up heastily
A cunning clerk that writch craftily;
A plant of poets, called
Ballenten,
Whose ornate writs my wit cannot define;
Get he into the court authority,
He will precel Quintin and Kenedy.

In 1530 and 1531, Ballentyne was employed, by command of the king, in translating Boece’s History, which had been published at Paris in 1526. The object of this translation was to introduce the king and others who had "missed their Latin," to a knowledge of the history of their country. In the epistle to the king at the conclusion of this work, Ballenden passes a deserved compliment upon his majesty, for having "Dantit this region and brocht the same to sicken rest, gud peace and tranquility; howbeit the same could nocht be done be your gret baronis during your tender age;" and also says, without much flattery, "You nobill and worthy deidis proceeds mair be naturall inclination and active curage, than only gudly persuasioun of assiteries." He also attests his own sincerity, by a lecture to the king on the difference between tyrannical and just government; which, as a curious specimen of the prose composition of that time, and also a testimony to the enlightened and upright character of Ballentyne, we shall extract into these pages:

"As Seneca says in his tragedeis, all ar nocht kingis that bene clothit with purpure and dredoure, but only they that sekis na singulare proffet, in dammage of the commonweill; and sa vigilant that the life of their subdetis is mair deir and precious to them than thair awin life. Ane tyrane sekis riches; ane king sells honour, conquest he virtew. Ane tyrane governis his realmis he slauchter, dredoure, and falset; ane king gidis his realme be prudence, integrite, and favour. Ane tyrane suspeckis all them that hes riches, gret dominioun, auctorite, or gret rentis; ane king haldis sic men for his maist helply friendis. Ane tyrane luffis nane bot vane fleschouris, vicious and wicket lyminaris, be quhais counsall he rages in slauchter and tyranny; ane king laffis men of wisdom, gravite, and science; knawing weill that his gret materis maybe weill dressit be thair prudence. Treuth is that kingis and tyrannis hes mony handis, mony ene, and mony mo memberis. Ane tyrane sets him to be dred; ane king to be luffet. Ane tyrane rejoises to mak his pepill pure; ane king to mak thame riche. Ane tyrane draws his pepill to sindry factiones, discord, and hatrent; ane king maks peace, tranquillite, and concord; knawing nothing sa dammagious as division amang his subdittis. Ane tyrane confounds all divine and hummane lawis; ane king observis thaime, and rejoises in equite and justice. All thir properteis sal be patent, in reding the livis of gud and evil kingis, in the history precedent."

To have spoken in this way to an absolute prince shows Ballentyne to have been not altogether a courtier.

He afterwards adds, in a finely impassioned strain:—"Quhat thing maybe mair plesand than to se in this present volume, as in ane cleir mirroure all the variance of tyme bygane; the sindry chancis of fourtoun; the bludy fechting and terrible berganis sa mony years continuit, in the defence of your realm and liberte; quhilk is fallen to your hieness with gret felicita, howbeit the samin has aftimes been ransomit with maist nobill blude of your antecessoris. Quhat is he that wil nocht rejoise to heir the knychtly afaris of thay forcy campions, King Robert Bruce and William Wallace? The first, be innative desyre to recover his realme, wes brocht to sic calamite, that mony dayis he durst nocht appeir in sicht of pepill; but amang desertis, levand on rutes and herbis, in esperance of better fortoun; bot at last, be his singulare manheid, he come to sic preeminent glore, that now he is reput the maist valyeant prince that was eftir or before his empire. This other, of small beginning, be feris curage and corporall strength, not only put Englishmen out of Scotland, but als, be feir of his awful visage, put Edward king of England to flicht; and held all the borders fornence Scotland waist."

Ballentyne delivered a manuscript copy of his work to the king, in the summer of 1533, and about the same time he appears to have been engaged in a translation of Livy. The following entries in the treasurer’s book give a curious view of the prices of literary labour, in the court of a king of those days.

"To Maister John Ballentyne, be the kingis precept, for his translating of the Chronykill, 30.
"1531, Oct. 4th. To Maister John Ballantyne, be the kingis precept, for his translating of the Chroniclis, 30.
"Item, Thairefter to the said Maister Johne, be the kingis command, 6.
"1533, July 26. To Maister John Ballentyne, for ane new Chronikle gevin to the kingis grace, 12.
"Item, To him in part payment of the translation of Titus Livius, 8.
"—Aug. 24. To Maister John Ballentyne, in part payment of the second buke of Titus. Livius, 8.
"—Nov. 30. To Maister John Ballentyne, be the kingis precept, for his laboris dune in translating of Livie, 20.

The literary labours of Ballentyne were still further rewarded by his royal master, with an appointment to the archdeanery of Moray, and the escheated property and rents of two individuals, who became subject to the pains of treason for having used influence with the Pope to obtain the same benefice, against the king’s privilege. He subsequently got a vacant prebendaryship in the cathedral of Ross. His translation of Boece was printed in 1536, by Thomas Davidson, and had become in later times almost unique, till a new edition was published in a remarkably elegant style, in 1821, by Messrs Tait, Edinburgh. At the same time appeared the translation of the first two books of Livy, which had never before been printed. The latter work seems to have been carried no further by the translator.

Ballentyne seems to have lived happily in the sunshine of court favour during the remainder of the reign of James V. The opposition which he afterwards presented to the reformation, brought him into such odium, that he retired from his country in disgust, and died at Rome, about the year 1550.

The translations of Ballentyne are characterised by a striking felicity of language, and also by a freedom that shows his profound acquaintance with the learned language upon which he wrought. His Chronicle, which closes with the reign of James I., is rather a paraphrase than a literal translation of Boece, and possesses in several respects the character of an original work. Many of the historical errors of the latter are corrected—not a few of his redundancies re-trenched—and his more glaring omissions supplied. Several passages in the work are highly elegant, and some descriptions of particular incidents reach to something nearly akin to the sublime. Many of the works of Ballenden are lost—among others a tract, on the Pythagoric letter, and a discourse upon Virtue and Pleasure. He also wrote many political pieces, the most of which are lost. Those which have reached us are principally Proems prefixed to his prose works, a species of composition not apt to bring out the better qualities of a poet yet they exhibit the workings of a rich and luxuriant fancy, and abound in lively sallies of the imagination. They are generally allegorical, and distinguished rather by incidental beauties, than by the skilful structure of the fable. The story, indeed, is often dull, the allusions obscure, and the general scope of the piece unintelligible. These faults, however, are pretty general characteristics of allegorical poets, and they are atoned for, in him, by the striking thoughts and the charming descriptions in which he abounds, and which, "like threds of gold, the rich arias, beautify his works quite thorow."


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