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Significant Scots
Bassantin, James


BASSANTIN, or BASSANTOUN, JAMES, astronomer and mathematician, was the son of the Laird of Bassantin, in Berwickshire, and probably born in the early part of the sixteenth century. Being sent to study at the University of Glasgow, he applied himself almost exclusively to mathematics, to the neglect of languages and philosophy, which were then the most common study. In order to prosecute mathematics more effectually than it was possible to do in his own country, he went abroad, and travelled through the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany; fixing himself at last in France, where for a considerable time he taught his favourite science with high reputation in the University of Paris. 

In that age, the study of astronomy was inseparable from astrology, and Bassantin became a celebrated proficient in this pretended science, which was then highly cultivated in France, insomuch that it entered more or less into almost all public affairs, and nearly every court in Europe had its astrologer. Bassantin, besides his attainments in astrology, understood the laws of the heavens to an extent which excited the wonder of the age—especially, when it was considered that he had scarcely any knowledge of the Greek or Latin languages, in which all that was formerly known of this science had been embodied. But, as may be easily conceived, astronomy was as yet a most imperfect science; the Copernican system, which forms the groundwork of modern astronomy, was not yet discovered or acknowledged; and all that was really known had in time become so inextricably associated with the dreams of astrology, entitled to little respect. 

Bassantin returned to his native country in 1562, and in passing through England, met with Sir Robert Melville of Mordecairny, who was then engaged in a diplomatic mission from Mary to Elizabeth, for the purpose of bringing about a meeting between the two queens. A curious account of this rencontre is preserved by Sir James Melville in his Memoirs, and, as it is highly illustrative of the character and pretensions of Bassantin, we shall lay it before the reader. "Ane Bassantin, a Scottis man, that had been travelit, and was learn-it in hich scyences, cam to him (Sir Robert Melville) and said, ‘Gud gentilman, I hear sa gud report of you that I love you hartly, and therefore canot forebear to shaw you, how all your upricht dealing and your honest travel will be in vain, where ye believe to obtein a weall for our Quen at the Quen of Englandis handis. You bot tyne your tyme; for, first, they will never meit together, and next, there will nevir be bot discembling and secret hattrent for a whyle, and at length captivity and utter wrak for our Quen by England.’ My brother’s answer again was, that he liked not to heir of sic devilisch newes, nor yet wald he credit them in any sort, as falce, ungodly, and unlawfull for Chrsitians to medle them with. Bassantin answered again, ‘Gud Mester Melvill, tak not that hard opinion of me; I am a Christian of your religion, and fears God, and purposes never to cast myself in any of the unlawful artis that ye mean of, bot sa far as Melanthon, wha was a Godly theologue, has declared and written anent the naturall sciences, that are lawfull and daily red in dyvers Christian Universities; in the quhilkis, as in all other artis, God geves to some less, to some mair and clearer knowledge than till others; be the quhilk knowledge I have also that at length, that the kingdom of England sall of rycht fall to the crown of Scotland, and that ther are some born at this instant, that sall bruik lands and heritages in England. Bot alace it will cost many their lyves, and many bludy battailes wilbe fouchten first, or (ere) it tak a settled effect; and be my knowledge,’ said he, ‘the Spaniartis will be helpers, and will tak a part to themselves for ther labours, quhilk they wilbe laith to leve again.’" 

If the report of this conference be quite faithful, we must certainly do Bassantin the justice to say, that the most material part of his prophecy came to pass; though it might be easy for him to see that, as the sovereign of Scotland was heiress-presumptive to the crown of England, she or her heirs had a near prospect of succeeding. How Bassantin spent his time in Scotland does not appear; but, as a good protestant, he became a warm supporter of the Earl of Murray, then struggling for the ascendancy. He died in 1568. His works are, 1, A System of Astonomy, published for the third time in 1593, by John Tornoesius. 2, A Treatise of the Astrolabe, published at Lyons in 1555, and reprinted at Paris in 1617. 3, A Pamphlet on the Calculation of Nativities. 4, A Treatis on Arithmetic. 5, Music on the Principles of the Platonists. 6, On Mathematics in general. It is understood that, in the composition of these works, he required considerable literary assistance, being only skilled in his own language, which was never then made the vehicle of scientific discussion.


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