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Significant Scots
Thomas Dempster


DEMPSTER, THOMAS, a learned professor and miscellaneous writer, was born at Brechin, in the shire of Angus, sometime in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Of his family or education nothing certain has been preserved, farther than that he studied at Cambridge. In France, whither he went at an early period of his life, and where probably he received the better part of his education, he represented himself as a man of family, and possessed of a good estate, which he had abandoned for his religion, the Roman catholic. He was promoted to a professor’s chair at Paris, in the college of Beauvais. Bayle says, that though his business was only to teach a school, he was as ready to draw his sword as his pen, and as quarrelsome as if he had been a duellist by profession; scarcely a day passed, he adds, in which he did not fight either with his sword or at fisty cuffs, so that he was the terror of all the school-masters. Though he was of this quarrelsome temper himself, it does not appear however that he gave any encouragement to it in others; for one of his students having sent a challenge to another, he had him horsed on the back of a fellow-student, and whipped him upon the seat of honour most severely before a full class. To revenge this monstrous affront, the scholar brought three of the king’s lifeguards-men, who were his relations, into the college. Dempster, however, was not to be thus tamed. He caused hamstring the lifeguards men’s horses before the college gate; themselves he shut up close prisoners in the belfrey, whence they were not relieved for several days. Disappointed of their revenge in this way, the students had recourse to another. They lodged an information against his life and character, which not choosing to meet, Dempster fled into England. How long he remained, or in what manner he was employed there, we have not been informed; but he married a woman of uncommon beauty, with whom he returned to Paris. Walking the streets of Paris with his wife, who, proud of her beauty, had bared a more than ordinary portion of her breast and shoulders, which were of extreme whiteness, they were surrounded by a mob of curious spectators, and narrowly escaped being trodden to death. Crossing the Alps, he obtained a professor’s chair in the university of Pisa, with a handsome salary attached to it. Here his comfort, and perhaps his usefulness was again marred by the conduct of his beautiful wife, who at length eloped with one of his scholars. Previously to this, we suppose, for the time is by no means clearly stated, he had been professor in the university of Nimes, which he obtained by an honourable competition in a public dispute upon a passage of Virgil "This passage," he says himself, "was proposed to me as a difficulty not to be solved, when I obtained the professorship in the royal college of Nimes, which was disputed for by a great number of candidates, and which I at once very honourably carried from the other competitors; though some busy people would have had it divided among several, the senate declaring in my favour, and not one among so many excellent men, and eminent in every part of learning dissenting, besides Barnier. The choice being also approved by the consuls, and the other citizens, excepting some few whom I could name if they deserved it; but since they are unworthy so much honour, I shall let their envy and sly malice die with them, rather than contribute to their living by taking notice of them." At this period Dempster must have professed to be a Huguenot, the university of Nimes being destined solely for the professors of the reformed religion. Be this as it may, Dempster, driven from Pisa by the infidelity of his wife, proceeded to Bologna, where he obtained a professorship which he held till his death in the year 1625.

Dempster was the author of many books, and during his own life certainly enjoyed a most extensive reputation. His powers of memory were so great, that he himself was in the habit of saying, that he did not know what it was to forget. Nothing, it was said by some of his encomiasts, lay so hidden in the monuments of antiquity, but that he remembered it; and they gave him on this account the appellation of a speaking library. He was also allowed to have been exceedingly laborious, reading generally fourteen hours every day. If he really devoted so large a portion of his time to reading, his knowledge of books, even though his memory had been but of ordinary capacity, must have been immense; but he wanted judgment to turn his reading to any proper account. What was still worse, he was destitute of common honesty; "and shamefully," says Bayle, "published I know not how many fables." In his catalogue of the writers of Scotland, it has been observed that he frequently inserted those of England, Wales, and Ireland, just as suited his fancy; and to confirm his assertions, very often quoted books which were never written, and appealed to authors which never existed. "Thomas Dempster," says M. Baillet, "has given us an ecclesiastical history of Scotland in nineteen books, wherein he speaks much of the learned men of that country. But though he was an able man in other respects, his understanding was not the more sound, nor his judgment the more solid, nor his conscience the better for it. He would have wished that all learned men had been Scots. He forged titles of books which were never published, to raise the glory of his native country; and has been guilty of several cheating tricks, by which he has lost his credit among men of learning.

The catalogue of Dempster’s works is astonishingly ample, and they undoubtedly exhibit proofs of uncommon erudition. Of his numerous writings, however, his Historia Ecclesiastica Genus Scotorum, is the most remarkable, though, instead of being as its title would indicate, an ecclesiastical history of Scotland, it is merely a list of Scottish authors and Scottish saints. The work was composed in Italy, where, it is presumable, the works of Scottish authors were not easily accessible; in consequence of which he could not be expected to proceed with any very great degree of accuracy; but many of his errors, even candour must admit, are not the result of inadvertency, but of a studied intention to mislead. A more fabulous work never laid claim to the honours of history. Of the names which he so splendidly emblazons, a large proportion is wholly fictitious, and his anecdotes of writers who have actually existed, are entitled to any kind of commendation but that of credibility. In extenuation of this fabulous propensity, however, it ought to be observed, that he lived in an age when such fabrications were considered as meritorious rather than reprehensible. The rage for legends framed for promoting the practice of piety, as was foolishly imagined, gave a general obliquity to the minds of men, rendering them utterly insensible to the sacred claims and the immutable character of truth. The most impudent lie, if it was supposed to favour the cause of religion, was dignified with the name of a pious fraud; and the most palpable falsehood, if it was designed to promote national glory, met, from the general impulse of national vanity, with the same indulgence. Hence that contemptible mass of falsehood and of fiction, which darkens and disfigures all, and has totally blotted out the early history of some nations. Dempster had certainly an irritable, and, in some degree, a ferocious disposition, but we do not see that he ought to be charged with moral turpitude beyond the average of the men of his own age and standing in society. Yet for the honour of his country, as he foolishly imagined, he has amassed an immense mass of incredible fictions, which he has gravely told; and seems to have hoped mankind in general would receive as well authenticated historical facts. Losing in the brilliancy of his imagination any little spark of integrity that illumined his understanding, when the reputation of his native country was concerned, he seems to have been incapable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. In this respect, however, he does not stand alone, the earlier historians of every country being in some degree chargeable with the same failing. Even in the most splendid works of the same kind, written at periods comparatively late, many passages might be pointed out, which there is no necessity for supposing their compilers seriously believed. With all his faults, the reputation of Dempster certainly extended itself to every country of Europe; and though his most elaborate works are digested with so little care or so little skill, that they can only be regarded as collections of ill assorted materials, exhibiting little merit beyond assiduity of transcription; yet it would perhaps be difficult to point out another Scottish writer who had the same intimate acquaintance with classical antiquity.


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