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Significant Scots
John Mair


MAIR, or MAJOR, JOHN, a celebrated name of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Little of the life of this eminent person is known, beyond a few incidental circumstances mentioned in his own works, and some allusions by contemporary scholars. Dr Mackenzie and other writers not to be depended on, have stated, without reference to any authority, that he was born in the year 1469. His birth-place, by his own account, was the parish of North Berwick, and is said to have been at the village of Gleghorn. In the early part of the sixteenth century he became a member of Christ’s college in Cambridge. [He afterwards went to the university of Paris. Mackenzie, who has corrected his life of Major in the preface to his work, on the ground of some communications received from Paris, says he joined the university in 1493, and became master of arts in 1496. "Mr John Harvey," continues this authority, "a Scotsman and bursar, or fellow of the Scots college, being then rector of the university of Paris, he passed through all the honourable places of the faculty of arts, being first procurator and then quaestor; and designs himself thus in the Register, "M. Joannes Mair, Glegernocencis, Diocesis S. Andrew,’ He was made doctor of divinity in 1508." – Mackenzie’s Lives, vol ii. preface, vii.] "In this post," says bishop Nicholson, "he seems to have written his history, which, as he acknowledges, was penned in the year 1518, the seventh of king James the fifth’s age." [Scottish History Library, 103.]Mackenzie says he left Paris immediately on having written his history, and in theyear mentioned we know him to have been in Scotland, as he was then incorporated a member of the university of Glasgow, and bore the titles of Canon of the chapel royal, and vicar of Dunlop, while he is termed "Doctor Parisiensis." [According to the records of the university of Glasgow, in the Notes to Wodrow’s Biographical Collection, printed some years ago by the Maitland Club, it is said that in the year 1518, "Egregius virdicus Joannes Majoris, Doctor Parisiensis, ac principalis Regens collegii et pedagogii dicti universitatis, Canonicusque capelie regis, ac vicarious de Dunlop. &c." was incorporated along with forty-three others.] In 1521, the same authority shows him to have been professor of theology in Glasgow, and one of the "Intrantes" and "Deputati Rectoris;" probably performing, in the latter capacity, the duties now performed, or presumed to be performed by the assessors of the rector. During that year his well known work, "De Gestis Scotorum," was published in Paris by Badius Ascensius, the same person who afterwards published the history of Hector Boece. He is said by Bayle to have written "stylo Sorbonico," a characteristic not intended as a compliment. The Latinity of this work has been censured by scholars; but the matter which it clothes, if not likely to repay a reader of the present age for the labour of perusal, presents us with much contempt of prejudices common to the age; considerable knowledge of the grounds of historical truth, and a mass of curious information, sometimes of that petty and domestic nature, which is valuable because it is so generally omitted by others. His notices of the state and value of provisions, and of local customs might be valuable to the political economist and antiquary. He has shown much sound sense in rejecting a mass of the fables narrated by his precursors in history, Wyntoun and Fordun, believing the tale of Gathelus coming from Greece, to have been invented for the purpose of excelling the English who brought their "Brute" or "Brutus" from Troy, the Greeks being, as all history and poetry must testify, a far more respectable source of ancestry than the Trojans. Of the race of kings, amounting to about forty-five, betwixt Fergus I. and Fergus II., now blotted from the list, he mentions, and that but slightly, only three or four. On this subject Dr Mackenzie, who wishes to speak favourably of the subject of his memoir, while he has a still higher respect for the antiquity of his native land, remarks, in a tone of chagrin, "in his account of our monarchs, of fifteen kings, that he only acknowledges to have been between Fergus I. and II., he mentions not above three or four of them; and it plainly appears," continues the doctor, drawing the proper deduction, "from the whole tract of his history, that it was not drawn out of ancient and authentic monuments, for he cites none of them, but from the historians above quoted." [Mede, Caxton, and Froissart are Major’s chief authorities.]The views of civil liberty inculcated in this work surprise us when we consider the period and state of society at which it was written, and they would certainly at the present juncture be termed philosophically just. If a man of so original a mind as Buchanan may be supposed to have derived his political sentiments from an inferior genius, it is not improbable that the doctrines of kingly power so beautifully illustrated in the dialogue "De Jure Regni apud Scotos" may have been imbibed from the doctrines inculcated by Major, under whom Buchanan studied logic. The doctrines of Major are more boldly and broadly, if not justly, laid down than those of Grotius. [One passage is peculiarly striking, and, had the effect of published opinions been better known at the period, might have brought persecution on the head of the author.] Although a churchman, he was likewise peculiarly unfettered in his clerical opinions. He condemned the monkish profuseness of David I., that "sair saunt to the crown," and in a work entitled "Disputationes de Potestate Papae et Concilii," [Printed in the Vindiciae Doctrinae Majorum Scholae Parisiensis, &c. of Richerlus.] he afterwards uncanonically argued the necessity of excluding all spiritual dignitaries from authority in matters temporal. Mackenzie, in his corrected statement, continues, "he remained in Scotland about five years, and taught theology in the university of St Andrews." At what time he joined that university it would be difficult to discover, but it appears that he was connected with the university of Glasgow until the year 1522, when he receives in the record the several titles already attributed to him, and with the addition of "Theologiae Professor," and "Thesaurus capeliae regiae Strevelinensis."He was, however, assuredly professor of theology in St Andrews in the year 1525, as Buchanan is said in his life, either written by himself or by Sir Peter Young, to have then studied under him, in the college of St Salvator. The celebrity of his lectures had attracted the poet’s attention; and, whether as a pupil of Major, or to fulfill his previous intentions, he followed his teacher to France. The connexion was the cause of an accusation of ingratitude against Buchanan. Buchanan had afterwards penned an epigram on Major, in which he turned his name to the bitter qualification, "Solo cognomine Major." It is probable that the opportunity of so apt a witticism was the sole motive of Buchanan; but Mackenzie and Christopher Irvine maintained that Buchanan had been fed both in mind and body by the charity of Major, who had procured him a professorship in the college of St Barbe. "He who had eat his bread," observes the latter, "and lived under his discipline, both in St Andrews and in the Sorbon, the space of five years, might have afforded him an handsomer character than solo cognomine Major;" and concludes, "but I leave these wretches to the care of the great accuser, and go to my business."There appears to be no other foundation for the charge but the inferences which may be drawn from a passage in Buchanan’s life, which does not express such a meaning.Mackenzie states that Major remained in Paris till 1530. Unfortunately little is known of the circumstances of his life during that period, nor will our limits permit an investigation among continental authors, which might provide useful matter for a more extended memoir. We know, however, that his fame was extensive and well supported. He has received high praise from such bibliographical writers as Dupin, Belarmin, and Vossius. He is alluded to by some of his countrymen with less praise; and Leslie and Dempster, probably displeased at his view of the antiquities of his native country, sneer at the barbarism of his style. Major was probably one of the latest commentators on that universal text book, the Sentences of Peter Lombard. In 1519, he had published "In Libros Sententiarum primum et secundum commentarium; "a work which has passed to oblivion with its subject. In 1521, he published an Introduction to Aristotle’s Dialectics, and in the arrangement of the Gospels as to date. Mackenzie mentions that he returned to Scotland in 1530, and taught theology at St Andrews "till he came to a great age; for in the year 1547, at the national council of the church of Scotland in Linlithgow, he subscribed, by proxy, in quality of dean of theology of St Andrews, not being able to come himself by reason of his age, which was then seventy-eight, and shortly after he died."

Anthony Wood has discovered from a manuscript note of Bryan Twyne that Major was at some period of his life at Oxford, but in what house is unknown, "unless," says bishop Nicholson, "in Osney Abbey, whose melodious bells he commends." If we could suppose Wood to have mistaken a century, the following might apply to the subject of our memoir during the year when he is said by Mackenzie to have gone to France. Speaking of St John’s school belonging to St John’s Hospital, he says, "all that I find material of this school is, that it, with others of the same faculty, were repaired by one John Major, an Inceptor in the same faculty, anno 1426." [Wood’s Antiquities of Oxford, ii. 766.]


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