Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
Florentius Volusenus


ALTHOUGH it is not quite an ascertained fact, there can be little doubt that it was somewhere in the sunny levels which lie between the old cathedral city of Elgin and the sea that, about the year 1500, Florentius Volnscnus was born, parentibus ingenuisd And it is one of the most beautiful features in his character that, long years after, when he had wandered far through England, France, and Italy, and had been the protege, successively, of four cardinals— Wolsey, Du Bcllay, Lorraine, and Sadoleto—lie should return in spirit, as, but for premature death, lie would have done in body, to the “ Laich of Moray,” where the fruit trees ripened early, where the gentle Lossie, “ lucldua et radosus” mirrored the great eastern window of the “ Lanthorn of the North,” and where the palace walls of Spynie rose from their shimmering locli that was “haunted by wild swans.” His friend, George Buchanan, has paid eloquent tribute to the peculiar charm of that region—a charm which is perhaps less known in the town of his birth. than it should be even by the south-country Scotsman, who may be astonished to learn that, “at the back of the north wind,” there lies a province that is earlier in its season than regions much nearer the sun. George Buchanan (whose Hebrew Lexicon lies in the Edinburgh University Library with this autograph on it, “Georgius Buchananus. Ex munificentia Florentii Voluseni”) bears testimony to the amenities of the province of Moray—to its mild skies, its rich pastures, and its wealth of fruits. Bishop Lesley, too, who was a contemporary of our author, tells of its meadows and wheat fields, frequent groves, sweet-smelling wild flowers, and teeming apple gardens, over all which lay a sky whose breezes were healthful and whose clouds were rare.

Amid such scenes the philosopher of tranquillity was born. There are some difficulties, however, in connection with the next notable event, namely, his christening. It may seem absurd to confess that the very name of our hero is a matter of doubt, but such, unfortunately, is the case. One thing is certain, viz., that he called himself, and was known in the learned world as, Florentius Voluzenus or Voluscnus. This, of course, was a Latinised version of his surname, adopted in accordance with the usage of the authors of his day. But a Latinised version of what ? Some suggest Wolsey, some Wilson. Awkwardly, however, for both, Florence himself signs a letter, written in the pure venacular, “ Florence Volu-zene,” and a French contemporary calls him Volusen. No such name, so far as we arc aware, occurs in this country; and the nearest to it is certainly Wilson, which, in old French, was Vulson. Moreover, as some of his biographers have remarked, Florence had doubtless become so thoroughly identified with his nom de plume that he kept as close to it as possible, even when, for the time, he had dropped his Latinity. That families of the name of Wilson did reside in the district which Florence has described as that of his boyhood, we learn from the rent-roll of the Bishop of Moray in 15G5, where there are two Wilsons mentioned as paying rent in the neighbourhood of Spynic, one of whom is described as “ archicoquns,” whatever that may have been.

Florence Wilson, for so we shall call him, entered on boyhood at a time when grave events and great men made the history and the society of Scotland peculiarly interesting. The clear-headed, but sumptuous, and quixotic king was beginning to draw away from his brother-in-law of England and to bind himself closer to France. In the north-cast there was extensive commerce with continental ports; the Scottish fleet was powerful and efficient; the turbulent spirits of the Highlands were being gradually brought into subjection ; it was but the pause before the storm that reached its terrible catastrophe on Floddcn field.

The learning and literature of Scotland had reached one of its highest levels. William Dunbar was singing to his royal master of a nightingale—

“ With sugared notis new,

Whose angel feathers as the peacock shone; This was her song, and of a sentence true— All love is lost but upon God alone,” Gavin Douglas was busy with his Scottish “JEneid,” and Hcnrysoun, the poet-schoolmaster of Dunfermline, had just passed away—he who had sung—

“ Blissed be simple life witliouten dreid ;

Blissed be sober feast in quiete.”

That Wilson’s boyhood was a studious and happy one there can be little doubt. We may imagine him spelling out his first lessons in the “ General School,” as it was called, of Elgin, and filling his boyish mind with a deep love and reverence for the great church whose presence dominated all the little world in which he moved; in whose long aisles he first shaped to himself the desire for tranquillity, and whose jewelled glass and flowering stone unquestionably elevated, softened, and refined a spirit which needed such influences less than most. There lay, too, within the field of his experience the stately society of a cathedral town—the bishop and his chapter, the preachers, and deacons, and all the dignitaries and paraphernalia of a great ecclesiastical centre. We may believe, too, that with his great love of natural scenery, he may often have wandered far on idle afternoons—with young John Ogilvie or another— up the garden-like valley where, in a hollow of the hill, the brown tower of Pluscardcn rose over its marvellous fruit trees; northwards to where, on the yellow sand flats, broke the clear green sea, and, beyond it, across the horizon, lay the majestic mountain line of the Sutherland and Caithness hills; or along by the cavc-hollowcd, gull-haunted clifls, till, towards evening, the sound might reach him of the three great bells of

Kinloss—Mary, Anna, and Jerome—(“magni pomleris nee minus sonorac ”) mingling their call to lauds with the plangent voices of the sea.

It is worth noticing that in the year 150G a great and singular catastrophe had occurred in connection with Elgin Cathedral. The great central tower i a that year suddenly fell, crushing and maiming the beautiful building beneath it. Bishop Foreman, with characteristic activity, at once began to rebuild the tower, which, however, was not finished till 1538, when the spire was completed at a height of 198 feet. This incident must have formed almost the starting point in Wilson’s childish recollections, and throughout his knowledge of the cathedral, it was probably in the hands of builders and restorers.

An incident which Florence relates in his chief work, although it refers to a slightly later period—when he had finished his studies in Aberdeen, and was preparing for that vague voyage into the unknown world that so many poor young Scotsmen have taken—still may find a fitting place here, as it shows us the early bent of his genius. “ Many years ago,” he says, “ before 1 came over into France, as 1 and John Ogilvie, who is now in the Scotch Church at Cruden, a man of distinguished family, and polished alike in manners and learning, sauntered together (for we were close companions) along the banks of the river Lossie, the lirst of Horace’s Satires— for he had Horace in his hand led us into talking one to the other of the storms and troubles of this human life.” Ogilvie, who seems to have been the younger of the two, turning to Wilson, prays him to shed some light on these questionings for their friendship’s sake. “Come back to-morrow,” he says, “if you love me. Come back here when the sun begins to fall. I will expect you here, on this bank, and meantime, you will consult all your philosophers, and will be able to tell me truly whether it is to ourselves alone, or the wrongness of things in general (vitio rerum), that the pain of the life-struggle is due.” Of Wilson’s philosophy, and the dream that came to him when he had bidden Ogilvie goodbye and gone home to rest and think, we shall have to speak again.

It is worth while pausing a moment to remark that philosophy, and the resultant tranquillity of soul, were peculiarly needed in Scottish country society in the sixteenth century. Not only were life and property less secure than in our day, but the law itself was administered with a terrible severity. We have preserved to us by the Spalding Club, the register of the Regality Court of Spynie at a later period of the same century, and the picture it presents of violent crime and merciless punishment is one which we recoil from in dismay notwithstanding the quaint and curious pen with which it is drawn. We need hardly explain that a Regality was a feudal jurisdiction of the highest kind granted by the Crown to a subject, including both civil matters and the trial of all crimes, with the exception of treason. The whole lands of the Church in Moray were erected into a Regality in 1452, over which the Bishop held sway. After the Reformation, these powers aud the title of Lord Spynie were given by James VI. to Sir Alexander Lindsay by a letter dated “ From the castcll of Croneburg quhaire we are drinking and dryving ou’r in the aukl manner.” The Court; which was generally held in the “Jewale Hous’” or “Chepdour of the Cathedrale Kirk of Murraye” (the most perfect fragment now remaining of these magnificent ruins), and sometimes “upon the Water Syd of Lossie,” was presided over by the bailie of the Regality, and the proceedings were seemingly conducted with great precision and formality. The register is throughout accompanied by marginial notes such as “convict,” “ acquytis,” “ hangit,” “ drownit,” “licidit.” Theft, often accompanied by violence, was very common. The first recorded case of hanging was for being lane common stelar of scheip furth of the haill countrey about ye.” A man and his wife were indicted for the “thiftcous stcling and consaling of twa scheip,” and it is set forth that when the officer went to search the house, “thy wyf rcife the official's handis and claithis and vald noclit lat him dakcr the suspect places of the lions.” This officer, however, persisted, and succeeded in discovering various signs of the lost sheep, “ togidder with four quliyt scheipis feit and four black scheipis feit upon the vcschell buird, togidder with auc quarter muttonc under the almarie.” “As alswa thou, the said Christiane, ran away with sum soddin muttonn in thy bosom quliilk thy nychtbouris saw.” This unfortunate couple were condemned “ to be tane to Lossyc and thair to be drownit quliill thai be deid.” A man convicted of murder was sentenced to be “ taikin to the water syd of Lossyc, and there his licid to be strickin from him.” For various aets of theft, including the “ rcssait of the half of ane broune cw,” William Roy was condemned “ to be had to the gallows beyond the Bischopmiln and thair to be hangit qnliill he be deid.”

Against a background such as this, it is pleasing to contemplate the figures of these slim young students wandering by the green holms and winding river margins, and searching in Horatian numbers for some answer to “ the riddle of the painful earth.”

But we must follow Wilson to Aberdeen. His biographies agree that it was in the newly founded University of that town that he laid the foundation of the learning which, later on, so much astonished the polished Sadolcto. It was indeed into a brilliant circle that the thoughtful boy was received. Some twenty years before, Bishop Elphinstone had obtained from the Pope powers for the constitution of a University, and it was not long before his conspicuous energy and zeal had not only raised the material fabric, part of which between its grey buttresses still shelters the learning of the north from the wild sea winds, but had gathered around him some of the choicest spirits of that great age. Elphinstone had been educated at the College of Montaigu in Paris, and it was but natural that his first teachers should be drawn from the same source. Hector Boyce, or Boctius, the distinguished humanist, the correspondent of Erasmus and the historian of Scotland, was the first principal. Associated with him were William Hay, another Parisian student, John Yaus, the grammarian, and Arthur Boyce, the Principal’s brother, distinguished in civil and canon law, and who eventually became a Lord of Session. That there was considerable intercourse between this seat of learning and the ecclesiastical society of Elgin cannot be doubted when we remember that the precentor of Elgin Cathedral wrote the introductory epistle to Boyce’s History, and that the Archdeacon of Moray, John Bellendcn, translated that history into Scottish prose, that Ferrerius, some years later, was working in the same field in the Abbey of Kinloss, and that the Bishop of Moray was the clever and intriguing Forman, on whose shoulders has been laid the guilt of the fatal war with England, a man no less able in his way than the enlightened prelate of Aberdeen.

With regard to Wilson’s finding means to go to Aberdeen a suggestion occurs to us. Had the “arclii-coquus” anything to do with it? Was he an elder brother, and in the Bishop’s service at the Palace of Spynie, round which Florence’s early memories seem to have hovered, and concerning which we shall have further suggestions to make?

Of Elphinstone himself, we have a charming picture presented to us by Boyce.1 “ He was most splendid in the maintenance of his establishment, seldom sitting down to dinner without a great company of guests of the gentry, and always with a well furnished table. In the midst of such temptations, he himself abstemious, but cheerful in aspect, gay in conversation, took great delight in the arguments of the learned, in music, and n decent wit; all ribaldry lie detested. He had talent
and energy for any business of public or private life, and eould adapt himself equally to civil or church affairs. He seemed of iron frame. ... In his eighty-third year, he discussed the weighty affairs of State more acutely than any man.” One of the most striking features in the bishop’s character was that of his “ energy for any business.” It will scarcely be believed that, in the midst of the hopes, and' labours, and anxieties of establishing a great seat of learning, this extraordinary man found time to plan and commence the carrying out of one of the greatest public works of his time.

Thus, having set up his shrine of learning in the far north, he made the path towards it smooth and safe.

Of the precise course of study which Wilson pursued at Aberdeen it is, of course, impossible to speak; but we know that there were men there qualified to teach not only Theology, but Canon and Civil Law, Medicine, and Arts. We have his own authority for saying that, for some years, he studied philosophy in his own 1 A. Garden, 1GL9, trans, of Boyce, Spalding Club. country ; and, if the course of study was in his case what it appears to have been by the old records of the University, there can be no doubt of its thoroughness. The young college was, as might be expected, monastic in its constitution. Some of the students, however, appear to have lived outside its walls, only paying rent when they occupied its rooms. Five o’clock in the morning was the hour for rising, and at nine in the evening the relentless hebdomodar made his final round. At meal time, the bursars—wearing white leathern belts “ in proof of obedience”—gave thanks and read a chapter of the Bible prescribed by the principal. No arms were allowed to be worn, no visits to the town permitted without leave, and (what seems more terrible than all, in these degenerate days) “all conversation was to be iu Latin, Hebrew, or Greek.”

It is probable that after passing through his four years’ course, Florence Wilson paid a visit to his Morayshire home, and spent much of his time, as we have seen, with young Ogilvie. This part of his life, however, is the most obscure of the whole; and this fact is much to be regretted, since the next position in which we find him is the important one of tutor to the nephew of Cardinal Wolsey at the University of Paris. How the Morayshire youth, with all his Aberdeen learning, could have worked his way into such a promising situation in such a far off quarter is only one of the many similar questions which arise, all over the world, where there are high places to be won. The inevitable Scotsman is found at the top, without deigning to explain how he got there.

It seems to be doubtful whether Wilson had gone to study at Paris before gaining this appointment, or had been selected by Wolsey to accompany his nephew to France. Elphinstone himself, his Principal, and his most eminent professors, all hailed from the College of Montaigu in Paris, and there is every likelihood that it was by their advice, and possibly with their assistance, that Wilson went abroad. We know that there were bursaries for students coining from Morayshire “in ccclesia collegiata de Crychtoun Scoto Parisiis,” but the great probability is that he went direct to the old school of his masters in the University. The date of his going is unknown, as are almost all the facts as to his position or career in the French capital.

To any one engaged or interested in literature, even apart from politics or religion, it was a time of change and excitement. The great wave of the new learning, with all its undercurrents and side-swirls, was setting strongly and swiftly westward. The age of “retori-queurs” was nearly over, and the “Plciade” had not yet been formed. In the dearth of personal facts as to Wilson’s stay in Paris (which lasted till about 15.32) it may be permitted us to fill up the blank with a few notes on the life then led under the shadow of Notre Dame.

The Scots College at Paris was founded in 132G by the Bishop of Moray. Upon the close relations which long subsisted between France and Scotland we need not dwell. Nor need we recall the names of famous Scotsmen who there received that polish which was perhaps not altogether unnecessary in the case of the big-boned but hard-headed lads who, with the sound of the Dec and the Spey in their cars, found themselves in the midst of the glittering tumult that filled the streets of Paris with colour and movement, with alternate bloodshed and song.

The College of Montaigu, to which it is probable that Wilson attached himself, had fallen, some forty years before, into something like ruin. Crevier1 tells us that in 1483 “tons les titres de cette maison ctoicnt perdus: il lui restoit 5, peine onze sols de rente: les batimcns tomboient on mines: on n’v voyait plus d’etudians.” But a restorer was at hand in the person of Jean Standonc, a man of singular force of character. We arc told that owing to extreme poverty in his youth he was compelled to fill the humblest offices in the house of St. Genevieve, and vet educated himself by stealing up, after a laborious day, to the bell tower above; and there reading all night by the light of the moon. When at length lie rose to be Principal of the College of Montaigu, he resolved on setting it in order. By his own energy, and the liberality of some eminent friends, lie rebuilt and finished the college and gathered in it no less than 84 bursars. The one great object which he set before him was the preservation of the benefits of the foundation to its original objects, namely, the poor. To effect this he took the plan of rendering the life of his scholars as hard and humiliating as possible. A terrible picture and yet a noble one is given of the domestic economy within the restored building. “On the commencement of his rule the scholars whom he instructed used to go to Chartreux to receive along with paupers the bread which the clergy distributed at the door of the convent. Everyone knows how frugal the nourishment of these youths was: bread, vegetables, eggs, herring, all in small quantity, and never any meat. In this austere life the scholars were compelled to practise all the fasts of the church, to follow the quadragesimal observance during Advent, to fast every Wednesday, and often on other particular occasions. Nothing could be poorer than their dress and bedding. They rose very early and chaunted many offices. Moreover they laboured at cooking, served the refectory, and swept out the halls, the chapel, the dormitory, and the stairs.” This cruel aud sordid regime provoked a remonstrance from one of the most distinguished of all those who had to undergo it. Erasmus, iu one of his “Colloquies,” complains bitterly of his miserable boyhood, and tells us that in many cases this treatment resulted in blindness, madness, disease, and even death. As might have been expected, however, this strict rule did not continue long in its original form. By the time Wilson reached Paris, it had been considerably altered. Francis I. was King, and that wonderful age of new ideas and ancient splendours, of mingling sunset and sunrise which we call the rennaissance, was reaching its highest point. In looking over the chronicles of the University of Paris at this time, we find no events of supreme importance, but many disturbances, and a sort of growing uneasiness. There is the “ affaire du Concordat,” the “affaire de Rcuchlin,” and in 1520, the censure of Luther, whose doctrines began to insinuate themselves, greatly to the indignation and alarm of the older authorities. One of these, in whose person or character one cannot help thinking there must have been something of the ludicrous, was Noel Beda, Principal of the College of Montaigu. This reverend personage appears to have formed a butt for much juvenile wit on the part of the students. It was their custom on the “ fete des Rois ” to produce plays and comedies, “ oil souvent les traits niordans et satyriques netoient pas epargnes.” On the 5th of December, 1521, Beda complained to the heads of the University that he had been held up to ridicule. The result was that measures were taken for the suppression of these exhibitions, although these do not appear to have been very efficient, for in 1531 we find him again made fun of in a college play. A greater fame, however, was in store for him, for he had the distinction of evoking the gigantic laughter of Rabelais himself. One of the treatises found by Pantagrucl in the library of St. Victor was “ Beda—de Optimatc Triparum.”

The election of rectors in the University appears to have been attended with some of the phenomena which we witness in Scotland to-day, along with other characteristics which are now happily absent. One of these elections, which took place in 1521, was the occasion of more than usual violence. Owing to signs of disturbance which early manifested themselves, the University presented a petition to Parliament that precautionary measures should be taken. “ Lc Parle-ment chargea le prevdt de Paris ou son lieutenant crimincl d’y tenir lc main. Cclui-ci sc transporta done le seize au matin avec des sergens armds a l’Eglise de St. Julien de Pauvre oil devoit se faire Selection, d’abord des Intrans, puis du Recteur. Fabri (a candidate) avoit aussi avoe lui des gens en armes, dont plusieurs n’dtoient pas meme du corps de l’Universite mais artisans, mdchaniques, et vile populace. Le tumulte fut tel qu’on pouvoit l’attendre de senibables preparatifs, les portcs et fenetres de l’Eglise furent brisees, le magistrat ne put se rcndre le maitre, et le Recteur qui dtoit gagnd, manocuvra si bien qu’il y eut une apparence d’election moyennant laquelle, il installa Fabri. Il est dit dans le proems que l’indigne Recteur rccut la promesse de vingt cinque deus qui lui fut faite et garantde sur l’autel de St. Julien. Un grande partie de la Faculte des Arts s’dtoit retirde dans la Chapelle de S. Blaise qui dtoit voisine: et .lit, il se fit une autre election qui tomba sur Jean Faverel.” The ultimate result does not concern us, but the evidence that we have here of violence and bribery is interesting in its place.

In the year 1529, George Buchanan, then only 23 years of age, was elected procurator of the German nation, that is, the nation which included students of British nationality. He was regent in the College of St. Barbe, and it was probably during this period that the friendship between him and Wilson was formed.

An event of great importance in the following year was the institution of Royal professors, that is, the foundation of the “ College Royal ” in Paris. This movement took its rise from the passionate love of the king for the ancient languages and his zeal for their cultivation. Some difficulties were interposed, but ultimately, a professorship of Greek and one of Hebrew were created. We have the authority of Mackenzie, in his “Lives of Scottish Writers,” for the fact that Bishop Du Bellay nominated Wilson for the Greek chair, but, owing to his having fallen into disfavour at Court, was unable to bring his nomination to a successful issue.

During the whole, or the greater part of his stay in Paris, Wilson was under the protection and supported by the bounty of John, Cardinal de Lorraine. Indeed, his whole manhood appears to have been passed in close relationship with the Princes of the church. No sooner docs one disappear from his history than another takes his place. We have seen that Wolsey was the first to befriend him ; and whether the liberality of Lorraine was concurrent or no we cannot say, as all the facts of our hero’s life have to be gathered from the most scattered and precarious sources. There does, however, exist direct testimony from his last patron— Cardinal Sadoleto—that during his course of study in Paris Wilson received an annual allowance from the Cardinal of Lorraine. We have also trustworthy evidence that Wolsey’s death in 1530 severed the Scottish tutor’s connection with the young man whose education had been committed to his charge. It docs not appear, however, that Wilson ever broke oil’ connection with eminent men in England, for a letter exists, written about this time, which is one of the most interesting of onr author’s remains. There are only three of Wilson’s letters in existence—one written at this time in English, and two others at a later date in Latin. It is explained by the learned editor, to whom we owe the reproduction of two of them in one of the collections of the Banna-tyne Club, that this first letter was addressed to Thomas Cromwell, who was employed by Henry VII. after Wolsey’s fall in obtaining private information from the Continent. The address, and part of the letter, have been unfortunately destroyed by fire. For many reasons the letter is an interesting one. It affords, at first hand, a picturesque glimpse of the critical state of religious parties in Paris. It is also of interest biographically, as showing the high trust placed in Wilson, who was still a young man, and who had apparently only his own abilities to thank for winning the position in which he found himself. We shall quote the latter part of this letter without modifying the quaintness of the spelling:

“Other matters I differ to my earning, wiche, be the grace of Gode, shall be (in xv.) or xvi. days. In the meane tyme I commend h(umblie) Nicolas Fedderstone my procture of Spelhur......, besiching you to help and succurs him in his neid) George Hamptones servand wiche arrived (in this toun) yiester-evin, hoc est xiiij die Aprilis, spakke (to me of) bookis to your masterschip, and being willing to buy) the same and not having great plenty as (I was wont) of money, I went to Maister Hamptone (who spakke) to me, and said vith a mer-velus liberall (air I suld) not laike no money for ony thing thing that concer(neth your) Maisterschip declairing your great liumanite (which was) daylie schaw to him; and so suche new th(ings as are) heir I shall bring vith me in all haist. (I pray) God have your Maisterschip in his keeping.

“ At (Paris) the xxv. of Aprile be

. “ Yor awn Servand,

“Florence Voluzene.”1

We should like to have had a peep into the wallet of books which Wilson brought over to his Maisterschip. And we can well imagine the humane delight with which he made that small collection—a hoard of treasures which had hitherto been inaccessible to his own poor purse.

There is little doubt that Wilson went to London, as he proposes in this letter. AVliile there, he appears to have made or renewed acquaintance with a remarkable number of prominent men—Dr. Starkey, Fox, Bishop of Hereford, Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, Fisher the unfortunate Bishop of Rochester, besides his friend Cromwell, at that moment perhaps the most notable man in the whole kingdom. It was while here probably that he arranged with Bellay, the Bishop of Paris, then in London, to accompany him to Rome, a journey which proved a momentous one for his personal fortunes. In the whole career of Wilson we have the proverbial pride and poverty of a Scotsman shown in a scries of startling contrasts. The poor Morayshire boy becomes tutor to the nephew of the greatest public man of the age. Immediately after, we find him “ not having great plenty, as I was wont of money,” and receiving a precarious pension to enable him to carry on his studies. Here we have him once more among bishops and ambassadors, in the centre of things, so to speak, and about to have fulfilled, as he hoped, one of the dearest dreams of his life, that of seeing Rome in the train of an illustrious embassy. Yet, in a few months, we shall find him in sickness and poverty, only saved from beggary by his native genius and the spell which his intellectual qualities, in one short interview, threw around one of the greatest scholars in Europe. He had not the sword of Dugald Dalgetty or of Marshal Keith, but the weapons he possessed were no less keen or less ready to hand when his fortunes fell.

Jean du Bellay, Bishop of Paris, and afterwards Cardinal, was the most prominent member of a famous family. His elder brother Guillaume was a soldier and diplomatist whose “ Memoires,” along with those of a younger brother, form an important link in that wonderful chain of personal reminiscences which accompanies the whole course of French history. A third brother, Bishop of Le Mans, turned the family talent in the direction of floriculture. A cousin of these men, or, as some say, a nephew of the Cardinal’s, became more illustrious than any of the older generation, for Joachim du Bellay has been called the Ovid of France. It was he who originated the “ Plciade,” and helped to infuse the whole course of French literature with strength, and volume, and splendour, drawn from the forgotten sources of ancient art. The Cardinal himself was a man of varied culture, an astute diplomatist, an able administrator, and no mean poet. These were the days of neo-Latin verse, and, if we can pierce behind the the mass of mythological ornament with which his admirers, such as Macrinus and Masurius loaded their verses, we find him to have been regarded as an amiable and appreciative patron, which all the facts of his life go to prove. When Henry of England had reached the crisis of his quarrel with Rome it fell to Bellay to undertake the delicate task of asking delay for his defence from Clement VII., and for this purpose he left London, carrying with him in his train Florence Wilson.

Of Wilson’s intentions in undertaking this journey we arc not left in doubt. He wished to see Home; and this was not only an immediate, but a flattering opportunity. There is evidence, too, that Cardinal de Lorraine had advised him to this step, and we cannot wonder that his wish to set his foot in the Eternal City is described as a “burning desire.” We have an interesting glimpse of Wilson during his visit to London, walking with Dr. Starkey in the garden of Antonius Bonvisius, a man who appears to have taken a fancy to the learned Scotsman, and who is introduced to us both at Lyons and London. The course of conversation turned, as was natural, on Wilson’s future, and he expressed his anxiety to find some place where he could find peace and leisure to pursue his studies in philosophy—“procul a turba philosophari.” Starkey suggested the little town of Carpentras, in the south of France, whose bishop, at that time, was the learned Sadoleto. This suggestion was not forgotten by Wilson, and, although, in the meantime, there occurred the chance of the journey to Italy, we shall sec how opportunely it recurred to his mind.

While in London, and probably under the roof of Bonvisius, Wilson composed a set of verses which lie introduced afterwards into his principal work.

Nothing that we know of occurred worthy of mention till the Embassy reached Lyons. But here arose a crisis in our hero’s fate. He tells us that lie now again met with his friend Bonvisius, aud that his intentions had begun to waver as to whether it were better for him to proceed to Italy, or to go only so far as Carpentras. The cause of this doubt was probably his own failing health, for we know that he was ill when he arrived at Avignon. Whether any coolness had arisen between him and the bishop it is hard to say. In his own letter to Dr. Starkey he says nothing about either illness or quarrel, but in the version of his story which Sadoleto reports in a letter to Cardinal de Lorraine, the reason for the separation from the expedition is given as “adversa valetudo et inopia rerum necessarium.” The latter is not easily explained if he still retained the favour of the great man who was forced to leave him behind on account of innocent misfortune.

However this may be, we would fain have it, and there appears nothing to the contrary, that the disjunction did not occur till the embassy had reached Avignon. For between these two places Wilson would have been thrown into the society of a man whom he would not easily forget, although he might not then have fully appreciated the privilege. At Lyons, the Bishop du Bellay took into his service as physician no less a man than Francois Rabelais.

We are singularly fortunate in having preserved to us, in freshness and detail, an account of the interview between Sadoleto and Wilson at their first meeting. The unhappy scholar who had been stranded, as it were, in the wake of the great embassy, in poverty and sickness, at Avignon, made his way, after a time, and with what hopes and misgivings we can only imagine, to make trial of the only chance that seemed to remain to him. It was late at night before he reached the Bishop’s door. But we shall give the rest in Sadoleto’s own words.1

“Four days ago,” he says, in a letter to his nephew Paul, “ I had retired to my library as night approached and there sat turning over the leaves of some books when my steward came in and said that some one wanted to see me. I asked him who it was.” “ A man wearing a gown,” he replied. I ordered him to be shown in : and he entered. I then asked him what he wanted in coming to me at such an hour (for I wished to get rid of the man quickly, and resume my reading). Aly visitor then began from the beginning ; and he spoke so aptly, accurately, and modestly, that I felt inclined to question him further and to find out more about him. So I shut my book, turned towards him, and began asking him where he came from, what his profession was, and why he had come hither.

‘I am a Scotsman,’ he said.

‘Do you mean to say that you come from that remotest corner of the earth?’

‘I do.’

‘Then where did you study the liberal arts?’

“1 could not help asking this, as his speech was full of patinity and genius.

‘First in my native country, I gave several years to the study of philosophy, then I continued my education at Paris, where I was tutor to the nephew of the Cardinal of York. Afterwards, when the death of his uncle had separated the boy from me, I betook myself to Bcllay, the Bishop of Paris, with whom I was on my way to Rome, when my severe illness separated us on the way.’

‘What do you expect here, then?’

‘It was my long cherished desire of seeing you,’ he replied, 'that brought me here. And when it was told me at Avignon that you were looking out for some one who should act as teacher in this town, I resolved to offer myself, if I should be found worthy of the post— not so much out of eagerness for the situation as from a wish to be agreeable to you, and knowing, at the same time, that any post I may fill under you, or by your recoinmendation, will further my credit.’ ”

So the account breaks off. “Quid quaeris?” writes the Cardinal, and proceeds to tell of the next day’s proceedings.

“I was so pleased with him,” he continues, “that early next morning I sent for Glocerius the magistrate, and Ilelia. I spoke to them of my hopes of this stranger and how favourably his whole bearing had struck me. For, truly, one could scarcely have hoped, even in an Italian, for such modesty, prudence, and such a prepossessing countenance and manner as his. Not content with this, I asked my physician, of whom I have written you before, Hclia, and the magistrates to dine with me, and meet this Florentius (for that is his name). After dinner, I got them on to a discussion, and some question in physics having turned up, the doctor launched forth with vehemence, twisting his face and puffing violently (certatum a medico nostro acriter, obtorto vultu, magnisque anhelitibus). The other, modest, placid, said nothing that was not to the point, nothing but what was quietly accurate, and at the same time profound and intelligent. When I had put a knotty point against the doctor, which he had infinite labour to get out of, Florentius, begging pardon, proceeded to solve the question as learnedly and skillfully as it could possibly have been done. What more? All present were seized with a desire to retain him among us. The magistrates called him aside, and the matter was arranged at a salary of 100 gold pieces. This has pleased the citizens so much, I hear, that they arc all of opinion that a fresh piece of good fortune has fallen on the town. They also speak of the way in which he has spoken to the magistrates, than which nothing could be more liberal or ingenuous. From all this, I hope the office has been provided for in the best possible manner. And a further gratification to me is that he has a knowledge of Greek which he can impart to his pupils.”

Such a brilliant assault on a difficult position well deserved to be recorded, and there is a peculiar grace in the kindly and spirited narrative of the learned Bishop. Here, then, the wandering scholar had again found rest for the sole of his weary foot; not, be it remembered, in a mere chance situation, accepted to ward off starvation, but in the very place which lie had cast his eyes on some time before, and under the man whose society he most highly prized.

Wilson made conscientious efforts to prove worthy of the trust that had been so promptly reposed in him, and we find him, not long after his appointment, making a journey to Lyons to procure the necessary books. There, it was natural that he should take up his quarters with his friend Bonvisius, from whose house he wrote the letter that we have noticed to Dr. Starkey in London. It is a graceful and interesting letter, which want of space prevents us from quoting at length. One sentence we cannot omit.

“Itaque, mi Starchee, constitui hie annos aliquot procul turbis, procul ambitu, procul denique curis omnibus, nisi fortunm me violentia huic abripiat, philosophari.”

He commends himself to all his distinguished friends in London, aud from certain items of contemporary news, we are able to say, although the letter is undated, that it was written in 1535.

In the following year, we find a letter from Sadoleto to the Cardinal de Lorraine in which Wilson is spoken of in the highest terms. “Florence is now with me at Carpentras,” he writes, “giving his mind with the greatest eagerness and industry to study, more especially to philosophy, and our daily conversations are, to me, most pleasing and grateful.” A hint is also given to his old patron that a continuance of the pension formerly received would be of the utmost use, and well deserved.

It was in this position of studious quiet and comparative ease—“ procul turba,” at last—that Wilson set himself to the composition of the work that has preserved his name. It was preceded by a theological disquisition which has, somehow, perished, and which, from its title, we perhaps may venture to think was not so eminently worthy of preservation. It was called “Commentatio qumdam Theologica qum cadcm precatio est in Aphorismos dissecta,” and was printed by Gryphius at Lyons in 1539. We learn from Gesner that Wilson was about this time still in the prime of his manhood—“ juvenili adhuc mtate ” is the expression —a melancholy testimony, when we reflect that, in six years, George Buchanan would be writing that plaintive quatrain of his on the lonely grave of his friend, “quam procul a patria.”

It is far from our intention to give any detailed analysis of the “ De Tranquillitate.” Sueli labour would be lost on those who can enjoy it for themselves ; to all others we may seem to have said too much already. But we cannot conclude without giving a slight sketch of the book and noticing one or two points in it.

It was published at Lyons by Sebastian Gryphius in 1543. The copy of this edition which wc have seen and handled is an interesting one bearing the book-plate of Ruddiman. It is a moderately thick quarto bound in brown leather with prominent ribs on the back, and the edges covered with old gilding that has not lost its lustre. The famous grillin of the great printer is on the title page, surrounded by clear and beautiful renaissance ornament. The preface, which ends, as usual, in the shape of an inverted pyramid, is in italic letters, the body of the work in strong Roman type. There arc two initial letters of exquisite execution and design. Around each page is a line, not printed, but drawn in red ink.

The book is written in the form of a dialogue. On the pleasant slopes of a garden near Lyons, from whence, between the trees, could be seen the shimmering reaches of the Rhone, three friends, Wilson, Franeiscus Michmlis of Lucca, and Demetrius Cara valla, sauntered one sunny morning, drinking in the pure air which tasted sweet after their close reading, looking with delight on the wide and fair landscape that lay beneath them, and talking of many things. Wilson was somewhat troubled, for he had heard of war and disturbance in Britain, and, like a true Scot, his most sensitive side was always turned towards home. After an eloquent prediction on his part of the future union of the two nations, the talk turns to less material things and gradually settles into a discussion of the best means • by which a man may obtain tranquillity of soul.

After about a third of the book has been occupied by a deep and widely learned disputation on this subject, we come to something which has a more concrete interest. This is the “somnium singulare” which Wilson relates as a memory of his youth in Morayshire. It is at this point that he introduces his friend John Ogilvie, and the walks and talks which they used to have on the banks of the Lossie. We have already referred to this incident. We have seen that Ogilvie had appealed to Wilson for philosophical comfort, and that he had promised, on the morrow, to bestow it to the best of his ability. While asleep, that night, he dreamt a dream.

He seemed to be walking in a region of exquisite beauty, which was no other than that of his birth. Around him were wooded slopes and, sleeping among them, a wide lake, haunted by wild swans; while, not far off, stood the good town of Elgin, crowned with its Cathedral towers. Near him was a hill, around whose base wandered a clear and shallow river full of darting fish. On the summit of the hill, stood a temple of Parian stone, and round it was a grove of trees among which there grew the myrtle, the laurel, the cypress, and the terebinth. Apple trees, and nut trees, too, there were, and among them the singing of birds. Down the hill sides ran trickling streams, while through the trees passed the light whisper of the wind—no poisonous or hurtful creature vexed the place.

The Temple itself, that seemed of Parian stone, was of exquisite architecture ; and all around it, was a wide and spacious wall. At the gate an old man sat—a very Democritus in mien and habit. As Florence came nearer, he spoke to the old man but received only a bow. Again he addressed him and was answered in Latin but with a Greek accent. The answer was but a request to look above, and there, over the gateway, Florence read

“The House of Tranquillity.” On being bidden to enter, Florence then came upon eight pillars, each of which bore an inscription. These inscriptions were in the form of moral precepts; and they lead the author into as many separate discussions, in which a vast mass of classical and patristic philosophy is employed, with Ciceronian grace, to shed light upon the theme. This forms the main bulk of the whole work, and the final allegory is concerned with even higher things. For when his guide had disappeared he lifted his eyes to heaven, as though still unsatisfied in his quest, and there, on a sublime height, he saw a grander temple. Words fail him to describe it, On the narrow path that led to its gates, the dreamer met St. Paul, who pointed, as the old philosopher had done, to the words above the door. They were—“ Blessed are they that dwell in thy house,” and on the pillars on either hand was written, “ Know thyself ” and “ Know thy God.” Above the arch that these supported, was carven the wounded, thorn-crowned Christ—and Florence woke in an ecstasy of thanks and praise for the celestial guidance of his dream.

The allegory is an obvious one, but it is drawn with as fine and pure hand, and may rank with the “ Palace of Art ” in width of conception, and rightness of intention. As we have confined ourselves to a strictly biographical task, however, we shall leave to others all minuter criticism.

There is one point of antiquarian interest which we can scarcely pass over. Some writers have imagined that, in his Temple of Tranquillity, Wilson meant to describe Elgin Cathedral as it existed in his day. This can scarcely be, as his Temple is placed near Elgin, where there is a magnificent edifice—namely the Cathedral. If he meant to describe it at all, he probably would have given it the higher place, that of the Christian fane, which rose over the pagan temple. One of his biographers has suggested the eminence of Lady Hill with its castle and chapel as the place in Wilson’s mind. It seems to us that a readier explanation would be to suppose that the Palace of Spynie, which he must have remembered at its best, with David’s Tower newly built and rivalling in its creamy sandstone and crisp chiselling the lustre of Parian marble, must have at least suggested a description which is no doubt almost entirely imaginative. It, too, stood on a gentle rising ground, and the swan-haunted lake washed its outworks. But this is a matter in which we cannot expect our readers to be seriously interested.

The biography of Wilson’s book is a short story. The first edition by Gryphius, as we have seen, was in 1543. A second, edited by David Echlin, physician to Queen Henrietta Maria, appeared at Lyons and the Hague in 1G37-42. Ruddiinan next took the work in hand, adding many biographical scraps and a preface in 1707. Finally, in 1758, George Wishart, Principal of Edinburgh University, brought out an edition containing an analysis of the whole treatise and an introduction by Dr. Ward of Gresham College. Some other works have been attributed to Wilson, but, with the exception of some verses, the “ De Tranquillitatc ” must be taken as all that lie has left us. It was occasionally referred to in the last century. In Smollct’s “Reprisal,” a Scotch Ensign, addressing an Irish Lieutenant, cries, “ Hoot fie, Captain Oclabbcr, wharc’s a’ your philosophy ? Did ye never read Seneca 4 De Consolatione,’ or Voluscnus, my countryman ‘ De Tranquillitatc Animi?’” In a letter to Johnson, from Edinburgh, on January 8th, 1778, Boswell writes, “Did yon ever look at a book written by Wilson, a Scotchman, under the Latin name of Volusenus according to the custom of literary men at a certain period? It is entitled, ‘De Animi Tranquillitate.’ ” 1

But with all the longed for rest and quiet of his school at Carpentras, the spirit of Florence Wilson was not satisfied. With all his intellectual and moral tranquillity, there was rising in his breast a desire which no man, and least of all a Scotsman, can well control, lie longed for home. Through all the ‘De Tranquillitate’ there breaths this plaintive longing—and a sort of half-expressed suggestion that the satisfaction of this, too, is necessary to the happy life.

It was not a cheerful prospect, for Scotland, at the time, had entered on the wildest day in all the long storm of her history. Still, he had resolved to return, with what definite or material objects we scarcely know, but we may well believe with high hopes and glad anticipations. One cause nt least for his leaving Carpentras is pretty obvious. The good old Sadoleto— a Cardinal since 1536—worn with the cares of its high office, retired in 1544 to Rome.

Two years after this, we find Wilson preparing for his journey. And to whom should he turn in such a moment of doubt but to his old master ? He wrote to the Cardinal, at Rome, laying before him the difficulties which had occurred to him as to his future conduct in Scotland. How should he act between Catholic and Reformer ? Sadoleto, be it said the new religion, were well known, and it is not surprising that Wilson should be in doubt on such a point. Sadoleto’s letter, which is preserved, is a beautiful one—kindly and encouraging, it need hardly be said—and urges him to keep fast the ancient faith, and to consecrate to it all his learning and genius.

Alas for such anticipations I Florence had only reached the ancient town of Vicnnes, in Dauphiny, when he was seized with sickness and died. The beautiful epitaph of George Buchanan has already been referred to—

“Hie Musis, Volusene, jacis carrissime, ripam Ad Rhodani, terra quam procul a patria.

Hoc meruit virtus tua, tellus quae foret altrix Virtutum, ut cineres conderet ilia tuos.”

It is idle now to dream of the work which a man like this might have done had he lived. It is idle to regret so fine and true a spirit as his taken early from a world that stood, just then, so much in need of the quiet thought and quiet courage with which he was so greatly gifted. But surely it is not an idle task to piece together the short and sad story of one who should not be forgotten, of one who, “fortunac adversae ct nover-cantis injuria exercitatissimus,” has yet left within us a feeling of pride that he was our countryman.

The above was ocr'd from the book...

By-Ways among Books
By David J. MacKenzie (1900)


Return to our Significant Scots page


 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast