Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Boece, Hector

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1312115Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 05 — Boece, Hector1886Aeneas James George Mackay

BOECE or BOETHIUS, HECTOR (1465?–1536), belonged to the family of Boyis, or Bois, of Panbride in Angus, the common form of Boece being a retranslation of the Latin Boethius. His father was probably Alexander Boyis, who appears as a burgess of Dundee about the end of the fifteenth century in several entries in the Great Seal Register. Boece calls Dundee his country (‘patria’), and alludes to the Panbride family as a cadet when he mentions that the estate, along with the hand of a coheiress, was given to his great grandfather, Hugh, whose father had fallen at Dupplin. From Dundee he took the designation of Deidonanus, accepting ambitiously, says Buchanan, the common derivation of Deidonum for the town at the mouth of the Tay, which that writer derives from Tao Dunum, the Hill of Tay. From Dundee, where he received his first education, Boece passed, like many of his countrymen, to Paris, then the most frequented university in Europe. Assuming his birth to have been in 1465, its probable but not certain date, it is not likely that the commencement of his studies at Paris was later than 1485. After finishing his undergraduate course under the severe discipline of the college of Montaigu, reorganised in 1483 on the principle of monastic poverty by James Standone, a native of Brabant, an active educational reformer, and at one time rector of the university, Boece became a regent, or professor, in this college, probably from 1492 to 1498. He commemorates amongst his contemporaries in the college Peter Syrus, the theologian; Peter Rolandus, his instructor in logic; John Gasserus, the canonist-names now forgotten; but also one which will live as long as literature, Erasmus, ‘the splendour and ornament of our age.' Thirty-two years later, Erasmus in a complimentary letter congratulates Boece, then principal of King’s College in Aberdeen, upon the progress Scotland had made in the liberal arts, and sent him a catalogue of his works. In another letter of a humorous turn, while disclaiming the title of poet which Boece had given him, he communicated two attempts in poetry under strict injunctions not to publish them. Of his own countrymen then studying in Paris, Boece mentions Patrick Panter, another of the worthies of Angus, afterwards secretary of James IV and abbot of Cambuskenneth, to whom the king entrusted the education of his natural son, Alexander Stewart, before sending him abroad to finish it under Erasmus; Walter Ogilvy, celebrated for oratory; George Dundas, a learned scholar both in Greek and Latin, afterwards grand-master in Scotland of the Knights of Jerusalem; and John Major, the theologian, logician, and historian, who, returning like Boece to Scotland, introduced the new learning in Glasgow and St. Andrews, and had Knox and Buchanan for pupils. About 1498 Boece became acquainted with William Elphinstone, bishop of Aberdeen since 1483-4, who had served in several high offices at home as well as embassies abroad, and had kept up his knowledge of what was passing in the French universities. Elphinstone had himself taught law, both at Paris and Orleans, between 1402 and 1471, and he now required Boece's aid in carrying out the favourite project of his old age, the foundation of a university in Aberdeen. Four years before, Elphinstone had obtained a bull from Pope Alexander VI at the request of James IV, on a preamble stating that the north parts of his kingdom were inhabited by a rude, illiterate, and savage people, and erecting in the city of old Aberdeen a ‘studium generale’ and university for theology, canon and civil law, medicine and the liberal arts, and any other lawful faculty, to be there studied and taught by ecclesiastical and lay masters and doctors in the same manner as in Paris and Bologna, and for conferring on deserving persons the degrees of bachelor, licentiate, doctor, and all other degrees. The office of chancellor was conferred by the bull on the bishop and his successors. The graduates were given liberty to teach without further examination, and statutes were to be framed by the chancellor, rector, resident doctors, with a competent number of licentiates in each faculty, and circumspect students, alone with two, at least, of the king's council. The next ten years were occupied by Elphinstone, with the advice of Boece, in preliminary arrangements, and in obtaining endowments. In 1605 Elphinstone, aided by the king, the canons of his cathedral — especially Scherar, prebendary of Clatt — and others, was able to carry out his design by the foundation of the collegiate church dedicated to St. Mary in the Nativity within the university, known later as King's College. The foundation was to consist of thirty-six persons in all, which did not, of course, preclude the participation of other persons in the studies besides the foundationers. Of these four were entitled to be doctors in the respective faculties of theology, canon law, civil law, and medicine. The doctors, along with two masters in the faculty of arts, were to be the regents, or rulers, as well as teachers. Besides the doctors there were to be five masters of arts prosecuting their studies for a theological degree, thirteen poor scholars studying for a degree in arts, eight chaplains and four choristers. To the doctor in theology who was also to be principal a salary of forty merks was assigned. For each of the doctors in canon and civil law thirty, and for the doctor of medicine twenty merks were deemed sufficient, and the same sum was allowed to one of the masters of arts who was to be sub-principal; another of the masters who was to teach grammar had the prebend of the church of St. Mary ad Nives; twelve of the poor scholars had twelve merks apiece, and the thirteenth 5l. from Scherar's endowment. Other provisions were made for the masters studying theology, the chaplains, and the choristers. All the members of the college had rooms provided for them within the college except the canonist, mediciner, the master of arts who taught grammar, and the sub-principal, who had rooms without the college. The principal and students of theology, after becoming bachelors, were to read theology every reading-day, and to preach six times a year to the people, and, before becoming bachelors, every Lord's day and holiday in Latin to the students. The regents in arts were to instruct in the liberal sciences like those in Paris; the canonist, civilian, and mediciner after the manner of that university and Orleans.

Dr. Johnson, disciplined in the school of poverty, but of English poverty, smiled at the emoluments of Boece, which he estimates at 2l. 4s. 6d. of sterling money. 'In the present age of trade and taxes it is difficult even for the imagination so to raise the value of money, or so to diminish the demands of life, as to suppose four and forty shillings a year an honourable stipend; yet it was probably equal not only to the needs, but to the rank of Boethius.' Scotch writers anxious to defend their country from the imputation of poverty have rejoined that forty merks was, having regard to the comparative cost of living then, equivalent to 26l. 13s, 4d. sterling, but it is difficult to estimate the purchasing power of money in a particular age and country. The salaries of King's College were certainly on a moderate scale, and in this respect the example of the college of Montaigu was not forgotten. Want of wealth did not diminish the zeal for learning of Boece and his coadjutors. He summoned to his aid William Hay, his schoolfellow at Dundee, and fellow-student in Paris, who became sub-principal, and succeeded to the principalship after Boece's death. He was received kindly by the canons, who at Aberdeen, as well as in other cathedral cities, had already done something to supply the want of a university by lecturing on theology, law, and arts. Two continued to teach in the university Alexander Hay (who had been master of the grammar school), and James Ogilvy, as professors of civil law. Boece's brother Arthur also taught law; Alexander Galloway, rector of Kinkell, the man-of-business of Bishop Elphinstone, was lecturer on the canon law; John Adams, afterwards the head of the Friars Preachers, was professor of theology; Henry Spittal, a kinsman of Elphinstone, taught philosophy; and John Vaus, a pupil of the Aberdeen School, Latin grammar, the first of the long race of Scottish grammarians. In the science and art of healing, besides Gray the mediciner, Boece himself had some proficiency, and we hear of his being consulted by Robert Chrystal, abbot of Kimos, on his deathbed, when he made the acquaintance of John Ferrerius, a monk of that foundation, who afterwards wrote a short addition to his history. History was not specially taught, for it did not enter into the medieval curriculum; but no more assiduous collector of its materials could be found in Scotland than Bishop Elphinstone. It was to this study, apart from his engrossing duties as first principal, that Boece devoted himself. A manuscript of John of Fordun, the earliest extant chronicler of Scotland, presented by him to the college, is still preserved, and it was on Elphinstone’s collections that his own history of Scotland was based.

The first publication of Boece was the lives of the Bishops of Mortlach and Aberdeen, printed at Paris in 1522 by Iodocus Badius, with the well-known imprint of his press. The most interesting portion, the memoir of his patron, Elphinstone, who had died eight years before, unable to survive Flodden, gives many incidental notices of Boece’s own life and studies. The lives are written in a simpler and (purer style than his history, and the legendary element so conspicuous in his history is almost absent. The next and only other printed book of Boece was his history of Scotland from the earliest times to the accession of James III, published by Badius in 1527, and of which a second edition, with the continuation of Ferrerius down to the death of that king, was printed at Lausanne, and published at Paris in 1574. Prior to this no history of Scotland had been printed except the compendium of Major. The chronicles of Wyntoun and John of Fordun were in manuscripts widely dispersed, but not widely known; and now for the first time the annals of Northern Britain could be bought by any one who could afford the comparatively cheap price asked by the Parisian printers of that day. They were related in a style which the admirers of Boece compared to Livy, and followed the model of the earlier books of the great Roman historian in sacrificing accuracy to a Rowing narrative adapted to the public for whom it was written. This accounts for its rapid popularity. It was translated, at the request of James V, between 1530 and 1533, into Scottish prose by John Bellenden, archdean of Moray, employed about the same time in the translation of Livy, and printed in 1536 at Edinburgh by Thomas Davidson. A metrical version of Boece’s history in the Scottish dialect was also made at the same time, but not published until recently, from the manuscript in the university of Cambridge. In 1577 it was done into English for Holinshed’s chronicles by William Harrison, who naïvely excuses himself as a divine for applying his time to civil history: ‘This is the cause wherefore I have chosen rather only with the loss of three or four dayes to translate Hector out of the Scottish (a tongue verie like unto ours) than with more expense of time to devise a newe or follow the latin copy.’ In the next generation Buchanan, not unwilling to cavil at Boece, used his history as material for his own more elaborate work. The English, Welsh, and Irish historians, who had a special quarrel with Boece for the antiquity which he ascribed to the Scots by adopting as historic the myth of Scota the daughter of Pharaoh, attacked his credit even before it began to be weighed in the scales of criticism. The epigram of Leland still sticks:-

Hectoris historici tot quot mendacia scriprit
Si vis ut, numerem, lector amics, tibi,
Me jubeas etiam fluctus numerare marinos
Et liquidi stellas connumerare poli.

That apart of his narrative prior to the reign of Malcolm Canmore is as unreliable as the early books of Livy, and even when he comes to times nearer his own he is apt to follow tradition without examination of its probability. Father Innes in the last century and Mr. Skene in this have done the work of Niebuhr, and traced the origin of the mythic and traditional Scottish story. By the aid of the earliest sources, the chronicles of the Picts and Scots of Wyntoun and Fordun, they have deciphered at least a part of the true history.

The gravest charge against Boece, that he invented the authorities on whom he relies—Veremundus, a Spaniard, archdeacon of St. Andrews, and John Campbell, whose manuscripts, originally preserved in Iona, he says he procured access to through the Earl of Argyle and his kinsman, John Campbell of Lundy, the treasurer-though long accepted, must now be deemed at least not proven, and probably unfounded. These manuscripts no longer exist, but his statement as to them could have been contradicted by persons living when he wrote, if it was untrue; and Chambers of Ormond, a Scottish historian of the reign of Mary, makes independent reference to Veremundus, possibly one of the unnamed earlier chroniclers to whom Wyntoun frequently alludes. The two other authorities he specifies are Turgot, the bishop of St. Andrews, author of the ‘Life of Queen Margaret,' and the abbot of Inchcolm, who is known to be Bower, the continuator of Fordun, in whose pages many of the statements for which Boece has been censured are to be found. Of the credulity shown in his history the story of the stranded trees on which the clack or barnacle geese (see Max Müller's Lectures, &c., ii. 584) grew, is only one of many samples. Boece was always more ready to believe than to doubt, and a striking contrast to his contemporary Major. Dr. Johnson probably gives a fair verdict, though it may be thought somewhat lenient. 'His history is written with elegance and vigour, but his fabulousness and credulity are justly blamed. His fabulousness, if he was the author of the fictions, is a fault for which no apology can be made, but his credulity may be excused in an age in which all men were credulous. Learning was then rising on the world, but eyes so long accustomed to darkness were too much dazzled with its light to see anything distinctly. The first race of scholars in the fifteenth century, and for some time after, were for the most part learning to speak rather than to think, and were therefore more studious of elegance than of truth.' As a reward for his history, Boece received the degree of doctor from the university in 1528, a compliment of a tun of wine or 20l. Scots, to help to buy him bonnets, from the town of Aberdeen, which had a little earlier presented him to the chaplaincy of St. Andrew's altar in the church of St. Nicholas. He received a royal pension of 50l. Scots in 1527, and two years later the same or a grant of similar amount, until the king presented him to a benefice of 100 merks Scots. The last payment of this pension was at Whitsunday 1534, when he probably obtained a first of the rectory of Tiree in Buchan, which he held to his death in 1536. He appears before this, in 1528, to have held the vicarage of Tullynessle, one of the gifts of James IV to King's College. He had two brothers, Arthur, the lawyer, one of the first senators of the College of Justice, and Walter, a parson of the church of St. Mary ad Nives in Aberdeen. The last act of his life of which we have evidence on record is his being party to a marriage contract between Isabella Boyis, probably a daughter of Arthur, and the son of John Brabaner, a burgess of Aberdeen, on 18 Jan. 1535. He was buried on the north side of Elphinstone's tomb, before the high altar of the chapel at filing's College. His coat of arms, a saltire and chief, is one of three on the south wall without motto, but with the letters 'H B ob. 1536.'

The portrait hung on the stair of the Senate Hall, and which has been engraved as that of Boece, is of doubtful authenticity. Lord Hailes declared that his countrymen were reformed from popery, but not from Boece, but now that the latter reformation has been accomplished we may do justice to his real merits as we do to those of the mediæval church. His learning and zeal co-operated with the liberality of Elphinstone in laying the foundation of the university which has diffused culture in the northern districts of Britain. A love of historical studies dating from, his time has continued to mark the Aberdonian scholars, who have contributed more to Scottish history than the inhabitants of any other part of Scotland.

[The best life is by Irving in his Lives of Scottish Writers, but the records of the university and town of Aberdeen, the works of Erasmus, and the History of the University of Paris, should be consulted. The editions of Boece's History are mentioned above. His Vitæ Episcoporum Murthlacensium et Aberdonensium, originally printed 1522, was reprinted by the Bannatyne Club in 1825. Bellenden's translation of the History, printed in black letter by 'Thomas Davidson,' was reprinted at Edinburgh in 1821, with a biographical introduction by Thomas Maitland, Lord Dundrennan.]

Æ. M.