Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Major, John (1469-1550)
MAJOR or MAIR, JOHN (1469–1550), historian and scholastic divine, was born in 1469 at Gleghornie, East Lothian. The estate of Gleghornie then belonged to a branch of the Lumsdens of that ilk, and contained a considerable village of the same name, the site of which is marked by some ancient trees near the present farmhouse. Major's parents, from some allusions in his works, appear to have been people of a religious character, and of some social standing. Gleghornie is within two miles of Tantallon Castle, and Major, in all probability, early attracted the notice of its owner, the Earl of Angus, the father of Gavin Douglas, bishop of Dunkeld, who was afterwards his friend and patron. After attending for a lengthened period the grammar school at Haddington, Major went to Cambridge and studied for a year at God's House, soon after called Christ's College.
In 1493 he passed to the university of Paris, then the favourite resort of Scottish students, and was enrolled, like his countrymen, in the German nation, of which he was afterwards chosen procurator and quæstor. He first joined the college of St. Barbe, but afterwards removed to Montaigu, which be calls his 'true nursing mother, never to be named without reverence.' Having taken his M. A. degree in 1498, he became one of its regents, and taught in arts and scholastic philosophy. He also held a fellowship in the college of Navarre, and lectured there. He soon became famous as a teacher, and he furnished his first work on logic in 1503. He graduated as D.D, in 1505, and though continuing to reside and teach in Montaigu, he then began to lecture on scholastic divinity at the Sorbonne. The next thirteen years was a period of great literary activity. In 1508 he published in one volume the substance of his lectures on logic, which had appeared before in separate parts, and at intervals between 1509 and 1517 he gave to the world his greatest theological work, 'A Commentary on the Four Books of Peter the Lombard's "Sentences."'
In 1509 he had declined the offer of the treasurership of the Chapel Royal, Edinburgh, which Gavin Douglas had procured for him, but in 1518 he was induced to return to Scotland to occupy the post of principal regent or professor of philosophy and divinity in the university of Glasgow. To provide him with a salary he was made vicar of Dunlop, Ayrshire, and canon of the Chapel Royal, Stirling. Among his students at Glasgow were John Knox. from his own neighbourhood in East Lothian, and Patrick Hamilton, the proto-martyr of the Scottish reformation. Before leaving France he had written the chief part of his latin 'History of Greater Britain, both England and Scotland,' and he now completed the work, and had it published in Paris in 1521. In a preface to James V, then nine years of age, he says that it is the first duty of an historian to speak the truth, and he vindicates the propriety of a theologian writing history. He admits that he might have written in a more ornate style, but doubts whether that would have served his purpose better. This, as has been said, was the first history of Scotland written in a critical spirit. Major rejects the fables of Wyntoun and Fordoun, fables some of which were soon afterwards to be repeated by Boece and Buchanan. He freely discusses the character of rulers in church and state, and points out, the moral lessons to be drawn from their conduct, The history sheds much light upon the manners and customs of the people. While Major writes as a patriotic Scot, and often refers to the scenes of his youth, he does full justice to England and the English, and strongly advocates the union of the two kingdoms. The book is written in 'the Sorbonne style,' i.e. in the cramped Latin of the schoolmen, but it is always clear and vigorous. In 1522 Major removed to the university of St. Andrews, where he taught logic and theology. This change was probably brought about by his friend Archbishop Beaton, who about that time was promoted from the diocese of Glasgow to that of St. Andrews. Patrick Hamilton followed him to St. Andrews, and George Buchanan became a student there, that 'he might sit at his feet.'
In 1525 Major returned to the university of Paris, and on his journey through England stayed with Cardinal Wolsey, who offered him a post, with 'splendid remuneration,' in the college of Christ Church, which he was then founding at Oxford. For the next six years, besides lecturing at Montaigu, Major was very busy in preparing books for the press. Besides new editions of his former works he published in 1529 eight 'Books of Physics,' 'Logical Questions,' and the 'Ethics of Aristotle,' thus completing his exposition of the philosophy of that great master, for whom he had the profoundest reverence. This work was dedicated to Wolsey, then fallen from his high estate, in token of Major's gratitude for the offer made him four years before, and of the hospitality he had always received from the English. In 1529 he published (Paris, fol.) a commentary on the four gospels, the object of which was to show the armony between them, and to defend the doctrines of the Roman church against the errors of the Wycliffites, Hussites, and Lutherans. In the dedication of 'St. Matthew' to the Archbishop of St. Andrews he commends him for his zeal against Lutheranism, and for 'manfully removing, not without the ill-will of many, a man of noble birth, but an unhappy follower of that perfidious heresy.' The reference is to the martyrdom of his old pupil Patrick Hamilton, who was burnt at St. Andrews in 1527.
During his second sojourn in France, Major taught with the most distinguished reputation, and had come to he regarded as 'the veritable chief of the scholastic philosophy' and 'the prince of Paris divines,' and this at a time when there were many men connected with the forty colleges of the university who have attained a lasting name. But the order of things to which he had devoted the best energies of his life was doomed, and changes had begun which were destined to eclipse his fame. Before finally leaving Paris he published a new edition of his 'Commentary on the First Book of Sentences,' which he dedicated to his namesake, John Major of Eck, and in the preface he again speaks of the 'execrable heresy of Luther.'
He returned to St. Andrews in 153, and was made provost of St. Salvator's College in 1533, an office which he held till his death. He lectured for a time in theology, but his busy pen was at rest, and he took little or no part in the stirring events that preceded the Scottish reformation. In 1534 he pronounced the doctrine of a friar who had been accused of heresy unobjectionable, and Knox, who relates the incident, says that Major's 'word was then holden as an oracle in matters of religion.' In 1539 he (along with William Manderston [q. v.]) founded and endowed a chaplaincy in St. Andrews; in 1545 he had a coadjutor appointed; in 1547 he was present when Knox preached his first the parish church of St. Andrews. As dean of the provincial council of the church which met in 1549, but being 'annosus grandævus et debilis,' he was represented by a procurator. He died in 1550, when many of his pupils and clerical friends were preparing to accept the doctrines of the Reformation.
Like Duns Scotus and other of the schoolmen, Major was a liberal in politics, and taught that the people were the sole source of civil power. As a churchman he strongly maintained Gallican principles, and urged the reform of ecclesiastical abuses, but while speculating freely in the region of the undefined, he held fast to the doctrinal system of Rome, and was a stout defender of such tenets as transubstantiation and the immaculate conception. A schoolman to the last, he was adverse to the educational reforms proposed by his contemporaries, and hostile to theological change. Of immense industry, he became a 'storehouse of all the learning of the middle ages.' If not a man of original genius, he possessed enough force of mind and character to impress his contemporaries, and his students regarded him with the highest admiration. Among the latter there was, however, one discordant voice, that of George Buchanan, who had followed him from St. Andrews to Paris. In the preface of a book published in 1527, as in some former treatises. Major described himself as 'Solo cognomento Major,' and on this Buchanan founded his famous epigram: —
Cum scatent nugis solo cognomine Major,
Nec sit in immenso pagina sana libro,
Non mirum titulis quod se veracibus ornat:
Nec semper mendax fingere Creta solet.
This somewhat insolent sarcasm was written when Buchanan was about twenty-one, and full of the new spirit of humanism, and was perhaps aimed rather at the system than the man. Major was noted for his independence and veracity, and indeed the only stain on his moral character was his approbation of persecution, but this was common to all parties at the time.
Major's 'History,' by which he is now best known, was printed at Paris in 1521, and was republished in 1740 by Freebairn in Edinburgh. It has recently been translated into English for the first time under the auspices of the Scottish History Society. This edition contains an estimate of Major's character and writings by the translator, Mr. Archibald Constable, a life of the author by Sheriff Mackay, and a complete bibliography of Major and his disciples, with a collection of Major's prefaces to his works by Mr. T. G. Law. All his literary work was in Latin, and was originally published in Paris or Lyons.
[Tanner's Bibl. Brit.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. i. 113; Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. i. 93; Life, by Sheriff Mackay, prefixed to Major's History, Edinburgh, 1892; P. Hume Brown's Life of George Buchanan; Scottish Review, July 1892, art. v., 'John Major,' by T. G. Law; Hist. of Early Scottish Literature, by Dr. Ross; Mackenzie's Scottish Writers, ii. 309; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature.]