Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

George Buchanan (humanist)

George Buchanan (February, 1506 - September 28, 1582) was a Scottish humanist scholar.

His father, a younger son of an old family, owned the farm of Moss, in the parish of Killearn, Stirlingshire, but he died young, leaving his widow and children in poverty. George's mother, Agnes Heriot, was of the family of the Heriots of Trabroun, Haddingtonshire, of which George Heriot, founder of Heriot's Hospital, was also a member. Buchanan is said to have attended Killearn school, but not much is known of his early education. In 1520 he was sent by his uncle, James Heriot, to the University of Paris, where, according to him, he devoted himself to the writing of verses "partly by liking, partly by compulsion (that being then the one task prescribed to youth)."

In 1522 his uncle died, and Buchanan was unable to continue longer in Paris; he returned to Scotland. After recovering from a severe illness, he joined the French auxiliaries who had been brought over by John Stewart, Duke of Albany, and took part in an unsuccessful foray into England. In the following year he entered the University of St Andrews, where he graduated B.A. in 1525. He had gone there chiefly for the purpose of attending the celebrated John Major's lectures on logic; and when that teacher moved to Paris, Buchanan followed him in 1526. In. 1527 he graduated B.A., and in 1528 M.A. at Paris. Next year he was appointed regent, or professor, in the college of Sainte-Barbe, and taught there for over three years. In 1529 he was elected "Procurator of the German Nation" in the University of Paris, and was re-elected four times in four successive months. He resigned his regentship in 1531, and in 1532 became tutor to Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd Earl of Cassilis, with whom he returned to Scotland early in 1537.

At this period Buchanan assumed the same attitude towards the Church of Rome that Erasmus maintained. He did not repudiate its doctrines, but considered himself free to criticize its practice. Though he listened with interest to the arguments of the Reformers, he did not join their ranks until 1553. His first production in Scotland, when he was in Lord Cassilis's household in the west country, was the poem Somnium, a satirical attack on the Franciscan friars and monastic life generally. This assault on the monks was not displeasing to James V, who engaged Buchanan as tutor to one of his natural sons, Lord James Stewart (not the son who was afterwards regent), and encouraged him in a more daring effort.

The poems Palinodia and Franciscanus & Fratres, although they remained unpublished for many years, made the author the object of bitter hatred to the Franciscan order, and put his safety in jeopardy. In 1539 there was bitter persecution of the Lutherans, and Buchanan among others was arrested. He managed to effect his escape and with considerable difficulty made his way to London and thence to Paris. In Paris, however, he found his enemy, Cardinal David Beaton, who was there as ambassador, and on the invitation of André de Gouvéa, proceeded to Bordeaux. Gouvéa was then principal of the newly founded college of Guienne at Bordeaux, and by his influence Buchanan was appointed professor of Latin. During his residence here, several of his best works, the translations of Medea and Alcestis, and the two dramas, Jephthes (sive Votum) and Baptistes (sive Calumnia), were completed. Michel de Montaigne was Buchanan's pupil at Bordeaux and acted in his tragedies. In the essay Of Presumption he classes Buchanan with Aurat, Theodore Beza, Michel de l'Hôpital, Montdore and Turnebus, as one of the foremost Latin poets of his time. Here also Buchanan formed a lasting friendship with Julius Caesar Scaliger; in later life he won the admiration of Joseph Scaliger, who wrote an epigram on Buchanan which contains the couplet, famous in its day: "Imperii fuerat Romani Scotia limes; Romani eloquii Scotia limes erit?"

In 1542 or 1543 he returned to Paris, and in 1544 was appointed regent in the college of Cardinal le Moine. Among his colleagues were the renowned Muretus and Adrianus Turnebus.

In 1547 Buchanan joined the band of French and Portuguese humanists who had been invited by André de Gouvéa to lecture in the Portuguese University of Coimbra. The French mathematician Elie Vinet, and the Portuguese historian, Jeronimo de Osorio, were among his colleagues; Gouvéa, called by Montaigne le plus grand principal de France, was rector of the university, which had reached the summit of its prosperity under the patronage of King John III. But the rectorship had been coveted by Diogo de Gouvéa, uncle of André and formerly head of Sainte-Barbe. It is probable that before André's death at the end of 1547 Diogo had urged the Inquisition to attack him and his staff; up to 1906, when the records of the trial were first published in full, Buchanan's biographers general]y attributed the attack to the influence of Cardinal Beaton, the Franciscans, or the Jesuits, and the whole history of Buchanan's residence in Portugal was extremely obscure.

A commission of inquiry was appointed in October 1549 and reported in June 1550. Buchanan and two Portuguese, Diogo de Teive and Joao da Costa (who had succeeded to the rectorship), were committed for trial. Teive and Costa were found guilty of various offences against public order, and the evidence shows that there was ample reason for a judicial inquiry. Buchanan was accused of Lutheran and Judaistic practices. He defended himself with conspicuous ability, courage and frankness, admitting that some of the charges were true. About June 1551 he was sentenced to abjure his errors, and to be imprisoned in the monastery of São Bento in Lisbon. Here he was compelled to listen to edifying discourses from the monks, whom he found "not unkind but ignorant." In his leisure he began to translate the Psalms into Latin verse. After seven months he was released, on condition that he remained in Lisbon; and on February 28 1552 this restriction was lifted. Buchanan at once sailed for England, but soon made his way to Paris, where in 1553 he was appointed regent in the college of Boncourt. He remained in that post for two years, and then accepted the office of tutor to the son of the Maréchal de Brissac. It was almost certainly during this last stay in France, where Protestantism was being repressed with great severity by King Francis I, that Buchanan took the side of Calvinism.

In 1560 or 1561 he returned to Scotland, and by April 1562 was installed as tutor to the young Queen Mary I of Scotland, who read Livy with him daily. Buchanan now openly joined the Protestant, or Reformed Church, and in 1566 was appointed by the earl of Murray principal of St Leonard's College, St Andrews. Two years before he had received from the queen the valuable gift of the revenues of Crossraguel Abbey. He was thus in good circumstances, and his fame was steadily increasing. So great, indeed, was his reputation for learning and administrative capacity that, though a layman., he was made moderator of the general assembly in 1567. He had sat in the assemblies from 1563.

Buchanan accompanied the regent Murray into England, and his Detectio (published in 1572) was produced to the commissioners at Westminster. In 1570, after the assassination of Murray, he was appointed one of the preceptors of the young king, and it was through his tuition that James VI acquired his scholarship. While discharging the functions of royal tutor he also held other important offices. He was for a short time director of chancery, and then became lord privy seal, a post which entitled him to a seat in the parliament. He appears to have continued in this office for some years, at least till 1579.

His last years had been occupied with two of his most important works. The first was the treatise De Jure Regni apud Scales, published in 1579. In this famous work, composed in the form of a dialogue, and evidently intended to instil sound political principles into the mind of his pupil, Buchanan lays down the doctrine that the source of all political power is the people, that the king is bounds by those conditions under which the supreme power was first committed to his hands, and that it is lawful to resist, even to punish, tyrants. The importance of the work is proved by the persistent efforts of the legislature to suppress it during the century following its publication. It was condemned by act of parliament in 1584, and again in 1664; and in 1683 it was burned by the university of Oxford. The second of his larger works is the history of Scotland, Rerum Scoticarum Historia, completed shortly before his death (1579), and published in 1582. It is of great value for the period personally known to the author, which occupies the greater portion of the book. The earlier part is based, to a considerable extent, on the legendary history of Boece. Buchanan's purpose was to "purge" the national history "of sum Inglis lyis and Scottis vanite" (Letter to Randolph), but he exaggerated his freedom from partisanship and unconsciously criticized his work when he said that it would "content few and displease many."

For mastery of the Latin language, Buchanan has seldom been surpassed by any modern writer. His style is not rigidly modelled on that of any classical author, but has a freshness and elasticity of its own. He wrote Latin as if it were his mother tongue. Buchanan also had a rich vein of poetical feeling, and much originality of thought. His translations of the Psalms and of the Greek plays are more than mere versions; his two tragedies, Baptistes and Jephthes, enjoyed a European reputation for academic excellence. In addition to these works, Buchanan wrote in prose Chamaeleon, a satire in the vernacular against Maitland of Lethington, first printed in 1711; a Latin translation of Linacre's Grammar (Paris, 1533); Libellus de Prosodia (Edinburgh, 1640); and Vita ab ipso scripta biennio ante mortem (1608), edited by R Sibbald (1702). His other poems are Fratres Fraterrimi, Elegiac, Silvae, two sets of verses entitled Hendecasyllabon Liber and lambon Liber; three books of Epigrammata; a book of miscellaneous verse; De Sphaera'' (in five books), suggested by the poem of Joannes de Sacrobosco, and intended as a defence of the Ptolemaic theory against the new Copernican view.

There are two editions of Buchanan's works: (a) Georgii Buchanani Scoti, Poetarum sui seculi facile principis, Opera Omnsa, in two vols. fol. edited by Ruddiman (Edinburgh, Freebairn, 171 c): (b) edited by Burman. ,tto. 172.c. The Vernacular Writings.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.