Reference > Cambridge History > Renascence and Reformation > Reformation and Renascence in Scotland > John Major
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VII. Reformation and Renascence in Scotland.

§ 12. John Major.

The writers who have been mentioned all belonged to the reforming party, but, throughout the whole period, the ancient church had also its representatives in literature, one of whom, at least, had a European reputation in his own day. This was John Mair or Major, who has been called “the last of the schoolmen,” and who is the one eminent thinker whom we can with certainty say that Scotland gave to scholasticism. Born in Haddingtonshire in 1479, and dying in 1549 or 1550, Major lived to see the beginnings of the reformation in Scotland, but, though in many respects a liberal thinker both in religion and politics, he continued to the end a steady adherent of the communion in which he was reared. After a year’s study (1493) at the university of Cambridge, Major passed to the university of Paris, where, till 1518, with the exception of a brief visit to Scotland, he was successively student, regent in arts, and doctor in theology. From 1518 to 1525, he lectured on logic and theology, first in the university of Glasgow and afterwards in the university of St. Andrews, where he had George Buchanan as one of his pupils. Between 1525 and 1531, he was again in Paris, where he was now regarded by all the learned world as the most distinguished champion of medievalism in its opposition to the new studies. He had attained this reputation through the long series of his publications, begun in 1503, of which the most notable was his Commentary on the Four Books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard (1509). In all these works, Major is the schoolman pure and simple; the subjects he treats, his manner of handling them, are those of the medieval logician when scholasticism had become an exhausted movement. For the men of the new order, therefore, Major was an obscurantist against whom ridicule was the only appropriate weapon. Melanchthon selected him as the special object of attack in his reply to the condemnation of Luther by the Sorbonne. “I have seen John Major’s Commentaries on Peter Lombard,” he writes; “he is now, I am told, the prince of the Paris divines. Good heavens! What wagon-loads of trifling… . If he is a specimen of the Parisian, no wonder they have so little stomach for Luther.” A shaft was aimed at Major by a still greater hand; in the wonderful library of St. Victor in Paris, Pantagruel found a book entitled The Art of Making Puddings by John Major. Despite the mockery of the humanists, however, there are ideas and suggestions to be found in his voluminous disquisitions which prove that he was a shrewd and independent thinker when he addressed himself to practical questions. No reformer saw more clearly or denounced more stringently the corruptions and abuses of the church as it existed in Scotland; he held as liberal opinions as his pupil Buchanan regarding the relations of rulers and subjects; and a suggestion which he threw out as to the most effective method of dealing with mendicancy was adopted with fruitful results in Germany and the Low Countries. But his good sense and independent judgment are best exemplified in his one book which is not a scholastic treatise—his Historia Majoris Britanniae tam Angliae quam Scotiae. The Latin in which the History is written shows no trace of the influence of the revival of letters; it is the Latin of the schoolmen, impure, inharmonious and difficult. On the other hand, Major as a historian stands on a far higher level than that of the medieval chronicler. His work bears no evidence of great research, but he carefully selects the significant facts that were accessible to him, and judges men and events, if not with philosophic grasp, yet with a genial shrewdness which gives piquancy to his narrative. In six books he relates the history of the two countries from the earliest times till the reigns of Henry VII and James IV. What is noteworthy in his narrative is his rejection of the legendary origins of Scotland which had been invented to rebut the English claims of paramountcy, and which continued to be retailed by Scottish historians into the eighteenth century. But the most signal illustration of Major’s insight and originality is his attitude regarding the political relations of the two kingdoms whose histories he relates. Almost alone among his countrymen, and at a period when the hereditary animosities of England and Scotland were never more intense, he counselled political union as the natural consummation of their respective destinies and in the best interest of both peoples.   21

  Political ballads The Complaynt of Scotland  
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