George Buchanan (1506-1582) – An Early Scottish Humanist

George Buchanan (1506-1582) – An Early Scottish Humanist

George Buchanan by Arnold Brounckhorst 1580

My interest in George Buchanan’s work was sparked when I read that he had been described as a leading Scottish humanist. I was intrigued. Nobody in my circles had ever mentioned him, which seemed surprising for a humanist contemporary of Erasmus.

Born in Killearn, George Buchanan came from a land-owning family but his father died when Buchanan was young, leaving the family impoverished. Buchanan’s uncle stepped in and sent him to the University of Paris where he was exposed to the Renaissance and the Reformation, which would become pivotal influences in Buchanan’s work and thinking. 

Buchanan spent much of his life in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal. He was a much admired poet and dramatist, and played an influential role in religion and politics both before and after his death. He wrote his historical, political and literary texts in Latin. Latin at the time was a pan-European language a bit like English in Europe in the twenty-first century. Buchanan’s literary achievements – poems and plays in the main – have also attracted significant academic interest. In part because of his use of Latin, and in part because they explored a view of religion that was critical, sometimes satirical and secular in some respects.  

Buchanan’s principal political thoughts can be derived from two works, De Iure Regni apud Scotos,  and Rerum Scoticarum Historia, both published towards the end of his life. De Iure Regni apud Scotos focuses on Scottish law pertaining to monarchs, and Rerum Scoticarum Historia is a history of Scottish monarchs and a description of Scotland’s linguistic and topography. Both works have been long studied and (the history part) argued over at length. But it might be said that Buchanan’s political thoughts were not necessarily based in academia. His criticism of Mary Queen of Scots’ behaviour (more akin to a tabloid than a broadsheet lashing, as one writer observed)  and his role as tutor to the infant James VI both informed and were vehicles for the development of his thoughts. Buchanan was forced to leave Scotland for the continent largely because of his views about both the murder of a Cardinal and the conduct of Franciscan monks. 

In exploring Buchanan’s ideas I searched for any link between his name and the English Civil War. I followed this path because my early reading of Buchanan’s views referred to his notion of the tyranny of monarchs and particularly, Mary Queen of Scots. Caroline Erskine’s 2004 PhD from Glasgow University “The reputation of George Buchanan in The British Atlantic World before 1832.” provides ample evidence that Buchanan’s principal works influenced political thought over the next 250 years in Scotland, and in the revolutions (after his death) in England, America and France. Often that influence was shaped by those who wanted to use his writings to provide substance to their own views during the rapidly changing political environment in the 250 years after his death.

Buchanan’s humanism

It was also in Erskine’s PhD that I found my first substantial references to Buchanan’s humanism. To be a humanist in the 16th and 17th centuries was unsurprisingly different to following a  humanist lifestyle in the 21st century. Erskine sums up her view of mid-16th century humanism as being an “unsystematic, creedless and eclectic set of views which privileged morality over religious dogma.”

There were few openly non-religious people in Scotland at the time Buchanan lived: indeed you might have been executed (as was Thomas Aikenhead in 1697 for blasphemy) had you proffered an atheistic viewpoint. Buchanan was after all a contemporary of Erasmus. 

Historical differences aside, there are clear parallels between Buchanan’s early humanism and the fleshed out ‘Fundamentals’ of humanism in the twenty-first century, as contained in the Amsterdam Declaration (IHEU 2002). 

Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

Erasmus’ humanism developed while he retained his links with Roman Catholicism; Buchanan likewise remained close to the church, initially the Catholic church, and then the Presbyterian church after his return to Scotland from Europe, where he was to become a lay Moderator of the Kirk. Historians have characterised his religious interests as being less about faith and more about churches as organisations and as part of civic society. So his hostility to Mary Queen of Scots was concerned not with ecclesiastical matters, but her abuse of power as he saw it. In a similar vein Buchanan’s links with Knox were not concerned with matters of faith (predestination for example,) but about the way in which the Kirk developed as an organisation. In Erskine’s words,  “Much of his writing…is informed by a clear moral didactic aim”. 

Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare.

Buchanan’s classical education connected him back to those Greeks who railed against the superstition of gods. He was a rationalist who believed that the passion (and tyranny) of monarchs should be tempered by election (albeit by a restricted electorate, the nobility). An admirer of astronomy, he developed a lengthy poem, De Sphaera (which was a long time in the making, indeed never finished). The poem was intended to help articulate an understanding of the natural world using the discovery of knowledge about the universe.  

Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right.

Buchanan was not a republican, but he did believe the monarchy should be accountable. Buchanan’s commitment to the principles of democracy (although limited as it applied to monarchs) was arguably more  influential in the Presbyterian Church, where he contributed to the development of an organisation that was committed to electing ministers of religion and those who represented the church at assemblies. Historians have linked  Buchanan’s interest in Scottish civil society and his work with the Kirk to what was one of the more important developments under the eye of the Kirk – the development of schools for all (at least at primary level). Scotland was to develop an education system that would both feed the minds of those who grew up under the Scottish Enlightenment, and provide the material to take much of that thinking forward. 

Caroline Erskine argues persuasively that George Buchanan’s contribution to Scottish development are better examined in the context of humanism rather than Calvinism. She compares Buchanan with another 16th century maverick, the French Franciscan monk and philosopher, Rabelais. Some of Rabelais’ religious beliefs were akin to a personal religion with a heady mixture of free-thinking, scepticism, rationalism and anti-clericalism.

George Buchanan can justifiably be seen as an important ’embryonic’ humanist in a century of significant debate and change in the nature and future of the Christian religion in Scotland and Europe. Buchanan and his role in Scottish and European civic and political life may have been neglected in part because he wrote in Latin, making him less than accessible to direct reading. But perhaps more importantly Buchanan’s association with Knox, and his revolutionary thoughts about the importance of electing monarchs (albeit by a restricted electorate) so often put him on the wrong side of history.

John Bishop

October 2019

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