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173 CHAPTER EIGHT Elegy and Commemorative Writing Joanna Martin and Kate L. Mathis Elegiac and commemorative writing was important to Scotland’s literary culture in all three of the nation’s medieval languages. It is to Scottish Gaelic culture, however, that elegy and lament verse is central. The second part of this chapter will explore the importance of the genre and the variety of uses to which it was put between c. 1400 and 1650. The practice of composing Gaelic-language panegyric and elegiac verse is attested from the earliest written record,1 its composition governed by a set of long-established literary conventions. The continued relevance of these conventions and the remarkable stability of the genre enabled it to flourish well into the seventeenth century. As we will see, the contexts that fostered the composition of Gaelic elegy may explain the longevity of many of its characteristic features: poets were often trained in bardic schools (c. 1200–1600) and much of their literary culture was clan- and household-based, located within close-knit networks of hereditary poets and patrons. Many of the elegies that will be discussed here were preserved in family collections known as ‘duanairean’. Moreover, as this chapter demonstrates, the stability of the literary tradition gave Gaelic poets the freedom to work with ingenuity and originality. In Scots and Latin literature, elegy and commemorative writing took more varied forms, including succinct epitaph and expansive prose family history. Elegiac writing in Scots and Latin also overlapped with other kinds of moral and religious writing on death. It was thus less coherent in development than its Gaelic counterpart. The conditions of its composition also varied markedly. Only a few extant elegies survive from close family or household settings, the elegies and epitaphs in the Maitland Quarto Manuscript being important examples, although some texts, such as George Buchanan’s poignant Latin epitaph for Anne Walsingham, wife of Thomas Randolph, and her baby,2 were composed for friends and close contacts. Many of the Scots and Latin elegies discussed below were 174 joanna martin and kate l. mathis composed in formal settings for distinguished individuals to whom the poet may not have had a particularly close connection (in direct contrast to the often intimate connection between Gaelic poets and the subjects of their laments). Furthermore, not all Scots and neo-Latin elegies were the result of a direct commission from a patron with whom the poet had a close and lasting relationship. Several elegies related to important events at the Stewart court may have been commissioned works, but this is hard to determine; they may also have been unsolicited bids for preferment. Examples of Scots and Latin elegy survive from the early fifteenth century onwards, and although some themes and forms of expression remain consistent, a shift in the attitudes to death and the expression of grief becomes apparent towards the end of the period. Gaelic elegiac writing from Scotland has also an intimate connection with Irish Gaelic literary culture, and, while its elegy makes use of classical and Biblical sources, it also draws upon a distinctive set of allusions and references from wider Gaelic tradition, well known to its intended audience, but not found in Scots and Latin writing (several poets’ careers and networks of patronage also spanned both sides of the Irish Sea). It is difficult to believe that the rich tradition of Gaelic elegy exerted no influence upon Latin and Scots commemorative writing. Conclusive evidence for influence in either direction, however, has yet to be presented, and scholarly opinion is divided concerning the attitudes towards Gaelic culture amongst the writers of Lowland Scotland. The hostile mockery of Dunbar’s Flyting is often taken as representative of the views of Scots poets on their counterparts in the Gàidhealtachd, but Martin MacGregor has recently questioned the extent to which this apparent antipathy was shared.3 Several themes, nevertheless, are common to all the Scottish traditions of late-medieval elegiac writing. Most obviously, Gaelic, Scots, and Latin writing uses elegy in the commemoration of major celebrated figures, often claiming to articulate public grief. In each tradition elegy is also used to offer protest or to comment upon the wider political situation. In Gaelic elegy, however, regional and clan-based politics, rather than national events, are given most attention. In Scots, elegy for public figures is used by poets to make observations on the political situation and to give advice to those in power; amongst neo-Latin writing from Scotland, some...


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