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Alasdair A. MacDonald (ed.), The Gude and Godlie Ballatis (Boydell & Brewer, 2015). ISBN: 9781897976418, xii+414 pp., £40.00.

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben

[1] The Gude and Godlie Ballatis is a collection of verse and prose texts, the first known appearance of which occurred in the years immediately following upon the beginning of the Scottish reformation. Throughout the later sixteenth century, the collection was republished with an expanding canon, and from the eighteenth century its content imagesbecame the subject of sustained antiquarian study. Scholars across disciplines investigated the provenance of the collection and began to publish critical editions, including Laing’s A compendious book of psalms and spiritual songs (1868) and Mitchell’s edition of A compendious book of godly and spiritual songs (1897), published by the Scottish Text Society. As The Gude and Godlie Ballatis were brought back into circulation, Alasdair A. MacDonald explains, it became established as “both an important document in the religious and cultural history of early modern Scotland and as something of a classic of Older Scots literature” (p. 1.). MacDonald, who is an emeritus professor at the University of Groningen, has been working on this edition since his fellowship in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh (1979-80). His new edition replaces the earlier Scottish Text Society edition as being based on an earlier text (1565), and also includes material in verse that was added to later editions. The result of this work is an outstanding edition of a seminal source in the literary, historical and religious study of early modern Scotland.

[2] The Gude and Godlie Ballatis does not appear to have survived in manuscript form, though individual items within the collection are preserved in scribal volumes. MacDonald includes in his fine introduction a substantial discussion of the provenance of individual texts or text-portions: he documents the circulation of parts of the collection from the early 1540s (p. 8), and offers nuanced discussion of whether, as several scholars have claimed, John Knox cited text from what became The Gude and Godlie Ballatis in his history of the reformation in Scotland (this section of Knox’s text is thought to have been written in 1566). The collection, emerging in print, appears to have gathered together earlier texts, which “may have circulated independently in manuscript or as broadsides” (p. 13), and to have been printed for the first time after the beginnings of the Scottish reformation.

[3] The Gude and Godlie Ballatis therefore represents a key document in the early history of Scottish print. MacDonald includes in his introduction an impressive survey of Scottish print culture, arguing that the collection was the “first fruits” of the collaboration between Thomas Bassandyne and John Scot (p. 14), a publication that emerged only four years after Scot was penalized for “surreptitiously printing a book by the Catholic controversialist, Ninian Winzet” (p. 15) – which may be a signal of John Scot’s rapidly changing confessional identity as much as the financial necessities of the new technology of print within the limited Scottish market. There was certainly a readership for the kind of text included within The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. Scottish Calvinists, like their brethren elsewhere, identified the Psalms as being central to public and private worship, and the collection, while including material that ranged far beyond that suitable for individual devotion or congregational praise, certainly included this kind of material. In part, the anthology looked like a prayer book, beginning with texts of the ten commandments, the apostles creed, and the Lord’s prayer, and texts for hymns and prayers composed for such events as ordinary household meals or the celebration of the Lord’s supper. For the content of the collection is varied, including “psalm versifications, biblical paraphrases, prayers, hymns, devotional lyrics, articulations of doctrine, religious propaganda, and satires arising from the controversies of the time” (p. 36). These items represent compositions that appear to be new, as well as re-workings of older Catholic texts, material that was included in Coverdale’s Goostly psalmes and spirituall songs (c. 1535), and, in a small number of instances, material of continental origin, including several items by Martin Luther, all of which is rendered in Scots. The Lutheran influence is telling, especially in the earlier part of the collection, and The Gude and Godlie Ballatis thus becomes indicative of the movement from Lutheran to Calvinist influence within the Scottish reformation, and of the cultural reach of the Scottish diaspora, through which Scottish writing may have circulated in communities dotted around the North Sea and the Baltic (p. 38). The Gude and Godlie Ballatis therefore becomes an evidence of religious, textual and linguistic exchange, as protestants in Scotland and on the Continent developed a trade in theological ideas and texts that challenges the assumptions of many accounts of the sterility and isolation of Scottish cultural production within early modernity. Some of these texts appear to have circulated widely in post-reformation Scotland: the Inverness Kirk Session book, 1604-16, included several stanzas on a flyleaf (according to Laing – this text has since been lost), and Thomas White, a Catholic and then Reformed clergyman in Haddington, included several lines in his notebooks.

[4] MacDonald’s commentary The Gude and Godlie Ballatis is engaged and informed. In one instance, he notes the ambiguous reception of the terminology of “sacrament,” but perhaps underestimates the extent to which his subjects’ concern about a reference to the “sacrament of the altar” relates more to the reference to altar than to the reference to sacraments: as MacDonald notes, Calvinists were quite happy to use the latter term (p. 17). Overall, this is a very fine edition of a very important text. Scholars of the northern Renaissance will be grateful to MacDonald and the Scottish Text Society for their work in providing us with such an excellent resource.

Queen’s University Belfast, October 2016