Kylie Murray on ‘Boethius in Early-modern Scotland: from script to print and back again’

Kylie Murray, Junior Research Fellow and Tutor at Balliol College, Oxford travelled to Edinburgh for our first Centre for Book History luncheon seminar to give a lecture on Friday, October 2nd. Her enthusiasm for her subject was unmatched. Her lecture was nothing short of epic. It was, to draw on her title, a Hobbit-like adventure in the making.

Her lecture on Boethius in early modern Scotland: from script to print and back again advances the argument that Boethius texts were circulating in Scotland. Murray believes transcriptions of Boethius’ texts were copied by Scottish readers. She further believes these texts circulated by means of handing down the text from companion to companion in Scotland. One possibility she surmises is that the entrustment of the texts from generation to generation was part of a larger pedagogical movement. Evidence for this supposition is in the marginalia. Signatures and annotations by well-known Scottish residents are present in these margins. One commonality that links these owners of Boethius texts like John Vaus (1484-1539), David Black (c.1546-1603), James Stewart (1500-1544/5), David Rait (1592-1638) George Buchanan (1506-82), Peter Young (1544-1628), and Alexander Yule (c.1578-1612)—just to name a few Murray touches on in her lecture—is that they were all in the pedagogical world of early modern Scotland. The link between ownership and pedagogical use is a claim, Murray makes, because the tradition of Boethius in Scotland is not a common one.

The coincidence of a large number of teachers, tutors, and masters in the list above that owned a Boethius text raises an important question of how readers in the early modern time understood texts. Annotations, Murray concedes, can reveal to the twenty-first researcher only so much information. For that, we must turn to the relationships these owners had between each other. Murray points out that many of the owners knew or were associated within the same community of scholars. For example, some owners attended the same academic institution like the University of Aberdeen, St. Andrew’s or were part of the royal court circle. This community impacted how the book was used and received.

The key takeaway from this lecture is that early modern Scotland, in Murray’s words, has been “overlooked” for too long. Now is the ripe time to revisit such subjects so marginalized in the past. Why such emphasis on special collection material, you say? The texts are locked in special collection facilities like the Centre for Research Collections and the National Library of Scotland, right? This is where Murray’s lecture fits into the wider conversation of the Centre for Book History seminars. On that Thursday evening, one day prior to Murray’s lecture, the Centre for Book History welcomed their annual public lecture, Everything is changing, but nothing is new: some current challenges facing libraries and books, presented by John Scally, Director of the National Library of Scotland. In his lecture, Scally outlined the National Library of Scotland’s five-year plan to, in his words, “turn the library inside-out.” What he means by this metaphor is the need for libraries to utilize digitization practices in order to bring the public closer to their own national treasures. Transcriptions of Boethius’ texts are no exception. Through digital means the NLS aims to bring the special collections into the homes of the general public in an effort to connect the book with the reader on the computer. This drive, I would argue, is what is behind the enthusiasm in studying early modern texts. It is the employment of new technology today that is allowing such research in early modern Scotland to continue. It is technology that allows Murray to carry her findings from Oxford to Edinburgh. It is technology that brings us energy to take the journey from script to print (and back again)—from early modern to present day Scotland.


Report by Colin Smith, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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