Linking the traditional cataloguing of texts to reconstructions of the local cultures which shaped them, Rhiannon Purdie’s project will produce the first full-length, single-authored history of medieval Scots literature
When I first started to expand my research and teaching on Old and Middle English literature to include Older Scots, I naturally looked for some sort of one-stop overview to help me to contextualise the medieval Scottish works I was reading. But no such book exists. Its narrative is either quietly folded into histories of Middle English literature, or offered as an unconvincing preface to the great flowering of Scottish literature with Burns and Scott. There are excellent collections of essays and studies of individual writers or issues, but a fundamental map of the whole territory has yet to be drawn. Or as R. J. Lyall put it, ‘corners of the site have been studied exhaustively; the relation of these parts to the whole hillside remains in many respects obscure’. Outwith academic circles, the very existence of a literature in Older Scots (i.e. the local descendant of Northern Old English) has been largely forgotten and this is partly for lack of an accessible coherent history. Most modern Scots recognise the name of Chaucer, but those who could name a medieval Scottish poet – Henryson? Dunbar? Douglas? – are vanishingly few. Back in the late fifteenth century, however, writers in what was then the independent kingdom of Scotland had developed a surprisingly clear sense of a distinct national literary culture, complete with a growing canon of authors who could be reeled off by ambitious new writers hoping to add themselves to it.
I aim to map medieval Scots literature not by chapters on authors or genres, but via a series of synchronous snapshots of Scots literate culture through the decades and across the regions. To borrow Lyall’s archaeological ‘hillside’ metaphor, it is not enough to uncover structures and objects: one must also establish how they relate to each other across time and space. This history will thus not just catalogue every known work in Older Scots before 1513, but also contextualise them as minutely as possible via recent decades’ worth of research on manuscripts, patrons, scribal networks, non-literary writings and dialectal and social developments. An important offshoot is my collaboration with the Scottish Qualifications Authority in reviving Older Scots literature on the Scottish secondary schools curriculum – a project informally dubbed ‘Older Scots for Modern Scots’. ‘Mapping Medieval Scots Literature’ is thus a project of cultural recovery on many levels.