Comic Medievalisms

‘simply to amuse the reader’: The Humor of Walter Scott’s Reformation — Andrew Lynch

Department of English and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia, Australia


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 Two linked medievalist novels by Scott, The Monastery and The Abbot (1820), approach the sacred subject of Scottish Reformation with a humor that challenges the standard popular treatment by John Knox. Reworking comic strategies of narrative framing, perspective and parallelism used earlier in Waverley (1814) and The Antiquary (1816), Scott ‘amuses’ (‘distracts/’diverts’) readers from the search for a single ‘truth voice’ in the history of the Reformation. Rather, he offers a comic perception of the self-interest, partiality and reductionism in both confessional and antiquarian responses, so making room for multiple and conflicted connections with the medieval Scottish past.


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Henry James wrote in 1864 that ‘Waverley was the first novel which was self-forgetful. It proposed simply to amuse the reader, as an old English ballad amused him’ (Hayden, 1970, 429). The mixture of affection and patronage in James’s ballad simile relates both to its antiquity and its naivety, as part of a suggestion that the amusement Walter Scott provided was already archaic, fitted to a less discriminating time. Yet recent critical assessments find quite the opposite in Scott as romancer and novelist of the past: a ‘sophisticated self-awareness . . . [that] licenses the apparent naivety’ (Lincoln, 2007, 36), and a self-reflexive awareness that ‘antiquarianism constructs its own cherished fictions even in the act of detecting fraud’ (Lee, 2004, 79). Nearly every reader has found ‘amusement’ in Scott’s creative relation to history, but ideas of its sources and nature, and of its humorous effects, seem to keep changing. The humor of Scott’s historicism, especially how humor operates when the ‘Author of Waverley’ engages with the medieval, is the subject of this study.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Earlier reactions to Scott’s novels treated them partly as comic works, in various ways: Maria Edgeworth and her family ‘laugh[ed] heartily’ (Hayden, 1970, 76-77) at Baron Bradwardine and Evan Dhu in Waverley; Hazlitt paid tribute to Scott’s ‘quaint humour’ and ‘comic spirit’ (Hayden, 1970, 286); Balzac considered that the ‘ingenious prefaces, without gall yet malicieux’ were ‘masterpieces to studious minds which have preserved the taste for atticism’ (Hayden, 1970, 375); James appreciated the ‘resounding merriment’ (Hayden, 1970, 431). Overall, a great deal of the pleasure taken in Scott by his vast reading public was attributed to ‘humor,’ especially when it was taken as part of a broader affective range. Edgeworth assured Scott she could ‘feel the humour, and was touched to the quick by the strokes of generosity, gentleness and pathos’ (Hayden, 1970, 76). A critic in 1878 who found the ‘elaborate jocular introductions’ ‘laborious’ admired Scott’s ‘dry humour, and . . . that higher humour which skillfully blends the ludicrous and the pathetic, so that it is hardly possible to separate between smiles and tears’ (Hayden, 1970, 497).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 The Victorian sympathies visible in that last remark may help to suggest why Scott stayed so popular for so long in his own century of production, and why he appealed less to the modernists. Yet the picture is complex, for the value of Scott’s power to ‘amuse,’ including his humor, was also a vexed question in critical assessments from early on. Scott himself had called Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto ‘the first modern attempt to found a tale of amusing fiction upon the basis of the ancient romances of chivalry’ (Williams, 1968, 61; Alexander, 2007, 42), and with the help of Shakespeare’s comedies, ‘themselves taken from old romances’ (Alexander, 2007, 30), had followed on. Carlyle seized on the same word to suggest an inferiority of spirit in Scott, a want of real ‘fire’: ‘he wrote many volumes, amusing many thousands of men. Shall we call this great?’ (Hayden, 1970, 347). Despite his respect for Scott’s amazing industry, Carlyle cannot help associating the amusement he provides with petty artistic idleness: ‘if Literature had no task but that of harmlessly amusing indolent languid men, here was the very perfection of Literature’ (Hayden, 1970, 364). Scott’s power to ‘amuse’ is treated as a sign of triviality, a lack of moral and artistic struggle, an art that works to no higher end than ‘that a considerable portion of mankind has hereby been sated with mere amusement’ (Hayden, 1970, 367).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Scott’s own use of ‘amuse’ and ‘amusement’ in their various forms also indicates the generally pejorative connotations of the word in his time. Waverley’s early reading, for example, undertaken ‘only for the gratification of amusement,’ is contrasted with what he should be learning: ‘habits of firm and incumbent application, of gaining the art of controuling [sic], directing, and concentrating the powers of his own mind for earnest investigation’ (Scott, 2007, 13). Yet the unknown author of Waverley, apparently quite concerned about his hero’s waver-ing tendencies, is also carrying on a joke with readers here about the point and value of novel-writing and reading. The ‘Chapter Introductory’ has set the joke going by concluding that ‘the moral lessons which I would willingly consider as the most important part of my plan . . . will fall [short] of their aim if I shall be found unable to mix them with amusement’ (Scott, 2007, 6). The implied reader’s state is incipiently resembled here to what we will soon learn of the flighty hero’s, and so open to serious questions of motivation and purpose. Beyond that, the deeper value of the novel writer’s project is questioned, along with the hoary commonplace that successful literary instruction works by mixing pleasure with utility. The ‘author,’ poker-faced, wonders instead whether ‘those who learn history by the cards, may not be led to prefer the means to the end’ (Scott, 2007, 14). Edward Waverley, with his undisciplined taste for old romances, is one guise for Scott himself, and the prototype of the ‘languid’ consumer of Scott, ‘sated with mere amusement,’ that Carlyle later thought he himself had invented: ‘the passion for reading, like other strong appetites, produced by indulgence a sort of satiety’ (Scott, 2007, 15). So Scott offers Edward to the reader as both a kindred spirit and an awful example. Politely bullied by the rapidly alternating and doubtfully compatible agendas of amusement and self-improvement, Scott’s putative readership is placed in a comically insecure position, but also one in which insecurity and uncertainty, the lack of a ‘firm and incumbent’ engagement, are given a value. At least, it becomes clear that to ‘get’ Waverley, to fall in with the ‘humor’ of the novel — both its comic elements and its temperamental constitution — requires considerable agility and a willingness to see one’s own position as reader placed in jeopardy.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 In the ‘humor’ of Scott’s narrative, much is not necessarily comic in itself ­– and what is offered as intrinsically comic may fail of its aim — but there is often a potential, rather uncertain, comedy in how events can be related and perceived, always with the chance that a perception of the ridiculous will retort on the observer. Narrative situations and character portraits in the novels frequently display these effects. Scott’s comic practice is not easy to demonstrate concisely; deeply imbedded in the cultural and psychological detail of the stories, the humor often emerges obliquely, as one element in longer developments. Maria Edgeworth’s family laughed at Tully-Veolan’s proud exercise of his hereditary right, which he dates from the time of Robert the Bruce, to draw on and off the King’s boots, but Fergus MacIvor, while laughing himself, points out that the Baron ‘might have taken a fancy to cut my throat’ had he tried to stop him. Waverley, thinking it ignoble to ‘take pleasure in making a man of his worth so ridiculous,’ is told ‘you are as ridiculous as he’ (Scott, 2007, 247). What is absurd and what is dead serious is a cultural matter, in this case one with medievalist connections. Fergus’s perception of both viewpoints, which helps him prepare the Chevalier for the boot ceremony, is informative for the reader, but also suggests the unstable compound of French court manners and Scots feudal tradition in the Pretender’s broader enterprise. A more complex situation occurs later when Evan Dhu’s request to ‘just let me gae down to Glennaquoich’ to find six men to die in the place of MacIvor, ‘to head or hang, and you may begin wi’ me the very first man,’ is found comic by the English courtroom, and his reply shames their laughter: ‘“they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman nor the honour of a gentleman.”’ Then, in a further twist, the English judge’s sympathy for Evan Dhu, ‘poor ignorant man … a striking example how the loyalty due to the king and state alone is, from your unhappy ideas of clanship, transferred to some ambitious individual,’ is comically rebuffed:

‘since you are to shed Vich Ian Vohr’s blood, the only favour I would accept from you is to bid them loose my hands and gie me my claymore, and bide you just a minute sitting where you are!’
‘Remove the prisoners,’ said the Judge; ‘his blood be upon his own head.’ (Scott, 2007, 342)

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The judge is not really wrong about Fergus, who is an ambitious and manipulative operator, though irrevocably dedicated to the Stuart cause. Scott probably agrees with the gist of his political analysis. Colonel Talbot has already remarked that MacIvor ‘had been the means of bringing many hundred men into the field, who, without him, would never have broken the peace of the country’ (Scott 2007, 340). But the judge still fails to grasp the absolute honor of Evan Dhu, and so becomes himself ridiculous. His sympathy, so quickly withdrawn, is predicated on possession of an untouchable institutional power (backed by the crown) which is fundamentally foreign to Evan’s person-to-person clan loyalties. The startling suggestion that his own person might be jeopardized, as a man desiring to ‘shed Vich Ian Vohr’s blood,’ reveals and changes everything.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Although Waverley is alternatively titled ‘T is Sixty Years Since, the subtle situatedness and indirection of its humor indicate a writer proceeding with considerable caution in his present day. Generally speaking, just as Scott made it hard to identify ‘the author of Waverley,’ a main effect of his habitual shadow play with minstrels, oral informants, manuscripts, editors and commentators is that it becomes harder to find a ‘truth-voice’ in his narration. The outcomes of his heteronymity and ventriloquism are multiple: Alexander suggests that the ‘comic hyperbole’ of The Lay of the Last Minstrel is ‘a protective self-burlesque which pre-empts . . . mockery’ (Alexander, 2007, 42); Andrew Lincoln’s view is that ‘[s]uch game-playing allowed conventional beliefs to be sustained at the price of popular acceptance, but at the same time reserved a space for the recognition of alternative, less comforting views’ (Lincoln, 2007, 117–18). Scott’s genial play with writerly guises has been called a ‘dense screen . . . as he moves into a subject “furiously alive in popular memory”‘ (Ferris, 1991, 166; Buchan, 1961, 160). Playfulness about religious history was problematical for a readership still much influenced by a man who wrote ‘In religioun thair is na middis: either it is the religioun of God . . . or els it is the religioun of the Divill’ (Knox 1846–64, 4.232). To ‘amuse’ in Scott’s period could still carry the sense of to ‘distract’ or ‘divert’ from more serious and necessary matters, even a sense of deliberate deception.[1] His attribution of historical knowledge to fallible individuals and partial documents rather than to revealed absolute truth might be read as a strategy of ‘amusement’ in his Scottish context, a form of distraction and diversion designed to forestall the intellectual and emotional closure of ‘firm and incumbent’ reader responses to religious history.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The sometimes uncongenial popular environment for Scott’s novels can be seen from an exchange in the year 1817, when, with help from his friend William Erskine, Scott provided an anonymous survey of his own (anonymous) work in the Quarterly Review. Scott’s comedy in Old Mortality (1816) at the expense of some Covenanters had been criticized by the Reverend Thomas McCrie as irreverent. In his response, Scott points out that local religious historiography, from John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland (1559–1566) to McCrie’s own recent best-seller The Life of John Knox (1812), had justified a bitter vein of humor.[2] Knox’s History had jested about the killing of Cardinal Beaton in 1546 by ‘godly’ James Melville and others (Knox, 1949, 77–78). Knox’s gripping account of the deed is in line with his general attempt to show, in the words of his modern editor, that ‘the Roman Church, degenerate and corrupt, was despised and contemned’ by the people (Knox, 1949, xv). After describing Beaton’s death, Knox writes:

because the weather was hot . . . and his funeral could not suddenly be prepared, it was thought best, to keep him from stinking, to give him great [coarse] salt enough, a cope of lead, and a nook in the bottom of the Sea-Tower (a place where many of God’s children had been imprisoned before) to await what exequies his brothers the Bishops would provide for him. (Knox, 1949, 78)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 David Hume had cited this passage in a critique of Knox’s ‘rage and bigotry’ (Hume, 1983, 4.41; Siebert, 1990, 81). McCrie’s defense of Knox’s harsh wit, in his Life, was made on the grounds of natural temperament: ‘it is to be imputed not to any pleasure which he took in describing a bloody scene, but to the strong propensity that he had to indulge his vein of humour’ (McCrie, 1818, 1, 373). It is an unconvincing argument, since Knox clearly takes pleasure in setting up and describing the scene. Scott, mocking McCrie as he has mocked the crazy Covenanter Habbakuk Mucklewrath, cheekily gives himself the same justification, ‘the uncontroulable disposition to indulge the peculiarity of his own vein of humour’ (Scott, 1970, 137). Even then, Scott’s self-exonerating comment that only the ‘fierce and unreasonable set of extra-presbyterians’ were his satirical target, not ‘the wise, sober, enlightened, and truly pious among the Presbyterians’ (Scott, 1970, 138) may well be hinting at smug self-satisfaction in anyone willing to identify with the latter description. It is hard to tell where the joking stops, or when the reader is out of danger.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 So, Scott implies, if the novelist’s ‘humor’ is liable to be suspected of indolence and irreverence, it is also a badge of his liberty and independence of conscience, something he has in common with Knox the iconoclast, but not always directed to the same providentialist view of human actions in history. Knox is a very lively narrator and master of invective, but his humor is relentlessly ‘on message’: ‘These things we write merrily. But we would that the Reader would observe God’s just judgements’ (Knox, 1949, 78). Scott, by contrast, points out that his method often leaves the reader wondering, ‘compelled to gather the meaning of the scene from what the dramatis personae say to each other,’ while the broader narrative, in its ‘flimsiness and incoherent texture,’ seems relatively undirective (Hayden, 1970, 114-15). Whether in finding humor, or in failing to see it, the reader, more than the shadowy writer, is held accountable.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Scott’s indirection can be seen as bold, as well as strategically self-protective. In his broader public environment, it was controversial to indulge the vein of historical humor as much as he saw fit, especially controversial to exercise humor and imagination on matters of religious history. For all the influence of the even-handed ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment (Brown, 1979, 199), the biggest issue in Scottish historiography from the Reformation to Scott’s own time was the overthrow and continued defeat of a medieval Catholicism widely seen as tyrannical, licentious, ignorant, and superstitious. The Enlightenment legacy on the matter was complex. Whilst Hume had been highly critical of Knox, his philosophical argument that monotheism could not long survive in the earlier stages of civilization effectively backed Protestant views by treating medieval Christian practice as a resurgence of pagan idolatry. Gibbon, citing Hume, wrote that ‘the MONARCHY of heaven was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology which tended to restore the reign of polytheism’ (Gibbon, 1840, 3.3.361 and n.85). Gibbon was in turn heavily influential on the very negative attitudes to monastic religion in Fosbrooke’s British Monachism, which became a source for Scott. On both religious and intellectual grounds, the major factor in the medievalism of Scott’s time was still its association with idolatrous ‘Romish’ religion. In what follows I consider how Scott indulges his ‘humor’ and deploys ‘amusement’ about the medieval in two Reformation novels of 1820, The Monastery and The Abbot.[3]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 II

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The Monastery’s main action is set in a brief lull before the end of the monastic system in Scotland, after ‘the peace of 1550’ (Scott, 2000a, 35). Another time cue is given, rather anachronistically, by the statement that the Sub-Prior Eustace has been strategically placed in the monastery by the ‘sharp-witted primate of St Andrews,’ meaning Cardinal Beaton, whose burning of heretics and ‘feud’ with Norman Leslie, to end in his death, are mentioned (Scott, 2000a, 88–89, 100, 326, 371).

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Opinions have differed about The Monastery and The Abbot as novels of religion. Michael Schiefelbein considers them ‘a paean to the Protestant cause,’ though one which reveals a secret fascination with Catholicism (Schiefelbein, 2001, 16, 54–55). Alexander writes that ‘the prejudices of … [Scott’s] place and time limited the historical sympathy he could extend to pre-Reformation Christianity’ (Alexander, 2007, 59). To George Marshall, Scott is ‘a dispassionate and thoughtful historian of religion, and his understanding of the Reformation, in particular, prefigures modern scholarly revisionism’ (Marshall 2012, 82). Scott advocates moderation, in contrast to the ‘linguistic excesses and excitements which mark religious experience’ in his characters (Robertson, 2012, 6, citing Marshall). Scott’s indulgence of common prejudices against monasticism is clear — there are lengthy ‘on message’ jokes about superstitious, lazy and food-obsessed monks — but nevertheless these do not dominate the narrative. Although (or perhaps because) he plainly appears as a Protestant writing to Protestants, the humor of the text ‘amuses’ the reader with crossed and counter sympathies, ironies, false notes of apparent support, and confrontations with absurd or unpleasant aspects of the good old cause.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 According to the mainstream historiography of Scott’s period, the two novels’ course should be one of progress from religious darkness to true light, and indeed a main narrative theme bears this out. The widow of Walter of Avenel is possessed of a ‘thick black volume with silver clasps’ (Scott, 2000a, 59), a forbidden early translation of scripture; its presence introduces a common anti-Catholic trope: fear of lay access to scripture, and to literacy itself, as a threat to clerical control and wealth. Accordingly, the abbey sacristan who confiscates the book is ignorant, lazy, venal, and licentious. The volume is recovered and restored to its home (where it will convert young Mary Avenel to the reformed faith) yet not by any obvious godly means. Instead, the sacristan is comically enticed, half-drowned, and robbed of the book by the hereditary guardian spirit of the Catholic Avenel family, the supernatural ‘White Lady’ — part tutelary saint, part mocking fairy — whose real presence in the story is never explained away, and whom contemporary critics considered ‘insufferable’ and ‘absurd almost to childishness’ (Walter Scott Digital Archive). She then saves the life of Eustace, the zealous Sub-Prior, later abbot of Kennaquhair, but takes back the book from him as well.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The White Lady’s practical role is superfluous; any of the plot contrivances involving her could easily have been resolved in other ways, but she draws attention to two elements of Catholic ‘superstition’ prominent in the text: belief in the intercession of saints and the continued existence of miracles. Her ontological status is obscure and symbolic:

That which is neither ill nor well.

That which belongs not to Heaven nor to hell,

A wreath of the mist, a bubble of the stream,

‘Twixt a waking thought and a sleeping dream. (Scott, 2000a, 93)

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 1 Eustace finds it strange that ‘a spirit should, on the one side, seek the advancement of heresy, and, on the other, seek to save the life of a zealous Catholic priest’ (Scott, 2000a, 10). As preserver of the scripture translation, the White Lady works against the Catholic interest, narrowly conceived, though not, of course, against Scott’s Protestant notion of the centrality of scripture for all seeking Christian salvation. In an elaborate scene reminiscent of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and which cites Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the Lady brings the rash young Hubert Glendinning to a magic crystal cave where he finds the holy book miraculously ‘unconsumed’ in ‘a brilliant flame that glowed on an altar of alabaster’ (Scott, 2000a, 116–17). Here Scott rivals Catholic rituals with an allegorical one of his own, a Gothic version of the Burning Bush of Exodus, symbol of the Church of Scotland with its motto Nec tamen consumebatur. The White Lady is a hybrid Catholic-Protestant figure of fancy, whose guardianship of the holy book ‘transform[s] . . . it into an object of idolatry’ (Schiefelbein, 2001, 30). Through her showing, Hubert Glendinning becomes all at once what Waverley perhaps never becomes, ‘an altered man,’ with ‘steadiness, promptitude and determination’ (Scott, 2000a, 138). Yet he does so by means of a vision whose Gothic and Romantic nature is straight out of Waverley’s (and Scott’s) wilder German reading.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1 There is a comic clash between style and substance in Scott’s method here, since he puts the master narrative of Scottish history, the change from superstitious Catholic ritual to rational Protestant scripturalism, into a miraculous and theatrical form that might have been deliberately designed to disturb the audience most amenable to his general doctrine, and in the tale’s own words to ‘gain . . . for him the credit of a liar beyond all rational credibility’ (Scott, 2000a, 182). Why did he do it? It is hinted that the White Lady, with her ‘cold, unnatural . . . laughter’ (Scott, 2000a, 192), represents an uncontrollable and ‘humourous’ authorial tendency, that is, one ‘full of whims’ (Scott, 2000a, 190). She comes ‘[u]nsued and unask’d’ to Halbert (Scott, 2000a, 192), to urge him to a duel with the Catholic Piercie Shafton that seems inevitably disastrous. Yet all will be for the best, since Shafton, through her miraculous intervention, will not die, though he has fallen with a mortal wound. Halbert’s flight from home will make him a pupil of the evangelist Henry Warden (a surrogate for John Knox himself), and, as squire of the Earl of Moray, a man of the future, no more an abbey vassal.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 1 So all falls into place, yet all is achieved with the maximum discomfort and anxiety to the participants, and by a superstitious medium uncongenial to the implied audience of enlightened Protestants. Scott seems to be writing the story of religious change so as to please and not to please, to show the desired end in process of achievement, but teasingly, to show it happening in a suspect way that diverts and distracts readers’ ability ‘to observe God’s just judgements,’ unless they are prepared to mix wild imagination with solid doctrine. The White Lady of Corri-nan-shian (‘The Hollow of the Fairies’) acknowledges God’s power, but is not really using it: she lives outside the Christian covenant. She can be read as a guise for Scott’s narrative humor, a playful, amoral force (‘neither ill nor well’), rather maliciously enjoying others’ discomfort, who at times respects a sense of inexorable destiny, but at others seems close to a delusion: her image sharpens or fades, and speaks, in accord with the viewer’s mental and emotional state, as if modelling the ‘flimsiness and incoherent texture’ of Scott’s narrative practice. She is an outlier amongst what Graham McMaster calls the ‘vigorous and quasi-independent life-forms’ in Scott’s novels, ‘quite independent of the overt historical backgrounds’ (McMaster, 1981, 4). History tells us where the story must be going, with an apparent assurance of basic rights and wrongs, but there is also a complex knot of personal rights and wrongs in the uncertain sequence of events — ‘this gear is all entangled’ (Scott, 2000a, 300) — whose denouement threatens the master narrative with irony, since all is set straight mainly through the interventions of this irrationally comedic ‘spirit.’

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Scott further confuses the sympathies of his readership by constantly giving the best analysis of what is happening in mid-sixteenth-century Scotland to Eustace, the ‘bigoted’ Catholic monk, not to Henry Warden, who is preoccupied only with spreading the Word. It is only Eustace who speaks for Scotland as a united and independent nation:

The men of Scotland were once Scotsmen. . . now they are — what shall I call them — the one part French, the other part English, considering their dear native country merely as a prize-fighting stage, upon which foreigners are welcome to decide their quarrels. (Scott, 2000a, 160)[4]

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Eustace tells Shafton, an agent of the English Catholic Piercies: ‘think better of us to suppose that you may spend Scottish blood and reckon for it as for wine spilt in a drunken revel’ (Scott, 2000a, 241); he tells the Protestant Earl of Moray, ‘In my younger days . . . the poorest Scottish peasant, would have been ashamed to have pleaded fear of the Queen of England, as the reason for shutting his door against a persecuted exile’ (Scott, 2000a, 348). Eustace is also a good local ‘laird,’ caring for the rights of poor tenants caught up in the forced re-distribution of abbey lands (Scott, 2000a, 307). ‘On message’ about Catholicism per se, Scott describes him as ‘politic, cautious and artful,’ with ‘more of the head than of the heart’ (Scott, 2000a, 307), yet repeatedly contradicts that analysis in practice, an instance of his creating ‘a change of feeling about the character to substitute for authorial commentary’ (McMaster, 1981, 14). Eustace has love of Scotland deep in his heart — the heart that has been exchanged for the story in the frame narrative (Scott, 2000a, 16–22) — and that has a ‘symbolic force’ which suggests another way to read it (Robertson, 1994, 133).

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 1 As we keep learning more of Eustace’s heart, it slowly becomes evident that it is the humor of the novel, consciously against the evidence of history and the rhetoric of historians, to let this tale of Scottish Reformation occur without a persecutor or martyr on either side. Eustace, though he has been placed in the abbey by Cardinal Beaton, convinces himself on shaky grounds not to give up his old friend Henry Warden to be burned for heresy as the historical Beaton burned the evangelist George Wishart (Dawson, 2004)istory). Scott also indicates that Cardinal Beaton’s murder will arise from his ‘feud’ with the Fife baron Norman Leslie (Scott, 2000a, 88–89, 100, 326, 371); he does not claim it as the ‘godly’ work of the Protestant hero Andrew Melville avenging Wishart, as Knox had done (Knox, 1949, 77–8). Warden (the alternate Knox) later finds a specious argument to protect Eustace and the abbey from the Protestant lords. Scott’s humor, mediated partly through the whimsical White Lady’s miracles, and partly through the human decency of his characters, is to save everyone he can from the worst effects of religious controversy.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 1 Within this carefully disarmed context, Scott can invite readers to laugh at the double-act of Henry Warden and Eustace as they argue in form about the efficacy of saintly intercession, miracles and the sign of the cross, while Elspeth Glendinning still does not know that her son Halbert lives, and Edward is bursting to confess his mixed emotions. The zeal of religious controversy begins (guardedly) to resemble Tully-Veolan’s obsession with the royal boots in Waverley, or Oldbuck’s and Wardour’s endless arguments about Picts and Romans in The Antiquary. Earlier in The Monastery, Alice of Avenel has died while Eustace was mentally rehearsing ‘polemics’ on her suspected heresy. One is reminded of Oldbuck’s attitude in The Antiquary when old Elspeth dies with the crucial plot secret still unrevealed: ‘I wish she could have been brought to a confession. And, though of far less consequence, I could have wished to transcribe that metrical fragment. But Heaven’s will must be done!’ (Scott, 1995, 316). Although, in the abstract, religious reformation is treated as a sacred subject by Scott, he shows that human ideas of ‘Heaven’s will’ may be as absurd as any antiquarian crotchet when they neglect the needs of the living (Brown, 1979, 54). Like almost everything else in the book, the situation is comically doubled when Morton and Moray dispute with absurd gravity about the antiquity of their lineage, and have to be put back on course by Warden (Scott, 2000a, 345–47). The comedy here is related to recognition that major historical change, as retrospectively understood, happened in its own time while people were often thinking about something else. Antiquarianism is absurd when it seeks center-stage in the narrative present, but we are also aware that Scott is deploying antiquarian knowledge here to show some divided and selfish interests amongst the reformers, and so to disturb a ‘conservative sense of national-historical time as continuity and inheritance’ (Ferris, 2012, 14).

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 In The Monastery, Scott’s sardonic view of reformation by ‘godly’ violence is best seen in the pedlar’s description of Moray’s army:

You will hear the advanced enfans perdus . . . singing unclean and fulsome ballads of sin and harlotrie — and then will come on the middle-ward, when you will hear canticles and psalms sung by the reforming nobles, and the gentry, and honest and pious clergy, by whom they are accompanied — and last of all, you will find in the rear a legend of godless lacqueys and palfreniers, and horse-boys, talking of nothing but dicing, drinking, and drabbing. (Scott, 2000a, 320)

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 The comic effect of this account lies primarily in its strict but ineffective spatial and vocal distinction of a pious ‘cause’ from its unregulated human agency, and from the actual nature of armed warfare. There is a refusal to romanticize and allegorize the historical conflict around Reformation, in striking contrast to the sublime, atemporal religious tableau Halbert has seen in the crystal cave, which is properly to be read as a tribute to faith, not to historical evidence — Halbert is illiterate. Reform looks compromised in Moray’s company — ‘principle was so often sacrificed to policy’ (Scott, 2000a, 322) — and seems more so the closer the fictional Halbert gets to actual battle and association with the ‘historical’ characters. In his (and the reader’s) education, the pedlar’s version of the practice of implementing Reformation is a vital complement to the White Lady’s showing of the book and Henry Warden’s zeal.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 The Abbot, placed further on in the absolute decline of Scottish monasticism, sets important action in ruinous monastic buildings, with a central theme of the veneration and destruction of Catholic images. As in The Monastery, Scott’s religious preferences are clear, but his understanding of the circumstances surrounding Reformation is complicated, since its price is civil war and greater control by England, and also the ‘wanton devastation’ of the reformers (Scott, 2000a, 339), which divides the medievalist antiquarian in him from the Protestant critic of monasticism. Even then, that binary division can never be neat, since antiquarianism itself is highly subjective and selective. The situation has been previewed in The Antiquary when Oldbuck laments the destruction of ‘the conventual libraries,’ but on a very partial basis, happy to lose ‘Aristotle’s logic . . . with such other lousy legerdemains’ but regretting the loss of ‘our learned commentaries, and national muniments. . . . O negligence, most unfriendly to our land!’ He is then left ‘somewhat in the situation of a woodcock caught in his own springe’ when the Tory Sir Arthur Wardour interjects: ‘And O John Knox, . . . through whose influence, and under whose auspices, the patriotic task was accomplished!’ Oldbuck is still gathering his wits for a reply about ‘the apostle of Scottish Reformation’ when Miss Wardour breaks in ‘to interrupt a conversation so dangerous’ (Scott,1995, 131–32). The comedy here seems to rest on the perception that there can be no reconciliation of the conflicting interests and impulses at work in review of the Reformation, whether amongst separate parties or within individuals, so that conventional forms of controversy and for/against debate can only diminish and distort not only what happened but what people actually feel about it. Some other modus tractandi has to be found.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 1 Just where the dividing line between antiquarian sympathy and praise for Reformation lies in The Abbot’s narrative practice is uncertain, a canny test of readerly stance. How highly do you rate ‘the preservation of these monuments of antiquity as an object to be put in the balance with the introduction of the reformed worship’? Although the images have ‘all fallen under the charge of idolatry, to which the superstitious devotion of the Papists had justly exposed them,’ was it quite right to break as well ‘the rich and airy canopies and pedestals on which they were placed’ (Scott, 2000b, 97)? At a saint’s shrine and holy well, the useful and benign fabric has been destroyed along with the superstitions:

The sainted spring had not escaped. It was wont to rise beneath a canopy of ribbed arches, with which the devotion of elder times had secured and protected its healing waters. These arches were now almost entirely demolished, and the stones of which they were built were tumbled into the well, as if for the purpose of choking up and destroying the fountain, which, as it had shared in other days the honour of the saint, was, in the present, doomed to partake his unpopularity. (Scott, 2000b, 61)

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Here the perspective is immediate and situated: any long-term benefits of religious change are invisible in this evocation of the scene as viewed by a young Catholic in the mid-sixteenth century. Terms like ‘devotion,’ ‘sainted’ and ‘healing’ recover value; reform means ‘choking up and destroying’; popular favor, not religious progress, has been at work. But when the young man’s object in view is more ‘dim’ and ‘distan[t],’ a deadpan description admits uncertainty, and with it, more comic possibilities:

In the distance was still seen the dim outline of the island of Saint Serf, once visited by many a sandalled pilgrim, as the blessed spot trodden by a man of God — now neglected or violated, as the refuge of lazy priests, who had with justice been compelled to give place to the sheep and the heifers of a Protestant baron. (Scott, 2000b, 276–77).

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 1 Here the tone is low-key yet tacitly provocative. Was the spot truly ‘blessed’? Which alternative is to be preferred in ‘neglected or violated’? Were industrious Protestant cattle really given fair title by the laziness of Catholic priests? In the form it assumes, does that statement invite or ridicule a reader’s agreement? Nothing is made emotively present to the imagination, but the comic consciousness is there that any word in this context might send off a reader so inclined into an habitual rehearsal of rights and wrongs in ‘the mazes of polemical discussion’ (Scott, 2000b, 277). Scott respects the historical passions and doubts of those living through Reformation, but seems also to be teasing his modern audience with the potential energy of its historical reception.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 1 This is not quite a comedy of ambivalence, since for all his play with personae, there are many occasions when Scott conscientiously declares his hand as a Protestant and endorses received opinion about Catholic error and degeneracy. In that respect, he was not content to leave the reader lost in a post-modern ‘house of fictions’ (McGann, 2004, 117), and was also true to his humor, which denies the possibility of obtaining purely disinterested narrative from any human source, including himself. Who could be the judge? Scott has made us aware that the imaginary Benedictine of the frame-narrative, who somehow has a superlative fund of historical information about the fictional monastery of Kennaquhair (‘Don’t-know-where’ / ‘Know [to be] nowhere’), would consider his views on monks as ‘severe and cruel misconstructions’ (Scott, 2000a, 12). In this situation, comedy does not arise from perceiving the gap between biased fictions and historical truth, as if historical truth could be simply accessed and agreed on, but from the enjoyment of perceiving the lively personal and party interests involved in the story-making business, whether directly in the ‘historical’ characters, or in ‘history . . . at a second remove, the characters’ own obsession with history as a subject’ (Duncan, 1992, 63), in memorial and historiographical tradition, in Scott’s own multiple and conflicted associations with the past, or in the anticipated presuppositions of his readers. The recognition that the zealously opposed readers of the Reformation are all interested parties is also a comic recognition of their likeness, and so, paradoxically, provides some respite, a common ground. Scott does not suggest that past religious violence can be redeemed by calling it either violation or Reformation, and the ‘healing’ conversions and inter-faith marriages of his happy endings change nothing in that respect. But his practice as a novelist of the Reformation allows conditions to be imagined in which the legacy of religious conflict can be sometimes ‘amused’ — deceived, distracted, diverted — and hence made ‘amusing,’ a source of comic pleasure.

About the Author

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Andrew Lynch is a Professor in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia, and Director of the UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. He writes mainly on medieval literature and its modern afterlives in Britain, the USA and Australia. He co-edited postmedieval 20.2 (2011), ‘The Medievalism of Nostalgia,’ with Helen Dell and Louise D’Arcens. International Medievalism and Popular Culture, co-edited with Louise D’Arcens, is forthcoming from Cambria Press (E-mail:  andrew.lynch@uwa.edu.au).


43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 1. Oxford Engish Dictionary, ‘amuse, v: 4. To divert the attention of any one from the facts at issue; to beguile, delude, cheat, deceive. (The usual sense in 17–18th c.) arch. 7. a. To divert the attention of (one) from serious business by anything trifling, ludicrous, or entertaining; passing into b. To divert, please with anything light or cheerful. c. esp. (in mod. sense) To excite the risible faculty or tickle the fancy of.’

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 2. See Dawson (2004): ‘[McCrie’s] book became an immediate best-seller, provoking an upsurge of interest in Knox to complement the massive enthusiasm for Scotland’s past generated by Sir Walter Scott.’

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 3. The Abbot was effectively ‘not . . . a separate novel, but part of the same work’. See Scott (2000b, 384–85).

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 4. Eustace’s complaint of French influence shows him not to approve of Beaton’s foreign policy. See Dawson (2004).

  • 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0
  • [1] Oxford Engish Dictionary, ‘amuse, v: 4. To divert the attention of any one from the facts at issue; to beguile, delude, cheat, deceive. (The usual sense in 17–18th c.) arch. 7. a. To divert the attention of (one) from serious business by anything trifling, ludicrous, or entertaining; passing into b. To divert, please with anything light or cheerful. c. esp. (in mod. sense) To excite the risible faculty or tickle the fancy of.’
  • [2] See Dawson (2004): ‘[McCrie’s] book became an immediate best-seller, provoking an upsurge of interest in Knox to complement the massive enthusiasm for Scotland’s past generated by Sir Walter Scott.’
  • [3] The Abbot was effectively ‘not . . . a separate novel, but part of the same work’. See Scott (2000b, 384–85).
  • [4] Eustace’s complaint of French influence shows him not to approve of Beaton’s foreign policy. See Dawson (2004).


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75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 Walter Scott Digital Archive. National Library of Scotland. ‘The Monastery’. http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/novels/monastery.html.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 Williams, I., ed. 1968. Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction. London: Routledge.

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