John Richie Schultz (essay date July 1919)
SOURCE: Schultz, John Richie. “The Life of Alexander Barclay.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 18, no. 3 (July 1919): 360-68.
[In the essay below, Schultz suggests that too many critics have focused on Ship of Fools in order to define Barclay's impact on English literature and proposes that literary critics examine the bulk of Barclay's writing as well as his biographical information in order to study his importance in literary history.]
To students of literature the name of Alexander Barclay is linked with his Ship of Fools—a translation, or rather a derivation, from the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant. Brant's poem had such universal appeal that it was translated into several languages, and was popular throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. Barclay was fortunate in his original, and his rendition came at an opportune time. But the reputation of Barclay does not rest upon the Ship of Fools alone. He was industrious in literary work and the list of his writings includes many books. Among them are the Introductory to Write and Pronounce Frenche, a translation of Sallust, the Myrrour of Good Manners, and the five Eclogues. Besides the foregoing, he is the author of many works that have not survived. Such a writer must have had considerable fame in his own day. That he was known at court is shown by the fact that he was considered a suitable poet to devise “Histoires and Convenient Raisons” for the Field of the Cloth of Gold. John Bale, a contemporary, in spite of a bitter personal prejudice, speaks of him as “poeta ac rhetor insignis.” If he were so well known as all this would imply, it seems curious that the facts of his life should be so uncertain. The date and place of his birth are unknown, his nationality is a matter of dispute, and the surviving details of his career are few. His biographers have collected the scattered facts of his life, drawn conclusions from them, and deduced others on the theory that in his works Barclay reproduces his own experience. Such to a certain extent, is the character of the most elaborate discussion that has yet appeared—the sketch prefixed by Jamieson to his edition of the Ship of Fools.1 Koelbing in the latest criticism of Barclay, the section devoted to him in the Cambridge History of English Literature,2 follows rather closely the work of his predecessor. But further light is thrown upon Barclay's career by the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII3 which was published subsequent to Jamieson's work, and was apparently unknown to Koelbing. It is barely mentioned by Jusserand4 in his history of English Literature. Gardiner, in his introduction to the Letters and Papers, calls attention to the letters concerning Barclay as a source of biographical material, but apparently no attempt has been made to reconstruct the details of Barclay's life in the light of this new information.
An examination of the majority of the accounts of Barclay's life discloses the fact that stripped of all speculation and doubtful statements they draw their information very largely from John Bale's short sketch printed in his Scriptorum Illustrium Maioris Brytannie,5 published seven years after Barclay's death. When this account is carefully analysed at least one point that has puzzled Barclay's biographers, the question of whether he was a Franciscan or a Benedictine, can be cleared up; and by the aid of the Letters and Papers Barclay's later career may be traced.
The following is Bale's account of Barclay in full:
“Alexander Barkeley, quem alii Scotum, alii Anglum fuisse contendunt, poeta ac rhetor insignis, ab eruditis artibus magnam sibi, dum viveret, existimationem peperit. Plures sectas ille probavit, quandoque sacrificulum, quandoque Benedictum aut Franciscanum indunes, nulli certus; sed in illis omnibus veritatis osor, & sub coelibatus fuco foedus adulter perpetue mansit. Multa tamen in Anglicum sermonem eleganter ille transtulit ac scripsit, praesertim
|De miseriis aulicorum,||Illustres poetae novem Musis.|
|Vitam Georgii, ex Mantuano,|
|Quinque Eglogas eiusdem,|
|Vitam D. Catharinae,|
|Vitam D. Margaretae,|
|De pronounciatione Gallica,||Multii ac varii homines literati.|
|Salustium de Bello Iurguthino,||Memini me superioribus annis|
|Vitam D. Etheldredae,|
|Mancinum de virtutibus,|
|Aliique plura fecit. Obiit anno Domini 1552, in mense Iunio, Croydone prope|
The work quoted above is a valuable and interesting source of information. In recent years Bale's veracity has been questioned, but through the publication of his autograph notebook in 19026 we are able to see his modus operandi.7 What Bale did was to gather information from various sources and combine this material into one publication. In his lists of books he distinguishes those he had seen by reproducing the first line of each, as shown by the list presented, and in the case of works so noted there is no duplication. This is not true of the notebook, however, where there is repetition both in title and first line. In other words, he makes corrections by striking out the duplicates; otherwise they remain, as a reference to the lists will show.
From the notebook we learn that there are four sources for his account of Barclay. These are the lists received from “Nicolaus Brigan et alii,” “ex officina Roberti Toye,”8 “ex museo Joannis Alen,” and “ex hospitis domo Dubline.” In the first of these we have this statement prefixed to the list: “Alexander Barkeley, Scotus, Benedicti Monachus in Anglia primum, postea Franciscanus, scripsit,” etc. Heading another list is, “Alexander Barclay, Anglus, doctor et poeta, scripsit,” etc. Since these statements are given on the authority of different sources it is easy to see how contradictions may appear. Thus in the lists cited he is claimed by one to be a Scot and by another an Englishman. It is evident, then, that any inference drawn from one source in the notebook may be incorrect; and that Bale's final summary itself may not be entirely reliable.9
With these facts in mind, Bale's account...
(The entire section is 3138 words.)