Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
James Melville (15561614)
[The Autobiography of James Melville (born 1556, died 1614), minister of Kilrenny in Fife, contains a great deal of the history of Scotland and the Scottish Church, told with great liveliness, many illustrations of the progress of learning in the time of the religious revolution, and a singularly interesting record of the authors life and character. James Melville was the nephew of Andrew Melville the scholar, and his fortunes were closely involved throughout with those of his uncle. He was educated at St. Leonards College in the University of St. Andrews: in 1574 he went with his uncle to Glasgow, and lectured in Greek, Latin, Logic, Rhetoric, Mathematics, and Moral Philosophy as Regent there: in 1580, when Andrew Melville became Principal of St. Andrews University, James Melville returned also, and professed Hebrew and Oriental languages. In 1586 he was made minister of Anstruther-Wester and three neighbouring parishes, Pittenweem, Abercrombie, and Kilrenny; he exerted himself to be relieved of his pluralities, and in the end retained the charge of the parish of Kilrenny alone. He took considerable part in the debate concerning Church government which made up the sum of Scottish politics at that time, speaking no less boldly than Andrew Melville, but with a gentler manner. In 1606 he was, along with his uncle, one of the eight ministers summoned to a Conference with the King at Hampton Court, in respect of the crisis brought about by the trial for high treason of the six ministers who had denied the authority of the Council to interfere with the General Assembly. The Melvilles and their companions were detained in England; James Melville was sent first to Newcastle, then to Berwick-on-Tweed, where he died on the 19th of January 1614. The history of his life comes down to the year 1601; it is supplemented by his True Narration of the Declining Age of the Kirk of Scotland from MDXCVI. to MDCX.]
JAMES MELVILLES character, ingenuous and absolutely free from anything morose, gives at first a misleading impression to the reader, as apparently it sometimes did to his contemporaries, who mistook his quietness for softness, and undervalued his fortitude. He has the simplicity and the appreciation of small things which are among the qualifications of a writer of memoirs; his nature was not inclined to despise or renounce the lively and pleasant world; his education gave him an entrance to the humanities, and included along with them a variety of pastimes, the bow for archerie, the glub for goff, the batons for fencing, also to rin, to loope, to swoom, to warsell; it was made easy for him to be an accomplished gentleman. That he was something more than a student, or a collector of reminiscences; that his life was more serious than that of the humorous commentator on the passing hour, is what one is compelled to recognise in reading his diary; and this brings with it an estimate of him which gives him a memorable place among the personages of that time. He was not a great writer, nor a great scholar, nor a statesman; but he is representative of the highest ideals of the time, the energy in learning and teaching, the devotion to high aims, the interest in all things human, the self-respect and self-sacrifice: the greater men of that age are in many ways less representative.
James Melville was tested on one occasionin the encounter with Juan de Medina and the Spanish captains at Anstruther in 1588when any weakness in his temper or breeding would have been brought out at once by contact with the Spanish dignity. This meeting shows the Scottish minister hardly surpassed in grace of bearing by the Spanish general: the record of it in a few pages contains what is missed in the other contemporary documents about the Armada, perfect justice to both sides, and what is rare in any contemporary history, an adequate rendering of the best qualities of both sides. It is a passage that may be dwelt on; it clears away the turbulent accidents of history, and leaves the characters by themselves, understanding one another as honourable men, in spite even of their religions, and with no unworthy condescension on either side.
There is a great deal of adventure in the history of James Melvilles life, and the reader is carried into a number of exciting and interesting scenes, some of them tragiclike that in which the prophecy of John Knox is fulfilled, of the taking of Edinburgh Castlesome of them enlivened with comic humours. Andrew Melville is one of the most interesting personages in the memoirs from his early days as a wandering Master of Arts in France, to his later irreverent resistance of the King and the Scottish and English Bishops. James Melvilles own life, though less varied than his uncles, had many trials in it, with which he dealt stoutly enough, for all the gentleness and quietness of his manner.
His style has many excellences. In narrative, as is shown in the year 1588, he is admirably clear and strong, and his vocabulary is unfailing. Scottish literature had always been rich in words, and peculiarly attracted by the pleasure of using them; adding the aureate terms, derived from the learned languages, to its large vernacular stores. James Melville has no dislike to rhetorical figures, but the best part of his rhetoric is the liberality and eloquence of his phrasing. He describes the trail of a meteor, for instance; most lyk ane serpent in mony faulds and linkit wimples. His descriptive style is different from that used in his controversial papers and sermons. In these he uses all the licenses of florid rhetoric, and squanders his classical illustrations with great power of invective. In the sermon preached by him before the Assembly of 1590 he introduces a poisonable and vennemus Psyllus, a warlow, I warrand yow, sa empoisoned be the vennome of that auld serpent, and sa altered in his substance and naturall, that the deadlie poisone of the vipere is his familiar fuid and nuriture, to wit, his falshode, malice, and knaverie, wha hes bein lurking a lang time hatching a cocatrice eagg, and sa fynlie instructed to handle the whissall of that auld inchantar, that na Psyllus, Circe, Medea, or Pharmaceutrie, could ever haiff done betere. This is Patrick Adamsone, fals Bishope of St. Androis, etc. Melvilles official and controversial style has its points of analogy with the style of his ordinary narrative, and at any rate it is not tame; but the narrative is better.