“Secreitis that I did not knaw”: Reflections on editing Sir David Lyndsay’s Historie and Testament of Squyer Meldrum
It has been a real pleasure to edit the rollicking Historie of Squyer Meldrum for the forthcoming METS volume Six Scottish Pieces: Courtly and Chivalric Poems, Including Lyndsay’s ‘Squyer Meldrum,’ co-edited with Dr. Emily Wingfield of the University of Birmingham: see her blog Part 1 and Part 2.
The Historie and The Testament of Squyer Meldrum are a pair of poems by the early modern Scottish writer Sir David Lyndsay, now best known (if he is known at all) as the author of a vast satirical state-of-the-nation play called Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis. In the Historie of Squyer Meldrum, Lyndsay narrates the life of an early sixteenth-century laird from Fife, William Meldrum, in the manner of a medieval romance or chivalric biography. He assures his audience that Meldrum is someone “Quhais douchtines during his lyfe / I knaw my self” (“Whose valor during his life I know myself,” lines 30-31), and that “secreitis that I did not knaw, / That nobill squyer did me schaw” (lines 33-34).
Meldrum was indeed a real person, and the Historie deals largely with historical people, places, and events. The problem for its modern readers, and above all its editor, is that the events it narrates have been partially — and mischievously — fictionalised to a degree that is often impossible to measure at this distance in time. The section of my Introduction entitled “The Historie and History” has expanded and contracted like a drunk musician’s accordion as lines of enquiry have opened and fizzled out, and details which I had imagined to be uncontroversial swelled to monstrous size.
The Historie mostly recounts heroic adventures from a brief period of the squire’s youth: single-hand combat in Ireland and France; the daring capture of an enemy ship, and finally, his great love-affair with a woman about whom we are told nothing more than that she lives in a castle in Strathearn, a long valley on the northwestern edge of Fife (lines 856, 864), and that her husband “was deid schort tyme befoir” (line 865) The love-affair is cut tragically short by an ambush staged by a nameless “cruell knicht” (line 1191) who is determined to separate the lovers. Meldrum fights valiantly, as outnumbered as any hero of romance, but is eventually left for dead, his hamstrings gruesomely sliced through. After a slow and painful recovery, he finds employment with the kindly Lord Lyndsay of the Byres, at his seat at Struthers Castle in Fife. In a hurried conclusion, Lyndsay tells us that he worked for the Lords Lyndsay for the rest of his life, never marrying and remaining faithful to his darling “Sterne of Stratherne” (“star of Strathearn”, Testament line 230) who, however, drops abruptly out of the narrative after the ambush.
Lyndsay wrote the Meldrum-poems while in semi-retirement at his own Fife estate of the Mount near Cupar, but for most of his career Lyndsay was a man at the heart of the Scottish royal court, a personal companion of James V (r. 1513-42) right from the latter’s birth. As the king matured, Lyndsay became a herald and eventually Lyon King of Arms, managing court pageantry at the highest level and engaging in multiple diplomatic missions on the king’s or court’s behalf (Lyndsay outlived his king, dying in 1555 during the minority of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots). Many of his poems were addressed directly to King James, but they were also written with a wider audience in mind: his poems were often printed almost immediately after composition and they continued to be reprinted long after his death.
The Historie and Testament are a bit of an exception, however: there are no extant witnesses to these texts until the 1594 print on which the new METS edition is based. Although the Meldrum-poems were listed in the table of contents for the 1582 collected Warkis, they were not actually included in them, and they formed no part of the partial collections of his works printed in the 1550s or the expanded collection of Warkis that first appeared in 1568. This suggests that the Meldrum-poems survived in private hands, to be published only long after all the historical people mentioned in them had died. This impression of having been written for a private audience — probably the social circle associated with the Lords Lindsay at Struthers Castle — is supported by the poems themselves. In the Testament, which Lyndsay constructs as a dramatic monologue in the squire’s own voice, the fictionalised Meldrum addresses not only “My Lord Lindesay” and his lady (line 205), but the younger generation of Lyndsays: “Maister Patrik with young Normand, your brother; / With my ladies, your sisteris al” (lines 208-09). The Lords Lyndsay of the Byres were distant kinsmen of the poet, and Struthers Castle is within a few miles of the poet’s own seat at the Mount, near Cupar: this is a social circle that included the poet. Additionally, there are surviving legal documents relating to David Lyndsay’s affairs which were witnessed by Meldrum, proving that poet and subject were personally acquainted.
The apparent exclusiveness of the original audience for these poems, all acquainted with both Lyndsay and Meldrum, is one of the things that makes the tone of the Historie — and the accuracy of the biography it narrates — so difficult to gauge. A modern editor needs to trawl through the very incomplete historical record to learn that the squire’s unnamed “ladie” was one Marjorie Lawson, widow of Sir John Haldane of Gleneagles (in early modern Scotland women kept their maiden name in legal documents, making them mercifully easier to trace through multiple marriages). The original audience already knew who this figure was, along with the identity of the “cruell knicht” who arranged to separate the lovers (he still resists certain identification thanks to contradictions between the poem and the scant historical records). At least some of the poem’s original audience will have known exactly how famous — or otherwise — the squire really was in his youth; what kind of relationship he really had with Marjorie; who was involved in the fatal ambush (itself a documented fact) and what happened to all concerned. They will have been able to compare the version of events narrated by the poem to the one they already knew — ready-made dramatic irony that Lyndsay could exploit to the full without worrying that his audience would mistake his meaning.
As well as knowing the squire’s real history, this original private audience will have known the poet and the nature of his friendship with Meldrum. How serious is Lyndsay’s praise of Meldrum in these two poems? We struggle to read the signals, but the reason they are so difficult to read in the first place — again, unlike in Lyndsay’s other poems — is that the original audience did not need them. Sections of my introduction were written and rewritten as I oscillated between seeing the poem as out-and-out roasting of a tiresome old windbag, and a much more affectionate and genuine tribute, albeit one mixed with teasing.
Lyndsay certainly knows how to tease, and it can be helpful to look at how he does it elsewhere. The third poem I have edited for Six Scottish Pieces is Lyndsay’s “Answer to the Kingis Flyting.” A “flyting” in ordinary Scots usage was a quarrel or a scolding, but flyting was also, in Scotland, a poetic genre in which the exchanges of insults and torrents of imaginative abuse were cast in complex verse to become a formal contest of poetic virtuosity. King James had clearly launched an opening attack on Lyndsay (now lost, assuming it had existed in the first place), and the extant poem is the avuncular Lyndsay’s deft reply. The witty (not to mention dangerous) balance between insult and affection in this address to his monarch shows just how adept Lyndsay was at teasing without causing offence, or — to look at it from the other side — at putting his finger delicately on the flaws in an otherwise admirable figure. Beginning with a humble address to James as his “Redoutit roy” (“Formidable king”, line 1), by the end Lyndsay gets away with describing him as “Ay fukkand lyke ane furious fornicatour” (line 49: James was infamously fond of the ladies). Could the Testament of Squyer Meldrum be a different form of teasing? But here is where the question of audience becomes even more acute: did the real Meldrum form part of it?
At first glance, it would appear not. The Historie concludes with the squire’s death: “Thus at the Struther into Fyfe, / This nobill squyer loist his lyfe” (lines 1589-90). The latest record of the real Meldrum is as a witness to a charter drawn up at Struthers on July 25, 1550, so he is assumed to have died not long after this and the poem is accordingly dated ‘ca. 1550’ by all modern editors. The “Date of the Poem” section of my introduction should not detain me long, I thought complacently. But although The Historie works well as an elegy for an old friend, the Testament that follows it makes for much less comfortable reading if one assumes it is about a recently deceased friend, and I kept returning to this problem as to a loose tooth. Unlike the Historie, The Testament is cast in Meldrum’s own voice: he orders up a funeral so extravagant that it would have rivalled that of James V himself (and Lyndsay would know, since he had organised the latter in his capacity of Lyon King of Arms); he boasts appallingly about the distress his death will cause to the ladies of Scotland, England, Ireland, and France, and he drifts off into outright fantasy with orders to display his arms and quasi-saintly relics at imaginary temples of Mercury, Mars, and Venus. He reveals at last that the highly complimentary Historie was in fact a commissioned ” legend of my life” which was designed to be declaimed at his funeral by “ane oratour” (lines 167, 164): “Quhen he hes red my buik fra end till end, / And of my life maid trew narratioun, / All creature, I wait, will me commend,” he concludes smugly (lines 169-71).
The pompous contrast with the attractive squire of Historie, who had modestly waved away all praise for his splendid deeds, comes as a shock — at least to us, who have nothing but the preceding Historie to go on. Nevertheless, such a negative impression of the squire’s character remains hard to square with the genuine pleasure of reading the Historie: its affectionate warmth and sheer fun feels irreconcilable with the overt satire in the brief and startling coda of the Testament, particularly if one assumes Meldrum to be dead and this his epitaph. But what if the poem were composed before 1550, with Meldrum himself a part of the audience? This would transform the satirical dramatic monologue of the Testament — perhaps performed by Lyndsay to Meldrum in front of assembled acquaintances — from a damning epitaph to a splendidly mischievous tease, inviting a response from Meldrum in the same way that a flyting would. This simple change in the dating of the poem, and thus its imagined audience, would bring the Testament into line with the jovial tone of the Historie.
There is one detail in the Testament which may support a dating within Meldrum’s lifetime. The fictionalised Meldrum appoints three members of Lord Lyndsay’s family as his executors: “David Erll of Craufuird” (David Lindsay, ninth earl of Crawford, who died in 1558); “my maister special,” John, fifth Lord Lindsay of the Byres (died 1563), and “The wise Sir Walter Lindesay . . . / Lord of St Johne, and knicht of Torfichane, / Be sey and land ane vailyeand capitane” (lines 26-28). Sir Walter Lindsay was preceptor of Torphichen priory, the Scottish headquarters of the order of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem (hence “Lord of St Johne”), or the “Hospitallers.”
Although there has been some editorial controversy in the past as to when this Walter died, it can now be proven that he was dead by March 1547. If the Meldrum-poems were written after Meldrum’s death in 1550, we would have to accept that Lyndsay assigned to him an executor whom everyone knew to be dead. Maddeningly, this is not entirely impossible: Sir Walter is described as one “Quhilk knawis the coistis of feistis funeral” (“who knows the costs of funeral ceremonies,” line 25). Is this a sly allusion to Walter’s own funeral? But it is an awkward and unmotivated joke if so, whereas one can assume that the head of the Scottish knights of St John — a man who was almost certainly a veteran of the grim defence of Rhodes in 1522 — would have been more than familiar with chivalric funerals. The simpler reading of Walter’s inclusion here is that, at the time of writing, Sir Walter was as alive as his fellow executors, and this means that Meldrum was too.
Am I happy with my “Date of the Poem” section now? “Happy” is a relative term for editors: I am satisfied that I have done all I can to solve this problem. I think.
Rhiannon Purdie is Senior Lecturer in Medieval English and Older Scots at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. In 2016 she spent a semester as a Fulbright Research Scholar at the Robbins Library, University of Rochester.