Breathing new life

editorial image

Jane Dawson, John Laing Professor of Reformation History at the University of Edinburgh was in conversation with Stuart Kelly about her new biography of John Knox, seen by many as the main leader and personification of the Scottish Reformation of the 16th century.

As Dawson points out Knox is seen very much like the statues of him, imperious, unyielding and fiery in his preaching of the Protestant faith.

Joyce McMillan pictured at the festival on Sunday

Joyce McMillan pictured at the festival on Sunday

However, having seen new evidence such as letters from Knox to his friend and fellow reformer from England, Christopher Goodman, Dawson suggests a more rounded view is possible, with Knox often being conflicted and pessimistic as well as being loving and clever family man who could crack jokes.

As Dawson points out Knox seems to have been ecstatic at the birth and christening of his son in Geneva, Switzerland and later devastated at the death of his first wife.

Also, Knox was often frustrated at what he saw as a lack of progress in the Reformation.

Equally especially after the massacre of French Protestants in 1572, Knox was doubting that the Reformation in Europe let alone Scotland would survive, as well having to deal with the fear that any point he might be taken and burned at the stake for his Protestant beliefs.

Furthermore, it seems that most of the lasting legacies in Scotland that Knox is associated with, were done in concert with others in committee such as the “Six Johns” of which he was one.

On the other hand he is pointed out to have been a well travelled man with a huge range of contacts in a British and European community of Protestant Reformers.

Therefore this event was able to really breath life and vitality into a man who has often been seen as a one dimensional Protestant Firebrand.

Introduced by Sally Magnusson, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, lecturer in Medieval History and Literature at Durham University explored the fascinating world of Icelandic sagas, a fitting subject for the Magnusson Lecture as Magnus Magnusson, in whose honour these lectures are held, was an avid translator of Norse Icelandic sagas such Njal’s Saga as well as the Vinland Saga detailing the discovery of America.

As Barraclough explained, these sagas sometimes written by monks were also written by farmers and chieftains and aimed for a popular audience.

These were not be kept in a cloister or library, these were meant to be read out at gatherings and still retain popularity today.

An interesting mix of history and embellishment, these stories are often backed up by other sources such as Archaeology. The 1200AD “Book of Icelanders” claims the first Norse settlers arrived in 871AD which might seem very specific, if it were not for a layer of volcanic ash sitting below the first layer of settlement archaeology which has been dated around that period!

This tradition of story and history-making drew a reputation from around the Norse Viking world for writing the histories of other regions and people such as Norwegian King Harald Hardrada who ended an adventurous life detailed in his saga at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 to King Harold of England.

In modern Iceland, this continuing fascination with the sagas have meant for example, in the capital Reykjavik there are streets named after famous saga characters arranged in such a way that one can follow their sagas told through connections to streets named for their children in the saga, resulting in Reykjavik’s streets being a massive story book.

This talk gave an amazing glimpse into storytelling that is almost a national pastime which still owes much to those sagas.