“Here follows her epitaph […] translated into the Scottish tongue”

“Here follows her epitaph […] translated into the Scottish tongue”

Princess Margaret of Scotland (d. 1445)


As I observed in my previous post, the Older Scots Complaint for the death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland is a translation of a French complaint produced on the death of Princess Margaret (d. 1445), daughter of James I of Scotland and wife of the dauphin, Louis (later Louis XI): Complainte pour la mort de Madame Marguerite d’Escosse, daulphine de Viennoys. The latter poem comprises thirty-six stanzas, each of ten octosyllabic lines, and is divided into two halves. In the first half the speaker requests that God make the natural world weep with him and asks the same of the French and Scottish royal houses. He then proceeds to document Margaret’s virtues before crying out against Nature and Death itself. In the second half of the poem the voice of reason counsels the previous speaker to accept the inevitability of death rather than rail against it and reminds him that God did not spare even his own son from death.

The Scots poem is extant in two manuscripts of a mid-fifteenth-century chronicle, known as the Liber Pluscardensis (LP). This Latin prose chronicle of the history of Scotland was composed by an unknown author for the abbot of Dunfermline during the 1450s and completed by 1461. Material evidence suggests that the Complaint formed part of the chronicle at an early stage of its history, and was composed somewhere between 1445 and 1460. The jury is still out on its authorship, but it bears a very close relationship to the other poem included within the LP known as De Regimine Principum Bonum Consilium (DRP). Beginning with a metaphor of a good king ruling his kingdom as a harpist successfully maintains the harmony of his harp, this poem (written during the reign of James II, and perhaps especially between 1455 and 1460) calls for reformation of the contemporary justice system and relationship of king and counsel.

Oxford Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 8, fol. 190r: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/medieval/fairfax/images/00083090.jpg

At the end of Chapter VII, the chronicler laments that “Death, who snatches away all living things equally, without distinction of persons, snatched away that lady after a short illness” and he recalls seeing Margaret “dead and embowelled and laid in a tomb at the corner of the high altar, on the north side, in the cathedral church of the said city of Chalons, in a leaden coffin.” He then introduces the Scots adaptation of the French Complainte which follows in Chapter VIII:

Here follows her epitaph, which was placed upon her tomb after her death, in the French tongue; only it is here translated into the Scottish tongue, by command of that lady’s brother, King James II. of famous memory.

Two features of this introduction are worthy of note. Of interest first of all is the description of the poem as an “epitaph” “placed upon [Margaret’s] tomb after her death.” Such texts — displayed on tombs or hung on hearses — did exist, a prominent example being a lament on the death of Richard duke of York, father of Edward IV, who died at the battle of Wakefield in 1460.

Entombment of Christ in the restored chapel of Princess Margaret at the Church of Saint Laon, Thouars

A second point of interest is the suggestion that the Scots translation of the French Complainte was the product of a royal commission from James II — if true, this would be the only concrete example of such a literary commission being made by this king.

A subsequent Latin rubric at the head of the poem reads: “Here begins the complaint of the lord dauphin of France for the death of his wife, the said Margaret.” Here the complaint is once again positioned as being authored by a royal figure, but it is highly unlikely that Louis had any hand in its composition, given what we know of their strained relations. Furthermore, none of the surviving French witnesses link the original Complainte to the dauphin. It is the Scots author alone, therefore, who associates the Complaint with not one but two royal figures, thereby hinting for the first time that this poem might not function solely as a lament for Margaret’s death, but also as a more advisory piece related to broader notions of good princely governance.

The Complaint is an adaptation rather than a direct and close translation of the original French Complainte. Although there are a number of instances of almost direct translation, the vast majority of the poem translates the original French text much more loosely and there are a number of unique passages, including Scotticization of the natural landscape. The Scots Complaint is also written in irregularly decasyllabic lines rather than the octosyllabic lines of the original French, and comprises twenty-three ten-line stanzas rhyming aabaabbcbc, in contrast to the thirty-six ten-line stanzas of the French rhyming aabaabbbcc. This same stanza form was used later in fifteenth-century Scotland by Robert Henryson for Orpheus’ “sangis lamentable” upon the death of Eurydice (Orpheus and Eurydice, lines 134–81). Notable, too, is the Scottish poet’s frequent use of alliteration, and clearly conscious verbal patterning. Finally, the Scottish poet introduces a number of quasi-proverbial statements into the second half of the poem.

The Scottish poem maintains the two-part structure of the original French but the two parts are no longer equal in length. Rather, after an initial five stanzas of complaint in which the Scots poet follows the French in calling upon a notably Scotticized natural world to weep with him, the translator intervenes and puts a stop to the “fenyeit” (fictional) complaint and proceeds to offer the “ansuere of Resoun,” described as “very suth-/fastnes” (very truthfulness).

The translator’s privileging of moral or religious truth over poetic fiction anticipates the assessment of “feinӡeit fables” in Robert Henryson’s Fables and Orpheus and Eurydice, and there are indeed a number of other notable parallels (verbal, thematic, and formal) between the Complaint and Henryson’s works. We know that the LP was commissioned by an abbot of Dunfermline and that two of its manuscript witnesses (including one containing the Complaint) were themselves associated with Dunfermline. As such, it is entirely possible that Henryson — schoolmaster and notary public in Dunfermline — knew both the LP and Complaint for the death of Margaret, Princess of Scotland.

The increased length of the “Ansuere of Resoun” in the Scots poems turns Margaret’s death into an active opportunity for moral reflection and teaching, and a notable emphasis of this second half of the poem — and one again shared by the Older Scots poet, Robert Henryson — is the comparison of rational man to beasts and contrasting of reason and sensuality. The second half of the Scots poem is also more Boethian the original French, bringing to mind that aspect of James I’s famous poem, The Kingis Quair.

The Complaint’s use of legal and parliamentary language is also striking. Such language both Scotticizes the poem by echoing the wider legal and parliamentary discourse of fifteenth-century Scotland, and looks forward to the much denser legal and parliamentary lexis found in the vernacular poem that appears shortly after the Complaint: the aforementioned DRP.

Finally, the Complaint contains a notably political stanza that functions both as a complaint against the times and warning about the fall of (even just) princes:

Thair is nocht heire bot vayn and vanite, <fn>There is nothing here but worthlessness and futility.</fn>
Baith pompe and pryd, with passand poverte,                                Both; pride; exceeding
Weire and invy, with cankirryt cuvatis,                                            War: envy; malignant covetousness
And every man a lord desyris to be,
Quhilk has na lest; rycht now away is he                                        which [position] has no durability
And efter hym another soun will rys.                                               Soon after him another will rise up
Wyykkyt are welth and wourthy men perys. <fn>Wicked people are wealthy [or happy] and worthy men come to an untimely end.</fn>
A man weill syt thocht he be kyng with crowun,                              well set; even though
And he inclinde be for to do justis,                                                   is keen to practise justice
Thai sall never ceiss quhill at thai bryng hym doun.                        cease until they

This stanza anticipates the broad thematic focus on kings as proponents of justice in the DRP and, within the wider context of the LP, its warning about the fall of even a just monarch anticipates the death of James I narrated in the very next chapter of the chronicle.

As already noted, it is not clear whether the author of the Complaint is the same as the author of the LP, and nor is there any evidence to suggest that the Complaint and DRP share an author. The juxtaposition of the two vernacular poems is nevertheless appropriate; both within the LP and alongside the DRP, the Complaint functions as a statement that ostensibly articulates and “synthesizes the losses of two princes” for the person of Princess Margaret whilst simultaneously pronouncing on correct self- and public governance. <fn>Martin, Joanna. Kingship and Love in Scottish Poetry,1424-1540. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. p. 93.</fn>

by Dr Emily Wingfield

University of Birmingham

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