500-year-old handwritten fragment of poem by Scots literary great is discovered

A 500-year-old handwritten fragment of a poem by one of Scotland’s greatest literary figures has been discovered.

The 16th Century legal notebook where the scribbled opening lines of Sir David Lyndsay's poem was found. PIC: NRS.

The scribbled lines of a work by Sir David Lyndsay, an influential pre-Reformation poet, dramatist and satirist who was central to court life at Linlithgow Palace as a childhood usher to the future James V and as a later adviser to the King, has been found in a 16th Century legal notebook.

It is the only known copy of Lyndsay’s work made during his lifetime and was jotted down in Linlithgow sometime between 1546 and 1553 – just as pre-Reformation temperatures intensified and the writer sat at the height of his influence.

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The manuscript is a copy of Lyndsay’s poem, The Testament of the Papyngo, which uses the persona of a female parrot to launch a scathing attack on the corruption of the Scottish clergy as well as give moral guidance to James V.

The find was made by Dr Conor Leahy, a British Academy postdoctoral researcher at the University of East Anglia, who specialises in Older Scots poetry.

He said: “The handwriting was so smeared and faded that I almost overlooked them. But on closer inspection, I was amazed to pick out the opening words of Lyndsay's poem.

"Until now, however, no manuscript copies of Lyndsay's works were known to survive from the poet's own lifetime.

"Very little manuscript evidence survives for the early circulation of Older Scots poetry, so findings such as this are rare.”

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The verse was found in the back pages of a legal notebook that documented transactions in the Linlithgow area between between 1546 and 1553.

Dr Leahy said the time frame around the manuscript was “exciting” given it was roughly the same period that Lyndsay's masterpiece - Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis – is first thought to have been staged at Linlithgow Palace with news of the production and its criticism of the church finding its way to Thomas Cromwell, chief adviser to Henry VIII.

Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis – or A The Satire of the Three Estates – was revived in a production at Linlithgow Castle in 2013 to widespread acclaim.

Dr Leahy said the opening lines of The Testament of the Papyngo may have been written in the back pages of the notebook by a notary – who were often poets – in an “idle moment” or while testing out a pen.

He added: “The lines are also a reminder of the close ties between early Scottish literature and the legal profession. Many early Scottish poets were also notaries, employed to copy or witness legal documents. As a result, many surviving legal notebooks (known as protocol books) often preserve passages of poetry and prose, copied out in the notary's idle moments.”

While the legal passages in the book have long been transcribed, the academic believed the document embarked on the search in the belief they may offer up some added insight into the favoured verses of the day.

It will never now be known how chose to write down Lyndsay’s poem, but Dr Lahey said this was part of the “mystery and intrigue” of searching such documents.

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