Gavin Douglas, aesthetic organisation, and individual distraction

King, P. (2019) Gavin Douglas, aesthetic organisation, and individual distraction. In: Atkin, T. and Rajsic, J. (eds.) Manuscript and Print in Late Medieval and Early Modern Britain. D.S. Brewer: Woodbridge, Suffolk ; Rochester, NY, pp. 53-72. ISBN 9781843845317

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The so-called Fetternear Banner preserved in the National Museum of Scotland, is connected with the pre-Reformation Confraternity of the Holy Blood based in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. It bears the arms of Gavin Douglas surmounted by a mitre; Douglas was bishop of Dunkeld from 1515-22. He also held the Provostship of St Giles from 1503-21, a period when expansions to the cathedral included the holy blood aisle and the confraternity’s new altar. The embroidery scheme on the banner is unfinished, suggesting that its near-miraculous survival arises because it was never used, and linking its setting aside with Douglas’s flight into exile in London in 1522. Although elements survive in cartoon only, and some thread has rotted, the complex design of Christ as Man of Sorrows surrounded by the Instruments of the Passion can still be clearly discerned. Processional banners mediate private devotional mnemonics into the social and political realm by means of a semiotic that is at once public but gnomic, occluded, exclusive and hierarchical. Moreover given the banner’s intended performative function, that semiotic extends beyond its organisation of motifs to their relationship with its commissioners and makers, and its anticipated but unfulfilled role in a spatially and hierarchically determined narrative event. The procession, the banner, and the arma Christi thus intervene across public and private spheres, offering vectors of self-definition, spiritual healing and nourishment for the observer and participant, as well as both cognitive distraction and focus through the visual kinetics of extramission and intromission. It will be argued in the proposed essay that there is a metanymic consonance between this reading of the material banner, intimately if circumstantially associated with Gavin Douglas, and dimensions of self-presentation in his writing. Douglas’ own metatextual glosses reproduced in the Trinity MS of the Eneados, explored by Jane Griffiths, meditate on the provisionality of written authority and the commensurate ethics of reading. They offer an invitation to explore other ways in which Douglas writes himself as an easily distracted but ethically self-conscious presence into his other works. For example, his early self-presentation in The Palace of Honour uses the procession as a mode of narrative ordering, in tension with a thematic exploration of narrator distraction. The later Prologues in the Eneados offer further meditations on writing as a problematic device for organising the universe, and on authorial and personal inadequacy. The modified Boethian conclusion of the Prologue to Book XI on the nature of forgiveness invites the reader to explore virtuous honour as an aspiration within a Christian-chivalric framework. It also suggests an ideal which translates into specific civic and personal contexts according to modes of expression available in pre-Reformation Scotland such as confraternity participation. Through an exploration of performative schemae and procedures associated with devotion to the Holy Blood, and of Douglas’s parodic self-presentation as a man of short attention span and flawed spirituality but intent on virtue, the essay will seek to revise biographical judgements of Douglas as a cleric-aristocrat more interested in ecclesiastical preferment and secular intellectual pursuits than in the assumed core agenda of early sixteenth-century piety.

Item Type:Book Sections
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:King, Professor Pamela
Authors: King, P.
College/School:College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Publisher:D.S. Brewer
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