A comment by Arthur Crown in this post led me to an excellent lecture by Dr. John B. Corbett preserved, with all its hesitations and fillers, at the SCOTS Project (which I blogged about here and here), about Thomas Urquhart and his place in the history of Scottish literature. It’s so full of tidbits and insights I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing; instead, I’ll quote and mention enough to give you a taste for it.

He starts by placing him in context (I’m normalizing the text by deleting the “erm”s and [inhale]s and superfluous commas):

Urquhart is a mid-seventeenth century writer, writing around about 1650. So I want to try to put him into context. Last week if you remember, we looked at the way Scots prose evolved in the sixteenth century, developing out of a native tradition of loosely connected Old English sentences in a kind of spoken style. And we contrasted that with the continental style, based on Latin, of long, elaborate sentences. … In the sixteenth century you don’t really have literary prose; you have administrative prose, you have historiographical prose; the writers of the histories are probably getting closest to a literary style, of the prose writers of that period. And the writers of histories tended to move towards the elaborate, continental style, which became … associated with the Catholic cause in Scotland, whereas the Protestant writers gravitated more towards the kind of loose colloquial style based on speech. The native style. Some writers, and I was arguing like John Knox at his best, modulated between the two styles and used the expressive range in a very rhetorical and purposeful way.

But today, in concentrating on one writer from the mid-seventeenth century, Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, we look at somebody who basically took the continental style to its mad, absurd extreme. He was the last of the great … baroque writers in the Scottish tradition. He writes in, if you like, the Latin-based, the continental style. Urquhart is often dismissed as one of the great but … difficult eccentrics of the Scottish literary tradition. Now what I’m going to argue today is that he’s in some ways a transitional figure. He’s the end of an era, in one respect. He’s the last great exponent of the continental style in Scottish prose. But, in other respects, he’s a foretaste of Scottish prose, fictional prose, to come. He does things for the first time that are taken up by later Scottish writers, and in some respects you could argue that wittingly or unwittingly, all modern Scottish prose fictional writers are his children…

He goes on to describe Urquhart’s book on trigonometry, “which if anything established his reputation as someone who was barking mad”:

Urquhart is taking a reasonably simple, reasonably straightforward, geometrical theorem, and he’s elaborating it to the point of absurdity, and … either he’s mad, and that has been put forward as a proposition, … or he’s doing it on purpose as a joke. It’s a joke with a very limited audience. And he has a whole book like this. … You can see the Trissotetras, the joke trigonometry book …, as a parody of the continental style of prose writing. … You have the long periodic sentences, built up of subordinate clauses, parentheses, embedded phrases, almost to infinity. So he’s parodying the style of trigonometry books. Or he seems to be parodying the style of trigonometry books; with Urquhart you’re never quite sure. Certainly, as with many parodies, Urquhart seems in love with the object of his parody. There’s an infectious energy to the willful obscurity of this joke geometry treatise. The obscure Greek terms, the technical neologisms, the new words, give the treatise the attraction, to me at least, of nonsense poetry; it’s like reading “Jabberwocky” or something.

Urquhart was locked up by Cromwell as a Royalist, and “was told that his lands in Scotland would be forfeited if he could not demonstrate that he deserved to keep possession of them. So Urquhart decided that the best way to demonstrate his worth, his value, was to set about writing and publishing four books, between 1652 and 1653, to prove that he is an important writer and intellectual.” These books are the Pantochronochanon, which “constructs a family tree for the Urquhart family, that ends with Urquhart and begins with Adam,” which “kind of proves he’s noble”; the Ekskybalauron (‘gold out of dung’), better known as The Jewel, in which he starts by “drawing up the principles for a universal language… and then it goes into this amazing story about a character called ‘The Admirable Crichton’, and this is the first appearance of this character, ‘The Admirable Crichton'”; Logopandecteision, which “is largely a reprint of The Jewel” (“He basically writes it again because he’s running out of time”) but includes “the first prose sex scene in Scottish literature…. it combines Urquhart’s passionate interests in sex, astronomy, the construction of sundials, Greek and Latin vocabulary, and of course, syntax”; and the translation of Rabelais.

Corbett focuses on two places in the translation where Urquhart uses Scots.

So the giant Pantagruel comes upon another giant called Panurge. And the problem is, they begin to talk and they speak in different languages, so they’ve got to attempt to communicate. So, they try different languages out. Some of the languages are real, some of the languages Rabelais invents, some of the languages Urquhart, in his translation, invents too. So they try German – doesn’t work; Italian – doesn’t work; Spanish – doesn’t work; Dutch – nope; Basque – nope; Danish – no; Hebrew – no; Greek – no; Latin – no. So they try Puzzlatory – that doesn’t work. They try Buffoonish – that doesn’t work. And then, in this sequence of strange, obscure, weird and fictional languages, you get … “Then said Panurge, ‘Lard, gest all be sir birches th’intelligence as thy body shall be natural, ruleth, them should be, there should of me pity have. For nature has us equally made, but fortune some exalted has, in use depravit. None the less, vice nor virtue is depravit, and virtue is men discrives for an en ye lad en is not good.” That doesn’t work either. Nobody can understand what that means. Yet less, said Pantagruel. So again you get another failure of communication, and as you can see, it’s kind of nonsensical. The interesting thing about this nonsense is that it’s Scots. It’s Scots nonsense. It’s Older Scots nonsense.

The second passage is the one in which Pantagruel confronts “a pretentious student from Limoges.”

And Limoges is like, well Aberdeen, let’s face it, I apologise to anybody from Aberdeen who’s in the room, but you know, in French terms, it’s a little bit out in the sticks … and this pretentious student makes the mistake, when speaking to Pantagruel, of affecting to be a[n] intellectual student from Paris, and he uses a highly Latinised, high-style vocabulary to begin to talk to the giant. And the giant decides to take him down a peg. …”By God,” said Pantagruel, “I will teach you to speak. But first come hither and tell me whence thou art”. To this the scholar answered, “The primeval origin of my aves and ataves was indigenerie of the Lemovick regions, where requiesceth the corpor of the hagiotat St Martial”. “I understand thee very well,” said Pantagruel, “when all comes to all, thou art a Limousin, and thou wilt here, by thy affected speech, counterfeit the Parisiens. Well now, come hither, I must shew thee a new trick, and handsomely give thou combfeat.” With this he took him by the throat, saying to him, “Thou flayest the Latine? By St John I will make thee flay the foxe, for I will now flay thee alive”. Then began the poor Limousin to cry, “Haw, gwid Maaster, haw Laord ma halp and St Marshaw, haw, I’m worried; haw, ma thrapple, the bean of ma cragg is bruck! Haw, for gauad’s seck, lawt ma lean Mawster, waw, waw, waw!” “Now,” said Pantagruel, “thou speaks naturally,” and so let him go, for the poor Limousin had totally be[w]rayed, and thoroughly conshit his breeches.”

Corbett sums up by saying that “when he’s affecting the pretentious Latinised style, Urquhart seems to be parodying himself. The Limousin begins by speaking the way that Urquhart usually writes. Then, as we’ve said, when he’s shaken by the throat, he reverts into his natural speech, which would be Urquhart’s own spoken idiom.”

Now, I have some questions about the quotation Corbett cites as representing Panurge’s Scots; in the Wikisource text, it runs as follows:

‘Lord, if you be so virtuous of intelligence as you be naturally relieved to the body, you should have pity of me. For nature hath made us equal, but fortune hath some exalted and others deprived; nevertheless is virtue often deprived and the virtuous men despised; for before the last end none is good.’ (The following is the passage as it stands in the first edition. Urquhart seems to have rendered Rabelais’ indifferent English into worse Scotch, and this, with probably the use of contractions in his MS., or ‘the oddness’ of handwriting which he owns to in his Logopandecteision (p.419, Mait. Club. Edit.), has led to a chaotic jumble, which it is nearly impossible to reduce to order.–Instead of any attempt to do so, it is here given verbatim: ‘Lard gestholb besua virtuisbe intelligence: ass yi body scalbisbe natural reloth cholb suld osme pety have; for natur hass visse equaly maide bot fortune sum exaiti hesse andoyis deprevit: non yeless iviss mou virtiuss deprevit, and virtuiss men decreviss for anen ye ladeniss non quid.’ Here is a morsel for critical ingenuity to fix its teeth in.–M.)

Corbett is presumably emending the “chaotic jumble” somewhat thus: “Lard, gest (h)ol(b) be sua virtuis (be) intelligence as(s) [þ]i body scal(bis) be natural r[u]l[e]th [them] [s]chol[d] b[e, there] suld o[f] me pety have; for natur has(s) v(is)s(e) equaly maide bot fortune sum exa[l]ti[t] h[a]s(se) [i]n(d) oyis deprevit: non [þ]e less (i)vis[e] [n]o[r] virtiu [i]s deprevit, and virtu iss men decreviss for anen [þ]e laden iss no[t] [g]uid.” But 1) that’s a lot of emendation, and 2) it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Still, his general point works.

Another problem I have is with the way the SCOTS site transcribes his quotes; they seem to ignore the actual texts he is citing and attempt to set down what he is saying based on its sound. But that is unhelpful and makes it difficult to follow up his leads. Quoting the sex scene, for instance, the text has him saying “To speak of her herquitelaniency…” Following along with the video (which I would urge everyone with the time to spare to do—it’s the “multimedia’ link at the bottom, the third icon from the right) it didn’t seem like that’s what he was saying, and a little work with the OED showed that the actual word is hirquitalliency (from Latin hirquitallire “(of infants) to acquire a strong voice,” from hircus ‘he-goat’).

But these are quibbles; I am very grateful to the SCOTS Project for making this fine lecture available to all.


  1. Crown, Arfur says

    I think I’m interested in this lecture for two reasons, firstly simply finding out more about the Scots language, for example the pronunciation,
    “This is Aberdonian. ‘Guid master’, not ‘gid master’, or ‘gud master’. ‘Guid master’. The long vowels in ‘maaster’, ‘gaud’. [laugh] Very Aberdonian. ”
    And (not that it’s a big surprise, but I am living there) I’m interested in how Scots compares to Norwegian. You, Language Hat, said in your first piece about the Scots Project,
    “Seamaa” is known to the OED as seamaw…(it’s an archaic word for ‘seagull’).
    Well, Maake is the Norwegian for seagull.
    The second reason I’m interested is that the Urquhart /Rabelais combination seems like something I would love to draw, to illustrate, with the giants and all. So I’m going to look into that.

  2. Ah, good to see mention of my hero. I have a copy of Urquhart’s Works (the Maitland Club edition), and was planning to do a doctoral thesis on him, but got sidelined. I still plan to write an article on the various translations of Panurge Scots.
    There’s nothing very good on U. There’s a life and works by Craik, but it’s mediocre. Corbett’s bit is OK–but U seems like one of those writers who it’s really hard to get your critical teeth into. (Browne, his contemporary, is another. I’ve read that Browne was influenced by Urquhart when he came to write his miscellany tract on languages.)
    Still, amazing and unsung writer.

  3. Somehow, I was sure he’d be one of your faves, Conrad.

  4. Two additional points: I don’t really buy Urquhart as a writer in the Scottish tradition. U was a writer in the English tradition (like Browne in many respects), and linguistically the Scottish element is quite marginal. (Not politically / culturally.) The effect of playing up his Scottishness is that he has been ghettoised: all of the material on him is by Scottish scholars, which is a shame.
    Second to Arthur Crown: a number of illustrators have done the Urquhart (and Motteux, who did Bks 4-5) Rabelais, but the best IMHO is Heath Robinson (whose wartime cartoons are also brilliant–the English version of Rube Goldberg). Robinson’s illustrations can be found in the Navarre Society edition of G&P from around 1920. This is easily available second-hand, and I recommend picking up a copy. (The typeface is quite nice too!)

  5. Good lord, I was familiar with Heath Robinson as the English version of Rube Goldberg but had no idea he’d illustrated Rabelais. The things you learn on the internet!

  6. marie-lucie says

    Only Gargantua and Pantagruel are giants, Panurge is an ordinary man (in size).
    The Limousin student speaks a grotesquely superlatinate French when he is watching his language (after all, at the university everyone is speaking Latin), but when he reverts to his native speech what he is speaking is Limousin, one of the Occitan dialects.

  7. Arfur Crown says

    Conrad, thank you. Heath Robinson sounds like a perfect illustrator for this work. When you say, “I don’t really buy Urquhart as a writer in the Scottish tradition” Corbett goes to great lengths to show U. as a transitional writer in the Scotish trad., there’s lots of evidence produced. But can that really be why he hasn’t been picked up outside Scotland (not that I have a better idea)?
    What about the Alasdair Gray, “Unlikely Stories Mostly”, that Corbett mentions. Has anyone read that?

  8. I have read it. I’m not really a Gray fan, but it’s OK–some funny lines. Such as:
    Milton: “When time is ripe for it, my verse will do far more than illuminate the best essence of Thomas Malory’s text, it will ttranslate, clarify and augment the greatest and most truly Original Book in the Universe.
    Urquhart: “Such is my aim also, and I am thunderstruck to discover in the Puritan camp one owho admires the work of Rabelais as greatly as I do.”

  9. John Emerson says

    Rabelais lived before the Catholic-Protestant distinction had hardened. He had high connections in the church (via the Bellays) but also had proto-Protestant (or “evangelist”) sympathies. Even real Protestants in those days could be smutty — Luther after all authorized pious sexuality. Clement Marot is notable both for his Psalm translations (banned by the Pope, and included in the Huguenot hymnal) and for poetry which was often amusingly lewd.

  10. John Emerson says

    Marot also edited Villon and La Roman de la Rose, and played a small role as a prescriptive grammarian:
    La règle de l’accord du participe passé avec le complément d’objet antéposé est l’une des plus artificielles de la langue française. On peut en dater avec précision l’introduction ; c’est le poète Clément Marot qui l’a formulée en 1538. Marot prenait pour exemple la langue italienne, qui a, depuis, partiellement renoncé à cette règle. (From a previous LH thread.)
    Carlos Gesualdo was also versatile. Besides being a highly original composer, he also played a diplomatic role representing Naples in northern Italy, was featured in pulp literature for the honor-killing of his wife and infant child, and appeared in medical books as a patient incapable of defecating unless beaten with sticks by handsome young men.

  11. John Emerson says


  12. John Emerson says

    Even a single one of Marot’s accomplishments, or Gesualdo’s, would be enough for the average man.

  13. Arthur Crown says

    I have some of the Heath Robinson illustrations for Rabelais. They were done in 1904, and aren’t characteristic of his well-known later work. The giants aren’t very big.
    Another good illustrator might have been Donald McGill, he of the naughty seaside-postcards(see George Orwell’s essay, The Art of Donald McGill, if you don’t know his work).

  14. Arthur Crown says

    Damned by faint praise dept.(from Wikipedia):
    Carlos Gesualdo…is famous for…committing what are amongst the most notorious murders in musical history.

  15. And he wrote what is considered some of the best music composed by a murderer, too!

  16. John Emerson says

    The last of Gesualdo’s accomplishments is rarest, in my opinion. There are lots of diplomats, revolutionary composers, and honor killers.

  17. Halfa Crown says

    revolutionary composer…honor killer…beaten with sticks by handsome young men while he’s…
    Shall we tell Andrew Lloyd-Webber? This sounds mega.

  18. BTW, it’s Carlo, not Carlos, Gesualdo. There’s a rather quirky documentary about him by Werner Herzog.
    There aren’t many composer/murderers about, unless you believe the “Amadeus” version of the life of Salieri. In fact, it’s probably true that composers are far more likely to be murder victims: Alessandro Stradella, Jean-Marie Leclair and Claude Vivier spring to mind.

  19. John Emerson says

    Werner Herzog would definitely be the right guy to do it.
    Rimsky-Korsakoff wrote an opera about Mozart and Salieri, based on a poem by Pushkin, which I’ve been trying to get. Mozart himself suspected Salieri, and Salieri supposedly confessed on his deathbed. Salieri also appeared at Haydn’s death bed, IIRC.
    Some say that R-K thought of himself (a fully competent but non-genius musician) as Salieri, with Musorgsky as Mozart. Musorgsky really baffled people: even Tchaikovsky recognized his talent, but no one could tell whether he was incompetent or original. (Answer: apparently both).
    Mozart, of course, didn’t have Musorgsky’s baffling traits. A genius, but also fully competent and not especially revolutionary.
    In short, the “Amadeus” movie was a revival or remake of a couple of minor classics, and not a pomo fantasy.

  20. marie-lucie says

    A few years ago I heard a lecture by a doctor on the CBC program “Ideas”, about Mozart’s last illness. The doctor’s conclusion was that Mozart had been poisoned, not by a fellow human (at least not deliberately) but by a plate of sausages which he is known to have eaten a few days before his death. The symptoms apparently were quite recognizable as those of a certain type of food poisoning, and there was no suggestion of foul play.

  21. David Marjanović says

    What I have been wondering for a long time:
    How is Urquhart pronounced? Is there a rule for what to do with the quh, which also occurs in Farquhart? Where the vertical gene transfer does it come from?

  22. I believe that quh is /xw/, corresponding to Early Modern English wh, that is, /hw/.

  23. marie-lucie says

    In some old Scots writing you find for instance “quhat” for ‘what’.

  24. “How is Urquhart pronounced?”
    Nonetheless, it is now generally pronounced with an aspirated ‘k’, ie. somewhere between URK-art and URK-hart. You might want a schwa instead of an ‘ar’, alternatively.

  25. But Dr. Corbett uses /x/ for -quh-, so I presume that’s the current Scots pronunciation.

  26. The Scots is not Urquhart’s, but Rabelais’s own. In editions from 1542 it was replaced by the English text which the editor – Motteux is it? – thinks came first.
    The remark by Carpalim which in some editions comes after the Basque dialogue was originally a response to the Scots: ‘Sainct Treignan, foutys-vous d’Ecoss, ou j’ay failly à entendre?’, which means roughly ‘By St Trinian [St Ninian], are you Scottish, or have I misunderstood?’.
    Urquhart, bewilderingly but amusingly translates this as: ‘St. Trinian’s rammer unstitch your bum, for I had almost understood it.’

  27. ^^^ I meant to specify Panurge’s Scots dialogue is Rabelais’s own. The other example given, of the Limousin student, is of course Urquhart’s addition.

  28. marie-lucie says

    j’ai failly à entendre = ‘I failed to understand’ (no longer used in modern French)
    Urquhart misunderstood this sentence for j’ai failli entendre ‘I almost understood, I was on the verge of understanding’.
    The beginning of the sentence is not quite clear to me, but most likely includes an obscene pun, hence Urquhart’s translation.

  29. Crown, A. says

    There was an Urquhart who was Deputy Secretary General of the UN, who pronounced his name, roughly, Ur-kut.
    I was at school with a Farquhar (in England), where it is pronounced as ‘Parker’. This led to many jokes along the lines of, “Who’s a silly Farquhar, then?’.

  30. marie-lucie: according to this article [JSTOR], ‘foutys’ is Rabelais’s mocking approximation of the kind of French spoken by Scottish students – foutys = vous êtes.
    No doubt there’s an obscene pun on ‘foutre’ in there too.

  31. The link I provided appears not to work. Here’s the URL:
    Sorry for clogging up the comments section.

  32. John Emerson says

    In the movie “Shrek”, “Farquhard” is pronounced “F*ckwad”, giving parents a laugh in the middle of their kids’ movie.

  33. On the escosse-françois, the essay by Ker to which that JSTOR article refers is here. It gives more on the textual history, which Raminagrobis summarized above. The mention in Les Ecossais en France, here, refers to “une curieuse note de M. Burgaud des Marets,” which is here. It gives a couple more possibilities for foutys vous.

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