In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section George Buchanan

  • Introduction
  • Biography and General Overviews
  • Editions of Works
  • Bibliographic and Archival Aids
  • Buchanan and France
  • Buchanan, Portugal, and the Inquisition
  • Drama
  • Secular Poetry
  • The Franciscanus
  • The Psalm Paraphrases
  • Buchanan and Mary Queen of Scots
  • Buchanan and James VI
  • The De Iure Regni
  • The Rerum Scoticarum Historia
  • The De Sphaera
  • Buchanan’s Reception and Afterlife
  • Buchanan and Translation Studies

Renaissance and Reformation George Buchanan
Steven J. Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0453


Although his name is now virtually unknown beyond academia, George Buchanan (b. 1506–d. 1582) was one of the foremost humanists and Neo-Latinists of the 16th century. His work as a writer, polemicist, and educator had a Europe-wide impact in his own lifetime, and a cultural afterlife so great that it resulted in a large obelisk being erected in his memory in his hometown of Killearn, Scotland, and year-long public celebrations of the four-hundredth anniversary of his birth at the Universities of Glasgow and St. Andrews in 1906. Buchanan is best known to early modern historians as the polemicist for the revolutionary party that forced Mary Stuart to abdicate from the throne of Scotland in 1567 in favor of her infant son, James. It was in this context that he produced a scurrilous account of her reign (the De Maria Regina Scotorum, published in English as the Detectioun), an explosive treatise on the nature of Scottish kingship and the right to resist and kill tyrants (the De Iure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus), and a history of Scotland (Rerum Scoticarum Historia) that acted as a “proof text” of sorts for his theories on monarchy. Buchanan was also tutor to Mary’s son, who as James VI and I would become arguably the most literary British monarch ever to sit on the throne. To scholars of the French Renaissance, Buchanan is more famous—and has been studied in comparatively much greater depth—as the author of Neo-Latin works across an impressive range of genres, many of which strongly influenced early French vernacular literature. These included religious tragedies and translations of ancient Greek plays (Jephthes, Baptistes, Alcestis, Medea), and secular and anti-clerical poetry (the Franciscanus, written in Scotland for James V around 1537, being the most famous example). His crowning poetic achievement, the Latin versification and paraphrasing of the complete Hebrew Psalter, was begun while he was imprisoned by the Inquisition in Portugal, where he had been one of the first teachers at the newly established University of Coimbra. Once safely back in France and then Scotland, the complete collection was published in stages, and it enjoyed exceptional critical acclaim and international dissemination. The psalm paraphrases would see Buchanan receive the epithet (at least according to his publisher) of “easily the prince of poets of our age” (poetarum nostri saeculi facile princeps). He died in 1582, but his works and ideas circulated among poets, intellectuals, and revolutionary parties alike for centuries after.

Biography and General Overviews

This section includes biographical studies of Buchanan’s life and career, as well as collections dedicated to broad assessments of his oeuvre. McFarlane 1981 is the standard point of reference for all things Buchanan, while Abbott 2006 and Ford 1997 are useful biographical summaries (the latter with an excellent bibliography). McFarlane 1986 and Ford and Green 2009 contain articles looking at Buchanan’s writings across a range of genres. Hume Brown 1890, Irving 1817, and Macmillan 1906 provide narratives of his life of varying quality and rigor. Millar 1907 and Neilson 1907 contain many short, but still useful, reference articles. As volumes commemorative of the four-hundredth anniversary of Buchanan’s birth, they also show clearly the extent to which he was still celebrated as a national literary figure in the early 20th century.

  • Abbott, D. M. “Buchanan, George (1506–1582), Poet, Historian, and Administrator.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Short narrative of Buchanan’s life, which provides a good outline of his career in France, and his role in the politics and intellectual debates of Marian and early Jacobean Scotland. It also speaks briefly to his memorialization and cultural afterlife. Very limited on his works, with discussion largely confined to a line or two about their contents and their date of publication. Available online by subscription.

  • Ford, Philip J. “Buchanan (George) (1506–1582).” In Centuriae Latinae: Cent une Figures Humanistes de la Renaissance aux Lumières offertes à Jacques Chomarat. Edited by Colette Nativel, 213–220. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1997.

    One of 102 (and not 101 as the title suggests) pen-sketches of leading humanists, this provides a short and accessible biography of Buchanan in French, with an excellent reference bibliography.

  • Ford, Philip, and Roger P. H. Green, eds. George Buchanan: Poet and Dramatist. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2009.

    A collection of essays reassessing Buchanan as a literary figure, derived from a conference celebrating the quincentenary of Buchanan’s birth in 2006. Includes dedicated sections on his secular poetry, psalm paraphrases, dramas, and the reception of his work and literary/cultural afterlife.

  • Hume Brown, Peter. George Buchanan: Humanist and Reformer. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1890.

    Dated but serviceable assessment of Buchanan’s life, which was novel on publication for its detailed discussion of his time in France. Includes a useful chapter (19) discussing Buchanan’s correspondence. Appendix includes the Latin text of Buchanan’s own Vita and of records from the Sorbonne relating to Buchanan’s tenure as procurator; the text of a letter (in Scots) to Sir Thomas Randolph; and a copy of Buchanan’s testament dative (also in Scots). Available online.

  • Irving, D. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of George Buchanan. Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1817.

    Second revised edition (first published in 1807). The main text is a single (and often meandering) critical essay assessing Buchanan’s life and legacy. The appendix contains copies of Buchanan’s Vita, “Ane Admonitioun Direct to the trew Lordis maintenaris of Iustice” (1571), the “Opinion anent the Reformation of the Universitie of St Androis” (1563), a list of critical texts on Buchanan to the early 19th century, and other miscellaneous texts.

  • Macmillan, D. A. George Buchanan: A Biography. Edinburgh: Morton, 1906.

    More “popular” and romantic in tone than Irving 1817 or Hume Brown 1890, this narrative biography (by the minister of Kelvinhaugh Parish in Glasgow) was written to capitalize on a reading market interested in Buchanan because of the quatercentenary of his birth. No appendices of original texts.

  • McFarlane, Ian D. Buchanan. London: Duckworth, 1981.

    Despite small errors in the handling of Buchanan’s political career and 16th-century Scottish history, this remains the most detailed and exhaustive biography of Buchanan to date. Especially strong on Buchanan’s contribution to culture in Renaissance France. Provides full discussions of all Buchanan’s major works, situated in the broader context of his life and times, and a range of indispensable bibliographical and source appendices, including a list of Buchanan’s surviving correspondence.

  • McFarlane, Ian D., ed. Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Sanctandreani: Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress of Neo-Latin Studies. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 38. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1986.

    A major focus of the conference from which this collection of essays derived (the triennial meeting of the ICNLS, now the International Association for Neo-Latin Studies) was the quatercentenary of Buchanan’s death. Section A of the volume (3–112) comprises the nine resulting essays, which range broadly across Buchanan’s works. Includes an important essay on Buchanan’s early life in Scotland by John Durkan.

  • Millar, D. A., ed. George Buchanan: A Memorial 1506–1906. St Andrews: W. C. Henderson, 1907.

    A Festschrift (celebratory writing) produced by the staff and students of St. Andrews in honor of the quatercentenary of Buchanan’s birth (on which, see also Neilson 1907). Part I features over twenty short articles on Buchanan’s life, writings, and cultural impact; Part II comprises a range of translations (of varying quality) of material from across his corpus; Part III includes edited primary source material and commentary.

  • Neilson, George, ed. George Buchanan: Glasgow Quatercentenary Studies. Glasgow: James Maclehose and sons, 1907.

    A counterpart to Millar 1907 produced by the University of Glasgow, this collection features thirteen essays, several of which cover the same topics as the St. Andrews Festschrift at greater length. Also has a very large catalogue (with commentary) of books, manuscripts, portraits, and objects exhibited at the university during the quatercentenary, which provides important details on Buchanan’s memorialization between his death and the beginning of the 20th century.

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