Reassessing a hero

Much like parents shouldn’t have a favourite child, I was once told that someone working in a museum shouldn’t have a favourite historical character.

But I do.

Rev Dr Thomas Chalmers, Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID ALB-1-81

 

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was a church minister, social reformer, scientist, philosopher and economist; stubborn as a mule, proud as a peacock, often unwilling to admit his mistakes, visionary and go-get-‘em. He had hair like a bird’s nest and an accent once described as bruisingly barbarous, yet his preaching attracted huge crowds in a Victorian version of Beatlemania.  A stained-glass window dedicated to him will be on display at the Wardlaw Museum; a colourful commemoration of a colourful character.

Memorial window dedicated to Thomas Chalmers, Wardlaw Museum        © University of St Andrews

He studied at St Andrews, then infuriated the University by teaching rival classes in mathematics before returning as professor of Moral Philosophy in 1823, but he’s most famous for leading a third of the ministers of the Church of Scotland out of that denomination to form a new one, the Free Church of Scotland, in 1843.

On the surface, this event, called the “Disruption”, was about the courts overturning a congregation’s choice of minister in favour of the landowner’s candidate. Chalmers and his friends saw it as something deeper, the need for freedom from the secular law that was overreaching into God’s kingdom.

I admire Chalmers’ faith, his hard work in bringing education to the slums of Edinburgh and his efforts, though not always successful, to better support the poor of Glasgow.

But…

In the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer it was brought to my attention that soon after its foundation the Free Church accepted £3000 from US churches frequented by slave owners. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas, himself formerly enslaved, argued that the denomination was benefitting from slavery and campaigned for the Free Church to “send the money back”.

The Free Church refused, and tied itself in knots in justifying its position, arguing that someone who inherited slaves was a not a slave-owner, but a “slave-holder”, and stating that having slaves did not make someone a bad master.

On digging further I found that in 1826, while professor of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews, Chalmers himself wrote a treaty arguing for the abolition of slavery. All well and good, until reading on and finding Chalmers’ unsavoury solution.

In order to achieve abolition, Chalmers argued, slaves should be given a day off each week, during which they should work to earn money to buy their own freedom a day at a time, being fully free within seven or eight years. Then the enslaved person could proceed to buy the freedom of his family. “But,” Chalmers wrote, “the slave who idled away his free time, whether in sleep or amusement, would of course make no further progress towards a state of freedom.”

Chalmers’ suggestion makes us baulk; we see underlying racism, an evident lack of compassion and a failure to recognise both the urgency of freedom and the injustice of continued slavery, even while he argued for abolition. There’s also hypocrisy – quick to champion the church’s freedom from secular law, slow to achieve man’s freedom from slavery.

Reassessing a hero

So what do we do with this?

Do we wholeheartedly condemn Chalmers and the Free Church? Morality doesn’t change; slavery and racism are wrong now and they were wrong then.

Do we excuse them as a product of their age? Chalmers and the Free Church sought abolition, but their own attitudes remained ingrained with the prejudices of the time, when slavery was deeply embedded in wider economies and societies.

This being the nature of that society, do we argue that they were being practical? The Free Church in using money that came from slavery to fund good work that bettered the lives of others, and Chalmers in trying to find a practical, if deeply flawed, way of bringing enslavement to an end.

Do we judge not lest we be judged? Do we hold back from criticism of the past for fear of future generations judging us for our failure to tackle injustices today, be it modern slaves making our cheap clothes or the climate crisis?

Do we let this issue hide the excellent work done by Chalmers and the Free Church elsewhere? The Free Church did much to tackle poverty and inequality; indeed, it was another Free Church minister and St Andrews professor of Moral Philosophy, William Knight, who was key to bringing university-level education to women through St Andrews’ Lady Literate in Arts scheme.

Or do we accept that life is complicated and respond with a mixture of the above?

I continue to wrestle with these questions and don’t know the right answers. Discussions with others, like our regular Critical Conversations series, help us find the right path. But I have learnt that even our heroes have deep faults. My own reaction is to admire the good, speak out against the bad and learn from both.

Written by Matt Sheard, Learning and Access Curator, University of St Andrews Museums

Why St Andrews?

 

The University of St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland, and one of Europe’s most ancient universities. Today, the answer to the question – Why St Andrews? – seems to be rather cliché due to a great importance of St Andrews in the academic world. However, in the first decade of the 15th century it was not that obvious and the subject of consideration of two canon scholars, Bishop Henry Wardlaw in Scotland and Pope Benedict XIII in Avignon, France. Gallery 1, Scotland’s First University, at the Wardlaw Museum presents unique material remnants providing answers to the question Why St Andrews?

Why St Andrews? Bishop Henry Wardlaw’s perspective

While Henry Wardlaw[1] or Henry de Wardlau, who studied canon law at Avignon[2] and was related to the papal court, was granted the bishopric of St Andrews in 1403, this centre of the Scottish medieval Catholic Church was already a burgh with a market town and fairs attracting broad attention. Multiple letters from Benedict XIII to Scotland provide evidence that scholars educated in France were present in St Andrews diocese as early as the late 14th century,[3] however, the local history of studying dates back much further. Scotland’s largest cathedral with a priory was the focal point of the city. [4] For monastic communities, reading was an essential part of spiritual reflection and the library played a significant role in monastic and ecclesiastic life.[5] Books copied from other priories, donated by patrons and benefactors for instance in 1140 and 1150, travelled to St Andrews from other religious houses.[6] This resulted in impressive holdings of works, as described by the authors of the 14th century Registrum Anglie. The St Andrews library was a bedrock of further scholastic community. Two stone book presses,[7] still present in the cloister, are material evidence of what remains from the initial teaching hub. Eight scholars are said to have launched teaching in St Andrews and Bishop Wardlaw describes them in his grant of privileges as ‘venerable men, the doctors, masters, bachelors, and scholars dwelling in the city of St Andrews’.[8] All of these circumstances fuelled the establishment of a studium generale in the years leading up to 1413 when University of St Andrews was founded. [9]

Maquette of Bishop Henry Wardlaw (HC2011.21 ) can be viewed in Gallery 1 at the Wardlaw Museum]

Why St Andrews? Papal perspective

 

Papal bull of Foundation can be viewed in Gallery 1 at the Wardlaw Museum (image courtesy of University of St Andrews Special Collections)

Only the Pope or Emperor could grant both the university status and the licencia ubique docendi; a license to teach anywhere. Bishop Wardlaw and King James I, Wardlaw’s pupil, asked Benedict XIII to authorise the foundation of the university. The papal approval was sent in six bulls granting university status to the institution in St Andrews (1413).

Pope Benedict XIII (1328-1423) was an individual of unique nature in the history of Medieval Europe and the history of the papacy. He was born as Pedro Martínez de Luna y Pérez de Gotor, a son of a noble family in the city of Illueca in Aragon.[10] His Coat of Arms, a crescent moon (luna), along with the diamond shapes of Bishop Wardlaw, and the lion rampant from the Royal Arms of Scotland, formed the Coat of Arms of the University of St Andrews.

 

Banner of the Coat of Arms of the University of St Andrews (HC1160) can be viewed in Gallery 1 at the Wardlaw Museum

 

Benedict XIII did not reign in Rome, but in Avignon. As the Antipope, during the Western Schism (1378-1417), he reminded in opposition not only to subsequent popes in Rome (Boniface IX, Innocent VII, Gregory XII) but also to other antipopes derived from the Council of Pisa (1409; Alexander V and John XXIII), and to Martin V, unanimously elected during the Council of Constance (1417). Eventually, as the result of the Council of Constance, Benedict XIII maintained governmental recognition of Armagnac and Scotland only.

Through his claims to the papal throne, Benedict XIII was trying to secure his authority in Europe and the foundation of the university was in his best interest. Bishop Wardlaw even claimed grants of privileges to save the authority of Benedict’s Apostolic See.[11] In the petition to the Pope, Bishop Wardlaw bolsters the case to maintain Scottish loyalty and the threat of heresy by improving local high learning for the clergy.[12] From Benedict’s point of view, the University of St Andrews was to be a lucrative deal strengthening his position against the competitors. Sadly for him, after the Council of Constance, the University of St Andrews decided that support of the council was necessary for a united church and it came out in opposition to Benedict.[13]

A plaster cast of the skull of Benedict XIII and a single hair from his head mounted in a microscope slide[14] remind us that origins of the University are linked with the Great Schism and one of the most influential antipopes.

Cast of skull of Pope Benedict XIII (HC789) can be viewed in Gallery 1 of the Wardlaw Museum [15]

Why St Andrews? Students’ perspective

The answer was explicitly stated in the papal document ‘Because of the dangers and troubles to Scots who, because of the absence of universities in Scotland, have to travel to foreign parts to study’.[16] Another reason was the reduction in the cost of studies. As Norman Reid believes, ‘Scotland needed more clergy who were well educated and the provision of a home university would enable that expansion at a more manageable cost than continuing to send all students abroad (…). Not to stem the flow of Scots to foreign universities – what did not happen – but rather to increase educational provision by offering a home alternative’.[17]

According to Reid, Benedict XIII in his papal bulls acknowledged the education received by Scots at the universities that were not obedient to the antipope. Scottish students returning from universities abroad could continue their studies in St Andrews or pursue their education elsewhere, including universities of schismatic obedience, in this case following the Pope in Rome.[18]

The first students of St Andrews are depicted on the medieval University seal, made between 1414 and 1418, showing scholars learning before a teacher, overseen by Scotland’s patron saint. The University seal was used to authenticate official documents.

Digital reproduction of seal matrix from the Bull of Foundation courtesy of Special Collections of the University of St Andrews Library which can be seen in Gallery 1 of the Wardlaw Museum

Written by Dr Kamila Oles, Visitor Services Facilitator, Museums of the University of St Andrews

[1] See https://museumoftheuniversityofstandrews.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/who-was-henry-wardlaw/

[2] McGurk F., ed., 1976, Calendar of Papal letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1394-1419, Scottish History Society, vol. 13, Edinburgh; Reg Aven 278, 436x-437v, (20 October 1394), p. 20

[3] Ibid. pp.20-23.

[4] Simpson A. and Stevenson S., 1981, Historic St Andrews: the archaeological implications of development, Scottish burgh survey series, Glasgow.

[5] Leedham-Green E., and Webber T, eds., 2006, The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, vol. 1 , Cambridge; Coates A., 1996, English Medieval Books: The Reading Abbey Collections from Foundation to Dispersal , Oxford.

[6] Duncan A.A.M., The Foundation of St Andrews cathedra Priory, 1140, pp.122-123; Higgitt J., ed., 2006, Scottish Libraries, London 2006, pp. 222-225

[7] Reid N. H., 2017, The Prehistory of the University of St Andrews St. Andrews, in: Brown M., and Stevenson K., eds., Medieval St Andrews. Church, Cult, City, Woodbridge, p. 248.

[8] Ibid. p. 239.

[9] Mason R., 2017, University, City and Society, in: Brown M., and Stevenson K., eds., Medieval St Andrews. Church, Cult, City, Woodbridge, p. 268.

[10] Müller-Schauenburg B., 2019, The lonely antipope – or why we have difficulties classifying Pedro de Luna [Benedict XIII] as a religious individual, in: Fuch M. et al. eds., Religious Individualisation, pp. 1351-1364

[11] The original Wardlaw’s grant of privileges is missing. One of six papal bulls of August 1413, issued for the University of St Andrews, recited Wardlaw’s text; Reid N. H., 2017, The Prehistory of the University of St Andrews St. Andrews, p. 262.

[12] Mason R., 2017, University, City and Society, p. 263.

[13] McGurk F., ed., 1976, Calendar of Papal letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, p. 13.

[14] Read J., 1973, Pedro de Luna: The Pope from the Sea, History Today, vol. 23, issue 3.

[15] https://museumoftheuniversityofstandrews.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/foundations/

[16] McGurk F., ed., 1976, Calendar of Papal letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 28 August, 1413, Reg Aven 341, 607v-608v, p. 278.

[17] Reid N. H., 2017, The Prehistory of the University of St Andrews St. Andrews, p. 263.

[18] Ibid. p. 246.

From Girls to Immortals: Meet the Women Artists of Recording Scotland

Photograph of “The Immortals”, Katherine Cameron is pictured second from left in the middle row alongside other notable “Glasgow Girls” artists such as Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh (back row), Image from WikiCommons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Immortals!.jpg
Riddell’s Court, Lawnmarket by Katherine Kay Cameron, ©Ewan Cameron Watt, image reproduced by University of St Andrews with permission by E. Cameron Watt

The Recording Scotland collection is a set of watercolours, oils and prints collected during World War II to permanently capture the landscapes and the “feeling” of the nation.  Each piece of artwork was chosen because it captured an essential view of Scotland; with emphasis on the places most likely threatened by war and industrialization.  This is part three of a series of blogs about different aspects of the Recording Scotland collection.

The Recording Scotland scheme provided an opportunity for male and female artists from across Scotland.  Here we feature just a few of the female artists who contributed to the collection.

Katherine Cameron (1874-1965) came from a large, artistic family in Glasgow.  Following her brother, D. Y. Cameron, she studied in Glasgow and later Paris, perfecting her techniques in etching, watercolour, and oils.  She is most known for her work in capturing landscapes and flowers. She was a member of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists, which provided a supportive network for meeting and exhibiting work. The group known as the “Glasgow Girls” were female artists trained in the 1890s and socialised with popular figures like Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  The group of artists playfully called themselves “The Immortals,” referencing their love of Celtic mythology or possibly the immortality bestowed by creating artwork.  Cameron married wealthy art collector, Arthur Kay in 1927. Two of her pieces purchased for the scheme were originally printed as illustrations in “Haunted Edinburgh” in 1928.  Hundreds of her works are held by major institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Cross Wynd, Falkland by Anna Dixon, Watercolour (1920-1942), courtesy of the University of St Andrews Museums

Anna Dixon (1873-1959) was another prolific artist of birds, flowers, and figures in landscapes. Dixon enjoyed painting in France and the west coast of Scotland.  Her artwork was known to feature crofts, donkeys, horses, and children.  Of the pieces chosen for the Recording Scotland collection, her painting of Cross Wynd in Falkland highlights the domestic lives of the citizens.

May Marshall Brown (1887-1968), born May Mary Robertson, was the daughter of an Edinburgh wine merchant.  She studied at Edinburgh College of Art and later married the artist, William Marshall Brown, who was 24 years her senior. His influence is witnessed in her style of work. May Marshall Brown is best known for her watercolours of fishing villages and boats.  As she explained to the committee, “I mainly paint boats, sea and fishermen working, since the war I have not had a chance to continue the work, as one is so much disturbed by military at the shore, even when one has a permit to paint.” She was able to sell three paintings, and her late husband posthumously contributed four to the Committee. Brown was the artist who contributed last week’s piece, “Cat Row, Dunbar.”  We will also learn more about one of William Marshall Brown’s paintings of the Oronsay Priory in a future post.

Ann Spence Black (1861-1947) provided seven paintings to Recording Scotland collection. Born in Dysart, Fife she was seemingly self-taught. She lived in Edinburgh and spent time painting the east coast of Scotland, and the areas around Culross. Black is one of the oldest contributors to the collection, being well into her 80s at the time of the Second World War.

“Crail Harbour” (1920 – 1942), by Ann Spence Black, Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Museums

The artwork contributed by women makes up about twenty percent of the collection which leaves the lion’s share to male artists and their representation of Scotland.  It is also interesting to note that the female artists tended to be in the later decades of their lives. Many of the women were in their late 50s, 60s, and 70s when they were submitting works.  Some of them, like May Marshall Brown, were also carrying on the legacies of others by sending works for consideration from departed family and friends.

The decades had been hard for these women artists who witnessed not only one war but two, but they persevered in their art and interests.  For them and other women artists of this period in particular for Katherine Cameron and the rest of the Glasgow Girls It is not impossible to imagine they remembered fondly their “immortal” days before the turn of the century and hoped to secure a place in history by submitting these tender pieces to posterity.