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Medieval Astrology and The Buke of the Sevyne Sagis

By Mary Robbins

The oldest Latin prose text of the story of the seven sages, Historia Septem Sapientum, appears in the Innsbruck MS v. J., dated 1342. Catherine Van Buuren, editor of the Middle Scots version of the tale, The Buke of the Sevyne Sagis, which is contained in the early sixteenth-century Asloan MS, offers this Latin text as the most probable source for the Scottish poem, and agrees with Killis Campbell and Karl Brunner that the Middle Scots text is not connected with the Middle English versions. Although various accounts of the seven wise men who are engaged by the Emperor to instruct his son, and who come to their pupil’s aid by telling stories in order to prolong his life, have generally similar plots, they vary greatly in detail. Two details that appear in the Middle Scots poem and are not found in either the Latin or Middle English versions are the poet’s insistent use of the word ‘science’ and his emphasis on the particular science of astronomy. This essay compares these texts, using the introductory material and two of the tales, and offers a general overview of the varying attitudes in Scotland toward astronomy and its cousin astrology during the Middle Ages. The assertion here is that the Scottish poet’s insistence on portraying astronomy as a proper and useful field of scholarly endeavour in the Sevyne Sagis represents his personal stand on an issue that was of both popular interest and some controversy at the time. It also indicates a politically savvy author adapting source material to produce a text that would appeal to his monarch, James III, during whose reign the poem was written, according to Van Buuren, and whose interest in this area of study is well known.

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