The poems gathered in The Gude and Godlie Ballates, published in the 1560s and known as the ‘Dundee Psalms’, were probably written over the previous 20 years at the height of the ferment leading to the Reformation in Scotland. Their authors are most likely the three Wedderburn brothers, James, John and Robert, whose various works represent a key moment in Scottish culture across the written arts.
Between John the poet, James the dramatist, and Robert the prose writer, the complex ferment of a hugely significant historical event was played out within the confines of a single volume, a single family, and, initially at least, a single town. By the end of the sixteenth century, its influence was nationwide – indeed Knox cites it in his History of the reformatioun.
The Ballates are something more than parody of popular texts, and are more like polemical ‘translations’ influenced by and including German models picked up by John, perhaps their main author. They demonstrate the arrival of new theological ideas as well as critiques of the established church, which the brothers had learnt about at the University of St Andrews. In modern terms, we might call them instances of radical détournement.
These ideas were largely Lutheran in principle, and the consequences of proclaiming them could be severe and divisive. James and John were forced into flight and exile, while Robert reconciled himself to some degree with the Church, and became Vicar of Dundee in 1546. He died sometime just before 1560, the year of the first sitting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
On the five hundredth anniversary of the posting of Luther’s Ninety Five Theses, we would like to propose a new exploration of what it might mean to write ‘ballates’ in a ‘gude’ or ‘godlie’ manner, in which all those terms can be subjected to creative scrutiny. In previous projects we have looked, broadly speaking, at regional and national identity (Whaleback City, Scotia Extremis), as well as at political poetry (New Boots and Pantisocracies). Our new focus is on how poetry negotiates the spiritual in as wide a definition of that term as contributors wish to explore.
To that end, we should stress, we are not seeking only work related to organised religion of any denomination as it has manifested itself in modern Scotland. We are instead focussed on the negotiation between ‘the still small voice’ and the poem. Nor should the Biblical origin of that phrase imply we are focussed on Christian spirituality, or indeed on belief in an orthodox sense. Writers of all religions and none are invited to explore the possibilities – and indeed to posit the impossibility – of writing that which is gude and/or godlie and/or a ballat.
As with those other projects, we will initially approach authors to see if they would be interested in producing work to this theme, and then will invite open submission once the project is ongoing. We expect to publish weekly, and, as before, to assess the work emerging for potential collection in a single volume.