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Thomas Dempster in United Kingdom

Life and Work

Thomas Dempster (1579-1625), Scottish scholar and historian, was born at Cliftbog, Aberdeenshire, the son of Thomas Dempster of Muresk, Auchterless and Killesmont, sheriff of Banff and Buchan. According to his own account, he was the twenty-fourth of twenty-nine children, and was early remarkable for precocious talent. He obtained his early education in Aberdeenshire, and at ten entered Pembroke Hall, Cambridge; after a short while he went to Paris, and, driven thence by the plague, to Louvain, whence by order of the pope he was transferred with several other Scottish students to the papal seminary at Rome. Being soon forced by ill health to leave, he went to the English college at Douai, where he remained three years and took his M.A. degree.

While at Douai he wrote a scurrilous attack on Queen Elizabeth, which caused a riot among the English students. But, if his truculent character was thus early displayed, his abilities were no less conspicuous; and, though still in his teens, he became lecturer on the Humanities at Tournai, whence, after but a short stay, he returned to Paris, to take his degree of doctor of canon law, and become regent of the college of Navarre. He soon left Paris for Toulouse, which in turn he was forced to leave owing to the hostility of the city authorities, aroused by his violent assertion of university rights. He was now elected professor of eloquence at the university or academy of Nîmes, but not without a murderous attack upon him by one of the defeated candidates and his supporters, followed by a suit for libel, which, though he ultimately won his case, forced him to leave the town. A short engagement in Spain, as tutor to the son of Marshal de Saint Luc, was terminated by another quarrel; and Dempster now returned to Scotland with the intention of asserting a claim to his father’s estates.

Finding his relatives unsympathetic, and falling into heated controversy with the Presbyterian clergy, he made no long stay, but returned to Paris, where he remained for seven years, becoming professor in several colleges successively. At last, however, his temporary connexion with the collège de Beauvais was ended by a feat of arms which proved him as stout a fighter with his sword as with his pen; and, since his victory was won over officers of the king’s guard, it again became expedient for him to change his place of residence. The dedication of his edition of Rosinus’ Antiquitatum Romanorum corpus absolutissimum to King James I. had won him an invitation to the English court; and in 1615 he went to London. His reception by the king was flattering enough; but his hopes of preferment were dashed by the opposition of the Anglican clergy to the promotion of a papist. He left for Rome, where, after a short imprisonment on suspicion of being a spy, he gained the favour of Pope Paul V., through whose influence with Cosimo II., grand duke of Tuscany, he was appointed to the professorship of the Pandects at Pisa.

He had married while in London, but ere long had reason to suspect his wife’s relations with a certain Englishman. Violent accusations followed, indignantly repudiated; a diplomatic correspondence ensued, and a demand was made, and supported by the grand duke, for an apology, which the professor refused to make, preferring rather to lose his chair. He now set out once more for Scotland, but was intercepted by the Florentine cardinal Luigi Capponi, who induced him to remain at Bologna as professor of Humanity. This was the most distinguished post in the most famous of continental universities, and Dempster was now at the height of his fame. Though his Roman Antiquities and Scotia illustrior had been placed on the Index pending correction, Pope Urban VIII. made him a knight and gave him a pension. He was not, however, to enjoy his honours long. His wife eloped with a student, and Dempster, pursuing the fugitives in the heat of summer, caught a fever, and died at Bologna on the 6th of September 1625.

Dempster owed his great position in the history of scholarship to his extraordinary memory, and to the versatility which made him equally at home in philology, criticism, law, biography and history. His style is, however, often barbarous; and the obvious 17 defects of his works are due to his restlessness and impetuosity, and to a patriotic and personal vanity which led him in Scottish questions into absurd exaggerations, and in matters affecting his own life into an incurable habit of romancing. The best known of his works is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Scotorum (Bologna, 1627). In this book he tries to prove that Bernard (Sapiens), Alcuin, Boniface and Joannes Scotus Erigena were all Scots, and even Boadicea becomes a Scottish author. This criticism is not applicable to his works on antiquarian subjects, and his edition of Benedetto Accolti’s De bello a Christianis contra barbaros (1623) has great merits. (1)

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Further Reading

A portion of his Latin verse is printed in the first volume (pp. 306-354) of Delitiae poëtarum Scotorum (Amsterdam, 1637).



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  • Article Name: Thomas Dempster
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  • Description: Thomas Dempster Life and Work Thomas Dempster (1579-1625), Scottish scholar and historian, was born at Cliftbog, [...]

This entry was last updated: November 10, 2016

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