David Lindsay’s play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis is a work of searing social satire, which is arguably the best example of a morality play in the British tradition. It is also the only surviving dramatic text from pre-Reformation Scotland.
The play dates from the 1550s and was written in Older Scots, the language spoken in lowland Scotland between the mid 15th and the end of the 17th centuries. Lindsay wrote at a time of social, political and economic upheaval in Scotland and the work is a plea for reform on several levels.
What is the play about?
The play explores the limits of dramatic performance, blurring the boundaries between the world of the play and the world of the audience. It displays an awareness of the plight of the rural poor, targets clerical corruption, mocks the Catholic view that the translation of the Bible was heresy and shows a concern for the proper behaviour of a monarch.
The play is divided into two parts – the first focusses on the reform of the monarch and the court, while the second part deals with the power of Parliament. The two parts of the play may reflect Lindsay’s dissatisfaction with the system of rule by a monarch. Between 1513 and 1552 there had been an unstable ‘minority rule’ in Scotland. The king, James V, had come to the throne at just 17 months old when his father was killed at the Battle of Flodden Field on 9 September 1513. This meant that the country was ruled by powerful nobles and their factions.
When was the play written and published?
The play was first performed in some form in 1540. Unusually for a drama of this date, there are three separate accounts of a performance. Two versions of the play survive – one is a printed text dating to 1602 and the other is an earlier and much shorter version which appears in the Bannatyne Manuscript. This version contains some bawdy sections which do not appear in the printed text. The edition you can see here dates from 1604 and is a re-issue of the 1602 edition.
Who was David Lindsay?
Sir David Lindsay or ‘Lyndsay’ (c. 1486–1555) was the son of a wealthy family from Fife. He spent much of his life at the royal court, where he held a post as herald and was also appointed as an usher to James V (1512–1542) soon after the king’s birth. Despite living so much of his life at court, Lindsay was a popular and eloquent voice of the Scottish Reformation, whose literary work often focusses on the need for reform in Scotland.