The ‘Bannatyne Manuscript’ is one of the most important manuscripts in the history of medieval Scottish literature. It contains several texts which do not survive elsewhere.
The manuscript was put together by the merchant George Bannatyne (1545–1607/08) in September 1568 when the plague struck his home city of Edinburgh and he was confined to his house. A note at the end of the manuscript reads:
this buik writtin in tyme of pest / Quhen we fra labor was compeld to rest
[this book was written in a time of plague / when we were compelled to rest from work]
Elsewhere in the manuscript, Bannatyne describes the assembly as ‘ane ballit buik’ [a ballad book] made from ‘copies awld mankit and mvtillait’ [old copies that are grubby and mutilated].
The works in the manuscript are a mixture of texts, both secular and religious. As well as this, Bannatyne seems to have copied the texts from both printed and manuscript sources. A notable text in the manuscript is a shortened, early version of David Lindsay’s morality play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. The version in the manuscript contains some bawdy sections which do not appear in the printed version.
In some ways, the collection has a magpie-like quality. Bannatyne selected works such as an extract from Ane Compendious Buik of Godlie Psalmes [A Compendious Book of Goodly Psalms] (ff. 83r–v), which is a versification of the biblical Book of Psalms, and a section from Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. He also included an erotic satire, In Secreit Place [In Secret Place], by the Middle Scots poet William Dunbar (c. 1459–1530), which describes two lovers meeting in secret. The manuscript feels like Bannatyne’s personal library, reflecting his varied tastes: serious and comic, English and Scottish.
The Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) said of Bannatyne that ‘he had the energy to form and execute the plan of saving the literature of a whole nation’. Scott considered the manuscript so significant that in 1823 he founded a club called the Bannatyne Club. Its aim was to publish rare historical and literary texts related to Scotland.