David Hume of Godscroft. The British Union: A Critical Edition and Translation of David Hume of Godscroft's De Unione Insulae Britannicae. Ed. and trans. Paul J. McGinnis and Arthur H. Williamson. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002. xv +333pp.

Christopher Ivic
SUNY, Potsdam

Ivic, Christopher. "Review of David Hume of Godscroft. The British Union: A Critical Edition and Translation of David Hume of Godscroft's De Unione Insulae Britannicae. Ed. and trans. Paul J. McGinnis and Arthur H. Williamson." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):10.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-3/revhume.htm>.


  1. In providing a critical edition and translation of David Hume of Godscroft's (1558-1630?) De Unione Insulae Britannicae, Paul McGinnis and Arthur Williamson have done students and scholars of early modern Britain a tremendous service. As the first translation of Hume's tract, this edition makes readily available a much neglected text. Moreover, McGinnis and Williamson convincingly argue in their introduction that knowledge of Hume's text and the cultural context from which it emerged provides a fuller understanding of a crucial moment in the history of British political thought. By translating this work, the editors "hope to make British civic culture and the Atlantic republican tradition more intelligible and approachable" (xi). Their informative introduction, their admirable translation, and their rich notes go a long way towards making this possible.

  2. The fifty-three page introduction that prefaces the translation is much appreciated. The introduction begins not with the author (Hume is not mentioned until nineteen pages into the introduction) but with George Buchanan's and Andrew Melville's contributions to "the civic humanist tradition in Renaissance Scotland" (19). While this may prove familiar ground to students and scholars of Renaissance Scotland, those less familiar with sixteenth-century Scottish politics and culture will appreciate the picture that the editors paint of the complex world of Scottish political writings. Indeed, when the editors come to name Hume as the successor to Buchanan and Melville, as the culmination of the civic humanist tradition, they have provided a fine account not only of the two radical writers but also of how Hume, in various ways, continues their work. The importance of Hume's tract, especially in the context of Buchanan's and Melville's writings, is summed up nicely in the following sentences: "The De Unione is the republican riposte to The True Lawe of Free Monarchies, the civic counter-piece to the Basilikon Doron. It seeks to re-claim the classical vocabulary. It proposes an alternative Britain" (30). The introduction's greatest strength, then, is its passionate and thoughtful inclusion of Hume within the realm of a larger framework of British civic culture.

  3. While McGinnis and Williamson's wonderful account of the contribution of Scottish writers to British civic humanism does a stellar job of establishing the intellectual context for Hume's work, the editors could have delved deeper into the topic of the Union of the Crowns and the political debate that it sparked. Surprisingly, there is little discussion of Hume's Union treatise within the context of the numerous Union tracts (print and manuscript) that were produced by English and Scottish writers in 1604 and 1605. How does Hume's vision of Union compare to those of fellow Scottish writers, such as Robert Pont, author of De Vnione Britanniae, which was printed in Edinburgh in 1604? William Cornwallis's The Miraculous and Happie Vnion of England & Scotland was published in 1604 in both London and Edinburgh; are there signs that Hume engaged with this pro-Union English text? Some union-tract authors are mentioned in footnotes -- Henry Spelman, John Gordon, John Hayward, and John Thornborough -- but a more sustained discussion of the ways in which Hume, who describes himself as a "Scoto-Britannus," drew upon and responded to other writings on the union would have been fruitful.

  4. Hume's De unione is divided into two parts. The tractatus primus, which was published in London in 1605 (and reprinted at Paris in 1639), argues in favor of the Anglo-Scottish union. The tractatus secundus explores the political and constitutional means by which such a union could be effected. Hume's second tractatus never made it into print (Hume attempted unsuccessfully to have it published anonymously in Bordeaux in 1610); it does, however, exist in multiple manuscript copies housed in the Edinburgh University Library, and in single manuscript copies in the National Library of Scotland and the British Library (the editors use Advocates MSS, 31.6.12 in the National Library of Scotland as their text). Unfortunately, the editors say little about the manuscripts themselves. They do describe the second tractatus as a "formal Latin treatise" (50), but we learn nothing about the physical description of the manuscript, the scribal hand or hands, or the possible community of readers of these multiple manuscript copies. More description of the manuscripts may have provided the groundwork for a better understanding of the production, circulation, and reception of Hume's manuscript tractatus.

  5. The editors describe Hume's British Union as a unique text. It is not, of course, unique in the sense of being the only union tract to have appeared in the early seventeenth century, for many print and manuscript tracts and treatises were written and/or published. Also, in many ways it has much in common with other (pro-)union works -- Hume's references to Anglo-Scottish intermingling overlaps with Bacon's reflections on mistio or mixture in his A Briefe Discovrse, Touching the Happie Vnion of the Kingdomes of England, and Scotland (London 1603). Where it is unique is in its commitment to thinking through the union, to providing a sustained and surprisingly concrete vision of a union of England and Scotland. Moreover, Hume's text is refreshingly contemporary, especially in its emphasis on the benefits that will accrue in the wake of cultural overlap, and its call for an end to Anglo-Scottish hostilities. The work that McGinnis and Williamson did to make Hume's critical voice available to scholars and students of seventeenth-century British history, politics, and culture is very much appreciated.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk

2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).