Two Views in Scots of Women by Men

In Praise of Women

(William Dunbar, 1460-1520)

Regarding women, I’ll say the final word:
There are no better things on earth, by god!

Give them praise and worship, laud and honor;
Hold them up above each lesser other.

A man assigns his own shame if he calls
Women weak or wanting, or builds walls

Against their glory. Women love and lave us
At life’s two ends, and in between they save us.

Woe to fruit that, plucked, takes down the tree,
And woe to any man whose idiocy

Shames the branch that bore him; shame is his
If he scorns women more, or loves them less.

They weep to conceive us, and groan as we grow
within their bodies’ beds, and each man knows

with what great pains and truly marvelous cries
they herald our births; then, so as to not disguise

their love, give us neither meat nor bread nor wine,
but let us suck the milk from their very bones.

They are the only comfort we have on earth;
a womanless world would be a world without mirth.

Each day we’re fed by women, dawn to nightfall;
Whoever shuns their hearth is like a fowl

defiling his own nest, who therefore should be
cast into the cold from sane society.

None ought give the time of day to fools
Who cannot see the use of female tools.

Christ himself had no man for a father,
And so made women holy urns forever,

For Christ’s a son, the womb-born king of kings,
And from his glory heaven’s glory rings

Around the mortal (made-immortal) face
Of Mother Mary, overripe with grace.

Thus I say: impress upon all women
Glory, love, and service. This is my vision.

A Satire against Women [1]

(James VI, 1566-1625)

As falcons are by nature fair of flight,
As sparrowhawks excel all birds in speed,
As merlins have in surging greatest might,
As goshawks are by nature given to greed,
As thrushes by their birth are made to sing,
As after Candlemas the larks will spring, [2]

As magpies steal whatever they can bear,
As ravens chase the scent of meat’s decay,
As jays will counterfeit the sounds they hear,
As kites by nature will not kill their prey,
As crows and jackdaws clatter when they play,
As chickens always cackle when they lay,

As hounds by instinct follow hares by smell,
As coursers nicker riding through the night,
As lions stalk their prey to make the kill,
As bears are born with legs of wondrous might,
As tigers flee the water and the cold,
As nature gives the lynx a cruel soul,

As goats delight to climb through cliff and crag,
As deer by nature make the woods their lair,
As squirrels gaily skip from twig to twig,
As foxes can by craft escape the snare,
As badgers through the winter sleep and rest,
As swine by nature love the midden best,

As schools of herring flee the whale in fear,
As great old pikes will eat the young and small,
As suckerfish can stop a ship’s strong rudder, [3]
As hippos by their birth are cruel to all,
As crayfish paddle backward in the lake,
As trout delight to take the fisher’s bait,

As mermaids by their nature hate all men, [4]
As dolphins love all children in the spray,
As, in contrast, crocodiles will kill them,
As porpoises delight in sport and play,
As salmon spawn at every river’s head,
As seal pups on their mother’s milk are fed,

In short, as fowls are given wings to fly,
And as the beasts have legs to walk the ground,
And as the fishes swim the frothy sea,
And as all living things are born and bound
To follow nature’s rules and laws always,
And which they serve in duty without cease,

Just so are women all by nature vain;
They cannot keep a secret unrevealed;
And where they once detect or spy disdain,
They are unable to be reconciled;
They are fulfilled by gossip without worth;
They let the smallest crime consume their earth.

Ambitious all, without regard or shame,
All born to lust for every gilded thing,
Each desiring to win a noble name
By false affection and by flattering,
Great craft they have indeed, yet are all fools;
They lie to stir; their fancies are their schools.

Convince me, then, you dames of worthy fame,
Since for your honor I employed my care,
How women’s faults are hereby less to blame
Because they follow nature everywhere,
And you shall win my praise, despite this scorn,
And nature through your sex shall be reborn.



[1] Although bestiaries and misogynistic diatribes were both common elements of Scots verse, this poem is recognized as being the first text to directly combine the two themes. James obtained much of his knowledge about various animals’ behaviors from Pliny’s Historia naturalis (~78 CE), Lactantius’ attributed poem “The Phoenix” (~300 CE), Gesner’s “De Avibus” from the Historiae animalium (1555), and Cardano’s De varietate rerum (1559).

[2] February 2, a Christian feast day marking the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple.

[3] It was believed that remoras would attach themselves to the hulls of ships in such size and number that they could damage or immobilize the rudder and thus throw the ships off course.

[4] Mermaids and Sirens were often confused and conflated.


William Dunbar and James VI

William Dunbar (c. 1456-1520) was trained as a Franciscan novice in addition to studying at St Andrew’s University, Oxford, and Paris. He served as an ambassador and court poet of King James IV of Scotland until the king’s untimely demise at the Battle of Flodden (1513). The court of James IV represented the golden age of the Scottish Northern Renaissance, and Dunbar epitomized its ideals and abilities in poems that are varyingly comic and serious, bawdy and spiritual, satiric and melancholy. In one of his most famous works, “Lament for the Makars,” Dunbar poignantly eulogizes twenty-four “makars” (the early Scots word for poet, literally “maker”), including such luminaries as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Barbour, Blind Harry, and Robert Henryson. Dunbar’s capacity for eloquently complex wordplay and a comprehensive command of the emotional spectrum placed him among the very best of the late medieval/early Renaissance poets in Scotland.

James VI (1566-1625), son of Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), began his monarchy at age one as king of Scotland, and expanded it in 1603 as James I of a (reluctantly) unified Great Britain upon the death of Elizabeth I (he assumed the English throne as her first cousin, twice removed). Growing up, his scholarship was notable for its literary bent, as later demonstrated in his adult proclivity for penning philosophical treatises as well as poems, not to mention sponsoring a new English translation of the Bible that quickly eclipsed all the rest of his legacy. After an adolescence filled with turbulent politics (including his own kidnapping in 1582 and Elizabeth I’s execution of his mother in 1587), his early reign in Scotland was as noted for its sensible stability as his later rule over Great Britain was for its inefficiency and strife, especially in his clashes with the recalcitrant English Parliament. Although his kingship was, by his death, widely considered a failure, his poems at least can still be studied, not for their particular dexterity, and certainly not for any progressive gender politics, but simply as the works of a monarch more suited perhaps to the library than the throne.

Kent Leatham

Kent Leatham holds an MFA in poetry from Emerson College and a BA in poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. His translations of medieval/ Renaissance Scots-language poetry have appeared in InTranslation, Rowboat, Anomalous Press, and Ezra. His original poetry has appeared in dozens of journals nationwide, such as Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Fence, and Poetry Quarterly. Previously a poetry editor for Black Lawrence Press, Kent currently teaches creative writing at California State University, Monterey Bay.

English translation copyright (c) Kent Leatham, 2019.