1. Fortunately, I am relieved of the necessity of recounting the almost incredibly checkered life story of Thomas Dempster [1579 - 1625] thanks to Alexander Du Toit’s 2004 article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Suffice it to say that this Scottish scholar and poet (who haled from Muresk in Aberdeenshire) spent his adult life knocking around various European countries and occasionally England, occupying a number of academic posts which he always managed to lose by becoming involved in an assortment of scrapes and catastrophes. Of the positions he held, the only one that concerns us here is that from 1608 to 1615 he was regent of the four Paris colleges of Lisieux, Grassins, Du Plessis, and Beauvais. He was an almost incredibly prolific writer (he lists fifty in an appendix to his 1622 Apparatus ad Historiam Scotiam). In his lifetime and ever thereafter his literary reputation has primarily rested on his major historical works, most notably Antiquitatum Romanarum corpus absolutissimum, De Etruria regali, and Historia ecclesiastica gentis Scotorum, sive De scriptoribus Scotis, but he also wrote plenty of poetry and drama. Although a large amount of his poetry was included in the 1637 Amsterdam anthology Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (I.306 - 354), he complained to James VI that, while it was esteemed on the Continent, it did not get proper respect at home: NOTE 1
An studiis nostris tacitum atque ignobile nomen,
Quod rex contemnat, cui multos praeferat aula,
Et docti ignorent? Sed me Lutetia claris
Annumerat, mea Palladiae sunt nota Tolosae
Nomina, me vitreo quae lucet fonte Nemansus
Observat, libris Germania et utraque novit
Hesperia, orchestram quatio seu syrmate longo,
Sive stilo heroo chartas implere capaces,
Seu numero traxisse libet graviore severos,
Pagina censoris seu poscat adultera virgam,
Quae male pugnabat blattis.
[“Are my pursuits passed over and have an ignoble reputation because the king holds them in scorn -- at court he gives precedence to many other poets -- and because the learned are unaware of them? But Paris accounts me among the distinguished, my titles are familiar at Pallas’ Toulouse, Nemansus (bright with its crystal fountain) honors me, and Germany and both lands called Hesperia know me, whether I sweep the stage with my trailing tragedian’s gown or fill capacious pages with my heroic verses, whether I choose to write austere verses in graver measures or my naughty page (which did a poor job of fending off the moths) requires the censor’s rod.”]
Were he to return to life today, Dempster could lodge much the same complaint, since of the major Scottish Neo-Latin poets of the seventeenth century he remains one of the most under-studied. This present contribution is a partial attempt to make a beginning by drawing attention to his achievement as a dramatist.
2. According to the catalogue of his writings he appended to his 1622 Apparatus ad Historiam Scotiam, Dempster wrote four or perhaps five plays, NOTE 2 Maximilianus (“Doaci acta, scripta a puero”) and possibly a separate Maximilianus tragicomoedia, Stilico, Jacobus I Scotiae Rex, and Decemviratus Abrogatus, of which only the last survives. This historical tragedy was produced at some college of the Université de Paris at the beginning of May, 1613, NOTE 3 and printed the following July. It dramatizes the story (taken from Book III of Livy and Book XI of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities) of how in 451 B. C. the decemvir Appius tried to get his hands on the chaste Virginia by arranging for a dependent named Claudius to sue for her custody on the grounds that she was actually the daughter of one of his slaves; when his prevailed in a trial (with Appius sitting as judge), her father Virginius stabbed her to prevent her defilement; public disgust over Appius’ behavior and the general high-handedness of his fellow decemvirs led to a revolution against their illegal domination — illegal because they had been granted absolute power for a period of two years, in order to draft the Law of the Twelve Tables but refused to demit office after that time had expired — and restoration of the traditional republican government of consuls, tribunes, and senate. This story (clearly a doublet for the one in which the Rape of Lucretia led to the ejection of Rome’s Etruscan kings) is full of high drama and powerful emotion and offers plenty of scope for rhetorical fireworks.
3. For this reason, the story of Virginia has frequently commended itself to poets and playwrights. It is retold in The Romance of the Rose, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale, and has repeatedly served as the subject for plays, such as the Appius Claudius Crassus and Verginia by “R. B.” (probably Richard Bower), printed at London in 1576 and the subject of a 1988 edition by Judith Hedley, and the undated Appius and Virginia by John Webster, (not printed until 1654), evidently written in collaboration with John Heywood, although this has been debated. But Decemviratus Abrogatus has an interest for the modern reader because it is more than an exercise in neoclassical melodrama. It is a play that resonates with two contemporary intellectual developments.
4. In the first place, in his little introductory paragraph Specta hic fortunae lusum, Dempster invites us to read this play on an ethical level by regarding its major characters as personifications of various ethical qualities, good and bad. Although admittedly in France what modern scholars have taken to calling “religious antitheatricalism” was not the contentious issue that it was in England, one cannot shake off the impression that he had recently been reading John Heywood’s 1612 An Apology for Actors, in which (in its first and third sections or “Books”) its author had defended the theater from its Puritan detractors, arguing that drama serves a useful purpose by providing us with positive examples of good behavior for our imitation and bad for our avoidance, and so has the capacity to improve morals and character, and therefore to serve a salutary social purpose.
5. Decemviratus Abrogatus also deserves our attention because to a degree remarkable for Renaissance drama it tolerates and even glamorizes revolutionary political activity. In order to comprehend what its author was attempting to do, one must have some understanding of the immediate context in which it was written. For Dempster’s play was composed and performed against the background a debate raging within the Université de Paris, precipitated by King James’ theological arguments advanced in connection with the Oath of Supremacy, having to do with the nature of kingship and the proper relation of Church and state. NOTE 4 On the one hand there were those who maintained the traditional view that the Church was entitled to intervene and remove a heretical sovereign (the theory that, for example, permitted Pius V’s 1570 Bull Regnans in Excelsis excommunicating Elizabeth and absolving her subjects of their loyalty to her). Ranged against them were those who accepted James’ theory of divine right and sacral kingship, according to which a king had a special relationship with God, was answerable only to Him, and therefore was beyond the reach of any earthly power, including that of the Church.
6. Into this debate stepped the prominent Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez, who in 1612 weighed in with Tractatus de legibus ac Deo legislatore and in 1613 followed this up with Defensio Fidei Catholicae et Apostolicae Adversus Anglicanae Sectae Errores. NOTE 5 He contended that ultimate political authority is not immediately granted to a king by God, but rather to the civil community of the people he governs, and is only entrusted to a king by his people. Accordingly, the community is entitled to revoke this trust upon just and sufficient cause, namely for illegal or tyrannical behavior. In the following year, the royalist (“Gallicist”) view prevailed, and, as Asch (p. 53) wrote:
In 1614 the Parisian parlement condemned the Defensio Fidei written by Francisco Suarez...To condemn this book implied that the parlement preferred James’ ideas to those of the papalists.
But in 1613 the subject was still open for debate. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which Suarez’ argument was radical and new (unless he had appropriated it from the 1579 philosophical dialogue De Iure Regni apud Scotos by the prominent and internationally respected Scottish Humanist George Buchanan), and how startling it must have seemed to scandalized contemporaries. There would be nothing surprising for Catholic theologian to stand up for the traditional view that the Pope had the authority to depose sovereigns who were deviant in matters of faith and doctrine. But to extend this authority to the sovereign’s people and to allow them to depose a sovereign for purely secular malfeasances was a spectacularly new innovation in Catholic political theory.
7. And in reading Decemviratus Abrogatus, one cannot help remarking how neatly the story of Virginia and Virginius serves to illustrate Suarez’ political thinking. In this play, the senate and its magistrates are represented as the authentic repository of Roman political authority, and the revolution they engineer against the government of the decemvirs as a legitimate exercise of that authority. NOTE 5 It seems impossible to dismiss the impression that Dempster selected this subject precisely because it resonated with a subject currently being intensely debated within the Université de Paris.
8. Decemviratus Abrogatus is based on the two ancient sources that tell the Virginia story, Livy, Ab Urbe Condita III.xliv - lix and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities XI.xxviii - xliv. In general, Dempster follows his sources with reasonable fidelity, but in one important respect he is unfaithful to the traditional historical record. In his sources, the tragedy of Verginia and Verginius — his Virginia and Virginius — and the removal of the decemvirs occurred at a time when Rome was resisting a comparatively minor border incursion by the Sabines and Aequi (Livy III.xxxviii, Dionysius of Halicarnassus XI.iii.3). In Dempster’s play this is played out against the background of a far more dangerous war waged against Rome by an alliance of Italian peoples under the command of Octavius Mamilius, dictator of of Tusculum, fought (as we are told at 59f.) for the purpose of restoring his father-in-law Lucius Tarquinius Superbus to power at Rome. In the course of this war the alliance won an important victory in the Battle of Lake Regillus and then marched on Rome, where they threatened its very existence. The problem is that this war was fought in 498 B. C., whereas the fall of the decemvirate is traditionally assigned to 449 B. C. It may seem strange for a writer whose reputation primarily rested on his prowess as an ancient historian to falsify history in this way, but his factual misrepresentation was made for sound dramatic purposes: this change allowed him further to blacken the decemvirs’ image by representing them as shockingly derelict in their duty when they decline to provide adequate support for the Roman army in the field, and to intensify the emotional impact of his tragedy by making it unfold in an atmosphere of public hysteria. And indeed, the poor quality of their leadership during the critical times of this war provide sounder and more defensible grounds for the decemvir’s removal than Appius’ mistreatment of Virginia: their continuance in office would have endangered the continued existence of the Roman community. Then too, the decisive efficiency with which the democratically elected consuls and the senate cope with the same crisis at the end of the play provides a striking contrast to the indifferent dithering of the decemvirs.
9. As can be seen from the large number of corrections listed on the Textual Notes page, the printer made a hash of his work, and a number of his mistakes (such as failure of an adjective to agree with its noun in gender, or a verb to agree with its subject in number) strongly suggest that he was quite ignorant of the Latin language. The volume is problematic in other ways which in all probability cannot be blamed on the printer. In the first place, in the academic drama of the time it was normal to place at the beginning of each scene the names of the speaking characters who appear therein. Sometimes (as in all the scenes of Act II) this is done. At other times we are only given the name of the first speaker in a scene (as in all the scenes of Act I), or an abbreviated list (as in, for example, III.ii, where the single word SENATUS is given, but the names of the individual senators who participate are not). I have not felt entitled to alter the text so as to make it conform to an etiquette which may or may not have been observed at the time and place Dempster wrote (I mean the etiquette then prevalent in the English universities and in Anglo-Catholic schools and colleges in France and elsewhere, which may have adhered to English rather than local French conventions, a subject with which I have insufficient familiarity to form an opinion).
10. A considerably more worrisome issue is the text’s deviation from the standard definition of a “scene” in contemporary academic drama. A new scene was regularly deemed to begin whenever there was any discontinuity of time or place, and often a new one was reckoned at a point when there was no such discontinuity but when a new speaking character entered (in such cases, scenic divisions can almost be considered a somewhat clumsy way of marking entrances and sometimes exits as well). But there are many points in Decemviratus Abrogatus where there is a change of setting, sometimes, perhaps, involving a change of dramatic time, or new grouping of speakers but no new scene is indicated:
III.iv Most of the scene is set at Virginius’ household, when Virginia’s kinsmen command a messenger to inform her father and the army of her mistreatment. At 1838ff. we suddenly cut away for a very brief transaction in which Appius orders his own messenger to take his own letter to Antonius, the decemvir commander of the army, warning him to be on his guard. Then we are quickly returned to the home of Virginius.
III.v At 1941 the setting shifts from the army’s camp to what is identified at the beginning of the scene as the senate, but should more properly be the Rostra since the first day of Virginia’s trial commences here.
IV.v And from the camp to the senate at 2741.V.vi The scene begins with a consular election. At 2951ff. the lictor is instructed to go and arrest Claudius. Then at 2957 we suddenly find Claudius alone, presumably at home, and after he delivers a lengthy monologue the lictor arrives to take him away
11. In compiling this list I am not just pedantically chiding Dempster for violating etiquette in scene-indentification, for some if not all of these instances just listed appear to raise a question about how the play was staged: how could he indulge in these changes in setting without bewildering his audience? It may seem that discussion of this subject is hampered by the fact that we are unsure where exactly Decemviratus Abrogatus was performed and therefore cannot inquire exactly what physical resources Dempster had at his disposal. It can be shown that his play was produced within the Université de Paris, but we do not know where within the Université the performance occurred and so this subject seems impossible to pursue by searching for other plays performed at the same venue. From his text, however, we can gather a fair amount about how these transitions were in all probability staged..
12. It would seem likely that scenes in which we abruptly cut from one location to another were staged in such a way that one side of the stage represented one locale, and when a sudden transition was made this was achieved by shifting the audience’s attention to the other side of the stage (conceivably with the help of locale-identifying placards). At least given a reasonably large stage, so that there would be an appreciable distance between its two sides, and with the help of some means of representing interior scenes (necessary for those episodes when we see various characters confined in prison cells), Decemviratus Abrogatus could be successfully produced. Nevertheless, one of the features of the Graeco-Roman drama which Renaissance playwrights sought to imitate was that, although the ancient playwrights used next to no stage directions (and the few that do exist mostly have to do with sound effects), they routinely ”encoded” stage directions into the words of their texts by including verbiage that functioned as entrance cues, exit cues, instructions on how lines were to be delivered, and the like. NOTE 7 Dempster would have done well to mark his changes of setting verbally, for the better orientation of his original audience and even more so for the benefit of his readers.
13. In one other way, the dramaturgy of Decemviratus Abrogatus could have been improved. At 2092ff. Dempster briefly summarizes Virginius’ impassioned and inflammatory address to the crowd at Livy III.l, and the similar descriptive passage at Dionysius of Halicarnassus XI.xxxvii.6f. In both historians, this address is critically important for the development of their narrative, since it marks the pivotal moment when the popular uprising against the decemvirs first begins. Dempster failed to realize this and exploit it for good dramatic effect: he should have made this passage longer (and directed more to the crowd) and immediately followed it with a violent reaction from the onlookers. Even at the expense of shortening some of the rhetoric of the trial episode, the scene should have built towards this climactic moment. Indeed, Act IV is shorter, the remaining material in Act III could have been moved there, and this point in the narrative would have been a fine place to end the present Act.
14.. I take this opportunity to record my gratitude to Drs. Jamie Reid Baxter and Martin Wiggins for the help and advice they supplied me during the preparation of this edition. Among other things, Dr. Baxter furnished me with a photographic reproduction of the original 1613 volume (the photography was done by Miles Ker-Peterson of the University of Glasgow with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland), and Dr. Wiggins provided the information about some of the individuals who acted in the 1613 performance.
NOTE 1 From Dempster’s poem Divinatio ad augustissimum potentissimumque regem Iacobum VI (Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum I.323f.). Nimes took its name from Nemesanus, the presiding deity of a local spring, and “both lands called Hesperia” refers to Italy and Spain.
NOTE 2 There are two sources of information for his plays, the catalogue of his writings he himself compiled, printed in the 1622 edition of his Historia Ecclesia Gentis Scotorum, and the one (attributed to a 1633 catalogue of Bolognan academics compiled by Giovanni Alidosi) printed in Thomas Coke’s 1723 edition of Dempster’s De Etruria Regali. These are largely, but not quite, in agreement. The 1723 list distinguishes his youthful Douai Maximilianus from a second play of the same title identified as a tragicomedy: we cannot be sure whether this latter play is a reworking of the earlier one or an entirely different work. In the 1723 list Stilico is described as Sammaxentii and Decemviratus Abrogatus as Lutetiae. In his article on Dempster in the original Dictionary of National Biography Henry Bradley wrote “...he went, for what reason is not known, to St. Maixent in Poitou, where he published a tragedy entitled ‘Stilico.’” Surely he misinterpreted the locatives Sammaxentii and Lutetiae as meaning “printed at St. Maixent and Paris,” when they actually mean “written and acted at St. Maixent and Paris,” and printed Stilico is a bibliographical phantom.
NOTE 3 That our play was indisputably acted somewhere within the Université de Paris is shown by the fact that Samuel Brochard, who played the part of Horatius, contributed Greek commendatory verses to Dempster's 1613 edition of Rosinus’ Antiquitatum Romanorum Corpus, in which he identifies Dempster as his teacher (or at least these verses stand in the 1640 reprint, the earliest version I have seen). A few other actors are identifiable individuals: Henri Arnaud (Icilius) eventually became Bishop of Angers, Guy de Lopriac (Numitorius) was a future member of the Breton Parlement, and Louis Michel of Meaux (Algidius and one of the Furies) was a royal counselor in the 1640’s.
NOTE 4 This debate is the subject of the chapter “The Anglo-Gallican Moment” in Ronald G. Asch, Sacral Kingship Between Disenchantment and Re-enchantment: The French and English Monarchies 1587-1688 (New York - Oxford, 2014), especially pp. 51ff.
NOTE 5 Dempster could not have read Suarez’ Defensio at the time he wrote and produced the play: from a notice at the beginning of the published version of Decemviratus Abrogatus we know that they play was acted on May 1 - 2, 1613, whereas Suarez’ Defensio is prefaced by a dedicatory epistle dated June 13 of the same year.
It is worth pointing out that Dempster was concerned with the issue of revolutionary legitimacy. In IV.iv the senators express anxiety over the need to prevent anarchistic outbursts by the plebeians and a breakdown of discipline within the army: a tyrannical ruler can only by deposed by the authentic representatives of the people, i. e., a revolution can only be staged by the senate and Rome’s elected magistrates.
NOTE 6 We can exclude the possibility that the Furies remained continually visible to the audience after their first appearance, seated to one side of the stage and witnessing the ongoing action, since their parts were doubled and the actors playing them also played the roles of Sempronius and Algidus respectively.