John Knox by Jane Dawson - review by Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall

Taking the High Road

John Knox


Yale University Press 373pp £25 order from our bookshop

In the broad sweep of Scottish history, very few figures have proved as divisive as the fiery Protestant reformer John Knox – by comparison, Alex Salmond looks like everybody’s favourite uncle. To some, Knox is the father of the modern nation. An iconic statue, raised in the late 19th century, stands near the entrance of New College on the Mound in the heart of Edinburgh. For others, he bears primary responsibility for deep scars in Scotland’s social and cultural life, a kind of national psychosis from which it has been trying to recover for centuries. The late George Mackay Brown viewed Scotland as ‘the Knox ruined nation’. His fellow Orcadian poet Edwin Muir published a life, John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist, which might win a prize in any competition for most hostile historical biography. Poets (Hugh MacDiarmid was equally critical) are unlikely to be fans of Knox, whose suspicion of the arts and of anything not explicitly commanded by God in Scripture was elemental. Muir’s revenge was a searing poetic indictment of the society that Knox created in Scotland: ‘The Word made flesh here is made word again.’

In this latest assessment, Jane Dawson, a leading expert on early modern Scottish history (and professor of divinity at New College, working in the shadow of Knox’s statue), offers interesting concluding thoughts on Knox’s legacy, but her focus is firmly on the life itself. She starts with a vignette from

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter