Andrew Melville (1545-1622)

Andrew Melville was born at Baldovy near Montrose, Angus in the east of Scotland. Both his father and mother died when he was an infant and Melville was raised by his eldest brother Richard. He learned Latin at the grammar school of Montrose, and Greek from a French tutor who had settled in Montrose. Being something of a prodigy, by the time he went to the University of St Andrews, Melville was already able to read the Greek text of Aristotle, a unique and astonishing accomplishment for its time.

Andrew Melville left St Andrews with the reputation of an accomplished scholar, and in 1564 he followed a well worn path for gifted Scottish students when he travelled to France to complete his education at the University of Paris. It was here that he first encountered the teaching of Peter Ramus, the great scourge of Aristotelianism. Some years later, Ramus’s conception of logic played a hugely important part in the reforms Melville introduced into the Scottish universities. From Paris he went to Poitiers where he obtained his first teaching post at the early age of twenty-one. Three years later political difficulties compelled him to leave France. On moving to Geneva he was welcomed by Theodore Beza, a disciple of Calvin and a leading theologian of the Protestant Reformation. It was at Beza’s instigation that he was appointed to the chair of humanity in the academy of Geneva. Melville spent five years in Geneva. In addition to teaching, he mastered further languages, including Syriac, and he benefited from the great influx of Protestant intellectual refugees fleeing France in the wake of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572.

Melville returned to Scotland in 1574, and almost immediately received appointment as Principal of the University of Glasgow at just 29 years of age. His European experience had greatly enlarged his intellectual horizons and this shaped the reform of the University that he undertook. Melville’s principal aim was the better education of Christian ministers and this meant a key element in the reform was pegadogical – to offer the students something better than the rote learning that had marked a philosophical education dominated by Aristotelianism. The reforms he initiated, however, had consequences beyond the classroom, and raised the level of scholarship and the study of philosophy as well. Melville saw himself, and was seen to be, a proponent of Peter Ramus’s logic – the use of critical reason to recover the thought of Aristotle from centuries of scholastic accretion, and to appropriate it for the purposes of serious philosophical and theological reflection. Ramus’s logical system, while held in high regard for a time, proved of little enduring value or interest. Yet Melville’s enthusiasm for it nonetheless prompted a revitalization of teaching and learning in all three ancient Scottish universities in St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and influenced the establishment of a fourth at Edinburgh.

Andrew Melville was a towering figure in Scottish university education for over thirty years. Beginning with Glasgow, Melville enlarged the curriculum, and established chairs in languages, science, philosophy and divinity. He then assisted Alexander Arbuthnot in the reconstruction of the University of Aberdeen in 1575. The changes he brought about in Glasgow were confirmed by charter in 1577, and three years later, charged with effecting similar reforms at St Andrews he was appointed Principal of St Mary's College there in 1580. At St Andrews he taught theology, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac and Rabbinical languages, and became Rector of the University in 1590. His fellow St Andrews graduate, Robert Rollock was a major figure in the establishment of the new University of Edinburgh in 1583/

Melville’s influence extended beyond the universities to the wider Scottish Church, being elected Moderator of its General Assembly in 1582. He played an important part in the organization of the Church along Presbyterian lines, and instigated the prosecution of Bishop Robert Montgomery in the struggles that arose from the attempts to force a system of episcopacy upon the Church of Scotland, as result he was summoned before the Privy Council in February 1584, and had to flee into England in order to escape a charge of treason. It was two years before he could resume lecturing at St Andrews, and while he continued there for twenty years, he was regularly at loggerheads with the Crown, famously calling James the Sixth ‘God's silly vassal’. In 1599 he was deprived of the Rectorship, though made Dean of the Faculty of Theology. Then in 1606 along with seven other clergy he was summoned to London. This led to his imprisonment in the Tower of London, where he was held for four years. Eventually he was freed, but refused permission to return to Scotland, and spent the last eleven years of his life as a professor at the University of Sedan in northern France.

Melville was theologian, humanist and linguist rather than a philosopher. However, his own scholarly work re-awakened interest in Greek authors and thus contributed to a broadening of the curriculum. More importantly, his Ramus-inspired reforms played a hugely important part in the re-orientation of the universities to the immense cultural changes that the Protestant Reformation brought to Scotland. In the spirit of Ramus, he infused them with a critical and energetic spirit that re-invigorated academic life. At the same time, his reforms met with a measure of resistance among the more conservative academic elements, so that their effect was less substantial than appearances suggested. Yet this very fact in part ensured that Melville’s reforming zeal did not lead to a total rupture with the past, and the revitalized universities retained a continuity in their character and function. In this way, Andrew Melville made it possible for Calvinism in Scotland to act as a bridge between the medieval world of John Mair and the philosophy that was to emerge a century after Andrew Melville when Gershom Carmichael and Francis Hutcheson laid the foundations of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary