John Grierson 1486-1564

From Book Owners Online

John GRIERSON 1486-1564

Biographical Note

Perhaps a member of the family of Grierson of Lag in Dumfriesshire. Grierson was among the first students of theology at King’s College, Aberdeen. In 1511, he was procurator of the Aberdeen Dominicans, becoming prior in 1512. Hector Boece described him as part of William Elphinstone’s circle of reformers, comprised of scholarly clerics interested in liturgical and church reform. Grierson left Aberdeen, and after a short time in Edinburgh, he moved to St Andrews and assumed the role of prior. In 1523 he became Provincial of his order in Scotland, a role which he held until the reformation. From 1542 he was a Professor of Divinity, and by 1553 he was the dean of the faculty of theology in St Andrews, a position which he held until 1559, when he was replaced by the protestant John Winram.

Grierson was a Catholic Reformer, and one of the theological experts at the Catholic reforming Provincial Councils of 1549 and 1559. He was one of the commission of six appointed by the council of 1558-59 to try to enforce the provisions of the Council of Basle against concubinage. Though he was forced to recant his Catholicism in 1560, he remained a Catholic and defender of his faith until his death in 1564.


The original edition of Durkan and Ross records twenty-one books owned by John Grierson. This number was considerably expanded by the discovery of a list of one-hundred books, found inside an edition of Aristotle Opera Omnia (Venice, 1488/89), previously owned by Grierson. John Durkan and Julian Russell date the list as 1522, as Grierson’s ownership inscription does not include his title as Provincial, which he was appointed in 1523. Durkan and Russell state that in consequence of this discovery “Grierson now appears as owner of more printed books (even if many are not yet identified) than any of his contemporaries.” (Durkan and Russell, p.40).

Grierson’s early library was shaped by his interest in Catholic reform, but also contained works typical of Renaissance interests. Included among these was Gabriel Biel’s Commentary on the Mass, a book which Stephen Mark Holmes has demonstrated was often owned by Scottish clerics associated with liturgy and church reform. His early library also contained several works of Thomas Aquinas, including a copy of Tertia Pars edited by the Dominican Thomas Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534). Dominican authors are well represented in his library, and include Rosa aurea by Sylvester Mazzolini (1456/1457-1527). Grierson also owned copies of Erasmus’ Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian soldier) and De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia.

Grierson was influential in shaping the library of the Dominicans in St Andrews. Many of his books were used communally and include ownership inscriptions of both the friary and Grierson. Anthony Ross states that the inscriptions on the books belonging to the library demonstrate that Grierson was “devoting part of his own earning to buy books which he personally wished to use but were intended also to enrich the community library. The books, therefore, reflect his personality and are also an indication of how the St Andrew’s library was developing under his influence” (Ross, p.27). The library at St Andrews is described by Ross as “indicative of new learning” as it contained a large patristic element represented by the books of St Cyrpian, Basil, Irenaeus and Fulgentius, pointing to an interest in Christian humanism, as well as classical authors such as Pliny, Cicero, and Livy.

Surviving volumes identified as Grierson’s include:

Erasmus' Novum Testamentum (Basle, 1522) (St Andrews Bib BS1901.E3B22)

Erasmus’ edition of the sermons of St Cyprian Sermo de zelo et liuore… (Antwerp, 1522) (NLS RB.m.485)

John Major’s Historia Maioris Britanniae (Paris, 1521) (St Andrews TypFP.B21BM)

and Scotus Sedulius fl.(848-860) In omnes Epistolas Pauli collectaneum (Basel, 1528) ([C.17.32EUL C.17.32])

Characteristic Markings

Grierson often used the form “Greson” when he signed his name. A Characteristic inscription reads “Codex communis librarie fratrum predicatorum civitatis Sanctiandree in usu et ex industria R.p.f Johannis greson prouincialis.”


  • Holmes, Stephen Mark. Sacred Signs in Reformation Scotland: Interpreting Worship, 1488-1590 Oxford, 2015
  • Durkan, John. "Grierson, John (c. 1486–1564?), prior of St Andrews." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Durkan, John, and Julian Russell. “JOHN GRIERSON’S BOOK-LIST.” Innes review 28, no. 1 (1977)
  • Durkan, J. & Ross, A. Early Scottish Libraries. Glasgow, John S. Burns, 1961.
  • Ross, Fr Anthony, 'Libraries of the Scottish Blackfriars, 1481-1560', Innes. Review 20, no. 1 (1969)