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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

V. The Earliest Scottish Literature

§ 2. John Barbour; The Bruce

In John Barbour, the author of The Bruce, we have a typical example of the prosperous churchman of the fourteenth century. As we may surmise from his name, he had sprung from the common folk. Of his early history we know nothing. We first hear of him in 1357, when he applies to Edward III for a safe-conduct to take him and a small following of three scholars to Oxford for purposes of study. By that date, he was already archdeacon of Aberdeen, and, as an archdeacon, must have been at least twenty-five years old. He probably was some years older. He died, an old man, in 1396, and we may reasonably conjecture that he was born soon after 1320. In those days there was no university in Scotland, and it may be assumed that the archdeacon of Aberdeen was, in all probability, proceeding in 1357 to Oxford with some young scholars whom he was to place in that university; for the Latin of the safe-conduct need not mean, as has often been assumed, that Barbour himself was to “keep acts in the schools.” The safe-conduct was granted him at the request of “David de Bruys,” king of Scotland, at that time a captive in King Edward’s hands; and Barbour’s next duty, in the same year, was to serve on a commission for the ransom of king David. Other safe-conducts were granted to Barbour in 1364, 1365 and 1368; that of 1365 allowing him to pass to St. Denis in France, while, in 1368, he was allowed to cross into France for purposes of study. In 1372 and 1373, he was clerk of the audit of the king’s household; and, in 1373, also one of the auditors of the exchequer. By the early part of 1376, The Bruce was finished; and, soon after, we find him receiving by command of the king (now Robert II) ten pounds from the revenues of the city of Aberdeen. In 1378, a pension of twenty shillings sterling from the same source was conferred upon him for ever—a benefaction which, in 1380, he transferred to the cathedral of Aberdeen, that the dean and canons might, once a year, say mass for the souls of his parents, himself and all the faithful dead. With northern caution, he lays down careful regulations as to how the dean is to divide the twenty shillings among the staff of the cathedral, not forgetting even the sacrist (the name still survives in Aberdeen) who tolled the bell. Other sums were paid to Barbour by the King’s order form the revenues of Aberdeen, and, in 1388, his pension was raised by the king, “for his faithful service,” to ten pounds, to be paid half-yearly at the Scottish terms of Whitsunday and Martinmas. He died on 13 March 1396. Like Chaucer, he received from the king (in 1380–1) the wardship of a minor who lived in his parish of Rayne in Aberdeenshire. On at least one of the many occasions when he was auditor of the exchequer, Sir Hew of Eglintoun, who, as we shall see, is also reputed a poet, served along with him.

Such are the simple annals of John Barbour’s life, as known to us. For thirty-eight years at least he was archdeacon of Aberdeen, then, probably, one of the most prosperous towns in the realm. Fortunately for itself, it was far removed from the border, and had not suffered so severely as most towns in the wars of liberation, though it had been visited by all the leading combatants, by Wallace, by Edward I and by Bruce. The records of the city, unfortunately, do not begin till a few years after Barbour’s death. There is, however, some reason to believe that Barbour was not alone in his literary activity. To the same district and to the same period belong the Lives of the Saints, a manuscript discovered in the Cambridge University Library by Henry Bradshaw, who assigned the authorship to Barbour himself. From Wyntoun we learn that Barbour was the author of other works which are now lost. In many passages he refers to themes treated of in a quasi-historical poem, The Brut, which clearly, in matter, bore a close resemblance to Layamon’s poem with the same title. To Barbour, Wyntoun attributes, also, another lost poem, The Stewartis Oryginalle, which carried back the genealogy of the Stewart kings from Robert II of Scotland to Ninus who built Nineveh—a tour de force excelled only by another Aberdonian, Sir Thomas Urquhart, the translator of Rabelais, who carried the genealogy of his family back to Adam himself. It was perfectly well known that the Stewarts were a branch of the ancient English house of FitzAlan; but, in the bitter feeling against England which by this time had come to prevail in Scotland, it was, no doubt, desirable to find another and more remote origin for the Scottish royal family. The feeling which led to the production of this fabulous genealogy is vouched for by the author of the Lives of the Saints already mentioned, who tells us, in the life of St. Ninian, that a paralytic English lord desired his squire, who had brought home a Scot as prisoner, to put a knife in his mouth with the blade outward, that he might “reave the Scot of his life.” This lord, having been dissuaded from his deed of murder, and having listened to the advice of the prisoner that he should try a visit to St. Ninian’s shrine as a cure for his paralysis, finds the cure long in coming, and says that he might have known, if he had been wise, that a Scotsman of Galloway, as Ninian was, would never help an Englishman, and would prefer to make him ill rather than assist him to recover. The genealogy survives for us in the History of Hector Boece, where we are told that Fleance, the son of Banquo, had a son Walter, who became steward of Scotland—a genealogy which passed from Boece through Holinshed to Shakespeare.

To Barbour also has been attributed a poem on the Siege of Troy, translated from the popular medieval Latin Troy Book of Guide delle Colonne, of which two considerable fragments are preserved with Barbour’s name in a manuscript in the Cambridge University Library. The second fragment is found also in a Douce MS. in the Bodleian Library. There is no doubt that these fragments, which have been utilised to complete an imperfect copy of Lydgate’s translation to Guido, are in the same metre as The Bruce, which is shorter than that of Lydgate. They are also, no doubt, in Scots, but, in all probability, they are in the Scots of the fifteenth, not of the fourteenth, century, and, in detail, do not resemble Barbour’s undoubted composition. More recently, and with much more plausibility, George Neilson has contended that The Buik of Alexander, a Scottish translation from two French poems, is by the author of The Bruce. The similarities of phraseology between The Buik of Alexander (which exists only in a printed copy of about 1580, reprinted for the Bannatyne Club in 1831) and The Bruce are so numerous and so striking that it is impossible to believe they are of independent origin.

To return to The Bruce. This, the work by which the reputation of John Barbour stands or falls, dates from his later middle life. He must have been a man of between fifty and sixty before it was finished. It is in no real sense a history, for Barbour begins with the astounding confusion of Robert the Bruce with his grandfather the rival of John Balliol in claiming the crown. As Barbour’s own life overlapped that of king Robert, it is impossible to believe that this is an accidental oversight. The story is a romance, and the author treated it as such; though, strange to say, it has been regarded from his own time to this as, in all details, a trustworthy source for the history of the period. So confident of this was Wyntoun, writing about a quarter of a century after Barbour’s death, that he says he will lightly pass over the details of Bruce’s career because

  • The Archedene off Abbyrdene
  • In Brwyss his Buk has gert be sene,
  • Mare wysly tretyde in-to wryt
  • Than I can thynk with all my wyt.
  • Like any other hero of romance, Robert has no peer and no superior, though inferior to him and to him only are two other knights, James of Douglas and Edward Bruce. It is only natural, therefore, that, when he fights against the English, the English have much the worst of it, even when the odds are very much in their favour. But, though Barbour is an ardent patriot, he does his best to be fair, and, no doubt, the main historical events are related with good faith and as accurately as tradition allowed. The English are not all villains, the Scots are not all angels from heaven. For Maknab the traitor, who betrayed Christopher Setoun to the English, he reserves his bitterest indignation:

  • In hell condampnyt mot he be.IV, 26.
  • All Barbour’s resources are lavished upon the characters of king Robert and the good James of Douglas. Edward Bruce is a fine warrior, but attains not unto these first two for lack of self control (IX, 661 ff., XVI, 391 ff.). Had he had “mesur in his deid” he might have equalled any warrior of his time, always excepted

  • his brother anyrly
  • To quhom, in-to chevelry,
  • I dar peir nane, wes in his day.IX, 664 ff.
  • Douglas, too, is noble, but he is a darker spirit than king Robert and more cruel in his treatment of the English, for he has greater wrongs to revenge. Nothing becomes him better than his reply to king Robert’s advice not to venture into Douglasdale:

  • Schir, neidwais I will wend
  • And tak auentur that God will giff
  • Quhether sa it be till de or liff.V. 242 ff.
  • Barbour does not often draw full length portraits of his heroes; but, almost at the end of his poem, tells us how Douglas looked and what were his chief characteristics (XX, 511 ff.). The only other with whom he deals as fully is Sir Thomas Randolph, earl of Murray (X, 280 ff.). In both cases he praises, above all else, their hatred of treason (from which the Scots, both in the wars of Wallace and of Bruce, had suffered so much) and their love of loyalty. Douglas, he thinks, can be compared only with Fabricius, who scorned the offer of Pyrrhus’s physician to poison him.

    The kindliness and humour of king Robert he illustrates by numerous instances—his delaying the army, in order that a poor laundress, too ill to be moved, may not be left behind to the mercy of Irish savages (XVI, 270 ff.); his modesty in declaring that he slew but one foe while God and his hound had slain two (VII, 484); his popularity among the country folk, when, disguised, he seeks a lodging and is told by the goodwife

  • all that traualand ere
  • For saik of ane ar velcom here,
  • and that one
  • Gud kyng Robert the Bruce is he
  • That is rycht lord of this cuntre.VII, 243 ff.
  • On occasion Barbour displays a dry, caustic humour characteristic of his country. Once on a time there were such prophets as David, Samuel, Joel and Isaiah,

  • Bot thai prophetis so thyn are sawin
  • That thair in erd now name is knawin.IV, 685 f.
  • Of king Edward he remarks that

  • Of othir mennis landis lalrge wes he.XI, 148.
  • When O’Dymsy let out a loch in Ireland upon Edward Bruce’s men, Barbour’s comment is that though they lacked meat, they were well wet (XIV, 366).

    Barbour does not often moralise; but, here and there, he turns aside from his narrative to express a general sentiment. The most famous passage of this kind is that on Liberty which, to Barbour, born when his country was just emerging from a life and death struggle for its independence, must have had a vividness beyond what the modern reader can realise. Truth to tell, the passage reads better as an extract than in its original setting, where it ends in a curious piece of medieval monkish casuistry.

  • A! fredome is a noble thing!
  • Fredome mayss man to haiff liking;
  • Fredome all solace to man giffis:
  • He levys at ess that frely levys!
  • A noble hart may haiff nane ess
  • Na ellys nocht that may him pless,
  • Gyff fredome fail[char]he; for fre liking
  • Is [char]harnyt our all othir thing.
  • Na he, that ay hass levyt fre
  • May nocht knaw weill the propyrte,
  • The angyr, na the wrechyt dome,
  • That is cowplyt to foule thyrldome;
  • Bot gyff he had assayit it
  • Than all perquer he suld it wyt.
  • And suld think fredome mar to pryss
  • Than all the gold in warld that is.I, 225 ff.
  • Less well known is his praise of love as that which
  • mony tyme maiss tender wychtis
  • Off swilk strenthtis, and swilk mychtis
  • That thai may mekill paynys endur.II, 522 ff.
  • The tears of joy with which Lennox and his men welcome Bruce and his followers, whom they meet half-famished among the hills after they believed them dead, lead the poet on to a curious disquisition on what makes men and women weep (III, 596 ff.). But, generally speaking, these [Greek] are confined to a single verse such as

  • Bot quhar god helpys, quhat may understand?I, 456.
  • The changes and chances of the long-continued war brought home to him very vividly the fickleness of fortune

  • That quhile upon a man will smyle
  • And prik him syne ane othir quhile. XIII, 633 f.
  • Bot oft fal[char]ies the fulys thoucht
  • And wiss men’s etling cumis nocht
  • Til sic end as thai weyn alwayis.
  • A little stane oft, as men sayis,
  • May ger weltir ane mekill wane.
  • Na manis mycht may stand agane
  • The grace of God, that all thing steiris.XI, 21 ff.
  • Barbour was not of the order whose “eye in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.” He was a God-fearing churchman and statesman, who thought it well to put on record his country’s deliverance, before, in the inglorious days of Bruce’s successors, its memory should have perished. And what he aimed at he achieved. Like Scott, whose poetry he inspired, he finds his metre so facile that, at times, he falls into the merest commonplace. The battle of Bannockburn occupies an altogether disproportionate space in the poem. Nevertheless, the description of the battle is Barbour’s masterpiece. He must often have talked with men who had fought at Bannockburn; he obviously had a very clear conception of the manner in which the day was lost and won. In his narrative he combines the qualities which Matthew Arnold assigns to the highest epic style; he is rapid in movement, plain in words and in style, simple in ideas and noble in manner. The only one of these characteristics which can be disputed is the last. But the description which follows speaks for itself. How it appealed to the most Homeric of Barbour’s admirers all readers of Scott’s Lord of the Isles are aware:

  • And quhen schir Gelis de Argente
  • Saw the king thus and his men[char]e
  • Schape theme to fle so spedely,
  • He com richt to the kyng in hy,
  • And said, “schir, sen that it is swa
  • That [char]e thusgat [char]our gat will ga,
  • Haffis gud day! for agane will I;
  • [char]heit fled I neuir sekirly,
  • And I cheiss heir to byde and de
  • Than till lif heir and schamfully fle.”
  • His brydill than but mair abaid
  • He turnyt, and agane he raid,
  • And on schir Eduard the Brysis rout
  • That was so sturdy and so stout,
  • As dreid of nakyn thing had he,
  • He prykit, cryand “Argente!”
  • And thai with speris swa him met,
  • And swa feill speris on hym set,
  • That he and horss war chargit swwa
  • That bath doune to the erd can ga;
  • And in that place than slayne wes he.XIII, 299 ff.