John Barbour c. 1316-1395
Called the father of Scottish poetry, Barbour is the author of The Actes and Life of the most Victorious Conquerour, Robert Bruce King of Scotland (1375-76), commonly known as The Bruce, a poem of nearly 14,000 lines celebrating the Scottish War of Independence from England (waged 1306-28), and constituting a record of the deeds of King Robert the Bruce as his army drove the English out of Scotland and forced them to recognize Scotland's sovereignty. The Bruce also chronicles the adventures of Robert's friend James Douglas, his brother Edward Bruce, and his nephew Thomas Randolph. In the poem Barbour champions individual and national freedom and attempts to legitimize the Bruce/Stewart line by genealogical and other means. The Bruce is the earliest surviving major verse narrative written in the Scottish vernacular, commonly called Early Scots-—important to the creation of a specifically Scottish culture, and recognized as an emblem of Scottish unity as a nation.
The exact date of Barbour's birth is unknown, although scholars have suggested approximately 1316. Nothing is known about his parents, ancestors, nor whether he had descendants, although, based on his name, it is likely that his origins stem from the common folk. His passports from Edward III of England permitted Barbour safe travel to, probably, the university at Oxford for study purposes (Scotland did not have its own university at that time). These documents from the King, the first of which is dated 1357, when Barbour was already the archdeacon of Aberdeen, constitute the beginning of the scant historical record on Barbour. He received more safe-travel permits in the 1360s, including authorization to travel to France for scholarly purposes. Around 1376 Barbour was awarded ten pounds by King Robert II, followed shortly thereafter by a pension of twenty shillings. In 1388 his pension was increased to ten pounds. Barbour held the title of archdeacon until his death.
It is uncertain whether Barbour wrote works other than The Bruce and The Stewartis Orygynalle (c. 1385), a genealogical work no longer in existence, concerning the Stewart kings. Although some scholars credit him with having written The Buik of Alexander, a Scottish verse translation of French poetry, and Legend of Troy and Legends of the Saints—being translations of Guido da Colonna's Historia Destructionis Troiae and the Legend Aurea—others, notably Matthew P. McDiarmid and James A. C. Stevenson, vigorously challenge such attribution. The latter scholars also challenge the claim that Barbour wrote a no-longer-extant, semi-historical poem in 1386 called The Brut. Barbour used both oral and written sources to compose The Bruce, composed more than four decades after the death of Robert Bruce. It is written in octosyllabic rhymed couplets. The Bruce covers a time span from 1286 to 1332 and records events which occurred in Scotland, Northern England, and Ireland. Always Barbour is a proponent for Scotland's independence from England andfor the recognition of Bruce as the legitimate king and a great leader.
The Bruce was immensely popular in its own time, both at court and with the general public, who quickly embraced it as, for the most part, fact. The Bruce has sometimes been criticized for its inaccurate retelling of history, particularly since Barbour asserts he is telling the truth as well as presenting a romance. Critics generally recognize that The Bruce must be looked at as a romantic epic, and that the truth Barbour is seeking to express has more to do with being ideologically true, true to his art, and reasonably fair in its characterizations, than it does with factual accuracy. Barbour's conflation of Robert the Bruce with his grandfather into one person could have been deliberate or due to manuscript contamination; regardless, this combination, which irks historians, works in the romance by speeding up the narrative. English historian J. A. W. Bennett has written of the tension between romance and truth in The Bruce and pointed out Barbour's use of witnesses in the text to solidify the veracity of his accounts. Bennett also found remarkable Barbour's skepticism, his disdain for obfuscation, and his refusal to prettify or skip over the unheroic. Another area of focus for critics has been Barbour's influence on and relative merit as compared to later Scottish writers. W. A. Craigie has asserted that Barbour practiced too much poetic license in his distortion of history and has compared him unfavorably to another legendary poet, Blind Harry. Craigie's charges have been answered directly by critic Ian C. Walker, who has insisted that such comparisons are unfair because the two writers belonged to different ages. Blind Harry's literary relationship to Barbour has also been explored by critics Walter Scheps and Grace G. Wilson. Scholars are interested, in addition, in examining Barbour's intentions and in trying to determine his notion of history; A. M. Kinghorn has outlined changing conceptions of historical writing and explained that it is faulty practice to judge The Bruce, a fourteenth century work, in twentieth century terms. Judith Grossman has demonstrated that Barbour broke with convention, but only when it suited his purpose. Lois A. Ebin and Phoebe A. Mainster have focused on Barbour's message of freedom for and loyalty to Scotland, arguing that, for Barbour, everything else, including truth and art, was subservient to promoting the cause of liberty for Scotland and its people.
"Bruce" by John Barbour Vols. II and III [edited by W. W. Skeat] reprint, 1963
"Bruce" by John Barbour Vols. I and IV [edited by W. W. Skeat] reprint, 1968
Barbour's Bruce [edited by Matthew P. McDiarmid and James A. C. Stevenson] 1985
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SOURCE: "Barbour and Blind Harry as Literature," The Scottish Review, Vol. XXII, July-October, 1893, pp. 173-201.
[In the following essay, Craigie contends that historical considerations have caused critics to prefer The Bruce over Blind Harry's Wallace and that, judged purely on literary merit, The Bruce is the inferior effort.]
The misguided man who goes so far astray as to compose a historical poem, that is, a poem professing to be a substitute for history, generally 'wirkis sorrow to himsel', as Dunbar says, or at least to his own memory. To begin with, his hearers or readers may be pleased with this vivid and interesting form of bringing before them their heroes, who are perhaps their own immediate ancestors, and any little deviation from the plain facts does not at all interfere with this pleasure, if it is even noticed. The further back in time the scene is laid the more licence will the poet be allowed, and his audience will not permit want of historic accuracy to detract from their appreciation of the work as a literary product. But now comes your historian, the man who prizes a charter more than the best couplet, and an act of parliament more than a whole canto, and from these tenants of chests and record-rooms laboriously pieces together the history of a period. The afore-mentioned poet gives perhaps the only connected narrative of the events of the time, and now armed...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Robert the Bruce and the Struggle for Scottish Independence, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1897, pp. 1-16.
[In the following excerpt, Maxwell maintains that the merits of Barbour's poem are to be found in its narrative and reflection of Scottish society in the fourteenth century, but that it should not be considered a reliable chronicle of history.]
… Turning now to the Scottish side of the account [of the Scottish War of Independence], the most important work dealing with this period is the well-known poem entitled The Brus, by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen. This writer was born a few years after the battle of Bannockburn, and therefore, though not able to describe as a contemporary the early history of his hero, must have conversed with many persons who took part in the events described. It is consequently of the utmost importance to ascertain what degree of reliance may be placed on his veracity.
Unhappily, Barbour's poem, which is of the deepest interest to the philologer as the very earliest extant specimen of Scottish vernacular literature, has been almost irretrievably discredited as a chronicle by a monstrous liberty which the author takes in rolling three real personages into one ideal hero. In this way he has treated father, son, and grandson—all of whom bore the name of Robert de Brus—and gravely presented them as one and the same...
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SOURCE: "Of the Bruce," in The "Wallace" and the "Bruce" Restudied, P. Hanstein's Verlag, 1900, pp. 85-155.
[In the following excerpt, Brown argues that The Bruce has been extensively altered by a later editor.]
… John Ramsay's hand in The Bruce.
Do the Cambridge and Edinburgh manuscripts of The Bruce preserve the work of John Barbour in its original form, due allowance being made for fifteenth century orthography of the scribe: or do they exhibit the fourteenth century poem in a form more or less recast, amplified and embellished by an editor in the succeeding century? That question without doubt is of far more importance than anything concerning Barbour's authorship of The Stewartis Orygynalle, the Troy Book, Legends of the Saints or The Brut.
Some years ago, after repeated perusal of The Bruce, I began to suspect that another and later hand than Barbour's is discernible at more than one place of the poem. The language, when compared with and tested by dated fourteenth century documents, seemed to suggest contamination after 1375. So too, certain things in the narrative indicated redaction involving a series of changes running through the structure of the work. I purposely avoid a discussion of the diction, preferring rather to leave it to experienced philologists; but as regards certain superficial...
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SOURCE: "Barbour, Blind Harry, and Sir William Craigie," Studies In Scottish Literature, Vol. I, No. 3, January, 1964, pp. 202-06.
[In the following essay, Walker responds to William Craigie's evaluation of The Bruce, contending that Craigie misunderstood Barbour's work.]
There is no doubt that Blind Harry's Wallace has suffered unduly through comparison with Barbour's Bruce, but the late Sir William Craigie,1 in trying to redress the balance, upset it even further in the opposite direction, enhancing the reputation of his favourite only at the expense of denigrating those parts of Barbour's work that are in fact most worthy.
Craigie's evaluation may most conveniently be criticized under the headings of Prologue and Epilogue. Barbour's introduction, in Craigie's opinion, is coldly academic:—"Barbour opens with scholastic remarks on the pleasures of reading and a frigid distinction between truth and fiction."2 But the opening lines of The Bruce are really invaluable as revealing the author's purpose and the light in which he wished his work to be regarded. The poem clearly takes its way from the French medieval romances; if these gave pleasure, reasons Barbour, how much more so would "romances" that described realistically historical persons possessing more interest than shadowy heroes of fiction. And on the other side, there was no...
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SOURCE: "The Supernatural Element in Barbour's Bruce," Massachusetts Studies in English, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring, 1968, pp. 55-65.
[In the following essay, Trace studies the supernatural and religious devices utilized by Barbour in The Bruce.]
Storyss to rede ar delitabill,
Supposs that thai be nocht bot fabill;
Than suld storyss that suthfast wer,
And thai war said on gud maner,
Hawe doubill plesance in heryng.
The fyrst plesance is the carpyng,
And the tothir the suthfastnes,
That schawys the thing rycht as it wes; …
Now god gyff grace that I may swa
Tret It, and bryng It till endyng,
That I say nocht bot suthfast thing!
In the opening lines of his poem, John Barbour suggests that his story will be both "suthfast" in the historical sense and entertaining. Later he refers to his tale as a "romanys" (I. 444-445). Scholars of Scottish literature have differed in the relative amounts of stress which they believe he placed upon the historical and romantic elements of the poem. Agnes Mure Mackenzie considers Barbour's narrative "pure, undecorated," serious biography which makes no attempt to be "poetic,"2 whereas George Neilson compromises by calling The Bruce the "great original historical chanson de...
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SOURCE: "Scottish Historiography in the 14th Centrury: A New Introduction to Barbour's Bruce," Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. VI, No. 3, January, 1969, pp. 131-45.
[In the following essay, Kinghorn provides an overview of The Bruce in the context of the changing nature of historical writing.]
Barbour's account of Bruce's career is a verse chronicle written in the spirit of a noble romance, and its author managed to impart to it a unity rarely found in a continuous historical record.
Nine years ago the present writer opened the introduction to a volume of selections from Barbour's Bruce with the foregoing sentence;1 what follows is intended to elaborate certain comments made in that introduction concerning the work as history.
Preliminary to the study of Barbour's account, it is important to understand how mediaeval scholastics analysed the nature of history. R. L. Poole recalled2 the simple classification of Gervase of Canterbury, a 12th-century Benedictine monk who distinguished in his Chronica two kinds of historical writing, both having the same aim, namely, the pursuit of truth. One was the history proper, conceived as a narrative, founded upon a personal selection of facts and opinions which by its cunning presentation persuaded its audience into accepting the...
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SOURCE: "John Barbour's Bruce: Poetry, History, and Propaganda," Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. IX, No. 4, April, 1972, pp. 218-42.
[In the following essay, Ebin asserts that Barbour's purpose in writing his poem was to emphasize the importance of freedom and loyalty for Scotland]
Five years after the accession of Robert Stewart to the throne of Scotland in 1371, John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, wrote the Bruce, a narrative poem of 13,864 lines which celebrates the deeds of Stewart's grandfather, Robert Bruce. The poem not only won the immediate acclaim of Barbour's contemporaries, but was considered by many chroniclers to be the most elegant and authoritative account of Bruce's reign.1 Although recent scholars have recognized the poem's merit and repeatedly have edited, anthologized, and praised the Bruce, they have been puzzled by many of its features. In the first place, while the Bruce ostensibly deals with the deeds, wars, and virtues of the illustrious King Robert I, the action of the poem begins in 1286 or twenty years before his reign and ends in 1332, four years after his death. In many episodes, Bruce is forgotten entirely and we focus instead on James Douglas, Edward Bruce, or other lesser heroes. Although Barbour devotes considerable attention to these heroes, moreover, he conspicously ignores the exploits of the more prominent Scottish hero...
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SOURCE: "Barbour's Bruce and Harry's Wallace: The Question of Influence," Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. XVII, 1972, pp. 190-24.
[In the following essay, Scheps argues that Blind Harry's indebtedness to Barbour has been exaggerated and that one purpose of the Wallace is to discredit Bruce.]
John Barbour's Bruce (1375) has often been cited as the most important source of Blind Harry's Wallace (ante 1488). George Neilson, for example, calls the Wallace "a rib out of Bruce's side,"1 and J. T. T. Brown suggests that the scribe of the fifteenth-century manuscript containing both poems has taken elements from the Bruce and added them to the Wallace.2 That such views should come to be accepted is not surprising. Both Harry and Barbour deal with the same period in Scottish history. Also, Harry directly cites Barbour's poem (e.g., VII.757-58).3 That Harry knew the Bruce cannot be questioned, but the extent to which he used incidents from it in the Wallace and, equally important, the nature of Barbour's influence upon him have yet to be ascertained. It is with these problems that this study will be concerned.
We might begin by summarizing the major points of contact between the Bruce and the Wallace as given by Brown and Neilson. If they are correct, Harry has taken a...
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SOURCE: "James Douglas and Barbour's Ideal of Knighthood," Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 2, April, 1981, pp. 167-80.
[In the following essay, McKim concentrates on Barbour's portrayal of James Douglas as an ideal knight.]
The little critical attention which John Barbour's Bruce has received, has tended to concentrate on the figure of Robert Bruce, and on Barbour's treatment of him as the type of the ideal king, national hero and military leader.1 The poem's other hero, James Douglas, has attracted little more than passing comment.2 Yet Barbour himself pointed out that the poem has two heroes: "king Robert of Scotland, /… And gud Schyr Iames off douglas, /… Off thaim I thynk this buk to ma" (I, 27-33).3 In the course of the narrative the poet dwells on the exploits of other Scottish knights who ought to be "prisyt" or "lovyt", most notably Edward Bruce and Thomas Randolph, but it is Douglas who is singled out as the joint hero of his romance. This is because, in Barbour's view, he possesses qualities which these others do not, or to a degree which surpasses theirs. Specifically he possesses all the virtues which the poet regards as essential to an ideal knight and subject.
His conception and presentation of Douglas as an ideal knight is largely conveyed by the attention he gives to the education and qualities of the good...
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SOURCE: "Barbour's 'other werk'," in Barbour's Bruce, Vol. I, The Scottish Text Society, 1985, pp. 17-37.
[In the following essay, McDiarmid and Stevenson examine the arguments for Barbour's authorship of works other than The Bruce.]
Barbour's 'othir werk'
… In his Wallace, XII, 1213-14, Hary speaks of Barbour writing other verse than Bruce, and like Andrew Wyntoun and Walter Bower before him he specifies an account of the origin of the Stewarts. One passage in Wyntoun has been understood to attribute to Barbour a 'Brute', a version of Geoffreyof Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. A fifteenth-century MS assigns to him the Scots sections of the De Excidio Troiae of Guido delle Colonne. Modern scholars have made him author of all or some of the Scots Legends of the Saints and, despite the date 1438 supplied by the text, author of The Buik of Alexander. Yet other ascriptions of authorship have been advanced. Each of these attributions will be considered here.
Wyntoun's chronicle (c. 1405-20) makes these four citations of Barbour.
This Nynus had a son alsua,
Schir Dardane lord of Frigia,
Fra quhame maister Johne Barbour,
That mekle couth of this labour,
Translatit weill and propirly,
Fra this Dardane, a genology
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SOURCE: "How to Make a Hero: Barbour's Recipe," Michigan Academician, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 225-38.
[In the following essay, Mainster asserts that Barbour's account of Scottish history is intended to serve his political purpose, for he suppresses any aspects of character or situation that would reflectnegatively on the House of Stewart.]
John Barbour's fourteenth-century narrative recounts a series of historical events surrounding the Scottish Wars of Independence. Imposing a specific pattern on the historical events, The Bruce cultivates an impression of lasting political unity, dynastic continuity, and heroic fulfillment. Barbour manipulates historical data, events, and behavioral characteristics as he reshapes historical persons into literary personas. Shaped to comment positively on the state of the monarchy, The Bruce is the literary vehicle Barbour uses to present his version of history. The verse narrative portrays Robert I as a Scottish hero distinguished primarily in his fight against England for Scottish independence, and secondly, for his military leadership, political astuteness, and concern for the orderly succession to the Scottish throne. The Bruce reflects favorably on the Royal House and several noble families at the center of power. Reinforcing the continuity between the House of Bruce and the House of Stewart, The Bruce is an attempt to affirm...
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SOURCE: "Get Price Off Chewalry: Barbour's Debt to Fordun," Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XXIV, 1989, pp. 7-29.
[In the following essay, McKim focuses on the influence of John Fordun's Chronica Gentis Scotorum on Barbour.]
We know very little about the origins of the Scottish literary tradition: the paucity of surviving medieval manuscripts and the dearth of biographical detail about those authors who can be identified make our earliest writers seem curiously isolated from one another. This is strikingly so in the case of John Barbour who composed The Bruce in the vernacular and in verse in the second half of the fourteenth century. We do know that later Scottish writers knew and drew upon his biography of Robert Bruce, in particular the fifteenth-century chroniclers Andrew of Wyntoun (who wrote in the vernacular) and Walter Bower (who wrote in Latin), and succeeding biographers, notably Hary in his life of William Wallace (c. 1478), and Sir David Lindsay in his "Historie of Squyer Meldrum" (1582).1 Yet, while Barbour has often been referred to as the founder of Scottish literature, his own literary heritage is less easy to establish. Although it is possible to deduce from The Bruce most of the Latin, French and English works which influenced Barbour's narrative, his debt to earlier Scottishwriting is virtually unknown, largely because so few anterior works have...
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SOURCE: "Barbour's Bruce and Harry's Wallace: Complements, Compensations, and Conventions," Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XXV, 1990, pp. 189-201.
[In the following essay, Wilson compares and contrasts Blind Harry's Wallace with The Bruce, pointing out differences in historical reliability, time span, tone, and literary quality.]
In 1488 and 1489, John Ramsay copied Hary's Wallace and John Barbour's Bruce into a pair of manuscripts.1 John Jamieson edited them as a pair in 1820.2 Before and after Jamieson, other readers felt a similar inclination to place the two poems side by side.3 This impulse is natural, for the Bruce and the Wallace are alike in several basic ways. The Bruce, finished by 1378, is the earliest long (13,645 lines in McDiarmid and Stevenson's edition) Scottish narrative poem to survive. It covers the period from 1290 to 1332 and treats Robert Bruce's coming to power and his reign a similar as King Robert I. The poem's expressions of patriotism and liberty are classic. When Hary wrote, some hundred years later, he probably saw his work as augmenting or even "surpassing Barbour's achievement."4 The Wallace too has a large subject: the rise, struggle, and martyrdom of William Wallace, the Scottish freedom-fighter who from 1296 until his execution in 1305 very actively...
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SOURCE: "Chivalry and Feudal Obligation in Bar-bour's Bruce," in The Rusted Hauberk: Feudal Ideas of Order and Their Decline, edited by Liam O. Purdon and Cindy L. Vitto, University Press of Florida, 1994, pp. 77-95.
[In the following essay, Purdon and Wasserman discuss Barbour's emphasis on feudal custom as opposed to chivalric ideal in The Bruce.]
Recently, scholars have begun to demonstrate how, in The Bruce, John Barbour manipulates poetic convention and historical fact for the artistic and poetical purpose of creating a rousing pro-Scots account of the early fourteenth-century wars for independence. Interestingly enough, this growing critical appreciation for the form and content of the oldest extant Scottish "national epic"1 has repeatedly drawn attention to the poem's curiously deliberate rejection of "chivalry," especially in its treatment of Edward Bruce.2
To understand Barbour's treatment of chivalry and chivalric custom, one must first place the poem in the context of the growing concept of the individual that was taking place during the fourteenth century, especially in England where such ideas were to have profound effects on the nature of feudalism and feudal obligation.3 Indeed, the Scottish war for independence and even the need for a Scottish "national epic" may be taken as manifestations of the development of the sense of the...
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Barrow, G. W. S. Robert Bruce & the Community of the Realm of Scotland Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988, 421p.
Studies the life, career, and ideas of Robert Bruce.
Bennett, J. A. W. "History in Verse." In Middle English Literature, pp. 90-120. Edited and completed by Douglas Gray. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
Discusses Barbour's qualities as a writer, particularly his desire to tell the truth and not to obscure facts or prettify.
Boitani, Piero. "The World of Romance." In English Medieval Narrative in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, pp. 36-70. Translated by Joan Krakover Hall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Considers The Bruce as a historical romance and places it in the context of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English narratives.
Goldstein, R. James. "The Ideological Project of Barbour's Bruce." In The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland, pp. 133-214. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993
Analyzes Barbour's intent in composing The Bruce (to help unify Scotland and defend its sovereignty) and explores sources of Barbour's authority (his use of formulas and his connections to government).
Grossman, Judith. "The Correction of a Descriptive Schema: Some 'Buts' in Barbour and Chaucer."...
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