John Barbour Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

John Barbour c. 1316-1395

Scottish poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.