John Barbour Essay - Critical Essays

Barbour, John


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.

Principal Works

The Actes and Life of the most Victorious Conquer our, Robert Bruce King of Scotland [The Bruce] (poetry) 1375-76

*The Stewartis Orygynalle (history) c. 1385

* No written record of this work has survived.

Principal Editions

"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


W. A. Craigie (essay date 1893)

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...

(The entire section is 10572 words.)

Herbert Maxwell (essay date 1897)

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...

(The entire section is 937 words.)

J. T. T. Brown (essay date 1900)

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...

(The entire section is 12929 words.)

Ian C. Walker (essay date 1964)

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.


(The entire section is 1805 words.)

Jacqueline Trace (essay date 1968)

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,...

(The entire section is 4225 words.)

A. M. Kinghorn (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 6016 words.)

Lois A. Ebin (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 10483 words.)

Walter Scheps (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 2325 words.)

Anne M. McKim (essay date 1981)

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,...

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Matthew P. McDiarmid and James A. C. Stevenson (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 8530 words.)

Phoebe A. Mainster (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 5949 words.)

Anne M. McKim (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 8828 words.)

Grace G. Wilson (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5186 words.)

Liam O. Purdon and Julian N. Wasserman (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 6589 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 428 words.)