Robert Henryson Henryson, Robert - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Robert Henryson c. 1430-c. 1506

(Also Henrysoune and Henrysone) Scottish poet and fabulist.

The following entry provides an overview of Henryson's life and works. For additional information on his career, see LC, Volume 20.

Henryson is recognized as one of the greatest poets of medieval Scottish literature. Highly influenced by the work of Chaucer, he is considered the most famous makar, or Scottish poet, after William Dunbar. His poems and fables are renowned for their irony, human perspective, characterization, and narrative talent. Only recently gaining the appreciation of scholars and critics, his unique literary perspective continues to be explored.

Biographical Information

Very little verifiable data exists on the life of Robert Henryson. Most of what is known has been deduced from historical evidence and references to him in literature, most printed over seventy years after his death. Scholars generally presume that Henryson was the schoolmaster of the grammar school of Benedictine abbey in Dunfermline, Fife, as a result of several recovered city records and the title page of the 1569 edition of his Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, referencing this position. Many critics have also asserted that like most of his contemporaries in this occupation, Henryson was probably a certified notary public with considerable legal training; this is supported by much of the vocabulary chosen in his work. A Robert Henryson with a bachelor and master of arts degree in canon law also appears in the registry of the University of Glasgow in 1462. Assuming this name refers to the author in question, he probably received his degree while studying abroad, an assumption which is also supported by contemporaneous sources referring to him as “Master Robert Henryson.” The only definitive allusion to Henryson is in regards to his death. In the poem Lament for the Makars, written circa 1506, William Dunbar lists him among two dozen deceased poets: “In Dunfermelyne he [Death] hes done roune, / With Maister Robert Henrysoune.”

Major Works

Because there is so little is known regarding the life of Henryson, it is difficult to identify the dates of publication of his works. Most are assumed to have been written in the years from 1450 to 1490. His most critically acclaimed poem, The Testament of Cresseid, has been asserted to be the preeminent narrative in medieval Scottish literature. Initially attributed to Chaucer and first appearing in Francis Thynne's 1532 edition of Chaucer's works, this work is highly evocative of Chaucer's acknowledged structure and style. It was not until 1593 that Henrie Charteris suggested an alternative authorship, publishing The Testament of Cresseid, Complyit be M. Robert Henrysone, Sculemaister in Dunfermline. Providing a brief summation of its precursor, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, this poem delves into the tragedy of Cresseid following her abandonment by Diomede. Henryson explores Cresseid's spiritual and psychological development, as he simultaneously incorporates ingenious symbolism and imagery into the plot. The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian is Henryson's famous collection of imaginative Aesopic fables. Fabillis also includes several stories of Reynard the fox that belong to the beast-epic, a medieval cycle of folktales. Henryson's collection includes his preeminent fables “The Lion and the Mouse,” a tale of mutual trust and power, “The Cock and the Jasp,” illustrating materialism and pragmatism, and “The Preaching of the Swallow,” demonstrating prudence and the consequences of gluttony. The stories of The Morall Fabillis are recognized for their significant employment of moralitas, a broad, philosophical implication integrated into the narrative as a lesson and advocating a political or spiritual interpretation of the text. Henryson's lesser-known poems include Orpheus and Eurydice, in which he exposes the thematic discord of the received version, “Robene and Makyne,” a comical love-debate in the style of the French pastourelle, and “The Bludy Serk,” a ballad-like tale of a lady's rescue by a wounded knight.

Critical Reception

Although Henryson attracted much praise from his contemporaries, his work was largely neglected from the seventeenth century until its rediscovery in the twentieth century, when it was hailed as some of the greatest Scottish poetry of the era. A. M. Kinghorn has contended that Henryson's conservative morality combined with traditional themes and structures obscured his poetry for many years, creating the impression of a nondescript and typical medieval author until his style was thoroughly examined. Consequently, reviews of his work were generally limited to historical literary reviews and broad studies of Chaucer and his contemporaries for several centuries. Modern analytic evaluation of Henryson's work has generally focused on The Testament of Cresseid and The Morall Fabillis, regarded as his two masterpieces. Consistently appraised as an innovative take on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, the Testament is most famous for Henryson's clever infusion of his contemporaneous morals and style into a classic tale. Though initially criticized as lacking the wit of Chaucer and taking an overly ruthless approach with Cresseid, further examination revealed the poem's superbly crafted structure and manipulations of the conventions and themes found in Troilus, clearly beyond the scope of any other makars. The Testament is currently recognized as an impressive and complex tragic narrative. The Morall Fabillis has attracted commendation for its ironic humor and great detail in imagery. Though initially denounced for its repetitive moral lectures and its verbosity, more recent criticism has extolled the fables for their colloquial structure and social commentary. Henryson's remarkable personification of the animals in his stories has also continued to impress scholars and has prompted a renewal of interest in this eminent work.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

“The Bludy Serk” (poem) c. 1450-62

The Garmont of Gud Ladeis (poem) c. 1450-62

Orpheus and Eurydice (poem) c. 1450-62

Ane Prayer for the Pest (poem) c. 1450-62

“Robene and Makyne” (poem) c. 1450-62

“Sum Practysis of Medecyne” (poem) c. 1450-62

The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian (fables) c. 1462-88

“The Thre Deid Pollis” (poem) c. 1462-88

The Abbay Walk (poem) c. 1488

“The Annunciation” (poem) c. 1488

The Prais of Aige (poem) c. 1488

“The Ressoning betuix Aige and Youth” (poem) c. 1488

“The Ressoning betuix Deth and Man” (poem) c. 1488

The Testament of Cresseid (poem) c. 1492

The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson (poetry and fables) 1865

The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson, Schoolmaster of Dunfermline (poetry and fables) 1933

The Poems of Robert Henryson (poetry and fables) 1981

Dolores L. Noll (essay date July 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Noll, Dolores L. “The Testament of Cresseid: Are Christian Interpretations Valid?” Studies in Scottish Literature IX, no. 1 (July 1971): 16-25.

[In this essay, Noll questions previous assumptions that The Testament of Cresseid is based in Christian premises.]

Most students of Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid have argued or implied that the poem is Christian in one or more respects—in its moral presuppositions, its theological framework, or its cosmological scheme.1 For instance, Marshall W. Stearns believes that the Testament “totals the wages of sin in no uncertain way.” “… we have seen,”...

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Denton Fox (essay date October 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Fox, Denton. “Henryson's ‘Sum Practysis of Medecyne.’” In Studies in Philology LXIX, no. 4 (October 1972): 453-60.

[In the essay that follows, Fox examines the context and structure of Henryson's lesser-known “Sum Practysis of Medecyne.”]

On folios 141v-2v of the Bannatyne MS, which was completed in 1568, there exists a curious and cryptic poem which carries the title, Sum practysis of medecyne, and the colophon, “quod Maister robert Henrysone.”1 I would like to make here some suggestions about the tradition behind this poem, and about the poem's structure: it seems to me, on the one hand,...

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Charles A. Hallett (essay date January 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hallett, Charles A. “Theme and Structure in Henryson's ‘The Annunciation.’” Studies in Scottish Literature X, no. 3 (January 1973): 165-74.

[In the following essay, Hallett analyzes the structure of “The Annunciation” and asserts that it is Henryson's personal examination of divine love in the form of poetry.]

Though Robert Henryson is being rediscovered and the pleasures of his poetry are being appreciated once again as they undoubtedly were in his own time, critical attention has so far been concentrated upon the skillfully written Testament of Cresseid and the witty Fables, while the minor poems, many of which have equal charm, are...

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Nicolai von Kreisler (essay date fall 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Von Kreisler, Nicolai. “Henryson's Visionary Fable: Tradition and Craftsmanship In The Lyoun and the Mous.Texas Studies in Literature and Language XV no. 3 (fall 1973): 391-403.

[In the essay that follows, von Kreisler discusses the dream setting of “The Lyoun and the Mous” and also comments on the political context of the fable.]

Among the thirteen lively narratives that comprise the Morall Fabillis, the rendition of the familiar story that Henryson entitles “The Taill of the Lyoun and the Mous” stands out as most innovative. To begin this poem of the royal beast who escapes the hunters' net with the aid of his least subject,...

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Douglas Gray (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gray, Douglas. “Shorter Poems.” In Robert Henryson, pp. 241-71. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1979.

[In the following essay, Gray provides a comprehensive overview of Henryson's numerous shorter poems.]

The shorter poems attributed to Henryson are not as well known as they deserve to be.1 They are poems which belong to well-established genres, and they are of uneven quality, but the best show the distinctive and bold handling of traditional form and material that we have come to expect. I begin with a trio of satirical poems, and—with some hesitation—with The Want of Wyse Men. It is, in fact, far from certain that this poem...

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Robert L. Kindrick (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kindrick, Robert L. “Henryson and Later Poetry.” In Robert Henryson, pp 181-85. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

[In the essay below, Kindrick comments on the influence of Henryson's poetry on literary tradition and subsequent British authors.]

Henryson's accomplishment and his importance for Middle Scots verse can hardly be overestimated. He forged a group of exceptional poems that has become an inspiration to later poets, and, by his eclecticism, he infused Scottish verse with some of the best elements of other cultures and literatures. Perhaps most important of all, he brought to Scottish poetry the broad sympathetic understanding which is a mark of all great...

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Edward C. Schweitzer (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Schweitzer, Edward C. “The Allegory of Robert Henryson's ‘The Bludy Serk.’” Studies in Scottish Literature XV (1980): 165-74.

[In the following essay, Schweitzer examines the moral facets of “The Bludy Serk,” maintaining that the work exemplifies Henryson's poetic style.]

“The Bludy Serk” is a minor poem even within the canon of Robert Henryson's work, but although it lacks the imaginative detail and complex interaction of particular and general truth of his Morall Fabillis1—for Henryson, after all, its general truth is absolute—“The Bludy Serk,” in its concern with moralities and in the craftsmanship of its execution,...

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Denton Fox (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Fox, Denton. “The Coherence of Henryson's Work.” In Fifteenth-Century Studies: Recent Essays, edited by Robert F. Yeager, pp. 275-81. Hamden: Archon Books, 1984.

[In this essay, Fox investigates the prominent parallels between Henryson's Fables, the Testament of Cresseid, and Orpheus and Eurydice.]

Henryson's three major works, the Fables, the Testament of Cresseid, and Orpheus and Eurydice, are poems which appear to be very dissimilar. I would like to argue here that they are more alike than has been recognized, and that they cast useful light on one another. While it would be possible to bring the dozen or so short poems...

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George D. Gopen (essay date winter 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gopen, George D. “The Essential Seriousness of Robert Henryson's Moral Fables: A Study in Structure.” Studies in Philology LXXXII, no. 1 (winter 1985): 42-59.

[In the following essay, Gopen suggests that the true gravity and cynicism of the Fables can only be appreciated through the structure of the poetry.]


The Moral Fables has long been underrated, even by its foremost proponents. Lord Hailes, in 1770, thought enough of several of the Moralitates to print them, but he left out the corresponding fables.1 H. Harvey Wood, in his editions of Henryson's...

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Rosemary Greentree (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Greentree, Rosemary. “The Debate of the Paddock and the Mouse.” Studies in Scottish Literature 26 (1991): 481-89.

[In this essay, Greentree examines the debate of the soul with the body in “The Paddock and the Mouse.”]

The tale of “The Paddock and the Mouse,” the last in Henryson's series of Moral Fables offers several layers of meaning in the tale and its lengthy moralitas, giving a fable, an allegory, and a body and soul debate. The last aspect is the one I wish to consider in this paper, showing its resemblances to other works of this kind and Henryson's modification and exploitation of the reminders of this genre in his fable....

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Julia Boffey (essay date March 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Boffey, Julia. “Lydgate, Henryson, and the Literary Testament.” Modern Language Quarterly 53, no. 1 (March 1992): 41-56.

[In the essay which follows, Boffey delineates some of the fifteenth-century conventions which are essential for a full appreciation of John Lydgate's Testament and Henryson's Testament of Cresseid.]

Literary experiment with the matter and form of the legal testament held a particular appeal for the Middle Ages, in part perhaps because it offered the opportunity of creating a text around an authenticating impulse similar to that built into the literary complaint or epistle: a testator, like a plaintiff or a correspondent, has some...

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Rosemary Greentree and Steven R. McKenna (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Greentree, Rosemary and Steven R. McKenna. “‘The Hurt Off ane Happie the Vther Makis’: Henryson's Construction of his Audience.” In Selected Essays on Scottish Language and Literature, edited by Steven R. McKenna, pp. 13-25. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1992.

[In the following essay, Greentree and McKenna examine Henryson's “construction of his audience” in passages throughout the Moral Fables.]

The words of the lion king in “The Trial of the Fox”—“The hurt off ane happie the vther makis” (1065)—cause uproar and laughter in the royal court, ill-natured delight in the agony of the wolf, whose head has been broken by the mare's kick. The...

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Steven R. McKenna (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McKenna, Steven R. “The Structure of Tragic Action.” In Robert Henryson's Tragic Vision, pp. 19-34. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

[In this essay, McKenna scrutinizes Henryson's structural treatment of tragic action and the sense of identity of the tragic figure.]

Before dealing directly with the issue of the tragic figure's sense of identity, I wish to examine briefly Henryson's structural treatment of tragic action. In general, the poet's conception of tragedy most obviously concerns the downfalls of the various tragic figures in The Testament of Cresseid and the Fables. Broadly speaking, these figures can be seen to experience reversals of...

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William Stephenson (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Stephenson, William. “Acrostic ‘FICTIO’ in Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid (Lines 58-63).” Chaucer Review 29, no. 2 (1994): 163-65.

[In the essay below, Stephenson suggests that the initial letters of lines 58-63 of The Testament of Cresseid intentionally form the acrostic “FICTIO,” alluding to an earlier source document for Henryson's work.]

Despite the sort of literary challenge scholars normally accept with eagerness and tenacity, few have taken seriously Robert Henryson's reference to an unnamed, unknown source for the plot of his fifteenth-century Middle Scots poem The Testament of Cresseid. Critics have only...

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Edward Wheatley (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wheatley, Edward. “Scholastic Commentary and Robert Henryson's Morall Fabillis: The Aesopic Fables.” Studies in Philology 91, no. 1 (1994): 70-99.

[In the following essay, Wheatley examines scholastic commentaries on fable collections available to Henryson that may have been influential in his composition of the Morall Fabillis.]


Modern critics have examined Robert Henryson's Morall Fabillis in relation to the sermons, popular literature, and political events of Henryson's day, but the fables have never been systematically compared to common educational texts, even though Henryson, a school-master, acknowledges the...

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Catherine S. Cox (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Cox, Catherine S. “Froward Language and Wanton Play: The ‘Commoun’ Text of Henryson's Testament of Cresseid.Studies in Scottish Literature 29 (1996): 58-72.

[In the following essay, Cox analyzes the narrator, the title character, and the theme of errancy in The Testament of Cresseid.]

In the Testament of Cresseid, Henryson's treatment of Chaucer's Criseyde is mediated textually by a voice that is itself a participant in the text; the Testament narrator may be read as both narrative voice and literary character, the former existing discursively, as a rhetorical construct, and the latter as mimetic reality, having an imagined...

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Carol A. Cole (essay date August 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Cole, Carol A. “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid.Michigan Academian XXIX, no. 4 (August 1997): 511-20.

[In the essay below, Cole argues that the narrator plays a significant role in The Testament of Cresseid as he, like Cresseid, seeks personal fulfillment in sexual gratification.]

Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid has prompted many interpretations. Some see it as a “tragedie” of various sorts, in keeping with Henryson's own label in line 4. Others, such as Tillyard, view it as a treatment of sin, divine punishment, and repentance. More recently the Testament has been seen...

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Felicity Riddy (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Riddy, Felicity. “‘Abject odious’: Feminine and Masculine in Henryson's Testament of Cresseid.” In The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray, edited by Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone, pp. 229-48. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

[In this essay, Riddy compares The Testament of Cresseid with the anonymous painting “Les Amants trépassés,” and analyzes the symbolism and imagery of both works.]

In the cathedral museum in Strasbourg there is a late fifteenth-century painting attributed to an unknown Swabian Master called ‘Les Amants trépassés’. It depicts the dead lovers naked, standing side by side on what looks like a...

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John Marlin (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Marlin, John. “‘Arestyus is Noucht bot Gude Vertewe’: The Perplexing Moralitas to Henryson's Orpheus and Erudices.Fifteenth-Century Studies 25 (2000): 137-53.

[In the following essay, Marlin discusses the Henryson's intent in Orpheus and Erudices to both elicit an affective response from his reader and to supply a moral exegesis of the poem.]

Relations between affect and intellect are often uneasy in the act of reading poetry. This tension is inherent in the very act of exegesis, which reorders aesthetic constructs into analytic categories, often by bringing a poem into a relationship with a complex of ideas external to it. Sometimes,...

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Arnold Clayton Henderson (essay date 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Henderson, Arnold Clayton. “Having Fun with the Moralities: Henryson's Fables and Late-Medieval Fable Innovation.” Studies in Scottish Literature 32 (2001): 67-87.

[In the essay below, Henderson examines the Henryson's equally fresh and inventive animal fable plots and their attendant moralization.]

Fable and moral; entertainment and teaching. That dichotomous structure is so traditional for animal fables that when we look at so entertaining a fabulist as Robert Henryson we too easily assume that he put his creativity into the fable part, and that the moralizations are there because they are expected to be there. We might call them traditional, or...

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Ian Johnson (essay date October 2002)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Johnson, Ian. “Hellish Complexity in Henryson's Orpheus.Forum for Modern Language Studies XXXVIII, no. 4 (October 2002): 412-19.

[In the following essay, Johnson examines Henryson's skillful synthesis of source materials with his own creative art in his Orpheus and Eurydice.]

It seems fruitful for modern scholars interested in medieval translation and its role in cultural history to use oppositional or binaristic concepts and terms like “contest”, “appropriation”, “supplanting”, “displacement”, “dominance”, “dependence” and “supplement(arity)”.1 This is often accompanied by an understandable reliance on the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Scheps, Walter and J. Anna Looney. Middle Scots Poets: A Reference Guide to James I of Scotland, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas. Boston: Hall, 1986, 292 p.

Extensive annotated bibliography, indexed, on each author, plus a section covering other works of interest.


Benson, C. David. “Critic and Poet: What Lydgate and Henryson Did to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History 53, no. 1 (March 1992): 23-40.

Comments on Lydgate's and Henryson's adaptations of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde....

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