1902 Encyclopedia > John Barbour

John Barbour
Scottish poet
(fl. 14th century AD)

JOHN BARBOUR, the author of the great Scottish national poem The Bruce, was born, probably in Aberdeen-shire, about the beginning of the 14th century. He was a contemporary of Chaucer and Gower; but so little is known of bis life, that the very date of his birth can be only approximately given as about 1316. In 1357, as we learn from a safe-conduct permitting him to visit Oxford _for the purpose of study, he held the position of arch-deacon of Aberdeen. In 1364 he was again permitted to enter England for a similar purpose, and in 1368 he received letters of safe-conduct authorizing him to pass through England on his way to France,8 whither, it may be conjectured, he was proceeding in order to visit the famous university of Paris. From this date to his death, which took place probably in March 1395, notices of him are •slightly more numerous. In 1373 he is described as hold-ing the office of clerk of audit of the king's household. About the same time he must have been busily engaged in the composition of his great work, for, as he himself tells us, his poem was more than half finished in 1375.

" In the tyme of the compiling
Off this buk this Robert wes King ;
And off his kynrik passit was
Fyve yer ; and wes the yer off grace
A thousand, thre hundyr, sevynty
And fyve, and off his eld sixty."
1 Rotuli Scotice, i. p. 808.
• Ibid., i. p. 886.
» Ibid., i. p. 926.
« Exchequer Rolls, No. 82.

A sum of ten pounds, which was paid to the poet by the king's orders in 1377,* was in all probability a royal gift on 'the completion of the work Barbour seems indeed to have been well treated by his sovereign; he received a perpetual annuity of twenty shillings,7 which he bequeathed to the dean and chapter of Aberdeen as payment of a yearly mass to be said for his soul), tithes of the parish of Rayne in the Garioch, and a crown wardship, always a lucrative office in these times. A further bounty of ten pounds a year during life, granted in 1388, was probably a reward on the completion of the poet's second large work, The Brute. The cessation of payment of this annuity enables us to fix with some accuracy the date of Barbour's death.

The Bruce, which is Barbour's principal poem, although it is almost the sole authority for the events of the period, is not to be considered as merely a rhyming chronicle.8 His theme was freedom and the liberation of his country from the dominion of a foreign people. The age of Bruce was the age of Scottish chivalry, and the king himself presented the most perfect model of a valiant knight. With such a crisis and such a hero, therefore, it is not surprising that Barbour should have achieved a work of lasting fame.

The poem begins with an account of the succession to the Scottish crown after the death of Alexander IIL In this part of his poem Barbour has made a slight anachron-ism. He makes his hero compete with John Baliol for the crown of Scotland, while it was his grandfather, the Lord of Annandale, who unsuccessfully contested the right. Then follows a lamentable account of the desolation of the country and the oppression of the people by the English. Brace's energetic actions to free his country, and his romantic adventures, which form so interesting an episode in Scottish history, are narrated with great minuteness, down to the battle of Bannockburn, which is described with all its interesting details. At this point the national epic properly ends; but Barbour further relates the ex-pedition of Bruce to Ireland, and the exploits of Douglas and Randolph on the borders, and concludes with an account of the deaths of King Robert and his gallant knights.

The next in order of his writings was that before referred to, called The Brute, of which it is believed no MS. exists, unless the supposition of Mr Henry Bradshaw, librarian of the university of Cambridge, be correct, that about 2000 lines of two MS. Troy-books, by Lydgate, preserved in the Cambridge and Bodleian Libraries, form part of this poem. It appears to have comprised a genealogical history of the kings of Scotland, deducing their origin from the great mediaeval hero, Brutus, son of Ascanius, and grandson of ^Eneas, supposed to have been the first king of Britain. The existence of such a work is fully established by various passages in Wyntown's Cronykil.

" This Nynns had a sone alsua,
Sere Dardane lord of Frygia.
Fra quham Barbere sntely
Has made a propyr Genealogy,
Tyl Robert oure secownd kyng,
That Scotland had in governyng.
" Of Bruttus lyneage quha wyll her.
He luk the tretis of Barbere,
Mad in-tyl a Genealogy
Rycht wele, and mare perfytly
Than I can on ony wys
Wytht all my wyt to yowe dewys."

" The Stewartis oryginale
The Archedekyne has tretyt hal
In metyre fayre." '

It is also referred to by Barbour himself in the following passage:—

' Exchequer RoUt, Nos. 177, 178.
land. See Barbour's Bruce, p. 43, Jamieson's ed.
9 Cronykil of Scotland, ix. 1, III. in. 139, VIII. vU. 148.

" Alt Arthur, that throw chevalry Maid Bretame maistres and lady

Off twelf kinrykis that he wan ; And alsua, as a noble man, He wan throw bataill Fraunce all fre, And Lucius Yber wencnsyt he, That then of Rome was emperour • Bot yeit, for all his gret valour, Modreyt his systir son him slew, And gud men als ma than inew, Throw tresoune and throw wikkitnes ; The Broite beris thairoff wytnes."

The last of the works of Barbour was his Book of Legend of Saints, which contained, as the author tells us—

" Storyss of sere haly men That to pless God vs may kene.

The manuscript of this work (which was brought to light a few years ago by Mr Bradshaw) is preserved in the library of the university of Cambridge. The Legends are contained in a tall, narrow volume of paper, closely written in an unmistakably Scottish hand, containing a great many thousand lines in the usual verse of Barbour. This, taken in connection with certain incidental notices which the writer gives of himself, and certain stories which he tells of what happened in his time, leaves little room for doubt as to the author. The following extract from the account of a cure performed by St Ninian upon a native of Elgin may be given as a specimen of these legends :—

"A lytil tale yit herd I tell
That in to my tyme befel
Of a gudman in Murefe borne
In Elgyne and his kine beforne
And callit vas a faithful man
1 Vithall thame that hyme knew than

And this man trastely I say For I kend hyme weUe mony day Johne Balormy ves his name A man of ful gud fame And in processe of tyme tyd hyme Til haf the worme in til his lyme And wrocht sa in his schank and kne That bath ware thai lyk tynt to be."'

The works of Barbour are interesting in a philological point of view. At one time they were regarded as the first written in what was termed the ancient Scottish, a special language, which was supposed to have been derived directly from the Suio-Gothic, or the Mceso-Gothic of Ulphilas. The extraordinary circumstance, however, was that Barbour and other early Scottish poets, such as Wyntown, James I., and Lyndsay, speak of the language as "Inglis." In The Bruce the following passage occurs :—

" This wes the spek he maid perfay As is in Tnglis toung to say."

It is now generally admitted that these poets wrote in a language founded on the Anglo-Saxon of the northern type, and nearly identical with that spoken in the northern half of England, which was general from the Trent to the Forth, and northwards on the eastern coast as far as Aberdeen. In this extensive district a Doric dialect of English was general, and in the 14th century there was no greater difference between the written language of York and of Eastern Scotland than there is now between the modern speech of Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

a National MSS. of Scotland, pt. ii. No. 75. * Barbour's Bruce, iv. p. 252.
period, see Matzner's Altenglische Sprachproben, t p. 371.

According to Warton, Barbour has adorned the Eng-lish ^language by a strain of versification, expression, a ad poetical imagery, far superior to the age. Dr Nott remarks that he has given his countrymen a fine example of the simple, energetic style, which resembled Chaucer's best manner, and wanted little to make it the genuine language of poetry. Simplicity may be said to be the main feature in the plan and conduct of his poems. His story is throughout his first and chief object, and he shows great anxiety lest in any point of the actual adventures he may mislead his reader. He prays that he may say " nought bot suthfast thing," and he was the first who did so with some of the graces of the fables of romance. He has, however, a heart for every kind of nobleness. His far-famed encomium on political freedom is distinguished by a manly and dignified strain of sentiment:—

"A I fredome is a noble thing ! Fredome mayss man to haiff liking, Fredome all solace to man giffis : He levys at ess that frely levys I A noble hart may haiff nane ess, Na ellys nocht that may him pless, Gyff fredome failyhe ; for fre liking Is yharnyt 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 assayt it, Than all perquer he suld it wyt, And suld think fredome mar to pry ss Than all the gold in warld that is.

The following passage cannot be passed without par-ticular notice; the annals of heroes furnish but few instances of so pleasing a nature, whether it be that heroes seldom stoop to actions of mere benevolence, or that their historians do not think it of much importance to transmit such actions to posterity:—

" The king has hard a woman cry ; He askyt quhat that wes in hy. ' It is the layndar, Schyr,' said ane, ' That her child-ill rycht now has tane, ' And mon leve now behind ws her ; ' Tharfor scho makys yone iwill cher', The king said, ' Certis it war pite ' That scho in that poynt left suld be ; ' For certis I trow thar is na man ' That he ne will rew a woman than.' Hiss ost all thar arestyt he, And gert a tent sone stentit be, And gert hyr gang in hastily, And othyr wemen to be hyr by, Quhill scho wes deliuer, he baid ; And syne furth on his wayis raid : And how scho furth suld caryit be, Or euir he furth fur, ordanyt he. This wes a full gret cnrtasy, That swilk a king, and sa mighty, Gert his men duell on this maner Bot for a pouir lauender."

It has been stated that Barbour presents us with but few-studies of natural scenery. His description of spring is, however, worthy of his muse, and contrasts favourably with any of the poetry of the period:—

" This wes in ver, quhen wynter tyde, With his olastis nidwyss to byde, Was our-drywyn, and byrdis smale, As turturis and the nychtyngale, Begouth rycht meraly to syng ; And for to mak in thair singyng Swete notis, and sownys ser, And melodys plesand to her ; And the treis begouth to ma Burgeons, and brycht blomys alsua, To wyn the helyng off thair hewid, That wykkyt wyntir had thaim rewid."

7 Barbour's Bruce, p. 10, Jamieson's ed. » Ibid., p. 320.

Of Barbour's Bruce neither the original manuscript nor any contemporary copy is known to exist. It is a some what remarkable circumstance that the earliest specimen of Barbour's language is to be found in extracts inserted by Wyntown in his Cronykil, which may be set down as belonging to the year 1440.1 A valuable manuscript of The Bruce is preserved in the Advocates' Library, Edin-burgh, which was penned by John Ramsay in 1489. Ramsay is supposed to be the same person that was after-wards prior of the Carthusian monastery at Perth. This transcript is stated to have been executed at the request of Simon Lochmalony, vicar of Moonsie.

Another manuscript exists in the library of St John's College, Cambridge, and is dated 1487. The handwriting is very like that of the Advocates' Library manuscript, and from the initials of the transcriber being J. R., it is supposed that this is another transcript made somewhat earlier by the same scribe. This last manuscript affords perhaps the best readings, but each serves to correct errors and to supply omissions of the other.

The printed editions are almost a century later. The first known edition of The Bruce is believed to have been printed at Edinburgh in 1570-71, but of this only one imperfect copy is known to exist. The next known edition is that printed at Edinburgh by Andro Hart in 1616, only one copy of which is extant. Another edition was printed by Hart in 1620. Editions were issued by Andrew Anderson, Edinburgh, 1670, 12mo; Robert Saunders, Glasgow, 1672; Robert Freebairn, Edinburgh, 1715 or 1716 (issued with a false title page in 1758); Carmichael and Miller, Edinburgh, 1737. John Pinkerton issued an edition in 1790, printed at London, in 3 vols. 8vo, which he styles " the first genuine edition." It was taken from the Advocates' Library manuscript, but, as his transcript was executed neither by himself nor under his immediate inspection, many gross inaccuracies were suffered to remain uncorrected. Dr John Jamieson printed an edition at Edinburgh in 1820, in 4to. This was a careful print of the Advocates' Library manuscript. Mr Cosmo Innes printed an edition for the Spalding Club in 1856. It was made from a collation of the Advocates' Library and the Cambridge manuscripts. The Rev. W. W. Skeat is at present (1875) engaged in editing an edition for the Early English Text Society (extra series), 1870-75. This edition is founded on the Cambridge manuscript, carefully collated with the Edinburgh manuscript and with Hart's edition of 1616, and occasionally with Anderson's edition of 1670. (j. SM.)


It contains the earliest notice of the ancient Celtie poetry of Soot-
Accounts of the Great Chamberlavni of Scotland, TOL ii. p. 19.
6 Barbour's Bruce, p. 274, Jamieson's ed,

Barbour's Bruce, p. 20, Jamieson's ed. In one of the MSS. of Lydgate is a note—" Her endis the monk and begynnys Barbour."
Tbid., p. 89.
For an estimate of the position of Barbour in the literature of the
Hist, of English Poetry, ii. p. 154.
Tbid., p. 89.
e Diss, on English Poetry prefixed to Surrey and Wyatt's Poems,
p. 190.

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