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Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen (c. 1330March 13 or 14, 1395) was a poet and churchman, sometimes called the father of Scottish poetry. His The Brus, a verse chronicle on the life of Robert I of Scotland, is the oldest major literary work in the Scots language.



  • Men suld mak mirrie quhill thay mocht.
    • Men should make merry while they may.
    • The Buik of Alexander, Part 2, line 4879; translation from Bartlett Jere Whiting and Helen Wescott Whiting Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968) p. 380.
    • The attribution of this poem to Barbour is considered doubtful.

The Brus

Quotations in Modern English are taken from Archibald A. H. Douglas (ed. and trans.) The Bruce (Glasgow: William MacLellan, 1964).

  • Storys to rede ar delatibill
    Suppos that thai be nocht bot fabill,
    Than suld storys that suthfast wer
    And thai war said on gud maner
    Have doubill plesance in heryng.
    The first plesance is the carpyng,
    And the tother the suthfastnes
    That schawys the thing rycht as it wes.
    • A story gives delight to read
      Though it be fabulous indeed.
      Then should a story that is true,
      And told in skilful manner too,
      Give pleasure that is full twofold.
      The first is in the tale as told;
      The second is to know full well
      That all is true the tale may tell.
    • Bk. 1, line 1; p. 45.
  • A! Fredome is a noble thing!
    Fredome mays man to haiff liking.
    Fredome all solace to man giffis,
    He levys at es that frely levys!
    • Freedom is a noble thing!
      Great happiness does freedom bring.
      All solace to a man it gives;
      He lives at ease that freely lives.
    • Bk. 1, line 225; p. 53.
  • Na he that ay has levyt fre
    May nocht knaw weill the propyrte
    The angyr na the wrechyt dome
    That is couplyt to foule thyrldome,
    Bot gyff he had assayit it.
    Than all perquer he suld it wyt,
    And suld think fredome mar to prys
    Than all the gold in warld that is.
    • But he that has been always free
      Can ne'er know the reality,
      The anguish and the wretched fate
      That is a part of thraldom's state.
      A thing, when we experience it,
      Makes evident its opposite.
      If bondage he has ever known,
      Then freedom's blessings he will own,
      And reckon freedom worth in gold
      More than the world will ever hold!
    • Bk. 1, line 233; p. 53.
  • Luff is off sa mekill mycht,
    That it all paynys makis lych.
    • For love is of such potent might
      That of misfortune it makes light.
    • Bk. 2, line 523; p. 80.
  • Thai eyt it with full gud will
    That soucht na nother sals thar-till
    Bot appetyt.
    • With full good will they all fell to,
      And sought no other sauce thereto
      Than appetite.
    • Bk. 3, line 539; p. 99.


  • Perhaps the editor may be accused of nationality, when he says, that, taking the total merits of this work together, he prefers it to the early exertions of even the Italian muse, to the melancholy sublimity of Dante, and the amorous quaintness of Petrarca…Here indeed the reader will find few of the graces of fine poetry, little of the attic dress of the muse; but here are life and spirit, and ease and plain sense, and pictures of real manners, and perpetual incident and entertainment. The language is remarkably good for the time, and far superior in neatness and elegance even to that of Gawin Douglass, who wrote more than a century after.
    • John Pinkerton, in his edition of The Bruce (London: G. Nicol, 1790) vol. 1, p. x.
  • Scottish literature begins effectively with Archdeacon Barbour's Bruce some sixty years after Bannockburn, and to the Bruce and Blind Harry's Wallace (so staunch is the Scot, and such an antiquary in grain) must be attributed much of the colouring and subsequent tone of Scottish sentiment. The Bruce is the better poem, simple, truthful, noble, stirring, a proper start for the literature of a fighting people.
    • George Gordon The Discipline of Letters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946) p. 88.
  • The Bruce, with which the Scottish contribution to English literature begins, long held its place as the national epic of Scotland.
    • Kenneth Sisam Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) p. 108.

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

JOHN (? BARBOUR 1 3 16 - 1 395), Scottish poet, was born, perhaps in Aberdeenshire, early in the 14th century, approximately 1316. In a letter of safe-conduct dated 1357, allowing him to go to Oxford for study, he is described as archdeacon of Aberdeen. He is named in a similar letter in 1364 and in another in 1368 granting him permission to pass to France, probably for further study, at the university of Paris. In 1372 he was one of the auditors of exchequer, and in 1373 a clerk of audit in the king's household. In 1375 (he gives the date, and his age as 60) he composed his best known poem The Brus, for which he received, in 1377, the gift of ten pounds, and, in 1378, a lifepension of twenty shillings. Additional rewards followed, including the renewal of his exchequer auditorship (though he may have continued to enjoy it since his first appointment) and ten pounds to his pension. The only biographical evidence of his closing years is his signature as a witness to sundry deeds in the "Register of Aberdeen" as late as 1392. According to the obit-book of the cathedral of Aberdeen, he died on the 13th of March 1395. The state records show that his life-pension was not paid after that date.

Considerable controversy has arisen regarding Barbour's literary work. If he be the author of the five or six long poems which have been ascribed to him by different writers, he adds to his importance as the father of Scots poetry the reputation of being one of the most voluminous writers in Middle English, certainly the most voluminous of all Scots poets.

(I) The Brus, in twenty books, and running to over 13,500 four-accent lines, in couplets, is a narrative poem with a purpose partly historical, partly patriotic. It opens with a description of the state of Scotland at the death of Alexander III. (1286) and concludes with the death of Douglas and the burial of the Bruce's heart (1332). The central episode is the battle of Bannockburn. Patriotic as the sentiment is, it is in more general terms than is found in later Scots literature. The king is a hero of the chivalric type common in contemporary romance; freedom is a "noble thing" to be sought and won at all costs; the opponents of such freedom are shown in the dark colours which history and poetic propriety require; but there is none of the complacency of the merely provincial habit of mind. The lines do not lack vigour; and there are passages of high merit, notably the oftquoted section beginning "A! fredome is a noble thing." Despite a number of errors of fact, notably the confusion of the three Bruces in the person of the hero, the poem is historically trustworthy as compared with contemporary verse-chronicle, and especially with the Wallace of the next century. No one has doubted Barbour's authorship of the Brus, but argument has been attempted to show that the text as we have it is an edited copy, perhaps by John Ramsay, a Perth scribe, who wrote out the two extant texts, preserved in the Advocates' library, Edinburgh, and in the library of St John's College, Cambridge. Extensive portions of the poem have been incorporated by Wyntoun (q.v.) in his Chronicle. The first printed edition extant is Charteris's (Edinburgh, 1571); the second is Hart's (Edinburgh, 1616).

(2) Wyntoun speaks (Chronicle III. iii.) of a "Treteis" which Barbour made by way of "a genealogy" of "Brutus lynagis"; and elsewhere in that poem there are references to the archdeacon's "Stewartis Oryginale." This "Brut" is unknown; but the reference has been held by some to be to (3) a Troy-book, based on Guido da Colonna's Historia Destructionis Troiae. Two fragments of such a work have been preserved in texts of Lydgate's Troy-book, the first in MS. Camb. Univ. Lib. Kk. v. 30, the second in the same and in MS. Douce 148 in the Bodleian library, Oxford. This ascription was first made by Henry Bradshaw, the librarian of Cambridge University; but the consensus of critical opinion is now against it. Though it were proved that these Troy fragments are Barbour's, there remains the question whether their identification with the book on the Stewart line is justified. The scale of the story in these fragments forces us to doubt this identification. They contain 595+3118 =3713 lines and are concerned entirely with "Trojan" matters. This would be an undue allowance in a Scottish "genealogy." (4) Yet another work was added to the list of Barbour's works by the discovery in the university library of Cambridge, by Henry Bradshaw, of a long Scots poem of over 33,000 lines, dealing with Legends of the Saints, as told in the Legenda Aurea and other legendaries. The general likeness of this poem to Barbour's accepted work in verse-length, dialect and style, and the facts that the lives of English saints are excluded and those of St Machar (the patron saint of Aberdeen) and St Ninian are inserted, made the ascription plausible. Later criticism, though divided, has tended in the contrary direction, and has based its strongest negative judgment on the consideration of rhymes, assonance and vocabulary (see bibliography). That the "district" of the author is the north-east of Scotland cannot be doubted in the face of a passage such as this, in the fortieth legend (St Ninian), 1, 1359 et seq.

"A lytil tale Set herd I tel, Pat in to my tyme befel, of a gudman, in murrefe [Moray] borne in elgyne [Elgin], and his kine beforne, and callit was a faithful man vith al Jame fat hyme knew than; fis mare trastely I say, for I kend hyme weile mony day. John balormy y es his name, a man of ful gud fame." But whether this north-east Scots author is Barbour is a question which we cannot answer by means of the data at present available.

(5) If Barbour be the author of the Legends, then (so does one conclusion hang upon another) he is the author of a Gospel story with the later life of the Virgin, described in the prologue to the Legends and in other passages as a book "of the birth of Jhesu criste" and one "quhare-in I recordit the genology of our lady sanct Mary." (6) In recent years an attempt has been made to name Barbour as the author of the Buik of Alexander (a translation of the Roman d'Alexandre and associated pieces, including the Vcrux du Paon), as known in the unique edition, c. 1580, printed at the Edinburgh press of Alexander Arbuthnot. The "argument" as it stands is- nothing more than an exaggerated inference from parallelpassages in the Bruce and Alexander; and it makes no allowance for the tags, epithets and general vocabulary common to all writers of the period. Should the assumption be proved to be correct, and should it be found that the "Troy fragments were written first of all, followed by Alexander and Bruce or Bruce and Alexander, and that the Legends end the chapter," it will be by "evidence" other than that which has been produced to this date.

For Barbour's life see Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ii. and iii.; Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis (Spalding Club); Rymer's Foedera. WoRxs. - (1)The Brus MSS. and early editions u.s. Modern editions: J. Pinkerton, 3 vols. (1790) (called by the editor "the first genuine edition," because printed from the Advocates' Library text, but carelessly); Jamieson (1820); Cosmo Innes (Spalding Club, 1856); W. W. Skeat (Early English Text Society, 1870-1889; reprinted, after revision by the editor, by the Scottish Text Society, 1893-1895). On the question of the recension of Barbour's text, see J. T. T. Brown, The Wallace and The Bruce restudied. (Bonn, 1900). (2 and 3) Troy Fragments. C. Horstmann has printed the text in his Legendensammlung (ut infra). See Bradshaw, Transactions of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (1866); the prolegomena in Horstmann's edition; Skeat, Brus (S. T. S. edit. u.s. pp. xlvi. et seq.); Koppel; "Die Fragmente von Barbours Trojanerkrieg," in Englische Studien, x. 373; Panton and Donaldson, The Gest Historiale of the Destruction of Troye (E. E. T. S. pt. ii. Introd. pp. x. et seq.); G. Neilson (ut infra); and J. T. T. Brown (ut supra) passim. (4) Legends of the Saints. C. Horstmann, who upholds Barbour's authorship, has printed the text in his Barbours des schottischen Nationaldichters Legendensammlung nebst den Fragmenten seines Trojanerkrieges, 2 vols. (Heilbronn, 1881-1882), and that of the legend of St Machor in his Altenglische Legenden. Neue Folge (Heilbronn, 1881) pp. 189-208. A later edition by W. M. Metcalfe, who disputes Barbour's claim, appeared in 1896 (Legends of the Saints in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century, 3 vols., Scottish Text Society). See the introductions to these editions; also Skeat and Koppel u.s., and P. Buss, Sind die von Horstmann herausgegebenen schottischen Legenden ein Werk Barberes? (Halle, 1886) (cf. Anglia, ix. 3, 1886). (5) For the Gospel-story evidence see Metcalfe, u.s. I. xxix. (6) On the Alexander Book and its assumed relationships, see G. Neilson, John Barbour, Poet and Translator (1900) (a reprint from the Transactions of the Philological Society); J. T. T. Brown u.s., "Postscript," pp. 156-171; and Athenaeum, 17th of November, 1st and 8th December 1900, and the 9th of February 1901. (G. G. S.)

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