Robert Henryson

Dunfermline Abbey from a 17thC engraving
'Robert Henryson' as portrayed in the Abbot House, Dunfermline, although the image strictly speaking depicts the figure of Henryson's Aesop as described in the Morall Fabillis

Robert Henryson (Middle Scots: Robert Henrysoun) was a poet who flourished in Scotland in the period c. 1460–1500. Counted among the Scots makars, he lived in the royal burgh of Dunfermline and is a distinctive voice in the Northern Renaissance at a time when the culture was on a cusp between medieval and renaissance sensibilities. Little is known of his life, but evidence suggests that he was a teacher who had training in law and the humanities, that he had a connection with Dunfermline Abbey and that he may also have been associated for a period with Glasgow University. His poetry was composed in Middle Scots at a time when this had become a state language. It is one of the most important bodies of work in the canon of early Scottish literature.

His writing consists mainly of narrative works highly inventive in their development of story-telling techniques. He generally achieved a canny balance of humour and high seriousness which is often multi-layered in its effects. This is especially so in his Morall Fabillis, in which he expresses a consistent but complex world view that seems standard, on the surface, vis a vis the major ruling power of the church, while containing critical and questioning elements. This range is further extended in his Testament of Cresseid with its more tragic vision. Overall, his themes and tone convey an attractive impression of humanity and compassionate intellect. He was a subtle rhetorician and remains to this day one of the finest in the Scots language.

Although his writing usually incorporated a typically medieval didactic purpose, it also has much in common with other artistic currents of northern Europe which were generally developing, such as the realism of Flemish painting, the historical candour of Barbour or the narrative scepticism of Chaucer. An example is his subtle use of psychology to convey individual character in carefully dramatised, recognisable daily-life situations which tend to eschew fantastic elements.

His surviving body of work amounts to almost exactly 5000 lines.


Henryson's surviving canon consists of three long poems and around twelve miscellaneous short works in various genres. The longest poem is his Morall Fabillis, a tight, intricately structured set of thirteen fable stories in a cycle that runs just short of 3000 lines. Two other long works survive, both a little over 600 lines each. One is his dynamic and inventive version of the Orpheus story and the other, his Testament of Cresseid, is a tale of moral and psychological subtlety in a tragic mode founded upon the literary conceit of "completing" the story-arc for a character in a poem by Chaucer.

The range of Henryson's shorter works includes a highly original pastourelle on a theme of love, as well as a bawdy passage of comic flyting which targets the medical practises of his day, a highly crafted and compressed poem of Marian devotion, some allegorical works, some philosophical meditations, and a prayer against the pest. As with his longer works, his outward themes often carry important subtexts.

Constructing a sure chronology for Henryson's writings is not possible, but his Orpheus story may have been written earlier in his career, during his time in Glasgow, since one of its principal sources was contained in the university library. Internal evidence has been used to suggest that the Morall Fabillis were composed during the 1480s.

Biographical inferences

The Firth of Forth which separates Fife (north) and the Lothians (south). Dunfermline is close to the principal crossing point on the Fife side.

There is no record of when or where Henryson was born or educated. The earliest found unconfirmed reference to him occurs in September 1462 when a man of his name with license to teach is on record as having taken a post in the recently founded University of Glasgow. If this was the poet, as is usually assumed, then the citation indicates that he had completed studies in both arts and canon law.[1] With no record of him as a student in Scotland, it is normally thought that he graduated in a university furth of the land, possibly in Leuven, Paris or Bologna. This has not been established.

Almost all early references to Henryson firmly associate his name with Dunfermline.[2] He probably had some attachment to the city's Benedictine abbey, the burial place for many of the kingdom's monarchs and an important centre for pilgrimage close to a major ferry-crossing en route to St Andrews. Direct unconfirmed evidence for this connection occurs in 1478 when his name appears as a witness on abbey charters.[3] If this was the poet, then it would establish that one of his functions was as notary for the abbey, an institution which possessed and managed a vast portfolio of territory across Scotland.[4]

The almost universal references to Henryson as schoolmaster are usually taken to mean that he taught in and had some duty to run the grammar school for Dunfermline's abbatial burgh.[5] A partial picture of what this meant in practice may be derived from a confirmatio of 1468 which granted provision to build a "suitable" house for the habitation of a "priest" (as master of grammar) and "scholars" in Dunfermline, including "poor scholars being taught free of charge".[6]

Period portrait showing typical appearance of the day

Dunfermline, as a royal burgh with capital status, was routinely visited by the court with residences directly linked to the abbey complex. There is no record of Henryson as a court poet, but the close proximity makes acquaintance with the royal household likely. He was active during the reigns of James III and James IV, both of whom had strong interests in literature.

According to the poet William Dunbar, Henryson died in Dunfermline. An apocryphal story by the English poet Francis Kynaston in the early 17th century refers to the flux as the cause of death, but this has not been established.[7] The year of death also is unknown, although c.1498-9, a time of plague in the burgh, has been tentatively suggested.[8] However, Dunbar gives the terminus ad quem in a couplet (usually considered to have been composed c.1505) which simply states that Death in Dunfermelyne

...hes done roune (has whispered in private)
with Maister Robert Henrysoun.

(William Dunbar, Lament for the Makaris, lines 81–2)[9]

Almost nothing else is known of Henryson outside of his surviving writing. It is not known if he originated from Dunfermline and a suggestion that he may have been linked to the Fife branch of the Clan Henderson is not possible to verify, although his name is certainly of that ilk.

General style

Henryson generally wrote in a first-person voice using a familiar tone that quickly brings the reader into his confidence and gives a notable impression of authentic personality and beliefs. The writing stays rooted in daily life and continues to feel grounded even when the themes are metaphysical or elements are fantastic. His language is a supple, flowing and concise Scots that clearly shows he knew Latin, while scenes are usually given a deftly evocative Scottish setting which can only have come from close connection and observation.[10] This detailed, intimate and realistic approach, at times, strongly suggests matters of personal experience and attitudes to actual contemporary events, yet the specifics remain elusive in ways that tantalise readers and critics. Some of this sense of intrigue may be in part accidental, but it is also heightened by his cannily controlled application of a philosophy of fiction, a frequently self-proclaimed feature of the work.[11]

No concrete details of his life can be directly inferred from his works, but there are some passages of self-reflection that appear to contain autobiographical inferences, particularly in the opening stanzas of his Testament of Cresseid.

Henryson's Scots

Henryson wrote using the Scots language of the 15th century. This was in an age when the use of vernacular languages for literature in many parts of Europe was increasingly taking the place of Latin, the long-established lingua franca across the continent.

Abbot House Window, Dunfermline, depicting Robert Henryson's Aesopian Poem, The Lion and the Mouse.

Extant poems

The sand martin at home. Its Dutch name: Oeverzwaluw (shore swallow).

All known and extant writings attributed to Robert Henryson are listed here. In addition, the scholar Matthew P McDiarmid identified from an index a lost poem by Henryson which began: On fut by Forth as I couth found (not listed below).[12]

Long works

Short works

Individual fables

Seven of the stories in Henryson's cycle are Aesopian fables derived from elegiac Romulus texts, while the other six (given in italics) are Reynardian in genre. The three titles given with bold numbers provide evidence for the integral unity of the overall structure.

See also

Notes and references

  1. The University of Glasgow, Munimenta, II, 69, dated 10 September 1462, admits a Robert Henryson, licenciate in Arts and bachelor of Decreits (Canon Law), as a member of the University. It is considered strongly likely, from secondary evidence, that this was the poet.
  2. These are all posthumous references, such as on the title pages of the early printed editions of his work that started to appear after his lifetime.
  3. The dates are 18 and 19 March and 6 July 1478 and the signature is Magistro Roberto Henrison publico notario. See McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.3.
  4. The scholar John MacQueen interestingly contextualises this record of the poet as a notary in Scotland against the Act of 1469 which gave James III power to appoint notaries public over and above the rights of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and the consequent expulsion of notaries appointed by the Emperor Frederick III of Germany. MacQueen, J. 2006: Complete and Full with Numbers: the Narrative Poetry of Robert Henryson, Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp.10 and 12.
  5. The title page of the 1570 edition of Henryson's Fables, for instance, refers to the poet as "scholemaister of Dunfermeling".
  6. Confirmatio, dated 26 November 1468. Published in Kirk, J. ed. 1997: Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome: 1447–1471, Scottish Academic Press. p.396.
  7. See Robert L Kindrick, Introduction which quotes Kynaston's general thoughts on Henryson and the "merry, though somewhat unsauory tale".
  8. See McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.12
  9. The title maister is a further indication that the poet was indeed the university-educated Henryson associated with Glasgow University.
  10. See Wittig, K. 1958: The Scottish Tradition in Literature, Oliver and Boyd, chapter 2, for appraisals of Henryson's descriptive technique.
  11. "Certainly the present writer would like to know more about Robert Henryson as he lived outside his verse than about any other Scots poet." (McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.1.) McDiarmid's first chapter goes on to develop a surprisingly full speculative picture of the poet's life gleaned from evidence in his poetry, secondary historical evidence for the period and the surviving citations of his name in an extremely broken record.
  12. McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.4

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