1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harry the Minstrel

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HARRY THE MINSTREL, or Blind Harry (fl. 1470-1492), author of the Scots historical poem The Actis and Deidis of the Illustere and Vailzeand Campioun Schir William Wallace, Knicht of Ellerslie, flourished in the latter half of the 15th century. The details of his personal history are of the scantiest. He appears to have been a blind Lothian man, in humble circumstances, who had some reputation as a story-teller, and who received, on five occasions, in 1490 and 1491, gifts from James IV. The entries of these, in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, occur among others to harpers and singers. He is alluded to by Dunbar (q.v.) in the fragmentary Interlude of the Droichis Part of the Play, where a “droich,” or dwarf, personates

“the nakit blynd Harry
That lang has bene in the fary
Farleis to find;”

and again in Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris. John Major (q.v.) in his Latin History speaks of “one Henry, blind from his birth, who, in the time of my childhood, fashioned a whole book about William Wallace, and therein wrote down in our popular verse—and this was a kind of composition in which he had much skill—all that passed current among the people in his day. I, however, can give but partial credence to these writings. This Henry used to recite his tales before nobles, and thus received food and clothing as his reward” (Bk. iv. ch. xv.).

The poem (preserved in a unique MS., dated 1488, in the Advocates’ library, Edinburgh) is divided into eleven books and runs to 11,853 lines. Its poetic merits are few, and its historical accuracy is easily impugned. It has the formal interest of being one of the earliest, certainly one of the most extensive verse-documents in Scots written in five-accent, or heroic, couplets. It is also the earliest outstanding work which discloses that habit of Scotticism which took such strong hold of the popular Northern literature during the coming years of conflict with England. In this respect it is in marked contrast with all the patriotic verse of preceding and contemporary literature. This attitude of the Wallace may perhaps be accepted as corroborative evidence of the humble milieu and popular sentiment of its author. The poem owed its subsequent widespread reputation to its appeal to this sentiment rather than to its literary quality. On the other hand, there are elements in the poem which show that it is not entirely the work of a poor crowder; and these (notably references to historical and literary authorities, and occasional reminiscences of the literary tricks of the Scots Chaucerian school) have inclined some to the view that the text, as we have it, is an edited version of the minstrel’s rough song-story. It has been argued, though by no means conclusively, that the “editor” was John Ramsay, the scribe of the Edinburgh MS. and of the companion Edinburgh MS. of the Brus by John Barbour (q.v.).

The poem appears, on the authority of Laing, to have been printed

at the press of Chepman & Myllar about 1508, but the fragments which Laing saw are not extant. The first complete edition, now available, was printed by Lekprevik for Henry Charteris in 1570 (Brit. Museum). It was reprinted by Charteris in 1594 and 1601, and by Andro Hart in 1611 and 1620. At least six other editions appeared in the 17th century. There are many later reprints, including some of William Hamilton of Gilbertfield’s modern Scots version of 1722. The first critical edition was prepared by Dr. Jamieson and published in 1820. In 1889 the Scottish Text Society completed their edition of the text, with prolegomena and notes by James Moir.

See, in addition to Jamieson’s and Moir’s volumes (u.s.), J. T. T. Brown’s The Wallace and the Bruce Restudied (Bonner, Beiträge zur Anglistik, vi., 1900), a plea for Ramsay’s authorship of the known text; also W. A. Craigie’s article in The Scottish Review (July 1903), a comparative estimate of the Brus and Wallace, in favour of the