A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen/Barbour, John
BARBOUR, John, a name of which Scotland has just occasion to be proud, was Archdeacon of Aberdeen in the later part of the fourteenth century. There has been much idle controversy as to the date of his birth; while all that is known with historic certainty, may be related in a single sentence. As he was an archdeacon in 1357, and as, by the canon law, no man, without a dispensation, can attain that rank under the age of twenty-five, he was probably born before the year 1332. There is considerable probability that he was above the age of twenty-five in 1357, for not only is that date not mentioned as the year of his attaining the rank of archdeacon, but in the same year he is found exercising a very important political trust, which we can scarcely suppose to have been confided to a man of slender age, or scanty experience. This was the duty of a commissioner from the Bishop of Aberdeen, to meet with other commissioners at Edinburgh, concerning the ransom of David II., who was then a prisoner in England.
As to the parentage or birth-place of Barbour, we have only similar conjectures. Besides the probability of his having been a native of the district in which he afterwards obtained high clerical rank, it can be shown that there were individuals of his name, in and about the town of Aberdeen, who might have been his father. Thus, in 1309, Robert Bruce granted a charter to Robert Barbour, "of the lands of Craigie, within the shirefdom of Forfar, quhilk sumtyme were Joannis de Baliolo." There is also mention, in the Index of Charters, of a tenement in the Castle-street of Aberdeen, which, at a period remotely antecedent to 1360, belonged to Andrew Barbour. The name, which appears to have been one of that numerous class derived from trades, is also found in persons of the same era, who were connected with the southern parts of Scotland.
In attempting the biography of an individual who lived four or five centuries ago, and whose life was commemorated by no contemporary, all that can be expected is a few unconnected, and perhaps not very interesting facts. It is already established that Barbour, in 1357, was Archdeacon of the cathedral of Aberdeen, and fulfilled a high trust imposed upon him by his bishop. It is equally ascertained that, in the same year, he travelled, with three scholars in his company, to Oxford, for purposes connected with study. A safe-conduct granted to him by Edward III., August 23d, at the request of David II., conveys this information in the following terms: "Veniendo, cum tribus scholaribus in comitiva sua, in regnum nostrum Angliæ, causa studendi in universitate Oxoniæ et ibidem actus scholasticos exercendo, morando, exinde in Scotiam ad propria redeundo." It might have been supposed that Barbour only officiated in this expedition as tutor to the three scholars; but that he was himself bent on study at the university, is proved by a second safe-conduct, granted by the same monarch, November 6th, 1364, in the following terms: "To Master John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, with four knights (equites), coming from Scotland, by land or sea, into England, to study at Oxford, or elsewhere, as he may think proper." As also from a third, bearing date November 30th, 1368, "To Master John Barbour, with two valets and two horses, to come into England, and travel through the same, to the other dominions of the king, versus Franciam, causa studiendi, and of returning again." It would thus appear that Barbour, even after that he had attained a high ecclesiastical dignity, found it agreeable or necessary to spend several winters at Oxford in study. When we recollect that at this time there was no university in Scotland, and that a man of such literary habits as Barbour could not fail to find himself at a loss even for the use of a library in his native country, we are not to wonder at his occasional pilgrimages to the illustrious shrine of learning on the banks of the Isis. On the 16th of October, 1635, he received another safe-conduct from Edward III., permitting him "to come into England and travel throughout that kingdom, cum sex sociis suis equitibus, usque Sanctum Dionisium;" i. e. with six knights in company, to St Denis in France. Such slight notices suggest curious and interesting views of the manners of that early time. We are to understand from them, that Barbour always travelled in a very dignified manner, being sometimes attended by four knights and sometimes by no fewer than six, or at least, by two mounted servants. A man accustomed to such state might be the better able to compose a chivalrous epic like "the Bruce."
There is no other authentic document regarding Barbour till the year 1373, when his name appears in the list of Auditors of Exchequer for that year, being then described as "Clericus Probationis domus domini nostri Regis;" i. e. apparently—Auditor of the comptroller's accounts for the royal household. This, however, is too obscure and solitary an authority to enable us to conclude that he bore an office under the king. Hume of Godscroft, speaking of "the Bruce's book," says: "As I am informed, the book was penned by a man of good knowledge and learning, named Master John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeene, for which work he had a yearly pension out of the exchequer during his life, which he gave to the hospitall of that towne, and to which it is allowed and paid still in our dayes." This fact, that a pension was given him for writing his book, is authenticated by an unquestionable document. In the Rotuli Ballivorum Burgi de Aberdonia for 1471, the entry of the discharge for this royal donation bears that it was expressly given "for the compilation of the book of the Deeds of King Robert the First," referring to a prior statement of this circumstance in the more ancient rolls:—"Et Decano et Capitulo Abirdonensi percipienti annuatim viginti solidos pro anniversario quondam Magistri Johannis Barberi, pro compilatione libri gestorum Regis Roberti primi, ut patet in antiquis Rotulis de anno Compoti, xx. s." The first notice we have of Barbour receiving a pension is dated February 18th, 1390; and although this period was only about two months before the death of Robert the Second, it appears from the rolls that to that monarch the poet was indebted for the favour. In the roll for April 26th, 1398, this language occurs:—"Quam recolendie memorie quondam dominus Robertus secundus, rex Scottorum, dedit, concessit, et carta sua confirmavit quondam Johanni Barbere archediacono Aberdonensi," &c.—In the roll dated June 2d, 1424, the words are these:—"Decano et capitulo ecclesiæ cathedralis Aberdonensis percipientibus annuatim viginti solidos de firmis dicti burgi pro anniversario quondam magistri Johannis Barbar pro compilacione libri de gestis Regis Roberti Brwise, ex concessione regis Roberti secundi, in plenam solucionem dicte pensionis," &c. Barbour's pension consisted of £10 Scots from the customs of Aberdeen, and of 20 shillings from the rents or burrow-mails of the same city. The first sum was limited to "the life of Barbour;" the other to "his assignees whomsoever, although he should have assigned it in the way of mortification." Hume of Godscroft and others are in a mistake in supposing that he appropriated this sum to an hospital (for it appears from the accounts of the great chamberlain that he left it to the chapter of the cathedral church of Aberdeen, for the express purpose of having mass said for his soul annually after his decease: "That the dean and canons of Aberdeen, for the time being, also the chapter and other ministers officiating at the same time in the said church, shall annually for ever solemnly celebrate once in the year an anniversary for the soul of the said umquhile John." Barbour's anniversary, it is supposed continued till the reformation; and then the sum allowed for it reverted to the crown.
All that is further known of Barbour is, that he died towards the close of 1395. This appears from the Chartulary of Aberdeen, and it is the last year in which the payment of his pension of £10 stands on the record.
"The Bruce," which Barbour himself informs us he wrote in the year 1375, is a metrical history of Robert the First—his exertions and achievements for the recovery of the independence of Scotland, and the principal transactions of his reign. As Barbour flourished in the age immediately following that of his hero, he must have enjoyed the advantage of hearing from eye-witnesses narratives of the war of liberty. As a history, his work is of good authority; he himself boasts of its soothfastness; and the simple and straight-forward way in which the story is told goes to indicate its general veracity. Although, however, the object of the author was mainly to give a soothfast history of the life and transactions of Robert the Bruce, the work is far from being destitute of poetical feeling or rhythmical sweetness and harmony. The lofty sentiments and vivid descriptions with which it abounds, prove the author to have been fitted by feeling and by principle, as well as by situation, for the task which he undertook. His genius has lent truth all the charms that, are usually supposed to belong to fiction. The horrors of war are softened by strokes of tenderness that make us equally in love with the hero and the poet. In battle painting, Barbour is eminent: the battle of Bannockburn is described with a minuteness, spirit, and fervency, worthy of the day. The following is a part of the description of that noble engagement, and presents a striking picture of a mortal combat before the introduction of gunpowder made warfare less a matter of brute force.
——with wapynys stalwart of stele
They dang upon, with all thair mycht.
Their fayis resawyt wele, lk hycht,
With swerdis, speris, and with mase
The battaill thair sa feloun was,
And swa rycht spilling of blud,
That on the erd the sloussis stud.
The Scottsmen sa weill thaim bar,
And swa gret slauchter maid thai thar,
And fra sa fele the lyvis rewyt,
That all the feld bludy was lewyt.
That, tyme thir thre bataills wer,
All syd be syd, fechtand weill ner,
Thar mycht men her mony dint,
And wapynys apon armurs stynt,
And se tumble knychts and steds,
And mony rych and reale weds.
Defoullyt foully undre fete,
Sum held on loft; sum tynt the snet.
A lang quhill thus fechtand thai war;
That men na noyis mycht her thair;
Men hard noucht, but granys, and dynts
That flew fyr, as men flayis on flynts.
Thai faucht ilkane sa egrely,
That thai maid na noyis na cry,
But dang on othyr at thair mycht,
With wapnys that war burnyst brycht
And men, that worthy war and wychtt
Do mony worthy wassellage.
Whai faucht as thai war in a rage.
For quhen the Scotts archery
Saw thair fayis sa sturdely
Stand into bataill them agayne;
With all thair mycht, and all thair mayne,
Thai layid on, as men out off wyt.
And quhar thai, with full strak, mycht hyt,
Thar mycht na armur stynt thair strak.
Thai to fruchyt that thai mycht ourtak.
And with axys such dusches gave,
That thai helmys, and heds, clave.
And thair fayis rycht bardely
Met thaim, and dung on them douchtely,
With wapyngs that war styth off stele.
Thar wes the bataill strekyt weill.
Sa gret dyn that wes off dynts,
As wapyngs apon armur stynts;
And off spers sa gret bresting;
And sic thrang, and sic thrysting;
Sic gyrning, granyng; and sa gret
A noyis, as thai gan othyr beit:
And ensenyeys on ilka sid:
Gewand, and takand, wounds wid;
That it wes hidwyss for to her.—Book xiii. l. 14 & 138.
The apostrophe to Freedom, after the painful description of the slavery to which Scotland was reduced by Edward, is in a style of poetical feeling very uncommon in that and many subsequent ages, and has been quoted with high praise by the most distinguished Scottish historians and critics:—
A! fredome is a nobill thing!
Fredome mayse man to haiff liking!
Fredome all solace to man giffis:
He levys at ese that frely levys!
A noble hart may haiff nane ese,
Na ellys nocht that may him plese,
Gyff fredome failythe: for fre liking
Is yearnyt our all othir thing
Na he, that ay hase levyt fre,
May nocht knaw weill the propyrte,
The angyr, na the wrechyt dome,
That is cowplyt to foule thyrldome.
Bot gyff he had assayit it,
Than all perquer he suld it wyt;
And suld think fredome mar to pryse
Than all the gold in warld that is.—Book i. l. 225.
"Barbour," says an eminent critic in Scottish poetical literature, "was evidently skilled in such branches of knowledge as were then cultivated, and his learning was so well regulated as to conduce to the real improvement of his mind; the liberality of his views, and the humanity of his sentiments, appear occasionally to have been unconfined by the narrow boundaries of his own age. He has drawn various illustrations from ancient history, and from the stories of romance, but has rarely displayed his erudition by decking his verses with the names of ancient authors: the distichs of Cato, and the spurious productions of Dares Phrygius, and Dictys Cretensis, are the only profane books to which he formally refers. He has borrowed more than one illustration from Statius, who was the favourite classic of those times, and who likewise appears to have been the favourite of Barbour: the more chaste and elegant style of Virgil and Horace were not so well adapted to the prevalent taste as the strained thoughts and gorgeous diction of Statius and Claudian. The manner in which he has incidentally discussed the subject of astrology and necromancy, may be specified as not a little creditable to his good sense. It is well known that these branches of divination were assiduously cultivated during the ages of intellectual darkness. The absurdity of astrology and necromancy he has not openly attempted to expose; for as the opinions of the many, however unfounded in reason, must not be too rashly stigmatized, this might have been too bold and decided a step. Of the possibility of predicting events he speaks with the caution of a philosopher; but the following passage may be considered as a sufficient indication of his deliberate sentiments:
And sen thai ar in sic wenyng,
For owtyne certante off witting,
Me think quha sayis he knawis thingis
To cum, he makys great gabingis.
To form such an estimate, required a mind capable of resisting a strong torrent of prejudice; nor is it superfluous to remark, that in an age of much higher refinement, Dryden suffered himself to be deluded by the prognostications of judicial astrology. It was not, however, to be expected that Barbour should on every occasion evince a decided superiority to the general spirit of the age to which he belonged. His terrible imprecation on the person who betrayed Sir Christopher Seton, "In hell condampnyt mot he be!" ought not to have been uttered by a Christian priest. His detestation of the treacherous and cruel King Edward, induced him to lend a credulous ear to the report of his consulting an infernal spirit. The misfortunes which attended Bruce at almost every step of his early progress, he attributes to his sacrilegious act of slaying Comyn at the high altar. He supposes that the women and children who assisted in supplying the brave defenders of Berwick with arrows and stones, were protected from injury by a miraculous interposition. Such instances of superstition or uncharitable zeal are not to be viewed as marking the individual: gross superstition, with its usual concomitants, was the general spirit of the time; and the deviations from the ordinary track are to be traced in examples of liberal feeling or enlightened judgment."
One further quotation from the Scottish contemporary and rival of Chaucer may perhaps be admitted by the reader. As the former refer, one to a lofty incident, the other to a beautiful sentiment, the following is one of the slight and minute stories with which the poet fills up his narrative:—
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 take,
"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 be 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 delier, he bad,
And syne furth on his wayis raid:
And how scho furth suld cary it be,
Or euir he furth fur, ordanyt he.
This wes a full gret curtasy,
That swilk a king, and sa mighty,
Gert his men duell on this maner
Bot for a pouir lauender.
No one can fail to remark that, while the incident is in the highest degree honourable to Bruce, showing that the gentle heart may still be known by gentle deed, so also is Barbour entitled to the credit of humane feelings, from the way in which he had detailed and commented upon the transaction.
Barbour was the author of another considerable work, which has unfortunately perished. This was a chronicle of Scottish history, probably in the manner of that by Andrew Winton.
- History of the Douglasses.
- Some readers may perhaps arrive at the sense of this fine passage more readily through the medium of the following paraphrase:—
Ah, Freedom is a noble thing,
And can to life a relish bring.
Freedom all solace to man gives;
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor aught beside that may it please,
If freedom fail—for 'tis the choice,
More than the chosen, man enjoys.
Ah, he that ne'er yet lived in thrall,
Knows not the weary pains which gall
The limbs, the soul, of him who 'plains
In slavery's foul and festering chains!
If these he knew, I ween right soon
He would seek back the precious boon
Of freedom, which he then would prize
More than all wealth beneath the skies.
- And Catone sayis us in his wryt
To fenyhe foly quhile is wyt—The Bruce, 4to, p, 13.
- Article Barbour, written by Dr Irving, in Encyclopedia Britannica, 7th edition.