Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barbour, John
BARBOUR, JOHN (1316?–1395), Scottish poet, the earliest and one of the best of the ancient Scottish poets, a contemporary of Chaucer, was archdeacon of Aberdeen. The date of his birth is conjectural, but his death, on 13 March 1395, is proved by an entry in the obit book of the cathedral, the cessation in that year of a pension conferred on him by Robert II, and other documentary evidence. In 1357 he appears as archdeacon of Aberdeen in a safe-conduct by Edward III to him and three scholars going to study at Oxford; and in the same year he was named one of the proxies of the Bishop of Aberdeen in the council which met at Edinburgh to provide for the ransom of David II. Nothing is known of his earlier history, and his name derived from a common trade renders the conjectures hazardous which have found for him a parentage in north, midland, and south Scotland. In all likelihood he was an Aberdonian, and minute observers have even detected peculiarities of that dialect in his poems. Similar safe-conducts in 1364 (when he was accompanied by four horsemen on his way to Oxford or elsewhere, as he might think proper), in 1365 (when he had leave to travel through England to St. Denis with six horsemen), and in 1368 (with two valets and two horses to the other dominions of the king in the direction of France), show that in all probability he pursued his studies and superintended those of others, both at Oxford and Paris. In 1372 he was one of the auditors of exchequer, and in the following year clerk for the audit of the household of the king. In 1375, as he himself records, he composed the poem of the ‘Brus,’ by which he is best known, as it at once became a national epic, celebrating in short and pithy lines, easy to remember, the story of the war of independence and the deeds of
King Robert of Scotland
That hardy was of hert and hand
And Schir James of Douglas
That in his tyme sa worthy was.
In 1377 he received from Robert II a sum of ten pounds, and next year a perpetual pension of twenty shillings, to be paid from the ‘king fermes’ or rent of Aberdeen, with power to assign it in mortmain, which is stated in one of the exchequer accounts to have been a reward for his poem. He was again auditor of exchequer in 1382 and 1384, and in 1388 he received a further pension for life of ten pounds from the customs of Aberdeen. It has been conjectured that this may have been a return for a poem, now lost, on the genealogy of the Stuarts, to which Wyntoun refers—
The Stewartis oryginale
The Archdekyne has treted hale
In metyr fayre.
(Chronykil, viii. 7, 143.)
Another passage of the same author mentions that the genealogy was traced from
Dardane, Lord de Frygya,
Tyl Robert our secound kying
That Scotland had in governyng.
(ii. 1, 130.)
Wyntoun also says that Barbour made a genealogy of Brutus (iii. 3, 139), and some editors have supposed this to be the same work as that on the Stuarts, and have even given it the name of the ‘Brute.’ But it appears more probable that the reference here is to the legend of Troy, which Barbour, like other writers of his age, is believed to have treated in a poem, two fragments of which have been recently discovered at Cambridge, and printed by the Early English Text Society. A more important discovery, due like the former to Mr. Henry Bradshaw, is the long poem on the ‘Legends of the Saints,’ which, though without author's name, is proved with reasonable certainty to be Barbour's by the similarity of its metre with that of the ‘Brus,’ of the dialect with the Scottish of his time, and by the inclusion in the saints whose lives are told of Ninian, the primary saint of Scotland, and Machar, a disciple of Columba, the patron saint of Aberdeen. This poem, which has now been published by Horstmann in his ‘Altenglische Legenden,’ contains an interesting notice of its author and allusions to another hitherto unknown work which, assuming it to be of proportionate length with the ‘Legends of the Saints,’ would make him one of the most prolific poets of the middle ages:—
Tharfor sene I ma nocht work
As minister of haly Kirke
For gret elde and feblenes
Yet for to eschew idlenes,
I hafe translatit symply
Sum part as I fand in story
Of Mary and hir Son Jesu.
From the outline of the contents of this work which follows, it appears to have comprised the whole gospel history with the legend of the Virgin Mary's subsequent life. The ‘Legends of the Saints’ contains 33,533 verses and lives of fifty saints, commencing with those of the apostles and evangelists, which are followed by various martyrs and confessors, both of the eastern and western church, taken for the most part from the ‘Legenda Aurea.’ No English saints are included, and only the two Scottish above mentioned—that of St. Machar, probably taken from the Latin life which was one of the lectures or lessons in the breviary of Aberdeen; and that of St. Ninian, from his life by Ailred of Rievaulx, with the addition of a few miracles wrought in the author's time at Ninian's shrine at Whithorn. One of these, whose subject was John Balormy, ‘a gudeman in Murrefe (i.e. Moray), born in Eglyn,’ of whom the author says, ‘I kend hym weill mony day,’ confirms the attribution of the poem to Barbour. But the style of verse and tone of the poem so well agree with the ‘Brus’ that few persons will doubt the authorship which its German editor, as well as Mr. Bradshaw, assumes as certain. From the expressions as to his age and infirmity a date between 1380 and 1390 has been assigned to it. There are frequent notices of Barbour as a witness to deeds in the ‘Register of Aberdeen’ down to 1392. The payment of his life pension ceased in 1395, and in 1398 he is referred to as deceased in an inquest as to certain lands, the ward of which had been conferred on him by Robert II. This document confirms the date of his death as being in 1395 by the statement that the ward had been held by Alexander Abercromby for rather more than two years and a half since the date of the archdeacon's death.
In 1380, fifteen years before his own death, Barbour mortified his pension of twenty shillings in favour of the cathedral for a mass to be said on his anniversary on behalf of his soul and those of his parents. Such are the facts known to us of the life of Barbour, few in number, but sufficient to represent the career of a learned and busy, pious and prosperous ecclesiastic. His poems add scarcely any personal details except those already noted, but their spirit reveals a character in keeping with his external circumstances. They are frank and simple expressions of the early style of narrative poetry, free from all effort of laboured art, sometimes tedious from their minuteness of detail, but at other times charming from their naturalness, and occasionally striking a deep note of national or human feeling. The age in which they were written, and the effect of the ‘Brus’ upon the character of the Scottish nation, give their author a place in literature beyond the intrinsic merit of his works, either as poetry or history. The ‘Brus’ was in great part copied by Wyntoun, and the main facts, which Barbour may easily have derived from eye-witnesses, one of whom, Sir Alan Cathcart, he names, may be relied on; although, by an inexplicable blunder, he has confounded his hero with his grandfather, the competitor of Baliol for the crown before Edward I at Norham. The aim of true history and the pleasure it gives have seldom been better described than in the prologue of this poem:—
Storyis to red ar delitabill,
Suppos that tha be nocht but fabill.
Than suld storyis that suthfast wer
And tha wer said on gud maner
Haf doubill plesans in herying:
The fyrst plesans is the carping,
And the tothir the suthfastnes
That schawis the thing rycht as it wes.
The praise of the national virtue of independence, which is the moral of his poem, was the natural voice of a time when Scotland was rejoicing at its escape from the imperial schemes of the Plantagenet kings; but it deserves note that Barbour bases it on the value of personal freedom—
A! fredom is a noble thing;
Fredom mais man to haf liking,
Fredom all solace to man giffis:
He lifis at es that frely lifis—
and laments the position of the serfs whose emancipation had not yet come:—
Schortly to say is nane can tell
The sair condicioun of a threll.
In other passages he shows a gentleness which recalls Chaucer, as in the anecdote of the king stopping his host to provide for the delivery of a poor woman. But his humour is far inferior. As a compensation he never trenches on the coarseness to be found not only in the English, but in a worse form in some of the later Scottish poets. His range and depth of observation are also much more limited. Instead of the comedy of human nature in the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ he has given us only a drama of war with a single hero. His other poems are almost literal translations: the ‘Legends of the Saints’ from the ‘Legenda Aurea,’ and the Troy book from Guido da Colonna's ‘Historia Destructionis Troiæ.’ His imagination required facts or legends to stimulate it. He is not a creative poet. It is only on rare occasions that he indulges even in the graces of composition sometimes thought inseparable from poetry. To one of these, his description of spring, the reader is referred as representing his verse at its best; but to compare it, as has been done, with the melodious ease of Chaucer's rhythm is too severe a trial.
The German edition of the ‘Legends of the Saints’ claims for that poem a superiority over the ‘Brus’ in form and skill in composition, but this seems the partiality of an editor. There is little in this respect to choose between them, and the interest of the historical surpasses that of the legendary poem.
The few romances and other poems of earlier date than Barbour, whose authors are for the most part unknown, and which exist only in fragmentary form, cannot displace him from the unique position of being the father both of vernacular Scottish poetry and Scottish history. Blind Harry's ‘Wallace’ is a century later; Wyntoun was a contemporary, but of a younger generation. In virtue of this position Barbour did much to fix the dialect which sprang from the Northumbrian or northern English, and was preserved by the writers who succeeded him in the form known as broad Scotch, though it is still called by Barbour and even later Scottish poets ‘Inglis,’ or by one of them ‘Inglis of the northern leid.’ His works have therefore a special linguistic interest which has attracted the notice of modern philologists.
The chief manuscripts of the ‘Brus’ are those in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, and in St. John's College, Cambridge, both of which are transcripts by John Ramsay towards the end of the fifteenth century. The oldest printed edition extant is that ‘imprentit at Edinburgh by Robert Likprink at the expensis of Henrie Charteris, MDLXXI,’ of which a copy, probably unique, was sold at the sale of Dr. D. Laing's library for 142l. 10s. This was followed by the edition of Hart in 1616, and there have been many since, of which the best are those of Dr. Jamieson, Mr. Cosmo Innes, and the Early English Text Society (edited by Skeat). The only manuscripts of the fragments on the Trojan war are appended to two manuscripts of Lydgate's poem on the same subject, one in the Bodleian and the other in the Cambridge University Library. They have been printed by the Early English Text Society. The ‘Legends of the Saints’ exists only in a single manuscript in the same Cambridge Library. The ‘Legend of St. Machar’ was printed from it by Horstmann in his ‘Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge,’ Heilbronn, 1881, and the remainder, along with the fragments of the poem on the Trojan war, were published by the same editor at Heilbronn in 1882.
[Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, vols. ii. and iii.; Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis, Spalding Society; Rymer's Fœdera. Brief memoirs are prefixed to the various editions of the Bruce, and his position as a poet is estimated in Warton's History of English Poetry, Irving's History of Scottish Poetry, and Mätzner's Altenglische Sprachproben.]