John Barbour (poet)

John Barbour (poet)

John Barbour (?1320 – March 13, 1395), was a Scottish poet and the first major literary voice to write in Scots, the vernacular language of Lowland Scotland, similar to the position that Chaucer, his slightly later contemporary, independently occupies "vis a vis" the vernacular tradition in England. Barbour was the Archdeacon of the Kirk of St Machar in Aberdeen. He also studied in Oxford and Paris. His principal patron was Robert II and evidence of his promotion and movements before Robert Stewart came to power tend to suggest that he acted politically in the future king's behalf. [A.A.M.Duncan (ed.), "The Bruce" Canongate Classics, 1999 edition. "Introduction", pp.2-3]

Although Barbour was a man of the church, his writing is strongly secular in both tone and themes. "The Brus", his major surviving work, was written while he was a member of Robert II's court in the 1370s. The poem's subject is Robert the Bruce and that king's actions in the First War of Scottish Independence, but it also features actions of the Stewarts in the conflict, while another work, "The Stewartis Oryginalle" (now lost) purportedly traced the genealogy of the Stewart line. Historically the Bruce royal line was extinguished with the death of David II, Robert II's uncle.

Barbour died in 1395, probably in Aberdeen.

Biography

If the record of Barbour's age in 1375 as sixty is correct, he would have been born c.1320. His birthplace is not known, although Aberdeenshire and Galloway have both been suggested. He first appears in the historical record in 1356 when he was promoted to the archdeaconry of Aberdeen from a post in Dunkeld Cathedral which he had held for less than a year. (It is also likely that he was in Avignon in 1355). [A.A.M.Duncan (ed.), "The Bruce" Canongate Classics, 1999 edition. "Introduction", pp.2-3] When David II returned from exile the following year (1357), Barbour received a letter of safe-conduct to travel through England to the University of Oxford. In subsequent years he appears to have left the country in times co-incidental with periods when David II was active king.

After the death of David II in 1371, Barbour served in the royal court of Robert II in a number of capacities. It was during this time, as part of Robert's household, that he composed his best known work, "The Brus", for which he received, in 1377, the gift of ten pounds Scots and a life-pension of twenty shillings in 1378. He held various posts in the king's household. In 1372 he was one of the auditors of exchequer, and in 1373 a clerk of audit.

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 St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen he died on March 13, 1395. The state records show that his life-pension was not paid after that date.

Barbour made provision for a mass to be sung for himself and his parents, an instruction that was observed in the Kirk of St Machar until the Reformation.

Father of Scots language poetry

It is not clear how many works Barbour composed. Some titles ascribed to his name, such as "The Stewartis Oryginalle" and "The Brut", are now lost works. It has been thought that "The Buik of Alexander", which borrows much from "The Brus", may also be one of his works. If he truly is the author of the five or six long poems which different witnesses have ascribed to him, then he would be one of the most voluminous writers of Early Scots, if not the most voluminous of all poets in Scots. But in the absence of another namable contemporary with the same achievement, his position as father of Scots literature would be secure from his authorship of "The Brus" alone.

The Brus

"The Brus" is a long narrative poem, of just under 14,000 octosyllabic lines, in which Barbour gives a historic and chivalric account of the the actions of Robert the Bruce and the Black Douglas in the Scottish Wars of Independence during a period from the circumstances leading up the the English invasion of 1296 through to Scotland's restored position in the years between the Truce of 1328 and the death of Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray in 1332. The poem's literal centre-piece is an extensive account of the Battle of Bannockburn of 1314. Barbour's poetic account of these events is a keystone in Scotland's national story.

Patriotic as the sentiment is, it is in more general terms than is found in later Scottish 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 oft-quoted section beginning "A! fredome is a noble thing".

Despite a number of errors of fact — for instance the elision of three Bruces into the single person of the hero at the beginning of the poem — the account has a greater degree of historical veracity than is usually associated with the verse-chronicle genre (such as Blind Hary's Wallace composed in the following century). But it is much more than a rhyming chronicle; it contains many fine descriptive passages, and sings the praises of freedom. Its style is somewhat bald and severe. 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, one preserved in the Advocates Library, Edinburgh, and the other in the library of St John's College, Cambridge.

Legends of the Saints

Yet another work was added to the list of Barbour's works by the discovery in the library of the University 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 A urea" 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.

Buik of Alexander

Attempts have been made to name Barbour as the author of the "Buik of Alexander" (a translation of the "Roman d'Alexandre" and associated pieces), as known in the unique edition, c. 1580, printed at the Edinburgh press of Alexander Arbuthnot.

References

Further reading

* "Barbour's Bruce", edited by Matthew P. McDiarmid and James A. C. Stevenson, 3 volumes. Edinburgh, Scottish Text Society, 1980-5.
* "The Bruce: A Selection", edited by Alexander Kinghorn. Edinburgh, 1960. The Saltire Classics.
*Citation
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author-link=John Barbour (poet)
year=1375
editor-last=Innes
editor-first=Cosmo
editor-link=Cosmo Innes
contribution=The Story of The Brus
contribution-url=http://books.google.com/books?id=d6UOAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA1
title=The Brus
volume=
edition=
publisher=The Spalding Club
publication-date=1856
publication-place=Aberdeen
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url=http://books.google.com/books?id=d6UOAAAAYAAJ
access-date=2008-08-17
- in Scots
*Citation
last=Barbour
first=Johne
author-link=John Barbour (poet)
year=1375
editor-last=Skeat
editor-first=Walter W.
editor-link=
contribution=
title=The Bruce; or, The Book of the most excellent and noble prince, Robert de Broyss, King of Scots
volume=
edition=
publisher=Early English Text Society
publication-date=1870
publication-place=London
pages=
url=http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=UU8JAAAAQAAJ
access-date=2008-08-17
- in Scots with Modern English annotations
*Citation
last=Barbour
first=Johne
author-link=John Barbour (poet)
year=1375
editor-last=Eyre-Todd
editor-first=George
editor-link=
contribution=
title=The Bruce, being the Metrical History of Robert The Bruce, King of Scots
volume=
edition=
publisher=Gowans & Gray Limited
publication-date=1907
publication-place=London
pages=
url=http://books.google.com/books?id=skZ7OI64-wwC
access-date=2008-08-17
- a modern English translation

ee also

* Scottish literature
* Makar


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