Robert Henryson

Robert Henryson

Robert Henryson was a poet who flourished in Scotland in the period c.1460 – 1500. Counted among the Scots Makars, he lived in the historic city of Dunfermline and is a distinctive voice in the northern renaissance at a time when Scotland was on a cusp between medieval and renaissance sensibilities. Little is known of his life, but evidence suggests that he was a teacher and canon lawyer in the Church, that he had a connection with Dunfermline Abbey, and that he may also have taught for a period in Glasgow University. His poetry is one of the most important bodies of work in the canon of early Scottish literature.

Henryson's works are vivid, subtle and multi-layered poems, mainly of narrative poetry, which are highly inventive in their development of story-telling techniques, and written in Middle Scots at a time when it had become a language of state. He was a superlative rhetorician and remains one of the finest in the language. His poems express a consistent world view which seems standard, "vis a vis" the major ruling power of the church, yet contains critical and questioning elements. He achieved a canny balance of humour and high seriousness, and his themes and tone convey an attractive impression of essential humanity and compassionate intellect. Some passages appear to contain autobiographical inferences.

Although his writing uses medieval idioms with outwardly didactic purpose, in substance it has more in common with artistic currents of northern Europe which were working to transcend medieval stylisation, such as in Flemish painting, with which it bears analogy; for example, in his subtle use of psychology to convey individual character in carefully dramatised, recognisable daily-life situations that tend to avoid fantastic elements.

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

Biographical inferences

It is generally accepted that Robert Henryson lived in Dunfermline, one of Scotland's royal capitals, and was attached to its abbey, the burial place for many of the kingdom's monarchs, situated adjacent to the Royal Palace of Dunfermline. There is no record of him as a court poet, but the proximity of the palace makes it likely that he was at least acquainted with the royal household. He was active during the reigns of James III and James IV, who both had interests in literature. References to Henryson as a schoolmaster is usually taken to mean that he taught in the abbey's grammar school. [A "Confirmatio," dated 26 November 1468, refers to the "master of grammar" for scholars in Dunfermline as "a priest" and records a donation of land on which a "suitable house" was to be constructed "for the habitation of the said master, for the grammar scholars, and for the poor scholars being taught free of charge..." Kirk, James, ed. 1997: "Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome: 1447-1471," Scottish Academic Press. p.396] [The title page of the 1570 edition of Henryson's Fables refers to him as "scholemaister of Dunfermeling."]

It is not known where or when Henryson was born or educated. The first probable reference to him, from 1462, suggests that he was given a post as a master in the newly founded University of Glasgow. This would indicate that he had already completed his studies by that date. [University of Glasgow, "Munimenta," II, 69, dated 10 September 1462. This admits a Robert Henryson, licenciate in Arts and bachelor of Decreits (Canon Law), as a member of the University. It is generally taken as likely that this was the poet.] With no record of him as a student in Scotland, he is usually thought to have graduated in a university the land, possibly in Leuven, Paris or Bologna. It is not known when he came to Dunfermline after his time in Glasgow, but evidence for his presence there in 1478 exists. [The name Robert Henryson appears as witness on abbey charters dated 18 and 19 March and 6 July 1478. See McDiarmid, Matthew P. 1981: "Robert Henryson," Scottish Academic Press, p.3. The scholar John MacQueen interestingly contextualises this record of the poet as notary for Dunfermline Abbey 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.] It has been suggested that he may have died in the years 1498 or 1499 [These were plague years in Dunfermline. See McDiarmid, Matthew P. 1981. "op. cit." p.12] but William Dunbar certainly gave the terminus ad quem in a couplet from the "Lament for the Makars" (c. 1505) in which he wrote that Death in Dunfermline :"hes done roune" (whispered in private) :"with Maister Robert Henrysoun".

Almost nothing else is known of him outside of his surviving writing. It is not known if he originated from Dunfermline, nor is a suggestion that he may have been linked to the Fife branch of the Clan Henderson possible to verify.


Henryson's surviving works include three major long poems all in narrative genre, each highly regarded for excellence in storytelling, beauty in language and subtlety of intellect. They are major works of Scottish literature. The longest is his "Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian", a tight, intricately structured set of thirteen fable stories in an integrated sequence of 424 stanzas (2975 lines). It is one of the most original and intriguing works in European literature. In addition there are a number of short poems, of which "Robene and Makyne", a pastourelle with a ballad-like quality and a theme of rejected love, has often been considered the best. Like much of his other writing, it works enigmatically on a number of levels. The "Preiching of the Swallow" (from the "Morall fabillis") and his "Testament of Cresseid", another long narrative poem, are among the works by Henryson that have probably received the greatest critical regard to date. The third of his long poems is a dynamic and inventive version of the Orpheus story.

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. Scenes are usually given a deftly evocative Scottish setting which can only come from close connection and observation. [See Wittig, K. 1958: "The Scottish Tradition in Literature," Oliver and Boyd, chapter 2, for perceptive appraisals of Henryson's descriptive skill.] His detailed, intimate and realistic approach strongly suggests matters of personal experience and attitudes to actual contemporary events, yet the specifics remain elusive in ways that tantalise readers and critics. [McDiarmid, Matthew P. 1981. "op. cit." p.1. "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's first chapter goes on to develop a surprisingly full and plausible likely picture of the poet's life gleaned from evidence in his poetry and the surviving citations of his name in an extremely broken record.] No concrete details of his life can be directly inferred from his works, but there are some passages of self-reflection that appear to be autobiographical, particularly in the opening stanzas of "The Testament of Cresseid". Much of the sense of intrigue is a result of his cannily controlled use of the philosophy of fiction which is a self-proclaimed feature of his work.

Constructing a sure chronology for Henryson's writings is not possible, but his "Orpheus and Erudices" may have been written earlier in his career while he was teaching 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.

List of extant poems

All Robert Henryson's known writings are listed here:

Long Works:
* "The Testament of Cresseid"
* "The Tale of Orpheus and Erudices his Quene"
* "The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian"

Short Works:
* "Robene and Makyne"
* "The Annuciation"
* "Sum Practysis of Medecyne"
* "Ane Prayer for the Pest"
* "The Garment of Gud Ladeis"
* "The Bludy Serk"
* "The Thre Deid-Pollis"
* "Against Hasty Credence"
* "The Abbay Walk"
* "The Praise of Age"
* "The Ressoning Betwix Aige and Yowth"
* "The Ressoning Betwix Deth and Man"Individual fables-01 The Prolog and The Taill of the Cok and the Jasp-02 The Taill of the Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous-03 The Taill of Schir Chanticleir and the Foxe-04 The Taill of how this foirsaid Tod maid his Confessioun to Freir Wolf Waitskaith-05 -06 The Taill of the Scheip and the Doig-07 The Taill of the Lyoun and the Mous-08 The Preiching of the Swallow-09 The Taill of the Wolf that gat the Nek-hering throw the wrinkis of the Foxe that begylit the Cadgear-10 The Taill of the Foxe that begylit the Wolf in the schadow of the Mone-11 The Taill of the Wolf and the Wedder-12 The Taill of the Wolf and the Lamb-13 The Taill of the Paddok and the Mous-The 20th century Henryson scholar Matthew P McDiarmid also makes reference to another (lost?) poem which begins: "On fut by Forth as I couth found." [McDiarmid, Matthew P. 1981. "op cit." p.4]

Henryson's Scots

Henryson's works are composed in 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.

* Henryson's use of Scots
* Help to read


* Literary sources
* Selected references to events

Influence and evaluation

Robert Henryson is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Selections for Makars' Court are made by The Writers' Museum; The Saltire Society; The Scottish Poetry Library.

Notes and references

External links

* [ List of further reference works on Robert Henryson]
* [ Robert L. Kindrick, 'The Morall Fabillis: Introduction"]
* [ The Chepman & Myllar Prints] digital edition at the National Library of Scotland contain the following works by Henryson:
**The Praise of Age
**Orpheus and Eurydice
**The Want of Wise Men
* [ "The Testament of Cresseid" resources at Britain in Print]

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