The Freiris of Berwik: Introduction

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The Freiris of Berwik: Introduction

from: Ten Bourdes  2013


There are three extant early texts of The Freiris of Berwik: one in the Bannatyne Manuscript (MS B, finished in 1568), one in the late sixteenth-century Maitland Folio Manuscript (MS M), and a chapbook from 1622 now in the Henry Huntington Library (H). This edition is based on MS B, the Bannatyne Manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates’ 1.1.6, fols. 348 r–354 v. In it the poem is headed “Heir begynnis The Freiris of Berwik.” MS M, the Maitland Folio Manuscript, is Cambridge, Magdalene College, MS Pepys 2553, in which the poem appears on pp. 113–29. The poem is untitled, but it concludes with “ffinis the freiris of Berwik.” The Maitland Folio Manuscript, like Bannatyne, is a compilation written out for a particular household, in this case that of Sir Richard Maitland (d. 1586) of Lethington, Haddington. H is article 88850 in the Henry Huntington Library, San Marino, California: The Merrie Historie of the Thrie Friers of Ber[wi]cke, Printed at Aberdene, by Edward Raban, for David Melvill, 1622. Of these three, MS M and H are more closely related to each other than they are to MS B.

Almost all of the writing in MS B is that of one person, George Bannatyne, a young Edinburgh merchant. He wrote out the manuscript in Forfarshire in the last three months of 1568, when he was forced by the plague to stay away from his normal business life in town.

The three different late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century texts in which The Freiris of Berwik survives give us information on the appeal of the poem to different kinds of readers: MS B was written by a merchant for his household’s use; MS M was compiled by a prominent jurist and public functionary, the Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, Sir Richard Maitland, for his household’s use; and H was a chapbook, printed on cheap paper and offered for sale by a printer who calculated that it would sell to a wide enough public to make it profitable for his print shop. This is truly a heterogeneous readership.

For those interested in the Bannatyne Manuscript, a good starting place is Alasdair A. MacDonald, “Cultural Repertory”; MacDonald there gives an analysis of the circumstances of production of the collection by Bannatyne and draws on work done by Priscilla Bawcutt for her then-not-yet-published article “Scottish Manuscript Miscellanies.” It would be more accurate to call the Bannatyne Manuscript an anthology, for it is a carefully planned collec­tion of literary texts organized by theme, rather than a miscellany, a grouping together of assorted texts of very different types and functions from narration to horse medicine, such as we see in some other of the household manuscripts where other works in this volume appear. For a sense of the whole manuscript and its organization, see the facsimile edition, Bannatyne Manuscript, introduced by Denton Fox and W. A. Ringler. The introduction by Fox and Ringler gives information on the history and contents of the manuscript. There is an edition of the manuscript transcribed into print by W. Tod Ritchie, Bannatyne Manuscript.

Notes on the language in MS B may be helpful, not to localize the manuscript (which we already know to have to have been written by Bannatyne), but to help readers new to the distinctive (and perhaps initially daunting) features of a text in Middle Scots. A more scholarly discussion is to be found in my 1985 critical edition of the poem in Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, pp. 321–26. Despite the setting of the poem in the southeast corner of Scotland, its language suggests that it was written elsewhere, but certainly in Scotland. The language of MS B in part represents Bannatyne’s usage and in part the earlier language of the poet and scribes of intervening versions of the poem. In MS B these are recurring features that a reader needs to recognize:
  • Quh- is at the beginning of words that in modern English have wh-:
    quha: who
    quhair: where
    quhairfoir: wherefore, because of that
    quhairof: whereof, of what
    quhatkin: whatever
    quhen: when, once meaning “though” (at line 180)
    quhilk: which
    quhill: while, till
  • The pronoun scho is always used for “she.” Thir is an adjective meaning “these.”
  • The prepositions into and intill are very frequent, and they mean “in.” Our can mean “over” and owttour means “over” or “across.”
  • Woundir is used as an intensifier, with no attention paid to its semantic meaning, like today’s “incredibly.” Richt, verry, and full are other frequent intensifiers in the poem.
  • Present participles end in -and instead of -ing: bydand is “biding.” But gerunds end, like ours, in -ing: with fair hailsing and bekking.
  • Third person singular present indicative verbs end in -is or -ys, less frequently in -es. Past tense weak verbs end in -it rather than -ed. Come is the past tense of “to come.” The present tense is cum. “Will be” and “shall be” are regularly contracted to wilbe and salbe in this text. “Shall” is always sal. Hes and wes are “has” and “was.” Haif is “have.”
  • That is often omitted, not only where we would omit it (when it is a conjunction), but also where we would not (when it is a relative pronoun):
    lines 470–71: Ye sall him se in liknes of a freir
    In habeit blak it was his kynd to weir
    line 111: Intill a loft, wes maid for corne and hay.
  • Long a sounds are often spelled ai, and words that in Old English had long a, but in southern Middle English changed to long o, will still usually have long a in this text: e.g., baith for “both,” mair for “more,” stane for “stone,” ga for “go.” But sometimes there are o spellings, and these often have oi to indicate the long vowel: moir for “more.” Ane is the usual form for both “a” and “an,” even before a consonant (compare line 6, but also line 5). But mony and ony are the usual forms of “many” and “any.”
  • In midword, -d- or -dd- appears where now -th- appears: bruder, bredir, hidder, togidder, and most frequently, uder for “brother,” “brothers,” “hither,” “together,” and “other.”
  • Words that in modern English have -gh- will probably have -ch- in this text, and the -ch- would still be sounded as a palatal or velar continuant: licht, thocht for “light,” “thought.”
  • In this edition, u and v have been regularized to modern usage, but w has not, and appears in place of both u and v: selwer is “silver,” and ws is “us,” for example.


The Freiris of Berwik has been very often published, at first usually attributed to William Dunbar, and appears in the following important editions that are particularly early, informative, or recent. See also the editions of the Bannatyne Manuscript mentioned above.

1786. The Freiris of Berwik, a tale. John Pinkerton, ed. Ancient Scotish Poems. London: C. Dilly. 1:65–85. [Edition of MS M, silently bowdlerized.]

1802. The Freirs of Berwik, A Tale. J. Sibbald, ed. A Chronicle of Scottish Poetry from the Thirteenth Century to the Union of the Crowns. Edinburgh: J. Sibbald. 2:372–90. [Edition based upon Pinkerton’s, “collated with” MS B; silently bowdlerized.]

1832. The Freiris of Berwik. David Laing, ed. The Poems of William Dunbar, Now First Collected. Edinburgh: Laing and Forbes. 2:3–23. [Edition of MS B, silently euphemized.]

1894. The Freiris of Berwik. Jakob Schipper, ed. The Poems of William Dunbar, vol. 5: Anonymous Early Scottish Poems Forming a Supplement to the Poems of William Dunbar. Denkschriften der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften 43. Vienna: K. Akademie der Wissenschaften. Pp. 389–432. [Edition based on MS M, amended from MS B; acknowledged bowdlerization.]

1955. The Freiris of Berwik. W. Mackay MacKenzie, ed. The Poems of William Dunbar. Second ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1955. Pp. 182–95. [Edition based on MS B; acknowledged bowdlerization. Poem acknowledged as an “attribution” to Dunbar.]

1985. The Friars of Berwick. Melissa M. Furrow, ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. New York: Garland, 1985. Pp. 313–62. [MS B as copy-text; critical edition.]

1997. The Freirs of Berwik. R. D. S. Jack and P. A. T. Rozendaal, eds. The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature 1375–1707. Edinburgh: Mercat. Pp. 152–65. [MS B as copy-text, emended from MS M.]


The Freiris of Berwik is addressed by Florence H. Ridley in volume 4 (1973) of the Manual, section 10: Middle Scots Writers [112], The Freiris of Berwick.

The motif “Trickster Surprises Adulteress and Lover” is listed in ATU as 1358, and The Freiris of Berwik belongs under 1358C, “Trickster Discovers Adultery: Food Goes to Husband instead of Lover.”

The RSTC number for H, the 1622 Aberdeen edition of The Merrie Historie of the Thrie Friers of Berwicke, is 7349.5.


The poet of this, as of all the other poems in the current edition, is unknown, but this one is an admirable writer. The fabliau plot is handled adroitly; the iambic pentameter couplets are skillful and by contrast to the other poems in this edition remarkably free of padding and fillers to make up a line and provide a rhyme; the speeches sound like men and women with distinct personalities and private agendas talking; and the physical setting is vividly imagined.

On the face of it, the most natural place of origin for the poem would be Berwick itself, where Scotland met England on the eastern coast. The poem was clearly written by someone familiar with the setting, buildings, and fortifications of the town, and with the fact that the four main orders of friars all had foundations there. But a few linguistic points cast doubt on this guess. The first of these is the frequent use of the prepositions intill and into for ME in, a usage which belongs to the center and northeast of Scotland, according to OED. It might be scribal, however: Bannatyne was from Edinburgh, Maitland’s family from Haddington, and the printed text from Aberdeen, all within the area where intill and into were used. Yet the two-syllable prepositions are required by the scansion, and thus likely to be authorial. Another point is the use of the noun pleiss at line 408. No other medieval citation for the noun exists, but the Scottish National Dictionary gives modern citations of the phrase to hae a please, attributing it to northeast Scotland and Angus. But the third and most convincing point is that the ai diphthong in stair has gone to long a, rhyming with mair (“more”) at lines 557–58. The change of ai to a takes place everywhere in Scotland except the southeast, where Berwick is (see Jordan, Handbook of Middle English Grammar, p. 132, and Luick, Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache, p. 434).

This evidence that the poem (or at least the poet) originates in an area outside Berwickshire has implications for its date as well. Berwick passed permanently to England in 1482, after centuries of conquest and reconquest. If the poem were written by a Scot elsewhere in Scotland (as opposed to a native of Berwick who had changed his nationality but not his language), it is inconceivable to me that he could have written the entirely laudatory account of Berwick’s defenses and other advantages after the town had passed into the hands of the English, without at least some expression of regret or hint of irony. If the poem was written to the north of Berwickshire, then it must have been written between 1461 and 1482, years in which Berwick was in Scottish hands.

Trying to date a medieval poem by its language is a very dubious matter in the current state of knowledge, so at best we can say that there is nothing in the language of this poem that rules out the dates 1461–82. There are words in it not attested that early in DOST or OED, but also words attested no later than around 1500 in OED, DOST, and MED. The inflectional endings -is and -it can still be pronounced as full syllables, as signaled by the meter, though they are not always pronounced as full syllables. The loss of the vowel in those syllables had begun before the fifteenth century in the north, according to Jordan (p. 291). The older pronunciation with a vowel could still be retained in poetry in the sixteenth century in the -es ending of nouns and the -ed ending of verbs and adjectives (see Dobson, English Pronunciation 1500–1700, 2:312 and 315) but not in the third singular ending of verbs (Dobson 2:313), as it is for example in line 241: “Scho stertis up and gettis licht in hy.” Pronunciation of the vowel in these verbs, clearly mandated by the meter in a poem that is metrically careful, suggests no later than a fifteenth-century date; its absence in other contexts, for example in line 165 (“Scho sayis, ‘Ye ar full hertly welcome heir’”), suggests not much earlier than a fifteenth-century date.

A further historical point may have some bearing on the provenance of the poem. The poet is clearly confused on the colors pertaining to the different orders of friars. Allane and Robert are Jacobins (line 29). The Jacobins (or Dominicans) are not White Friars, as the poem suggests (“The Jacobene freiris of the quhyt hew,” line 24), but Black Friars. The Carmelites were known as the White Friars (from their white habit), the Minors or Franciscans as the Gray Friars (from their gray habit). Most likely, Friar Johine was a Franciscan, members of that order being traditionally foes of the Jacobins. Certainly Robert’s refusal to let the fiend, as requested, appear in “our habeit quhyt,” on the grounds that it would be a disgrace to “our ordour” if he did so (lines 465–66), makes clear that the poet thinks of Robert and Allane as in an order with white habits, while Johine is in an order with black habits: he is called a Black Friar or dressed in black (at lines BH126, B471, B502), though Black Friar was the usual name for the Jacobins themselves, from their black cloaks worn over white habits. In MS M and H, he is called a Gray Friar or dressed in gray at lines M126, MH 471, MH502). Either the poet made one mistake here or two. He might have mistakenly believed the Jacobins to be White Friars, and correctly called Johine a Gray Friar, in which case Bannatyne and (inconsistently) H made Johine a Black Friar to enhance his demonic appearance. Or the poet might have mistakenly believed the Jacobins to be White Friars, and though intending Johine to belong to another order than the Jacobins, have mistakenly called him a Black Friar, in which case Maitland and (inconsistently) H have corrected the poem, changing him to a Gray Friar. The latter case is the more likely, since two independent factual corrections (M and H both noticing that Johine cannot be a Black Friar because Allane and Robert are Jacobins, who are really Black Friars) are more likely than two independent esthetic improvements (M and H both thinking that black would be symbolically better than gray). The changes by M and H have to be independent because H is inconsistent; if a shared ancestor had gray, then H would not likely have accidentally reverted to black at line 126.

In either event, the poet himself was confused about the orders of friars. Perhaps he had seen the Jacobins wearing their white inner habits without their black cloaks over them, and thought they were White Friars. Certainly his confusion implies that he was not familiar with the orders. Two explanations are possible. First, that he was writing in Berwick after 1539 (the date of the dissolution of major religious foundations in England). But this explanation is implausible for the linguistic and historical reasons given above on dating. Second, that he lived in an area of Scotland other than Berwick (which was the most important center for friars in all of Scotland), one to which the Jacobins had no frequent access. This second explanation seems preferable.

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