The Morall Fabillis: Introduction

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The Morall Fabillis: Introduction

For several hundred years Henryson was best known to audiences through The Testament of Cresseid, but in recent years The Morall Fabillis has drawn increasing critical attention. A collection of thirteen fables and a general prologue, the tales provide a broad perspective on fifteenth-century literary and social matters. As Dryden said of Chaucer, here as well is "God's plenty."

The fables have engendered a number of critical debates. One of the earliest to emerge involves Henryson's biography. In "The Preaching of the Swallow," for instance, Henryson shows familiarity with the flax industry. Does this suggest that somehow he was directly involved with this trade during his lifetime? In similar fashion, "The Trial of the Fox" and "The Sheep and the Dog" show a pronounced knowledge of the Scottish legal system. This knowledge of Scottish law has been used to support the argument that Henryson himself was at least a notary and perhaps even a solicitor. Other poems in The Morall Fabillis seem to illustrate his knowledge of the court and the rhetoric of preaching. How do these matters reveal the personality and background of the poet? Biographical arguments have been advanced by a number of critics since Laing. Recently, however, they have been challenged by critics who apply New Critical approaches to Henryson's verse. These approaches suggest that we can draw few biographical inferences from the allusions in his poetry and that apparent references to contemporaneous events, such as the reign of James III, cannot be substantiated. Most notably, Lyall and Greentree have argued that many of the political and social elements in Henryson's Fabillis derive from the tradition of the beast fable and therefore cannot be used for biographical readings or even inferences about Henryson's attitude toward the issues of the day. Critical debate continues, but those interested in the subject should compare Henryson's perspectives with those of other contemporaneous sources. It is important to bring to the discussion of this issue a background in the history of the beast fable and knowledge of the politics of Henryson's day, especially the reign of James III.

Another issue that has received considerable interest is Henryson's sources. Thanks to G. Gregory Smith, I. W. A. Jamieson, Marianne Powell, and Donald MacDonald, along with a number of earlier scholars, we are now able to identify Henryson's possible use of the Latin Romulus of Gualterus Anglicus, The Fabules of John Lydgate, Caxton's Reynard and Aesop, Petrus Alfonsi's Disciplina clericalis, the Roman de Renart, Chaucer, Gualterus Anglicus's Isopet, and the Fabulae of Odo of Cheriton, among others. Comparison of Henryson's fables with his sources offers fascinating insights into the author's creative techniques. For instance, a comparison of "The Two Mice" with Odo's tale (entitled "Contra symaniacos et usurarios") shows how Henryson was able to expand abbreviated source material and incorporate Scottish settings and characterization into the fable. On the other hand, a comparison of "The Cock and the Fox" with Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale shows how Henryson condensed a longer source even while adding new elements to the tale. For further discussion of both of these tales, see Kindrick, Henryson and the Medieval Arts of Rhetoric, pp. 69-101. It is hardly likely that everything there is to be known about Henryson's sources is now available to us. There is enough, however, to help give us insights into the way he treated the rhetorical arts and to explain partially the nature of his synthetic genius.

The sources also play a major role in analyses of the dating and unity in the Fabillis. As John MacQueen has shown (Robert Henryson, pp. 189-99), the earliest texts of the work do not provide definitive answers about when Henryson wrote individual tales or, apart from obvious examples such as his General Prologue, what the order should be. In fact, the texts do not have the tales in the same order. Yet there are clues that help with the order of composition. David Crowne, for instance, uses the publication dates of Caxton's Reynard and Aesop as a way to determine when groups of fables might have been composed (pp. 583-90). Denton Fox builds on such chronological evidence and shows how internal evidence, such as cross-references, also establishes an order for the tales (Poems, pp. lxxv-lxxxi). In addition, he examines thematic consistency and concludes that the Fabillis is a "comprehensive portrayal of a very fallen world" (p. lxxxi). The order of the fables in this edition follows Fox.

It is hardly possible to discuss the fables without engaging the issue of Henryson's debt to Chaucer. Henryson's long-standing designation as a "Scottish Chaucerian" may well derive from the fact that Thynne printed The Testament of Cresseid as virtually another book of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. The implication of a literary debt is extended to the Fabillis as well. Henryson's borrowing with regard to The Testament is a matter which can be treated with hard evidence. In the prologue, Henryson himself testifies that he was reading Chaucer's poem which stimulated his thinking along with the "uther quair" as he wrote The Testament. With The Morall Fabillis, the reasoning becomes somewhat more speculative. It is true that Henryson used Chaucer as a source, so in "The Tale of the Cock and the Fox," for instance, the same sorts of arguments can be joined that are discussed with regard to The Testament. However, other speculation becomes a little less certain. Like The Canterbury Tales, The Morall Fabillis is a collection of tales relating to timeless values and contemporaneous activities and events. There, however, much of the similarity ends. Henryson has no traveling framework for his collection, nor does he employ multiple narrators. While the characters within an individual tale may themselves make ironic or ambiguous comments, we generally do not have to reflect on how that irony or ambiguity relates to the nature of the individual narrator. Henryson's work is also a collection of beast fables, closely related to those he would have been teaching to students at Dunfermline Abbey school. We will never know with certainty whether he was inspired to write the collection by reading The Canterbury Tales or whether his inspiration was student exercises he was using in the classroom. Chaucerian influence is doubtless present, but it is a mistake to read The Morall Fabillis only as an imitation of or a footnote to The Canterbury Tales. Douglas Gray (Robert Henryson [1979], pp. 31-161) has done a particularly good job of focusing on Henryson's general debt to the beast fable tradition which is the overriding influence on The Morall Fabillis.

Our view of the relationship between individual tales and their moralitates depends on scholarly issues that are still evolving. The tradition of adding a moral to a tale was a long one. The Gesta Romanorum clearly illustrates the tendency to collect pagan tales which have an interest in their own right and to add to each tale a moral sentiment designed to help the reader understand the story in Christian terms. Denton Fox, Douglas Gray, Stephan Khinoy, Robert L. Kindrick, and Marshall W. Stearns, among others, have worked to explain how the tales interact with and are sometimes changed by the moralitates that Henryson appends to the end of each. In the case of "The Lion and the Mouse" the moralitas has been mined for contemporaneous political commentary and for general political advice. One of the most puzzling examples of the tale-moralitas relationship is "The Cock and the Jasp." Henryson's story about a cock scraping in a dunghill for food generally seems to portray the cock in a sympathetic light when he rejects a jewel which will not furnish nourishment for his body. Many readers are then startled to find that in the moralitas Henryson attacks the beast as an ignorant lout who throws away science in favor of carnal desire. However, an understanding that both the tale and moralitas fit into the tradition of the rhetoric of preaching shows that Henryson was using a traditional motif from the pulpit. (See Kindrick, Henryson and the Medieval Arts of Rhetoric, pp. 197-200.) Each of Henryson's moralitates contains its own interest, and a reader must reflect on how the author perceived and adapted each of the individual tales in the context of ethical behavior. Whether the goal is to shape the reader's future conduct remains debatable.

Finally, Henryson's style and rhetorical talent have also recently received attention. The fables illustrate his mastery of a number of poetic voices. The voice of the imperious Lion in "The Lion and the Mouse" is extremely different from that of the humble Sheep in "The Sheep and the Dog." No reader should be misled by the "simplicity" of the Fabillis. They are not artless folk tales merely transcribed from medieval sources; instead, Henryson shows a high degree of sophistication in character development, plot construction, and rhetorical control. His word choice seems effortless yet completely appropriate. The simple exclamation of the Sheep near the end of "The Sheep and the Dog" C "O lord, quhy sleipis thow sa lang?" (line 1295) C expresses the frustration of the poor. On the other hand, the unctuous persuasion of the frog in "The Paddock and the Mouse" illustrates the smooth duplicity of a self-destructive scoundrel. Unlike Chaucer, Henryson does not have to extend himself to match teller to tale, since in all except one case (Aesop, in "The Lion and the Mouse"), there is only one narrator for the entire collection. His accomplishment instead lies in the comparable task of matching the "voice" to the beast and the situation, as reflected in human terms.

The fables exist in a number of complete or partial versions in early manuscripts and printed texts. The Bassandyne print (1571), the Charteris print (1569-70), BL Harley MS 3865 (1571), the Hart print (1621), the Smith print (1577), and the Bannatyne Manuscript (1560's) are among the most important. The textual issues are quite complicated and have best been summarized by Fox (Poems, pp. l-lxxv). The text which is the basis for this edition is the Bassandyne print, with selected emendations. All emendations of the Bassandyne text are noted, often without comment since the reason for the change is usually self-evident in the meter or sense of the line. In some instances, however, a more detailed explanation has been provided, especially for emendations that are more controversial or complicated.

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Select Bibliography

Early Printed Editions

The Bassandyne Edition
The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian. Edinburgh: Thomas Bassandyne, 1571.

The Charteris Edition
The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian. Edinburgh: Robert Lekpreuik, 1570.

The Hart Edition
The Morall Fab[les] of Esope, the Phrygian. Edinburgh: Andro Hart, 1621.

The Smith Edition
The Fabulous Tales of Esope the Phrygian. London: Richard Smith, 1577.


British Library, Harley 3865, 75 leaves. Published in Smith, ed. Poems. Vol. 2.

Facsimilie Editions

The Bannatyne Manuscript. National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 1.1.6. With an Introduction by Denton Fox and William A. Ringler. London: Scolar Press in association with the National Library of Scotland, 1980. [Includes both draft MS and the main MS.]


Baldo. Novus Aesopus. In Beitr@ge zur lateinischen Erz@hlungsliteratur des Mittelalters.
Ed. Alfons Hilka. Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu G'ttingen, Philologish-Historische Klasse, Neue Folge, XXI. 3 (Berlin, 1928).

Caxton, William, trans. Caxton's Aesop. Ed. R. T. Lenaghan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

——. The History of Reynard the Fox. Ed. N. F. Blake. EETS o.s. 263. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Gen. ed. Larry Benson. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1987.

Gualterus Anglicus. In Recueil général des Isopets. Ed. Julia Bastin. 2 Vol. Paris: H. Champion, 1929-30.

Lydgate, John. Isopes Fabules. In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. Ed. Henry Noble MacCracken. Part II: Secular Poems. EETS o.s. 192. London: Oxford University Press, 1934. Pp. 566-99.

Perry, B. E., ed. Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to him or Closely Connected with the Literary Tradition that Bears his Name. Vol. 1. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1952.

——. Babrius and Phaedrus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Petrus Alfonsi. Die Disciplina clericalis. Eds. Alfons Hilkis and Werner S'derhjelm. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1911.

Roman de Renart. Ed. Ernest Martin. Strasbourg: K. J. Treubner, 1882.

Books and Modern Editions

Diebler, A. R. Henrisone's Fabeldichtungen. Inaugural dissertation lecture at the University of Leipzig. Halle: Erhardt Karras, 1885. [A valuable but often neglected evaluation of the fables and their sources.]

——. Henrisone's Fablen. Halle: Erhardt Karras, 1885. [A useful edition of the fables.]

Gopen, George, ed. and trans. Moral Fables. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987. [A valuable translation of the fables with the Bassandyne version as a facing text.]

Greentree, Rosemary. Reader, Teller, and Teacher: The Narrator of Robert Henryson's Moral Fables. Frankfort am Main: Peter Lang, 1993. [A study of Henryson's roles in the fables.]

Powell, Marianne. Fabula docet. Denmark: Odense University Press, 1983. [A study of the fables emphasizing Henryson's sources and the pedagogical tradition.]

Critical Studies

Bauman, Richard. "The Folktale and Oral Tradition in the Fables of Robert Henryson." Fabula 6 (1963), 108-24.

Bone, Gavin. "The Source of Henryson's 'Fox, Wolf, and Cadger.' " Review of English Studies 10 (1934), 319-20.

Bright, Philippa M. "Henryson's Figurative Technique in The Cock and the Jasp." In Words and Wordsmiths: A Volume for H. L. Rogers. Eds. Geraldine Barnes, John Gunn, Sonya Jensen, and Lee Jobling. Sydney: University of Sydney, 1989. Pp 13-21.

——. "Medieval Concepts of the Figure and Henryson's Figurative Technique in The Fables." Studies in Scottish Literature 25 (1990), 134-53.

Burrow, J. A. "Henryson: The Preaching of the Swallow." Essays in Criticism 25 (1975), 25-37.

Carruthers, I. "Henryson's use of Aristotle and Priscian in the Moral Fables." In Actes du 2e Colloque de Langue et de Littérature Ecossaisses. Eds. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 278-96.

Clark, George. "Henryson and Aesop: The Fable Transformed." English Literary History 43 (1976), 1-18.

Crowne, David K. "A Date for the Composition of Henryson's Fables." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 61 (1962), 583-90.

Ebin, Lois. "Henryson's Fenyeit Fabillis: A Defence of Poetry." In Actes du 2e Colloque de Langue et de Littérature Ecossaisses. Eds. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 222-38.

Elliott, Charles. "Sparth, Glebard and Bowranbane." Notes and Queries 9 (1962), 86-87.

Fox, Denton. "Henryson and Caxton." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 67 (1968), 586-93.

——. "Henryson's Fables." English Literary History 39 (1962), 337-56.

Friedman, John Block. "Henryson, the Friars, and the Confessio Reynardi." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 66 (1976), 550-61.

Greentree, Rosemary. "The Debate of the Paddock and the Mouse." Studies in Scottish Literature 26 (1991), 481-89.

Jackson, Elizabeth. "Henryson's Fable The Paddock and the Mouse as Wisdom Literature." Unisa English Studies 21 (1983), 1-5.

Jamieson, I. W. A. "Henryson's Fabillis: An Essay Towards a Revaluation." In Words: Wai-Te Atu Studies in Literature, no. 2. Eds. P. T. Hoffman, D. F. McKenzie, and Peter Robb. Wellington, New Zealand, 1966. Pp. 20-31.

——. "A Further Source for Henryson's 'Fabillis.' " Notes and Queries 14 (1967), 403-05.

——. "Henryson's Taill of the Wolf and the Wedder." Studies in Scottish Literature 6 (1969), 248-57.

Jenkins, Anthony W. "Henryson's The Fox, the Wolf, and the Cadger Again." Studies in Scottish Literature 4 (1966), 107-12.

Khinoy, Stephan. "Tale-Moral Relationships in Henryson's Moral Fables." Studies in Scottish Literature 17 (1982), 99-115.

Kindrick, Robert L. "Lion or Cat?: Henryson's Characterization of James III." Studies in Scottish Literature 14 (1979), 123-36.

Kratzmann, Gregory. "Henryson's Fables: 'The Subtell Dyte of Poetry.' " Studies in Scottish Literature 20 (1985), 49-68.

Lyall, R. J. "Politics and Poetry in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Scotland." Scottish Literary Journal 3 (1976), 5-27.

MacDonald, Donald. "Chaucer's Influence on Henryson's Fables: The Use of Proverbs and Sententiae." Medium Evum 39 (1970), 21-27.

——. "Henryson and Chaucer: Cock and Fox." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8 (1966), 451-61.

——. "Narrative Art in Henryson's Fables." Studies in Scottish Literature 3 (1965), 101-13.

MacQueen, John. "The Text of Henryson's Morall Fabillis." Innes Review 14 (1963), 3-9.

McKenna, Steven R. "Tragedy and the Consolation of Myth in Henryson's Fables." Studies in Scottish Literature 26 (1991), 490-502.

Mumford, Marilyn R. "Merines, Ernistfull Thochtis, and Sad Materis: Kinds of Comedy in Henryson's Moral Fabillis. In Actes du 2e Colloque de Langue et de Littérature Ecossaises. Eds. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 239-49.

Murphy, Colette. "Henryson's Mice: Three Animals of Style." Poetica 23 (1986), 53-73.

Murtaugh, Daniel M. "Henryson's Animals." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14 (1972), 405-21.

Newlyn, Evelyn S. "Of Sin and Courtliness: Henryson's Tale of the Cock and the Fox." In Actes du 2e Colloque de Langue et de Littérature Ecossaises. Eds. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 268-77.

——. "Robert Henryson and the Popular Fable Tradition in the Middle Ages." Journal of Popular Culture 14 (1984), 108-18.

Rowlands, Mary. "The Fables of Robert Henryson." Dalhousie Review 39 (1959-60), 491-502.

——. "Robert Henryson and the Scottish Courts of Law." Aberdeen University Review 39 (1962), 219-26.

Stearns, Marshall W. "Henryson and the Political Scene." Studies in Philology 40 (1943), 280-89.

——. "Robert Henryson and the Socio-Economic Scene." English Literary History 10 (1943), 285-93.

——. "A Note on Robert Henryson's Allusions to Religion and Law." Modern Language Notes 59 (1944), 257-64.

Von Kreisler, Nicolai. "Henryson's Visionary Fable: Tradition and Craftmanship in The Lyoun and the Mous." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 15 (1973), 391-403.