Back to top

The Poems of Robert Henryson: Introduction

Robert Henryson is a significant poetic voice of the late Middle Ages and the most important writer of fifteenth-century Scotland. We know his name, and we have an established body of influential writing C the works included in this text. However, we know very little about Henryson's life. It appears that he was likely born sometime between 1420 and 1430. Based on Dunbar's "Lament for the Makars" (1500-06), we know that he died no later than 1506. Henryson's own testimony in his verse and an apocryphal story printed by Sir Francis Kinaston in 1639 suggest that he was indeed an old man at the time of his death. Kinaston relates the following tale:
For the Author of this supplement called the Testament of Creseid, which may passe for the sixt & last booke of this story I haue very sufficiently bin informed by Sr [Tho:] Eriskin late earle of Kelly & diuers aged schollers of the Scottish nation, that it was made & written by one Mr Robert Henderson sometimes cheife schoolemaster in Dumfermling much about the time that Chaucer was first printed & dedicated to king Henry the 8th by Mr Thinne which was neere the end of his raigne: This Mr Henderson wittily obseruing, that Chaucer in his 5th booke had related the death of Troilus, but made no mention what became of Creseid, he learnedly takes vppon him in a fine poeticall way to expres the punishment & end due to a false vnconstant whore, which commonly terminates in extreme misery, about, or a litle after his time the most famous of the Scottish poets Gawen Douglas made his learned & excellent translation of Virgils Eneids, who was bishop of Dunkeld, & made excellent prefaces to euery one of the twelue bookes: For this Mr Robert Henderson he was questionles a learned & a witty man, & it is pitty we haue no more of his works being very old he dyed of a diarrhea or fluxe, of whome there goes this merry, though somewhat unsauory tale, that all phisitians hauing giuen him ouer & he lying drawing his last breath there came an old woman vnto him, who was held a witch & asked him whether he would be cured, to whome he sayed very willingly. then quod she there is a whikey tree in the lower end of your orchard, & if you will goe and walke but thrice about it, & thrice repeate theis wordes whikey tree whikey tree take away this fluxe from me you shall be presently cured, he told her that beside he was extreme faint & weake it was extreme frost & snow & that it was impossible for him to go: She told him that vnles he did so it was impossible he should recouer. Mr Henderson then lifting upp himselfe, & pointing to an Oken table that was in the roome, asked her & seied gude dame I pray ye tell me, if it would not do as well if I repeated thrice theis words oken burd oken burd garre me shit a hard turde. the woman seing herselfe derided & scorned ran out of the house in a great passion & Mr Henderson within halfe a quarter of an houre departed this life . . . . (Smith, Poems, I, pp. ciii-civ)
Other details are almost as obscure. The Charteris edition (1569-70) of The Morall Fabillis indicates that he was a "scolmaister of Dumfermling." There is some evidence in the University of Glasgow registry that he may have received a baccalaureate degree from the University and would have been entitled to practice law. In any event, it appears likely from records extant from Dunfermline that he was at least a notary, a legal functionary with significant training in the rhetoric and practice of the law. He was clearly an educated man who delighted in learning, most likely pursuing a joint career in law and education, professions that remain even today quite compatible.

There has been a great deal of speculation about Henryson's education and literary background, much of it discussed in the studies listed for further reading at the end of this introduction. Rod Lyall has recently contended that Henryson did indeed study at the University of Glasgow ("Glasgow's First Poet," College Courant, 72 [1984], 13-16). R. D. S. Jack has suggested that instead he studied in Italy, likely at Bologna (The Italian Influence on Scottish Literature, Edinburgh, 1972). Henryson's interest in medicine and the flax industry have been long-standing subjects of comment among critics. John MacQueen has evaluated his intellectual debts to the Quattrocento. Henryson's interests in politics and social concerns were first most forcefully enunciated by Marshall Stearns. A number of recent studies have focused on his rhetorical skill and sense of artistic control. Comment about the validity of historical approaches to his verse has been sparked by the application of New Critical principles to his work. These and other issues provide a prism of perspectives on the poet, his poems, and his times.

Because so little is known about Henryson's life, the chronology of his works remains uncertain. The Morall Fabillis has deep roots in the Aesopic tradition. Some scholars argue that the political references suggest that specific fables date from the late 1480s. Moreover, if, indeed, he was a schoolmaster, he would have taught Aesop's fables as exercises in rhetoric and composition. The Testament of Cresseid is a more mature work, likely written towards the end of the poet's life. Henryson describes his narrator as an old man in the prologue, and the poem's approach to life and love seems to reflect less passion than sad wisdom. Orpheus and Eurydice strikes many scholars as more youthful. The style of the poem does not show the control to be found in The Morall Fabillis or The Testament of Cresseid. Other critics have commented on the puzzling or perhaps even unsuccessful relationship between the tale and the Moralitas. The remaining poems in the Henryson canon are still difficult to date. "The Abbey Walk" may reflect his experience at Dunfermline Abbey, but the potential geographical specificity involved still provides no key to dating the poem. "Robene and Makyne" seems to show the influence of the French pastourelle and may reflect the interests of a younger man. Such speculation is available about each of the shorter poems, but, at this point, dates generally remain uncertain.

Henryson lived in a turbulent era. The fifteenth century witnessed efforts by the Stewart monarchs to consolidate power in the face of strong barons and an increasingly stronger middle class. The misfortunes of Scottish kings impeded their efforts. James I was imprisoned in England and eventually assassinated. James II, who gave great promise, was killed as a young man in an ordnance accident. James III was captured and imprisoned by his own nobles and subsequently killed at Bannockburn. Henryson could not have foreseen the end of James IV, and however much of his life he spent during that King's reign must have raised his hopes that the promise of the Scottish monarchy would be fulfilled.

Constant conflict with England also created economic and social uncertainty in Scotland. Disagreements with their neighbors to the South caused the Scots to form alliances with nations on the Continent. The "auld alliance" with France was an effort to combine forces against England, a common enemy, which had positive intellectual and cultural results. Similar connections with the Italian states also helped to spark the Renaissance in Scotland. It is not surprising that we find influences of Neoplatonism and Continental rhetoric and literary theory in the works of Henryson and other Middle Scots poets of the fifteenth century. Education, architecture, music, and the visual arts benefitted as well from Scottish interaction with the Continent.

Henryson's language provides less difficulty than a glance at the text might suggest. For a student who has read Chaucer a reading knowledge of Middle Scots is not difficult to attain. In particular, Henryson's language draws most commonly from the general rhythms and dictions of speech. Our understanding of the vowel structure of Middle Scots has been complicated both by the Great Vowel Shift in English and Scottish dialects that was occurring during the fifteenth century and by earlier attempts to pronounce Middle Scots with reference to the vowel system of Chaucerian Middle English. Adam J. Aitken has analyzed nineteen distinct vowel sounds for Middle Scots around 1450 (see Aitken, pp. 2-10). He has also produced a helpful "Scotsway" cassette which helps to reveal the subleties of the evolving vocalic system. In addition, a reader of Henryson must be aware of the consonant system. For the most part, consonants are pronounced as they are in Chaucerian Middle English. But there are some significant differences between Henryson's graphemic consonant structure and Chaucer's. Some of the most important are as follow: (1) "ch" is often substituted for "gh"; (2) "mb" is often represented by "m" or "mm"; (3) "th" is sometimes represented by "d" or "dd"; (4) initial "h" is frequently dropped; (5) "ng" is often represented by "m"; (6) "quh" is equivalent to "wh"; (7) initial and final "sh" appears as "s" in stressed syllables; (8) final "d" appears as "t." The reader who recognizes these guidelines will generally find Henryson's Middle Scots less daunting and problematic than Dunbar's or Douglas's.

G. Gregory Smith and C. I. MacAfee have provided useful grammars of Middle Scots. For the non-specialist, however, a few basic guidelines will provide access to the texts. A number of structure words and unusual spellings occur with considerable frequency, and their ambiguity may cause problems in the grammatical analysis of the text. Such words are not always glossed in this edition. Those appearing with the greatest frequency are:
ay always
but, bot without, but, unless, only, lacking, except
can does or did; to be able or to know
couth, coud, could, cowd, cowth, culd often "did"; as a verb, "was able"
eik, eke also
gar, gart, ger, garris make, do, help (modal), cause
gif, giff, gife, geve, gyf often "if"; as a verb, forms of "give"
man, mon, mone must
quha who, whoever, if anyone
quhair, quhar, quhare where, wherever, in which, when
quhen when, whenever, as soon as
quhile, quhill, quhyle, quhyll a time, a short time, until, while, as long as
quhilk, quhylk, quhilkis, quhilks which, who, whom, what, whoever
sa, so, sua, swa so, thus
syne, sen then, since, therefore, afterwards
the often "thee"
thir these
till until, to, for
These and other common terms are sometimes glossed in the margin according to the context. If a word with variant spellings or multiple meanings is likely to be confusing in a given line, a marginal gloss has been provided as well as a citation in the glossary.

This edition of the poems provides a brief introduction and special treatment for The Morall Fabillis, The Testament of Cresseid, and Orpheus and Eurydice. The shorter poems are grouped together with a general introduction and information about manuscript sources. In addition, a brief bibliography is provided. More complete bibliographies are listed at the end of this introduction. Marginal glosses in the text are generally intended to compensate for major vocabulary differences between Middle Scots and Middle English, but unfamiliar terms in both dialects are recurrently glossed. In some instances, construction is so idiomatic or complicated that a complete translation is provided in a footnote. The choice of a single marginal gloss was often difficult and clearly eliminated some of the connotative resonance and delightful ambiguity of Henryson's diction. In some cases, glosses were chosen not on the basis of the best evidence for historical denotation but with an eye to conveying the sense of Henryson's verse in modern idiom. Parenthesis is used to offer a second meaning to a gloss; when an entire phrase departs from the literal translation (i.e., words have been added to complete an idiom), it has been placed in brackets. This edition follows the textual conventions of the Middle English Text Series. The texts are printed in the modern alphabet, without yogh, thorne, or edh, and follow the practices of modern capitalization, punctuation, and word divisions. Terms for God are capitalized consistently, where this may not be the case in the early printed editions. Manuscript abbreviations are expanded silently and u/v and j/i spellings are regularized according to modern orthography as long as they do not affect the pronunciation of the word. Accents are placed over final vowels if they have syllabic value. Constructions such as salbe have been separated to sal be. Marginal glosses for second-person familiar verbs have been provided in modern usage (e.g., instead of "thou knowest," the gloss is "you know"). For a close analysis of Henryson's word choice, The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue is an invaluable resource.

Go To The Morall Fabillis
Go To The Testament of Cresseid
Go To Orpheus and Eurydice
Go To Shorter Poems
Go To The Laste Epistle of Creseyd to Troyalus
Select Bibliography

The Bannatyne MS, National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 1.1.6. Published in W. Tod Ritchie, ed. The Bannatyne Manuscript. 4 vols. Edinburgh: William Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society, 1928-34 (new series nos. 22, 23, and 26; third series no. 5); and, in facsimile: The Bannatyne Manuscripts, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS 1.1.6. With an introduction by Denton Fox and William A. Ringler. London: Scolar Press, 1980. [Leaves are numbered 1-58 and 1-375, with a few missing. The first leaves, numbered 1-58, constitute the Bannatyne "draft." The other leaves constitute the Bannatyne Manuscript proper.]

The Asloan MS, National Library of Scotland, 4233, fols. 304 ff. Published in W. A. Craigie, ed. The Asloan Manuscript. 2 vols. Edinburgh: William Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society (nos. 14, 16), 1923-25.

The Makculloch MS, University of Edinburgh Library, La.III 149 (Borland 205), fols. 205 ff. Partially published in G. Stevenson, ed. Pieces from the Makculloch and the Gray Manuscripts. Edinburgh: William Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society (no. 65), 1918.

The Maitland Folio MS, Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge, MS 2553, 183 ff. Published in W. A. Craigie, ed. The Maitland Folio Manuscript. 2 vols. Edinburgh: William Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society (new series nos. 7, 20), 1919-27.


Elliott, Charles, ed. Poems. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1963, Rev. ed., 1975. [A solid selection of Henryson's work.]

Fox, Denton, ed. The Poems of Robert Henryson. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1981. [The most judicious and meticulous edition available of all the poems except "The Want of Wyse Men."]

Laing, David, ed. The Poems and Fables. Edinburgh: William Patterson, 1865. [An early landmark edition of the poems.]

Smith, G. Gregory, ed. The Poems of Robert Henryson. 3 vols. Edinburgh: William Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society (nos. 55, 58, 64), 1906, 1908, 1914. [A comprehensive edition, noteworthy for printing all major variants of a text.]

Wood, H. Harvey, ed. The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson. Edinburgh: Oliver Boyd, 1933, rev. 1958. [An important edition with single texts of each work printed with limited emendations and notes.]

Book-length Critical Studies

Gray, Douglas. Robert Henryson. Leiden: Brill, 1979. [A comprehensive study of Henryson's works.]

Kindrick, Robert L. Robert Henryson. Twayne's English Author Series 274. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. [A comprehensive study of Henryson's poems.]

CCC. Henryson and the Medieval Arts of Rhetoric. New York: Garland, 1993. [An "open thesis" study of Henryson's use of rhetorical tradition.]

MacQueen, John. Robert Henryson. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967. [A major study emphasizing Henryson's role as a transitional figure.]

McDiarmid, Matthew. Robert Henryson. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1981. [A comprehensive study of Henryson's works.]

Rossi, Sergio. Robert Henryson. Milan: Carlo Marzorati, 1955. [A comprehensive study of Henryson's works.]

Stearns, Marshall. Robert Henryson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. [A selective analysis of Henryson's social concerns and debt to literary tradition.]

Critical and Language Studies

Aitken, Adam J. "How to Pronounce Older Scots." In Bards and Makars. Eds. Adam J. Aitken, Matthew P. McDiarmid, and Derick S. Thompson. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 1977. Pp. 1-21.

Fox, Denton. "The Scottish Chaucerians." In Chaucer and Chaucerians. Ed. D. S. Brewer. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1964. Pp. 164-200.

Gray, Douglas. Robert Henryson. English Writers of the Late Middle Ages, no. 9. Brookfield, Vermont: Variorum, 1996.

Grierson, H. J. C. "Robert Henryson." In Essays and Addresses. London: Chatto and Windus, 1940. Pp. 203-12.

Hyde, Isabel. "Poetic Imagery: A Point of Comparison between Henryson and Dunbar." Studies in Scottish Literature 2 (1965), 183-97.

Kindrick, Robert L. "Monarchs and Monarchy in the Poetry of Henryson and Dunbar." In Actes du 2e Colloque de Langue et de Littérature Ecossaisses. Eds. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 307-25.

CCC. "Politics and Poetry at the Court of James III." Studies in Scottish Literature 19 (1984), 40-55.

CCC."Henryson and the Rhetoricians: The Ars Praedicandi." In Scottish Language and Literature, Medieval and Renaissance. Eds. Dietrich Strauss and Horst W. Drescher. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986. Pp. 255-70.

CCC. "Henryson and Quintilian." Studies in Scottish Literature 26 (1991), 470-80.

MacAfee, C. I. "A Short Grammar of Older Scots." Scottish Language 11/12 (1992-93), 10-36.

MacDonald, Donald. "Henryson and Thre Prestis of Peblis." Neophilologus 51 (1967), 168-77.

McDiarmid, Matthew P. "Robert Henryson in his Poems." In Bards and Makars. Eds. Adam J. Aitken, Matthew P. McDiarmid, and Derick S. Thompson. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 1977. Pp. 27-40.

Muir, Edwin. "Robert Henryson." In Essays on Literature and Society. Rev. ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965. Pp. 10-21.

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

Powell, Marianne. "Henryson, Boethius, and Trevet." In Actes du 2e Colloque de Langue et de Littérature Ecossaisses. Eds. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 297-306

Smith, G. Gregory, ed. Specimens of Middle Scots. Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1902.

Wood, H. Harvey. "Robert Henryson." In Edinburgh Essays on Scots Literature. Preface by H. J. C. Grierson. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1933. Pp. 1-26.

CCC. "Two Scots Chaucerians." Writers and Their Work, no. 201. London: Longman, Green, 1967.


Geddie, William, ed. A Bibliography of Middle Scots Poets. Edinburgh: William Blackwood for The Scottish Text Society (no. 61), 1912. [A classic bibliography now superseded by Scheps and Looney.]

Scheps, Walter, and J. Anna Looney. Middle Scots Poets. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. [A major bibliography (organized chronologically) which generally covers scholarship through the late 1970's.]

Cassette Tape

"Pronouncing Older Scots," Scotsway, 1980.