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Orpheus and Eurydice: Introduction

Henryson's use of the Orpheus legend seems to reflect the most didactic side of his character as well as his interest in romance and myth. He refers specifically to his sources in the moralitas. His version of the tale is based on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, III, xii. The moralitas is derived from Nicholas Trivet's commentary on the Consolation. Henryson's interest in the story of Orpheus was likely due to the rich appeal of the tale during the Middle Ages. G. Gregory Smith has pointed out that there were at least three basic types of appeal in this legend for the medieval mind. First, it was an interesting story which was attractive simply for artistic merit. The myth of a noble prince whose lover dies and is almost retrieved from hell lends itself well to classical and medieval methods of adaption. Henryson was likely familiar with the version of the story in Virgil's Georgics and emphasized its narrative interest by maintaining a relatively clean and symmetrical structure in the tale itself. He also provided additional texture through descriptive detail in the trips through the heavens and to Hades. Secondly, by the time that Henryson wrote, the Orpheus tale had become associated with romance conventions. John Block Friedman observed that Henryson has incorporated virtually all the relevant romance devices in his poem C love by reputation, Proserpina's role as queen of the fairies, the organization of Orpheus' lament and appeals, and the quest itself, which is inherent in the Orpheus myth. These romance elements added to the interest of the story for the medieval reader, even as they do for readers today. The third type of appeal of the Orpheus tradition was the use of the tale to stimulate higher levels of thinking. Friedman has also examined this aspect of the tale and sees in it the need of the medieval mind to adapt classical tales to Christian doctrine. Clearly the moralitas of the poem reinforces its doctrinal and moral impact, albeit perhaps in surprising ways. The contrast between the tale and its moral interpretation suggests that it may have been the third appeal of the poem which gained the strongest hold on Henryson's artistic imagination.

One of the most problematic of Henryson's longer works, this poem may reflect the experimentation which led ultimately to The Testament of Cresseid. Critical opinion spans the spectrum from "charming" masterpiece to failure (see Gray, 1979, pp. 209-40; Kindrick, Robert Henryson, pp. 151-63). Many of the questions about this poem relate to an issue which is also critical to the Fabillis: the relationship between the poem and its moralitas. The narrative itself seems to many readers an appealing tragic romance. In contrast to the romance elements of the tale itself, Henryson draws on Nicholas Trivet to explain the moral guidance a reader should receive from the tale. Trivet noted that Orpheus was "pars intellectiua instructa sapientia et eloquencia." Henryson, following Trivet, calls him the "pairte intellectyfe / Off manis saule and undirstanding, fre" (lines 428-29). Consistent with Trivet, Henryson also represents Eurydice as "our effectioun" (line 431). His emphasis on her as a symbol of passion, just like his interpretation of Orpheus, is accepted by most readers. However, the interpretation of the "busteous herd," Arysteus, has posed problems for generations of Henryson scholars. This potential rapist, who causes Eurydice's death, is labeled "gude vertew," and Henryson follows Trivet's interpretation of him as a salutary check on passion.

The reconciliation of the romance spirit of the tale itself with the sentiments of the moralitas and its imposition of a "contrived" interpretation has generated a number of theories. Dietrich Strauss (in a paper to be published in Studies in Scottish Literature) even suggests the moralitas was written many years after the original poem and serves as a kind of "retraction," a device which Chaucer used in the Canterbury Tales. However, the abrupt change in tone between tale and moralitas may also be understood in the context of the medieval rhetoric of preaching. Just as in "The Cock and the Jasp," this rather startling interpretation has sparked debates which illustrate the nature of the problem. Henryson's use of the elements of Orphic tradition has been evaluated by John Block Friedman who demonstrates how the poet weaves elements of romance and didactic traditions into the tale. John MacQueen has suggested that the structure of the poem directly reflects the thought of Renaissance Italy. The influence of Boccaccio's Genealogia Deorum is clearly summarized by McDairmid.

The poem is found in three early print and manuscript versions: the Bannatyne Manuscript, the Asloan Manuscript, and a Chepman and Myllar print. I have followed H. Harvey Wood in reprinting the Bannatyne text, but I have also made emendations from Asloan and Chepman and Myllar. Fox has developed an interesting composite text using Chepman and Myllar as the basis wherever possible and inserting lines 59-175 from Asloan and lines 509-14, 547-50, and 571-615 from Bannatyne. Smith prints all three versions.

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Early Printed Edition

The Chepman and Myllar Print
A Porteous of Noblenes and Ten Other Rare Tracts. Edinburgh, c. 1508.


The Asloan MS
National Library of Scotland, 4233, 304 ff. Published in W. A. Craigie, ed. The Asloan Manuscript. 2 vols. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1923-25. Scottish Text Society, new series nos. 14 and 16.

The Bannatyne MS
National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS I.I.6. Leaves are numbered 1-58 and 1-375 with a few missing. Published in W. Tod Ritchie, ed. The Bannatyne Manuscript. 4 vols. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1928-34. Scottish Text Society, new series nos. 22, 23, 26; third series no. 5; Facsimile edition: 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 the draft MS and the main MS.]

Books and Articles

Archibald, Elizabeth. "The Incestuous Kings in Henryson's Hades." In Scottish Language and Literature Medieval and Renaissance. Eds. Dietrich Strauss and Horst W. Drescher. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986. Pp. 281-90.

Friedman, John Block. Orpheus in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Gros Louis, Kenneth R. "Robert Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice and the Orpheus Tradition of the Middle Ages." Speculum 41 (1966), 643-55.

MacQueen, John. "Neoplatonism and Orphism in Fifteenth-Century Scotland." Scottish Studies 20 (1976), 69-89.

Mills, Carol. "Romance Convention of Robert Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice." In Bards and Makars: Scottish Language and Literature: Medieval and Reniassance. Eds. Adam J. Aitkin, Matthew P. McDiarmid, and Derick S. Thompson. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. 1977. Pp. 52-60.

Mumford, Marilyn R. "A Jungian Reading of Sir Orfeo and Orpheus and Eurydice." In Scottish Language and Literature, Medieval and Renaissance. Eds. Dietrich Strauss and Horst W. Drescher. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986. Pp. 291-302.

Wright, Dorena Allen. "Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice and the Tradition of the Muses." Medium Evum 40 (1971), 41-47.