September 03, 2012

JOHN BARBOUR (1347-74)

Author of a Scottish national epic, The Bruce, the first major work of Scottish literature.

Records show that he became archdeacon of Aberdeen while still a young man and in 1357 was granted a safe conduct by Edward III of England to study at Oxford. That same year he participated in the negotiations for ransoming King David II, who had been a prisoner in England after his capture in the Battle of Neville´s Cross (1346). In 1364 and 1368 Barbour studied in France. Throughout his life he enjoyed royal favour and in 1388 was given a life pension.

Barbour completed The Actes and Life of the most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland, a metrical historical romance in 20 books, in 1376. The background of The Bruce is the political history of the Scottish struggle for independence, from the death of Alexander III (1286) to the death of Douglas and the burial of Bruce´s heart (1332). Allowing for literary conventions and for the freer medieval notions of historiography, Barbour shows a concern for accuracy in the main line of his narrative. Yet his intention is patriotic and practical: his history emphasizes the chivalry and idealism of the Scottish heroes and exhorts, their successors to emulate "thair nobill elderis".

But the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) was still within the memory of his contemporaries, and The Bruce remains a harshly realistic story of recent events in the style of the chansons de geste rather than a romance of chivalry. Althoug its heroes, Robert I the Bruce and James of Douglas, are pefect knights, their chivalry is functional -concerned with the defense of freedom and with upholding the rights of the weak against the tyranny of the strong. 

The style of the poem is vigorous, direct, and admirably suited to the matter. Barbour evidently took some trouble to collect firsthand accounts of the Battle of Bannockburn, which is the highlight of the poem. With graphic economy, he describes mortal combat, not as it looks to a literary observer but as it feels to a participant. His narrative manner is similar to that of the Scottish border ballads.

Barbour is mentioned as the author of the Stewartis Oryginalle, a verse genealogy of the Scottish kings, which has not survived. The Buik of Alexander, a translations of two French romances surviving from this period, and an inmense Legends of the Saints in verse, have sometimes been attributed to Barbour.

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