This manuscript contains a copy of the The Morall Fabillis by Robert Henryson, a Scottish poet who died in around 1490. The text is written in Middle Scots – the language spoken in lowland Scotland from roughly the 15th to the 17th centuries.
The Morall Fabillis were based on the Fables of Aesop – a popular text supposedly written by a slave named Aesop in Ancient Greece. The Fables are a series of stories about animals which have a moral purpose. Henryson’s Morall Fabillis was probably based on a version of Aesop’s Fables by Gaulterus Anglicus. This late 12th-century work was a standard schoolbook in the Middle Ages.
We don’t know a great deal about Henryson. He was a schoolmaster from Dunfermline. He seems to have studied law at Glasgow University and he was probably also a priest.
Henryson was greatly influenced by the work of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. c. 1400). We can see this influence in his works in various ways. He wrote a poem called the Testament of Cresseid which continues the story of Criseyde, the central character in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. We also see the influence of Chaucer in Henryson’s use of form in the Morall Fabillis. The poems are written in rhyme royal, a seven-line form popularised by Chaucer (although it should be noted that there are a few stanzas in the Morall Fabillis in an eight-line, pseudo-ballade form). Chaucer uses this form in several of his works, including the Parliament of Fowls and, most notably, in Troilus and Criseyde.
While Henryson was influenced by Chaucer, Henryson himself has – in turn – had an influence on many later poets, and in 2009 the The Morall Fabillis was translated by Seamus Heaney. Heaney wrote of his admiration for Henryson’s ‘rhetoric and roguery’ and how his ‘constant awareness of the world’s hardness and injustice is mitigated by his irony, tender-heartedness, and ever-ready sense of humour’.
This manuscript is unusual – it was copied nearly a century after Henryson died, in 1571, from a printed edition of the text. The manuscript illustrates the way that even after the invention of printing people went on making manuscripts. In some ways this is similar to our own culture, where we use both e-readers and traditional books. Whoever copied this manuscript clearly took care in its appearance, as we can see from the decoration.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.