The Makars: Medieval Scottish poetry

From morality to migraines: Joanna Martin analyses key concerns in the late medieval poetry of Robert Henryson and William Dunbar.

Robert Henryson and William Dunbar composed poetry in late medieval Scotland in the written vernacular of the Lowlands, known as Older or Middle Scots. They are often referred to as ‘Makars’, literally makers, or craftsmen: this is how Dunbar, in fact, refers to himself.[1] Their poetry is indeed highly crafted and stylistically sophisticated. However, their concern with form is only part of what makes their writing so distinctive and appealing. They are also determined to entertain and instruct, to offer subtle political and social commentary, and to reflect on the role of the poet and the function of poetry.

Beasts, rhetoric and the usefulness of poetry in Henryson’s Fables

A beautifully-decorated title page to Harley MS 3865 (a manuscript held by the British Library) introduces the text that follows as ‘The Morall Fabillis of Esope Compylit be Maister Robert Henrisoun Scolmaister of Dunfermling; 1571’ – a collection of 13 beast fables based on those found in work of the Anglo-Norman poet Gualterus Anglicus, the Roman de Renart and Chaucer’s ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’. This title also sums up what little is known of Robert Henryson, who was a school master in Fife and probably a university graduate and notary public. What one might not guess given the late date of this manuscript, however, is that Henryson’s poems were probably composed around a century earlier, perhaps between the 1460s and 1500. The manuscript copies of the Morall Fabillis that are closest to Henryson’s life are incomplete.[2] However, the late prints made of the poem in 1570 and 1571, and the Harley manuscript, itself probably copied from a print,[3] contain all the fables and present them as a carefully ordered work which likely reflects Henryson’s own design.[4]

The Morall Fabillis

Preliminary page from the Morall Fabilis manuscript, containing the title of the work inside a decorative floral border

The text of the Morall Fabillis as Henryson probably designed it.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

In the sequence of fables found in these sources, questions about the status of literary texts, and the role of poet and reader, are placed at the centre of the work. The seventh, and therefore central fable of the collection, is ‘The Lion and the Mouse’, distinguished from the rest by its own prologue which describes the narrator’s dream-vision in which he meets his poetic ‘maister’ (l. 1384) Aesop and begs him to tell a fable. Aesop’s response is to question the very usefulness of poetry:

…“My sone, lat be,
For quhat is it worth to tell ane fenyeit taill
Quhen haly preiching may nathing auaill?” (ll .1388–90)

[‘My son, leave well alone.
For what is the point of telling a fictional story
when holy preaching is of no use?’]

The fable that follows, however, demonstrates the power of certain discourses, especially those of an advisory and rhetorical nature. The little mouse, captured by a lion who is sleeping in the sunny wood, pleads with him to exercise his ‘kinglie mercie’ (l. 1467) and assuage his ire towards her and her playfellows, counselling him on appropriate royal conduct. Indeed, the central stanza of the fable, and of the collection as a whole, asserts that ‘Without mercie, iustice is crueltie’ (l. 1470). The mouse’s words have some effect: ‘the lyoun his language / Paissit [calmed], and thocht according to ressoun’ (ll. 1503–04). The interest in advice to princes, and in the importance of reason, so clearly articulated here, are prominent themes in Older Scots literature. However, the mouse’s teaching is not entirely successful: we are told that the ‘the lyoun held [continued] to hunt’ (l. 1510), slaying tame and wild alike and making ‘ane grit deray [a disturbance]’ (l. 1513) in the forest. When the ‘curell lyoun’ (l. 1515) is caught in nets set to end his tyranny, the mouse and her friends hear his complaint and are moved to mercy and free him. Aesop concludes the fable by asking the narrator to continue to put his rhetoric to good use: he must ‘Perwaid’ (l. 1614) his fellow Scots to pray for peace and justice. In the light of the partial success of the mouse’s rhetoric, the reader is left to ponder how effective such discourses will be.

The next fable, ‘The Preaching of the Swallow’, revisits Aesop’s fear that ‘preiching’ is useless. In the fable, the narrator marvels at how the wild birds deride the ‘helthsum [wholesome, salutary] document’ (l. 1769) of the Swallow, who warns them of the dangerous hemp and flax seeds being sown to make nets to catch them in: she urges them to eat the seed and pluck the young plants, but they can only think of the feast they will have when the crop is mature. In the dearth of winter, the Swallow’s subsequent warnings are even more unpalatable and her ‘counsall [and] reid’ (l. 1883) is fatally rejected by the famished birds when they are caught and butchered by the fowler.

The fable’s moralitas (i.e. its moral) describes the story as being ‘applicate / To gude morall edificatioun, / Haifand [Having] ane sentence according to ressoun’ (ll. 1892–94). Its lesson surely extends not just to those who, like the birds, lack prudence, ignore advice and follow their own desires (‘carnall lust’, l. 1907), but also to those who ‘preach’, who use language to instruct others. Even the wisest of voices, whether they articulate ‘haly preiching’ or offer recreational fables, may not have the effect on their readers that the authors desired.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Decorated page containing the opening of the Nun's Priest's Tale, from a manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The opening of the 'Nun’s Priest’s Tale' which, like Henryson’s Morall Fabillis,was based on Aesop’s Fables.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Questioning the role of the poet: To dazzle or to instruct?

The role of the poet also preoccupies Henryson’s poetic successor, William Dunbar. Dunbar’s allegorical dream-vision, The Goldyn Targe, contrasts poetry’s potential for dazzling technical craftsmanship with the possibilities that it might abandon the superficial for the sober and improving. The poem opens in a blaze of aureate style, describing a spring landscape in which the narrator walks and falls asleep. Dunbar draws on the vocabulary of jewels, painting, gilding and enamelling: the trees wear dew in ‘perly droppis’ (l. 14), the air is ‘cristall’ (l. 37), the roses are ‘birnyng as ruby sperkis’ (l. 24), the lake gleams incandescent like a ‘lamp’ (l. 30). The narrator then dreams of his capture by Venus and her company, and the blinding of his ‘Reson’, who tries to protect the narrator with his ‘scheld of gold’ (l. 200) (the ‘Targe’ (the shield) of the poem’s early title, from the 1508 print by Walter Chepman and Andro Myllar). The wounding of Reson provokes the narrator to make this syntactically ambiguous complaint:

Quhy was thou blyndit, Reson, quhi, allace?
And gert ane hell my paradise appere… (ll. 214–15)

[‘Why were you blinded, Reason, why, alas?
And caused my hell a paradise appear...’]

Does the narrator suggest that the blinding of reason by love makes what is a hellish condition seem like a paradise, or that it turns his ‘paradise’ into a kind of hell? This question suggests an ambivalence about sexual desire and romantic love which is also evident in the narrator’s observation that once Venus and her ladies have left him ‘thare was bot wildernes’ (l. 233): the text seems to suggest that without love the poet is left in a creative wasteland. Yet once the narrator awakes, he finds himself in a less dazzling environment, described with adjectives that suggest nurturing and health-giving properties (‘Halesum’), and which return us to the language used by Henryson’s Swallow:

Suete war the vapouris, soft the morowing,
Halesum the vale depaynt with flouris ying,
The air attemperit, sobir and amene. (ll. 247–49)

[‘Sweet were the mists, the morning soothing,
The valley wholesomely decorated with young flowers,
The air temperate, agreeable and pleasant.’]

The narrator’s closing warning to his poem, ‘Wele aucht thou be aferit [afraid] of the licht’ (l. 279), suggests both awe of his poetic predecessors (including Chaucer, here described as ‘of oure Inglisch all the lycht’ (l. 259)), but also a fear of the superficial and the glittering – a preoccupation with writing only the amatory, rather than the sustaining and moral.

Articulating the poet’s creative struggles in Dunbar’s ‘The Headache’

The bedazzled poet is also the subject of my last example, one of the most accomplished of Dunbar’s poems: ‘My heid did yak yester nicht’. Several modern editors have given it a title that reflects its most obvious theme – ‘The Headache’.[6] The 15-line poem is indeed a description of a ‘magryme [migraine]’ (l. 3), which according to A Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue was a rare and specialist term in the early 16th century.[7] As is so often the case with the works of this technically-gifted ‘makar’, there is more to the three tightly structured stanzas of verse (aabba) than the modern title suggests.

Bannatyne Manuscript

Page from the Bannatyne Manuscript containing the poem 'In secreit place this hinder nycht'

'In secreit place this hinder nycht' – a poem attributed to Dunbar from the Bannatyne Manuscript, an important witness to medieval Scottish verse.

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Dunbar’s poem begins by lamenting that a headache ‘yester nicht’ now (‘This day’) hinders the narrator’s ability ‘to mak’ (ll. 1–2), literally ‘to create’, and here specifically to compose poetry. At first, physical sensation preoccupies the poet: the migraine wounds (‘me menyie’) him ‘So sair’ (so severely), ‘Perseing my brow as ony ganyie’ (ll. 3–4). The imagery of injury, the brow pierced by an arrow (the front-shifting of the present participle is particularly emphatic), is a powerful description of physical pain, as is the acknowledgement that the headache causes the sufferer to withdraw from light: ‘scant I luik may on the licht’ (l. 5).

In the next stanza, the first-person account shifts from the isolating effect of illness, to acknowledge the speaker’s context. The scant records of Dunbar’s biography place him as a ‘servitour’ (one in service of another, possibly a clerk)[8] at the court of James IV of Scotland between c. 1500 and 1513. ‘Schir’ is Dunbar’s common honorific for addressing the king. It takes the poem from the invalid’s dark introspection to the court itself, and with it begins to interrogate what it means to write in such an environment. Just as the poem’s sense of space expands in stanza two, so too its temporal frame shifts from ‘yester nicht’ to ‘now … laitie eftir mes [Mass]’ (l. 6), creating the fiction of the verse emerging before our eyes in the temporal frame in which we read.[9] Although the narrator has again set himself the task of writing, ‘To dyt’ (l. 7), he remains listless and unable to do so; he is ‘Dullit in dulnes and distres’ (l. 10), this alliterating evocation of gloom thumping like a sore head and deliberately contrasting with the final line of the previous stanza in which the narrator shies away from the ‘licht’.

The central and final stanzas are linked by personification and paradox. The ‘sentence’ (perhaps ‘theme’) is ‘Unsleipit’ – sleepless yet exhausted, at the back of the narrator’s ‘heid’ (ll. 8–9); yet the narrator’s ‘curage’, his mind, or creative spirit, is lying ‘sleipeing’ (not insomniac, just idle) when he awakes to write (l. 12). Most problematically, the narrator cannot be stimulated by the entertainments we might associate with the court of the flamboyant King James:

For mirth, for menstrallie and play,
For din nor dancing nor deray,
It will not walkin [wake] me in no wise. (ll. 13–15)

Alliteration links the key nouns here and rhyme places ‘play’ and ‘deray’ in an uncomfortable association: ‘deray’ (used of the Lion’s cruel forays in Henryson’s fable) is suggestive of disorderly or dangerous pastimes, and ‘play’ of frivolity, even indulgence. Significantly, this final stanza broadens the poem’s temporal frame again: ‘Full oft at morrow I upryse’ (l. 11) the narrator notes, yet his creativity is not wakened, and we suspect that this artistic block is not a one-off.

The poem’s richly compressed expression suggests something of the difficulty experienced by the poet at court who finds little inspiration around him for his own craft. The address to James in the second, rather than the first stanza, displaces royal authority, too, as the initiator of poetic art. This makes the final lines of the poem critical of court practices and superficiality, the surface brilliance of which might also be taken to be synonymous with the ‘licht’ that the narrator could barely look upon earlier in the poem and which is perhaps also suggested in the The Goldyn Targe. Like Henryson, but with a voice more suggestive than direct, Dunbar brings the poetry and politics into an elegant synthesis. And, like the older poet, the relationship between the poet and his intentions, and the reader and theirs, is at the heart of his creative agenda.


[1] A common term for ‘poet’. See Makar, n. Dictionary of the Scots Language. (Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd., 2004)<http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/makar> [Accessed 13 October 2017]

[2] The early 16th-century Asloan Manuscript (NLS 16500, c.1515–30), now in a fragmentary state, once included six of the fables: now only one survives. Close in date is the Makcullouch Manuscript (EUL Laing III. 149), which contains the collection’s prologue and one fable. Ten fables appear, in an order not found in other witnesses, in the Bannatyne Manuscript (c. 1568, NLS Adv MS 1.1.6).

[3] This manuscript is probably copied from a print similar to that made by Thomas Bassandyne in 1571 in Edinburgh.

[4] See the introduction to Robert Henryson: The Complete Works, ed. by David Parkinson (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2010). The best scholarly edition of Henryson’s works remains Robert Henryson: The Poems, ed. by Denton Fox, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980).

[5] Sally Mapstone, ‘Robert Henryson’, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Literature 11001500, ed. by Larry Scanlon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 243–55 (p.247).

[6] The poem survives only in the Reidpeth Manuscript, which was compiled in 1622–23. The poem was not printed by Chepman and Myllar, and neither is it found in the Asloan Manuscript or the Bannatyne Manuscript. The survival of the poem in the Reidpeth Manuscript suggests that at one time it was part of the Maitland Folio Manuscript (c. 1570–86), which is recognised as one of the best records of Dunbar’s poetry, and from which the Reidpeth Manuscript was copied.

[7] See William Dunbar: The Complete Works, ed. by John Conlee (Kalamazoo, MI:  2004). Contrast William Dunbar: Selected Poems, ed. by Priscilla Bawcutt (London: Longman, 1996); and The Poems of William Dunbar, 2 vols (Glasgow, 2000).

[8] Magrame n. Dictionary of the Scots Language. (Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd., 2004) <http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/magrame> [Accessed 19 Oct 2017]. 

[9] Priscilla Bawcutt, Dunbar the Makar (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), p. 116.

  • Joanna Martin
  • Dr Joanna M Martin is an Associate Professor of Middle English and Older Scots at the University of Nottingham. She has published widely on Older Scots literature, and on its relationship to Middle English writing, and has a special interest in text editing and book history. She is currently working on an edition of Middle English lyric poetry.

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