The Brus - Freedom Speech

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A! Fredome is a noble thing
fredome mays man to haiff liking
fredome all solace to man giffis
he levys at es that frely levys
a noble hart may haiff nane es
na ellys nocht that may him ples
gyff fredome failyhe, for fre liking
is yharnyt our all other thing
Na he that ay has levyt fre
May nocht knaw weill the propyrte
The angyr na the wrechyt dome
That is couplyt to foule thyrldome
Bot gyff he had assayit it
Than all perquer he suld it wyt
And suld think fredome mar to prys
Than all the gold in warld that is

Freedom is a noble thing.
Freedom gives Man choice.
Freedom gives all men comfort.
He who lives at ease lives freely.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor anything else that pleases him
If he doesn’t have his freedom, for happiness
Is desired over everything else.
Only he that he always lived freely
May never know well what it’s like,
The anger or the wretched condition
That comes with foul enslavement.
But if he ever experienced it
Then he would know it perfectly,
And should prize freedom more highly
Than all the gold in the world.

These words appear from lines 225-240 of the poem, so we’re still really only in the introduction. It is verses like this which set The Brus up more as literature than a work of reportage. Basically, Barbour is letting us know what kind of life we would be subject to (“foul thyrldome”) if not for the heroic deeds of Bruce and his companions-in-arms. Having assured us in the opening lines that he will deliver nothing but the truth, he still manages to digress from the story and provide the reader with sections like these: in this case a meditation on freedom.

It isn’t until line 445 when Barbour writes . . .

Lordingis, quha likis for till her,
The romanys now begynnys her

Lords, who would like to hear
The romance now begins here.

. . . that we get down to the story proper. Interestingly he calls it a “romanys.” This has nothing to do with Mills and Boon, of course. The romance is a form of story-telling that we traditionally associate with spirited tales of adventure surrounding figures like King Arthur and the knights of the round table: swashbuckling heroes, fair damsels in distress, and a strong magical element dragons, spells and curses, etc.

Our modern use of the word as a love affair retains some of that association, although a romantic deed these days would be to present a bouquet of roses to your loved one rather than the still beating heart of a monster.

Romances were a form of literature imported into the British Isles from France, which gives us a clue about the literary tradition Barbour was working in: clearly The Brus is identifying with a particular genre. It might have been enough to present the facts simply and directly as they happened, but like all good stories, “the plesance is the carpyng” the pleasure’s in the telling. It wouldn’t hurt the story too much and he would probably get a few more readers if he promised them a bit of drama, a bit of blood and guts. A story, in fact . . .

Off men that war in gret distres
And assayit full gret hardynes

Of men that were in great distress
And fully experienced great hardship

. . . but . . .

throu thar gret valour
Come till gret hycht and till honour

through their great valour
Achieved great standing and honour

And the substance of The Brus is not far removed from the world of chivalry and adventure of the romances. It is a lively tale told in a galloping tetrameter with rhyming couplets all the way, full of ands and buts and thens that drag us forward with the narrative at a brisk clip. There are lengthy descriptions of battle hand-to-hand as well as full scale military combat there are subplots and betrayals, risks taken against unfavourable odds, heroic deeds accomplished. Not that The Brus gives a one-sided glorification of Bruce Barbour details his character very well giving us moments where we witness the compassionate side of Bruce, as well as moments that reveal his ruthlessness, or his indecision

What makes this story unusual for a romance is that Bruce and Douglas and company were all real people who had lived and died and committed these incredible deeds within living memory. In his poem Barbour lifts Bruce from the annals of history and raises him to something like a folk legend, a true romantic hero who fought for the freedom of his country.