Along with William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, Robert Henryson is one of the three great Makars of Scotland’s pre-Renaissance age. This is considered to be the golden age of Scots poetry before the country and its language really began to fall apart and fracture into fiefdoms and principalities. Language generally across the whole of Europe was transforming, gradually evolving into the modern versions that we use, more or less, today.
Reading Henryson, we’re still a good way off the recognisably modern Scots of Fergusson and Burns, but if you have a peek at John Barbour’s The Bruce, written one hundred years earlier, you quickly realise that Scots had evolved considerably in that time. In fact the Scots of Henryson is regarded as the purest example we have of the language. True, to our eyes and ears his vocabulary is a bit strange, but the grammar is less Germanic and reads more closely to modern Scots. He still uses –is to form plurals and third person singular where we would simply have –s; past tense verb endings are written –it instead of our modern –ed, as in blastit for blasted or purifyit for purified. The word can appears before a verb to form a past tense. He also uses different spellings such as quh- rather than wh- as in quhisling for whistling and quhen for when in which we can recognise today in the pronunciation of some Scots dialects. In fact in a great number of his unusual words we can recognise their modern equivalents if we say them aloud: traistit becomes trusted, desyrit becomes desired, etc.
This was not a great time politically for Scotland, but culturally things were on the up and up, particularly in education – three of Scotland’s most ancient universities were founded during, or slightly before, Henryson’s lifetime (St Andrew’s in 1411, Glasgow in 1451, and Aberdeen in 1495 – Edinburgh didn’t get going until 1583). Little is know about Henryson’s life, but it is thought that he may have attended Glasgow University in about 1462, which would have made him 12 years old, an unusual age for a boy to attend university . . . the typical age was 13.
Dunbar, Douglas and Henryson represent the greatest poetry of that time and many believe that Henryson wrote the best of it. Henryson, like so many of Scotland’s great artists, was neglected for centuries but in the last 150 years or so has enjoyed a huge comeback and in some quarters he is even regarded as Scotland’s greatest ever poet. But this has probably more to do with academics locking horns than anything we can use in attempting to understand Henryson’s work – for our purposes the three of them are equally great but in different ways. The question here is: why should we bother? Why should we be interested in anything a man from the 15th century has to say?
Let’s look at the work. Henryson is famous for two main bodies of work: the Moral Fables and The Testament of Cresseid.