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Talk to Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries 30 September 2018

(In)justice in the Morall Fabillis

Talk on Henryson at Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries 30 September 2018


The medieval poet Robert Henryson is a bit of a conundrum. We know even less about him than we know about William Shakespeare and a lot of what we think we know is scholarly guesswork. He was born no-one quite knows when, or where, sometime around 1440; died no-one is quite sure when, but by the latest very early in the 16th century, as in Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makaris’ written in 1505 (or 1506) he writes:

                In Dunfermelyne he (Death) hes done roune (whispered)

                With Maister Robert Henrisoun.

The ‘Maister’ indicates that he was a graduate; a venerabilis vir Magister Robertus Henrisone who is referred to as a licenciate in arts and a bachelor in decrees (canon law) was admitted as a member of the University of Glasgow on 10 September 1462, but did not attend as a student, having already attained a master of arts and baccalaureate in canon law, probably in France, and perhaps at the Sorbonne, as was usual for Scots of the period. We might think that ‘venerabilis’ indicates age, but it really means something like ‘educated’ at this time. Robert Lepreuik’s print of the Morall Fabillis at Edinburgh in 1569 designates the poet as ‘Maister Robert Henrison, Scholemaister at Dunfermling’, but the poet was also a practising lawyer, as a bachelor in canon law. He had been appointed to the schoolmaster’s position by Richard Bothwell, head of Dunfermline’s Benedictine abbey, and a notary public named Henryson witnessed three deeds connected with the Abbey of Dunfermline 1477-8, under the office of the new abbot, Henry Crichton (1472-82). Schoolmastering also involved religious duties, such as serving the abbot at ‘tymes of hie solempne festival … at hie mes and evinsang’, to be chaplain of one of the many altars, and when available to take ‘the morne service’. He would also visit the leper hospital at St Leonard’s. Although there is no record of it, it appears that Henryson had authority to act as an Apostolic notary public, practising in ecclesiastical as well as civil courts, as is shown in the fables by his familiarity with the consistory (or church) court. Where the poet’s family was settled is also unknown, although it is surmised that he must have been reasonably local to Dunfermline when appointed as schoolmaster, as local men were preferred for these posts, and it has been pointed out that there are a large number of Henrysons in the Inverkeithing area, asserting their claim to the lands of Fordell and Spittalfield.


We do not know how much poetry Henryson wrote – there has been a horrendous attrition of early Scots writing which we know of only from reference in extant texts.  According to a number of witnesses, the Henrysonian canon as we have it comprises three major works on classical themes and a number of shorter poems in different styles. Orpheus and Eurudice, a retelling in particularly Scottish vein of the classical love story, is generally thought to be an early work, owing to some unevenness in the poetry.  The Testament of Cresseid, which is a dramatic continuation of the story of Cresseid from Chaucer’s Troylus and Criseyde, was long thought to have been written by Chaucer himself, which gives some idea of its quality. The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian is a collection of 13 fables taken largely from the Aesopian tradition and the fox-fables of the French Roman de Renart. The short poems, also thirteen in number, show a wide variation in themes and styles, mainly concentrating on advice of various types, sometimes in the form of dialogues, and exhibiting Henryson’s facility with every kind of diction, from the lowest to the most aureate and Latinate. The Fabillis will be the focus of my talk this afternoon.


The fable has a long and distinguished history from the Latin fabula, a tale, or Greek apologos, an allegory, a short tale in prose or verse, whose characters are most often animals or animated objects, which serves to give a lesson in practical morality. Indeed all literatures, even the most primitive, contain such tales, indicating that they are somehow part of the human psyche. It is possible that fables were used in the earliest societies to train their future warriors, priests and diplomats. Thus the tale of the fox and the crow warns the future leader of the danger of listening to flatterers; that of the wolf and the lamb that right is not always to the powerful. This should give the lie to the idea that fables are written for children – they were originally very serious works of literature addressed to the highest ranks of society.


Although it is hazarded that the original fables derived from fragments of Aramaic tales, the best known, to us, are the 358 fables of Aesop the Phrygian, born between 552 and 549 BCE, delivered in Greek, and transmitted to us in Latin through the translations of Avianus (2nd or 4th century CE), not forgetting Horace’s allegories in his Epistles and Satires, in particular ‘The town rat and the country rat’ (sic). Gualterus Anglicus (Walter the Englishman) was the translator whom Henryson used for his collection. One could say that the parables in the early books of the New Testament were variations of the same kind of tale. Tales from the Orient also figured, perhaps because of the religious belief in metempsychosis, where the human soul is translated on death into an animal, ensuring that human-animal dialogues would make perfect sense. From China, India, Persia, these fables transported by the Arabs and Turks travelled to the west. The largest collection of these is found in the Pancha-tantra or the Five Books, whose primitive core could date from the beginning of our era, and another collection called Hitopadeça (Hitopadessa) or Profitable Instruction. The characters in the Indian fables derive from Indian fauna, from the largest animals to insects. The principal protagonist is the jackal, a trickster comparable to the European fox. From Sanskrit, fables were translated into Arabic in the 8th century CE under the title of Calila and Dimna, or Tales of Bidpai.  Calila and Dimna are jackals who tell their adventures, while the translators invented a fictitious Brahmin, Bidpai, as the author and commentator on the tales. While the Greek fable was a very terse piece in just a few lines, the oriental fable revelled in sinuous tales, with a wealth of detail, developing the characters of the tellers. This is the kind of development seen in Henryson’s fables, although it is not in any way suggested that he was familiar with these oriental examples.


The naïve souls of the medieval period, who learnt their religion through the stained glass windows and carved symbolic decorations of their cathedrals, gobbled up fables, wherever their origin. The Aesopic allegory, the Latin collections, especially Gualterus Anglicus’s, the Latin translation of Calila and Dimna (by Jean de Capoue in 1278) were available to those who could read and were wealthy enough to purchase such texts, but an even greater success was derived by fables translated into or constructed in French, such as the Ysopets, which brought the ancient allegories into the purview of the people by giving the protagonists contemporary settings – the ox attends Mass, the wolf fasts during Lent, and so on (details which we see also in Henryson’s fables). The best-known French writer was Marie de France (end of the 12th century) who wrote fables such as ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’, ‘The sickly Lion’, ‘Death and the Woodcutter’. Bestiaries and satirical Bibles presented animals in particular forms, while fabliaux, little tales in lines of eight syllables railed against the foolishness of the villain, the trickery of women, the gluttony of monks. The Roman de Renart can be considered as a complete representation of French feudal society, the lion symbolising the king, Ysengrin the wolf the brutal feudal superiors, Renart the fox the unscrupulous trickster. Odette de Mourges, commenting in her 1960 study of La Fontaine’s Fables (1668-94), which are very much part of this tradition, pointed out ‘a tragic picture, with death and murder in the centre. Wickedness, stupidity, or just chance kill and destroy without the slightest regard for age or virtue … There is no pity, no security anywhere … This book which is supposed to be intended for children denies at every page the existence of the most elementary forms of justice and loyalty.’ (p. 22). However, as we shall see, the world created by Henryson is not as entirely bleak and unrelenting, while at the same time presenting the cruel realities of life for the majority.


Henryson’s Morall Fabillis create a portrait of late 15th century Scotland populated by recognisable types. As a writer, it is clear that Henryson used his own experience as well as an intense and very learned familiarity with contemporary and ancient printed and manuscript sources to compile his poems. The Fabillis were not composed as a group, but were probably written piecemeal over a considerable period, perhaps from the late 1470s to the late 1480s, at which point the poet wrote the introductory ‘Prolog’, in the way of the French Ysopets, adding a few links between related fables as appropriate to give an overall structure and world-view. What makes the Scots poetical world real is its creator’s habit of application of his reading to the society and scene he knows. Henryson has a very down to earth understanding of his Aesopic world of very ordinary human beasts, ‘their needs and greeds and their defeats’, and the sense of a shared situation that it conveys. Henryson’s world is not that of Chaucer’s mostly prosperous and well entertained pilgrims; his intention to show, very barely, how all men are what they are, rather than what they should, or could, be. In this, another important source should be noted, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written in 524 AD, which in Book IV discusses a world where ‘when wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime’ (85). The philosopher explains that ‘wickedness thrusts down to a level below mankind those whom it has dethroned from the condition of being human … You could say that someone who robs with violence and burns with greed is like a wolf. A wild and restless man who is for ever exercising his tongue in lawsuits could be compared to a dog yapping. A man whose habit is to lie hidden in an ambush and steal by trapping people would be likened to a fox. A man of quick temper has only to roar to gain the reputation of a lion-heart … When a man abandons goodness and ceases to be human, being unable to rise to a divine condition, he sinks to the level of being an animal … though they retain the outward appearance of the human body, wicked people change into animals with regard to their state of mind.’ (94-6) The accompanying poem in this part of the book refers to the tale in The Odyssey (incidentally another major collection of fable-like tales) of Odysseus’s men being changed into animals by Circe, which is probably the earliest written mention of such a transformation.


The thirteen fables in the collection would require a series of talks to discuss effectively so I am going to be very selective, and concentrate on those fables which represent the question of justice and its opposite. In the medieval period, in what is now called the ‘Advice to Princes’ tradition, poets offered advice to rulers, from the king down to local magistrates, on how best to exercise their rule, ensuring that law and justice are at the heart of all decisions.


The ‘Prologue’ to the collection was, as was customary, probably written last, once all the separate tales had been completed, in order to produce a unifying introduction, and to state the function, method and manner of its poetry in traditional but exceptionally comprehensive and precise terms.  The purpose of the fables is ‘to repreif the of thi misleuing, / O man, be figure of ane vther thing’ (6-7) by employing ‘the subtell dyte of poetry’ to reveal ‘ane morall sweit sentence … / To gude purpois, quha culd it weill apply.’ (12-14) In order to reveal the moral, work must be done, to interpret the poem, in the same way as rough ground is ploughed, tilled and sown to produce a harvest, and a nut’s shell must be cracked to get at the sweet kernel within. Following the conventions of the time, Henryson presents what he describes as ‘a translation from the Latin’, which he has been asked to make ‘be requeist and precept of ane lord, / Of quhome the name it neidis not record.’ (34-5), but who (if he existed at all, rather than being another convention of the time) was probably Henry Crichton, Henryson’s Lord Abbot.


The first fables in the collection are largely comic, and although there have been terrors and threats for the protagonists, no-one has yet died or been seriously injured. All has ended relatively well, with lessons hopefully learnt and mistakes noted not to be repeated. However, the tenor changes in the fourth fable, ‘The Fox and the Wolf’ where the Fox, Lowrence, reading his horoscope in the stars, ‘[b]ut astrolabe, quadrant or almanack,/Teichit off nature be instructioun’ (642-3) realises that he will come to a bad end unless he reforms, as he will be subject to God’s justice. Coming across Freir Volff Waitskaith, he makes a parody of penitence and is rewarded by parody penance.

When asked if he is ‘contrite and sorie in thy spreit/For thy trespass?’ (698-9) he replies:

                                           ‘Na schir, I can not duid,

Me think that hennis ar sa honie sweit,

And lambes flesche that new ar lettin bluid,

For to repent my mynd can not conclude,

Bot off this thing, that I haif slane sa few.’


So he does not repent, and he will not forbear to sin so in the future, which makes the third part of confession, penance, totally redundant, but the Wolf-friar continues nonetheless. Penance is also compromised, the friar forbidding the fox to eat meat until Easter, but agreeing to the fox’s request

                ‘To eit puddingis, or laip ane lyttill blude,

                Or heid, or feit, or paunchis let me prief,

                In cace I falt of flesch in to my fude.’

                ‘For grit mister I gif the leif to dude

                Twyse in the oulk, for neid may haif na law.’ (727-31)

One of the main complaints about the church at this time, and it is seen in Chaucer’s work as well, is the corruption of the clergy, fattening themselves on the taxes and privations of the people, selling indulgences which have no biblical foundation, offering absolution from sin without effective penance and generally perverting the teaching of the bible, which was only available to the unlearned through them, as they had no access to the written scriptures. The wandering friars, such as this wolf, were particularly singled out for criticism.


Lowrence was very well aware of the deficiencies of his confession, but apparently sets off in a contrite frame of mind, heading for the firth to find a fish to eat. However, the waves are too high, he has no fishing gear, and he is wandering around disconsolately when a troops of goats appears, from which he steals a kid. In yet another perversion of another sacrament, this time baptism, confused with the conferment of knighthood, and the transubstantiation of the mass, he takes the kid by the horns, dips it into the water twice or thrice, saying ‘Ga doun, schir Kid, cum vp, schir Salmond, agane’ (751) until it was drowned, upon which he ate ‘that new-maid salmond’ (753).


Despite the blasphemy, this is still rather comic, as the fox’s outwitting of the blunt-witted wolf-friar was comic, but matters are about to turn. Full of young goat meat, and enjoying the sun’s heat on his belly, and apparently oblivious of the horoscope he read in the stars just the night before, he recklessly declares: ‘Vpon this wame set wer ane bolt full meit,’ (760) whereupon the goatherd, seeing the guilty fox lying, shoots him through and through with an arrow. Even now, Lowrence does not fully understand what has happened, thinking that he has drawn the arrow by the words he spoke, which id deeply ironic, given that he has been using linguistic trickery throughout the fable without affecting the reality of the situation. He is killed for killing the kid, which is appropriately rough justice. The Moralitas makes the same point – the fox here is the image of people who are well aware of their misliving, but because they enjoy their lives so much cannot make true confession. Exactly as Boethius had said, living luxuriously becomes a habit, which is very difficult to break, but those who pay attention can still redeem themselves, ‘Do willfull penance here; and ye sall wend,/Efter your deith, to blis withouttin end.’ (794-5) Only the penance carried out with the will fully involved will count.


Although Lowrence was dealt summary justice at the hands of the goatherd whose livelihood he had damaged, his son, known as ‘Father-war’ or ‘worse than his father’, must face justice at the hands of the lion, the king of the beasts, who has called a parliament of the animals. To cut a very long story short, Father-war and the wolf are sent to bring to the assembly a brood mare who has refused to attend, and in so doing, the wolf receives a blow from the mare’s hoof which breaks his head.

Despite the Lion’s injunction: ‘Se neir be twentie mylis quhair I am/The kid ga saiflie be the gaittis syde,/The tod Lowrie luke not to the lam,’ (943-5) while getting water for the wolf to bathe his wounds, the fox sees a flock of sheep, and takes and eats the fattest lamb. The mother of the lamb appeals to the lion for justice:

                Befoir the iustice on hir kneis fell,

                Put out hir playnt on this wyis woefully,

                ‘This harlet huresone and this hound off hell,

                He werryit hes my lamb full doggitly

                Within ane myle, in contrair to your cry.

                For Goddis lufe, my lord, gif me the law

                Off this lurker’! (1069-75)

This mother sheep has about her the tone of the preacher, in her use of thundering alliteration to accuse the murdering fox. Despite his protestations that he was only trying to play with the lamb, which had jumped over a wall and broken his neck, he is convicted by the hastily-convened jury by his ‘gorrie gumis’ and ‘bludie snout’, the ‘woll, the flesche, [that] yit stikkis on [his] teeth’(1084-5) and after shrift carried out by the wolf, who is probably as reliable as the friar wolf in the previous fable, is hanged by the ape as executioner. Henryson’s Moralitas to this fable makes the point that the lion is symbolic of worldly justice, and in this case there could be little argument against its operation, but the justice of heaven is more vital, and the mercy of Jesus essential if sinners are to be admitted to heaven.


There is a logical development between this fable and the next, the awful ‘The Sheep and the Dog’, where injustice, perverse use of power and the harrying of innocents hold sway. Here the common dictum ‘falseness ever fails at the end’ is patently untrue.  The ecclesiastical consistory courts by the late Middle Ages dealt mainly with suits which had no connection with worship or morality, or ecclesiastical discipline. Most were disputes over property and revenue. The courts were a favourite target of satirists – see Sir David Lyndsay’s depiction in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. Henryson’s thorough knowledge of court procedures lies behind this fable, in which a sheep is called to the consistory or church court by a dog claiming that the sheep owes him five shillings for a loaf of bread, a ludicrous charge in the first place. ‘Ane fraudfull volff’ (1150) is judge, and calls the sheep ‘[v]nder the panis off hie suspensioun, / Off grit cursing, and interdictioun … to compeer, /And answer to ane doig befoir me heir.’ (1156-9) These are appalling threats, and similar can be found in court records of the period and later. Everything is stacked against the sheep: the summoner is ‘Schir Corbie Rauin … quha pykit had full mony scheipis ee’ (1160-1); the fox was clerk and notary public (Henryson’s role in life); the kite and vulture were barristers pleading the dog’s case, which they were well aware was fraudulent.


The sheep, like the lamb in a later fable, pleads his own case, ignoring the ludicrous charge that he owes five shillings for bread that would be worth a handful of pence at most, taking issue with the place and time that the court is held, in the hours of darkness and outwith the established season for the assize to take place; the biased nature of the judge, the fact that all the court officers are his mortal enemies. Following these charges, the wolf, as would be the case in canon law, bade the parties to choose two arbiters to decide whether the sheep should answer the dog’s charge.  The bear and badger, not particularly known as enemies to the sheep, but equally unlikely to be partisan, are chosen to arbitrate. Henryson gives a detailed account of the methods that would be used under canon and Roman law to decide on the sheep’s charge, but predictably, it is found to be without ground, and the dog’s plea is upheld, as is his original charge. ‘This cursit court, corruptit all for meid, / Aganis gude faith, gude law, and conscience, / Foir this fals doig pronuncit the sentence.’ (1241-3) The only way the sheep could pay the five shillings, on pain of excommunication if he did not, was to sell the very fleece from his back, ‘Syne bocht the breid, and to the doig couth mak / Reddie payment, as he foiroiugeit was; / Naikit and bair syne to the field couth pas.’ (1255-7)


Henryson here shows his humanity in his empathy for the poor common people who are exploited and tyrannised by the powerful. The court officials are complicit and actively oppress the poor, signified by the sheep, now left fleeceless in the cold of winter.


There was in the Middle Ages a profound and almost primitive belief in immanent justice – by the expectation that justice would be revealed or proved by ordeal, by duel, battle, holy war. This would mean that blatant injustice or unmerited disaster would be much more unsettling than to us who see our world as absurd and do not expect order and justice. The pious medieval response to catastrophe and disaster was to explain is as allowed by God because of the sin of the victim.

In this Moralitas, the sheep is given a voice, full of alliterative emphasis, to lament his fate:

                ‘Allace,’ quod he, ‘this cursit consistorie

                In middis of the winter now is maid,

                Quhen Boreas with blastis bitterlie

                And frawart froistes thir flouris doun can faid;

                On bankis bair now may I mak na baid.’ (1286-90)

The sheep calls on God to answer his plight: ‘O Lord, quhy sleipis thow sa lang?’ (1295) ‘Seis thow not, lord, this warld ouerturnit is … The pure is peillit, the lord may do na mis.’ (1307, 1309).

                ‘Thow tholis this euin for our grit offence;

                Thow sendis vs troubill and plaigis soir,

                As hunger, derth, grit weir, or pestilence;

                Bot few amendis now their lyfe thairfoir.

                We pure pepill as now may do no moir

                Bot pray to the: sen that we ar opprest

                In to this earth, grant vs in heuin gude rest.’ (1314-20)

And we are back with Boethius, relying on the ultimate grace of God to punish the wicked and save the oppressed after their deaths, if not in life. In this final stanza, the appeal is apparently widened from the victim sheep to poor people in general, to convey the sense of a great load of suffering and an almost desperate endurance.

We have seen a sheep outwitted and cheated by a dog, but there is a counterpart fable, ‘The Wolf and the Wether’, where a wether, a young ram, at least temporarily outwits and terrifies a wolf. However, this is a fable where the modern reader is wrong-footed when it comes to the Moralitas. A shepherd’s faithful sheepdog suddenly dies, and the man immediately assumes his ruin, as all the wolves in the area will kill his sheep with impunity. But he was reckoning without the wether, which valiantly volunteers to take the place of the dog, covered in the dog’s flayed skin – and for a while everything goes well, the wether acts like a perfect sheepdog, and not a sheep is lost.


It is only when a hungry wolf appears, determined to have a lamb regardless of the ‘sheepdog’ that the beginning of the comeuppance starts. The wolf flees before the disguised wether, and even throws the lamb aside so he can run faster, but the wether is determined to have him, ignoring the lamb that he could have returned to the flock. Such is the wolf’s terror that he does what fleeing animals actually do in life, and empties his bowels on the field, but still the wether does not give up until recklessly chasing the wolf through briar bushes, his false covering is pulled off. Then the wolf, casting a glance behind, sees that he has been fooled. The game is up for the wether; however he pleads with the wolf to be gracious to him as the chase was only a game. Comically, the wolf appears to be more concerned with his loss of dignity in fouling the field even than in having been outwitted by the wether, but gets his revenge by killing him ‘smertlie’.


The Moralitas teaches us a valuable moral lesson, as the wether is criticised for stepping out of his place in life:

                Heir may thow se that riches of array

                Will cause pure men presumptuous for to be;

                Thay think they hald of nane, be thay als gay,

                Bot counterfute ane lord in all degree.

                Out of their cais in pryde thay clym sa hie

                That thay forbear their better in na steid,

                Quhill sum man tit their heillis ouer their heid… (2595-601)


                Thairfoir I counsel men of euerilk stait

                To knaw thame self, and quhome thay suld forbear,

                And fall not with their better in debait,

                Suppose thay be als galland in their geir;

                It settis na seruand for to vphald weir,

                Nor clym sa hie quhill he fall of the ledder:

                Bot think vpon the wolf and on the wedder. (2609-15)

Where a modern audience would be rooting for the wether all the way, Henryson’s contemporaries would have been alert to the danger signs – the wether is displaying behaviour contrary to his kind, he is stepping out of his role in life, and once dressed in the dog’s skin ‘worth wantoun off his weid’ (2495). It was the medieval belief that social status was divinely ordained, from the king in his tower to the poor man at his gate, and that it was a blasphemy to attempt to rise higher than one had been born. In Henryson’s time, of course, this was politically significant, as James III’s low-born favourites had (it was thought) far too much influence at court and, as the murderous Lauder Bridge episode showed, could take their positions too far for the magnates to tolerate. Henryson is far too astute to allude in any way to this episode in his Moralitas and it is impossible to know how the fable would have been interpreted, as it is impossible to know who his audience was, but the justice applied here is more like divine than ecclesiastical, summary or legal justice.


The last fable that I want to look at is the perfectly awful ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’, which reminds us of ‘The Sheep and the Dog’ in its injustice, and allows Henryson full rein in his knowledge of legal procedure. The characters of the two are established right from the outset – ‘[a]ne cruell volff, richt rauenous and fell’ and ‘ane selie lamb … meik and innocent’, and the situation is that the wolf is drinking from a steam when a lamb comes along downstream and drinks of the same water. The way the wolf rampages up to the lamb is comical in its awfulness:

                With girnand teith and angrie austre luke,

                Said to the lamb,’Thow catiue wretchit thing,

                How durst thow be sa bald to fyle this bruke

                Quhar I suld drink with thy foull slauering?

                It wer almous the for to draw and hing,

                That suld presume with thy foull lippis wyle

                To glar my drink and this fair watter fyle.’ (2630-6)

The lamb is properly terrified, but resorts to logic and reason, and perfect politeness, using the formal second person, to point out that as he was downsteam of the wolf and the stream cannot run backwards ‘Ergo, for me ȝour bruke wes neuer the war.’ (2650) In addition, because he is a lamb, he has never touched anything contagious, but sucked milk from his mother’s teats. Ridiculously, the wolf takes issue with this ‘language rigorus’ saying that the lamb’s father had ‘[h]eld me at bait, baith with boist and schore’ (2657). I don’t think we are supposed to see this lamb as the offspring of the wether in the earlier fable, although there are echoes. Anyway, the wolf has vowed that he would be revenged on the guilty sheep or his offspring; hence the lamb is about to die.


Here the lamb pleads scripture, saying that God himself has asserted that man will be responsible for his own misdeeds, as he is rewarded for his good works (Ezekiel 18), which is the orthodox Christian position. The wolf retorts with an earlier stage of Hebrew thought in Exodus 20:5, where misdeeds were to be punished to the third or fourth generation, but the wolf will take this further, to the twentieth generation, because the lamb’s father plotted to make poison which he would spew into the wolf’s drinking water. He refuses to hear the lamb’s objection that no man may punish another without process of law and due hearing, demanding:

                ‘Set me ane lauchfull court; I sall compeer

                Befoir the lyoun, lord and leill iustice,

                And be my hand I oblis me rycht heir

                That I sall byde ane vnsuspect assysis.

                This is the law, this is the instant wyis;

                Ȝe suld pretend thairfoir ane summondis mak

                Aganis that day, to gif ressoun and tak.’ (2686-92)

And we are reminded of the unlauchful court and suspect assysis that the sheep faced. The appeal to law merely infuriates the wolf who has no answer to the logical and well-reasoned arguments of the lamb, and is well aware (as we are) of the iniquities of the court system. Like all bullies, his response to reason is violence, ‘the volff wald do na grace’ (2701) and he bit the lamb in the neck, drank his blood and ate him up.


In one of the longest Moralitates of the collection, Henryson here shows the greatest humanity. We can now anticipate the central interpretation, but the poet takes it further to create a despicable portrait of those in power in his time:

                The pure pepill, this lamb may signifie,

                As mail men, merchandis, and all lauboureris,

                Of quhome the lyfe is half ane purgatorie,

                To wyn with lautie leuing as efferis.

                The wolf betakinnis fals extortioneris

                And oppressouris of pure men, as we se,

                Be violence, or craft in suteltie. (2707-13)

The oppression by the powerful takes many forms: perversion of the law, where bribery of lawyers enables false witness to succeed over the rightful defence; the greed and covetousness of powerful men who will hound poor tenant farmers off their land regardless of the dire consequences; the unfair demands of magnates, who, Henryson reminds his audience, inherited their lands as a gift from God through their families, who demand that their tenants spend all their time working for them instead of working their crofts for their own families. In the veritable voice of the preacher, the poet thunders out his warning:

                O thow grit lord, that riches hes and rent,

                Be nocht ane wolf, thus to deuoir the pure!

                Think that na thing cruell nor violent

                May in this walld perpetuallie indure.    

                This sall thow trow and sikkerlie assure:

                For till oppress thow sall haif als grit pane

                As thow the pure with thy awin hand had slane.


                God keip the lamb, quhilk is the innocent,

                From wolfis byit and men extortioneris;

                God grant that wrangous men of fals intent

                Be manifest, and punischit as effeiris;

                May God, as thow all rychteous prayer heiris,

                Mot saif our king, and gif him hart and hand

                All sic wolfis to banes of the land. (2763-76)

As seen so many times in the Fables, the forces of evil, oppression and extortion do seem to have sway in the temporal world, leaving the poor powerless. This last stanza is all written in the subjunctive, indicating that Henryson is very aware of the current situation, and can only hope that the king will be persuaded to act more like a virtuous ruler.


What we can see in the course of the Fabillis’ development is a consistent darkening of tone, which comes ever closer to the description I gave earlier of La Fontaine’s 17th century world of tragedy, ‘with death and murder in the centre. Wickedness, stupidity, or just chance kill and destroy without the slightest regard for age or virtue … There is no pity, no security anywhere’. From the central fable, ‘The Lion and the Mouse’, where Henryson depicts Aesop himself having to be persuaded to tell a tale, men are not listening to God’s word.

                ‘Now in this warld me think richt few or nane

                To goddis word that hes deuotioun;

                The eir is deif, the hart is hard as stane;

                Now oppin sin without correctioun,

                The e inclynand to the earth ay doun.

                Sa roustit is the warld with canker blak

                That now my taillis may lytill succour mak.’ (1391-7)

The animals are increasingly alone, on their own, without the comfort of a loving God overseeing the events and ready to catch them when they fall. While some, like the small birds in the following fable which refuse to listen to the timely advice of the Swallow and end up as prey to the Fowler, the wether, the various tricked wolves and the mouse in the final fable bring about their own destruction, too often it is the innocent who suffer through no fault of their own, but purely because they are victims of the avarice, power and violence of those in higher status positions. Henryson never loses his faith in God, but he has increasingly little faith in the world of men, from the king down.


This very partial and fragmentary treatment of some of the Morall Fabillis will, I hope have given you a taste of the riches that are to be had for anyone who ventures to work through the nut’s shell of the not too difficult Middle Scots language to the toothsome kernel of the poetry. I recommend to you Seamus Heaney’s translation of The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables, which unfortunately does not contain any of the fables discussed this evening, but gives a rich and very lively version, and, if you wish to find our more, please visit the Robert Henryson website, on www.henryson.org.uk, where you will find a link to a modern Scots translation of all the fables. There is also a dual language version of the Shorter Poems, in very varied styles and themes, which presents the Middle Scots facing a verse English translation, which solves immediately any issues of interpretation.















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