John Barbour, poet or metrical historian, Archdeacon of Aberdeen and author of ‘The Bruce’, died on the 13th of March, 1395.
John Barbour gave the world the epic history of Robert the Bruce, but he did it the hard way – in metrical verse – all fourteen thousand octosyllabic lines of it. Not only did he write a long, narrative, poetical history of Scotland’s famous King, he gave his work a long title – “The Actes and Life of that most Victorious Conquerour, Robert Bruce, King of Scotland: wherein are contained the Martiall Deeds of those Valiant Princes, Edward Bruce, Syr James Douglas, Ere Thomas Randel, Walter Stewart, and sundrie others.” Now, over six hundred and thirty years later, nobody with an ounce of interest in medieval Scottish history would be without their Barbour. The Archdeacon of Aberdeen is considered to be – Thomas of Ercildoune (Thomas the Rhymer) and his ‘Romance of Sir Tristrem’ aside – the ‘father’ of Scottish vernacular poetry. He is to Scots as Chaucer to the English and Dante to the Italians, but his English wasnae bad for a’ that.
Barbour was indeed a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and suffers not in comparison. Cassell and Howitt in an ‘Illustrated History of England’ claim that Barbour was “far more purely English in his language than Chaucer himself.” And, Thomas Warton (the Younger), an English poet and critic, and author of ‘The History of English Poetry’ of whom it has been said, there were few better judges of the comparative merits of such early poets as Barbour, wrote that “Barbour adorned the English language by a strain of versification, expression, and poetical images, far superior to the age.” James Bruce in his ‘Lives of eminent men of Aberdeen’ (a large book), whilst urging caution and impartiality, wrote then of Barbour that he was “a better describer of battles than Homer” and that ‘The Bruce’ is “as far superior to what is called the great Roman Epic, as the man whom it celebrates surpassed in every point of heroism the snivelling spouse deserting fugitive from Troy.” There should be no surprises at the classical references as Patrick Fraser Tytler noted in ‘Lives of Scottish Worthies’ that Barbour “appears to have been read in the classical as well as in the romantic literature of the day.”
Unlike most medieval historians, Barbour also benefitted from being close to the action, being (almost without question) born in Bruce’s lifetime and certainly able to get his information from contemporaries of the hero King; from people who knew him personally. Another poetical historian of note, Andrew of Wyntoun, omitted the life of Bruce from his ‘Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland’ simply because he considered Barbour’s work to be the definitive account of what actually happened. Of course, the fame of ‘The Bruce’ is largely tied up with several well known passages and in particular, the oft-quoted ‘Freedom’. Braveheart owes more to Barbour’s ‘Bruce’ than it does to Blind Harry’s ‘Wallace’ in that respect. As Tytler again notes, “[Barbour’s] Encomium upon Freedom is well known, and has become deservedly one of the most favourite and popular passages in his works.” If you don’t understand the vernacular, try my interpretation beneath:
A! Fredome is a nobill thing.
Fredome mayse man to haiff liking.
Fredome all solace to man giffis;
He levys at ese that frely levys.
A noble hart may haiff nane ese,
Na ellys nocht that may him plese,
Gyff fredome failythe: for fre liking
Is yearnyt ower all othir thing.
Ah! Freedom is a noble reason.
Freedom must man have as option.
Freedom all solace to man gives;
For he lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor aught else that may him please,
If freedom fails: for free choice
Is yearned for o’er all other joys.
All that we can say for certain about Barbour’s date of birth is that he was born before 1332 as he was an Archdeacon in 1357 and Canon Law meant he had to have been at least twenty-five to have attained such rank. And, unless he was the youngest ever Archdeacon, he was most probably born in the early 1320s or even earlier, perhaps as early as 1315, for he was reputed to have been sixty in 1375. There’s no evidence for his birthplace either, but it’s most likely he was born in Aberdeen or at least Aberdeenshire. He may well have received his education at the abbey of Aberbrothoc, where he took orders, and it is supposed that he availed of the facilities of the School of Divinity and Canon Law that had existed at Aberdeen since the reign of Alexander II.
In 1356, Barbour was appointed Archdeacon of ‘Abyrdene’ by his absent King, David II, son of ‘The Bruce’. In taking up the role, he flitted from the Cathedral at Dunkeld to St. Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen, with his prebend being the parish of Rayne in the Garioch. The following year, in August, he was one of the Commissioners nominated to attend Parliament and act for the Prelates concerning the liberation of the captive King. Between 1357 and 1369, and at the request of David II, whom he’d undoubtedly impressed, Edward III granted Barbour three separate safe conduct passes to travel through his Kingdom of England and other dominions, including to France, for the sake of study. Archdeacon that he was, Barbour wasn’t shy about using the facilities at Oxford and he travelled in style, always accompanied by up to half a dozen Knights and equerries.
Barbour’s great work was completed in 1375, four years after the death of David II, but it’s not at all clear that David Bruce requested he compose his metrical history. Maybe he did; he certainly appreciated Barbour’s talents. In any case, his successor, Robert II, was happy to bestow two pensions upon Barbour for his monumental effort. The first was a life pension of £10 Scots, from the customs of Aberdeen, and the other, 20/- from the rents or burrow-mails of the city. Barbour assigned his second pension to the Cathedral Church of Aberdeen, in exchange for celebrating yearly, an anniversary mass “for the soul of the said ‘umquhile’ (erstwhile) John.” That was duly done with nary a break until the Reformation. According to the Chartulary of Aberdeen, Barbour’s life pension of £10 was last paid in 1395. And if you calculate back the quoted “two years and a half” to the date of his death, from an August date in 1398 that’s referenced therein (see Lord Hailes’ Annals of Scotland, vol. ii p. 3.), you’ll find he died in 1395. But you’ll need to allow for the fact that, until 1600, Scotland’s New Year’s Day was on the 25th of March. The obit-book of St Machar’s Cathedral firmly records that John Barbour died on the 13th of March, 1395. He was buried in the grounds of his Cathedral, from where his marble memorial has since been moved to adorn an inner wall.