Why Robert Henryson's work should be taught in schools

19th March 2010 at 00:00
In our continuing series on Scots literature, Morna Fleming argues that the medieval bard's poetry deserves a place in the classroom

The name Robert Henryson means little to most Scottish teachers. The poet was born circa 1420 and died in the early 16th century, but his poems can offer today's pupils an adventurous step into the medieval world.

Henryson was an arts graduate, possibly trained in law, and is referred to on title pages of early prints as "scolmaister of Dunfermling". His works include the Morall Fabillis, a collection of 13 fables; The Testament of Cresseid, a continuation of the story of Cresseid from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde; Orpheus and Eurydice; and a number of shorter poems, in Middle Scots.

The unfamiliarity of Henryson's language makes many teachers wary of using these texts in schools, but a variety of resources now makes them more accessible and allows students to see the relevance of the narratives to their contemporary concerns.

Hugh MacDiarmid recognised the importance of the medieval heritage in his slogan for the Scottish Renaissance, "Not Burns - Dunbar!". But by 1973, he acknowledged the greater importance of Henryson in his introduction to the Penguin selection of Henryson's poems.

Scots literature is now more widely taught, although it is largely modern Scots writing. But when you read - or, better, listen to - Henryson's poems, it is clear that the characters in the Fabillis have the same preoccupations as we do. The oppressions and injustices which affect the most powerless in society were familiar to Henryson, and he championed the weak and vulnerable by criticising those who have the power and misuse it.

Another important reason for teaching Henryson is that he was (by common consent) the schoolmaster of Dunfermline Abbey School. The medieval Curriculum for Excellence was designed to produce the office-bearers of society, the clerks and notaries who would administer the realm effectively and responsibly with a sense of moral purpose, derived from their constant study of classical texts, among which fables played a very useful role.

For background knowledge to contextualise these poems, there are a number of useful sources. The Scotnote Robert Henryson (ASLS, 1996) by Gerald Baird, a former principal teacher of English at Grove Academy in Dundee, was written for a school context, and gives a general but very comprehensive background on what we know about Henryson, how to read the poems and the medieval and literary background. It gives a full analysis of all the fables and the major poems, concluding with "things to think about", which allows readers to develop a wider response to the poems.

Another resource developed by a teacher in collaboration with senior students is Klaus Janda's Ane Gude Moralitie (RHS, 2009), which is a complete commentary on the Fables and The Testament of Cresseid.

Several of Henryson's works are out of print, but Seamus Heaney's The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables (Faber, 2009) presents the original text with an English verse translation facing it. Heaney says in his introduction that it was Henryson's voice "that inspired (him) to begin putting the not very difficult Scots language of his originals into rhymed stanzas of more immediately accessible English".

Googling "Robert Henryson poems" on the web brings up the Robert Henryson homepage, the University of Rochester and the Wikipedia entry on the first page. These are all excellent sites, even the last, as it has been developed by scholars and enthusiasts. The homepage offers a modern Scots version of the fables.

For The Testament of Cresseid, the Britain in Print website gives the full text, a dramatised reading and many teaching resources developed by Lesley Porter, former PT of English at Queen Anne High in Dunfermline. And audio CDs of some of the fables are available from the Scots Language Society.

Finally, what are you going to teach, to which groups and when? The Scotnote gives a starter worksheet, and there are more of these on the Robert Henryson homepage. Make sure you have the audio CD to hand, and away you go. Happy exploring.

Morna Fleming is depute headteacher and occasional English teacher at Liberton High, Edinburgh, and secretary of the Robert Henryson Society.

www.asls.org.uk; www.britaininprint.net; www.lallans.co.ukpdfCatalogue.pdf.

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