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Robert Henryson (or Henrysoun) is one of the great names in medieval literature in general, and Scottish literature in particular. Little is known about his life. He lived in the second half of the fifteenth century, dying sometime before 1508. He possibly attended the University of Glasgow, and he is later associated with the town of Dunfermline, where he may have been a schoolmaster, or a notary public, or both.

His poetry supports the image of him as both a teacher and a lawyer. His versions of Aesop's Fables ('The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian') reveal a writer with a powerful moral purpose and a detailed grasp of the mechanisms of the law. Both are evident in the Prologue to the Fables , a persuasive apology for literature, written in plain Middle Scots:

The nuttes schell, thocht it be hard and teuch,
Haldis the kirnill, and is delectabill.
Sa lyis thair ane doctrine wyse aneuch,
And full of fruit, under ane fenyeit Fabill.
And Clerkis sayis it is richt profitabill
Amangis ernist to ming ane merie sport,
To light the spreit, and gar the tyme be schort.

(Although the nut's shell is hard and tough, it holds the kernel and is delightful. So there lies a wise and fruitful teaching underneath an imagined fable. And learned men say it is very profitable to mingle merry sport among earnest matters, to lighten the spirit and speed the time.)

Henryson's major poems, besides the Fables, include 'The Testament of Cresseid', a sequel to Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde'; 'Robene and Makyne', a comic dialogue; and 'Orpheus and Eurydice', a version of the classical tale which was printed by Chepman and Millar in 1508.

Robert Henryson is sadly little known amongst the majority of Scots today. However, in 1993 the Robert Henryson Society was established in Dunfermline to promote the appreciation of the poet and his works, particularly in the locality with which he is most closely associated.

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Bibliography and Teaching Resources
Robert Henryson: A Bibliography by Wolfram Keller.
Tom Scott on Robert Henryson
The Robert Henryson Society

Robert Henryson's Fables:
The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson. A Modernised Edition by R.W.Smith
Worksheets for use at 1st, 3rd, and 6th year levels. By Gerald Baird

Henryson texts in the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library:
The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian
The Testament of Cresseid
The minor poems of Robert Henryson
Orpheus and Eurydice


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