The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

A Modernised Edition

by R.W.Smith



The Prologue

  1. The Cock and the Jasp
  2. The Two Mice
  3. The Cock and the Fox
  4. The Fox and the Wolf
  5. The Trial of the Fox
  6. The Sheep and the Dog
  7. The Preaching of the Swallow
  8. The Lion and the Mouse
  9. The Fox, the Wolf, and the Cadger
  10. The Fox, the Wolf, and the Farmer
  11. The Wolf and the Wether
  12. The Wolf and the Lamb
  13. The Puddock and the Mouse

Further Reading

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This is a modernisation of one of Robert Henryson's greatest poems, his Morall Fabillis, and it has been undertaken with the purpose of introducing Henryson and his works to as wide a readership as possible.

There have been difficulties for the average reader with his works as they exist in the original, simply because he wrote in his native language, the language of Scotland in the fifteenth century, a language somewhat different from that used today. The major differences are to be seen in vocabulary, and, especially, spelling conventions. To deal with these differences, modern editions of Henryson have been required to compile glossaries containing over 4,000 terms (in the Denton Fox edition, around 60% of these are taken up with spellings alone, of items which would give no problems to a reader reasonably familiar with present-day spoken Scots); and the consultation of these inevitably interferes with natural and easy appreciation of his poetry. In this modernisation of the Fables, no glossary is needed.

Henryson's metres and rhyme-schemes have been retained with exactitude, as well as his rhythms and timings, and, by adhering strictly to meaning in each stanza, his intentions . His talents as a story-teller, a humorist, and a social critic should now be more easily appreciated.

We do not know the exact dates of his birth and death. We do know that his greatest poetry was written during the mid- to late-1400s, when he held an important position in the Benedictine abbey of Dunfermline. A University graduate, in holy orders and a trained Church lawyer, what scanty evidence we have suggests that he switched his career from the law to training and education. Fifteen of his poems have come down to us ; twelve of these can be classed as short, and they tend to be overshadowed by his three major works, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Morall Fabillis, and The Testament of Cresseid. This last, the Testament, is recognised as the finest poem to appear in Europe in the fifteenth century, and, indeed, may be classed as one of the greatest poems ever written. These three major poems are of comparable quality, and might seem to be equally suitable for modernisation. This is not the case. Their similarities, which lie mainly in versification, are apparent rather than real, for it is clear that Henryson created each one with a different purpose in mind. The Morall Fabillis is distinguished from the others by its effective fusion of two themes, a moralist's advice on personal behaviour - and a criticism of certain aspects of important social institutions : the Church, the State, the Law. This criticism is sometimes open and severe; much of the time it is softened and enlivened by humour. And it is all presented with the highest degree of literary craftmanship.

The Morall Fabillis lends itself to modernisation much more sensibly than do the other two major poems. For instance, it would be unthinkable to modernise The Testament of Cresseid; too much would be lost, especially in the music of the language. And one of the reasons for choosing the Fabillis is that it offers ample proof of one of Henryson's talents, a talent which sets him in the highest rank of poets : the art of relating the particulars of daily life to the great universals of the human condition. Moreover, he has succeeded in the most difficult of literary tasks, the re-writing of familiar and age-old material to present it in a form fresh, new, and vigorous.

In belief and philosophy, he was very much a man of his times, the late Middle Ages. He employed conventional themes and topics, borrowing heavily from past literature and folklore for his subjects. However, he was not merely a copyist or imitator, but an original and creative artist, taking existing material and shaping it to his own ends. (And in doing so, Henryson has presented us moderns with a free gift: an accurately-recorded picture of many aspects of Lowland Scottish society in the 1400s.)

Notes on certain of the above points are provided in a short introduction to each Fable.

To return to the language difficulty referred to in the opening of this Introduction: The language of 1400s Scotland is now called Middle Scots, and modern Scots is, very obviously, its direct and closely-related descendant. It would seem that there is therefore a case for rendering Henryson's Middle Scots into modern Scots. The case for doing so is attractive, but he case against is more powerful. It is this : Middle Scots was a completely national language, used in all situations and for all purposes; modern Scots is largely confined to colloquial speech, with only occasional ventures into literature. Henryson's Scots is highly literary, carefully crafted, the language of an educated social group - except when he has certain of his characters speaking. To change his crafted formalities into the unavoidable informalities of present-day Scots speech would be too much of a misrepresentation of his style. An attempt to retain his style and general tone has therefore required the use of standard English in narrative or recitative, with Scots where appropriate, which is frequently in direct speech. Occasionally, his Scots must be employed in the interests of metre, rhyme, or exactitude of expression; for the convenience of readers unfamiliar with Scots, Middle or Modern, vocabulary notes - few are needed - are provided.

Henryson's method, in the Fables, is to tell the story, the particular Fable itself, and then explain its significance in a Moralitas, the "Moral" here. No two of the Fables have the same moral or political message, nor do they have the same emotional or dramatic impact; sometimes we laugh, sometimes we merely smile, sometimes we are sympathetic and thoughtful. Usually, the Moral can be seen as an integral component of its Fable; yet there are one or two instances where the modern reader might find Henryson's analysis slightly strained. Not to worry; there is some suspicion that Robert Henryson himself might have had a little difficulty with some of his Moralitates.

He knew very well that the story is the thing.

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The Prologue

It is not intended, in these introductory notes, that each poem should be discussed in detail ; the reader would soon become - needlessly - overloaded. Henryson avoided overloading. Concision, the art of conveying a great deal in as few words as possible, is one of his distinguishing features. However, the short Prologue displays so many of his techniques that some examination is worthwhile.

How he worked within the literary conventions of the Middle Ages is shown by observing that the Prologue is constructed according to the strict rules of Rhetoric as taught in the schools and Universities of that time. Stanza 1 sets out the writer's intention : the proemium. Stanzas 2,3, and 4 explain the reasons behind the intention : the argumentatio. Stanzas 5 and 6 provide the "affected modesty", the excusatio. Stanzas 7 and 8 sum up the general intention ; the peroratio. Stanza 9 is the very important crossing-over to the next topic, the transitio, which was considered to be the most difficult, and the real test of a writer's skill. Note here, and throughout the Fables, how neatly Henryson handles this one. In the "affected modesty" in stanza 6 there is, besides the observance of a literary convention, a trace of tongue-in-the-cheek irony, when he professes complete ignorance of Rhetoric. As may be clearly seen in many of the Fables, Henryson favoured irony, using it particularly for humour.

Then in stanza 6 there is a hint that Henryson was not completely tied to tradition ; he somewhat brusquely dismisses the need for aristocratic patronage. A nameless lord is conjured up, and there was no such lord. It was the practice of seeking patronage by flattery which he was dismissing. This might have been a somewhat radical attitude to adopt, for aristocratic -or Church - patronage for an artist was necessary for public success; a condition which took a long time to die out, and was still affecting authors in the mid-1700s. The Fables provide evidence that Robert Henryson's opinions on power-groups were not always what these groups would have liked.

Furthermore, there is his employment of Numerology. Nine stanzas in this poem; and nine, in Numerology, is the number of the mind. Now we are not going to deal with Henryson's deployment of the ancient "science" of Numerology in every Fable ; far too subtle and complex, and we advise consultation of the "Further Reading" section to anyone interested in the subject. And interested the reader should be, especially if he or she has never given much thought as to why we run our civilisation on a seven-day week, or why some of us are allergic to the number thirteen.

Vocabulary :

" gey "( frequently used) =

"rather" or "somewhat", usually in a tone of
sympathy, regret, or disapproval.

The Prolog

Thocht feinyeit fabils of ald poetre
Be not al grunded vpon truth, yit than ....


Although these ancient tales are pure invention,
And hardly based on facts, yet, then,
Artful they're made, because their first intention
Is to be pleasing to the ears of men;
Forbye, the reason for their origin
Is to reproach our human aberration
By viewing something else - the brute creation.


Just as a boggy, cold, and rush-grown plain,
If it be drained, and ploughed, and worked with care
Will offer up sweet fruits and flowers and grain,
All that life needs in way of wholesome fare;
By that same means we find good doctrine there
In Aesop's words; his subtle tales will bear it
To purpose good; if the cap fits, wear it!


Although a nut's shell can be thick and tough,
The kernel can be nourishing and sweet;
And so we find a doctrine wise enough
Inside an unreal Fable, bearing fruit;
And scholars say, by far the best conceit
Is to mix earnestness with merry sport,
To cheer things up, and make the time seem short.


As well we know, a bow that's aye kept bent
Loses its power, and hardly twangs the string;
So with the mind that's kept too diligent
With weighty matters, and with studying;
In heavy work it does no harm to bring
Some lightness in; Aesop himself has said
That solemn wares are best with smiles displayed.


Now, Latin was our Aesop's mother tongue;
Correct translation, then, is what I've tried;
I hope you scholars will not want me hung.
All this is done for reasons not of pride
Or self-advancement; such things I avoid;
For I was asked to do this by a lord,
Whose name I need not bother to record.


In homely language, and in accents rude,
I have to write, because this eloquence
And rhetoric, I never understood;
Therefore I humbly pray your reverence,
That, if you find that through my negligence,
I've made mistakes, or spoiled things by omission,
To set it right, you have my full permission.


It's in these Fables, then, that we are told
That animals both spoke and understood;
And that they all could deep discussion hold,
And syllogisms set, and them conclude;
Proof by example and similitude
That mankind often, so our Aesop says,
Resembles beasts - in all too many ways.


No wonder, whiles, that man is like a beast
That in all fleshly things takes his delight;
His conscience being that which moves him least,
When driven by pride, or lust, or appetite;
These things by habit are implanted quite
Deep in his mind, so that he seems deranged,
And into graceless bestial gey near changed.


Aesop, my master, aye beyond compare,
In subtle images sets out his tale;
In pleasant rhyme, with words both fine and fair,
So that no man of any rank could fail
To find instruction. Let him now prevail
In his first Fable : how a farmyard bird
Great riches found - and thought them just absurd!

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Further Reading

To date, 1999, probably the best collection of Henryson studies available to the public is to be found in Dunfermline Public Library, Maygate, Dunfermline; The Henryson Collection. This ranges from full editions to extracted articles, dating from 1824 to 1991 and totalling some 72 items. The Collection is being added to, for there is still much work to be done on Robert Henryson. To present this list here would not be particularly helpful, as not all the works in the Collection deal with the Thirteen Fables, - but all can be recommended to those who would know more about this remarkable and somewhat neglected literary artist.

Best, at present, to recommend a few of the latest publications. And the most important and revealing of these is everything from the pen of John MacQueen. His Robert Henryson, a Study of the Major Narrative Poems (Oxford, 1967), is fairly readily available and a superb starting point, but Professor MacQueen has produced much more than that on Henryson, and at the time of writing, we are awaiting publication of his latest work. Be on the alert.

Another noted Henryson scholar, the late Matthew P. McDiarmid, has an excellent work on Henryson in the Scottish Writers Series (paperback, Scottish Academic Press, 1981), although the present writer is not too sure about his analysis of the Fables as a collection of unconnected tales; otherwise, this one is to be highly recommended.

The journal Studies in Scottish Literature is a fruitful source of Henryson reviews. Particularly relevant to the Fables : Rosemary Greentree, Debate of the Paddock and the Mouse, XXVI, 1981; W.A.Jamieson, Henryson's Taill of the Wolf and the Wedder, VI, 1968; Stephen Khinoy, Tale-Moral Relationships in Henryson's Moral Fables, XVII, 1982; Anthony Jenkins , Henryson's The Fox, the Wolf, and the Cadger again, IV 1966; Gregory Kratzmann, Henryson's Fables, the Subtelldyte of Poetry, XX, 1985; Donald MacDonald, Narrative Art in Henryson's Fables, III, 1965; Steven McKenna,Tragedy and the consolation of myth in Henryson's Fables, XXVI, 1991; and Evelyn Newlyn's Moral Fables of Aesop, XXV, 1990.

Most of the above can be found in the Robert Henryson Collection , which is for reference only, in Dunfermline Public Library.

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