The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

VI. The Sheep and the Dog

There has been a light enough touch in the previous Fables; this one is very different. We must remember that we are told, in the Prologue, that the Fables are a mixture of amusing and "heavy" poems - and that the basic purpose of the Thirteen Fables is a serious one.

There is no humour in this Fable. It is an obvious attack on malpractices which had appeared, over the years, in certain Courts of Justice; the Church Courts. The Court in this Fable is a Church Court. Canon Law, the law codified and administered by the Church, dealt with, among other matters, the important business of contracts and agreements. Henryson, as a trained Church lawyer himself, would be very familiar with what was going on in certain areas of Church jurisdiction, and there is no doubt that he was unhappy about it. What is curious about this Fable is that his criticism is barely cloaked in beast-behaviour; it can be assumed, then, that he was dealing with a well-known type of incident - and that public opinion was on his side. In the century after his death there was increasingly open complaint, often poetic and dramatic, about the failings of the Church; failings and misbehaviour which adversely affected too large a proportion of Scotland's people, and which ultimately ensured a comparatively passive acceptance of the politically-imposed Reformation.

It is interesting, and revealing, to see in this Fable, and in others, where Henryson's social sympathies lie.

What makes this Fable a poem, as opposed to a mere exposure of an abuse of power, is the strength of emotion Henryson arouses, and the atmosphere he creates. It is based on facts, and his training and experience; for instance, the procedures, and the Sheep's protests, are accurate accounts of contemporary regulations.

Vocabulary : cursing = excommunication (Stz.2)
gled = the kite, Milvus Milvus, ( 5.), a scavenging member of the hawk family with a reputation for preying on helpless and innocent creatures. Once common in Scotland.

The Taill of the Scheip and the Doig

Esope ane taill puttis in memorie
How that ane doig, because that he wes pure.......

1. About a Dog our Aesop tells this tale,
Who, seeing a Sheep for money was hard pressed,
Before a Court this luckless Sheep would hail,
And payment of a debt he would request.
A Wolf was on the bench, a judge unjust,
But judge he was, with powers from Parliament,
So to the Sheep a summons strict he sent.

2. And it was done in proper legal style;
The Judge made out a right citation:
"I, the Lord Wolf, free from all fraud and guile,
Under the pain of high suspension,
Of cursing great, and interdiction,
Sir Sheep, I charge thee strict, that thou appear
And answer to that Dog before me here."

3. A corbie Raven summoner was made,
Who often had pecked out a weak sheep's eye;
He checked the charge, that nothing wrong was said,
Calling this Sheep before the Wolf: "That ye
Peremptory within the next days three
Under the perils of this Bill, attend
To face this Dog, your default to amend."

4. This summons before witnesses was made.
The Raven, with his duties made quite clear,
Signed for the writ, and to the Sheep he sped.
This simple Sheep could hardly eat for fear,
Because before a Judge he must appear.
The chosen hour was that which closed the day;
To keep the business short, you well might say.

5. A Fox was clerk and notary in the case;
A Gled and Vulture at the bar took stand;
As advocates well practised in the Law,
It was the Dog's case that they took in hand;
That pair then took a bribe to form a band,
To have the sentence go against the Sheep;
Over such deals they lost but little sleep.

6. The clerk called "Sheep!" who answered he was there.
The advocates did then the case propone:
" A loaf of bread, worth five shillings or mair,
Ye owe the Dog, and now the term is gone."
No advocate for him, the Sheep, alone,
Had only one defence against the case;
"I must reject the judge, the time, the place.

7. My reasons in defence are all correct;
Our laws state that it is full perilous
To plead before a Judge that is suspect;
And ye, Sir Wolf, to me would seem right odious,
For, through your greed and raids so ravenous
Ye've slain so many relatives o' mine,
That you, as Judge suspect, I must decline.

8. And as for other members o' this Court,
Assessors, clerk, and advocates, ye a'
To me and mine are enemies, in short,
And aye have been, as shepherds weel can show.
Both time and place are quite against the law;
No court can be convened so late at nicht
In any parish; this I claim by richt."

9. Well, when the Judge in this way was accused,
He bid the parties choose, by full assent,
Two arbiters, as law and custom used,
To settle, without further argument,
Whether the Sheep should answer to judgement
Given by a Wolf. And this they did; no doubt
Hoping to have the matter sorted out.

10. The Bear and Badger took the task in hand,
To search and see if this exception
Had no foundation, or by law could stand;
As new-made arbiters they sat them down,
And held a lengthy disputation,
Considering, they said, many ancient Acts,
And Comments too, so they could find the facts.

11. The Civil Law they hunted through and through,
To see who'd lost or won when they appealed;
Cases, for and against, they did renew;
The Bear one thing, the Brock another, held;
Neither to prayer or bribe would either yield,
Or so they said. Did they have need to lie?
For judgement true they offered, bye and bye.

12. Briefly, to make an end of this debate,
The arbiters then made their findings plain,
That they agreed , and now would have to state
The Sheep must go before the Wolf again.
The Sheep was downcast, for he well did ken
That from their findings he could not appeal.
I ask you lawyers, was that a fair deal?

13. The Sheep, once more before theWolf arraigned,
Without an advocate, dejectedly did stand;
Up got the Dog, and to the Sheep complained,
"I paid ye money, with this very hand,
For wheaten bread." A witness then he found,
Who, lying, said the Sheep withheld the bread,
And broke the bargain. So the Dog did plead.

14. And since the Sheep now had to thole the suit,
The judgement of the case could then proceed.
The Fox the charges and the pleas wrote out,
And so the farce right to the end they played.
This court unsound, by bribery well paid,
Against good faith, good law, and common sense,
In favour of the Dog gave the sentence.

15. To put the sentence into execution,
The Wolf ordered the Sheep, without delay,
Under the pain of interdiction,
The sum of money, or the bread, to pay.
So of this case, alas, what can we say,
That has condemned a simple innocent,
Subjecting him to false and foul judgement?

16. This Sheep, afraid lest he be worse put down,
The judgement tholed, and then made his sad way
To a cloth merchant in the nearby town,
And off his back he sold his wool that day;
Buying the bread, he to the Dog did pay
This false debt, since he'd had to falsehood yield;
Naked and bare, he went back to his field.


17. And so this simple Sheep we may compare
To poor folk, who, too often, are oppressed
By greedy men who take the greatest care
By any means to serve themselves the best.
Thinking their present life will always last,
They cheat themselves. How few years have they got,
Ere punishment eternal is their lot.

18. This Wolf I liken to a Sheriff proud,
Who, from the King, has bought the power to fine,
And in his court has gathered such a crowd
Of lawyers false, who always will incline
To crush the poor, those who will dare not decline
A summons, though from every crime they're free;
There's no way out - unless they pay a fee.

19. As summoner false, this Raven can be seen.
Of those who can be charged, he makes a list;
Before the court sits, see where he has been,
Through all the parish, in case one's been missed;
Like all his gang, he never will resist
The chance to rub out "John", and write in "Dave",
And so from both of them a bribe receive.

20. As for this Fox: I've dealt with him before,
And of this Gled, what they might signify.
You know them well; of them I speak no more.
But of the Sheep, and of his heartfelt cry,
I'll now record, for, in my passing by,
I saw him crouched, as on my way I went
And heard him make this sorrowful lament:

21. "Alas," he sighed, "this thrice-accursed court,
In middle of the winter has been made;
The north wind blaws, the days are dark and short,
The frosts have caused the flowers and grass to fade,
The fields are bare, where once I might have stayed."
Into a chilly cave he then did creep,
From cold,and wind, and rain himself to keep.

22. Shivering with cold, with nowhere else to gang,
He cast his eyes up to the heaven's height,
Saying, "O Lord, why sleepest Thou so lang?
Look doon, and see my case is based on right;
See how I am, by fraud and threat and sleight,
Stripped to the skin; and so is many a one
Likewise ill-treated, made sair woebegone"

23. Avarice, of suchlike crimes the very root,
Extinguished has all love, and trust, and law;
Now few, or none, will justice execute,
And rich men aye the poor will overthrow.
And truth itself, even when judges know,
Will be ignored, some profit for to win;
No thought is given to what follows sin.

24. Lord, seest Thou not how low this world is fell,
For who would change pure gold for lead and tin?
The poor no truth, the rich no lies can tell;
Falsehood and bribery both are held no sin;
The man who has most money aye will win.
Honour is dead, and mercy is laid low.
Alas, good Lord, how canst Thou thole it so?

25. Ye send us much, for Adam's first offence;
Ye send us many ills to try us sore;
Famine and war, sickness and pestilence,
Yet few are they who change their lives therefore.
We poor folk nowadays can do no more
Than pray that, after life oppressed
Upon this earth, in Heaven Thou grant us rest.

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