The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

R. JAMES GOLDSTEIN


24. The Freiris of Berwik and the Fabliau
Tradition

Despite occasional praise from a few critics, The Freiris of Berwik has suffered undue neglect in recent years. C. S. Lewis devoted a mere two sentences to the poem, suggesting that ‘This excellent fabliau… is by a real Chaucerian and ranks above all other attempts to continue the tradition of the comic Canterbury Tales.’1 Kinsley praises its ‘structural finish, characterization and sheer zest,’ suggesting that its ‘vivid comic narrative’ is unrivalled in Middle Scots poetry.2 Kratzmann has briefly commented on the ‘tone and structural sophistication’ of the poem, which he finds reminiscent of the Miller’s Tale and Reeve’s Tale.3 R. D. S. Jack has examined some suggestive Chaucerian parallels in the only detailed study of the poem in recent years.4 A fresh re-examination of this remarkable poem is therefore long overdue.

Part of the reason for the poem’s neglect is due to the vicissitudes of its treatment by editors. After Pinkerton’s suggestion in 1786, the poem was long held to be a possible Dunbar composition and was included in editions of his works by Laing (1834), Small (1893), Schipper (1894) and Mackenzie (1932), even if some of these early editors expressed serious doubts as to his authorship. Since Mackenzie’s rejection of the poem from Dunbar’s canon, little scholarly attention has been given to the anonymous work.5

Although future examination of its language may provide further help in dating the poem, for now we may only roughly date it between c. 1450 and 1540.6 The terminus ad quem has been suggested on the grounds that the poem ‘refers to

1 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama, Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford, 1954), p. 99.

2 James Kinsley, ‘The Mediaeval Makars,’ in Scottish Poetry: A Critical Survey, ed. James Kinsley (London, 1955; rpt. Folcroft, Penn., 1974), pp. 14–15.

3 Gregory Kratzmann, Anglo-Scottish Literary Relations, 1430–1550 (Cambridge, 1980), p. 99.

4 R. D. S. Jack, ‘The Freiris of Berwik and Chaucerian Fabliau,’ Studies in Scottish Literature, 17 (1982), 145–52. For other studies, see Everett C. Johnston, ‘The Transmutation of Friar Johine in’ “The Freiris of Berwik”, Studies in Scottish Literature, 5 (1967–8), 57–9; Walter Morris Hart, ‘The Fabliau and Popular Tradition,’ PMLA, 23 (1908), 329–74.

5 The fullest critical edition is in Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, ed. Melissa Furrow (New York & London, 1985), pp. 315–62. It also appears in Poetry of the Stewart Court, ed. Joan Hughes and W. S. Ransom, (Canberra, 1982), pp. 562–73, essentially a transcription of B with modern punctuation and glosses. (Since this paper was submitted, the poem has been edited in The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature,1375–1707, ed. R. D. J. Jack and P.A.T. Rozendaal (Edinburgh, 1997).)

6 Furrow, pp. 321–4, provides a preliminary study of the language, finding the lexicographic evidence in particular to be equivocal. She concludes: ‘the poem is as likely to have been written during the period 1461–82 [i.e., when Berwick was a Scottish possession] as later’ (p. 323).

7 Denton Fox, in a typescript reproduced in Priscilla Bawcutt, ‘A First-Line Index of Early Scottish Verse,’ Studies in Scottish Literature, 27 (1991), p. 269.

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