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

MORNA R. FLEMING


37. Teaching Henryson in Senior School

The Scottish secondary school takes pupils aged around 12 years who have already completed seven years of primary schooling, and provides four more years of compulsory schooling to the leaving age at 16. My concern in this paper is with those students who opt to stay on for a further one or two years, studying towards Higher Still qualifications, Higher at the end of fifth year, and Advanced Higher (roughly equivalent to the A Level in England) at the end of the sixth year. This paper takes the form of a plea to teachers of English to expand the provision of Scottish literature, with detailed suggestions on how The Fables and The Testament of Cresseid might be presented to these senior students. It has to be admitted that there is a certain resistance to studying medieval texts among students and teachers, and its introduction has to be handled with care, to prevent passive resistance becoming active rebellion.


Why study medieval texts?

I find this question surprisingly easy to answer. The inclusion of older Scottish texts in the syllabus for the certificate of Sixth Year Studies (CSYS) – the course will be replaced by Advanced Higher from 2002—attests their importance in informing an understanding of how Scottish culture has developed over the centuries and shows the essential difference from English literature. Interestingly, Henryson has appeared for several years as one of the writers whose works may be studied in the Poetry section of the CSYS Literature paper, which sets him in company with Chaucer, Donne, Coleridge, Clare, Morgan, Heaney and Dylan Thomas, and is not one of the specifically Scottish writers set in a further section of the paper.

Study of Henryson’s Fables and The Testament of Cresseid also shows the reader that the characters therein described are essentially unchanged through time; the same preoccupations exercise their minds; the same divisions exist between the haves and have-nots; the same injustices and oppressions bear down on the most powerless in society; there is the same need for a champion. What tends to surprise students coming to Henryson for the first time is his modernity in outlook, his concern for the poor and the downtrodden, man’s essential compassion for his fellow man. There is nothing old-fashioned about a fabulist pointing out the failings of his fellows and attempting to right wrongs – is not this only a difference in form from what political cartoonists and satirists do in our times? Henryson’s role can be seen as similar to that adopted in our days by political and environmental activists, all devoted to the cause of improving the lot of humanity in general. Where Henryson differs from present-

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