Sacrilege, Sacrifice and John Barbour’s Bruce
International Review of Scottish Studies, 32 (2007)
Barbour’s Bruce is a poem cherished by historians, and one well served by them, not least in its recent edition by A.A.M. Duncan. Yet there are episodes in it – and, I contend, even structures control- ling its overall narration – that they cannot explain. Not even with the aid of ideological criticism such as is provided by Foucault or Althusser can much be made of several important incidents in the text, such as the pair of hunting scenes in Books Six and Seven, during which time the protagonist is a fugitive in Galloway, or the spectacular violence of the so-called Douglas Larder in Book Ten. Likewise, while Bruce’s murder of his fellow baron John Comyn is a matter of historical record, and its political impetus in establishing the rebellion that led to his kingship is undeniable, Barbour’s narrative treatment of it in The Bruce, as a sacrilege, has anthropological facets that extend beyond the comfort zone of historical, or even historicist, criticism.
Anthropology was the headline discipline of structuralism in its day, bringing to wide critical attention Lévi-Strauss and other great systematizers; its paramount influence on other genres of scholarship was sharply cut off by the advent of poststructuralism, which dismissed its comparative and universalizing practice as anti-historical. Yet it is to this body of criticism that I return, at least to one renegade continuator of it, in the form of the French critic and rogue theologian René Girard. His work from the 1970s, Violence and the Sacred, provides a means of access to a ritual plane in Barbour’s medieval, clerical work, although not one governed by the Christian liturgical and imaginative forms that readers might expect.