How useful is Blind Hary’s ‘The Wallace’ as a source for the study of chivalry in late medieval Scotland?
Master’s Thesis, University of Edinburgh, (2010)
Blind Hary’s The Wallace, an epic poem which survives in a single manuscript scribed by John Ramsay in 1488, is over 11000 lines in length and claims to detail the life and career of William Wallace and his bitter conflict against the English. The importance of The Wallace is undisputed. Hary’s work has passed through more editions than any other Scottish book written before the eighteenth-century. The bloodthirsty nature of the poem has been used to explain its early appeal and why it came to be so popular among the lower classes. Victorian critics, disgusted by the bloodthirsty aspects of the poem, often expressed revulsion at the ‘vulgarity’ of Hary’s work. The narrative of The Wallace is also plagued by historical inaccuracies. Hary adapted real history as he pleased, for instance to fit the prediction that Wallace would save Scotland from English rule three times. Edward I did not have a queen when Wallace led his foray into Northumberland and Cumbria in 1298, his first wife Eleanor of Castile having died in 1290 and his second wife, Margaret of France, not being a serious contender for the position of king’s consort until Edward ceased his war with Philippe IV in Gascony.
Hary makes a reference to the Three Estates, which is a variance from Wallace’s own time. The poem also includes the use of horse archers, which were actually a later invention, and features the use of gunpowder. Hary’s work is not only riddled with historical inaccuracies but also contains contradictions within the text itself. For instance, Wallace is said to be eighteen years old the year before Stirling Bridge but is later stated to be forty-five when he is taken by the English, a mere nine years later. It is fair to assume that Hary was conscious of at least some of these inaccuracies and was therefore using them to purposefully illustrate a point. Hary is therefore much more useful as a source for attitudes than he is as a record of actual events.