What’s the Matter?: Medieval Literary Theory and the Irish Campaigns in The Bruce

Wars of Scottish Independence - 1332, Neville’s CrossWhat’s the Matter?: Medieval Literary Theory and the Irish Campaigns in The Bruce

Journal of Irish and Scottish Studies:Volume 1, Issue 1 Cultural Exchange: Medieval to Modern (2007)


I ‘Strange Lines’

John Barbour’s Bruce , composed in the mid 1370s, is the first long poem in the Scots vernacular. It contains twenty books, the first thirteen of which trace the Wars of Liberty from their origins until triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn. At this point the Irish ‘matter’ enters the poem. Chronologically, this is under- standable. After all, when Bruce won control of Scotland, the ‘opening up of a second front in 1315 could have come as little surprise to Edward II’. Most modern readers, however, find Barbour’s treatment of that campaign an unwise artistic choice. When one analyses the Irish material in more detail these worries are confirmed. Barbour does not just give a parenthetic nod in the direction of chronology and chronicles. The entirety of Book XIV (554 lines) is devoted to Edward’s embarkation in Ireland and the early battles in his campaign.

The first 265 lines of Book XV continue the description. A resounding victory over the Anglo-Irish army suggests success for his endeavour. But while the opening to Book XVI (334 lines) continues the victorious tale and brings King Robert I to the island, doubts begin to dominate. Divisions between the two brothers and flaws in Edward’s character anticipate failure. This possibility is realised in Book XVIII. In the first 242 lines of that book an adventure which began with victory over the Anglo-Irish forces ends with defeat at the same hands. Edward Bruce dies, his failure gives new hope to Edward II of England and the Irish ‘matter’ ends.

The topical and structural implications raised here are serious. Topically, Barbour’s critics wonder why, in a poem about liberty, the clear lesson taught by Bruce’s victory over English power is blurred by extended analysis of a failed Scottish attempt to deprive another land of its freedom. Structurally, they believe the first Scottish ‘makar’ or ‘word builder’ is creating a poor edifice. Either it should end with Bannockburn and eliminate the Irish material or that material should itself be re-organised. Why, for example, does Barbour move backwards and forwards from Ireland to Scotland, from Edward Bruce to (predominantly) Sir James Douglas in a poem about Bruce? Can he not decide on his hero or his topic?

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