Roosters, Wolves and the Limits of Allegory
By Lianne Farber
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 17 (2000)
Introduction: Robert Henryson, probably trained in canon law, possibly schoolmaster in Dunfermline, wrote The Morall Fabillis sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century. Although The Morall Fabillis is one of the most prominent works of one of the most prominent late medieval authors, the dating, like all of our information about Henryson, is necessarily vague. We know that he was “a man of some age” in 1462, possibly the Robert Henryson who was admitted as a member of the University of Glasgow; that “he was active” in 1477-78, probably the “magistro Roberto henryson publico notario” who witnessed three deeds in Dunfermline in these years; and that he was dead by 1505.
Along with William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, Henryson is usually considered one of the principal “Scottish Chaucerians,” a designation that categorizes his language (Middle Scots, a development of Northern English spoken of by the poets who used it as “Inglis” and not “Scottis”) and his time (after Chaucer) but says little about the writing itself. The Morall Fabillis are part of long tradition of retellings of Aesopic fables, although Henryson’s is only the second extant version of the fables written in English. The fables found many audiences in medieval England. Elementary students learned Latin by translating the pithy Latin stories and morals into English; more advanced students practiced composition by embroidering and amplifying the Latin fables; preachers used the stories and morals as salutary and memorable exempla, easily and profitably allegorized. One scholar has even suggested that in the Middle Ages only the Bible was more widely read and translated.