John Barbour (? 1316-1395), Scottish poet, was born, perhaps in Aberdeenshire, early in the 14th century, approximately 1316. In a letter of safe-conduct dated 1357, allowing him to go to Oxford for study, he is described as archdeacon of Aberdeen. He is named in a similar letter in 1364 and in another in 1368 granting him permission to pass to France, probably for further study, at the university of Paris. In 1372 he was one of the auditors of exchequer, and in 1373 a clerk of audit in the king's household. In 1375 (he gives the date, and his age as 60) he composed his best known poem The Brus, for which he received, in 1377, the gift of ten pounds, and, in 1378, a life-pension of twenty shillings. Additional rewards followed, including the renewal of his exchequer auditorship (though he may have continued to enjoy it since his first appointment) and ten pounds to his pension. The only biographical evidence of his closing years is his signature as a witness to sundry deeds in the "Register of Aberdeen" as late as 1392. According to the obit-book of the cathedral of Aberdeen, he died on the 13th of March 1395. The state records show that his life-pension was not paid after that date.
Considerable controversy has arisen regarding Barbour's literary work. If he be the author of the five or six long poems which have been ascribed to him by different writers, he adds to his importance as the father of Scots poetry the reputation of being one of the most voluminous writers in Middle English, certainly the most voluminous of all Scots poets.
(1) The Brus, in twenty books, and running to over 13,500 four-accent lines, in couplets, is a narrative poem with a purpose partly historical, partly patriotic. It opens with a description of the state of Scotland at the death of Alexander III. (1286) and concludes with the death of Douglas and the burial of the Bruce's heart (1332). The central episode is the battle of Bannockburn. Patriotic as the sentiment is, it is in more general terms than is found in later Scots literature. The king is a hero of the chivalric type common in contemporary romance; freedom is a "noble thing" to be sought and won at all costs; the opponents of such freedom are shown in the dark colours which history and poetic propriety require; but there is none of the complacency of the merely provincial habit of mind. The lines do not lack vigour; and there are passages of high merit, notably the oft-quoted section beginning "A! fredome is a noble thing." Despite a number of errors of fact, notably the confusion of the three Bruces in the person of the hero, the poem is historically trustworthy as compared with contemporary verse-chronicle, and especially with the Wallace of the next century.
No one has doubted Barbour's authorship of the Brus, but argument has been attempted to show that the text as we have it is an edited copy, perhaps by John Ramsay, a Perth scribe, who wrote out the two extant texts, preserved in the Advocates' library, Edinburgh, and in the library of St John's College, Cambridge. Extensive portions of the poem have been incorporated by Wyntoun (q.v.) in his Chronicle. The first printed edition extant is Charteris's (Edinburgh, 1571); the second is Hart's (Edinburgh, 1616).
(2) Wyntoun speaks (Chronicle III. iii.) of a "Treteis" which Barbour made by way of "a genealogy" of "Brutus lynagis"; and elsewhere in that poem there are references to the archdeacon's "Stewartis Oryginale." This "Brut" is unknown; but the reference has been held by some to be to (3) a Troy-book, based on Guido da Colonna's Historia Destructionis Troiae. Two fragments of such a work have been preserved in texts of Lydgate's Troy-book, the first in MS. Camb. Univ. Lib. Kk. v. 30, the second in the same and in MS. Douce 148 in the Bodleian library, Oxford. This ascription was first made by Henry Bradshaw, the librarian of Cambridge University; but the consensus of critical opinion is now against it. Though it were proved that these Troy fragments are Barbour's, there remains the question whether their identification with the book on the Stewart line is justified. The scale of the story in these fragments forces us to doubt this identification. They contain 595 + 3118 = 3713 lines and are concerned entirely with "Trojan" matters.
This would be an undue allowance in a Scottish "genealogy."
(4) Yet another work was added to the list of Barbour's works by the discovery in the university library of Cambridge, by Henry Bradshaw, of a long Scots poem of over 33,000 lines, dealing with Legends of the Saints, as told in the Legenda Aurea and other legendaries. The general likeness of this poem to Barbour's accepted work in verse-length, dialect and style, and the facts that the lives of English saints are excluded and those of St Machar (the patron saint of Aberdeen) and St Ninian are inserted, made the ascription plausible. Later criticism, though divided, has tended in the contrary direction, and has based its strongest negative judgment on the consideration of rhymes, assonance and vocabulary (see bibliography). That the "district" of the author is the north-east of Scotland cannot be doubted in the face of a passage such as this, in the fortieth legend (St Ninian), 11, 1359 et seq.
"A lytil tale ȝet herd I tel,
þat in to my tyme befel,
of a gudman, in murrefe [Moray] borne
in elgyne [Elgin], and his kine beforne,
and callit was a faithful man
vith al þame þat hyme knew than;
& þis mare trastely I say,
for I kend hyme weile mony day.
John balormy ves his name,
a man of ful gud fame."
But whether this north-east Scots author is Barbour is a question which we cannot answer by means of the data at present available.
(5) If Barbour be the author of the Legends, then (so does one conclusion hang upon another) he is the author of a Gospel story with the later life of the Virgin, described in the prologue to the Legends and in other passages as a book "of the birth of Jhesu criste" and one "quhare-in I recordit the genology of our lady sanct Mary."
(6) In recent years an attempt has been made to name Barbour as the author of the Buik of Alexander (a translation of the Roman d'Alexandre and associated pieces, including the Voeux du Paon), as known in the unique edition, c. 1580, printed at the Edinburgh press of Alexander Arbuthnot. The "argument" as it stands is nothing more than an exaggerated inference from parallel-passages in the Bruce and Alexander; and it makes no allowance for the tags, epithets and general vocabulary common to all writers of the period. Should the assumption be proved to be correct, and should it be found that the "Troy fragments were written first of all, followed by Alexander and Bruce or Bruce and Alexander, and that the Legends end the chapter," it will be by "evidence" other than that which has been produced to this date.
For Barbour's life see Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ii. and iii.; Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis (Spalding Club); Rymer's Foedera.