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A critical commentary on Robert Henryson’s Morall fabillis Carruthers, Ian Robert


While Henryson's Testament of Cresseid and Orpheus and Eury-dice have received considerable critical attention and acclaim, his longest and most ambitious work, The Morall Fabillis of Esope, has been largely neglected; with the exception of one thesis (Jamieson: Edinburgh, 1964-), it has either received summary treatment in surveys or else been subject to critical selection. This has unfortunately prevented the true stature of the poet and the virtuosity of his work from being appreciated as they deserve, and my thesis is an attempt to rectify this situation by treating the Fabillis in close detail and as a sequence. In my opinion, the Morall Fabillis is a major work of medieval literature. My thesis also attempts to show how attention to the known facts of the poet's life can sharpen our critical focus in estimating the nature and purpose of his "Translatioun". Through them we can best arrive at an understanding of the foundations of Henryson's greatness. If we accept that Henryson was a university graduate in Arts and Canon Law, a reading of Aristotle, penitential handbooks and encyclopedias will help us to appreciate the polysemous allusiveness of his figural poetry, in which animal physiology, moral psychology and legal expertise are delightfully and subtly blended. If we accept that he was a schoolmaster, a reading of Priscian's Praeexercitamina will help us to understand better how Henryson structures his narratives, and research into classroom "teaching methods and curricula can even give us new insight into the principles by which he orders his collection. Since Aesop's Fables occupied a vitally important place in medieval education, Henryson's Fabillis is invaluable for an understanding of the way in which pedagogical aims, teaching methods and compositional exercises such as Priscian's affected medieval literary production and social values. My thesis, then, has two main parts. In the introduction, I place Henryson in his historical and educational setting, and in the necessarily longer critical commentary on the fables, I show how knowledge of this setting helps us to come to grips with the extraordinary richness, subtlety, and--in a word--greatness of his work.

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