The effect of such cultural contacts was to enrich the vocabulary of the Scots language in which Henryson wrote, and it is likely that he had personal experience of these matters. Although, unlike his younger contemporary William Dunbar (c.1460-c.1513), Henryson had no close connections with the Scottish court, the sophisticated nature of his writing suggests the truth in claims that he was a university graduate who may have studied abroad, perhaps in Italy or Paris.
Within this cosmopolitan environment, two main traditions emerged in Scottish literature. The elder is represented by works such as John Barbour's The Brus (c.1375) and Blind Harry's The Wallace (c.1477), long poems that draw inspiration from history and combine elements of epic and romance. Scottish audiences appreciated such imaginative histories in part because they promoted a sense of what it meant to be a Scot.
While authors like Barbour are sometimes criticised for the factual inaccuracies in their work, it should be remembered that the line between history and fiction was less clearly defined in the medieval period than it is today, and legends like that of King Arthur were read as histories.
British historians from Geoffrey of Monmouth (?1100-54) onwards had claimed that Britain was founded by the descendants of survivors from the defeated army of Troy, so that the Trojan subject matter of Henryson's Testament would have appeared less exotic to a medieval audience than it does to modern eyes. Moreover, the factual accuracy of histories produced in the Middle Ages was considered to be less important than how effective they were as a means of promoting moral behaviour in their readers. In portraying William Wallace as a Christ-like hero rather than as a flawed man, Blind Harry offers a worthy example for his audience to imitate, and thereby fosters Christian truth in preference to chronicle accuracy.
The sense of such conflicting forms of truth informed Henryson's writing, as may be seen in the prologue to the Moral Fables and in the Testament itself, and was also present in the second major tradition in Scottish literature. This was typically more courtly, imaginative and lyrical, favouring modes such as allegory and dream vision. One example of this tradition is the Kingis Quair (c.1424), a poem attributed to King James I of Scotland, which takes the relationship between the king and his future wife as the starting point for a philosophical exploration of love and free will.
Like the Testament, the Quair centres on a dream vision, a form which brings the issue of truth to the fore because it was widely believed that while most dreams had mundane causes, some were true visions sent by God. The allegorical technique employed in poems such as the Quair also served to make an audience aware of the complex nature of truth, in that elements of a story which were evidently fantastic might lay claim to a true meaning, although they were not literally true.
For example, in the The Buke of the Howlat (c.1448), Richard Holland depicts his patrons, the earl and countess of Moray, as doves, and this is clearly a reflection on their character rather than a realistic portrait. Although courtly poetry tended to use rhyme, rather than the alliteration associated with the older, historical tradition, the Buke of the Howlat's alliterative style demonstrates the fusion between the two traditions that often occurred in Scottish literature.
The subtle poetry of the makars, Henryson, Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas (c.1475-1522) was made possible by such experimental mixtures of style and subject matter, the product of the vibrant culture of medieval Scotland.
Study Tools Index
Testament of Cresseid: Literary Background
Robert Henryson: Biographical Details
Robert Henryson - Historical Context: The State and The Church 1480s to 1700
Testament of Cresseid in Context
Testament of Cresseid in Print
Middle Scots Language
The Trojan War
An Introduction to Printing
Questions Online: see the online question and answer session from 11 November 2003