When A Poem Runs for the Border

Here’s an interesting conundrum from one of my favorite borderlands: the one between England and Scotland in the Middle Ages. (Caveat: I’m posting this primarily for my scholar friends, a few of whom I’m hoping might take a look at this and give me the benefit of their–much greater–wisdom thereon. However, I’ll also try to set it up, here, so I can speak more broadly to why/how this might be interesting beyond medievalist-nerd-dom).

The specific subject at hand concerns a curious poem about the 1314 English defeat to the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn, versions of which exist in two late medieval Chronicles: one, the Scotichronicon of Walter Bower, hails from Scotland, from the middle of the 15th century (itself an augmentation of an earlier, 14th century work called the Chronica Gentis Scottorum of John of Fordun). The other is one of my favorite medieval texts, often referred to as the Chronicon de Lanercost, likely compiled at a small priory near Carlisle–smack on the Anglo-Scottish border–around the middle of the Fourteenth century. It’s a somewhat odd text, existing in a single manuscript (British Library Cotton Claudius D.vii), as a continuation of another chronicle, by Roger of Hoveden, also contained in the same manuscript (along with a lot of other fascinating things).

Lanercost is an interesting chronicle–well-known to just about any historian interested in medieval Anglo-Scottish affairs, but more often used simply as a sort of “mine” for historical detail than treated as a work in its own right. Taking that reality as an opportunity, I began studying Lanercost as precisely that, and that study has been yielding some interesting results, not the least of which is the realization that the northern English chronicler, in this case, has a very different perspective on the events the chronicle narrates than those of the more centrally-placed English or Scottish chroniclers, even though the Lanercost chronicler consistently–and militantly–identifies his loyalties with the English side. I’m theorizing, very broadly at this point, that the chronicler’s different experience of Anglo-Scottish conflict as a border dweller was giving him a very different take on events, despite his clear English affinity.

There are several reasons the existence of this poem in these two very different sources is interesting to me–not the least of which is simply the fact that such a similar poem somehow got recorded in both places, and that, as far as I can tell, either no one else has noticed the similarities or those who have noticed them haven’t thought them worth writing about. Not even the many scholars involved in D.E.R. Watt’s amazing, magisterial edition of Schotichronicon seem to have been aware of the existence of a form of this poem in another text. Another reason is that the poem does not appear verbatim in both texts, but rather with many lines in common, a number of lines unique to each version, and many shared lines slightly altered or repositioned.

So the main question I’m interested in trying to answer at this point is this: What might the similarities and differences between these two texts tell us about the differing attitudes at least one denizen of the borderlands between England and Scotland may have had not only from his Scottish counterpart, but from his more centrally-placed English counterparts as well?

The poem, too, raises some interesting questions about the transmission of texts and what can happen to them in the course of such transmission: which version came first? Is the version in Scotichronicon an alteration of an “original” that first appears in Lanercost (not very likely)? Is the Lanercost version an alteration of a Scottish original (more likely)? Are both different alterations of a third text (probably the most likely?) that was circulating more broadly at the time, other versions of which have, unfortunately, been lost? Unfortunately the relative dating of the two chronicles themselves doesn’t help us much: though the Scotichronicon post-dates Lanercost by quite a lot, the poem certainly didn’t originate with Bower, and the present-day editors of Scotichronicon theorize that Bower simply included a poem that was composed much nearer in time to the events it addresses (which makes it more likely that the version in Scotichronicon predates the version in Lanercost).

What’s most interesting in any case, however, is the differences between the two versions. As one might expect in an English “revision” of a Scottish source, most of the lines praising the Scots directly in the Scotichronicon version aren’t there in the Lanercost version. However, the alterations in the Lanercost version don’t seem to make a very simple switch from a pro-Scots take on events to a thoroughly pro-English one. Most of the English chronicle accounts of the English defeat at Bannockburn spend a great deal of their time trying to “account for” that defeat–most often attributing it to English pride and overconfidence. While there’s a hint of that in the Lanercost version, however, I think I’m detecting more ambivalence: that version seems to spend much less time trying to find a reason for the English defeat than it does simply despairing of the destruction itself, expressing more pure disappointment in the defeat than justification or explanation thereof.

In any case, here’re a couple of quick versions of each text that I’m hoping some of my Scottish Medievalist friends wouldn’t mind weighing in on. The Scotichronicon text and translation are from Watts’ edition, with the shared lines marked (by me) in red, with indications of where they fall in the Lanercost text. The Lanercost text is based on Stevenson’s (1839) edition, with some amendments from my own interaction with the manuscript, and my own (very rough and tentative) translation. The lines in blue are lines shared with the Lanercost version (with bracketed indications of differences in Bower), and the lines in black are unique to Lanercost).

Heres’ the Scotichronicon version:


And here’s the Lanercost Version:

Lanercost comparison_PoemOnly

I’ll be fascinated to hear what everyone has to say!


One thought on “When A Poem Runs for the Border

  1. Really fascinating! I won’t have time to give the 2 poems a close look until after the move, but what an exciting find!


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