Freedom in The Bruce

My medieval English literature reading group at Emory spent last semester reading John Barbour’s The Bruce, a late-14th-century long narrative poem about Robert the Bruce and the Scottish wars of independence of the early 14th century. (We got through half of it, stopping just before the battle of Bannockburn.) For those of you who have seen Braveheart, the story picks up after Wallace‘s death.

I thought I would share with you one of the best-known passages from The Bruce, Barbour’s ode to freedom. This is in a Scots dialect of Middle English. I’ve inserted a line break after the 16th line to indicate that you can stop there and have read the best part, if you can’t get through the whole thing.

A! Fredome is a noble thing
Fredome mays man to haiff liking.
Fredome all solace to man giffis,
He levys at es that frely levys.
A noble hart may haiff nane es
Na ellys nocht that may him ples
Gyff fredome failyhe, for fre liking
Is yharnyt our all other thing.
Na he that ay has levyt fre
May nocht knaw weill the propyrte
The angyr na the wrechyt dome
That is couplyt to foule thyrldome,
Bot gyff he had assayit it.
Than all perquer he suld it wyt,
And suld think fredome mar to prys
Than all the gold in warld that is.

Thus contrar thingis evermar
Discoveryngis off the tother ar,
And he that thryll is has nocht his.
All that he has enbandounyt is
Till hys lord quhatever he be.
Yheyt has he nocht sa mekill fre
As fre wyll to leyve or do
That at his hart hym drawis to.
Than may clerkis questioun
Quhen thai fall in disputacioun
That gyff man bad his thryll owcht do,
And in the samyn tym come him to
His wyff and askyt him hyr det,
Quhether he his lordis neid suld let,
And pay fryst that he awcht, and syne
Do furth his lordis commandyne,
Or leve onpayit his wyff and do
Thai thingis that commaundyt is him to.
I leve all the solucioun
Till thaim that ar off mar renoun
Bot sen thai mak sic comperyng
Betwix the dettis off wedding
And lordis bidding till his threll,
Ye may weile se thoucht nane you tell
How hard a thing that threldome is.
For men may weile se that ar wys
That wedding is the hardest band
That ony man may tak on hand,
And thryldome is weill wer than deid,
For quhill a thryll his lyff may leid
It merrys him body and banys,
And dede anoyis him bot anys.
Schortly to say, is nane can tell
The halle condicioun off a threll.

Here’s my translation (occasionally taking hints from A.A.M. Duncan’s), in which I try to follow the original as much as possible:

Ah! Freedom is a noble thing; freedom allows man to have pleasure. Freedom all solace to man gives; he lives at ease who freely lives. A noble heart may have no ease, nor nothing else that may him please, if freedom fails, for free choice is yearned for over all other things. Nor may he who always has lived free know well the properties, the anger nor the wretched fate that is coupled to foul thralldom, unless he had tried it himself. Then he would know it all by heart, and would think freedom more to prize than all the gold that is in the world.

Thus things are always revealing themselves by comparison with their opposites. And he who is a thrall has nothing of his own. All that he has is at the disposal of his lord, whoever he may be. Yet he doesn’t even have as much free choice as the free will to do or not do what his heart draws him to. Then may clerks question, when they fall into disputation, whether, if a man bids his thrall to do something, and at the same time his wife comes to him and asks him for her debt, whether he should leave his lord’s need and pay what he owes his wife first, and then go forth and do his lord’s commandment, or else leave his wife unpaid and do those things that are commanded to him. I leave the solution of this to those who are of more renown. But since they make such comparison between the debts of wedding and a lord’s bidding to his thrall, you may see well, even though no one tells you, how hard a thing is thralldom. For men who are wise may well see that wedding is the hardest bond that any man may take on, and thralldom is much worse than death: for while a thrall leads his life, it afflicts him both body and bones, whereas death annoys him only once. Shortly to say, there is none who can tell the whole condition of a thrall.

You can get the book for about $10 on Kindle from Amazon, with a facing-page prose translation by A.A.M. Duncan.