Henry the Minstrel

Henry the Minstrel
(Blind Harry)
(ca. 1440–ca. 1492)
   Henry the Minstrel was a 15th-century Scottish poet who, sometime between 1460 and 1480, wrote the famous historical poem Wallace. An epic in 12 books and nearly 12,000 lines of rhymed couplets,Wallace relates the story of William Wallace, Scottish hero of the wars against the English, who was executed by Edward I in 1305. Little is known about Henry himself, and the information we do have may be largely myth. He may have been born in Lothian; he certainly shows a good deal of knowledge of the geographic details of central Scotland. There are records of payments to Henry for services as a minstrel in the court of King James IV of Scotland between 1473 and 1492.He claims to have based his story ofWallace on a lost work by John Blair, a chaplain who served Wallace. Henry is often known as “Blind Harry,” and was reputedly blind from birth. Vivid visual images in his descriptions in the poem, however, make that unlikely. If Henry was indeed blind, he must have been sighted at one time. It is also certainly possible that the myth of his blindness was simply a means of establishing his credentials as Scotland’s epic poet, as the Greek Homer was purportedly blind.
   The poem is strongly anti-English in its sentiments. The first two books introduce Wallace as the patriotic Scottish hero. Books 3 to 6 recount his several battles with the English and his becoming guardian of Scotland. Ultimately this epic hero of the Scots is betrayed to the English and executed in the final book.
   The only extant manuscript of Blind Harry’s Wallace was produced in 1488 by the scribe John Ramsay, who had also copied the text of that other Scottish national epic, John BARBOUR’s The Bruce. The Wallace manuscript is currently held by the Scottish national library.Henry’s poem clearly glorifies Wallace with sometimes exaggerated and sometimes completely fabricated incidents, but remains, essentially, an important source for the story ofWallace’s life. Blind Harry’s story remained popular for centuries, particularly when it was rewritten and modernized by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield in the 18th century. Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, and others found inspiration in the story of Wallace—as, of course, did the 20th-century filmmaker Mel Gibson, who used Wallace’s story for his acclaimed film Braveheart (1995).
   ■ Goldstein, R. James. The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
   ■ Henry the Minstrel. The actis and deidis of the illustere and vailzeand campionn Schir William Wallace, knicht of Ellerslie. Edited by James Moir. 1889. New York: AMS Press, 1976.
   ■ ———. The Wallace: Selections. Edited by Anne McKim. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications,Western Michigan University, 2003.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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