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Teaching Henryson

Morna Fleming
ScotLit 33, Autumn 2005

When writing the February Newsletter for The Robert Henryson Society, I noted that 2005 was the 500th anniversary of Dunbar’s poem ‘Lament for the Makars’, which makes mention of Robert Henryson:

In Dunfermelyne he [Death] has done rovne
With maister Robert Henrisoun
and felt again the frustration that too many pupils in Dunfermline, in Fife, never mind in Scotland, go through their entire school careers without ever hearing about one of the greatest poets that Scotland has produced.

The Robert Henryson Society was formed in Dunfermline in 1993 ‘to encourage a wider appreciation of his work among the public at large’ through newsletters, evening lectures and an annual conference. Since the outset, schools and teachers have been seen as one of the most important fora for widening knowledge of the poet’s work, and the Society has actively encouraged a number of initiatives over the years.

One of the first practitioners to teach Henryson successfully in school was Gerald Baird of Grove Academy in Dundee, who taught the Fables and The Testament of Cresseid to pupils at different stages of secondary. He was commissioned by ASLS to write the definitive Scotnote on the poet, a book which is of great help to teachers who have not had the benefit of courses in medieval Scots literature like those offered by Glasgow University. (Many of the teachers mentioned in this article are alumni of those courses.)

I myself have taught the Fables over a number of years to junior secondary pupils, and a selection of Fables and The Testament to Certificate of Sixth Year Studies pupils at Beath High School in Cowdenbeath. I gave an account of these experiences at the 7th International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature held at Strathclyde University and published in The European Sun (2001). Unaccountably, Henryson was dropped from the list of prescribed texts for Advanced Higher.

The Robert Henryson Society has made a number of attempts to get Henryson into the Dunfermline area schools, firstly through a pack sponsored by Dunfermline Building Society which included ‘The Prologue’ to the Moral Fables and ‘The Cock and the Jasp’ in three different versions: the original Middle Scots, a modern Scots version by Bob Smith, and an English version by Barbara Rasmusen. This was accompanied by classroom worksheets based on the work that Gerry Baird had publicised some years before, and a tape of the two poems produced by Scotsoun.

It is difficult to overemphasise the importance of Scotsoun, and indeed George Philp, in the development of The Robert Henryson Society. It was George who was the prime mover in the founding of the Society in 1993, and without the Scotsoun tapes of the Fables, the poetry would remain inaccessible to many teachers as well as pupils.

The most recent success for the Society in schools was the competition for primary pupils to design a stained glass window based on the fable of ‘The Two Mice’. This was won by pupils from Lynburn Primary School, under the Depute Headteacher, Margaret Whetton, who produced very imaginative designs which were translated into stained glass by Liz Rowley. The glass should be installed in the school very soon and will be unveiled with as much publicity as can be mustered.

However, these are all small-scale projects, depending on the passion of a small number of individual teachers. Fear of the unknown, ignorance, or initiative overload seem to inhibit many teachers from embarking into the new world of medieval literature. It may be that the Britain in Print project will see Henryson finally entering the 21st century as a writer for schools.

The initial project was set up by the members of CURL (Consortium of University Research Libraries) to catalogue pre-1701 British manuscripts and with the help of Heritage Lottery Funding, promote the collections and the materials to a general audience, via a web-site. Lesley Porter, then head of English at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline, was approached to join the project, and suggested that Henryson be the focus, as he had the Dunfermline, Fife, Scottish and national contexts. And, more importantly, The Testament of Cresseid provided the link to Chaucer and the canon of English literature.

It was decided in early meetings that material would be drawn from early printed editions of major Scottish literature of the 15th Century and, as such would:

  • meet key curriculum needs within Scottish school-age learning
  • be of practical benefit to support teachers by filling a gap in the e-learning content already available
  • link to the Chaucerian tradition and therefore have wider relevance to a UK schools’ audience
With the criteria in mind, literary material would be complemented with content designed to place the literature in its historical context, and would also include material which provided a comparison with literary movements in England and indeed Europe. The contextual material would be embedded in the ‘timeline’, a feature of the website. The poet and scholar, Robert Henryson, was identified as ‘meeting the criteria’ in his Testament of Cresseid. For Lesley, however, a major consideration in determining our choice was the fact that Scottish schoolchildren, many of whom leave school with little or no experience of our Scottish literary heritage other than perhaps, Robert Burns, should have at Higher and Advanced Higher level some experience of the Scottish canon.

The Britain in Print project team, led by Richard Ovenden – Director of Special Collections at Edinburgh University Library and the Project Director for Britain in Print and Norman Rodger, Project Developer, would seek advice from the Heritage Lottery Fund, from the National Grid for Learning Scotland, who provided curriculum-content related advice; from Humanities Advanced Technology Information Institute (at the University of Glasgow); and from Lesley, in providing the educational link and developer of the materials and resources at Queen Anne High School. And more importantly, for the Queen Anne pupils who would pilot the material, whilst at the same time, learn something of their literary heritage and culture.

As far as the school’s involvement, the project provided an exciting prospect for Lesley as a teacher in terms of development work and providing a stimulating text to teach. The ‘old standard’ Higher texts: Othello, War Poetry, Edwin Morgan’s poetry, Romeo and Juliet, The Devil’s Disciple, The Crucible, Consider the Lilies, whilst not detracting from their ‘greatness’, are ubiquitous in the extreme in exam papers, as any SQA marker can testify. More importantly, however, it gave senior pupils the opportunity to study a more challenging text, medieval Scottish poetry, than perhaps they might have done for their Higher English course. By opening up the breadth of the Scottish literary canon to them, the project also provided pupils with, and access to, a context in which to place the work as part of local, Scottish, British, and European, heritage.

The website Unit of work had to provide S5/6 Higher and Advanced Higher with an in-depth study and analysis of the language and ideas used by Henryson whilst at the same time, be ‘website friendly’ and provide the links to the other aspects on the website, e.g. the historical context etc. In addition to the question and answer format, the worksheets also had to provide opportunities for class and/or paired discussion. Pupils also had to have the opportunity of preparing critical essays – titles given – and multiple choice questions. It also had to be flexible enough to allow individual teachers a level of teacher-input, depending on the range of pupil abilities which exist even within Higher classrooms. And given that many of our ‘English’ teachers in Scottish secondary schools have little or no knowledge of medieval Scottish literature, the material had also to be ‘teacher-friendly’.

The Unit, although it can be used as a stand-alone resource, is designed to work in conjunction with the website and this is where it works best. It can be found on www.britaininprint.net, which will be found to be a very easily-used website. The analysis of the text by the pupils through the worksheets is enhanced by the knowledge gained through e-learning. The activities provide pupils with a means to access information from the web and therefore, enhance their classroom learning.

The aims of the Unit were:

  • To provide pupils with a framework to the study of 15th century Scottish literature
  • To provide pupils with a degree of online visual content
  • To enhance pupils’ independent study of 15th century Scottish literature
  • To prepare pupils for external examinations as part of SQA Higher and Advanced Higher English
On a wider level, the Unit enhances learning and prepares pupils for Higher Education and research as they move on to University.

Initially, Lesley developed a unit of work to be used in conjunction with the project’s e-learning tool. This provided the manageable sections for study of the poem and is used on the website to provide the analytical framework. As The Testament is a fairly long text and given the degree of difficulty of language for pupils, she divided the analysis of poem into nine different sections: Introduction (Stanzas 1-10), Narrative Episode: Section 2 – Cresseid’s rejections, return home and prayer (Stanzas 11-20); Section 3 – Cresseid’s dream (Stanzas 21-38); Section 4 – Cresseid’s dream: the debate and judgement of the Gods; Section 5 (Stanzas 50-58), Narrative Episode :Cresseid’s leprosy; Section 6 (Stanzas 59-66) the Complaint of Cresseid; Section 7 (Stanzas 66-76) Cresseid, the lepers and Troilus; Section 8 (Stanzas 77-86) the Testament and Death of Cresseid; and Section 9 (Stanza 86) the Moralitas.

The Unit is interspersed with biographical details, literary background, critical essay questions, activities and of course, the text and the modern audience, all of which were designed to promote discussion and pupil engagement in the text. And, built in to the learning structure are the literary conventions: nine-line stanza structure, formal rhetoric, ubi sunt convention, complaint, moralitas, courtly associations of the imagery, allegorical dream and spiritual recovery. The Charteris edition was used, for no reason other than this was the edition I used when studying the text at university.

The website itself was designed with the structure of the unit in mind, divided into the nine sections and containing, teaching notes, summaries of the various sections, notes on the poem, study tools, background to printing, geographical mapping (both Scotland, Britain and European), academic background, time-lines, page-view, glossaries and audio recordings of the text The site itself is user-friendly and would be of benefit to everyone including those ‘A’ Level students studying Chaucer, the general public, history teachers who would find it beneficial in the use of printing and time-lines, undergraduates, European history/literature students and of course, members of the Henryson Society!

For Lesley as a teacher, the e-learning tool was a welcome addition to classroom resources, but for the pupils, the website provided an important enhancement in terms of their learning. Accessing the website for textual information or historical background, e-homework, participating in the multiple-choice quiz, support for critical essays, together with teacher-led classroom analysis, pupil and group presentations enhanced the teaching and learning for Higher English.

The production of a reading of the text which I took part in with Colin Donati gave a valuable audio resource which can be accessed on the website as the poem is studied stanza by stanza. Norman Rodger also set up an on-line question and answer session with academics which was fairly successful, although perhaps the questions were coming too quickly for the academics! The edited version on the website gives a sense of the kinds of questions which pupils were asking, clearly showing their involvement not only in the text itself but in its literary and cultural contexts.

Lesley is convinced that what the pupils gained out of their study of The Testament of Cresseid was infinitely more exciting and unusual both in the delivery, resourcing and material in the ‘website’ learning component of the course and perhaps more in keeping with 21st Century learning – the use of information technology to enhance the teaching of English. However, far more that that and from our perspectives as Scottish teachers in Scottish secondary schools, teaching Scottish pupils, the value and worth of teaching a text which gives our youngsters a knowledge and understanding of a major Scottish poet who is rightfully at the heart of the Scottish literary canon cannot be underestimated. The uniqueness of the project served to enhance the learning of our youngsters.


Copyright © Morna Fleming 2005


Last updated 23 August 2010.