Trickery, Mockery and the Scottish Way of War

SEPTEMBER 30, 2015 BY 

Trickery, Mockery and the Scottish Way of War

By Alastair J. Macdonald

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol.143 (2013)

The earliest known depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 from a 1440s manuscript of Walter Bower's Scotichronicon

Introduction: This article seeks to examine two prominent themes, those of trickery and mockery, in how warfare against England was represented in Scottish historical narratives of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Careful analysis of these specific themes allows a variety of insights to be presented. It will show some of the rich uses to which such texts can be put by exploring them in a historically informed context. One aspect of this is the endeavour to illuminate ways in which these sources, although treacherous in relation to specifics, can provide accurate, and previously unnoticed, more general insights into the cultures of war embraced by the Scots. Analysis of the texts also demonstrates the complex and changing ways in which perceptions about the practice of war have shaped Scottish senses of identity. It becomes clear that ideas about their mode of war were vital in how the Scots saw themselves. And such ideas were also fundamental in shaping the much more hostile view of them developed by their regular enemies, the English. The main sources given consideration are the Gesta Annalia II, once attributed to John of Fordun (composed c.1363) (Chron Fordun), John Barbour’s The Bruce (c.1376) (Barbour, Bruce), the ‘Anonymous Chronicle’ (probably early 1390s), Andrew of Wyntoun’s Original Chronicle(completed c.1424) (Chron Wyntoun), Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (completed 1447) (Chron Bower) and Blind Hary’s The Wallace (c.1476-8) (Hary, Wallace).

The themes at issue in the present article have been largely neglected. Indeed, a general examination of how warfare has been presented within the later-medieval Scottish narrative corpus has not been attempted. There are a few notable exceptions to this broad pattern. There is an extensive literature on Barbour’s Bruce, much of which has sought to investigate various aspects of how war is presented in the text. In particular close attention has been paid to the ethos of chivalry in the work. One core aspect in this sense is how Barbour treats trickery and cunning in war (slycht in the author’s terminology) and the extent to which this is regarded as acceptable within a chivalric value system. Consideration has also been given to the role Barbour allots to non-knightly combatants in his account of Scotland’s wars. The issue of social class and military participation has some bearing, as we will see, on how mockery in war can be understood. Aspects of how war is presented in Hary’s Wallace have also received some scholarly attention, in particular in relation to the extreme violence depicted in the poem and what this might imply for critical evaluation of the text and the poet’s sensibilities.

None of this, of course, amounts to a systematic attempt to analyse how warfare was presented in relation to trickery and mockery. There has been even less endeavour in this regard in relation to the other narrative sources chosen for consideration here. Historians have mined Gesta Annalia II and the works of Wyntoun and Bower for what these sources can reveal about the course and nature of the wars between England and Scotland. There has been no detailed scholarly attempt, however, to consider how these texts, taken together, consider war as a topic. In nonScottish historiography there has been some effort to examine the treatment of war as a theme in certain later medieval texts, such as Sir Thomas Gray’s Scalacronica, and even some attempts at a general examination of the medieval reporting of war. In these works, however, the topics of trickery and mockery have not received dedicated scrutiny as particularly noteworthy categories. The themes of interest here have remained, at best, on the margins of traditional military history.


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