'Planned and purposeful' or 'without second thought?' : formulaic language and incident in Barbour's Brus
The present study investigates formulae – fixed phrases used by an oral poet in composing narrative verse – in the Older Scotts poem known as the Brus, composed (probably in writing) by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. This thesis examines the apparent discrepancy of an oral-derived technique used in a sophisticated poem composed in writing by an educated and literate author. Following the discussion of previous critical approaches to Barbour’s Brus, the present study offers a summary of theories of the formula and formulaic composition relevant to the discussion, before providing examples of three types of formulae found in the Brus: formulae whose primary function is to preserve rhyme and metre in the poem, and which have minimal dependence upon their narrative context (prosodic formulae or fillers); formulae which set-up or provide transition between scenes, and which depend slightly more upon their narrative context (discursive formulae); and formulae which narrate the action of the poem’s plot, and therefore depend greatly upon their narrative context (historic formulae). The thesis then examines recurring incidents such as scenes of individual combat and large-scale battles, identifying the formulaic phrases employed in their construction, as well as the cyclical arrangement of such incidents to impose a specific interpretation of the poem upon the reader or audience. Finally, the present study examines the influence of medieval rhetoric and Latin-derived ‘literate’ culture on Barbour’s poem, uncovering a mixture of ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ modes of discourse which cooperate and complement each other in Barbour’s highly purposeful work of historical fiction. More and more critics are aware of the mixture of ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ discourse in Middle English (see, for example, Coleman 1996); by contrast, this aspect of Older Scotts literature is an understudied topic in an already understudied field. Additionally, no scholar has to may knowledge undertaken a study of the formula in any Older Scotts text. The present thesis will hopefully make a valuable first step in both these areas.