Middle English

Good King Robert’s Testament

A group of soldiers in full suits of mail with bascinets and kettle hats and lances or axes and shields in their hands are standing in water on the left. A group of men in pseuydo-antique robes, one of them with a Jewish hat and the rest bare-headed, hold swords and axes and stand on land on the right
Soldiers and civilians in the age of Bannockburn (pharaoh’s soldiers drowning in the sea?) on folio 24v of the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library BL Royal 2 B VII, painted in London c. 1310-1320). A good general doesn’t plan for miracles!

Throughout the long five hundred years of war between Scottish and English kings, the Scots tended to win the wars but lose the big battles. Scotland was a smaller and poorer kingdom, and the way of fighting battles that the Scots were good at (lining up big masses of spearmen and axemen with jacks and steel caps) was not very effective against the way that the English were good at (dismounting their armed men and galling the enemy with arrows until they charged, breaking formation as they came because no prince in Europe could keep a large army together long enough to drill it). A fourteen-line gem of a poem describes the way of fighting which proved most successful in campaign after campaign:

On fur suld be all Scottis weire, // weire = Wehr, defense
By hyll and mosse themself to reare. // reare: roar? an earlier edition has weire “defend”
Lat woods for wallis be bow and speire,
That innymeis do them na deire.
In strait placis gar keep all store,
And byrnen ye planeland thaim before.
Thane sall thai pass away in haist
Wenn that thai find na thing but waist.
With wykes and waykings of the nyght // wyke: wake
And mekill noyis maid on hytht, // mekill: big, large
Thaime sall ye turnen with gret affrai, // affray: fright, alarm
As thai ware chassit with swerd away.
This is the counsall and intent
Of gud King Robert’s testiment.

– After Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War: The Middle Ages from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century. New and Cheaper Issue (Meuthen & Co.: London, 1905) p. 579 https://archive.org/details/historyofartofw00oman/

Now roll that around in your mouth a bit and savour it. Enjoy the language and the rhythm and the joy with which it describes something horrible in ways that poor crofters and shepherds can understand. Think about how rare it is to have something like this from the side which was wise to avoid battle. And then if you really must, go on where I ask my annoying academic question, namely where does this poem come from?
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