This extract from a longer poem is written in the Scots language of around 1500 and so I have included a rough prose translation in today’s English. It’s about an asymmetrical court case to do with debt recovery. It is inspired by Aesop’s fables – the theme evidently relevant to the ancient Greek world as well as the medieval Scottish one, to say nothing of the present.
Esope ane tail puttis in memorie
How that ane doig, because that he was pure,
Callit ane scheip to the consistorie,
Ane certaine breid fra him for to recure.
Ane fraudfull wolff wes juge that tyme, and bure
Auhoritie and jurisdictioun,
And on the sheip send furth ane strait summoun.
The clerk callit the scheip, and he wes their;
The advocatis on this wyse couth propone:
Ane certane breid worth five schilling or mair
Thow aw the doig, off quhilk the terme is gone.’
Off his awin heid, but advocate, alone,
The scheip avysitlie gaif answer in the cace:
‘Here I decline the juge, the tyme, the place.
‘This is my cause, in motive and effect:
The law says it is richt perilous
Till enter in pley befoir ane juge suspect:
And ye, Schir Wolff, hes bene richt odious
To me, for with your tuskis ravenous
Hess lane foll mony kinnesmen off myne:
Thairfoir juge as suspect I yow decline.’
Aesop records the story of a poor dog who sued a sheep for the recovery of some bread. A corrupt wolf was judge at the time, bearing authority and jurisdiction in the case, and he ordered the sheep to appear in court.
The clerk called for the sheep and he came forward, enabling the plaintiff’s lawyers to present their case: ‘you owe the dog bread worth five shillings or more and payment is now overdue’. Off his own bat, without representation, and after some reflection, the sheep replied: ‘I refuse to answer to this judge, at this time, in this place.
‘This is my case: the law says that it is unsafe to enter a plea before a suspect judge: and you, Sir Wolf, have been hateful to me, for with your ravenous teeth have killed many of kin. I refuse to acknowledge your jurisdiction, for you are unfit to judge me in this case.’
Robert Henryson was a major Scottish poet of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. For part of his life he was “cheife schoole master” in Dunfermline. His best known poems are The Testament of Cresseid and The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, of which The Taill of the Scheip and the Doig are one. I have worked from Robert Henryson Poems: selected and edited with an introduction, notes, and glossary by Charles Elliot Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.