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  • About PoMS

About PoMS

Questions to be explored

The beginnings of a recognisably modern Scottish identity need to be approached first and foremost by a detailed investigation of the society out of which the political and legal manifestations of Scotland as a single country and people emerged. The pivotal question is:

How did the social identities and interrelationships of individuals in Scottish society change in the period 1093-1286?

This embraces a range of interlinking issues under the following headings:

  • Ethnicity - Interrelations between 'natives' and 'newcomers'. Are these meaningful terms?
  • New institutions - The influence of burghs, new monastic orders and sheriff courts on social relationships
  • Status - Changes in relative status and the way status was identified; new naming patterns (in personal names and surnames).
  • Charters - Who was involved in the adoption of charters, and when, and its effect on the way social relationships were mediated.
  • Law and custom - Who was involved, and in what capacity, in the settlement of disputes?
  • Language - Language of personal names vis-à-vis social status; variation between Gaelic and other language forms; evidence for Gaelic literacy/dialect.

Current Debates

Europeanisation, Anglicisation and 'Scotticisation'

The transformation of Scottish society in this period has been viewed in both a European and British context. Robert Bartlett's The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change 950-1350 (London 1993) included Scotland among the peripheral areas affected by the expansion of the culture and society of a French-Latin core. Rees Davies has presented this within a British context as Anglicisation, creating a 'fault-line of cultures, economies, and societies' between those areas that were Anglicised and those which were not. Can this fault-line be detected, however, where immigration, towns and English law were introduced by the initiative of kings of Scots and became bulwarks of royal authority?

Neither Bartlett nor Davies had the scope to offer a detailed account of Scottish society in this period. It would be difficult, in any event, to generalise. David Carpenter, in The Struggle for Mastery. Britain 1066-1284 (London 2003), 521-3, has written of how a kingship based on units of royal lordship concentrated in the east midlands of Scotland expanded to become a kingdom nearly equivalent with the bounds of modern Scotland. Yet Carpenter stressed a distinction between the 'Scotland of the sheriffs' and a periphery. Those parts which habitually recognised the authority of the king of Scots provide a unique example of a society which ostensibly embraced Anglicisation on its own terms, rather than in the context of invasion and colonisation. The paradox of the 'Scotland of the sheriffs' is not, however, simply that the most Anglicised parts of Scotland formed the backbone of Scotland's capacity to survive as an independent kingdom. Dauvit Broun's recent work on the Chronicle of Melrose has highlighted how those who lived in the eastern borders of Scotland - an area which had been predominantly English - came to identify themselves as 'Scottish'. Should this period be characterised as the 'Scotticisation' of Scotland as much as the 'Europeanisation' of Europe? If so, how might this relate to the 'Anglicisation' of the British Isles? Within a Gaelic context, there is also the issue of the 'Scotticisation' of Gaelic which Ó Maolalaigh has identified in the Deer property-records.

The most obvious source for any answers to these questions is the charter in all its forms. All of these processes involve the adoption and proliferation of charters and the kinds of social and legal arrangements that they represent, as well as throwing light on the individuals mentioned in them and their relationships to one another. Nearly 6000 charters relating to property, privileges or positions in Scotland have been identified in this period. By the late thirteenth century specialised forms of writing were used in a wide range of social contexts: not only grants and confirmations, but also agreements, inheritance of property, judicial decisions, and routine administration. No charters were produced in Scotland before the twelfth century, however. Charters are therefore an uneven source across the period: rare and highly variable in form in the early twelfth century; routine and predictable in the late thirteenth.

Fresh challenges: the debate on feudalism

Much that has been taken for granted about Scottish society in this period has recently been challenged. Professor Barrow's classic account of how Scotland became a 'feudal' kingdom has been swept up in the wider debate on feudalism inspired by Susan Reynolds. The Scottish situation is of particular relevance because those aspects of landholding and custom that are deemed 'feudal' were by definition imported from England: is this evidence that there was a 'system'? How does this relate to the wider picture of lordship and landholding? This touches the heart of the paradox of medieval Scotland, showing how its society could have become more 'English'. By developing a form of social organisation that enhanced royal authority, could this help to explain the increasing sense of the kingdom as one country and (eventually) one people in the thirteenth century? In order to move the debate on it is necessary to gather the evidence for 'classic' feudal tenurial arrangements within the context of social relationships centred on landholding and lordship.

Challenge to ethnic framework

The established view of Scotland's transition as one of 'Anglo-Norman' innovation versus 'Celtic' conservatism has been questioned by Matthew Hammond in the most recent issue of the Scottish Historical Review. Also, Stephen Boardman and Alasdair Ross have observed, in The Exercise of Power in Medieval Scotland, c.1200-1500 (2003), 19, that the characterisation of this period as 'an admixture of fundamentally opposed impulses or forces' has led to Scottish society being seen as 'hybrid', placing it 'somewhere between two 'purer' and presumably more 'normal' types of society rather than accepting it as a perfectly natural development in its own right'. The term 'Gaelic', however, is still used by some scholars as the principal means of explaining aspects of regional power and society. The only way to move forward with this issue is to examine in detail the interactions of 'natives' and 'newcomers' alongside the use of names and other forms of social identification (such as title and surname).

Cultural interactions: new perspectives

The applicability of ethnic labels may have been questioned, but the issue of cultural interactions remains crucial. One perspective is offered by study of the treatment of Gaelic names in new textual contexts associated with Europeanisation and Anglicisation: not only charters, but chronicles and more literary productions. Were Gaelic personal names rendered haphazardly? A preliminary study by Dauvit Broun in Huw Pryce (ed.), Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies (Cambridge 1998) has shown some of the potential. Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh's 'The Scotticisation of Gaelic: A Reassessment of the Language and Orthography of the Gaelic Notes in the Book of Deer' highlights another key dimension: the issue of Scotland's place in the wider Gaelic cultural world. The more straightforward question of Gaelic's decline is being investigated through place-name evidence by an AHRC-funded project in Glasgow University's Celtic Department.

What the project sets out to achieve

The desiderata mentioned in preceding paragraphs all point to the need for a comprehensive study of individuals, their social identities and relationships based chiefly on the 6016 charters from this period. A critical awareness of charters is a necessary preliminary, and the spelling of non-standard names (chiefly Gaelic) needs to be scrutinised to enable identifications to be made and to assess their evidence for Gaelic. The construction of a prosopographical database is the only available means to handle information on this scale. Through the work on the database the team members will address the 'paradox of medieval Scotland' in the published proceedings of the end of project conference (see ‘News’ for details) and in other publications (which will be cited under ‘News’ when they become publicly available). See also ‘explaining the paradox’ in the menu to the left.).

As well as the database, the project will also involve:

  • A volume of essays on charter diplomatic as an historical source in the Anglo-Norman era (see ‘Charter book’ in main menu)..
  • A book on the genealogy of the king of Scots in the twelfth century as a source for Gaelic literacy and cultural interactions.
  • A book for students, The Founding of Scotland, 1100-1295, contextualising the main themes of the paradox of medieval Scotland within a general history, due for submission in August 2011.