‘The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland 1124-1290’

Published on: Author: Megan Leave a comment

On 3 May 2016, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies welcomed Alice Taylor (King’s College London) to discuss ‘The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland 1124-1290,’ the title of her newly published book. Professor Dauvit Broun interviewed Alice Taylor about the methods by which she explored the material, how her book relates to previous explorations of the history of Medieval Scotland and what she hopes people will take away from the book. She also took several questions from attendees. While many questions were asked, a few have been selected to be shared here. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

3 May Seminar image

(Dauvit Broun) What do you hope people will take from the book, and how does it relate to G.W.S. Barrow’s work?

What Alice aimed to set out the shape and methods of royal government of the 12th and 13th centuries and to look at government in both non-institutional and institutional ways. She stated that there are non-institutional and institutional ways of exercising power, an important binary emphasized in her book. She stated that she was very lucky to have met Geoffrey Barrow, and what struck her about his work were the techniques that he involved and that he was able to do the most in-depth charter work. Alice said that there were many differences between her work and that of Barrow. While her primary focus is to explore how the kings of Scotland exercised power, Barrow was writing a history of Scotland. While Barrow had an unrivalled view of charters, Alice utilised medieval Scottish laws as a primary source; these two types of sources address different things. Her aim was to explore how Scottish kings exercised power in the 12th and 13th centuries, while Barrow was much more interested in understanding the trajectory of change through the movement of people and the type of ideas that they bring into that. Finally, while Barrow saw feudalism as the product of the 12th century, Alice saw governmental institutions as a later development in the 13th century, while in the 12th century there is a difference in how the kings of Scotland are ruling north of the Firth of Forth and south of the Firth of Forth.

The overall point that Alice would like readers to take from her work is about the relationship between royal and aristocratic power. She argued that kings always rule in conjunction with aristocrats, and as royal institutions are developing, aristocratic power was becoming more formal and more defined in relation to land. These two groups were not opposed to each other, they grew in tandem with each other. In the time of Alexander II, one can see a change in law; royal law is being enacted not only through royal courts, but also through aristocratic courts at the same time. She sees this as evidence for aristocratic power as a formal part of royal government.

(Martin MacGregor) With this idea of a partnership between the crown and the aristocrats, do you see the origins of the idea of “Community of the Realm” in this period?

On one level, yes. It’s not just about formal interaction. One of the arguments she makes in the book is that the inquest is an important legal procedure that allows cases to be taken into aristocratic courts, not out of them. There are formal ways of thinking about this relationship, but one of them isn’t so personal. The fact that there are the big aristocrats in the kingdom, are acting not only being judiciars, and are structurally being the sheriffs, the relationships between shrieval local government and central government isn’t really there in Scotland  There isn’t really an institutional separateness of what constitutes royal government as opposed to the local government in Scotland as there was in England and in France. So with all this it’s no surprise that this is a political community that could conceivably constitute itself as a precursor for the “Community of the Realm.”

(Dauvit Broun) What thoughts and reflections have you had on the discipline of Medieval Scottish History and, more widely, Medieval History having written the book?

One of the things that struck Alice in the beginning when she came into Medieval Scottish History was the openness of the field. We are very lucky that it is so open and that there are so many more questions to be asked. While she was working on the conclusions of the book, she considered the question, how did kings rule without institutions throughout their kingdom, and how did they actually rule? What we don’t know about are assemblies in the 12th century, and this demonstrates that there is a big difference between gaps and what we would like to know in Medieval Scottish History. We have huge numbers of resources available, so we can ask very big questions which are in some way empirically provable. However, there are questions about how these sources were constructed, and which parts of the sources are contemporary.

(Dauvit Broun) Relating to your methodology, did you feel that you are taking a view of this material in a way that has been done before or were there particular things about your approach that you felt you had to develop? What are the particular challenges you encountered in the creation of this book?

The legal material is a very interesting corpus of material, as it is characterised by Late Medieval manuscripts which may or may not contain 12th and 13th century material. One of the main difficulties is determining if the original text can be reconstructed, is the 12th-13th century material preserved, and how these have been re-written over the years. This is not a new methodology, it is typical in the study of manuscripts. However, one interesting thing about the use of law as a source material is that in general, it has been difficult for medieval historians to determine if laws were enforced. This preoccupation with the enforcement has led to the argument from some historians that if we cannot know what the law meant to the society it pertained to, it should not be used at all. This was argued especially in the 1990s, although some historians still feel this way. Alice argued that there is a way of viewing laws not just as insight into government mentalities, but also as social texts.  One can gain a sense of what the view of society was at that time, what those in power thought they could do with law, and what sort of expectations were had for society at this time. While enforcement is an important aspect of law, law also allows us to understand the interplay between how personal ties become rooted within the structure of jurisdiction. This transformation of how we read and view law is not unique to what Alice is doing, but it is a very important one for Medievalists to consider.

(Dauvit Broun) Now that you’ve written the book, are there things that you would have done differently?

Alice stated that there are always things that she would want to do differently. Because she placed a large stress on Charter diplomatic and how changes in Charter diplomatic are reflective of real change in political structure, she wishes she had the capacity to do more research with the Royal Scottish Charter. She would also have liked to comment on the Church and its relationship with aristocracy, and how bishops drove political change. Alice also said that while she does not talk about individuals who drove change, because she generally sees structures building on structures, there is a lot to merit to a person-driven view of political change. So this is another layer that needs attention.

Other questions addressed the nature of the evidence for aristocratic courts, how her source material indicated that the kings North and South of the forth governed differently, how this technique of viewing law as a social text has been used for some time in the study of early Celtic and Irish law, and who is telling the story in law and whose story are they trying to tell.

Alice Taylor’s book provides a new sense of what Scotland was as a kingdom and how royal government developed in Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries. She does this through the use of medieval Scottish law and detailed manuscript study. This book has been acclaimed by Professor Dauvit Broun as the new point reference for the history of the statehood of Medieval Scotland, which will be used for many generations to come. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, it can be purchased from the publisher here. ISBN: 978-0-19-874920-2

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues on 10 May 2016 with Daniel Huws (National Library of Wales) to discuss ‘A thousand years of Welsh scribes.’ This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm.


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