Benjamin Hudson

title.none: Webster, Medieval Scotland (Hudson)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.012 99.03.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Benjamin Hudson, Pennsylvania State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Webster, Bruce. Medieval Scotland, The Making of an Identity. British History in Perspective. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xvi, 164. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-16519-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.12

Webster, Bruce. Medieval Scotland, The Making of an Identity. British History in Perspective. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xvi, 164. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-16519-6.

Reviewed by:

Benjamin Hudson
Pennsylvania State University

The appearance of Bruce Webster's Medieval Scotland, The Making of an Identity is well-timed. The question of Scottish identity has become especially pertinent since September of 1997 when, by an overwhelming majority, the Scots voted to reestablish a Scottish parliament after an hiatus of several centuries. The next few years may well see a number of scholarly and popular works devoted to the question of "Scottishness." This topic is not new, of course, as books addressing various aspects of Scotland and Scottish traits have always found a ready audience, especially among the descendants of Scottish emigres. Less usual is it to find the subject placed within a medieval context, and Medieval Scotland is written by an historian whose previous works include important books on the sources of Scottish history and the charters of King David II.

The Scottish kingdom is a useful area for a study of identity. The modern name "Scotland" itself comes from one group of emigres, the Scoti of Ireland, who had established a colony on the western coast. Eventually they would dominate a kingdom which came to contain several distinct cultural groups and languages. By the end of the Middle Ages there had been formed an awareness of a common bond among the descendants of those various groups, and they had become the "Scots". How, when and why did this transformation occur? The search is not an easy one, especially because of the scanty records which survive. In its discussion of such a complex idea as "identity", the narrative of Medieval Scotland falls into two parts, divided by the Wars of Independence. The first part of the book looks for answers to the question of Scottish identity within the broadly-framed topics of place, order, and faith. In the second half of the book, the remaining chapters are narratives on the wars of independence, the national identity and Scotland and Christendom. The chapters on the wars of independence and national identity are largely a brief general outline of events. The final chapter on Scotland and Christendom deals with examples of contacts between the Scots and those outwith the realm, mainly those from the continent.

There are different ways to study the problem of identity, and the author has chosen one approach. Throughout this book the emphasis is primarily that of traditional political history; even the question of the religious life is placed within the context of diplomatic or political manoeuvering. The main concentration of this study starts with the reigns of the sons of Malcolm III in the late eleventh century. The focus on the period after the eleventh century allows for the use of a variety of written materials such as chronicles, personal remembrances, charters or financial records. There is an interesting discussion of the development of a royal administration and its influence on the kingdom's affairs. Beginning with the period of the Wars of Independence, the author gives a succinct overview of Scottish history, including an estimation of the personalities of the monarchs themselves. Economics, literature or art are considered briefly within the context of politics, such as the ballad "Johnie Armstrang" which is used by the author to make a pertinent point on the decay of royal authority by the early modern period.

Although Medieval Scotland ranges widely over a thousand years of history, its emphasis is primarily on the French- influenced Scottish monarchs and aristocracy and their counterparts in England. This is an area where the author has a particular expertise, and he offers a number of important insights. The similarities between the Scottish and French realms are noted, as well as the status of Scotland as a French satellite beginning with the Wars of Independence. Particularly important is the discussion of those wars. Expertly, and objectively, the author places the events of those years within the wider context of European affairs.

To any brief study of a subject as nebulous as "identity" there might be added material which could usefully contribute to the discussion. Non-historical Scots literature, for example, has much to offer any study of national self-consciousness, especially with regard to Gaelic-speaking Scotland, to which this book gives little attention after the twelfth century. The very useful discussion of historical (or pseudo-historical) works such as Barbour's Bruce with its overt historical interest or the chronicles of John of Fordun and Andrew of Wyntoun could have been complemented by consideration of "lighter" fare. Works such as the Buke of the Howlet, with its scorn for Gaelic culture, provide an idea of how Scottish identity was not only developing, but also changing from the thirteenth to fifteenth century. For the Scottish kingdom was not just named after the Gaelic-speaking monarchs of the ninth to eleventh centuries, but it was largely a creation from their inspiration. The importance of the Gaelic element is visible in the recitation of the genealogy of Alexander III at his kingmaking, and by the maintenance of the royal bard. Robert I was making much of his ancestors among the Gaelic-speaking kings even before his adventure in Ireland. Similarities in Irish and Scottish political theory can be seen when comparing the Irish Remonstrances of the Princes with the Declaration of Arbroath. By the fifteenth century, however, Scottish identity had changed so much that a verse allegory such as the Howlet ridicules the very Gaelic culture from which Scotland had sprung. This Gaelic aspect to Scottish identity was recognized by others, and as late as the eighteenth century, Irish writers took great pains to trace the Gaelic heritage of the Stuart kings back to their Irish ancestors.

For the period prior to the twelfth century, Medieval Scotland is less useful than it might have been. Some of the information is outdated, and this book would have benefited from the consultation of important studies which have appeared in the past decade. This is unfortunate, for there is much that would have supported the author's arguments. The pre- twelfth century Church in Scotland is dismissed as a mixture of early Celtic monasticism and a vague semblance of episcopal organization. On the contrary, the early Scottish Church was well-organized and the establishment of a strong episcopacy was being promoted by the Scots monarchs in advance of episcopal reorganization among the English. The early Scots kings were far more able monarchs than they are credited in this book. Those kings were not "essentially war-leaders", as suggested by the author. Their legislation, ecclesiastical interests and promotion of Anglo-Scottish good-will had, by the tenth century, led to the creation of a nascent Scottish identity.

This book also would have benefited from a more informed treatment of the Scandinavian influence on a sense of Scottish identity. Prior to the Wars of Independence the Scandinavians were the national enemy (so to say). The interests in the Hebrides by Alexanders II and III were not just political, but also economic, because the isles lay alongside one of the main trade routes of the northern Atlantic. Scandinavian control of this region was more formal and recognized than suggested in this book. From 1098 until the signing of the Treaty of Perth, the Hebrides (and the Isle of Man) were part of the Norwegian kingdom, a fact recognized by the Scottish king, the English king, the Pope and the Islesmen themselves. That Norwegian control was slack by the thirteenth century was due less to any doubt about the allegiance of the region, than to the civil war that occupied the Norwegians for three generations.

Medieval Scotland: The Making of an Identity has much to offer both the general reader and the scholar. This book makes an interesting contribution to the study of a problem which will continue to intrigue students of the future. The author is to be commended for a useful study, with many insights, of an important and topical subject.