Fiona Downie

title.none: Barrell, Medieval Scotland (Fiona Downie)

identifier.other: baj9928.0112.003 01.12.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fiona Downie, University of Melbourne,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Barrell, Andrew. Medieval Scotland. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 292. ISBN: 0-512-58602-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.12.03

Barrell, Andrew. Medieval Scotland. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 292. ISBN: 0-512-58602-x.

Reviewed by:

Fiona Downie
University of Melbourne

Barrell's Medieval Scotland covers the kingdom's history from the mid-eleventh century to the Reformation, with a thematic focus on the role of "cultural and physical barriers on the course of Scottish history, and the extent to which an identifiable Scottish nation was born in the later Middle Ages". (2) It is the first single-volume history of the period since Duncan's revised (1977) edition of Dickinson's Scotland from earliest times to 1603, and as such provides a useful introduction to the debates and theories that have gained currency in recent decades. It is also a textbook, one of the Cambridge Medieval Textbooks series, and in reviewing it I have tried to see it from the perspective of a student unfamiliar with the place or the period.

Barrell's exploration of how the Scottish nation emerged begins within a discussion of the different peoples and regions of early medieval Scotland. Chapter 1 provides a good summary of Scotland's early peoples and political structure, and is written in an engaging style. The lack of information about this period in Scottish history can make it alien to new students, but Barrell works hard to include these readers with phrases such as "coming down to us" (4) and references to familiar characters and stories like Shakespeare's MacBeth (12). Barrell is also to be commended for highlighting new interpretations of these more well-known stories. The reader unfamiliar with this early period might, however, struggle with the significance of recent scholarship on Malcolm's reign without a more detailed survey of the reign itself. Chapter 2 ("Feudal Scotland") examines the transformation of early medieval Scotland and its political structure from the reign of MacBeth in the eleventh century to the 'golden age' of Alexander III (d.1286). The concept and meaning of feudalism are examined in-depth, and the overlap between this foreign structure and native systems of organization, particularly in the north and west, is well-explained. The conclusion is very good, summarising the key themes of the chapter and linking them back to the first chapter and to the general themes of the book. This linking of chapters and themes is a feature of the book, and is no doubt welcomed by its intended audience of students grappling with new names and stories.

Chapter 3 outlines "The transformation of the Scottish church" from the eleventh century to 1300, describing the development of monasticism, relations with the papacy and the structure of the Scottish church. While this chapter is in many ways a comprehensive summary reflecting the author's own research specialisation, it is less clearly linked than previous chapters to the themes of the book. This flaw is striking given the role of the Scottish church in the development and propagation of national identity during the Wars of Independence. As Barrell notes, the Scottish church was unusual in that it developed a unique relationship with Rome: the twelfth-century bull Cum universi freed the Scottish church from the jurisdiction of York and declared it to be a "special daughter" of the papacy. (47) The long-term resistance to English attempts to control the Scottish church and the need for regular meetings of the Scottish bishops to discuss the administration of their church (while the pope was effectively the metropolitan of Scotland, the council system answered the logistical problem of dealing with Rome on a regular basis) instilled a heightened awareness of national identity in the Scottish clergy. Barrell writes in a later chapter of the support offered to Robert Bruce by Bishops Wishart and Lamberton (115) and of the Declaration of Arbroath, a document filled with patriotic rhetoric and written by a cleric (121-2), but the importance of the role played by men of religion cannot be fully understood without this background.

The Scottish kings' relationships with external powers (England and Norway) and with internal potentates, and how both external and internal relationships were tested in by the Wars of Independence, are explored in chapters 3 and 4. In both chapters Barrell is (rightly) at pains to emphasise that Scotland and England were not always at war (67-8) and that the Wars of Independence cannot be seen solely as campaigns planned and executed by Edward I of England (133-6). Similarly, his reminder that the powerful men in the south-west, west and north of the Scottish kingdom were not rebels against the Crown but princes in their own right (76-7) parallels his remarks on the Scottish nobles during the Wars: many, including the eventual king, Robert Bruce, were prepared to acknowledge Edward's overlordship to protect their own lands and power (135-6). This acknowledgement that the national identity outlined in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 did not supercede personal advantage is embedded in Barrell's thoughtful consideration of that document (133-6) and addresses his comments on the role played by the Wars in modern Scottish national consciousness with which he opened the chapter (92-3).

The chronological history of the Stewart kings from Robert II to James V in chapter 6 is paired with a thematic discussion of the relationship between Crown and nobility over the same period in chapter 7. This arrangement is designed to counteract the limitations of space and of the Stewart monarchy itself, but unfortunately it does not quite work. The collected reigns of the Stewarts read as a long and unalleviated series of wars, rebellions, factions and minorities. The administrative and legal reforms and foreign policy of Jameses I, III, IV and V receive some attention (155- 7, 172-5, 182-7 and 190-1 respectively) but there is no real sense of the development of the Stewart monarchy and government over the period. The role of Scotland in Europe is mentioned with reference to James III onwards, omitting the high level of engagement with the continent in the first part of the fifteenth century. In short, the "inherent strength of the Stewart monarchy" to which Barrell refers on page 178 is clear- -it did, after all, survive--but is difficult to understand after pages of weakness, murder, factionalism and rebellion. Barrell himself acknowledges the problems of writing about this period at the start of chapter 7 and proceeds to argue that despite the apparent violence, late medieval Scottish politics were essentially stable (198-9). This chapter also returns to one of the book's main themes, the relationship of the core and periphery in the north and west, arguing that the reliance of the Crown on great magnates in distant provinces was unavoidable rather than a sign of royal weakness. (223)

The final chapter takes up the story of the Scottish church from 1300. The bulk of the chapter is concerned with relationships with the papacy (particularly with regard to appointments and provisions), the structure and mechanisms of the church and clerical abuses. Only nine pages out of a total 34 discuss religion (including heresy) as it was practised by the Scottish people. Barrell acknowledges that the evidence is "heavily weighted towards institutional matters" (261) but this does not necessarily justify such imbalance at the expense of popular religion. Scotland's involvement in the Crusades, its religious festivals and plays, its saints, could have been discussed here and in Chapter 3.

This last concern about balance and content must be applied to the book as a whole. Textbooks, particularly relatively short ones, cannot cover everything, but I cannot help but feel that the novice reader will come away from this book without any real sense of how the vast majority of Scottish people lived in the Middle Ages. What did they do while their leaders fought amongst themselves? Where did they live? What did they eat? The development of trade and burghs is absent from this book, as is cultural and intellectual life and a host of other topics of interest to the student and general reader. The surviving evidence is limited, certainly, but some pages devoted to these topics, particularly at the expense of the institutions of the church, would be most welcome. Barrell's argument that political history "provides one of the most accessible approaches to the past" (vii) has some validity given the level of public awareness of the Wars of Independence in the wake of Braveheart and the role played by the same period in modern Scottish national consciousness, but no case is made for the accessibility of institutionally-focussed ecclesiastical history. I suspect that the novice is more interested in the life of Wallace's (Braveheart's) family and community than in the appointment of his local bishop.

Barrell acknowledges that he took a "traditional" approach to this book and concentrated on a "political and ecclesiastical history" of medieval Scotland. (vii) On these terms he succeeds, carefully and thoughtfully informing new students of Scotland's medieval political and ecclesiastical history and introducing them to recent debates and reinterpretations in these fields. The clear outlining of themes to be explored, the chapter summaries and links between them and to the over- arching themes ensure that the reader is regularly reminded of how the part fits into the whole. The bibliography is detailed and will direct the curious to a wide range of scholarship on Scottish medieval history. Those wishing to learn about the kingdom's social, economic and intellectual life, however, would be well-advised to draw on this bibliography and read more than just this volume.