The Medieval Review 10.04.03

Ewan, Elizabeth and Janay Nugent, eds. Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. 206. $99.95 ISBN 978-0-7546-6049-1. .

Reviewed by:

Linda E. Mitchell
University of MissouriKansas City

This collection of thirteen essays, plus an introduction, is one of the very first to be devoted specifically to issues of Scottish family history before 1800. As mentioned in the acknowledgements, the inspiration for the collection was a conference at the University of Guelph, Ontario in Canada, from which Janay Nugent developed a special issue of The International Review of Scottish Studies (its current title) in 2002. The authors--most of them at Canadian institutions--range from well established scholars to recent graduate students; all but Cynthia Neville and Mairi Cowan focus their attention on the era between 1500 and 1800 (the editors state in their acknowledgements that two other medieval articles were unable to be completed for publication and so the authors had to drop out). It is therefore a bit mendacious to claim the Middle Ages for the volume, but I think that the conclusions of many of the pieces could be carried backward into the medieval era, where the sources simply do not exist to conduct research of the kind demonstrated in the volume.

The editors have divided the essays into three sections: the first discusses sources for the pre-modern Scottish family; the second focuses on relationships within the family and highlights the rather different legal status of family members under Scots law; the third looks at the family from the wider context of community and extended kinship groups. These divisions are not fixed categories, however. The essays reveal much more about the early modern Scottish family than simply the issues identified by the subject headings.

The introduction of the volume operates not only as a roadmap into the topical essays but also establishes both the baseline and the paucity of research on the pre-modern Scottish family. The editors locate family history within a general structure of studying women and gender, especially since those topics have (perhaps ironically) been more fully treated (if still significantly under-addressed) in scholarship from the last twenty-five years. They are very careful to present Scotland as a land apart from England, Wales, and Ireland: before the Act of Union (1707) that created the United Kingdom, Scotland was fully independent both legally and administratively. The authors in the collection also emphasize these differences and often prefer to reference comparative work from the Continent than texts that focus on England during the same period, except on the occasions when the practice in Scotland differed radically from that of England and the author was able to present the Scottish material in a more positive light (the case in a particularly interesting piece concerning wives and independent status in urban economic transactions). This was perhaps a political as well as scholarly and conceptual choice, but one hopes that in future such productive and useful comparisons can be made without politicizing the analysis.

Taking the essays individually, the first section on sources is launched by Cynthia Neville's piece on medieval charter evidence of Scottish elite families, "Finding the Family in the Charters of Medieval Scotland, 1150-1350." Family strategies revealed in the charters, most of which relate to the transfer of property between lay families and ecclesiastical establishments, suggest that "Scottish women...[had] considerably more say in the disposition of landed estates" because they had managerial control over both their dowries (or "tocher" in Scots) and their dowers (14-15). Even if Anglo-Norman practice influenced the development of charters and their accoutrements, such as seals and witness lists, the Scots charters reveal specifically local concerns about the need to secure family assent to grants, to ensure the rational distribution of estates to the next generation, and to prevent conflict within the family.

Katie Barclay's essay, "'And Four Years Space, being Man and Wife, they Loveingly Agreed': Balladry and Early Modern Understandings of Marriage," focuses on ballads extant between 1650 and 1750 whose themes emphasize courtship and marriage. Ballad singers, according to Barclay, chose their material according to gender: men preferred to sing ballads that emphasized the subordination of women to men and that presented men who had "achieve[d] the ideal form of masculinity." Women, in contrast, "preferred to sing ballads that involved women in active roles" (31). Although Barclay warns against taking the world depicted in ballads as an accurate portrayal of the age, she still considers them to be "complex documents that hold multiple and different meanings for different individuals" and that they model both female subordination and female agency in the context of a patriarchal system. The third essay of the section, Dolly MacKinnon's "'I have now a book of songs of her writing': Scottish Families, Orality, Literacy and the Transmission of Musical Culture c. 1500-c.1800" analyzes images of music making in elite households as well as collections of sheet music that were used by such families. She traces the growth of musical literacy as a process of "education, entertainment, and...a form of religious expression" within the context of the patriarchal "godly household" (37). Music making was an eclectic practice in the elite household, but the intention was to emphasize family solidarity and religious exaltation in a firmly Protestant setting.

The final essay of the section, Scott Moir's "The Crucible: Witchcraft and the Experience of Family in Early Modern Scotland," emphasizes the role of the family in both accusations of and defenses against accusations of witchcraft. The study of witchcraft trials in Scotland has been something of a growth industry in the last decade and this essay serves as both a survey of recent literature as well as an analysis of specific sources found in the Scottish archives. Moir considers witchcraft trials to indicate a breakdown of family solidarities that would normally be able to protect members from such accusations. Sometimes the breakdown was internal: children accusing parents because of anger over property distributions (property disputes seem to have been common impetus for accusations of witchcraft). The breakdown could also come about as a result of charges levied from outside the family. Nevertheless, families, whose viability was at stake when one of their number was accused, worked strenuously to defend the accused member and to retain their respectability and social acceptance in the face of the dangers witchcraft accusations entailed.

The second section of the collection, having to do with family roles, uses sources in ways that are sometimes more creative and interesting than the pieces that are ostensibly focused on sources. Melissa Hollander, in "The Name of the Father: Baptism and the Social Construction of Fatherhood in Early Modern Edinburgh" uses records from one parish, that of St. Cuthbert's, in which the kirk charged men to perform their duty as fathers to baptize their infants, to investigate how kirk and burgh collaborated to enforce the performance of fatherhood in culturally approved ways. This was particularly urgent in situations when paternity was contested or denied. In "Parents and Children in Early Modern Scotland," David G. Mullan uses seventeenth-century "personal narratives"--letters, memoirs, and so on--to expose the emotional life of Protestant families. He reveals that, far from being distanced from spouses and children, husbands and wives experienced enormous senses of loss at the death of a child, were anxious to ensure the success of their living children, and were devoted partners to each other. His conclusion is that the intense faith of the evangelical Presbyterian community was tempered with an equally intense commitment to "free personal choice which emphasized affection and compatibility and shared commitments to each other, to children, to a religious community" (83).

The unusually rich collection of public documents housed in the city archives of Aberdeen provides the fodder for Gordon DesBrisay and Karen Sander Thomson's article, "Crediting Wives: Married Women and Debt Litigation in the Seventeenth Century." This essay is perhaps the most unusual in the collection because it reveals differences in Scottish notions of legal personality, the status of wives, and personal responsibility that are not mirrored anywhere else in Europe at the time. Unlike England where, even in the metropolis of London, married women's actions were subsumed under those of their husbands unless they were able to secure feme sole status, wives in Aberdeen were able to engage in business in their own right. Moreover, the records of debt collection in the Aberdeen archives identify women in significant numbers, because the Scottish custom of women retaining their natal family names after marriage makes them easier to identify. The authors discover that, even though women were not suing others for debt in as large numbers as men, and the amounts they were litigating for were often smaller than those of men, they nevertheless made up a significant portion of business in the Baillie Court. DesBrisay and Thomson also conjecture that the numbers for Aberdeen might not have been so very different from the realities of other British cities: it is just that the freedom of wives to sue as the primary "pursuer" or be sued as primary "defender" revealed their activities more consistently than in courts in England, where wives' activities might have been masked by their legal subordination to their husbands. The final essay of this section, Barbara C. Murison's "Lapidary Inscriptions: Rhetoric, Reality and the Baillies of Mellerstain" explores the issue of sentiment and emotional attachment through the elaborate metrical inscriptions found on the funerary monuments of the Baillie family of Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders. The inscriptions are also read in conjunction with letters of the family to reveal the ways in which Grisell Baillie (unlike women from farther north, she took her husband's last name) occupied center stage in the emotional life of the family, as well as operating as the family's manager. Murison concludes that the historian's separation of society into gendered spheres was not really evident in the Baillie family: the border between public and private was entirely porous and all the family was engaged in its maintenance and preservation.

The five essays in the third and final section, "Family, Kin, and Community," look at the Scottish family from a broader perspective. Here again the use of sources is innovative, although they sometimes reveal that Scotland was not necessarily so very different from its neighbor to the south. The first essay, by Mairi Cowan, "The Spiritual Ties of Kinship in Pre-Reformation Scotland" investigates the ways in which medieval Scottish people interpreted the Christian obligations of spiritual kinship formed at baptism. In particular, she looks at the relationship between spiritual consanguinity and marriage and discovers that Scots were not so very bothered by the sanctions against marrying within proscribed degrees of kinship. Cowan's other focus, on the obligations of kinship after the death of a family member, fellow guild member, or spiritual kin, suggest that Scots tended to place their "blood kin" under greater obligations for care of souls than they did their spiritual kin or professional associates. Although she does emphasize that this seems to be somewhat different than the experiences elsewhere in medieval Europe, in fact her findings are not that unusual. This suggests that the Scots strategized about marriages and the afterlife in much the same way as their contemporaries elsewhere in Britain and on the Continent.

Alison Cathcart's "'Inressyng of kyndnes, and renewing off thair blud': The Family, Kinship and Clan Policy in Sixteenth-Century Scottish Gaeldom" presents a social organization that now seems quintessentially Scottish--the Highland clan--as a fluid construct shaped by reciprocal ties of chieftainship and clientage reinforced by marriage. Cathcart looks at the various ways in which marriage reinforced kinship within the clan, through both exogamy and endogamy. She notes changes in marriage patterns depending on the size and importance of the clan, the number of men and women available for marriage alliances, and the changing political and social climate of the sixteenth century. Even in this typically Scottish system, however, Cathcart's conclusions--that marriage was used as a political, social, and economic tool to secure the continuing viability of the clan--are not so different from conclusions about the marriage strategies of any hegemonic group, from the English royal family to the barons of the Welsh Marches.

J. R. D. Falconer's essay, "A Family Affair: Households, Misbehaving and the Community in Sixteenth-Century Aberdeen" revisits the Aberdeen city archives to investigate the ways in which families operated as loci for wrongdoing and disorder. Falconer's specific goal is to "explore 'misbehaviour' in Aberdeen during a fifty year period (roughly 1541-91) straddling the beginnings of the Reformation" in order to determine how the advent of a Protestant "culture" affected the community (141). Unlike the Baillie court debt cases, the criminal courts in Aberdeen did subsume wives under their husbands' names, unless their activities were particularly egregious or a particular woman was a regular "visitor" to the court. Falconer's conclusions--that "illicit activities committed in Aberdeen were indeed family affairs" (144)--serves to reinforce Barbara Hanawalt's memorable statement (made in 1974) that "the family that slays together stays together." The penultimate essay, Karen Cullen's "The Famine of the 1690s and Its Aftermath: Survival and Recovery of the Family" explores the last great famine to have occurred in Scotland, a time when endemic crop failures and the "Little Ice Age" both reached a peak. Cullen discovered that, unlike statistics for France at the same time, the recovery rate of marriages and children after the worst of the famine was over was quite slow, in part because of emigration to Ulster, which was untouched by the famine in Scotland; that mortality among adults was extremely high, perhaps higher than the mortality of children; and that the kirk's accommodation of the economic conditions of the famine was inconsistent. The final essay, by Deborah A. Symonds, titled "The Disorder of Comrie, Perthshire After the '45: A Leg in a Cornfield," investigates the confluence of encroaching industrialization and the aftermath of the Jacobite invasion through the experiences of one village and in particular one tragic incident: the murder of Margaret Mckial and her daughter by the child's father, Alexander McCowan. As Symonds reconstructs the events before the murder, the tensions experienced by flax workers competing against the newly mechanized textile factories and the social and cultural malaise brought on by the disaster at Culloden come to the surface. The result was a community rent apart, in which the normal expectations of mutual aid and protection were lost.

Although each piece is relatively brief, this volume packs a great amount of information and food for thought into a small package. Despite its being not particularly innovative in terms of theoretical or conceptual issues, the authors of this collection do exactly what the editors seem to have desired: they introduce the range of possibilities in studying the late medieval and early modern Scottish family. I sincerely hope that their groundbreaking encourages others to dig deeper in the same earth, and I also hope that specialists in British family, women's, and social history put this volume on their "must read" list.