14.10.31, Neville, Land, Law and People in Medieval Scotland

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Frederick C. Suppe

The Medieval Review 14.10.31

Neville, Cynthia J.. Land, Law and People in Medieval Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 20102012. Pp. viii, 256. ISBN: 9780748654383 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Frederick C. Suppe
Ball State University

The medieval Scottish kingdom was transformed during the period from 1124, which began the reign of King David, to circa 1400. David had lived in England, had held lands there, and had become familiar with developing English legal and administrative practices before he inherited the Scottish throne in 1124. Upon his accession he invited an influx of English nobles (including the Fitz Alan ancestors of what later became the Stewart royal family) to Scotland and granted them extensive lands in the Lowlands. Cynthia Neville, who has previously published two excellent books and numerous articles about this period of Scottish history, in this book draws upon several hundred brieves, charters, and other legal documents to synthesize an analysis of developing Scottish society and the nexus between landholders and land during this period. She uses the labels "Gaelic" and "Gaels" to refer to the native Celtic culture of Scotland, especially of the Highland clans, which prevailed in the country prior to David's reign, and "European" to refer to the culture and institutions which the Anglo-Norman barons imported to twelfth century Scotland.

The author explores several aspects of the process of "Europeanization" of Scotland in six chapters. The first three are grouped together in Part I under the rubric "Land and Law." The first chapter considers baronial courts, which retained more importance in the Scottish justice system compared to their gradually declining rule in England during this period. Such baronial courts were first established in the Lowland districts held by the Anglo-Norman supporters of King David and gradually spread to the culturally Gaelic areas in the West and North. By circa 1250 written charters were generally accepted as important symbolic legal artefacts connected with land ownership.

The second chapter considers perambulation, the process by which those transferring land from one person to another would physically walk around the borders of the property, along with trustworthy witnesses, and this event would be recorded in a document which described all the physical details. While alive, the witnesses' memories would be reservoirs of knowledge about the property and its transfer, but the document ensured that this knowledge would persist for potential legal use long after the witnesses had died. Neville comments that traditional Gaelic law-rememberers, the brehons (Gaelic breitheamhnan) played an important role in providing, translating, and explaining information about properties and rights in Gaelic regions as baronial courts recorded this information in charters.

Neville's third chapter explores the gradual development of trust in written documents and wax seals throughout Scotland between 1124 and circa 1300--developments echoing those described by Michael Clanchy for England during this same period. By 1401 seals had become so important that a statute required each Scottish baron and direct vassal of the king to have a seal. Persons without seals, including women, could borrow seals belonging to their lords or neighbors in order to appropriately authenticate a charter. The images on these seals became physical representations of individual and family identity. By the late thirteenth century Gaelic lords were beginning to adopt for their seals heraldic imagery which had become standard among the "European" lords of the Lowlands. It is a pity that the book contains no illustrations of at least a few of these seals.

Part II includes three chapters with the general heading "Land and People." Chapter 4 presents an interesting case study of an extended noble family successfully managing land holdings in both Scotland and England during the period of increasing antagonism between the governments of these two countries in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Robert Muschamp had been part of the entourage of King David in the mid twelfth century. His descendants became earls of Strathearn in Scotland but also retained the barony of Wooler in northern England. However, the Scottish wars of independence and King Robert I's requirement that all his vassals acknowledge him as their liege lord, which made it impossible for such barons to also be vassals of the English king, eventually forced the Strathearn family to relinquish their English holdings. While Neville describes the details and machinations of the Strathearn-Muschamp kindred and their holdings, a genealogical chart would have made it easier to follow her narrative, given the complex pattern of marriages and alliances involved.

The fifth chapter explores the changing status of unfree peasants. Because of a paucity of evidence for low level tenurial status in Scotland circa 1100, Neville draws upon evidence from contemporary Ireland to argue that Scotland had a class similar to Irish betaghs. The incoming Anglo-Norman nobles sought to create on their new lands in Scotland a manorial economy based on serfs similar to that which existed in contemporary England. A charter from 1278 shows an unfree family being sold as part of the property on which they resided. Neville describes development of a class of document called a "brieve of neyfty" which extended royal protection over property, including serfs. However, the Black Death brought major changes to the Scottish society and economy in the fourteenth century, as it did to England, and by 1400 serfdom had virtually disappeared from Scotland.

The final chapter is perhaps the most interesting, as it addresses social space in Scottish lordships, particularly the role of "friends" (amici) and friendship as revealed in documents. Neville mentions one document from circa 1250 in which Hugh de Kilmany is described as "amicus specialissimus." One is reminded of the phrase "special friend" which occasionally appears in modern American obituaries. These officially recognized and labeled friends could function like trusted family members. For example, such friends might play a role in resolving feuds or might be entrusted with custody of children if no close relatives were available for this. And just as a noble family might recycle a favorite personal name for its members over a number of generations, vassals might bestow upon some of their children personal names favored by their feudal overlord "friends." Early in this chapter the author mentions "ways in which Lefebvre's triad of perceived, conceived and lived spaces may be applied to the study of social space in Scotland" (187) during this period. A more explicit and detailed explanation of how this theoretical paradigm fits the Scottish situation would have improved what is already a thought-provoking chapter.

The target audience for this book is specialists already familiar with the details of medieval Scottish history. The two maps in the book are adequate but lack scales of distance. They display most of the important places mentioned in the book, but a bit more detail and some additional places would have been helpful to readers not intimately familiar with Scottish geography. Technical Gaelic legal terms like sorryn, frithalos, and calumpnie are mentioned in passing in the first chapter but are not defined or explained. Despite these minor criticisms, however, this is a thought-provoking book which will be useful to readers interested in the development of the medieval Scottish kingdom and its society as well as readers familiar with legal and social developments in England during the same period. Neville deploys her primary sources imaginatively and convincingly. Her underlying argument that an external "European" culture came first to Lowland Scotland and gradually spread to other regions of the kingdom builds upon earlier work by Robert Bartlett and R.R. Davies.

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Frederick C. Suppe

Ball State University