The Medieval Review 17.11.10

Shead, Norman F., ed. Scottish Episcopal Acta. Volume I: The Twelfth Century . Scottish History Society 6th Series. Woodbridge: Scottish History Society / The Boydell Press, 2016. pp. lxxxvi, 410. ISBN: 978-0-90624-540-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Richard Allen
St Peter's College, Oxford

Scholars have long recognised the importance of the acta--that is, the charters and documents--issued by the bishops of medieval Europe. From the information they contain concerning individual dioceses, and their religious, political and socio-economic history, to the light they shed on universal issues, such as literacy, ritual, gender, law and the exercise of power, their value as historical evidence is in many ways unmatched. The availability of critical editions of such texts, however, has not always reflected the significance medievalists attribute to them. Thus, if scholars interested in the ecclesiastical history of medieval England have long been able to rely upon the important English Episcopal Acta (EEA) series, which has thus far published the texts of thousands of acta in 45 volumes, [1] their counterparts in Normandy have yet to see the acta of a single diocese published to similar standards (such things should shortly begin to change, however, with the forthcoming Corpus des actes épiscopaux normands, XIe-XIIIe siècle).

Historians interested in the ecclesiastical history of England's northern neighbour have likewise laboured for many years without access to single-volume critical editions of the acta of Scotland's medieval bishops. The appearance, therefore, of a first volume of Scottish Episcopal Acta, edited by Norman Shead, is both timely and welcome. Intended, one assumes, as the first of many (there is unfortunately no outline, as far as this reviewer could see, of the larger series of which this will one day form a part), the volume in question presents critical editions of 259 acta issued by the bishops of nine of Scotland's medieval dioceses during the long 12th twelfth-century. Unlike the EEA, which only calendars those acts already edited to critical standards elsewhere, the Latin text of each actum is printed in full, along with summaries in English and the usual critical apparatus concerning variants, dating, and (in the case of originals) physical characteristics. A brief but useful introduction sets the acta in their historical context, and examines various issues relating to their internal diplomatic features. There is also a helpful listing of lost acts known only by mentions. A glossary helps orientate those unfamiliar with technical terms peculiar to Scotland, although this is by no means comprehensive (the similarity between teinds/tithes--decimae--may be obvious to Anglophones, but less so to many non-native speakers). Place, person and subject indexes help the reader navigate the texts, but the last of these could have been slightly improved by including terms in Latin, rather than just their English translations.

As for the editions themselves, these have been prepared with great care, although the editorial method is not without its peccadilloes. Thus, for reasons that are never fully explained, Shead does not reserve the siglum A exclusively for originals, but uses it for copies as well (e.g. nos. 27, 52, 77...), with the result that his texts are editorially out of synch with those published elsewhere, most notably in the EEA. Elsewhere, a change of folio in a cartulary copy is indicated by the folio number in parentheses, but only if the change does not occur mid-word, at which point it is instead indicated by a solidus (/) and a footnote. The end result, of course, is the same, but it is unclear why Shead was so opposed (no explanation is given in the introduction) simply to placing the folio number mid-word, as is the case in the EEA and other charter editions. In another minor oversight, while the critical apparatus accompanying each actum contain much useful and important information, no dates are given for the endorsements found on the reverse of originals (e.g. nos. 42, 49, 50...).

As for the texts themselves, these are also not without their editorial inconsistencies. In many instances, for example, the so-called "saving clause," which effectively protected the continuing right of the bishop through a simple phrase such as salvo iure episcopali, is frequently--and somewhat unusually--presented as an independent clause (e.g. nos. 4, 6, 7, 10...), only in other instances to be rendered as the dependent clause it is (e.g. nos. 32, 37, 42, 119...). As for punctuation more generally, while Shead notes that this has been kept to a minimum in relation to later copies (lvi), it is at times almost non-existent, leading to long, run-on sentences (e.g. nos. 32, 33, 37...).

It is in the introduction, however, that one finds most to quibble with in this otherwise impressive volume. Minor things, such as the absence of regnal years following the mention of various kings, bishops and abbots, mean readers for whom Scottish history is not second nature will sometimes struggle to orientate themselves chronologically within the narrative of the analysis. Much the same is true in terms of medieval Scotland's geography, with which readers could have been easily familiarised by the inclusion of a simple map showing the boundaries of the kingdom's dioceses and the location of its major ecclesiastical foundations. The introduction is also Spartan in terms of its illustrations (that is to say, there are none), which is a pity, given that photographs of even a selection of originals, especially those still in private hands, would have saved any other interested researchers the laborious task of trying to gain access to these documents, while also showing some of the varied ways in which scribes might set about their task.

It is in relation to this last point, however, that the work makes one of its greatest omissions. Indeed, despite the survival of more than 70 original charters (around 28% of the total), there is no discussion either of their palaeography or their other external characteristics, so that the reader remains uninformed about one of the most important elements of any surviving medieval document (or corpus thereof). Admittedly, the fact that this volume deals with a range of dioceses, rather than just one, means any such discussion would have focused overwhelmingly on the bishoprics of Glasgow and St Andrews, for which more than 70% of the total acta survive. But, as research elsewhere has shown, the 12th-century was a period critical to the development of episcopal chanceries in neighbouring regions that, as Shead points out (xviii-xxii), had otherwise influenced developments in Scotland (or had much in common with them). [2] It is therefore unfortunate that the original charters are not treated to detailed analysis, since the resulting findings would no doubt have been of important comparative use not just in terms of any future volumes of Scottish Episcopal Acta, but also similar editions already published elsewhere. Likewise, the lack of any detailed discussion of the various surviving seals and sealing methods is regrettable, to say the least.

It is a shame that the work should contain such flaws, since they detract from what is otherwise an impressive piece of scholarship. In bringing together these texts and making them accessible not just via this printed volume, but also as part of the groundbreaking People of Medieval Scotland (POMS) database (, Norman Shead has rendered an important service to specialists working in a wide range of fields, both within and outwith medieval Scotland. But it is scholars with an interest in medieval diplomatic who should most look forward to any subsequent volumes of Scottish Episcopal Acta, for if these can improve upon the faults of this initial offering, then Norman Shead will have laid the foundations for a series that promises to become a standard work of reference for many years to come.

-------- Notes:

1. English Episcopal Acta, 45 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-2016).

2. For discussion with regards to England and Normandy, see C. R. Cheney, English Bishops' Chanceries, 1100-1250 (Manchester, 1950); R. Allen, "Episcopal acta in Normandy, 911-1204: The Charters of the Bishops of Avranches, Coutances and Sées," Anglo-Norman Studies 37 (2015): 25-51.

Copyright (c) 2017 Richard Allen

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