18.12.15 Stringer/Winchester (eds.), Northern England and Southern Scotland

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David Simpkin

The Medieval Review 18.12.15

Stringer, Keith J. and Angus J.L. Winchester. Northern England and Southern Scotland in the Central Middle Ages. Woodbridge UK: The Boydell Press, 2017. pp. xvi, 369. ISBN: 978-1-78327-266-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Simpkin
Birkenhead Sixth-Form College

This book is a fine, thorough and multi-faceted attempt by a range of leading experts to reach a better understanding of what is commonly referred to by the various authors, and despite the volume heading, as middle Britain, by which is generally meant the area bounded by the Firth of Forth to the north and by the rivers Lune and Tees to the south, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The premise of the volume is that both before and after the Treaty of York of 1237, which finalised the Border between England and Scotland at the Solway-Tweed, there is analytical legitimacy in, and value to be derived from, considering the political, social, economic and cultural dimensions of this region transnationally. Far from being driven by an agenda to identify common inheritances and trajectories of development in this middle Britain, however, the authors, each in their own areas of expertise, trace the sometimes coalescing but at other times countervailing forces at play in order ultimately to arrive at a picture of northern England and southern Scotland in the central Middle Ages as characterised at least equally by diversity as by shared customs and experiences. The overall structure of the volume, moving broadly from the political and ideological in the first half of the book to the cultural, social and economic in the second half, facilitates a multi-dimensional understanding of the dynamics at play, whilst also enabling the reader to achieve a firm grasp of some of the most formative periods which influenced the specific character of the Border counties, such as the reigns of King David I of Scotland (1124-1153) and King Henry II of England (1154-1189), albeit in different ways. Given the dates covered, the emphasis is mainly on peacetime phenomena.

The first two articles, which together take up almost the first half of the book, focus on issues of identity and the interplay between, on the one hand, centralising monarchies, and on the other, local landholding traditions and customs through which royal power and officialdom had to be mediated. Dauvit Broun makes innovative and compelling use of Scottish charter evidence to trace the processes by which, between around 1150 and 1190, the peoples of southern Scotland came increasingly to define themselves as part of the 'kingdom of Scotland' or 'kingdom of the Scots,' whereas 'Scotland' had hitherto largely been understood as a geographical entity lying to the north of the Firth of Forth. What Broun essentially captures is something of a transformation in the way of thinking among those living in the Border counties to the north of the Tweed, which he attributes in part, drawing on the work of Alice Taylor, to the growing and mutually beneficial interaction between Crown and Border lords following on from the assize of 1180. The crystallisation of a process by which Scotland can be seen to have extended as far south as the Tweed is seen to have been completed essentially by the year 1220, regardless of the actual ethnicity of the subjects thus being ruled over. Crucially, Broun shares with Keith Stringer, the author of the second article in the volume, a tendency to see the relationship between the Crown and its leading subjects north of the Solway-Tweed line as being rooted in cooperation, in contrast to the more domineering nature of the relationship between Crown and lords in the northern counties of England. That said, Stringer warns against drawing too great a contrast between an omnipresent monarchy south of the Tweed and a much weaker, amicable one to the north, pointing out that "the scale and reach of direct Crown control were by no means uniform, even within the "centralising" English polity, and that the disparities between regnal power-structures must not be overdrawn"(131). Indeed, the tenor of the articles of both Broun and Stringer is that the apparently more accommodating style of the kings of Scots need not be seen as a sign of weakness in comparison with the more authoritarian methods of their southern counterparts, with Stringer emphasising that what could be seen in the southern counties of Scotland was "a form of power-sharing that worked with the grain of lords' ambitions and rights, and thereby enhanced both the monarchy's legitimacy and support and the unity of the kingdom itself"(113). Here, then, was just one instance of shared experiences overlapping with divergent trends: both kingdoms were strengthening in their extremities, but in different ways.

The rest of the volume comprises a series of somewhat shorter articles that essentially set within the ideological-political frameworks created by Broun and Stringer a range of socially, culturally and economically more focussed pieces. Indeed, it is one of the achievements of the volume to have attained the kind of analytical coherence one might more generally expect to find within a monograph, with the articles not so much overlapping as interconnecting. That said, they do not manage to complete the thematic or regional jigsaw, for as most of the remaining authors are keen to point out, research into the social and economic characteristics of northern England and southern Scotland in the central Middle Ages is problematic, making many of the findings provisional.

The remaining seven articles can perhaps be divided into two types, with three relating to linguistic, religious and cultural aspects of middle Britain, and the other five to landholding, settlement, commercial and lordship patterns. Fiona Edmonds and Simon Taylor take as the focus of their investigation the 'Languages and Names' of the region, with this being one of a number of articles where diversity rather than uniformity prevails in the analysis: "most of the people of southern Scotland and northern England inhabited a world in which several different languages co-existed, and many, from all classes of society, will have had varying degrees of exposure to, and facility in, more than one of them"(162). Then again, this diversity of heritages, cultures and languages served in many respects to differentiate this part of the British Isles from many others in which a dominant language, or at least a smaller sample of languages and dialects, prevailed, and the tendency stretched across both sides of the 1237 Border. Something else that might straddle the Border, as Janet Burton discusses in her illuminating contribution on "Dioceses, Saints' Cults and Monasteries", was affiliation to a mother-church or saintly cult, as seen in the attachment of Whithorn Cathedral, Galloway, to the Archbishopric of York through to 1355, despite the Wars of Independence, and in the dissemination of the cult of Saint Cuthbert, associated with Durham, not only to Carlisle but also north of the Border. That said, Burton also draws attention to the countervailing tendency of Glasgow Cathedral to pursue independence from York as early as the late twelfth century. "For all this, however," Burton concludes, "in the reformed Church's range of manifestations across the region, ecclesiastical similarities were more significant than differences" (195). Just to emphasise the mixed picture to be arrived at from viewing Anglo-Scottish affairs from different perspectives, Richard Oram in his article on "Parishes and Churches" emphasises instead diverging tendencies, noting how "Even during the long years of Anglo-Scottish peace after 1217, major cross-Border patronage of religious institutions was the exception rather than the norm" (217).

The final third of the volume takes a more specifically social and economic focus; and here, as elsewhere in the volume, there is a fine balance between perceived similarities and differences across the Border. The similarities are perhaps most evident in the articles by the late Richard Britnell on "Lords and Tenants" and Piers Dixon on "Rural Settlement Patterns on the Ground," with Britnell emphasising how "The course of commercial development in northern England and southern Scotland was similar" before 1300, (224) and how the terminology employed for the peasantry - bonds, husbands, neyfs--was essentially the same on both sides of the Border. Similarly Dixon, though emphasising the provisional nature of his findings, comments that either side of the Solway-Tweed, "The key period of village creation appears to have been the twelfth century" (268-289). Indeed, Dixon shares with David Ditchburn, author of a piece on "Towns and Trade," a belief in the formative influence of the reign of David I of Scotland, the former in relation to the introduction of Anglo-French cultural influences into the Borderlands, and the latter because of David's influential role in creating a cross-Border political rule that facilitated the exchange of silver and growth in commerce. Otherwise, however, Ditchburn tends to emphasise the diverging tendencies in the development of urban areas, noting how "By the later thirteenth century, English and Scottish towns were...subject to diverging legal systems and to different customs administrations" (325). This is somewhat similar to the differences either side of the Border noted by Philip Dixon and Chris Tabraham in their contribution on "Fortifications," who observe that "Politically, the most important distinction to be made between the early castles of northern England and those of southern Scotland is that, whereas the former were built by conquerors, the latter were built mainly by Anglo-French lords encouraged by the Scottish Crown to settle"(338). In his article on "Shielings and Common Pastures," the co-editor of the volume, Angus Winchester, takes a more balanced approach, noting that common cross-Border tendencies such as a greater than usual prevalence of waste and transhumance sat alongside growing divergences with regards to forest exploitation and manorialisation, these latter being subject to greater seigneurial exploitation and a faster rate of subinfeudation south of the Border respectively.

In sum, this is a volume rich in ideas and with a masterful command of the relevant historiography across all the papers. Anyone interested in the northern counties of England and the southern counties of Scotland in the central Middle Ages will find here much to peak their interest and to stimulate their thoughts; and whilst some of the papers reach firmer conclusions than others, the volume as a whole coheres extremely well.

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