16th Conference 1973

The 16th Conference of the Scottish Medievalists was held at the University of Stirling, 6-7 January 1973. Minutes Secretary, John Todd

16th Conference 1973

The main discussion of the 16th Conference focused on THE LATER CHRONICLES. Chairman: Mr N.F. Shead.

The four speakers commented on papers and notes circulated to the Conference:

  • Mr W.W. Scott: John Fordun’s Chronica Gentis Scottorum. [a copy of this paper is in among the Medievalists’ papers]
  • Mr N.F. Shead: The Chronicle of Walter Bower.
  • Mr N. Macdougall: Pitscottie and Buchanan.
  • Dr T.I. Rae: Fifteenth – and sixteenth-century Historical Thinking in Scotland.

(1) Fordun.

At Mr Cant’s invitation, Mr Scott enlarged upon his suggestion of a missing thirteenth-century source. It was possibly put together in 1290, like the known treatise on the Scottish king’s household for John Balliol. Its bias was nationalistic and lay. There were some indications that the author has connections with the Comyns – who (by a process of elimination) were the most likely family to record the details of military movements in 1215/16. Walter Comyn’s speech at the inauguration of Alexander III was also recorded. It may have been kept up to 1306 (where there is a break in Wyntoun). Professor MacQueen mentioned that there was a thirteenth-century source by “Beremund” behind Boece but this was dated from the 1260s.

Dr Watt asked who was Fordun, anyway? his bare existence (apparently as a layman) was attested by an entry in the close rolls in 1397. If his existence was obscure, what he wrote was equally so; what did he himself contribute to the work bearing his name? He may simply have added to an earlier work; Books i – v may have been written one hundred years before and just as easily by a monk as by a layman.

Dr Watt also stressed the importance of going back to the manuscripts. His study of manuscripts of Bower (reported in 1959 to the Conference!) had shown that Gooddall’s MS. was the latest and far from the best; earlier manuscripts (especially C.C.C.14,9) contained marginalia distinguishing passages by “auctor” (source) and “scriptor” (Bower). The “auctor” passages needed careful comparison with Fordun.

Professor Nicholson pointed to cone similarity in the themes of Fordun and Baldred Bisset: Mr Scott agreed, but had not yet compared them closely. Professor Legge found parallels between Fordun’s mythical material and the Brut chronicles, which were works for the laity although contained in some monasteries.

(2) Lay Historiography.

Professor Brown drew attention to the lack of monastic chroniclers in Scotland. It was remarkable that laymen should be writing Latin histories as late as the fifteenth century. There was evidence for lost annals of St Andrews, Scone and Dunfermline (mentioned by Mr Sheaf) and evidence too that in the thirteenth century the average Scottish monastic house was no worse off for books than its English counterpart. But, as Professor Legge said, Scottish houses were not used as repositories of records; there was no great Benedictine house like Westminster and St Albans with a tradition of historical writing. On the other. hand, there was late evidence that family genealogies had long been kept on rolls by chaplains; and romances to glorify a family dated from the twelfth century.

Father Dilworth asked whether the early material (e.g. in Fordun) might have existed in oral tradition. Mr Scott agreed that there were hints that writers in Scotland in the thirteenth century were taking an interest in highland affairs. The first mention of a sennachie was at the inauguration of Alexander III. Dr Simpson said the evidence of the socachie in 1249 was much later, but agreed that oral tradition must have been important in the twelfth and thirteenth century. National history was the history of the kings and built upon lists of kings. But from 1290 onwards a different kind of history had to be written concerned with the identity of the nation other than the line of kings.

Dr Cowan said the saints’ lives showed national bias in an earlier age. Dr Rae said the first mention of Svota was in Nennius. Mr Webster said the Scota myth used by Fordun was Celtic in character and outwith the traditions of the Scottish monastic houses. A sudden interest was taken in it in 1290. The early material in Fordun was not to be ignored – it was a compilation but the bias of the compilation was illuminating. It was important to take the earlier and later parts together and look at the general aim of the history. He believed in the importance of the sennachies in the early period but doubted whether the style of the early part of Fordun was theirs. (Dr Watt mentioned there was a picture of a sennachie in the Corpus Christi MS of Bower).

(3) Pitscottie’s version of the reigns of James III, IV and V.

Professor Nicholson suggested that Pitscottie might well have more than a grain of historical truth in his analysis of government in the reigns of James III, IV and V; the nobility were being displaced by courtiers in the king’s counsels – their inner counsels at least. Mrs Brown doubted this: the nobility were on the kings’ councils, and there was evidence that they were giving counsel informally also. She did not dispute – as Mr Cant pointed out – that there were complaints at the time that the kings were not using their natural counsellors; but Pitscottie was wide of the mark in suggesting that the troubles of the reigns were all explained by this. Dr Watt said that in Matthew Paris “natural counsellors” did not mean nobility but natural born Englishmen – in Fortescue it did mean people of standing. Professor Brown pointed out that this talk of natural counsellors went back to Henry I’s time in England and was part of the political jargon of reign after reign.

Mr Webster underlined the importance in all chronicle studies of trying to see what the general aim of the writer wee, rather than treating the chronicle simply es a series of separate statement of fact. Professor MacQueen said that ho could not see what Pitscottie’s aim was. Dr Rae doubted if he knew himself: “but his style was beautiful” concluded Professor Nicholson. Mr Cant expressed the thanks of the whole conference to those who had contributed papers.

The rest of the 16th Conference was occupied in reports and discussions of publishers, publications and other matters.