67th Conference 2024

The 67th Conference of the Scottish Medievalists was held 6-7 January 2024

Session 1:  Scotland and the Sagas

Chair: Alex Woolf.

Judith Jesch (University of Nottingham): Encounters with power: female eloquence in The Saga of the Earls of Orkney

Like most sagas, the text usually known as Orkneyinga saga has a heavy preponderance of male characters. However, the few female characters that appear in its pages are never uninteresting. The talk will consider some episodes in which various women, at different times and in different ways, stand up to the power of the earls of Orkney using eloquence, intelligence, wit or even threats. The episodes have their own intrinsic interest but can also be used to illustrate the development and the literary history of the saga.

Tom Fairfax (University of Nottingham): The Dynasty of the Scottish Kings in Orkneyinga saga

Orkneyinga saga’s understanding of the Scottish kings’ family leaves some things to be desired. It omits several kings and queens from its narrative completely and, on some occasions, calls people kings who are not associated with the Scottish royal dynasty. However, the saga also contains information about the Scottish kings which is unattested elsewhere. By comparing Orkneyinga saga’s view of the kings’ dynasty with the historically accepted view of the Scottish royal family, we can develop a greater understanding of how people in northern Scotland viewed the Scottish kingship in the medieval era. This can also help us to understand how the saga compiler received their information.

Peter Randall (University of the Highlands and Islands): Manx-Hebridean Rulership and Governance in Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 

When it comes to Manx-Hebridean affairs, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar focuses on the power struggles of claimants to the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. The compiler Sturla Þórðarson’s interest in individuals, communities, and places depended on their relevance to the Norwegian royal court. The picture we have is incomplete. Nonetheless, Sturla and his informants provide invaluable insight regarding people and places of which we would otherwise know nothing. Moreover, the saga provides extensive detail on Norwegian attempts to secure overlordship in the Isles. These accounts reveal not only the aspirations of Hákon Hákonarson, but also many of the realities of governance in Mann and the Isles.

Session 2: Family Power Dynamics

Chair: Steve Boardman

Hannah Mac Auliffe (Trinity College Dublin): Kingship and Succession Practices in Dal Riata

In early medieval Ireland, it is not uncommon to find kingships passing back and forth in regular patterns between two or more qualified branches of a ruling dynastic group. One explanation for this phenomenon is that it constituted a form of power-sharing, and was an arrangement agreed upon in order to avoid conflict within the branches of a dynastic. For the most part, these patterns are observed only in early Ireland but interestingly, there is also evidence of such patterns in the kingdom of the Scottish Dál Riata, as well as in the slightly later kingship of Alba. This paper will examine the phenomenon in the kingdom of Dál Riata, where the kingship appears to have alternated between the descendants of the two sons of Domangart Réti, Comgall and Gabrán. Through an examination of the links between the Dál Riata and the monastery on Iona, as well as their links to the Irish Uí Néill and the later kings of Alba, I hope to demonstrate that the kings of Dál Riata were, under the influence of the church, some of the first in the Irish Sea Region to regulate their succession in such a manner.

Mara Schmueckle (University of Edinburgh): “Marry first and dispense later”: Papal Dispensations and Scottish Marriages 1460-1560

Historians such as David Sellar have long recognised the importance of papal dispensations in Scottish culture, as well as the unique way which Scottish society used them.  Sellar referred to Scotland as a “marry first and dispense later” culture, suggesting that couples prioritised exchanging marriage vows even where such vows were legally invalid.[1]  My research explores the implications of this approach for Scottish society through the lens of dispensations issued by the Papal Penitentiary.  This paper will argue that a “marry first” approach meant that the Scottish process of marriage was more protracted than commonly understood, with couples taking longer to have an indissoluble marriage.  As a result, Scottish marriages were both more flexible and more vulnerable to interference than medieval marriages are commonly understood to have been.

Dispensing an already contracted marriage was a more difficult undertaking than applying for permission in advance. This paper will explore the practical steps which couples were required to take to obtain dispensation.  The documentary evidence shows a complex, multi-layered process involving procurators, judges, notaries, witnesses, and the couple themselves.  Knowing breaches of canon law required papal absolution, and so ceremonial forgiveness as well as public and private penance were required elements of a process that could be both costly and lengthy.

Despite the complexity of this process, it was commonly used by couples in late medieval Scotland.  Using previously unexplored data gathered from the records of the Papal Penitentiary this paper will present detailed figures about the number of dispensations sought by Scottish couples, and the extent to which these represented already contracted marriages.  It will then explore the practical benefits and drawbacks of the approach taken by Scottish couples, demonstrating the benefits of additional flexibility for political marriages, while also highlighting the risks.  Marriages which had not yet been dispensed could be annulled not only at the behest of the couple, but also at the behest of the local official.  Using case studies, this paper will conclude by demonstrating that a “marry first and dispense later” approach left Scottish couples uniquely vulnerable to outside interference with their marriage. 

[1] David Sellar, “The Family” in A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland 1000-1600, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), pp. 89-108 at p. 99.

Session 3: The 5th A.A.M. Duncan Memorial Lecture

Chair: Victoria Arrowsmith-Brown

Alan Macquarrie: A Tale of two Series: the Calendar of Papal Letters to the British Isles and the Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome

The Vatican Archives were first opened to scholars by Pope Leo XIII in 1883, and it is to that pope’s credit that he decreed that scholars of all denominations and none were welcome to study in its vast resources.  Scholars from all across Europe flocked to the Vatican to study there, and to extract their nations’ materials from the records.  The Public Record Office sent an archivist, William H Bliss, to extract systematically material relevant to the British Isles, and from 1893 onwards a series of volumes of relevant papal letters, and one volume of papal supplications, appeared under the imprint of HMSO.  Owing to a change in policy at the PRO in the 1960s, the series of papal letters was taken over by the Irish Manuscripts Commission, and from 1978 onwards an important series of volumes has been published in Dublin.  A volume appeared in 2018 and two others are very close to completion.

Papal letters constitute the routine out-tray of the pope’s correspondence.  The in-tray was recorded in the Register of Supplications, and here Scotland has been very fortunate. The fact that Scottish supplications to the pope have been extracted in huge numbers is largely thanks to the industry and perseverance of a small number of individuals.  Annie Dunlop, Charles Burns, Ian Cowan, and a team working with him (including Norman Macdougall, Thomas Graham, Thomas Smythe, and Alan Macquarrie) have extracted all Scottish supplications down the 1560s, and many of these have been published by the Scottish History Society, the University of Glasgow Press, and most recently the Scottish Record Society.  Ireland has been fortunate in the publication of financial records, largely thanks to the work of Fr Michael Costello. 

The present paper compares the two approaches to the process of work on the Calendar of Papal Letters and the Calendar of Scottish Supplications – original, transcription, translation and publication, all quite distinct stages, and describe the story and purpose behind their publication.

We are celebrating the appearance of another volume in their series in 2023.  Covering the years 1534-1549, Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome, volume 9, contains some 2490+ items with an index of 3235 terms.  It is more than 1000 pages in length, packed full of information of interest to musicologists, economic and social historians, legal historians, and students of theology and church history.  The evidence which it presents will greatly help to fill in some of the detail of our picture of the Scottish church in the years leading up to the Reformation.

67th Conference 2024 Day 2

Session 4:  Material and Visual Culture

Chair: Morvern French.

Abigail Ford (University of Leicester): The Agency of Nature in Materials: Scottish medieval devotional objects and spaces, from an Actor Network Theory perspective

This paper seeks to explore the ways in which nature held influence in the construction of devotional objects and spaces, through the application of Actor Network Theory and post-ANT developments in archaeology and the study of material culture.  

The meanings behind constituent parts of medieval devotional objects and spaces are well-researched, particularly so in the context of beliefs and rationality behind natural materials possessing certain powers or qualities.

However, that research can benefit from further discussion about the specific agency of natural landscapes and their components in medieval popular beliefs, and the impact this agency could have on choices made before and during the construction of such objects and spaces.

Using Scottish examples drawn from wider work on Britain and Ireland to focus on two elements: trees and stones, I will consider the agency of natural environments in shaping religious associations and spiritual interactions.

The first half of the paper will examine the presence of yew trees in medieval devotion, in particular a circa 14th century yew wood locket excavated in Aberdeen. This will be considered in the context of yew trees located on sanctified land across Britain, and the cultural tradition of yew-wood reliquaries in Ireland.

The second half will focus on the way naturally formed stones have influenced the formation of and interaction with sacred sites. The presence of water-worn quartz pebbles in 8th-13th century contexts at an outdoor religious monument on the Isle of Mull will serve as a core case study, with reference to the wider occurrence of quartz in burials and at monuments across Britain and Ireland.

With these examples in mind, I aim to contribute to discussion on the relationships between these non-human agents and their medieval human counterparts.

Anna Groundwater (NMS): More than a spring clean: painting the house to welcome a king

Embedded in the roof of the Renaissance gallery at National Museum of Scotland are the painted rafters from a ceiling at Rossend Castle, Burntisland, Fife. These were probably commissioned by Sir Robert Melville of Murdochcairnie, first Lord Melville, and are thought to have been decorated in anticipation of a visit by James VI and I. Amongst around 70 motifs of animals, grotesques, flora and what appears to be a crocodile, there are 14 emblems, 12 of which derive from Paradin’s Devises heroïques (1557). One shows two hands holding a sword and a trowel. This paper considers the emblematic function of this elaborate decoration, the messages it was intended to communicate and to whom, locating it alongside other such house-prepping, including that by Sir George Bruce at Culross from 1611. It then explores what this painting might suggest of its commissioner’s experience within the circulation of knowledge, art and design in northern Europe, and their use of references that were intended to impress the king. Finally, it places Melville’s commission within the political and religious context of James’s return in 1617, and Scottish anxieties about their place in the new Union of the Crowns.

The Rossend Castle Ceiling, Wikimedia Commons.

Session 5: Esther Inglis

Chair: Steven J. Reid.

Jamie Reid-Baxter: Esther Inglis, Franco-Scot

August 2024 will see the quatercentenary of the death of one of Jacobean Scotland’s most immediately appealing artist-intellectuals –  the Franco-Scot Esther Inglis. Born in Dieppe c. 1570, she spent most of her life in Edinburgh, where she died on 30 August 1624. Between summer 1604 to summer 1615 she lived and worked in S.E. England, where she was closely linked to the Anglo-Scottish circles around Prince Henry Frederick.  Once seen, Inglis’s calligraphic handiwork is not easily forgotten, and a good, representative selection has now been digitised and is freely available online: for links, google “estheringliscreativewoman”.

The last thirty odd years have witnessed a steadily growing body of scholarly publication around Esther Inglis. Almost none of it has its origins in Scottish (or French) scholarship, leaving the field wide open to scholars whose often minimal interest in and knowledge of  Scottish historical, cultural and archival realities have resulted in severe distortions of perspective and serious errors, not least of nomenclature.  While that situation is finally changing, a sustained, concerted effort is called for.  This quatercentenary talk presents Inglis the Jacobean Franco-Scot, her work as visual artist and writer, and some of the issues at stake.

Anna Nadine-Pike (Kent and Edinburgh): ‘Medieval’ approaches to early-modern script and books, through the manuscripts of Esther Inglis (1570/1-1624)

As an early-modern calligraphy tradition develops across the sixteenth century, newly-published writing-manuals construct the image of a previous age of scribal production. Considering the traditions which they now inherit, their producers decide what to preserve of past scribal traditions, what to discard, and how this age should be remembered. Reformed theology, meanwhile, also encourages a move away from the affectivity of the late-medieval book, where materiality, script, and image had previously facilitated modes of reading in which the physical form of a text also conditions its meaning. Against these dual contexts, this paper will consider how elements of late-medieval manuscript production endure into post-reformation, early-modern scribal activities in Britain. Beginning with wider professional scribal networks, it will concentrate on the “medievalisms” at play in the manuscripts of Esther Inglis, a Franco-Scottish Huguenot scribe. Inglis’ polygraphic and miniature manuscripts make continued visual and conceptual reference to pre-reformation scribal traditions. She adapts styles of illumination drawn from fifteenth-century Books of Hours; she produces books encourage affective, haptic engagement. She also invites an approach to calligraphy through which script becomes performative; through Inglis’ manuscripts, newly-developed early-modern scripts reclaim some of the affectivity associated with pre-reformation devotional manuscripts. A cross-period approach to Inglis’ work not only allows her manuscripts to be interpreted anew; it also understands early-modern scribal traditions as conscious of their relationship with the past, and continues to complicate narratives of change in textual and devotional practices effected by the reformation.

Session 6: Andrew Wyntoun

Chair: Rhiannon Purdie

Steve Boardman (University of Edinburgh): Wyntoun and the Anonymous Chronicle

Andrew of Wyntoun, author of the Original Chronicle, openly acknowledged that the narrative of his work between c.1330 and c.1390 derived from an earlier anonymous source. The material contained in this anonymous source was also available in some form to Walter Bower when he came to write the Scotichronicon in the 1440s. This paper reviews the evidence for the shape, purpose and coverage of the anonymous work and explores the different ways Wyntoun and Bower made use of it.

Aly MacDonald (University of Aberdeen): Wyntoun and War

War features extensively in Andrew of Wyntoun’s Original Chronicle. The present paper seeks to examine the presentation of war in Wyntoun’s work by focusing on particular traits such as the deployment of direct speech and the ethical stances adopted by the author. It will be argued that the tendency towards celebration of aristocratic chivalric mores can stand in tension with the impulse to portray war against England as a patriotic struggle to secure national freedom. It is hoped that insights will be advanced on wider Scottish cultural approaches to war and the ways in which Wyntoun can be located within that setting.