Memory and proof of age (1507)

ACR, 8, p. 705-6 (21 June 1507)

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Burgh Registers tend only to include brief statements concerning court cases that were dealt with by the burgh courts. From these, it is often difficult to establish the circumstances of a legal matter or of the parties involved in it or to draw any conclusions on the reasoning behind a certain verdict. With regards to cases of verbal or physical abuse, for example, there are often no details on who perpetrator or victim were, what their relationship was, where the abuse had taken place, what the character of it was and who had witnessed it. Of course, these registers were not written for entertainment or to facilitate twenty-first century research, but to keep a record of the decisions of the burgh courts. But one cannot help but be curious to know more.

The character of the Aberdeen records make it all the more interesting, then, when we do come across additional information in a court case, such as depositions of witnesses. It gets even more exciting when the majority of witness statements was made by women, a group generally underrepresented in legal sources. On the 21st of June 1507 fourteen depositions, nine of which were given by women, were recorded in the Aberdeen registers. These depositions concerned the age of a girl, Isabel Buchan, the heir of the late William Buchan, a burgess of Aberdeen.

There are eight entries in total concerning this case between 30 April and 21 June. From these it appears that the matter at hand was whether Isabel Buchan should still be under the tutory of one of the two parties in the case, David Colp. According to Scots law, orphaned minors (that is to say, minors whose fathers had died) were under tutory until they reached puberty. For girls this was at the age of twelve, for boys at fourteen. At that age minors would come into ownership of their property, though they would remain under curatory until they reached majority (for boys) or were married (for girls).

The depositions of the fourteen witnesses that appeared in court on 21 June are interesting in that they provide information on how people remembered important occurrences like births and deaths when communication was still to a large extent oral. There were no registers of births, marriages and deaths until after the Reformation, and few people beyond monasteries and burgh councils would have recorded important events.


From the statements of the fourteen people deposing in this case it appears that especially the women linked their memories to important feast days and to other memorable life events. Two of the women described their memories of Isabel’s baptism. Bessy Sibbald, Isabel’s godmother, recalled that she ‘hewf hir one monunday before festerinevine and sche dynit that day in Alexander Chameris house’. Alexander Chalmers’ wife, Isabel of Cullen, deposed that she too ‘hwyff Isabell Buchane one monunday before festerinevine’. To ‘hwuf’ means to lift a child from the font as a sponsor during the baptismal ceremony. Based on these memories Bessy thought that Isabel Buchan was at least eleven, as both Andrew Branch, the girl’s godfather, and Alexander Chalmers were still alive when she was baptised. Isabel of Cullen confirmed that her husband died when the girl was one year old, believing she was past her eleventh birthday.


According to Margaret McGlynn, who researched proof of age cases from sixteenth-century England, baptism was the ‘most common single memory of the birth’.1 Mc Glynn noted that the lifting of the child from the font by the godparents after the baptism, the most significant moment in the ritual, stood out in people’s memories of the event. This expression of social relationships, as McGlynn called it, between the godparents and their godchild, was no doubt further enhanced by the subsequent dinner at the house of one of the couples present at the baptism in our case.


From the depositions in the Aberdeen registers, it appears that some documents were also presented in court on the 21st of June, though any details as to what they contained are lacking. However, it appears that the memories of some of the deponents were linked to the drawing up of these documents. John Moir, for example, deposed that he was bound in an obligation with Willam Buchan for his marriage goods a year before ‘yone obligacioun bundin be the prior of Monymusk’. Presumably this meant that Isabel’s parents were married about a year before this obligation was drawn up, and that Isabel herself could not have been born more than about three months before it (though this is not explicitly stated). Two of the women linked their memories of Isabel growing up to another document presented in court, a deed dated on St Catherine’s day (25 November – the year is not mentioned). Elizabeth Mowat stated that she did not know how old Isabel was but that she was not quite four when the deed was drawn up. Andrew Cullen’s wife deposed that Isabel could ‘gang, ett and drink befor the de[e]d’.



In thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England, written evidence was not seen as the most reliable. According to John Bedell in his article on memory and proof of age in that period, both judges and jurors considered written documents as inferior to memories of people who had personal knowledge of a certain event, though they were regularly presented as auxiliary evidence.2 McGlynn noted that in the earlier decades of the sixteenth century very few written documents were used as evidence in proof of age cases in England. People were very aware that written sources could be lost (as well as forged) and that personal memories were more reliable in the long run. This had changed by the late sixteenth century when society as a whole had become more literate.3

That written documents in themselves were not considered sufficient proof in early sixteenth-century Scotland either, is confirmed by the deposition of John Cullen, whose only recorded statement was that he ‘trastis the writ producit under the aldermanis seill’, apparently another document that was present in court. On the whole, though, written documents do appear to have played a more significant role than was usual in England at the same time, but based on one case it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions with regards to Scottish practice in the early sixteenth century.

Relying on the evidence of witnesses and documents, the bailies concluded that Isabel Buchan was eleven years old. Though this is not stated explicitly in the verdict, this meant that she would remain under the tutory of David Colp for a further nine months or so, after which she would be able to enjoy the fruits of her inheritance (though under curatory until she married).

The observations about the functioning of memory in proof of age cases correspond to conclusions made by authors analysing similar sources. Elizabeth van Houts, for example, noted that women, especially mothers and wet nurses, were important as ‘rememberers of birth details’, as this was considered part of the female domain. In such cases women’s testimonies were vital, as is clear from our 1507 case as well.4

Of course, much more can be said about medieval memory in all its facets than it is possible to relate in a short post. Hopefully other proof of age cases like this will crop up as our transcription efforts continue and more research will become possible. But even if not, this case on its own has already provided us with some nicely detailed insights into the workings of memory in medieval society, especially those of women, and as such into the events that most likely mattered most to them.

  1. Margaret McGlynn, ‘Memory, orality and life records: proofs of age in Tudor England’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 40 (2009), 688-9. 
  2. John Bedell, ‘Memory and proof of age in England 1272-1327’, Past & Present 162 (1999), 24. 
  3. McGlynn, ‘Memory, orality and life records’, 686, 696. 
  4. Elisabeth van Houts, ‘Medieval memory in theory and practice: some exploratory thoughts in the guise of a conclusion’, Gesta 48, no. 2 Making Thoughts, Making Pictures, Making Memories: a special issue in honor of Mary J. Carruthers (2009), 188; Idem, ‘Gender and Authority of Oral Witnesses in Europe (800-1300), Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 9 (1999), 220. 

From script to text

by Jackson Armstrong

One of the most cryptic and alluring aspects of the pages of the Aberdeen council registers is the handwriting which appears in them. To most people this script is not remotely decipherable.

Patterns of handwriting change over time. The study of these changes is known as palaeography. An excellent public resource may be found at the Scottish handwriting website.

Even in 1591 the town clerk of Aberdeen reported his bafflement by the handwriting of the fourteenth century. That year the clerk, Master Thomas Mollisone, who was preparing an inventory of extant registers and bailie court books, found no volumes from earlier than 1380. However, he noted that ‘Befoir this, scrowis [scrolls] on parchment ’ written in Latin ‘and for ilk year ane skrow’, survived. In his assessment they were ‘evil to be red, be resoun of the antiquitie of the wreit and the forme of the letter or character … which is not now usit’ and that ‘skairslie gif ony man can reid the samyn’.1


The only extant burgh court roll, from 1317, kept at the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives.

We think of the contents of the eight register volumes from 1398–1511 as a corpus of text. But what is ‘the text’? The task of our project is to take the handwritten script in the registers and render it as machine readable text. I think it is useful to pause and consider the difference between what we think of as ‘the text’ and the handwritten script. The scripts in these registers use a set of character symbols with standard abbreviations and also special letter forms. It is helpful to think of this as a form of shorthand writing, or even encryption, which it is our job to decipher. A later and more extreme version of such abbreviation, or shorthand, is that which was devised by Thomas Shelton, and used by Samuel Pepys in writing his well-known diary. The ‘text’ of Pepys’s diary entries (what might be described as their meaningful content) is not necessarily the same as the writing on the page. The editors of Pepys’ diaries had the difficult task to extract the ‘text’ from the diarist’s shorthand (for an example, see this image of a page of his diary). Similary, a difference can be noted between the text of our material, and the handwriting which various scribes used to symbolise that meaningful content. It is our interpretation of the handwritten script which produces ‘the text’.

This brings us to the nature of the transcription we produce by rendering the script into text. A diplomatic transcription aims to reproduce everything as it is, for instance giving wt for wt . By contrast, a semi-diplomatic transcription includes the full expansion, in this case expanding wt to ‘with’. It may even be possible to represent the set of symbols used for the original script with high fidelity, producing what is in effect a facsimile. For instance, a form of typeface called ‘record type’ was invented in the late eighteenth century to reproduce medieval abbreviations. That would be a tremendously cumbersome process and it would not help in moving from script to text. In addition, record type and full diplomatic transcription were invented before the benefit of modern photography. Digital images of the original pages now provide a perfect facsimile, and as a result a diplomatic transcription is no longer necessary.

Our task is not to create a facsimile of handwriting, but to represent the text as consistently and accurately as we can. To this end we aim to produce a text which may be displayed either as a semi-diplomatic transcription, or a semi-normalised transcription. The latter allows for fuller intervention by the transcriber, regularising and smoothing out features like variant letter forms, punctuation, capitalisation, and so on. In the former case, the expansion of abbreviations is assisted by the fact that these were standardised to a large degree. Reference works are available to assist transcribers with the identification and expansion of abbreviated forms.

ACR 4, p. 7, entry 2

ACR 4, p. 7, entry 2

semi-diplomatic transcription: Eodem die Johannes mercer’ adiudicatur in amerciamento curie pro iniusta de perturbacione ade de benyn vicini sui. Et dictus adam in amerciamento pro perturbacione predicti Johannis mercer’ et dictus Johannes mercer’ dedit Johannem vokate patrem plegium legalem quod dictus adam erit indempnis de ipso et perturacione sua aliter ipse per viam iuris Et modo consimili dictus adam dedit Ricardum de Ruthirfurd plegium legalem quod Johannes mercer’ erit indempnis et cetera.

semi-normalised transcription: Eodem die Johannes Mercer’ adiudicatur in amerciamento curie pro iniusta de perturbacione Ade de Benyn vicini sui. Et dictus Adam in amerciamento pro perturbacione predicti Johannis Mercer’ et dictus Johannes Mercer’ dedit Johannem Vokate patrem plegium legalem quod dictus Adam erit indempnis de ipso et perturbacione sua aliter ipse per viam juris. Et modo consimili dictus Adam dedit Ricardum de Ruthirfurd plegium legalem quod Johannes Mercer’ erit indempnis et cetera.

In our project we are not doing all this for paper and ink, but electronically, and through Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) annotation. A useful essay on this process is by M J Driscoll, on ‘Electronic Textual Editing: Levels of transcription’.2 Thus the text we produce is not just typed out as ‘flat’ strings of characters and words (as it would be in an edition printed on paper), but it is encoded following TEI standards. This allows the text to be augmented with annotations concerning the structure of the text, features of the transcription and textual meaning. These annotations, for example, enable us to indicate where we have made an expansion by supplying in full the information represented by the abbreviation in the original script.


TEI-annotated transcription of ACR 4, p. 7, entry 2.

However, a pertinent question is whether a silent expansion of a standard abbreviation may still be a consistent and accurate representation of meaningful content when moving from original script to electronic text. Indeed, the choices made by the transcription team as to how to interpret particular characters in the script rely on a process of judgement, partly based on interpretation of context. Cumulatively, those judgements will result in the transcribed text. In all this they follow a process which enables cross-checking to ensure a high degree of inter-transcriber agreement and consistency, both on the transcribed corpus of text, and on the annotations made to augment that corpus.

The process of moving from original script to electronic text is fundamental to our work. It presents its own challenges and choices which take a range of skills to address, and to ensure the final product is robust and reliable.

  1. John Stuart, ed., The Miscellany of the Spalding Club (1841-52), v, p. 9. The use of u/v has been changed to aid readability. 

Black money in Aberdeen (1488)

ACR, 7, p. 57 (14 April 1488)

by William Hepburn

ACR 7 p. 57

1488 was an eventful year in Scotland. King James III faced the second major rebellion of his reign, led by a group of aggrieved noblemen using his teenage son Prince James as a figurehead. After a skirmish at Sauchieburn near Stirling the king was killed in unknown circumstances and his son was crowned as James IV. There is little evidence of these dramatic events in the Aberdeen burgh register entries for that year, which focus on the ongoing affairs of people in and around the town. In amongst this material, however, lies evidence for the widespread impact of one of James III’s most unpopular policies which, in combination with a range of other grievances, provoked some of the king’s subjects into rebelling against him.1

Between 1480 and 1482 James III’s government introduced a form of debased currency known as black money, which was essentially a type of coin with the same face value as existing coins but made from lower-quality metal. According to a contemporary chronicle these coins, along with the war between Scotland and England ‘causyt baitht hungar and derth and mony pure folk deit of hunger’. This crisis led to black money being ‘cryit downe’ in 1482, meaning that it effectively lost its status as legal tender. The outcry against the black money appears to have been a contributing factor to the first major rebellion against James III.2


A Crux Pellit penny – part of the black money of 1480-82 (Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew discovered many entries about black money in the Aberdeen Burgh Registers from around 1482, when the issue of the currency and its swift denunciation led to a flurry of litigation in the Aberdeen courts. They noted that cases involving black money continued into 1485 but that the issue was ‘essentially short-lived’.3 One entry, however, appears to suggest that its effects were still being felt in Aberdeen as late as 1488.4 It records one of the matters dealt with in a head court held before the baillies of Aberdeen in the tolbooth on 14 April of that year:

‘The samyn day Jhone of Culane Alexander Menyeis ande Jhone Wormet oblist thaim be the fathis of thar bodiis lelely and treulie to content and pay to the men of Danskin for the want of ther silver in tyme of the blak money in lentryne wair ande futvale penny and penny worthis for siclik price as fremmit mene may by it for reddy silver in hand fra merchandis of the toune.’5

Like many of the entries about black money from closer to the time of its demonetisation in 1482, this entry concerns the settling of debts which were complicated by the use of black money in a transaction.6 In this case, ‘men of Danskin’ (Danzig, modern-day Gdansk) were reimbursed by three Scottish merchants (John of Cullen, Alexander Menzies and John Wormet) for a debt incurred ‘in tyme of the black money’. The Scots were to settle the debt by handing over sheepskins (‘lentryne wair’, ‘futvale’) equal to its value.

The only other known issue of black money in James III’s reign was coined in the late 1460s.7 However, it seems that the 1488 entry refers to the 1480-82 coinage rather than this earlier issue.8 The earlier coinage was far less controversial and no trace of it can be found in the historical record for the 1470s, suggesting that it may have fallen out of use by that point.9 Also, the phrase ‘in tyme of the black money’ appears to refer to a well-known episode such as the notorious second issue of the coinage. 10

If the entry does refer to the infamous black money of 1480-82, what is its significance? It would be the latest-known contemporary reference to a legal case concerned with the repercussions of the 1480-82 black money issue in Scotland’s public records, showing that while this issue was largely dealt with in swift fashion, some of the problems it caused were still being resolved as late as six years after the event. Perhaps ‘the men of Danskin’ had returned to Aberdeen for the first time since they were paid in black money and took the opportunity to pursue the issue in the burgh court. Further work on the Aberdeen burgh registers may reveal more echoes of the black money crisis of 1482. It could even uncover evidence which sheds more light on this specific case.

More broadly, it links local, national and international history. Here is a case of a local court dealing with the effects of a reckless royal policy on international merchants. It demonstrates the capacity of these records to reveal detailed evidence about the affairs of Aberdeen as well providing a unique perspective on the impact of royal government and the links between Scotland and the wider world.


Seventeenth-century portrait of James III (Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, there is a kind of poetic symmetry to this case taking place in 1488. Two months later, James III died at the battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June. After the battle, hoards of treasure belonging to the king were found in Edinburgh and in chests abandoned on the field – treasure which may have been amassed, at least in part, as a result of stowing away coins made of precious metals which he swapped out for the debased black money.11 If the fatal skirmish at Sauchieburn was a lightning strike at the heart of the storm created by James III’s reckless approach to kingship, the case of the black money cleared up by the magistrates of Aberdeen was a raindrop at its outer edge.

  1. Norman Macdougall, James III (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2009), pp.346-51, 359-68. 
  2. Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew, Changing Values in Medieval Scotland: A Study of Prices, Money, and Weights and Measures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 126; Macdougall, James III, pp. 183, 185. 
  3. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  4. It was also still affecting the Scottish crown’s financial administration, when a case involving payment of black money to the Comptroller was addressed in 1487 – Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  5. Minor changes have been made to the text to aid readability 
  6. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  7. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 125. 
  8. Other debased coins, known as billon placks, were used in James III’s reign but Joan Murray insisted that there are ‘strong reasons against identifying the billon placks as part of the black money’ – Joan E. L. Murray, ‘The Black Money of James III’ in British Archaeological Reports, 45 (1977), pp. 115-130 (p. 119). 
  9. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 125. 
  10. The same phrase was used in a passage identified by Joan Murray as referring to the 1480-82 black money from a record of a case heard before the lords of council in 1482 – Murray, ‘Black Money’, p. 117. 
  11. Norman Macdougall, James IV (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989), p. 51; Macdougall, James III, p. 186.