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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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. 

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