Burgh records, literature and language: a report on The International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature (ICMRSLL), Glasgow, July 2017

By William Hepburn

ICMRSLL 2017 cropped

The ICMRSLL is a long-running conference focussed on Scottish culture in the medieval and early modern period. The centre piece of this iteration, to which delegates repeatedly turned in their discussions, was a plenary debate between Professor Sally Mapstone, representing literary scholarship, and professor Roger Mason, representing historians. Their discussion emphasised that in the scholarship on this period the boundary between their disciplines was blurred. This was underlined by the diversity of the papers given at the conference. Some were particularly relevant to the themes of the LACR project.

For example, in a panel focussing on Dunfermline, Klaus Hoffman and Emily Wingfield came from separate disciplinary directions but together offered a rounded portrait of the Fife burgh’s literate culture. Hoffman, with a background in linguistics and experience working with the town records of Austria and Scotland, offered a paper on the town clerks and scribes of Dunfermline from 1573-1723. His findings were based on a sample of their work extending to 55,000 words. Hoffman was able to identify the hands of town clerks through records of their election, as well as what seem to the hands of their assistants – a role trainee notaries public might occupy as part of their seven years of training. He said these clerks could be understood as a ‘community of practice’ – a network of writers engaged in a joint enterprise and using a shared repertoire. The dates of Hoffman’s study covered the period in which the Scots language became anglicised, and Hoffman’s study revealed Dunfermline to be about 25 years behind central records in terms of anglicisation, which he attributed to the close ties between the local network of Dunfermline clerks. Emily Wingfield’s paper looked at the literary culture of Dunfermline from which the writings of Robert Henryson – thought to have been a notary public – emerged. She argued that there was an extensive literary network centred on Dunfermline, highlighting evidence such as the Miraculae of St Margaret of Scotland, written in Dunfermline in the mid-thirteenth century and surviving in a copy produced in Dunfermline in the reign of James III; the furnishing of Dunfermline Abbey with books by the abbot Richard Bothwell in the mid-fifteenth century; and the connection of the Liber Pluscardensis to a network of notaries.

In another panel looking at Scottish burghs more broadly, Elizabeth Ewan and Rob Falconer offered, respectively, observations on flyting and restorative justice. Ewan said that records of insults in burgh records offer virtually the only evidence of the ordinary speech of ordinary Scots and that in many cases they give us women’s voices. As well as discussing the themes of insults thrown on the streets – such as disease, dishonesty and physical appearance – Ewan explored the relationship between the flyting of the streets and the flying of the literary world, arguing that the former must have influenced the latter, that street flyting could have drawn on literary flyting and that it took formalised and performative qualities. Rob Falconer’s paper argued that criminality was a fundamental part of social relations in burghs. With the metaphor of the body politic in common use, behaviour that damaged this body could be framed as disease or contagion. In this worldview, moral lapses were dangerous if left untreated. Treatment involved ‘curing’ or ‘purging’ the offender. This often took the form of restorative justice, which was about repairing the harm done by the crime and not just punishing the offender. Once this had been done the offender could be accepted back into society, but if the ‘contagion’ represented by such an individual was too severe it had to be purged through, for example, banishment.

My paper was entitled ‘The Common Book: Burgh Registers and Documentary Culture in Fifteenth-Century Aberdeen’. As elsewhere in Scotland, there was a pronounced materiality to the rituals that governed life in medieval Aberdeen, from the transfer of tokens of land ownership to the public shaming of transgressors such as those who had to present the knife with which they had committed an assault to their victims. This materiality was enhanced by the creation of records – objects which preserved the memory of other objects. It made particular sense in towns, where there was usually close proximity between people and property, the sites where business concerning them was transacted and the places where the written records of them were stored. A burgh archive which gathered together many records such could function as a symbol of the burgh community whatever the format in which it preserved documents, but by shrinking thousands of enactments of this relationship into a portable, easily-searchable artefact, it had particular power. The materiality of these artefacts – burgh registers, often called common books by contemporaries – may have increased the value placed in writing itself. Even those who could not read or write could have seen their power as symbols of the burgh community. Perspectives may have been shifted simply by the awareness that the burgh government had the memory of the town stored in physical form, in much the same the way as Brian Stock outlined when he argued that texts did not have to be present for people to think or behave as if they were. 1

My paper pointed towards administrative practices in burghs as one factor contributing towards the increasing use of the written word in late medieval Scotland. The other papers I have highlighted also pointed towards the significance of burghs and their records to Scottish language and literature as, for instance, centres of literary networks or inspiration for poetic flytings. The work of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers project will help to make the richest source from burghs in this period more accessible to scholars, offering the potential for new insights on the language and literature of late medieval Scotland amongst many other subjects.


  1. See for instance Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983). Thanks to Anne Rutten of the University of St Andrews, who presented on the consolidation of Stewart power through texts in the reigns of Robert II and III on the same panel as me at the ICMRSLL in Glasgow, for first directing me to the work of Stock. 

2 thoughts on “Burgh records, literature and language: a report on The International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature (ICMRSLL), Glasgow, July 2017

  1. I really would like to read this except the formatting of the page makes it extremely difficult to do so. The grey text on an image background makes for poor contrast and low contrast is not helpful with my vision impairment. Is there any chance the layout could be improved please?

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    • Thank you for pointing this out and sorry to hear that you were finding the blog difficult to read. The background has now been changed to a plainer colour, which will hopefully make the texts easier to read. Apologies for the delay in dealing with this and let us know if there is still a problem.

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