Holy days in late medieval Aberdeen

by Edda Frankot

The late medieval calendar was filled with feast days of saints. Some of these saint’s days were celebrated throughout Europe, such as those of Mary, John the Baptist and Peter, whereas others were locally significant, such as Margaret, Ninian and Machar in Scotland. Whereas elsewhere in Europe, dates were often entered into the record in relation to a saint’s day (such as, for example, ‘the Monday before the feast day of Saint Luke’), in Aberdeen in the late fourteenth century such dating was already becoming less common. In most of the volumes feast days are only very occasionally referred to when dating an entry, for example in the head court headings after Michaelmas (29 September), and then always accompanied with a date. This makes dating the LACR entries relatively easy.

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Nativity scene (c. 1492-4) by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican (photo EF)

Important holy days were referred to when people were required to pay the magistrates. Payments were regularly divided into instalments which were paid at particular times of the year. As such, Witsunday (Pentecost), Lammas or Peter in Chains (Petrus ad Vincula: 1 August) and Martinmas (11 November), all regularly appear in the corpus. The period around Christmas, like today, appears to have been a time when little official business was carried out. Considering the evidence from volume 7 (1487-1501), it is possible to conclude that there were usually no courts between 22 or 23 December and the Monday after 6 January when the Yule head court was held, though there were exceptions. Often the period before the Yule court was even longer: in 1496 the last court was held on 19 December, in 1491 on 17 December, in 1497 on 15 December, and in 1498 on 14 December. But there were also years in which a court took place on Christmas Eve. In 1488 bailie courts were held on both the 22nd and the 24th of December. There was obviously a lot of business that needed to be settled before Christmas. In 1495 a single entry was included on 24 December: an ‘assouerance gevin to Franch men’. The skipper, mariners and merchants of the Christofer from Dieppe were given free access to the port, and, as such, were able to celebrate Christmas in Aberdeen rather than having to remain at sea.1

On the few occasions that business was conducted between Christmas and the Yule head court this was usually not restricted to just one entry. In 1494 an entry was recorded between 23 and 31 December, a statute reining in the baxtars (who, as usual, were up to no good) was issued on the 31st of December, and a full bailie court was held on 2 January with five pieces of business attended to. In 1487 there was some unusual activity too: two entries were included on the 28th of December, one on the 31st and another one on the 3rd of January. It appears, then, that the tolbooth was not closed for business altogether over the Christmas period. Rather, the courts operated when required, like at other times of the year.

Holy days themselves were, however, not considered suitable for holding courts. So when the bailies had continued a court to a Monday in the following week, and this turned out to be a holy day, a note was added to the entry that the party should come to court the day after instead (‘and because that dai is haly T Fife balye has warnit him to compere on tusday the xxvj dai of nouembre’).2

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Curia legalis on 25 December?

It might be surprising, then, to find a court dated 25 December 1453, but it is clear from the full heading of this court that it was actually held on the 24th: ‘videlicet in profesto (i.e. the day before a feast day) Nativitatis Domini nostri Jhesu Christi’.3 The fact that 24 December 1453 was a Monday, and that this was a ‘curia legalis’ which was normally held on Mondays, confirms this. This is the only time that there is a reference to ‘Jhesu Christi’ in the corpus. The nativity itself is mentioned more regularly, namely as a term of payment like the other important holy days. The celebration of the nativity was not a matter for the courts. For this the burgesses and other inhabitants of late medieval Aberdeen will have gathered in the parish church and perhaps have shared a meal with loved ones in their homes.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from the LACR team!


  1. ACR, 7, p. 696 (24 Dec 1495). 
  2. ACR, 6, p. 766 (13 Nov 1482). 
  3. ACR, 5, p. 191 ([24] Dec 1453). 

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