Ships, Taverns and Peacemaking: Project Symposium II meets in Aberdeen

Ships, taverns and peacemaking were among the topics discussed at the second LACR symposium on the subject of ‘Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe’.

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International legal and diplomatic disputes over ships were among the subjects discussed by participants. (Lego interpretation courtesy Findlay Armstrong.)

On 25 and 26 May LACR’s international network of scholars gathered in Aberdeen for the second time to discuss the theme of law in towns. This meeting and its precursor (in February 2017) were funded by the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (RIISS).

Whereas at the first symposium participants presented a ‘gobbet’ or source extract that illustrated the topic they wished to develop further, on this occasion draft papers were circulated ahead of the event. These papers served as the focus of the planned sessions. In each case a respondent commented on the draft paper, then the author (or co-authors) offered a reply, and then the discussion was opened out to involve the wider group.

The constructive sessions were focused on developing the papers for our intended book on cultures of law in urban northern Europe, focused on the late medieval and early modern period. We anticipate it will contain these papers in their final form and some additional invited contributions. In that work it is already clear that the experience of Scotland in its Northern European context will be prominent.

On 25 May the programme included the following sessions:

Claire Hawes (Aberdeen) responded to William Hepburn (Aberdeen) & Graeme Small (Durham), Common Books in Aberdeen, c. 1398 – c. 1511

Christian Liddy (Durham) responded to Graeme Small (Durham) & William Hepburn (Aberdeen), Reading the social history of the archive the other way round: Aberdeen’s council registers, 1591–1437–1398

Edda Frankot (Aberdeen) responded to David Ditchburn (TCD), Bells, Clocks & The Beginnings of ‘Lawyer Time’ in Late Medieval Scotland

David Ditchburn (TCD) responded to Edda Frankot (Aberdeen), Legal business outside the courts: private and public houses as spaces of law

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz (Amsterdam) responded to Jelle Haemers (KU Leuven) & Chanelle Delameillieure (KU Leuven), Recalcitrant Brides and Grooms. Jurisdiction, Marriage, and Conflicts with Parents in Fifteenth-Century Ghent

Jelle Haemers (KU Leuven) & Chanelle Delameillieure (KU Leuven) responded to Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz, Conflicts about property: ships and inheritances in Danzig and the Hanse region (15th–16th centuries)

Michael H. Brown (St Andrews) responded to Jörg Rogge (Mainz), Pax Urbana – the use of law for the achievement of political goals

Jörg Rogge (Mainz) responded to Michael H. Brown (St Andrews), The Burgh and the Forest: Burgesses and officers in fifteenth-century Scotland

Prospect of Old Aberdeen. John Slezer, Theatrum Scotiae, 1693. Aberdeen University SB f91.41. Sle 1

Participants gathered in Old Aberdeen. Image: ‘The Prospect of Old Aberdien’, from John Slezer, Theatrum Scotiae (1693). AUL: SB f91(41) Sle 1. (Courtesy University of Aberdeen.)

On 26 May the programme included the following sessions:

Andrew Simpson (Aberdeen) responded to Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen), ‘Malice’ and motivation for hostility in the burgh courts of late medieval Aberdeen

Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen) responded to Andrew Simpson (Aberdeen), Men of Law in the Aberdeen Council Register: A Preliminary Study, c.1450 – c.1460

Anna Havinga (Bristol) responded to Joanna Kopaczyk (Glasgow), Language as code: language choices and functions in a multilingual legal culture

Joanna Kopaczyk (Glasgow) responded to Anna Havinga (Bristol), Language shift in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Sessions were chaired by LACR members Claire Hawes (Aberdeen), William Hepburn (Aberdeen), Andrew Mackillop (Glasgow), Adam Wyner (Swansea). Michael P. Brown, co-director of RIISS offered a welcome, and Edda Frankot and Jackson Armstrong provided an introduction and chaired the summative discussion sessions.

The symposium was held in the Craig Suite at the Sir Duncan C. Rice Library, University of Aberdeen. While much of the country was drenched in rain, the sun was out and the weather extended a warm welcome to our visitors!

LACR at the Scottish Records Association conference 2017

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On 10 November 2017 members of the project team presented at the Scottish Records Association conference, held at the National Records of Scotland, New Register House, Edinburgh.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Putting on the Writs: Scottish Court and Legal Records’.

The day included four sessions, on Civil and Ecclesiastical Courts, Sheriff and Franchise courts, and a plenary. The third session of the day was on the topic of ‘Burgh Records’, and consisted of two papers:  

Dr Jackson Armstrong and Dr William Hepburn jointly presented an overview of the project ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers (LACR)’.

Dr Edda Frankot presented a paper on ‘The Records of the Medieval Burgh Courts of Aberdeen’.

Further information can be found at the SRA website:

http://www.scottishrecordsassociation.org/conference

 

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

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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. 

An encounter with the Dubrovnik council registers

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Council Registers are unique survivals within a Scottish context: Aberdeen is the only burgh for which a nearly complete set of such books for the fifteenth century is extant. But within a European context Aberdeen is far from unique: many town archives in Europe have collections of medieval records, some of them much larger and stretching back into the fourteenth or even the thirteenth century. They provide important potential comparative material for the Aberdeen registers. In the context of my PhD research and focussing specifically on cases of maritime law, I had already looked at very similar material from the towns of Kampen (Netherlands), Lübeck (Germany), Danzig/Gdańsk (Poland) and Reval/Tallinn (Estonia). Very recently, I had the privilege to be introduced to another set of urban registers: the Reformationes and the Acta Consiliorum of Dubrovnik in Croatia.

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Some of the Reformationes and Acta Consiliorum from Dubrovnik.

I was in Dubrovnik from 20 to 22 September to attend the ‘Mapping Urban Changes’ conference in the context of a proof-of-concept project which I am co-leading with Dr Adelyn Wilson from the School of Law called ‘Spaces of Power in Interregnum Aberdeen’. This sister project of LACR is funded by RIISS under a research development grant. It seeks to visualise the use of the physical space within the burghs of Old and New Aberdeen for the exercise of political, religious, mercantile and administrative power. In addition to presenting this project, I was at the conference to learn about relevant other projects and useful techniques and methodologies. In this respect the conference was very fruitful.

Visiting Dubrovnik also provided the opportunity to learn more about the Du:cac project, which has just been completed. This project, led by Dr Ana Plosnić Ŝkarić of Zagreb University, aimed to transcribe all relevant entries or deliberations from the period 1400-1450 concerning the spaces and buildings within the walls of Dubrovnik and link these to a searchable map. The Du:cac website includes a custom-made map with clickable points, indicating actual buildings, spaces near them (in those cases where a house is said to be near a church, for example), streets and neighbourhoods. These link to relevant transcriptions. The transcriptions will also be published as an e-book.

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A screenshot from the Du:cac website, showing a map segment with clickable points.

The government of Dubrovnik was made up somewhat differently to that of Aberdeen. The city had three councils: the Major Council, the Minor and the Senate. Up until 1415 the deliberations of all three councils were kept in the same book, called Reformationes (these were begun in the late thirteenth century). From 1415, they were divided up into three registers. From the years between 1400 and 1450 there survive three volumes of Reformationes, nine volumes of Acta Consilii Maioris, twelve volumes of Acta Minoris Consilii and eleven volumes of Acta Consilii Rogatorum, comprising a total of 15,944 pages (the Aberdeen Council Registers from 1398-1511 comprise 5239 pages). The volumes are almost completely in Latin, with occasional words in Croat and some entries in Italian, which was used as a lingua franca in the Adriatic region, as Ana Plosnić explained to me. Latin was used in these registers until the end of the Dubrovnik republic in the late eighteenth century.

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The Sponza Palace

Just before I had to catch a plane back to Aberdeen via Paris and had to leave the beautiful city (and weather) behind, there was an opportunity to visit the archives which are in the Sponza Palace, one of the few buildings which survived the 1667 earthquake in Dubrovnik unscathed. There, Ana Plosnić kindly showed me some of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century registers. The page layout of these look very similar to those of the Aberdeen books: with marginal headings and clearly recognizable entries. The Acta Consiliorum also include deliberations on elections, which provide interesting comparative material for the entries recently uncovered in Newburgh’s registers by LACR’s William Hepburn (see the post on his visiting scholarship at St Andrews University Library Special Collections). In Dubrovnik votes could be cast not only in favour of candidates, but also against them, and relatives were excluded from voting for a specific person (indicated as ex. or extra).

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All in all, this encounter with the Dubrovnik material once again stresses the importance of considering the Aberdeen registers in a European context.

Project Symposium I: Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe

By Jackson Armstrong

On Friday 24th and Saturday 25th February 2017 our project hosted its first symposium, on the subject of ‘Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe’. This was funded by the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (RIISS) and was held in the Craig Suite at the Sir Duncan C. Rice Library, University of Aberdeen.

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After a welcome from Michael P. Brown on behalf of RIISS, and an introduction offered by Jackson Armstrong, the sessions, chaired by Anna Havinga, Adam Wyner, Andrew Mackillop and William Hepburn included the following presentations:

Graeme Small (Durham) and William Hepburn (Aberdeen) – Typology of the written record: materiality and process in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Christian Liddy (Durham) – The publication of law

David Ditchburn (TCD) – Time: Extracts from the Aberdeen Council Registers

Edda Frankot (Aberdeen) – Legal business outside the courts: private and public houses as spaces of law

John Ford (Aberdeen) – The Voyage of the James of Veere: Maritime Law in Aberdeen in the Early Sixteenth Century

Claire Hawes (Aberdeen) – Debt, Morality and the Law in fifteenth-century Aberdeen

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz (Amsterdam) – Conflicts about property and inheritances in sixteenth century Danzig

Jelle Haemers (& Chanelle Delameillieure) (Leuven) – Jurisdiction and Marriage in the Fifteenth-Century ‘Registers of the Aldermen’ of Ghent and Leuven

Michael H. Brown (St Andrews) – Burghs and Regalities: Conflicts of Jurisdiction

Jörg Rogge (Mainz) – Pax Urbana – the use of law for the achievement of political goals

Andrew Simpson (Aberdeen) – Texts of the Medieval Scottish Common Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen) – ‘Malice’ and motivation for hostility and non-lethal wounding

Joanna Kopaczyk (Edinburgh) – Language as code: language choices and functions in a multilingual legal culture

Anna Havinga (Aberdeen) – Language shift in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Adelyn Wilson (Aberdeen) – Legal education in Aberdeen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

Proceedings on Friday 24th also included a visit to Old Aberdeen House (Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives) with Phil Astley, and to St Machar Cathedral.

The objective of this first gathering was to present ‘gobbet’ style extracts from primary sources, and to raise questions for development illustrated by those extracts. We look forward to reconvening in 2018 to share draft papers developed from these initial questions and discussions, in collaboration for an edited collection of essays on the subject.

LACR on tour – EAUH conference in Helsinki

by Edda Frankot

The first outing of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers (LACR) project at an academic gathering took place at the bi-annual conference of the European Association for Urban History (EAUH) which, this year, met in the beautiful capital city of Finland, Helsinki, from 24 to 27 August. The conference was held in the grand central building of the city’s university, which shares a space along Helsinki’s Senate Square with the beautiful Lutheran Cathedral. As we learned at the conference, the buildings around the square were all built as part of a great overhaul of Helsinki’s city centre in the 1820s and 1830s by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel, on orders from the Russian tsar, to a state befitting its new role as capital of the autonomous Finnish province of the Russian Empire (from 1809 to 1917). A statue of Tsar Alexander II (assassinated 1881), popular among Helsinki’s citizens, has been given pride of place at the centre of the square. At the end of August the city appeared very lively, partly due to a cultural festival in the city centre.

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Lutheran Cathedral

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Statue of Tsar Alexander II in front of the former Senate building

Approximately 750 attendees gathered for a wide array of papers relating to urban history from all regions of the world and from ancient times until the present. The conference started in the early evening of the 24th with a general welcome, a pair of keynote lectures, by Riita Nikula and Maarten Prak, and a lovely musical intermezzo by a small male choir. The remainder of the conference consisted mainly of various long parallel sessions which were split into two, with some shorter sessions included as well. The longer sessions allowed for a wider than usual range of aspects concerning a subject to be elaborated upon. Most of the speakers uploaded a full version of their paper before the conference, but at the conference itself only shorter versions of these, of about 10 minutes each, were presented. This generally allowed for more time for discussion, though one session I attended actually included eleven speakers (!). Because the presentations were brief, this ended up not being too much of a strain on the senses, though the discussion did have to be cut rather short. The conference also included a most welcoming reception in a beautiful room at city hall, at which we could also enjoy the hilarious Bonk exhibition.1

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Conference reception at Helsinki City Hall

There were some excellent papers. I particularly enjoyed a presentation on residential segregation in nineteenth-century New York City by Gergely Baics, who is a very engaging speaker. The keynote by Maarten Prak, urging urban historians to focus their research more deliberately on a specific agenda to aid the success of funding applications and increase impact, was also enlightening. Prak suggested three main topics of research as part of this agenda: immigration, creativity and citizenship. Of these three citizenship, especially what Prak called practical citizenship, including political, economic and military participation (in, for example, city councils, guilds and civic militias), is most relevant to our project.

The paper which I presented, entitled ‘Opening the Registers: Digital Humanities and the Aberdeen Burgh Records’, focussed specifically on the Digital Humanities side of the LACR project and the question how archives and urban historians can best work together in the age of digital transformation.

In the case of LACR the objectives of the City Archives and urban historians, as well as scholars from law, computing and socio-linguistics, at the University of Aberdeen come together naturally. Our focus upon the UNESCO-recognised Aberdeen Council Registers, the only source of its kind from urban Scotland which covers (almost) the whole of the fifteenth century, is very straightforward and logical. But in other cases the choice of which archival sources to digitise may not be so clear-cut. There is, therefore, a real danger that certain sources will be quietly forgotten when they remain available only in an analogue form while others, which are considered more important for various reasons, are made widely accessible through digitisation. Resources for digitisation are limited, and choices need to be made, but archivists and historians need to cooperate to ensure best practice.2

Other papers in the session also focussed on digital archives relevant for urban history, both medieval and modern. Of particular relevance to LACR was the paper on the Du:cac (Dubrovnik: Civitas et Acta Consiliorum) project.3 This is producing transcriptions of a similar source to ours from medieval Dubrovnik, Croatia. That project is concerned with geographical locations, which are then linked to the relevant spot on a map of the city which was produced specifically for this project (see screenshot below). The result will be a useful resource for the study of historical urban development. From the perspective of our project, it is an inspiring example of what can in principle be done with material like that for Aberdeen. Once we have produced the digital transcription, the possibilities of what might be done next are wide-ranging indeed!

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Screenshot from the du:cac website, showing a segment of the town plan with dots which link to relevant transcriptions of each location (http://ducac.ipu.hr/project/mapping/e6-segment)

Another paper in the session was presented by two archivists from the Copenhagen archives who spoke about their efforts to digitise some important (modern) resources for social history by making use of crowdsourcing, whereby volunteers transcribe or index documents. Crowdsourcing presents a specific set of challenges, but has been used successfully in a number of projects.4 Very interesting was also the presentation on the iron and steel archives of Middlesbrough. As the steelworks there have recently closed, the remaining archives and sites related to the works have become an important focal point of public engagement with the city’s heritage. This is a nice example of how history, archives and heritage can inspire civic public engagement. We hope that our project can set the foundations for similar opportunities for Aberdeen, while at the same time providing abundant material for historians, lawyers and linguists to study.


  1. https://en-gb.facebook.com/BonkExpo2012/ 
  2. With regards to this see also Gerben Zaagsma, ‘On Digital History’, BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 128 Digital History (2013), 3-29; Charles Jeurgens, ‘The Scent of the Digital Archive: Dilemmas with Archive Digitisation’, BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 128 Digital History (2013), 30-54. 
  3. Available at http://ducac.ipu.hr/project/. Accessed 16 September 2016. 
  4. For example: the Suda On Line project, available at: http://www.stoa.org/sol/history.shtml; and Itinera Nova for which 29,500 acts of the Louvain aldermen’s bench have so far been transcribed by over 50 volunteers: ‘ State of affairs’, available at: http://www.itineranova.be/in/state-of-affairs. Both accessed 16 September 2016.