A Genoese merchant in medieval Aberdeen – a case from the lost ‘volume three’

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Council Registers form an almost complete set of records: the only extensive period which is not covered by the registers runs from the middle of the year 1414 to the end of 1433. Even although there is only one volume missing in the sequence of volumes that is currently extant, namely volume three, former Aberdeen City Archivist, Judith Cripps, in a 1981 report on the matter argued that there may well have been three books that covered the period from 1414-33.1 By the early nineteenth century only the middle part, dating to 1426-29, had survived. At that time, William Kennedy, author of the Annals of Aberdeen, reported that he had seen this part some years before, but that it had ‘lately been mislaid’.2 A recent discovery by LACR’s own project director, Jackson Armstrong, suggests that fifty years earlier this part had also been the only remaining evidence from the period 1426-29. This discovery was the presence of a manuscript with extracts of the burgh records, including ones from 1426-29, in the Aberdeen University Library. For more on this discovery, see this week’s press release.

The extracts were made by James Man, who intended to write a history of Aberdeen. Most of his notes are short summaries of the contents of the burgh records, with occasional short quotes from the original in Latin. Seeing that volume two of the registers is almost entirely in Latin, whereas only 5-10% of volume four is in Scots, the vast majority of volume three would be expected to have been in Latin too. But it appears that Man also came across at least one entry in Scots. This is the only entry from 1426-29 that he transcribed in full, and its language is clearly different from that of the rest of Man’s notes: it is in Middle Scots and reads much like other entries in Scots from the fifteenth century elsewhere in the registers.

This specific entry is also interesting in that it features one of the only known instances of a southern European merchant active in Aberdeen. Pelegrino Grellus was a merchant from Genoa who, with his brother Lazarino, appears regularly in the royal Exchequer Rolls in the late 1420s and early 1430s, at about the same time as the two brothers appear in the Aberdeen records.3 The entry, dated 1426, concerns a dispute between ‘Pylgrime mirchand of Gene (=Genoa)’ and Jelm (or John?) van Wrey, whose place of origin remains to be identified, and his shipmen. Man may have had some trouble reading the place names in the original, as the first few letters of the word in his copy are difficult to identify. It looks something like ‘Mineth’ and is likely to be a place in the Low Countries. The alderman (provost), bailies and community of Aberdeen determined that Van Wrey, who was shipmaster of a ‘bus’, and his shipmen should calculate their fees (‘and se qwhat is acht thaim of thair fees’), which Pelegrino should then pay to the sailors. In addition, it was determined that the shipmaster should sail to Lazarino in Edinburgh. It appears that another decision had to be made there as to who should pay the shipmen’s fees for that part of the journey: the shipmaster or Lazarino, but it is not entirely clear from the notes whose decision this was to make.4

It may be that Pelegrino was in Aberdeen in relation with the transactions detailed in the Exchequer Roll, that is to say collecting salmon as part of his payment by the king for supplying the court, though there is no mention of a payment to the brothers in the Exchequer Roll for 1426-7.5 A year later, Pelegrino did receive thirty lasts and two barrels of salmon, in addition to another eleven lasts and eleven small barrels. For 1428-9 the two brothers are named together.6. It may also be that Pelegrino and Lazarino were already active in Scottish trade before they started supplying the king.

It is rare to come across southern European merchants active in Scottish trade. Taken as a whole, there were few foreign merchants who resided in Scotland in the later middle ages. There were no communities of merchants residing in any of the Scottish burghs in this period as there were in other towns throughout Europe (such as, for example, the Scots in Bruges and later in Veere), not even in Edinburgh.7 In addition, the majority of merchants who did come to Scotland were either English, Dutch, Flemish or Hanseatic (especially from Stralsund and Danzig). The most notable Aberdeen resident with a presumed southern European connection was William of Spaigne/Spanye, who appears in volumes four and five and may well have appeared in volume three, as his first appearance is on page six of volume four. William of Spaigne was a councillor in the late 1430s and early 1440s and appears finally in 1450. In that same year a Jonet Spaigne is listed in an account. She was perhaps a relation, either a daughter or a sister. Judging by the fact that William was a councillor, he must have been fairly well established in Aberdeen by the late 1430s. Despite his suggestive surname, we do not know whether he came from Spain himself, or descended from a Spaniard. We do know that he owned some property on the Gallowgate in the late 1440s.8

There is also no evidence as to where the Genoese Pelegrino resided, but his brother owned a house in Kirkcudbright in the mid-fifteenth century and served as custumar of that town in 1455 and 1460, so many years after the entry from 1426.9 In 1426 Lazarino appears to have been in Edinburgh, though it is not clear whether he was a permanent resident. Unfortunately, any other potential appearances in volume three are lost forever, like most other Scottish burgh records from that period. But thanks to the efforts of James Man in the 1700s we have at least gained a glimpse into Aberdeen in the 1420s and its links with the outside world.


  1. Report to City of Aberdeen District Council on Missing Register of Council 1414-1434, Judith A. Cripps, City of Aberdeen Archivist, 29 June 1981. 
  2. Letter from the Scottish Record Office (John Imrie) to John Wilson, Town Clerk of Aberdeen, 2 February 1981. 
  3. ER IV, 443, 444, 445, 472, 507, 531, 542, 621. 
  4. AUL, MS 532, p. 13. 
  5. With regards to supplying the court, see ER IV, cxlv 
  6. ER IV, 443; 472, 507. 
  7. David Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe: the Medieval Kingdom and its Contacts with Christendom, c. 1215-1545, volume 1: Religion, Culture and Commerce (East Linton 2000), 204; Edda Frankot, ‘Aberdeen and the east coast of Scotland. Autonomy on the periphery’, in: Wim Blockmans, Mikhail Krom and Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz, eds, Routledge Handbook of Maritime Trade around Europe, 1300-1600. Commercial Networks and Urban Autonomy (Woodbridge: Routledge, forthcoming 2017), 409-25, at 415. 
  8. ACR 4, pp. 6, 103, 139; ACR 5(1), pp. 25, 26, 116; ACR 5(2), pp. 647, 659, 662, 663, 667, 674, 682, 691, 692. 
  9. Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe, 204. 

Official launch

Project and website launched at Aberdeen Town House

The ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers’ project and the ‘aberdeenregisters.org’ website were launched officially at a civic reception in the magnificent Town and County Hall at Aberdeen Town House on Wednesday, 8 June 2016.

civic launch

Aberdeen’s Lord Provost, George Adam, spoke on behalf of the City, while University Librarian, Diane Bruxvoort, represented the University of Aberdeen. Moderating proceedings was project partner and City Archivist Phil Astley, who also spoke briefly, as did project director Jackson Armstrong. All expressed their delight that the eight UNESCO-recognized volumes of the Aberdeen Council Registers would be made available to a wider audience as part of this collaborative effort. Formal proceedings ended with a brief presentation of a collection highlight by Edda Frankot. A written version of this presentation, which focussed on the use of memory in the establishing of the age of a girl as part of a court case in 1507, will appear on this blog in due course.

The event received some press coverage on Wednesday and Thursday. STV News reported on the event in their local news bulletin which included a brief interview with Phil Astley:

STV1

The Press and Journal also covered the story, both in their North East and Aberdeen editions and online:

P&J 9 June

In light of the press coverage we wish to be clear that the two partner institutions involved in the present project are the University of Aberdeen (Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies) and the Aberdeen City Council (Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives). We also wish to note that the present project seeks to produce an accurate and full transcription of the register volumes. The translation of that corpus into modern English is not intended; that is a separate opportunity for the future which will require its own specific funding. Our objective is to provide the transcribed text for a wide range of potential applications and analyses.