Augsburg and Aberdeen in comparison: new UK-German research funding to investigate medieval urban government


View of Augsburg, from the Nuremburg Chronicle (Die Schedelsche Weltchronik) (1493).

This new joint project, entitled ‘Finance, law and the language of governmental practice in late medieval towns: Aberdeen and Augsburg in comparison(FLAG), will examine how urban government was organised, executed and recorded in the late middle ages.

The study will place the Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 into comparison with Augsburg’s Master Builder’s Ledgers from 1320-1466 (Die Augsburger Baumeisterbücher) .

The project, which starts this month and runs for three years, has been awarded more than £500,000 together from the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). It will see the University of Aberdeen and Johannes Gutenberg University (JGU) Mainz work together to establish a broader European context for both digital resources.

The Augsburg Master Builder’s Ledgers cover 1320-1466 and are municipal financial records of period, whereas the Aberdeen Registers Online are primarily legal records. Thus the project will examine how both towns addressed matters of finance and law as they put government into practice. Particular attention is to be given to the variety of terminology used to record the exercise of government, and to identify similarity and difference between these towns which both used a mixture of Latin and vernacular languages in their administrative documentation.

Although Aberdeen and Augsburg were cities of quite different size and political context, those same differences are an advantage to the project, potentially bringing into relief what common features might be considered ‘urban’.

Like the Aberdeen Registers Online, Augsburg’s Ledgers have been transcribed and digitised in a previous project (which was led from Mainz), and they are now published online. Both digital editions are presented in the form of machine-readable XML data sets. This facilitates their comparison, and researchers in Mainz and Aberdeen will be exploring the opportunities and challenges in addressing these resources together, and investigating new techniques for automatic analysis to support historical investigation.

Follow the links here for the JGU Mainz announcement, the AHRC announcement, and today’s press release from the University of Aberdeen.

Good spirits: the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland


Entry ARO-8-0466-02 appears on the left-hand page. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 contains an entry which mentions ‘ane stellatour for aquavite and ros wattir’. This is the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland. It is in ARO-8-0466-02, from a case heard in 1505 by the bailies concerning the inheritance of goods belonging to a chaplain called Sir Andrew Gray, who died in 1504.

The find was made by Dr Claire Hawes during the transcription phase of the project  when Claire was working through register volume eight.

The reference enriches our understanding of the early development of Scotch whisky, placing the apparatus for making aquavite in the renaissance burgh, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.

We are delighted to announce a gift of £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, a company with historic connections to Aberdeen and which owns some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries including The Glenlivet and Aberlour. That gift will fund new research into the still and associated stories in the ARO.

For more information see today’s press release and videos for social media: Was Aberdeen the birthplace of Scotch Whisky?



The Still in context: a list of early references related to aquavite in Scotland


ARO-8-0466-02 detail. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

The following is a compilation of early references related to aquavite in Scotland:

Distillation of alcohol was an ancient scientific practice which came to be established in Europe by the twelfth century (especially at Salerno and Cologne).

1494-5 (ER, x, p. 487) Account of the chamberlain of the sheriffdom of Fife: ‘Et per liberacionem factam fratri Johanni Cor per preceptum compotorum rotulatoris, ut asserit, de mandata domini regis ad faciendum aqua vite infra hoc compotum, viij bolle brasii’ [=payment made to Friar John Cor for eight bolls of malt for making ‘aqua vite’].

1497 (TA, i, p. 373) ‘Item, to the barbour that brocht aqua vite to the King in Dunde, be the Kingis command ix s’.

1501 (TA, ii, p. 115) ‘Item, for I galloun of aqua vite to the powder, xxs iiij d’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 361) ‘Item, for v ½ chopinnis of aqua vite to the curyis of quinta essencia xj s’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 363) ‘Item, to the maister cuke, that he laid doun for glasses and flacatis for stilling of wateres and othir stuf, and for fire to the stillatouris, iij li. xiiij s’.

1505 (ARO-8-0466-02) ‘The saide day [20 June 1505] It was fundin and deliuerit be ane Inquest of the court that ane stellatour’ for aquavite and ros’ wattir was ayrschipe tharfor the balyeis ordanit and chargit george barbour’ to deliuere the stellatour’ being in his handis pertening tile vmquhile sere Androw gray to mastir Androw crafurd’ procurator to dene Robert Keruour’ ayr to the saide vmquhile ser Androu’.

1505 (Edin. Recs, i, pp. 101-104) Seal of Cause to Barbers and Surgeons, by the provost, bailies & council of Edinburgh [1 July 1505], including that no man ‘within this burgh mak nor sell ony aquavite within the samyn except the saidis maisteris brether and friemen of the saidis craftis…’

1506 (TA, iii, p. 183) ‘For aqua vite to the quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, p. 187) ‘Robert Herwort for aqua vitae taken from him, 14s’; (TA, iii, p. 188) ‘for vij quartis aqua vite to quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, pp. 332, 343, 344) further payments listed, &c.

1507 (TA, iv, p. 79) ‘wyne to the abbot of Tungland [=John Damien] to mak quinta essencia’; (TA, iv, p. 92) ‘Payit to William Foular, potingair, for potingary to the king and quene, distillatioun of wateris aqua vite’;

1508 (TA, iv, p. 122) ‘j galloun small aqua vite to the abbot of Tungland’ [=John Damien]; (TA, iv, p. 137) ‘For making of ane bos hed to ane stellatour of silvir weyand x unce iij quartaris of his aun stuf deliverit to Maister Alexander Ogilvy for quinta essencia’;

1518 (Reg. Episc. Aberd., ii, p. 174) [inventory of items in the wardrobe of Bishop Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen] ‘…The pypis of ane aqua vite falt’.

Date unknown. (Kelso Liber, ii, p. 448) A treatise on plague was composed by John of Burgundy about 1390, the original referring to eaue distilacion and eaue des herbes. A copy of the treatise was held at Kelso Abbey. A short, undated, translation into Middle Scots was kept at Kelso and that refers to ‘water stillit of thir iiij herbys…’. Neither the original nor the translation mentions eau de vie / aqua vitae, or alcohol.


Sources (in addition to Aberdeen Registers Online):

[Edin. Recs.] Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1403-1528, ed. J. D. Marwick (Edinburgh, 1869)

[ER] The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ed. J. Stuart et al., 23 vols (Edinburgh, 1878–1908)

[Kelso Liber] Liber S. Marie de Calchou, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1846)

[Reg. Episc. Aberd.] Registrum episcopatus Aberdonensis: ecclesia cathedralis aberdonensis: regesta que extant in unum collecta, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1845)

[TA] Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1473–1498, ed. T. Dickson and J.B. Paul et al., 13 vols (Edinburgh, 1877–1978)

Playing in the Archives

LACR alumnus William Hepburn has begun a Fellowship to investigate how Aberdeen’s UNESCO-recognised medieval records could provide the inspiration for video games design.

In the role he will assess the effectiveness of video games as a scholarly medium for examining the burgh records and the historical subjects they inform.

The project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Creative Economies Engagement Fellowship through the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities. It is called ‘Playing in the Archives: Game Development with Aberdeen’s Medieval Records’.

William will spend nine months investigating the potential for creative development from the Burgh Records, working alongside experts from industry. See the recent media announcements at the links below:

Press release:


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.