Musician and researcher D. James Ross has published a short paper about his investigations into the nebulous but fascinating Gray family in Aberdeen in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
A member of the family was Robert Kervour (Carver), Scotland’s most outstanding Renaissance composer. He is also the man who, as heir to the chaplain Andrew Gray who died in 1504, was to be given possession of Gray’s still for aquavite and rosewater (see the blog post and news item from 2019).
The book examines the practice of banishment for what it reveals about morally acceptable behaviour in late medieval urban society. Punishment was used by authorities in Kampen to address sexual offences, but also for other matters, including the non-payment of fines. The book considers the legal context of the practice, and banishment as a punitive and coercive measure. It also discusses the redemption of exiles, either because their punishment was completed, or because they arranged for the payment of outstanding fines.
Edda said: “The study is something that evolved over a long period of time, while I was engaged on other projects, so much of the book I worked on in my spare time. I think it provides a multi-layered insight into late medieval urban society and legal culture, utilising not only a wide range of written sources, but also contemporary drawings from fifteenth-century Kampen.”
There are eight days remaining in the Strange Sickness Kickstarter campaign . But what does ‘strange sickness’ mean, and why have we chosen it as the title for the game? In this blog post I’ll dive into some of the sources from Aberdeen in which the evocative term is used.
In her recent book, Karen Jillings noted the association of the term with syphilis in the early sixteenth century, called at the time the Great Pox. For instance, an entry from the Aberdeen council registers in 1507 refers to ‘the strange sickness of Naples’. The disease of Naples was another widely-used term for syphilis.
Earlier entries suggest the term ‘strange sickness’ had broader applicability. Certainly, one use of the term from 1497 seems to refer to a venereal disease, coming as it does on the same day as an entry outlining cruel punishments imposed on ‘licht’ (‘immoral’) women, probably referring to sex workers, stipulating that unless they refrained from ‘vicis and Syne of venere’ (‘vices and the sin of sexual indulgence’) they would be burned on the cheek with a hot iron key and banished from the town (click on links in footnotes to see orginal records and transcriptions).
However, an entry from 1498 suggests the term was used more generally, at least at this stage. It records an ordinance of the town for the inhabitants to close the gates at the back of their properties and build up their back walls in order to keep the town safe from ‘the pestilence and ale vthir Strang Seknes’ (‘the pestilence and all other strange sickness’). This refers to the layout of the town, with the backs of individual properties effectively making up the physical boundary of the town, as can still be seen in Gordon of Rothiemay’s map from 1661.
The phrasing here suggests pestilence (i.e. plague) was regarded as ‘strange sickness’ along with other types of disease. That plague was included as a type of strange sickness is further suggested by two entries from 1500. A statute issued on 15 August 1500 stated that people coming off a ship recently arrived from Danzig (today Gdansk) should be quarantined ‘for the sawite and weilfar of the town’ fra ale sthrange seknes’ (‘for the safety and welfare of the town from all strange sickness’). Another statute, from six days later (21 August 1500), imposed further measures related to the ship from Danzig ‘for the escheving of the plage of pestilence and safte of this tone’ (‘for the eschewing of the plague of pestilence and safety of this town’). Two entries from 1506 clearly include plague under the umbrella of ‘strange sickness’.
If ‘strange sickness’ was a general term, encompassing plague, syphilis and possibly other diseases, what does it tell us about their shared characteristics? ‘Sickness’ is clear enough, but strange is a little more ambiguous. In Older Scots ‘strange’ as an adjective could mean, much as does in modern English, unusual or unfamiliar. It could also mean exceptional and, more specifically, alien or foreign.
Certainly, in the late 1490s, syphilis was an unfamiliar disease, and Karen Jillings has argued that Aberdeen was ‘the first government body in the British Isles to tackle the Great Pox.’ Aberdonians may have been well aware of plague at this time, at least in theory, but it too is likely to have been unfamiliar in terms of personal experience for most, with no evidence that the disease had struck in the town for many generations. Both diseases could also have been regarded as ‘strange’ in the sense of foreign or alien, with the Aberdeen records referring to France as the source of syphilis and the fears of plague sparked by the arrival of a ship from Danzig. They both too could have been regarded as exceptional in their severity.
The usage ‘strange sickness’ in late-medieval Aberdeen may capture all of these meanings, and it speaks to the role of uncertainty in the human experience of disease and infection. Even after months of blanket media coverage, growing scientific evidence and widespread testing, our experience of Covid-19 often remains shrouded in uncertainty, even setting aside the proliferation of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Symptoms overlap with other conditions, making it hard without a test to know if you have it (and even tests can be inaccurate). When a case is confirmed, working out exactly how it was transmitted comes with even greater uncertainty. All of this has contributed to a strangely intangible sense of threat throughout much of 2020, although for many of those who have caught the virus, and their family, friends and carers, the threat has sadly become all too tangible.
When rumours swirled of the plague and the Great Pox in late-medieval Scotland – diseases which were far more deadly than even Covid-19 – fear and uncertainty must have been widespread. The term ‘strange sickness’ resonates with this atmosphere, which we intend to evoke, and allow players to navigate, in the game.
 Karen Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague: Socio-Economic, Political and Medical Impacts in a Scottish Community, 1500-1650 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), p. 79.
 Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague, p. 77.
We are very pleased to announce the publication of Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 (ARO), the digital transcription of the first eight volumes of the Aberdeen Council Registers.
From the new ARO website housed within the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, the complete resource is available for download as a set of XML files. The website also links to a prototype search platform which allows searching and browsing within the ARO, and display of corresponding images from the registers.
On 22 March 1499, Gilbert Litstar – a dyer – made a statement to the alderman and baillies of Aberdeen about dyed cloth in his possession which belonged to residents of the burgh and people from the country. He said that there were ‘certane brokin folkis’ watching in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, ‘brokin’, when applied to people, meant being in an impoverished condition and living lawlessly as a consequence. More specifically, it often referred to ‘those having no proper feudal superior or chief, and living by violence and robbery’. The exact status of the ‘brokin folkis’ mentioned here is unclear but Gilbert Litstar clearly saw them as a great danger. He stated to the alderman and baillies that he and others stood on their feet watching over the goods by night. To avoid damage to the goods he asked Maunys the bellman to pass through the town and summon both dwellers of the town and the country who had goods to collect from Gilbert to come and get them within 24 hours. If they did not, stipulated Gilbert, and the goods were stolen or damaged, it would not be his responsibility.
This entry raises a number of interesting questions. How many clients did Gilbert Litstar have, and who were they? Why did he think that having the handbell rung through the town was a sufficient measure to warn both residents of the town as well as people in the country? Where was Gilbert Litstar keeping the goods, and why were they vulnerable? Who were the ‘brokin folkis’?
ACR, 7, p. 942, 22 March 1499
The saide day comperit Gilbert Litstar befor the aldirman and ballieis and exponit oppinlie and declarit how he hed certane littit clath pertening to induellaris of this burghe and to landmen and part of weddis and gagis Ande thar war certane brokin folkis wachand in the nicht and he and his folkis nychtlie stude one thar feit kepand the said gudis and for the eschevin of skathis he causit maunys bellman to pas throw the haill tone and be his handbell opinlie warnit and chargit ale and sindrie personis bath to burghe and land that hed ony clath or weddis with the sad gilbert to cum furthtwith and rede thar’ said clathis and weddis within xxiiij houris and protestand solemptlie gyf thai come nocht and the said clath or weddis happinnis as god forbad to be stollin or skatht that he be quyt and skathles tharof in tym to cum befor thir witnes sere Jhon Ruthirfurd aldirman Androw Cullan Richard Waus balyeis Johne Mar Patrik Andirsone James Colison Duncan Colison Johne Duncansone Philp Dumbrek.
(Some punctuation added and spelling modernised for readability.)
‘Aberdeen was a European economic hub centuries before the discovery of oil but frequently upset its continental neighbours by turning a blind eye to piracy. Join members of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers project team for an exploration of the darker side of medieval overseas trade, and an overview of exciting new work that is unlocking the City’s UNESCO-recognised ancient records.’
On the day Edda Frankot will transport us back to the world of piracy and seafaring around medieval Aberdeen and ask the audience to step into the shoes of those making legal judgements about cases of shipwreck. Jackson Armstrong will highlight the international significance of the rich records of medieval Aberdeen which allow us to find out about this maritime world. William Hepburn will show what the handwriting in these records looks like and how we can decipher it. Anna Havinga will look at the language of the records and invite the audience to interpret old Scots words.
So, if you want to know more about pirates, plunder and shipwreck as well as the exciting research underway on Aberdeen’s medieval records, join us this Friday!
When most people think of freedom in late medieval Scotland they picture Mel Gibson with a blue face and a large sword. This, unsurprisingly, was not the whole story, and the Aberdeen registers provide us with a very rich source of information about what freedom meant in Scotland’s towns.
Map of Lower Deeside by Timothy Pont, c. 1590, showing the freedom of Aberdeen. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. http://maps.nls.uk/index.html
In our own political culture freedom is associated with democracy and civil liberties. Within agreed limits we have freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. We are free to take a great variety of decisions about how we want to live, and we are free to campaign, protest and lobby our representatives if we want to make changes to the way we are governed. In other words, many of our freedoms are positive – they involve the right to do certain things.
In order to understand urban freedom in the Middle Ages we need to think about it rather differently. In the first place not everyone in the town was considered to be free. Only the burgesses – the elite group who ran the town – were ‘freemen’, and they were so called because they took a solemn oath, paid a fee, and were then entered into ‘the freedom of the burgh’.1 So this freedom was closer to a privilege, granted to a select few, than a right held by everyone. A man had to meet certain conditions in order to be admitted to burgess-ship. He had to have property in the town, pay suit at the three annual head courts, and agree to undertake the duties of watch and ward.2 Holding property in this way was known as ‘free burgage’, which meant that the burgess could dispose of the land as he saw fit, rather than being obliged to let his heirs inherit it.3 Those who had not been entered into the freedom were known as ‘unfreemen’, and although they were not obliged to perform the same duties as the burgesses they were also not entitled to any of the same privileges.
ACR 5/2, p. 723, 24 October 1452. Entry excluding lords from the fishing (second last line).
What were the burgesses free to do that others could not? In some ways it is easier to think in terms of what they were free from. In the medieval period society was steeply hierarchical. Most common people were obliged to turn over a proportion of their produce to their lord, to sustain his lifestyle and to provide for any payments he owed to the king. Royal burghs, such as Aberdeen, were different. The burgesses were not noblemen, but nevertheless the revenues raised within town – known as the burgh customs – were collected by the Chamberlain and paid directly to the crown.4 While the king could take as close an interest as he wished in the affairs of the town in practice this was not necessarily a frequent occurrence, meaning that the burgh inhabitants were, in a very real sense, free from the exactions that overlords often imposed on other common people. Each burgh also held its own courts, so that a burgess could demand to be tried by his peers, rather than in the court of a lord or even a sheriff or justiciar.5 The burgh administration – the alderman, bailies and council – therefore had authority over almost everything that happened in the town, and this authority was closely guarded.
In November 1446, for example, it was decided that no burgess was allowed to request or purchase any leases for lords within the town, and that anyone who did so would lose his freedom.6 The following month the council granted the freedom to fish in the river to John Vaus, stating that he could give the license ‘to what frende of his that be thocht speidful [suitable] to him, except lordis’.7 Such acts were not indicative of a general animosity between lords and towns in Scotland – indeed lords could establish burghs of their own.8 Instead, the burgesses of Aberdeen were simply keen to ensure that the privileges of the community were not eroded by outside interference from powerful neighbours. Men such as the earl of Huntly or the earl of Mar could play a prominent role in the politics of the town, but they did not hold the same rights over the burgesses as they did over their own tenants, and this distinction was important.
ACR 5/2, p. 702, 13 May 1445. Entry forbidding two men to buy goods within the freedom.
The ‘freedom of the burgh’ was not only a legal concept, it also described a geographical area surrounding the town, in which the burgesses could exercise their trading privileges. Only burgesses were allowed to engage in trade – the freedom was essentially a monopoly of such rights – and burgesses paid an annual rent to their overlord for this privilege. Everyone who lived within the freedom was obliged to bring their wares to the weekly market for the burgesses to buy. The freedom to buy and sell was often accompanied by freedom from the toll levied by the overlord upon people trading there.9 Burgesses did not have to pay this toll, but the unfree did. Prices at the market were set by the council, and trade was strictly regulated. Forestalling (buying goods before the market opened), regrating (selling above the set price) and ‘tapping again’ (re-selling) were all prohibited, and punishable by a hefty fine.10 The frequency with which such charges appear in the records suggests that they were a recurring problem which was difficult to manage successfully. Again we see that urban freedoms took the form of privileges granted over others, which the burgesses were keen to defend.
Fifteenth-century seal matrix of the burgh of Aberdeen. Held in Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City Archives. Photo by Vicky Gray.
This was not always the case. In 1452 the whole town was in debt to Thomas Barnwell, a merchant fishmonger of London.11 The amount must have been significant, because the council nominated three prominent men of the town – John of Fife, John Vaus, Gilbert Menzies – to pay off a quarter of the debt each, with John Blyndseil, Thom Blyndseil and Adam Hill paying the last quarter. They were charged to return the value of the goods paid by the burgesses and ‘freith and bryng hame the commoune seel’.12 It is not clear if Barnwell had actually removed the seal to London as collateral for his debt. If so, this would have been both very unusual and highly significant. The common seal of the town was a physical representation of the community’s authority, and was used to ratify important decisions and legal processes.13 Its removal would imply a debt of great size, although unfortunately the amount is not recorded. In July of the following year the council stated that because it was ‘clerly knawin’ that Andrew Benyng took some of Barnwell’s silver from Adam Benyng, Andrew would need to ‘freith the toune’ of the two barrels of salmon and 12s 6d of silver that remained unpaid, from his own lands and goods.14 This suggests that the council was still collecting money for the repayment of the debt to Barnwell, and that the less scrupulous were taking advantage of the accumulation of silver.
Even this brief glimpse into the Aberdeen Council Registers shows how complex and multifaceted urban freedom was in the fifteenth century. It touched on property ownership, trading rights, legal privileges and the management of debts and other obligations. This makes it one of the most important concepts in medieval Scotland. Even without Mel Gibson.