2017 Visiting Scholarship: Medieval Scottish Law

Tuesday 10 October 2017

In the first of the reports from our 2017 Visiting Scholars, Dr Alice Taylor, Reader in Medieval History at KCL, and co-winner of the Royal Historical Society’s 2017 Whitfield Prize, tells us about what she did while she was in St Andrews.

Left: cover of Regiam Majestatem, 1548 (ms39000). Right: cover of Regiam Maiestatem, c.1500 (msKF51.R4)

I spent two weeks this summer working in the Napier Reading Room at the University of St Andrews Library’s Special Collections, examining two manuscripts of medieval Scottish law. One was compiled at the end of the fifteenth century, and was (mostly) written in Latin, the other in the sixteenth century and was written entirely in Scots by a known notary, Robert Ewyn. These manuscripts contain some of the major tractates which were understood (by the fifteenth century at least) to make up the ancient law of the kingdom of the Scots. The most famous of these legal texts is that known as ‘Regiam Majestatem’, a lengthy tractate based on (but also abridging and rewriting) the English common law tractate known as Glanvill. Yet, although Regiam is the text which has attracted the most interest—not least because of the connection between English and Scots law it purports to proclaim—these manuscripts include much more than that, containing such texts as the ‘laws of the barons’, ‘the forest laws’, ‘the laws of King David’, ‘the laws of King Robert’, ‘the statutes of King Alexander’, and ‘the laws of King William’, the ‘book of judges’, and ‘the chamberlain’s ayre’.

Table of Contents, Regiam Maiestatem, c.1500 (msKF51.R4)

Over thirty manuscripts (both Latin and Scots) survive from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century which contain some or all of the texts contained in the two St Andrews manuscripts. These manuscripts have been a thorn in the side of Scottish medieval historians for over four hundred years: even in the early sixteenth century, scholars were complaining of their inconsistencies, lack of organisation and, in places, even meaning. As a result, there are many texts in these manuscripts which have never been properly edited, and even those which have been edited are often presented in ways which obscures not only the earliest attested version of a text, but how it changes over time.

Laws of King William, Regiam Maiestatem, c.1500 (msKF51.R4)

Ostensibly, my work in the Napier Reading Room was to check the readings of the Latin texts of three legal compilations contained in the earlier Latin manuscript (msKF51.R4), and produce a lengthy manuscript description as part of the work on my edition of (among other things) the laws attributed to David I, William the Lion, and Alexander II, three kings of Scots of the central Middle Ages (1124-53, 1165-1214 and 1214-49 respectively). This edition is being prepared for publication by the Stair Society, Scotland’s leading professional society for the study of its law. If all goes well, the volume will be published in Spring/Summer 2019 under the clearly runaway-bestseller title: Assisae et Statuta Regum Scotorum (‘the Assizes and Statutes of the kings of Scots’). None of the compilations attributed to David, William or Alexander were put together in any of these king’s reign; they all seem to have been compiled later, in the fourteenth century (that attributed to David probably belongs to the reign of Robert I, while those attributed to William and Alexander were probably compiled later, just perhaps in the 1360s/70s). But, in comparison with earlier legal tractates, they do contain some authentic information and, crucially, show how the understanding of law and statutory material developed over centuries.

Regiam Majestatem, dated 18 October 1548 by the scribe Robert Ewyn (ms39000)
Table of contents, folio 170r, from a later date (ms39000)

Collating manuscripts is never the most enjoyable of tasks, but I’ve never had such an enriching couple of weeks working on the material as I had in St Andrews, thanks to the Visiting Scholarship. The work I had to do for my edition was easily accomplished in the two weeks I had available, and my visit also coincided with two other visiting scholars and it really was an honour to hear about their work. I was also privy to the most up-to-date research on the Scots MS, as Rachel Hart and Margaret Connolly gave me access to their pretty spectacular research findings on the notary who transcribed the sixteenth-century Scots MS. In terms of my own research on these manuscripts, one point still stands out above all. If we are ever to understand the individual content of these manuscripts, we must look not at individual texts but at the manuscripts as objects—how they arranged their texts, what (if any) shortcuts they took, what texts they included—as much as the individual readings within individual texts. Only then can we begin to understand how and when these texts changed over the time and (even) why they did so.

Alice Taylor
Reader in Medieval History,
King’s College, London

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