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In conversation with… Alice Taylor, Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland
This is the second part of the students’ interview with Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland. This part of the discussion covers the concept of “culture wars”, the impact of an increasing literate mentality on the state, and the dynamics of overlordship.
Stuart Pracy is the chair and we rejoin the conversation with a question from Jamie Hodgskin.
JH: You were talking to Damien earlier about the Forth and how it was such a conspicuous border between the north and south… Do you think there was a sort of culture war between the incoming Anglo-Normans and the existing Gaelic magnates?
Alice Taylor: I think it’s a really difficult question to answer. First of all, the term “culture wars” is something that is located from the 1970s onwards… If you’re interested in this, there’s a very interesting book by two American historians called Fault Lines, which talks about when and how the idea of culture became part of contemporary politics and why – just FYI, super interesting! But in terms of politics being led by perceived cultural difference, I think there’s a very rich vein of potential inquiry here. There are some very oft-quoted examples, like the one from the early thirteenth-century Crowland chronicler where he says the king of Scots, at this point William, doesn’t like his own people and only listens to Frenchmen. And you’ve got the wonderful chronicle of Jordan Fantosme on the 1173-74 rebellion where he says pretty much the same thing: William doesn’t like listening to his own people. So there is an idea that there is a separation in Scotland between native counsellors and incoming counsellors, and that the king is listening only to his own men, a small cabal of people speaking a different language. There’s also some very interesting Gaelic poetry translated by Thomas Clancy in The Triumph Tree, where it’s said how bad it is that David has divided us from Alexander, i.e. David’s brother Alexander I. There’s this sense that, in the early twelfth century, Alexander was someone who didn’t make linguistic divides a thing versus David, who did…
And in the twelfth century, we also have the transformation of an elite language from Gaelic to French. But we don’t know whether that’s actually happening in Scotland, because we’ve got the issue of English here. Lothian, the heart of the kingdom, is an English-speaking area – it’s not Gaelic-speaking. So this idea of a Gaelic/French or Gaelic/English divide – these are not easy divides to talk about. You also have the methodological issues of how far linguistic differences equal cultural differences. Again, we don’t know these things. So this is a long way of saying you are looking at a period of profound change where it is possible to reframe these questions along cultural and linguistic lines. But we do not really know whether this was done, because of the difficulties in our evidence.
And there are other sorts of fault lines as well about Highland and Lowland that we begin to see playing out in the difference between Galwegians (the people of Galloway) and Scots. There’s a lot of stuff about the awful Galwegians and how dreadful they are. So when a French romance is written called the Romance of Fergus of Galloway, which is hilarious in many ways, the story is how this Lord Fergus becomes more “civilized”. He moves from Galloway, goes on a quest in Scotland, north of the Forth, and then is so changed by the experience that he is able to become a lord of Lothian! So that’s his journey from Galloway, Scotland, north of the Forth, to Lothian – and that’s a journey of civilizing.
So the short answer to your question is that you can’t say precisely, yes, “culture war” is the way to think about this – but it is a way into thinking about something. Even if the term doesn’t really fit, it is nonetheless interesting to think with it.
Gigi Roxburgh: The work we’ve read of yours was talking about the relationship between the Scottish royalty and the aristocracy, and I was wondering how that relationship changed in a time when there was a growing literate mentality?
AT: It’s a really good question. Let me take a few steps back… One of the big issues when looking at government in this period is the heavy hand of a much bigger historical narrative about the rise of the modern nation state. It’s been a huge pressing historical question: how do you explain the modern state? When did it emerge? Why did it emerge? And why did it emerge in Europe? In some ways, these are questions of political theory and political thought, but they are told historically, they’re told through history. One of the big changes that has been posited here, by the sociologist Max Weber and others, is the idea of the bureaucratisation and the institutionalisation of relationships of power. So you basically move from a scenario which Weber calls patrimonial power, where you can exercise power based on who you are and your inherited position, versus a scenario where power and authority are exercised through officers, as in it shouldn’t matter who I am, I’m the King, and it shouldn’t matter who you are, you’re the justice – and you fulfil that role. It’s what Weber calls the “disenchantment of modernity”. So when you’re looking at that in relation to governments in medieval states, the central Middle Ages is the first time in European history since the Roman Empire that you can begin to see the bureaucratisation of power. And this is reflected in the rise in the survival of documents as the way in which you do business. This is discussed in, sadly, the late Michael Clanchy’s extraordinary book From Memory to Written Record, where he talks about how the use of documents trumps literacy. He also said you don’t need state-sponsored education to promote literacy. You can do this through interaction with documents: pragmatic literacy.
To get it back to Scotland, there are two issues here. One is the idea that in order to have a state, you can’t have patrimonial power. In the twentieth century, this created a lot of narratives of state formation that essentially said the way in which we understand the rise of the state is the declining power of the aristocracy – that if you’ve got state formation, you necessarily have to exclude aristocratic power first. In the Middle Ages, you’ve got these moments of transition. You give out fiefs to the aristocracy and then, through bureaucracy, you take lordly power away from them and you give it to government or to the judicial system. And the big conflicts of the later Middle Ages are primarily about this: the aristocrats are cross that power is being taken away from them and the state is happy because they’re taking away power from aristocrats. And how well a state does that affects its later trajectory. So the narrative goes that the French didn’t do it well enough and that’s why you have the French Revolution. That’s the big, big historical question there.
Now in Scotland it’s much more complicated because you don’t have an end-point of a “modern nation state” because Scotland doesn’t develop into an autonomous “bureaucratic” state in the seventeenth century – it becomes part of the Union of Crowns. It retains its own distinct legal system, but it becomes incorporated into a British state. And, as a result, for a long time Scottish statehood wasn’t a pressing historical question – because there was nothing to connect it with the modern age, if that makes sense. A lot of the work that was done in the twentieth century on medieval states was very much about that longue durée idea of connection, the rise of parliament, for example, or the growth of representative institutions. So if you don’t have that modern connection, it means that scholarship gets stymied – and that’s what happened in Scottish historiography. So my book was basically about trying to write that history, i.e. what was the Scottish state?
And the second point is that it’s a really interesting example of a state where you don’t have state formation produced by this battle between aristocratic and royal interests. They kind of progressed together with aristocrats running the state in a different context. In a way, that’s quite surprising! It’s different from England and actually resembles something that’s much more like France.
So the rise of thinking about literacy is, in some way, a spur to thinking about statehood and how to understand embedded elite power in statehood. I think it’s a pressing historical question and that’s what the book was trying to do for this one polity.
Stuart Pracy: I think it’s really interesting to place your book in that longue durée discussion – and to make that idea of the bigger framework really explicit. Has anyone got any remaining questions that they want to ask?
Harry Fayter: My question ties in with my sources essay… When Scottish kings are put under subordination by English kings, to what degree did they remain loyal to the English king? Or to what degree did they try and undermine their authority?
AT: It’s a fantastic question because this is the idea behind your module ‘The Celtic Frontier’ – the idea of the creation of a frontier and what that frontier is defined in relation to. Here the rise of English kingship and its attempts to impose dominance over the remaining parts of the British Isles and Ireland is the key narrative.
To what extent do Scottish kings try to subvert this overlordship, to resist it, to accept it? In 1175, when William has been captured and the Treaty of Falaise is imposed, it’s devastating for everybody and, you could arguably say, leads directly to political conflict in Moray and in the north. It also leads to the intensification of royal government there, and it poses internal political problems for William. Partly, this is because the flipside of overlordship is protection: he is protected through his subordination. And that dynamic between resistance, domination, and protection is a dynamic we can see playing out in different ways in different contexts, i.e. with relations between Welsh princes, Irish kings, Irish lords etc. There’s been this extraordinary discovery by David Carpenter of the text of the Treaty of Norham in 1209, in which William submits to overlordship by King John. And we might ask why? In some ways, it’s because he doesn’t have a choice: when you are dealing with insurrections all the time (as William was), you probably think that you’re just going to have to commit yourself to this more powerful person.
‘the flipside of overlordship is protection’
My advice for your essay would be to look at the language of lordship that is being used in treaties, to look at the circumstances in which they were imposed, and to treat each case as participating in a similar kind of rhetoric, i.e. the language of liege lordship or overlordship. And think about the capacity of those words to bestow sometimes very heavy obligations, as in the Treaty of Falaise, and sometimes very light obligations, as in some of the early treaties with the Welsh. But then again, you’ve got to remember that they basically tear up most of these treaties after a few weeks! Like the Treaty of Windsor with Henry II – it lasts six months! You’ve also got to think about it in terms of the symbolic power of these treaties, rather than actually wanting to enforce them to the letter.
SP: Alice, thank you so much for your time. Before you go, are there any last remarks you want to make?
AT: I think the twelfth century is a really profound period for changing relationships in the British Isles and Ireland, and it’s a past that continues to be felt today. It’s still being contested, it’s still being worked out – it is very much part of current discussions! So it’s a very important time to be studying these sorts of questions.
Last month, students on the Special Subject module ‘The Celtic Frontier: Post-Conquest England and her Celtic Neighbours’ were given the opportunity to interview Dr Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland and author of The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124-1290 (Oxford, 2016). The students’ questions focused on the long twelfth century and ranged from Scottish identity and culture to elite politics. After 50 minutes (!!) of grilling, we finally let Alice go…
This blog post and the next provide the highlights of our discussion. They are must-reads for students working on Scotland in the twelfth century – we are very grateful to Alice for both her time and her full responses!
The session was chaired by Dr Stuart Pracy with students on the module posing the questions. We begin with a question from Damien Welham.
DW: I’ve got a question on Scottish identity… It’s quite broad, but how did the coming of Anglo-Normans shift what it meant to be Scottish? And what would you say were the main problems that they caused?
Alice Taylor: Goodness, Damien, that’s a big question! So the question ‘how does elite settlement into Scotland over the twelfth century change political culture’ is, basically, the question that has preoccupied historians of medieval Scotland for about 200 years – and there have been many different ideas about it.
There are people who would call it the ‘Normanization’ of Scotland, that what happens to Scotland is the same as what happens to England following the Norman Conquest. So you have the imposition of fiefs, you’ve got the rise of French as the dominant language of the elites, you’ve got castle-building… It’s what happens to England in miniature. And if you were reading a book in the 1950s then this would be what you would read.
Now, there have been a number of people who have been working since the 1950s who are like, ‘hold on a second!’ Because what’s happened over the last 70 years is, essentially, a kind of cultural limitation of the effects of Anglo-Norman settlement. A lot has been done in terms of reframing. What’s the biggest shift in the geopolitics of north Britain? Rather than Anglo-Norman settlement, it’s the shift of the kingdom of Alba from north of the Forth to south of the Forth.
The Firth of Forth is a really, really big divide, even in Scotland now. And until the Forth Bridge was built, it was really difficult to get over. So in the thirteenth century and, indeed, before, people would call Scotland north of the Forth an island. If you look at the maps of Matthew Paris from the thirteenth century, he presents Scotland north of the Forth as being only connected to the rest of Britain by a bridge. And this area north of the Forth was called ‘Scotland’ – so the Kingdom of the Scots was much bigger than the area of ‘Scotland’.
So, in a way, the big transition is the eleventh-century shift in the centre of power of the Scottish kingdom and Scottish kings to being within the area now called Lothian. That’s the area that contains Edinburgh, Roxburgh and (then) Berwick – kind of urban settlements. The incorporation of Lothian as the centre of Scottish kingship is a more profound shift for the geopolitics of Scotland because, if you think about it, if your centre is in the north, then who are you most interested in? Essentially, Norway and Denmark – not the kingdom of England! Whereas what happens in the late eleventh century is you’ve got a new dynasty, which is situating itself as being the rightful kings of England, in a way, and looking much more to the south as the primary area of diplomatic engagement. And so the settlement of the Anglo-Normans needs to be seen in that context, which is a cultural shift seen in the kings of Scots themselves. So you can absolutely see big changes because you have the replacement of an elite! But those big changes need to be seen in the context of a much broader shift that is being led by kings, rather than being led against kings, if that makes sense.
DW: Thank you very much! This week I’ve read quite a lot about this Forth divide and that I found that quite interesting.
AT: It is! It is really interesting because it’s also this idea of the symbolic power of Scotland north of the Forth. There’s this extraordinary source called On the Location of Alba which was written in the late twelfth century and talks about the symbolic division of the kingdom of the Scots into seven – and the earliest division is the area north of the Forth. So there’s the question of whether or not the south is Scottish… At this point, the monks of Melrose, an abbey in the modern Scottish borders, are still writing about themselves as though the Scots are other people. They only start seeing themselves as being part of the kingdom in the thirteenth century – Dauvit Broun has written about this.
We always like to complicate things as historians, but even talking about Scotland is a kind of later imposition on what is actually a much more complicated polity that these elites are entering. And they’re thinking ‘well, this is very different from my fief in Shropshire’… Which it is! If you were Walter FitzAlan and you were given Ayrshire you might have been like ‘my lordship in Shropshire has not really prepared me for this…’ That would be how I would certainly feel if I were him!
Stuart Pracy: I’ve been to both Scotland and Shropshire and they are very different – so I will back you up on that! It’s definitely different.
AT: And it’s different strategies of lordship. That also puts a very different spin on the idea of intermarriage. You know the imperative, the need to intermarry, because what you’re marrying into is knowledge. What does it mean to be an Anglo-Norman lord in Angus? It’s very, very different from Sussex. And the kinds of social relationships that you’re entering into… marriage is a really, really useful tool for that.
SP: Hanife, it looks like you have a question you want to ask that follows on from this.
Hanife Hursit: Yes, my question was actually in relation to intermarriage, and I’m interested in the role that women played. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find much information on it, I guess because it’s the medieval period. But my question was going to be on the importance of intermarriage in Scottish politics and the wider role that women played – and your take on that.
AT: It’s a really interesting question – and in some ways the example of Scotland only highlights some of the issues that we have looking at the twelfth century in particular. Most of the evidence from medieval Scotland in this period survives from charters. You might have been introduced to the People of Medieval Scotland database (POMS), which contains information about all the people who are mentioned in the Scottish charter corpus. And it’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women! The materials that we have to study even just aristocratic women are based on what we can garner from charters, because there’s not much in the way of a chronicle tradition in this period…
‘It’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women!’
We know that there are hugely powerful heiresses, women who exercise vast amounts of power and authority, particularly in the west, and who we know are acting as these key nodes of lordly patronage and lordly networks – but we don’t really know anything more than that. We also know that there are large numbers of intermarriages not just through the existing Gaelic-speaking aristocracy but also, for want of a better word, Anglo-Norman women who are marrying major mormaers (regional rulers). We also know a lot about women’s patronage, what they give land to. But it is very, very difficult to look at the political role of women here because there’s just not a lot of twelfth-century evidence, even though we know intermarriage is the way in which these incoming lords must have embedded themselves.
So, an example is my totes fave Eschina, lord of Mow in Roxburghshire, who sometimes calls herself Eschina of London – and she is somebody whose marriage patterns you can actually track! Eschina of Mow/London marries Walter FitzAlan, her first husband, and it’s also possible that she is related to the mother of William the Lion’s high-profile illegitimate son Robert of London. Her marriage alliances are, essentially, ways in which she starts exercising firstly, her power over southern Scotland through her marriage to Walter FitzAlan and, secondly, embeds herself in that south-easterly lordship of Roxburgh, which is the richest area of the kingdom at this time. But you have to do that work yourself… That’s the annoying thing about studying aristocratic women in Scotland – and that’s where POMS is really helpful. So you can type in Eschina’s name into POMS and immediately you get all the known information about her. She’s somebody who doesn’t appear in chronicles and we wouldn’t know anything about her were it not for charters. But it is very clear that in the second half of the twelfth century she is this key node that allows for a lot of other people to gain status through her. I’d say Matthew Hammond is probably the best person to read on women in the adoption of charters. I don’t know if that answers your question!
SP: It’s a very, very thorough answer and I think it covered everything and more, didn’t it?! Do we have another question?
Evan Shingles: My question’s on Scottish royal relationships with the kings of Man and the Isles. I wanted to know how the Scottish kings related to them in the twelfth century: was it always hostile? Was it sometimes positive?
AT: It’s a really interesting question – and the short answer is a bit of both. Incursions from the west start early in the reign of Mael Coluim IV, when he’s young and everyone hates him. There’s been a way of writing until very, very recently (possibly spurred on by devolution) that considers these incursions overwhelmingly in national terms. So anything that looked like an incursion against royal authority would be written as a ‘rebellion’, for example, you’ve got a ‘rebellion in Moray’. It’s the idea that somehow these Scottish kings have natural authority and anything that is against them is understood in the words of rebellion. The last of this tradition is probably Andrew McDonald’s Outlaws of Medieval Scotland, where you are looking at people who are “revolting” and then writing about them as though they are rebels.
And Somerled is very interesting because Alex Woolf has written a really nice piece about a text called the Song of the Death of Somerled. He has this beautiful reading where he basically rewrites the entire history of these incursions from the west in the reign of Mael Coluim and reframes them by saying these aren’t incursions, these aren’t rebellions, these aren’t attacks. This is actually a large diplomatic alliance, which has different people leading at different points and which Somerled is part of. It’s a different option that’s going on in Alba, i.e. Scotland north of the Forth, basically in direct opposition to the kingship of Mael Coluim. So when we’re looking at these relationships it’s sometimes hard to find literature that actually speaks about them in the way that they should be spoken about. Richard Oram in his Domination and Lordship book writes about the reign of Mael Coluim IV very well here, based on the work of the late Alasdair Ross. But that’s very, very recent – that’s in the last 10 years!
And so when we’re thinking about the relationships with the kings of Man and the kings of the Isles, it’s very, very important to see them as being part of a diplomatic alliance in which the authority and legitimacy of kingship is not secure. There are other options, there are other ways of thinking about Scottish kingship, particularly in that middle period of the twelfth century. You could be looking at a very, very different kind of polity which just essentially leaves southern Scotland and Northumberland to the remnants of Mael Coluim III and Margaret’s dynasty, and actually sees a much broader-based alliance between what’s now central and eastern Scotland and the west…
SP: I think that’s a really interesting idea, because your book is all about how Anglo-centric viewpoints on Scotland are problematic. But it’s interesting to see the regional historiographical issues with revolts in the area – an interesting breakdown of historiographical problems within broader historiographical trends!
See our next blog post for ‘Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland’