Exhibition review: ‘Scribes and royal authority: Scotland’s charters 1100-1250’


Exhibition review: ‘Scribes and royal authority: Scotland’s charters 1100-1250’, National Records of Scotland (Matheson Dome, General Register House), 5 April-17 May 2017

The idea of an exhibition examining subtle changes in administrative documents may not immediately appeal to the general public. In a way, this is true: how and why legal documents were written, what patterns are evident and how they reflect an emerging form of scribal standard could be topics at risk of putting off even a determined casual observer. A new exhibition (open for six weeks) at the General Register House, Edinburgh does very well to outline exactly why this assumption is incorrect.

Charter by King Maclcolm IV

Charter by King Malcolm IV

Often the history of twelfth- and early thirteenth-century Scotland is the story of leading monarchs: David I, Malcolm IV, William I. They are credited with introducing out-of-the-box (assembly required) institutions to the kingdom – ‘feudalism’, burghs, reformed monastic foundations, foreign settlers, castles. This ‘Scribes and royal authority’ exhibition turns the focus instead to those individuals and the materials they produced in the phases of transformation of the kingdom.

The exhibition makes no bones about the scarcity of the surviving evidence from this era of Scottish history; the panels accompanying the exhibition outline in admirable though depressing detail how much has been lost forever. The monasteries of the south-west (Dumfries and Galloway), for example, are wholly unrepresented in our reckoning of charters – the legal documents at the heart of this exhibition – in this early period.

The low volume of evidence has not hindered the piecing together of the story of how and through what means Scotland was ruled as a medieval kingdom. A total of fourteen charters from two important landholders in the period (Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh and Melrose Abbey in the Borders) tell how incidental changes and trends reflect the choices made by the scribes of charters. The large, calm handwriting of monastic scribes, who more often than not penned religious texts instead of legal documents, developed into a more business-like form as they borrowed and mimicked the style of royal scribes. Decorative flourishes, peculiar letter forms or more restrained writing bring out not only these developmental patterns but also the characters and attitudes of the people themselves – several of the charters were by the same scribes. How these changes reflect

The rarity of these documents, and that they have never before been assembled for public view, should be emphasized too. It is fantastic to be able to look at document that are almost 850 years old, and so clearly pick out recognisable and unfamiliar names and places. Seleschirhe for Selkirk, Gilandrea the dapifer (‘meat server’) and Castellu puellar – ‘Castle of the Maiden’, Edinburgh itself. Though the exhibition is small, it is rich in content and worth taking time to experience in its fullest. At £5, the exhibition catalogue is a little flimsy, but is worth the price for the high quality images of the charters on display and the commentary on handwriting.

Those with an interest in the wider project, of which the exhibition forms one output, should visit http://www.modelsofauthority.ac.uk/.

William’s research is funded by the AHRC, in partnership with RCAHMS