The important book The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124–1290, presents a case for a substantially new view of Scotland’s advance in the book’s period to a particular kind of statehood, offering new perspectives to all interested in the medieval state. Alice Taylor reviews and substantially revises the voluminous literature on Scottish governance from the manuscripts and sometimes her own new editions of them. Although clearly out to lay new foundations for future European comparisons, Taylor will, like Tom Lambert in Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England (2017), as far as possible focus on the Scottish evidence alone, read in chronological order, and will largely exclude most external material. She cannot, of course, exclude all reference to England, whose Anglo-Norman families constituted so much of the Scottish nobility, and whose influence on royal administration was so pervasive, but, she insists, the result was adaptation, not imitation, and must be judged on its own merits (19). Scotland at the period’s start was still a feuding society, with few charters and a largely oral political culture. Its newcomers from the South never Normanized government, and David I’s reputation as founder of the realm is a later myth. Less of an innovator than he is sometimes thought to be, David, like his predecessors, started from the king’s ancient symbolic authority. Using such “informal modes of ruling” (187) through local elites, kings had carried on business by itinerating around their estates to collect tribute, eat their rents, extort hospitality, and capitalize on traditional warrior loyalty to their country. They presented their authority “as a form of lordship” rather than, as was done elsewhere, building a royal ideology from inauguration rituals such as coronation (452). The protection they offered was a more impressive version of what all lords tried to do. They did replace the Gaelic names and some of the independence of the figures who became earls and sheriffs, edge out the old lawmen, and both create their own local justices and royalize lordly authority into jurisdiction, which they territorialized to produce misleadingly “uniform units of local government” (442). But throughout the period they were admirably successful in enlisting the cooperation of their nobility. “Permanent, formal, and uniform institutions” were slow to develop, despite key advances in the decades that followed the difficulties of the 1170s (13). The transition to “king-in-assembly-made law” (131 n.93), for instance, though inspired by recent English reforms, never tried to end feud, which remained widely understood as a legitimate part of a single “legal order” (148 n. 176). Nor did the king seek to assert any Weberian monopoly over violence or the profits of justice. To the extent that royal “power” was eventually “expressed through formal written legal process” (264), this came mostly through an “Alexandrian Leap Forward” in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, a pale shadow of its (again) English model. No Scottish “Common Law” worthy of the name is visible until after the famous statutes of 1230, and after a trickle of brieves, designed from English writ models but neither on the same scale nor achieving comparable central control over law and order. Most law and much government remained decentralized. Noble authority was “assumed and built into the content of royal law” (175), and much government was too. This sounds like the familiar recipe for weak kingship, but Taylor reads the evidence more positively as a more consensual brand of kingship. She has almost nothing to say about noble rebellions of the kind that constantly disturbed Angevin and Plantagenet England. To carry one’s nobility forward in step with one’s monarchy does indeed sound like success, since violent conquest and gross domestic product should not form the sole criteria of judgment. The result is not, however, easy to slot into the usual categories of a medieval state. Scottish government was not very bureaucratic; it could boast no “state apparatus separate from civil society” (436), nor does it quite fit Weber’s “patrimonial” alternative. It developed no neat distinction of public from private, but instead enjoyed a “clear categorical separation between ‘official’ title and ‘inherited’ title” (174–175, 436). Taylor’s nuanced judgments on her two centuries of material are not easily summarized, and I have left myself little room for their appraisal. All interested in Scotland and its state must read this book for themselves. I will, however, say that, possibly due to the focus of my own special interest in English law, I find more to question in the chapters on law (almost a third of the whole) than elsewhere. Some of this is no doubt a function of the dearth of surviving records. Legal specialists will note that the index lacks various standard items they might expect to find (e.g., “Distraint,” “Escheat,” “Mortmain,” “Possession,” “Property,” “Ownership,” “Revolt/Rebellion,” “Right” [alternative to sasine], and “Trespass”). A single important illustration can indicate the kinds of general concerns legal specialists may have. England’s “Angevin Leap Forward” had substantially transformed pleading and litigation strategy in royal courts (322) through a newly intensive focus on the written word. Pleaders and jurors alike treated returnable writs as set texts that defined the issues at stake. Justices were tempted on occasion to apply “strict construction” to words and phrases they began to treat as injecting legal-moral meaning into the “facts of a case” (pace MacQueen as quoted on 298, emphasis added). All this rested, however, on a critical mass of writing, which may never have existed in Scotland, where no comparably general market for royal law appears to have emerged. Hence, perhaps, there are no Scottish “Forms of Action,” with the happy result, perhaps, that there was less of the rigorism and nitpicking of the developed English Common Law. These points are, if right, highly relevant to the “Anglicization” thesis that Taylor is concerned to cut down and reshape. All the same, in the next generation, all arguments on Scottish governance (and much else) will start from this book. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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