Signed & Sealed: The Rise of the Charter in Medieval Scotland

In Scotland, during the Middle Ages, land was the chief source of wealth and political power. Although medieval Scots acknowledged the ancient prerogatives of the king, the exercise of effective political leadership was the preserve of a handful of noblemen who were obliged to protect the vast number of peasant men, women and children who tilled the soil. Oats and barley were grown on damp, sun-deprived fields while sheep, goats and longhorn cattle were reared on steep, craggy hillsides. Military strength was projected through the towers and fortresses that loomed over villages and fields. Ever shifting networks of allegiance enmeshed these castles from which the noblemen ruled. In times of war or political upheaval, land might be seized through conquest; in times of peace, it was gained by a grant of ownership embodied by a charter. 

Until the late twelfth century, land and other privileges, fiscal and political were granted to a beneficiary in a public ceremony in which the new lord was invested with a physical symbol of the land such as a clod of earth. Borders were delineated and reaffirmed through an initial perambulation in which the lord and his retainers marched the perimeter of the new estates, thus embedding its bounds in the collective memory of locals. By 1300, the Scots, like the inhabitants of other medieval kingdoms, had developed what historians have referred to as a ‘trust in writing’. As written instruments, charters gradually replaced the public ceremonies and annual traditions as formal records of land that had exchanged hands. 

Though seemingly impenetrable manuscripts, charters can divulge much about Scottish families of the past. Invocation clauses reveal the local saints to whom medieval Scots prayed and the names of the loved ones whom they remembered. Some charters closely describe the lands they bestowed, noting wells, streams, hills and copses that have long since disappeared. The waxen seals that authenticated these lordly transactions are embossed with heraldry that projects the authority of (and almost always tells a story about) the grantor. And the witness lists reveal the political affinities and relationships held by local elites. 

The charters on display mostly relate to lands held by the Campbell and Menzies families who governed lordships in the Western Highlands. The earliest charter (ca. 1334) lists lands granted by the Earl of Atholl to Sir Robert Menzies during the Second Scottish War of Independence (1332-57). In the centuries that followed, the Campbell and Menzies families used the power and authority inherent in their charters to increase their domination over the lands of Lochawe and Glenorchy and to legitimize their rule in the region. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Campbell family, in particular, recognized the importance of legal instruments as tools to be used to assert their power. The charters in this exhibit are a testimony of their territorial ambitions and achievement. 

“Signed and Sealed” is an experiential learning collaboration between the Department of History and Archival and Special Collections. The charters in the exhibit are in the holdings of McLaughlin Library’s distinguished Scottish Studies Collection, housed in Archival and Special Collections. The exhibit is dedicated to Dr. Elizabeth Ewan, who was Professor of History and Scottish Studies in the History Department at the University of Guelph from 1988-2020.


STUDENT CURATORS: (Online Exhibit) Sara Leboeuf, Tiffany Ratsizafy, Hannah West (Physical Exhibit) Kyra Bates, Teagan Biersteker, Austin Brown, Brenna Clark, Julia Cole, Michael Di Lella, Aidan Hughes, Maggie Lehman, Keegan McNaught, Andrew Northey, Brittney Payer, Henrique Silva Paiane, Alex Wall HISTORY FACULTY CURATORS: Dr. Sierra Dye and Dr. Susannah Ferreira CHARTER CONSULTANT: Dr. Cynthia Neville EXHIBITION SUPPORT: Graham Burt (Archives Associate) and Melissa McAfee (Special Collections Librarian) DIGITIZATION SUPPORT: Lara Carleton and Gillian Manford (Archival & Special Collections Clerks)

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