The question of “what I do in Scottish history” is one which, like all academics, I am often asked. After years of practice, I should have honed responding to this to a fine art. Yet I tend to find it awkward to provide a clear and concise answer. The unacceptably long-winded (and rather incomprehensible) description of my research is “cultural, social, environmental and economic perspectives of the role and function of monastic institutions in medieval societies on the ‘periphery’ of Europe”. What I mean by this will, hopefully, become much clearer below. But firstly, let me explain why I am often reluctant to give a simpler response.
The most succinct description of my research field is “medieval monasticism”. Experience has made me acutely aware that this phrase falls into two areas of history liable to cause a non-specialist listener to lose interest: medieval and religious. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard it stated that medieval historians have no sources and are “making it up.” The aversion to religious history seems to be fairly universal, common to medievalists and non-medievalists alike. I encounter the same issues when teaching my undergraduate classes, whether it is students insisting on selecting essay questions on themes from later in the course which we have not yet covered because they “don’t like medieval history”, or the glazed look I have come to expect when I announce that this week’s tutorial topic is the medieval church. I am eternally hopeful that my boundless enthusiasm will convert at least a few!
I would strongly argue that the label religious history implies a far narrower focus than is ever the case with this area of research. Religion and religious institutions permeated all aspects of medieval society to such an extent that their history is the story of the medieval experience. What really interests me is people. For example, research has shown that during the Wars of Independence in Scotland, the cult of St Ninian became associated with ‘rescue miracles’, whereby Scots were saved from harm at the hands of the English through his saintly intervention. This was a religious development, but it is also historical evidence of the impact of war on local societies, and an intimate indication of the human response to danger and physical threat.
My own research focuses on the Cistercian Order in Scotland. Originating in Burgundy, France, by c.1200 this monastic order had expanded into a vast network of 500 houses all across Europe, serving as a conduit for the spread of cultural forms. The arrival of the Cistercians in 1136 brought ideas from the ‘core’ of Christian Europe to Scotland. My research looks at how local societies interacted with these ideas, and how, in turn, these localities influenced the Cistercians. Monasteries moulded their practices to meet the expectations of the surrounding population. They absorbed local religious customs, such as native saints’ cults. On their part, local people believed that monasteries offered spiritual salvation. They donated land and money, arranged their burials within monastic space, and joined the Order as members themselves. The nobility also used monastic patronage to make public statements about their social and political status. These actions influenced subordinate members of their political and tenurial networks to do the same.
Donations saw monasteries amass vast landed estates. Cistercian houses were major landowners in medieval Scotland and their activities had hugely significant environmental and economic impacts. Monasteries utilised their extensive land resources as pasture for large numbers of sheep and exported high quality wool to continental buyers. They developed large-scale fisheries which supplied salmon to international markets at a time when riverine fish populations had greatly declined in England and mainland Europe. They constructed large numbers of mills on waterways they controlled, which ground grain, powered smithies and produced cloth. They systematically exploited forest land in their possession for timber and game, valuable resources which were strictly managed and fiercely protected.
Monasteries were certainly religious phenomena, but their role in medieval Scotland was much broader than this. Close study of monastic houses provides invaluable insight into intangible cultural elements, often so difficult to discern in the surviving sources. It reveals the social and political functioning of local societies. It provides vital information on the environmental history of particular regions and the Scottish economy in general. The field of medieval history is full of fascinating opportunities. What is often described as a ‘lack’ of sources as compared to, say, many areas of modern history, is an opportunity for creative thinking and innovative approaches to the material. To my mind, monastic archives are a great place to start.
Cover Image: Author’s own
Image Two: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RozmberkPetr.jpg