Scottish Episcopal Acta

Volume I: The Twelfth Century

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Norman F. Shead
Scottish History Society 6th Series
  • Suffolk, UK: 
    Scottish History Society
    , March
     494 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I suspect medieval diplomatics is far from anyone’s idea of a scorching subfield these days. Nonetheless, such scholars—who devote themselves to the close study of document production—perform an essential service, and those who go further by producing collections of “acta” deserve rounds of hearty applause and our eternal gratitude. Acta—documents written in the name of authority figures—variously identified, depending on their formal elements, as diplomas/brieves/charters, which are instruments recording grants, or writs, which are communiques of an authority’s will—constitute incredibly useful sources for medievalists. Such volumes are worth their proverbial weight in gold. Painstakingly plumbed from archival folders, cartularies (registers), or disparate narrative sources, acta editions are a convenience for those of us who lack the time, resources, or enthusiasm for such labors. Fellow scholars, join me in applauding Scottish Episcopal Acta Volume I: The Twelfth Century, Norman F. Shead’s efforts on our behalf: the publication of every known episcopal acta produced in Scotland (259 extant, 136 attested but “lost”) in the 12th century.

Why is acta so important?  Initially, the witness lists in these charters offer a solid method of locating principal magnates and prelates in Scotland and tracking their movements. Some of the charters provide source corroboration. For example, one (charter no. 67) has Bishop Michael of Glasgow professing obedience to Archbishop Thomas II of York, thus demonstrating the veracity of the chronicle of Hugh the Chanter, in which “Michael … professed canonical obedience in writing to the church of York and to archbishop Thomas and his successors” (see The History of the Church of York, trans. C. Johnson, London, 1961, 32). Additional charters offer the earliest evidence of Scottish ecclesiastical foundations, such as the churches at Bathgate (no. 129), Holy Trinity in St Andrews (no. 133), and Liff and Cambusmichael (no. 205). Numerous other research possibilities abound.

Criticisms of this work are light. Shead’s introduction lacks a general narrative on Scottish history in the 12th century, which would have helped frame some political issues found in charter texts. There is no cross-referencing of index entries, a convention adopted in collections such as the Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum series and, unlike a similar Boydell & Brewer acta volume, there are no sample facsimiles of charters themselves (see The Charters of David I, ed. G.W.S. Barrow, 1999). Moreover, I would have preferred greater discussion of spurious documents. Only eight charters seem to carry major hints of having been forged (nos. 34, 67-8, 115, 124, 131, 166, 197), and of these Shead only seriously entertains the possibility for one (no. 115). The astronomical credibility rate—99.99%!—probably warrants a larger discussion than that which appears on page xli, considering grants were regularly forged in order to substantiate claims to property rights or freedom from tolls. A final critique is the most obvious: the charter texts are not translated from Latin into English. Shead does make an admirable attempt to paraphrase each charter’s salient portions; for example, no. 221, a confirmation grant of Bishop Hugh of St Andrews, is accompanied by over a page of summary. Still, the nuances of the Latin can only be fully explored by specialists. 

These small critiques aside, Shead’s edition contains all of the assists a scholar could reasonably hope for. The charters are sensibly organized: first alphabetically by diocese and then, therein, chronologically by order of the bishops’s reigns. Each charter is dated and partially paraphrased and followed by its provenance, its edited Latin text, and pertinent notes and comments. Accompanying the acta register are several useful tools and appendices. An introduction effectively outlines major interpretive issues of the Scottish episcopacy and also comments on scribal conventions or lack thereof across the charters, such as protocols similar to dispositive clauses and injunctions. Included are bibliographies of printed and archival sources, a list of abbreviations, a diocesan distribution of provenances, and even an appendix noting when Scottish bishops were physically absent from the kingdom. A glossary and indexes of names/places/subjects complete the volume.

It is exceedingly useful to have these charters collected in one place. Historians of Scotland and its neighbors in the Anglo-Norman/Angevin world will want to acquire Shead’s edition and closely study its contents. Given the implications of its title, Scottish Episcopal Acta Volume I, I eagerly look forward to Boydell pursuing future volumes for the 13th and 14th centuries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John D. Hosler is Associate Professor of Military History at the Command and General Staff College.

Date of Review: 
February 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Norman F. Shead is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow.



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