Scribal Choice in Drafting Charters: A Case Study

Feature Article 2: Dauvit Broun

The tedium of charters?

Those with a general interest in History can be forgiven for not expecting to find much of human interest in charters. The Earl of Rosebery, former Prime Minister, went so far as to complain in his presidential address to the Scottish History Society in 1903 that charters are ‘not popular reading, and not appealing to the special mission of a Society like this’.[1] He was speaking from recent experience! The society’s latest publication, appearing earlier that year, was the Chartulary of Lindores edited by Bishop John Dowden, who had, with Rosebery, been one of the society’s founding members in 1886.[2] And, true enough, the earl would have struggled to find anything in that volume to tickle his interest in what he referred to as the ‘domesticity of the past’. A rare instance is the complaint of monks that their health suffered because they were required to be bare-headed during the celebration of mass, something that they claimed had caused illness and death because Scotland was so cold. Unfortunately this morsel is found in a Lindores document that was not included in the cartulary, and was merely mentioned by the editor in his introduction.[3]

It is not too difficult to guess that what the earl found especially unappealing was the repetitive predictability of these documents. Geoffrey Barrow, doyen of Scottish charter scholars in the twentieth century, admitted that, in their most mature form, ‘they were not so much essays in Latin prose as concatenations of obligatory formulae permitting scarcely any variation save, naturally, in the proper nouns and in certain technicalities’.[4] One aspect of the ‘Models of Authority’ project is to trace the influence of royal charters in the emergence of these predictable elements. Charters are inevitably going to seem dry and dull to the casual reader for a simple reason: they were never written with the freedom to describe in vivid terms the matter-in-hand. A scribe always drew, in some sense, on pre-existing text. The most obvious examples are where a charter is a verbatim repetition of an earlier document, changing only the name of the person in whose voice it is written, the witnesses and the date. At the other extreme, the dependence on pre-existing text—in the mind rather than on parchment—is also apparent in the use of phrases and sentences that the scribe was familiar with from his extensive experience of reading charters.

In search of glimmers of creativity in the prose of charters

But not all the prose in a charter was routine and formulaic. There were a few elements which had no legal significance and were entirely optional. One of these was the ‘sicut’ clause (sicut, ‘as’). This was typically found in a sentence (beginning either with tenendam, ‘to be held’, or quare volo, ‘wherefore I wish’) explaining the terms on which the property was to be enjoyed by the beneficiary. The ‘sicut’ clause described the property as being held (or given) as freely, peacefully, honourably (or other similar adverbs) ‘as (sicut)’ land or a church (or simply ‘alms’) was held (or given) most freely, peacefully, honourably (or suchlike). A point of reference was often added to provide some context: for example in the charter of King William the Lion’s donation of the church of Haltwhistle to Arbroath Abbey (H 1/6/203: 1178 × 1187),[5] it was stated that this was to be held ‘as any alms are possessed most freely and quietly, best and honourably by any church in my whole land’ (sicut aliqua elemosina in tota terra mea liberius et quiecius melius et honorificencius ab aliqua ecclesia possidetur).

It has been pointed out that in Scottish charters (but not their English counterparts) a particular region or the kingdom itself might be given as the point of reference.[6] Indeed, towards the end of the twelfth century it became increasingly common to refer to the ‘kingdom of the Scots’ or ‘kingdom of Scotland’ in this way in a ‘sicut’ clause.[7] For example, in Edgar son of Domnall lord of Nithsdale’s charter of donation of a church to Holyrood Abbey (H 3/34/3: 1185 × 1211), it was said that it was to be held ‘as any church in the whole kingdom of the Scots is most freely given and most quietly and fully held and possessed’ (sicut aliqua ecclesia in toto regno Scott’ liberius datur quiecius et plenius tenetur et possidetur).

(Detail from H 3/34/3: GD45/13/252 reproduced by permission of the National Records of Scotland)

In the case of Saer de Quincy’s gift to Dunfermline Abbey of all the land in Beith (Fife) that Waltheof held (H 3/486/7: 1185 ×1200), this was to be held ‘as freely, quietly, fully and honourably as any baron in the whole kingdom of Scotland is able to give any alms’ (ita libere et quiete, plenarie et honorifice sicut aliquis baro in toto regno Scocie aliquam elemosinam dare potest). These statements show that there was an expectation that lordship and landholding was the same across the kingdom as a whole. There is no indication, however, that these statements had any technical legal significance. No-one at the time would have thought that, if these phrases had been omitted from the charters of Edgar son of Domnall or Saer de Quincy, that would have signified that the church and land in question was not given or held as fully as any other church or land in the whole kingdom. Neither was there any significance in the choice of adverbs—freely, quietly, honourably and so on. And neither, above all, did it matter whether the kingdom was referred to as ‘kingdom of the Scots’, ‘kingdom of Scotland’, ‘kingdom of the king of Scots’, or simply ‘kingdom’—or whether the kingdom was referred to at all.

It is apparent that, even among those examples which mentioned the Scottish kingdom, there was significant flexibility in the way the phrase was structured and in the choice of words. What happened, though, when scribes were copying a charter, or were using a charter as a direct source (for example, when renewing or confirming a gift ‘as in the donor’s charter’)? Did they tend to repeat whatever was in front of them unthinkingly—taking the easy way out by copying whatever was to hand? Or did they treat the optional elements, like the ‘sicut’ clause, with more freedom—for example, by adding or omitting the reference to the Scottish kingdom? The answer will help us to understand how far scribes engaged consciously with the prose they were writing. They needed, of course, to be aware of what required to be said and the limited variety of ways with which this could be done. This does not necessarily mean, however, that they were automatons. If we want to see examples of scribes engaging individually and self-consciously with what they were writing, the best place to look is not only at those elements that were optional and inherently flexible, but at those occasions when the scribe, when writing an optional element, had a choice between routinely copying an exemplar or recasting its prose. Their treatment of the ‘sicut’ clause provides a promising test case.

There is a special reason for focusing particularly on instances before 1200 where ‘kingdom of the Scots’ or ‘kingdom of Scotland’ appears in the ‘sicut’ clause. The phrase seems very obvious and natural to us today. Before the thirteenth century, however, it would have been very unusual to think of the kingdom as a single country or people.[8] The simple phrase regnum Scotie or regnum Scottorum, ‘kingdom of Scotland’ or ‘kingdom of the Scots’, first took root in a written context in the ‘sicut’ clause itself. When we see scribes choosing to use this phrase not simply as fresh prose but in contrast to the form of ‘sicut’ clause they saw in the charter that they were copying or confirming, we are witnessing the very beginnings of a way of thinking about the Scottish kingdom that we take for granted today. The prose deployed on these occasions may seem to us to be far too mundane to be considered creative. When a scribe before 1200 made a conscious decision to make the ‘kingdom of Scotland’ or the ‘kingdom of the Scots’ his point of reference in the ‘sicut’ clause of a charter, however, he was, nonetheless, not merely deploying a handy phrase, but participating in a new way of thinking about the kingdom itself.

Charters that are largely copies

It comes as no surprise that instances can be found where a scribe, far from relishing the opportunity to craft his own prose, has copied a text that included a ‘sicut’ clause referring to the Scottish kingdom, and repeated this verbatim. When Henry earl of Atholl renewed his father’s donation of the church of Dull to St Andrews Priory (H 3/11/4: 1189 × 1198, renewing H 3/11/2c.1180 × 1198), the text was simply an abbreviated copy of the earlier charter, omitting some elements (such as the curse on anyone infringing or diminishing the gift) and retaining others, including the ‘sicut’ clause.

(Detail from H 3/11/4: Adv. MS 15.1.18, no. 60 reproduced by permission of The National Library of Scotland.)

A remarkable example is two charters of Richard de Fréville for Arbroath Abbey (H 3/235/1: 1178 × 1185, and H 3/235/2: 1178 × 1188) produced on different occasions relating to separate transactions. There was no need for the scribe of one to use the other as a source, and yet that must have happened. The textual differences are confined almost entirely to what was specific to each. The charters are otherwise identical, including the ‘sicut’ clause which is repeated verbatim, finishing with a reference to the kingdom: ‘as any alms are most freely, quietly and honourably held in the kingdom of Scotland’ (sicut aliqua elemosina liberius quiecius et honorificencius tenetur in regno Scoc’).

Changing the point of reference

There are, however, examples where the ‘sicut’ clause has been changed. Jocelin, bishop of Glasgow (1175–1199) confirmed Robert of London’s gift of the church of Lessudden to Kelso abbey on two occasions. Robert of London’s charter of donation (H 3/358/2: 1165 × 1172) has a ‘sicut’ clause which finishes ‘as any religious [i.e., monks] hold and possess any church most freely and quietly and fully in the kingdom of Scotland’ (sicut aliqui religiosi aliquam ecclesiam in regno Scotie liberius et quietius et plenius tenent et possident). This is largely repeated in one of Bishop Jocelin’s charters (H 2/7/32), but with a significant difference: the diocese of Glasgow was given as the point of reference, not the Scottish kingdom. The other of Bishop Jocelin’s charters (H 2/7/18) is even more different: its ‘sicut’ clause finishes ‘as any church or ecclesiastical benefice is held and possessed most freely and quietly and best by any religious men in the diocese of Glasgow’ (sicut aliqua ecclesia vel beneficium ecclesiasticum in episcopatu Glasguensi ab aliquibus viris religiosis liberius et quietius et melius tenetur et possidetur).

Copying the ‘sicut’ clause from an exemplar

It was perfectly feasible, of course, for an episcopal confirmation to give the kingdom rather than the diocese as its point of reference. There is an example of this in which an episcopal confirmation charter and the original charter of donation have nearly identical ‘sicut’ clauses. Both William Lamberton’s charter donating the church of Bourtie to St Andrews Priory (H 3/331/2: 1174 × 1199) and the confirmation by Matthew bishop of Aberdeen (H 2/1/11: 1175 × 1199) have ‘sicut’ clauses finishing ‘as any alms are held and possessed most freely and quietly in the whole kingdom of the Scots’ (sicut aliqua elemosina liberius et quiecius tenetur et possidetur in toto regno Scottorum), except that in William Lamberton’s charter ‘from the donation of any knight’ (ex donacione alicuius militis) appears before in toto regno Scottorum. It seems that the scribe of the episcopal confirmation has copied the entire sentence beginning quare volo with only minor adjustments, including the ‘sicut’ clause.

Adopting different phraseology in the ‘sicut’ clause

There are cases where we can see that the scribe has chosen their own form of ‘sicut’ clause. Richard bishop of St Andrews in the charter (H 2/10/83: 1172 × 1178) confirming of the donation of the church of Kennoway by Merleswain son of Colbán to St Andrews Priory, has a ‘sicut’ clause which reads ‘as any alms are possessed most freely and quietly by any church in the kingdom of Scotland’ (sicut liberius et quietius aliqua elemosina ab aliqua in regno Scotie possidetur ecclesia). Merleswain’s own charter donating the church (H 3/49/1: 1165 × 1178), by contrast, gives no reference to the Scottish kingdom in its ‘sicut’ clause. Returning to Matthew bishop of Aberdeen, there is also an example where the ‘sicut’ clause in his confirmation charter refers to the kingdom whereas the charter of the donation he is confirming does not. This is the confirmation (H 2/1/2: 1172 × 1185) of the donation of the church of Tarland by Morgán mormaer of Mar to St Andrews Priory (H 3/18/1: 1165 × 1171). The ‘sicut’ clause of Morgán’s charter reads ‘as any alms are most freely and quietly held and possessed in Scotia’ (i.e. Scotland between the River Forth and the River Spey) (sicut aliquam elemosinam liberius et quiecius habent in Scocia et possident), whereas Bishop Matthew’s confirmation reads ‘as these alms which are held and possessed most freely and quietly in the kingdom of Scotland’ (sicut illas elemosinas quas liberius et quietius tenent et possident in regno Scotie). This slightly cumbersome phraseology is repeated in another of Bishop Matthew’s charters (H 2/1/3: 1172 × 1183), this time confirming the donation by Countess Agnes, Morgán’s wife, of the church of Meigle to St Andrews Priory (H 3/18/5: 1163 × 1178).[9] 

(Detail from H 3/18/5: Adv. MS 15.1.18, no. 62 reproduced by permission of The National Library of Scotland.)

Countess Agnes’s charter also refers to the Scottish kingdom in its ‘sicut’ clause, but in more conventional prose: ‘as any alms best, most freely and quietly is held in the kingdom of the Scots’ (sicut aliqua elemosina melius liberius et quiecius in regno Scotorum tenetur).[10]

Changes and repetitions within a series of confirmations

Finally there is an intriguing case of a long series of general confirmations involving kings, bishops of St Andrews and popes where the reference to the Scottish kingdom in the ‘sicut’ clause is found only in the papal documents. The archetype for all the papal bulls is Pope Alexander III’s protection and confirmation of privileges and possessions for St Andrews Priory (dated 31 December 1163).[11] There is little doubt, therefore, that the sentence in Alexander III’s bull with the Scottish regnal sicut clause has been repeated unthinkingly by scribes at the Curia on each occasion. It appears in a reference to the grant of the priory’s court by the king, which is to be held ‘as any church or alms has [a court] most freely and honorably in the whole kingdom of the Scots’ (sicut liberius et honorificencius habet aliqua ecclesia vel elemosina in toto regno Scottorum).[12] The exemplar for Pope Alexander III’s bull was presumably Mael Coluim IV’s general confirmation of (probably) 20 November 1160 (H 1/5/51): there the clause reads ‘as any church or alms has [a court] most freely and honourably in my whole kingdom’ (sicut liberius et honorificencius habet aliqua ecclesia vel elemosina in toto regno meo).[13] This was repeated in William the Lion’s general confirmation datable to 1165 × 1169 (H 1/6/23).[14] 

(Detail from H 1/6/23: GD90/1/5 reproduced by permission of The National Library of Scotland.)

In the parallel series of episcopal general confirmations, however, ‘kingdom of the Scots’ does not appear: there is one instance of ‘kingdom of the king of Scots’, but otherwise no reference to the kingdom at all. In Bishop Arnold’s charter (H 2/10/38: 1161 × 1163) and Bishop Richard’s (H 2/10/44: 1165 × 1166), ‘in my whole kingdom’ (in toto regno meo) in the king’s charter became ‘in his whole kingdom’ (in toto regno suo).[15] In Bishop Hugh’s charter (H 2/10/97: 1178 × 1184), however, this was changed to ‘in the kingdom of the king of Scots’ (in regno regis Scotorum.)[16] It then reverted to ‘in his whole kingdom’ in toto regno suo in the charter of Roger bishop-elect (H 2/10/133: 1189 × 1198).[17] Again, a mix of scribal flexibility and simple copying is apparent. It is notable that a foreign scribe at the Curia opted for ‘kingdom of the Scots’ regnum Scottorum when episcopal scribes did not.

Scribal flexibility and predictability

It has to be admitted that this brief exploration of the appetite of charter scribes to indulge in a little creativity could hardly be expected to have changed the earl of Rosebery’s view of the inherent dullness of this material. If we read charters not for their contents, however, but for what we can infer from them about the individual efforts of the scribes who created them, then they can be a source for the living human past, too. Looking beyond the prose itself to the way it was written, it is apparent that charter scribes—working within the limits of both their expertise, their awareness of different models and their willingness to be inventive—had to make a decision about the appearance of their handwriting. The same was true of their prose, with the difference that they were often reacting directly to the specific model of an existing charter which they were either repeating, renewing or confirming. What is revealed is a spectrum of scribal engagement with the prose they wrote, ranging from mere copyists to those who eschewed the easy option of repeating text before them and crafted something of their own—even if that was of itself fairly predictable.

It is, however, the general predictability of charter prose within this spectrum of scribal choice that is its greatest strength as a source for understanding the past, not at the individual level but as society. Charter scribes were not trying to create a text and artefact that was personally theirs, but which all those involved in the transaction they recorded could identify with. Charters were a part of social discourse which gained its force as a shared experience through being largely predictable and repetitive. We may, therefore, not only glimpse the individual scribe through understanding how they went about the task of writing a charter; we can also, by gauging the parameters of their choices and creativity, gain an insight into the shared patterns of expectations and assumptions within which they lived and operated, and how this developed in relation to kingship and other models of authority in this period. As we have seen in this brief case study, the prose espoused by charter scribes could even harbour new ways of thinking about the kingdom itself.[18]


[1] Report of the Seventeenth Annual Meeting of the Scottish History Society, p. 9, published in vol. 44 of the Scottish History Society (Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, vol. ii) (Edinburgh 1904).

[2] John Dowden (ed.), Chartulary of the Abbey of Lindores 1195–1479, Scottish History Society vol. 42 (Edinburgh 1903).

[3] Ibid., lxxxiii, where it explained that the bull of Pope Nicholas IV of March 1289 granting the wearing of caps during mass is preserved in a later Lindores manuscript containing a selection of documents (NLS MS Adv. 34.7.1).

[4] G. W. S. Barrow, ‘The Scots Charter’, in Scotland and its Neighbours in the Middle Ages (London 1992), 91–104, at 91.

[5] The ‘H’ number is given as a handy way of referring to charters systematically with the corpus as whole according to the system devised by Matthew Hammond for the People of Medieval Scotland database ( In order to find a summary of the charter, its main features and breakdown of the transaction(s) recorded in the charter and the people associated with it, go to ‘Basic Search’ in the database, select ‘Sources’ from the options, paste the H number into the text box and click on ‘Search’.

[6] John Hudson, ‘Legal aspects of Scottish charter diplomatic in the twelfth century: a comparative approach’, in John Gillingham (ed.), Anglo-Norman Studies XXV (Woodbridge 2003), 121–38, at 131.

[7] A fundamental discussion is Keith J. Stringer, ’The charters of David, earl of Huntingdon and lord of Garioch: a study in Anglo-Scottish diplomatic’, in Keith J. Stringer (ed.), Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh 1985), 72–101, at 86–90.

[8] This is discussed most recently in Dauvit Broun, ‘Rethinking Scottish origins’, in Steve Boardman and Susan Foran (eds.), Barbour’s Bruce and its Cultural Contexts: Politics, Chivalry and Literature in Late Medieval Scotland (Cambridge 2015), 163–190.

[9] Countess Agnes’s charter survives as an original single sheet: NLS Adv. MS 15.1.18 no.62:

[10] There is also a charter of Morgán mormaer of Mar for the donation of Migvie church to St Andrews Priory (H 3/18/3: 1163 × 1178), but its ‘sicut’ clause merely refers to Countess Agnes’s charter.

[11] Thomas Thomson (ed.), Liber Cartarum Prioratus Sancti Andree in Scocia, Bannatyne Club (Edinburgh 1840) [hereafter St Andrews Liber], pp.53–56, at p.54: Robert Somerville (ed.), Scotia Pontificia (Oxford 1982), no.50. It subsequently appears in repeats of Alexander III’s bull (with updates) by Popes Lucius III (Scotia Pontificia, no.119), Gregory VIII (Scotia Pontificia, no.148), Clement III (Scotia Pontificia, no.149), Innocent III and Honorius III (St Andrews Liber, pp.56–81, at pp.60, 64, 69, 74, 78). Change in the word order of the clause in Gregory VIII’s bull is then repeated in Clement III’s and Innocent III’s. Honorius III’s bull reverts to the original word order (which reads more naturally).

[12] Alms here presumably refers to estates given to St Andrews Priory that included the right to hold a court. On baronial justice in this period, see Alice Taylor, The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124–1290 (Oxford 2016).

[13] G. W. S Barrow (ed.), Regesta Regum Scottorum, vol. i, The Acts of Malcolm IV King of Scots 1153–1165 (Edinburgh 1960), no.174 (at p.219).

[14] G. W. S Barrow (ed.), with the collaboration of W. W. Scott, Regesta Regum Scottorum, vol. ii, The Acts of William I King of Scots 1165–1214 (Edinburgh 1971), no.28 (at p.137).

[15] Norman H. Shead (ed.), Scottish Episcopal Acta, vol. i, The Twelfth Century, Scottish History Society (forthcoming) [hereafter SEA, i], no.156 (St Andrews Liber, at p. 130); SEA, i, no.197 (St Andrews Liber, at p. 142).

[16] SEA, i, no.223 (St Andrews Liber, at p.148).

[17] SEA, i, no.230 (St Andrews Liber, at p.150).

[18] I am very grateful indeed to Joanna Tucker for comments, criticisms and corrections. I am, of course, wholly responsible for any flaws and quirks that remain.


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