Violence, Legal Culture and Social Control: The Records of Scotland’s Justiciary Court, 1493–1558

Larsson, Chelsea
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University of Guelph

This dissertation investigates the prosecution of lethal and near-lethal violence in Scotland’s highest central criminal jurisdiction—the justiciary court—during the first half of the sixteenth century. It uses trial entries preserved in the court books to demonstrate that the 1530s and 1540s were important decades that saw dynamic changes in legal and administrative practices. Moreover, it shows how useful these records are as sources of information about the court’s role in social control and conflict resolution during this period. The study uses an original relational database to quantify and cross-reference data contained in the manuscript records of the justiciary records, often overlooked in favour of the more approachable edited versions. The results of this analysis reveal several important findings that question, confirm and enhance existing arguments about law, society and administration in premodern Scotland. The language used to describe violent offences reveals that whether an act of violence was interpreted as a legitimate or illegitimate use of force depended heavily on context, brutality and premeditation. This language entered the record in ever more formalised and structured ways that point to changes in the nature and apparent purpose of the justiciary court records, as well as to the bureaucratic acumen of the men who created them. However, rather than functioning as an impartial arbiter of the law, the justiciary court played several roles: a theatre in which plaintiffs, officials and the crown negotiated acceptable uses of force; a stage upon which the crown could be seen dispensing mercy and justice; and a source of revenue to fill royal coffers in constant need of replenishing throughout the sixteenth century. Underlying these negotiations and displays were contemporary attitudes about how the relationship between status, gender, honour and violence contributed to whether an offender was perceived as upholding or undermining the patriarchal hierarchy that ordered society in this period. Taken together, the arguments put forth in the dissertation demonstrate the extent to which this superior criminal jurisdiction served as a site at which plaintiffs, defendants and representatives of the crown interacted to define and redefine the line between violence and violation.

Scotland, medieval, early modern, justiciary court records, Scots law, criminal law, violence, homicide, forethocht felony, assault, social control, conflict resolution, bureaucracy, legal profession, recordkeeping practices, gender, honour, bloodfeud