Publication Spotlight: Rab Houston
June 4, 2015 Leave a comment
The past few months have seen a new blog post series, which focuses on the many and varied publications which have recently come out of this School of History. In this post, Prof Rab Houston explores the thought patterns and connections between his three most recent monographs.
My publications in recent years are linked to an interest I have had since I did my PhD: a fascination with the similarities and differences between the three historic realms that made up early modern Britain, as well as with the significance of regional differences within England, Wales, and Scotland. My other agenda over the last thirty something years has been to realise a version of British history that gives Scotland its proper place. What I have been trying to do is not simply to add Scottish experience to the main line of English history and so create a more comprehensive British perspective, but also to open up new questions and debates within British history, using Scotland as a starting point for comparison.
I published three books about different aspects of this agenda during 2014.
The first book, Bride Ales and Penny Weddings: Recreations, reciprocity, and regions in Britain from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, looks at a single cultural form: contributory weddings.
When I first started my career as an historian I came across Scottish penny weddings in my documents. Lively, open events where guests paid for their own entertainment and gave money to the couple, they evoked a strong sense of community. That provoked my curiosity and they have been in the back of my mind ever since. Then, when researching my last book, I found similar sorts of marriage celebration in both Wales and the north of England.
Penny weddings and their English and Welsh equivalents were occasions of hospitality, sociability, and reciprocity. Good spirits and abundant food and drink often made them boisterous events. Relatives, friends, and neighbours all attended, showing their approval of the couple and helping to establish them in life.
This book asks what a common celebration tells us about shared social values, in what I call Middle Britain – Lowland Scotland, the north of England, and Wales – and how these differed from the social and cultural norms of both the so-called ‘Celtic Fringe’ and the south of England.
The second work, Coroners in Northern Britain: Sudden death, criminal justice, and the office of coroner in Scotland and the North of England, c.1300 – c.1800, looks at a single office or official – the coroner or crowner – and how his role was both similar and different in regions of Britain over time. This project tells us about the nature of society and government in different parts of the British Isles, illuminating the resemblances between coroners in the north of England and Scotland until the end of the fifteenth century and their wholly different trajectories in the early modern period.
When I was researching my last book about suicide in historic Britain, I had to find out how Scots investigated sudden or suspicious death: what was the Scottish equivalent of the well-known English coroner? One of the first hits that I got from an internet search engine about ‘Scotland coroners’ is the following statement from pathologist and crime writer Bernard Knight: ‘The office of Coroner is a uniquely English institution … Scotland, of course, never had coroners’. Yet I knew from my thirty years as an academic historian that this was untrue. This provoked my curiosity and I started rooting around in the archives.
I found that whilst Scottish magistrates or ‘procurators fiscal’ investigated unusual deaths, they did so in private. On the other hand, English coroners’ inquests were public, participative events involving a jury of local men. Both systems wanted to know if a crime had been committed, but they followed quite different procedures. In contrast, Scottish coroners were judicial functionaries who presented criminals for trial and seized their assets. They were court officers who dealt with living miscreants rather than the suspicious dead. They only stopped working for the criminal courts around the time of Union with England in 1707, because judicial procedures changed.
Because Scotland had different laws (and still does) the investigation of death was handled quite differently to England. However, coroners in the north of England (and in Wales) were very similar to their Scottish counterparts until the Tudors assimilated these peripheral regions into the English state. They held inquests into deaths, but they also worked as agents of criminal justice and even as administrators. In each of these works, I argue that the north of England was for centuries socially and culturally similar to Scotland. Part of that was the way law and order was maintained.
Finally, Peasant Petitions in Britain and Ireland: Social relations and economic life on landed estates, 1600-1850 looks at a single source – petitions from tenants to their lords – as a way of uncovering elements of variance in rural social relationships in the north of England, the Highland margin of Scotland, Wales, and the North of Ireland. Exploring not only what people asked for, but also how they framed their requests, this project shows the markedly different textures of relationships between those who worked the land and those who owned it, which were determined by the legal, economic, social, and political status of these two groups, in the component parts of the North Atlantic archipelago.
These works are all bound not only in the way they rewrite early modern British history, but also have implications for the current political system, and especially the recent referendum. In one sense my findings bring out how distinct Scotland’s past was from that of England. For example, the roots of Scottish coroners lie in Celtic officials of the Middle Ages. The path of their development between 1300 and 1700 was quite different from what happened with coroners over much of England during that period. But similarities between the countries are just as intriguing as differences. What I learned is that national frontiers are important in many ways, but they often draw arbitrary lines, which meant little to people in the past and which may be exaggerated for us by a concentration on politics. I think the people of north (and west) of Britain always have had different social and cultural priorities from those in the south and east. To me this is the fundamental division within Britain: not any political dividing line between Scotland and England.