Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Interview: Matthew Hammond and PoMS, Part I

Welcome. I interviewed Matthew Hammond of the University of Edinburgh about the PoMs (Paradox of Medieval Scotland) database via email in September 2011. In the interests of full disclosure I should state that Matthew and I were PhD students in the  Scottish History Department at the University of Glasgow at the same time. Here is part one of the interview:

Amanda Epperson [AE]: Where did the idea for the data base come from?

Matthew Hammond [MH]: It grew pretty naturally out of my PhD thesis, which was completed at the University of Glasgow in 2005. For my thesis research, I created some MS Access databases covering all laypeople in Scotland north of the Firth of Forth between 1100 and 1260. The original idea was to build on these databases by extending them in time to 1286 (the date of the death of Alexander III) and geographically to the whole of the kingdom of Scotland. However, once we teamed up with the experts at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at Kings College London, who had already built the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) and the Prosopography of the Byzantine World (PBW), it became clear that the new database would be much more sophisticated and any data would have to be entered again from scratch.

AE: How long did it take to create the database?

MH: Three years. It took quite some time to get the grant off the ground, as the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project’s funder, was undergoing some adjustments at the time. We started in August 2007, and it took the better part of the first year to design the database, which was mainly done in Skype meetings between myself, Dauvit Broun of Glasgow and John Bradley of CCH. The main difference between the PoMS database and others is that it is primarily based on charters, and thus it goes much farther than other databases in attempting to represent and convey the specific nuances of charters as a source. In the meantime, we were putting together our master list of about 6000 documents. Amanda Beam-Frazier was particularly productive in creating descriptions of ecclesiastical and papal documents at that point.

AE: The project is based on information found in charters. What exactly is a charter?

MH: A charter is a document similar to a title deed for a house. It records the transfer of property from one person or group of people to another. These were authenticated by wax seals attached by a cord or a parchment tag. Most medieval charters are in Latin, although in some places, such as pre-Norman England, they were sometimes made up in vernacular languages. The earliest Scottish charter dates from 1094, so we are effectively starting there with the database. There are relatively few charters in the first half of the twelfth century, but by the mid-thirteenth century they become much more numerous, and even people of relatively modest means have their own seals. Only a small percentage of the charter texts in the PoMS database survive as original parchment sheets. Most of these survive in books kept by monasteries and other ecclesiastical institutions called cartularies. So for that reason we have a disproportionately large number of charters to church institutions.

AE: Why is understanding the formation of Scottish identity so important/interesting to scholars?

MH: Scottish identity is perhaps the most nebulous of the identities in the British Isles. The other identities – English, Welsh and Irish, match up very neatly with language groups in the Middle Ages. The term ‘Scottish’ began as a synonym for the Irish, or simply any Gaelic speaker. Politically, the heartland of the Scottish kingdom was based on a hybrid kingdom, called Alba, which was basically a largely Gaelicized extension of Pictland. By the twelfth century, this core had grown to include formerly or currently English-, Welsh-, and Norse-speaking districts. By the late Middle Ages, the kingdom had developed the more dualistic English/ Gaelic or Lowland/Highland divide which survives in some ways to this day. So Scottish identity is complicated, and describes a more nuanced reality than perhaps was the case elsewhere in the British Isles. At some point in the thirteenth century, the nature of Scottish identity changed and became much more inclusive. Prior to that, the term ‘Scottish’ was used to describe inhabitants of the core kingdom of ‘Alba’ north of the Forth. By the late thirteenth century, people south of the Forth and people speaking English, French and other languages were able to call themselves Scots too. In that sense, you have a transformation similar to  what happened in England in the twelfth century, when the descendants of the Norman conquerors began to think of themselves as English.

AE: Did the Anglo-Normans who migrated to Scotland create immigrant communities or otherwise attempt to maintain their culture?

MH: The population group one would think of most readily in those terms was the Flemish. Flemings were settled across Scotland, but often in low-lying areas that needed drainage, such as the Clyde valley and the Moray coast. As in places like Pembrokeshire in Wales, it is possible that these Flemish kept their language for a few generations. They certainly introduced some of their personal names – Erkenbald or Archibald being the most well-known. They also adopted Scottish places for their surnames, and the families of Douglas, Murray, Innes and Leslie were all descended from Flemish immigrants.

Europeanization, which is described by Robert Bartlett in his excellent and quite affordable book The Making of Europe.

Scotland was also taking part of the spread of the English language at this time, as English spread from its existing core in the Southeast of Scotland across the lowlands. This mostly took place in the burghs, trading centers populated with people from across the British Isles, where English was the most common language. It is at this time that English starts to spread into the countryside in places like Fife and Angus and Ayrshire. We also see the spread of English agricultural practices, with the use of field systems known as oxgangs and ploughgates north of the Firth of Forth. This process of Anglicization is described in Rees Davies’ interesting book The First English Empire.

Come back next Tuesday for Part II of the interview.

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