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“Sweet Civility and Barbarous Rudeness”: a View from the Frontier. Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx and the Scots

Sweet Civility and Barbarous Rudeness: a View from the Frontier. Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx and the Scots

By William M. Aird

Imaging frontiers, contesting identities, edited by Steven G. Ellis and Lud’a Klusáková (Pisa University Press, 2007)

Abstract: This chapter examines the representation of the Scots in the historical writings of Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx. It takes as its starting point Abbot Ailred’s account of a battle between the Scots and English in August 1138. The Scots were led by King David I (1124-1153), who had been educated at the court of the Norman king of England, Henry I (1100-1135). When he became king, David imported the socio-cultural values he had learned in England in order to strengthen his kingship in Scotland. The study explores Ailred’s close relationship with David and his representation of the Scots and their invasion of the North of England. It concludes by suggesting that Ailred’s emphasis on the barbarity of the men of Galloway, who fought in David’s army, can be related to Abbot Ailred’s missionary activity in Galloway in the 1150s. It is argued that the exaggerated language of Ailred’s account of the war against the Scots can, in part, be explained by this reforming mission in south-western Scotland. The chapter also demonstrates the phenomenon of cultural mimesis across the Anglo-Scottish frontier.

Introduction: On, or shortly before, the 22 August 1138, a wagon, to which a ship’s mast had been fixed, was wheeled on to the wide plain of Cowton Moor, near Northallerton in Yorkshire. Those who had fashioned the machine called it the ‘Standard’. A silver pyx containing the body of Christ was fixed to the top of the mast, and, perhaps from a yardarm, were hung the banners of St Peter the Apostle, the patron saint of York Minster, and those of the northern English saints, John of Beverley and Wilfrid of Ripon. The wagon with its mast and banners was to act as a rallying point for an army, which had been hastily mustered by members of the nobility of Northern England in order to oppose an invasion force led by David I, king of Scots (1124-1153).

By invading the North of England, David I of Scotland was taking advantage of the political upheavals that attended the succession of Stephen of Blois to the English throne in 1135. Stephen’s right to rule England was challenged by the Empress Matilda, the daughter of his predecessor, Henry I, and the resulting civil war destabilised England for nineteen years. Although David’s invasions of northern England are often interpreted as the expression of his political support for his niece the Empress, the war of the English succession was an opportunity to extend his power southwards. Soon after the beginning of Stephen’s reign, David took possession of the town of Carlisle in the North-West of England, and re-established Scottish lordship over ‘English Cumbria’, which had been lost in 1092. David aimed at incorporating the northern English counties in a Scoto-Northumbrian realm, perhaps reaching as far south as the River Humber. Although the battle fought at the Standard in August 1138 resulted in a defeat for the Scots, this was a temporary setback and, in a peace brokered by the papal legate Bishop Alberic of Ostia, Stephen was obliged to acknowledge David’s son Henry as the earl of Northumbria. The Scots retained possession of the northern English counties until 1157, when David’s grandson, Malcolm IV (1153-65) was forced to restore them to Stephen’s successor, Henry II (1154-1189). Nevertheless, for almost two decades the dominant political power in the north of England was the king of Scots, rather than the more distant, and otherwise engaged, king of the English.

The Battle of the Standard in 1138 and King David I’s occupation of the northern counties of England provides the departure point for a discussion of medieval English historians’ characterisations of the Scots. The discussion focuses on the historical account of the battle by Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), who, although born at Hexham in England, had an intimate knowledge of Scotland and the Scots. As abbot of a Cistercian abbey, Ailred was also an agent for the transmission of ‘modernising’ French cultural and political values across the Anglo-Scottish frontier. In this case, the frontier acted as a zone of communication between ethnic groups and, in an act of cultural mimesis, the Scots adopted key social and political institutions from their southern neighbours. From Ailred’s point of view, this was a ‘civilising process’ and, as a Cistercian monk, he was obliged to promote peace in the North of Britain and disseminate the moral imperatives of the reformed Latin Church.

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