Bulls, bere and black oatmeal: Iona’s economy in the later Middle Ages
By Janet MacDonald
Paper given at the Iona Research Conference, on April 12, 2012
Introduction: The late medieval monastery of Iona, refounded as a Benedictine house c1203, was the most important religious house in the West Highlands, and had landholdings throughout Argyll and the Hebrides, from North Uist to south Kintyre. Some of its lands, particularly those closest to home, had no doubt belonged to the earlier Columban monastery; others were gifted to the abbey and the nunnery from 1203 onwards, and most remained in their control up to (and beyond) the Reformation.
This paper will take a brief look at some of the landholdings of both the abbey and the nunnery, and at how they were used – and perhaps misused – over this period.
For the start of the period, there are fewer early charters from the West Highlands and Islands than from other areas of Scotland; this is in part perhaps a reflection of the oral tradition more prevalent in this area, literacy being less widespread than in the Lowlands. However, due to the conservative nature of society and settlement in the region, later documents, particularly if combined with archaeological evidence, can often help shed light on the earlier period.
One of the most significant documents is the papal bull of Innocent III, of 1203. Written in response to an appeal to the pope, the bull offers protection to the new foundation and its holdings, promising the abbot, Celestine, that its possessions and property ‘shall remain unimpaired with you and your successors.’ Sometimes, though, those very successors were part of the problem.