Murder Will Out: Kingship, Kinship and Killing in Medieval Scotland
By Alexander Grant
Kings, Lords and Men in Scotland and Britain, 1300-1625: Essays in Honour of Jenny Wormald, ed. Steve Boardman and Julian Goodare (Forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press, 2014)
Introduction: This essay reflects on Jenny Wormald’s ground-breaking article, ‘Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government in Early Modern Scotland’ (1980), which brilliantly analysed fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scotland’s kin-based mechanisms for pacifying feuding, in relation to the public legal system. Essentially, the crown would grant a remission to the perpetrator of illegal violence, including killing, on condition that assythment (compensation) was given to the victim or his kin. It is not only one of the most important articles written on Scottish history, but also – through its wider significance – probably the most widely cited; and over thirty years later it reads as powerfully as ever.
Since 1980, work on feuding has multiplied exponentially. Whereas Wormald had to cite only a few dozen studies, nowadays well over a thousand could be mentioned; and her comment, ‘greater awareness that feud is a complex business has not resolved all problems of interpretation’, now seems a masterly understatement. What, indeed, makes a ‘feud’? Long-term fighting across generations, or also short-term retaliation? Only kin-groups, or also other groupings? Only killing, or also non-mortal injury and/or property damage? Are ‘bloodfeud’ and ‘vendetta’ different from ‘feud’, or subsumed within it? Jeppe Büchert Netterstrøm’s introduction to a wide-ranging volume examines such issues, giving twenty-six pages on ‘definitions and concepts’ before considering how to construct ‘a comprehensive history of European feuding’. A ‘more flexible’ and ‘broader’ definition is preferable, he argues, so that ‘long-standing bloodfeuds between Icelandic peasants might then be placed on the same continuum as bloodfeuds between Scottish or Friulian aristocrats as well as the feuds between Franconian noblemen that were not primarily bloodfeuds’. Meanwhile:
Edward Muir has tried to place Renaissance Friuli on a spectrum of European feuding societies. At the one end … ‘might be medieval England, where royal justice stamped out blood feuds earlier than in any other kingdom, and at the other modern Albania, where governments have hardly touched the endemic tribal feuds in the mountains … Friuli in the Renaissance came closer to the Albanian than the English end of the spectrum’. It is [Netterstrøm’s] opinion … that an effort to place the feuding societies of medieval and early modern Europe on this sort of spectrum may provide a constructive starting point for further comparison.
That ‘England–Albania spectrum’ is Jenny Wormald’s concept: so ‘Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government’ now provides a blueprint for taking the subject forward.