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Women and Materiality in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland: Symposium Report

Our latest blog post by Dr. Rachel Delman (York) is a report on the symposium Women and Materiality in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland that was held at the University of Edinburgh in April.

On Friday 26th April 2019, academics, heritage professionals and authors gathered at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) for a one-day symposium on ‘Women and Materiality in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland’. The event was an outcome of my 8 months as Susan Manning Fellow at IASH, during which time I explored the architectural patronage of Queen Mary of Guelders (d.1463).

Recent scholarship has done much to re-assert Scotland’s place in the historiographical narratives relating to both women and gender and material culture, yet rarely have the two fields been considered together. This is also an exciting time for collaborations between academics and heritage professionals: in the past two years, several events have focused on researching and curating women’s lives at heritage sites and properties across Britain. Women in Scotland and women who lived before the 19th century, however, remain underrepresented in these discussions. My aim in organising the symposium was therefore twofold. Firstly, I wanted to bring these two disparate strands of scholarship into dialogue, and secondly, I was keen to develop existing conversations through a specific focus on women in medieval and early modern Scotland.

The day’s discussions comprised three panels and two spotlight sessions, which were concluded by a keynote paper from Professor Elizabeth Ewan. The first session, ‘Materiality in the Archives’, which was chaired by Anna Groundwater, considered documentary evidence for women’s engagements with art and objects. Focusing on married women’s wills from 16th-century Scotland, Cordelia Beattie demonstrated the significant potential of these hitherto underutilised sources for enhancing our understanding of female networks and women’s emotional engagements with material goods, a subject which has been studied for England and Italy, but overlooked for Scotland. Beattie showcased the richness of the Scottish material for such discussions: in contrast to England, the high survival of inventories alongside Scottish wills provides greater context for the things women chose to bequeath, while the relative abundance of married women’s wills offers a rare point of comparison between the actions of married men and women.

Rachel Davis then argued for seals and charters as commemorative objects of female power through which medieval women contributed to the visual grammar of their patrilineage. Much like Beattie’s wills, Davis argued that seals have been underutilised for Scottish history. She also grappled with some of challenges facing feminist historians, including the relative paucity of surviving source material for women’s lives, and the incompatibility of past collecting interests and current research agendas. Nevertheless, Davis showed that elite Scottish women were canny users of iconography, who strategically drew on family relationships and kinship ties to materially express their power and status.

Next, Michael Pearce considered a collection of inventories detailing the domestic objects of Mary Dudley, dowager Countess of Home (d.1644). Pearce argued that Lady Home was a pioneer of new luxury, who cultivated an Anglo-Scottish materiality at her residences, including Murray House in Edinburgh. Like Beattie, Pearce showed how objects were used to consolidate female ties: Lady Home left a cabinet of furnishings to her daughter’s daughters, and gifted several objects kept in her bedchamber and cabinet to female associates, thus signalling the importance of these objects and spaces for female sociability.

Session Two, ‘Construction and Patronage’, was chaired by Karen Dempsey and addressed the roles of townswomen and queens in making and commissioning objects and architecture. Focusing on the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel in Edinburgh — otherwise known as ‘The House’ — Aaron Allen argued that the sisters of the craft contributed to family businesses and provided domestic labour and skills. Women were also actively involved in urban construction, supplying building materials and fodder for horses. Through the example of Sarah Dalrymple, who was made a burgess on account of her expertise in japanning, veneering and perspective work, Allen showed how women both navigated and were constrained by the patriarchal frameworks of urban life.

My own paper considered two women’s contributions to the built environment of pre-Reformation Edinburgh. Focusing on the extant remains of Trinity College Kirk on Chalmers Close and Magdalen Chapel on Cowgate, I argued that ecclesiastical patronage enabled Queen Mary of Guelders and merchant, Janet Rynd, to leave their mark on the civic landscape without transgressing contemporary expectations of female behaviour. Highlighting the fact that there are more statues of animals in Edinburgh than of named women, I suggested that buildings commissioned by women are a greater memorial to their lives, and could feature in a walking tour of the City.

The final speaker of Session Two, Ian Campbell, examined the architectural design of James V and Mary of Guise’s major palaces. Campbell argued that rather than looking to England, we should consider Scottish palaces in light of contemporary developments in Continental Europe, particularly Italy, Burgundy and Germany. Although we often singularly equate Mary’s arrival with a growth in French influences on Scottish architecture, Campbell showed that these can be traced earlier. He also pointed out that the queen’s childhood home, the Duchy of Lorraine, not only included part of France, but also spanned the Holy Roman Empire, and that Mary later employed Italian architects for her military fortifications. Campbell’s paper thus demonstrated a myriad of influences on Scottish architecture, and provided a nuanced assessment of Mary’s contributions to the design and appearance of the royal palaces.

Together, the papers in the morning sessions revealed how women across the social spectrum — queens, noblewomen and townswomen — created and used material culture to transform and assert themselves within a variety of settings — town and countryside, home and street, castle and workshop. The wide range of approaches, sources and examples discussed across the six papers provoked lively discussion in the Q&A sessions afterwards, and many of these thoughts were carried forward to the afternoon, which will be discussed in part two of this blog post.

The Symposium’s afternoon sessions began with a spotlight talk from Rosemary Goring, who reflected on the process of selecting sources for Scotland: Her Story. Goring spoke of the tantalizing yet fleeting references to women in the pre-modern records, and the emotional labour of consulting sources which detail the trials and struggles of women. She considered women’s roles as mothers, maids, spies, military managers and witches, and the places and objects which defined their lives. One of the most memorable examples was that of the “tumbling lassie”, a nameless woman who in 1687 was freed from her forced employment as an acrobat after the Court of Sessions declared that ‘we have no slaves in Scotland and mothers cannot sell their bairns’.

Lucinda Dean chaired the next session, ‘Spaces and Objects of Female Power’, which considered how elite women’s power was expressed — and undermined — through space and material culture. Rather than asking the age-old question of whether Mary Queen of Scots was complicit in her husband, Lord Darnley’s murder, Morvern French instead brought a spatial perspective to the Craigmillar Bond, tracing the movements of the plot’s protagonists through Craigmillar Castle, and arguing that the men involved exploited the gendering of space to their advantage, so as to undermine a social hierarchy which placed the queen on top. While much of the discussion during the day sought to move away from Mary Queen of Scots, French usefully showed how we might contextualise Mary within broader discussions of gender and space, rather than seeing her as an ‘exceptional’ figure.

Amy Hayes then explored the material resources available to Scotland’s ‘enigmatic’ queen, Margaret of Denmark (d.1486), during her period of residence at Stirling Castle. Long thought to have been estranged from her husband, James III, Hayes conversely argued that Margaret continued to rely on James for her material resources at Stirling, and that king and queen still functioned as a couple despite their physical separation. Hayes importantly highlighted that a trend in current scholarship to look for female power has sometimes obscured more nuanced readings of the ways in which medieval men and women operated. She also warned that we must be attentive to the specificities of queenship in medieval Scotland, which differed from England.

Lastly, Katy Jack offered a positive reappraisal of the reputation of Isabella, Countess of Mar (d.1408). Jack showed that Isabella wielded considerable economic and political power, commanding one of the most important earldoms in Scotland during her widowhood. She argued that Isabella used ecclesiastical patronage in the same ways as her male contemporaries, and selectively utilised her familial ties to express and commemorate her influence in both text and stone. Jack reminded us that every established story is open to interpretation and challenge, a message that carried through to the next session, in which she also featured.

The second spotlight session of the day, ‘Curating Women’s Histories at the National Trust for Scotland’ was chaired by Oliver Cox and showcased contributions from Jack in her capacity as Duty Manager at Falkland Palace, along with NTS regional curators, Antonia Laurence-Allen, Emma Inglis, Vikki Duncan and Sarah Beattie. Together, the speakers reflected on the barriers to interpretation, including visitor and staff expectations, and a lack of research and funding. Using the example of Anne Duchess of Hamilton (d.1716) at Brodick Castle, Beattie spoke of the challenges of marrying archival records to a constantly evolving building. Jack then commented on the enduring draw of Mary Queen of Scots at Falkland and the barriers to telling the stories of Falkland’s other women. Next, Duncan addressed gendered representations of men and women at Fyvie Castle, considering the opportunities and challenges posed by the stark contrast between the property’s flamboyant portrait of Colonel William Gordon (d.1816) and the more sombre image of his housekeeper-turned-wife, Isobel Black. Focusing on the more recent example of Lady Antonia Dalyrymple, whose rooms at the Palladian villa of Newhailes are now used for storage, Laurence-Allen reflected on how we might use absences productively. Lastly, Inglis focused on the properties which lack ‘star individuals’, arguing for object-based analysis as one way of liberating underrepresented stories.

Elizabeth Ewan skilfully drew together the day’s discussions in her informative and entertaining keynote. Opening with the example of Christian Fletcher, Lady Abercrombie (d.1691), who saved the Honours of Scotland from Cromwell’s troops when the English invaded Scotland, Ewan showed how subsequent interpretation had either omitted Fletcher altogether or marginalised her through the anachronistic title ‘Mrs Grainger’. She then commented on the development of public history in Scotland, arguing that we are forced to re-invent the wheel when women’s lives are only temporarily highlighted, and stressing the importance of school education in driving change. In the final part of her keynote, Ewan spoke of her research on the late medieval merchant, Alison Rough, and her experience of mapping out Alison’s life for the redevelopment of Mary King’s Close on the Royal Mile. Due to a visitor appetite for sensationalist stories, Ewan was required to focus on Alison’s role in the murder of her son-in-law, despite her own broader interest in Alison’s life. This was a powerful reminder of the competing factors influencing visitor experiences centred on women’s lives.

The day’s discussions demonstrated that the quantity and value of Scottish source material relating to medieval and early modern women’s lives has been greatly underestimated, and also that many opportunities for research, interpretation and collaboration remain. I am hopeful that the event has set the agenda for further conversations around Scottish women’s engagements with material culture, and that future scholarship and interpretation will continue to reassert the place of Scotland’s women within broader conversations concerning gender and materiality in Britain and Europe.


The day was made possible thanks to grants from the Royal Historical Society and the Susan Manning Conference Fund at The University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. I would also like to thank the team at the IASH, particularly Donald Ferguson, Pauline Clark and Ben Fletcher-Watson, for their support before and during the event.

Rachel Delman is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History at the University of York. Prior to this, she was Susan Manning Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH). Rachel’s research examines women’s engagements with the built environment in late medieval England and Scotland. Her first article, ‘Gendered Viewing, Childbirth and Female Authority in the Residence of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, at Ewelme, Oxfordshire’, was published in the Journal of Medieval History in May 2019. Rachel is currently preparing her doctoral thesis (awarded from the University of Oxford in 2017) as a monograph for publication. This focuses on noblewomen’s residences in late medieval England.