Latin and Scots Versions of Scottish Medieval Burgh Laws (Leges Quatuor Burgorum)

By Kopaczyk, Joanna | Scottish Language, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Latin and Scots Versions of Scottish Medieval Burgh Laws (Leges Quatuor Burgorum)


Kopaczyk, Joanna, Scottish Language


1. Early Scottish burgh laws

This paper stems from an exploration of recurrent patterns in legal and administrative texts written in medieval and early modern Scottish burghs (Kopaczyk forthcoming). (1) In the analysis of fixed formulae and stable fragments of texts, the interplay of the vernacular with other languages present in the legal context of the day has to be taken into consideration. The language of utmost importance here is Latin. It was 'the formal legal language' of the early medieval Scottish kingdom (Walker 1990: 262), the language of Roman legal codes from which Scottish law drew heavily in its formative period (see, e.g., Walker 1990: 12-18; Walker 2001), as well as the European linguafranca in administration and legal records in the Middle Ages (see, e.g. Le Goff 2005:10, 27-28, 133-136). Scottish burgh laws, known as Leges Quatuor Burgorum, were available in the medieval period in two versions--Latin and Scots--which gives good grounds for a linguistic comparison of the traditional and vernacular tools in legal discourse in medieval Scotland. The present investigation concentrates on the contact-induced phenomena such as calquing, borrowing and code-switching present in the parallel Latin and Scots versions of the laws, and the degrees of lexical and syntactic influence of the two versions on each other. The main aim of the paper is to assess the degrees of Latin influence on early legal Scots and illustrate the types and forms of this influence. Interestingly, the study also reveals a more intricate picture of the mutual relationship between the two languages employed within the same local legal tradition.

Leges Quatuor Burgorum, literally: the laws of the Four Burghs, initially pertained to the most influential urban centres in Scotland: Berwick, Roxburgh, Edinburgh, and Stirling. The task of the Leges was to regulate trade and other issues stemming from daily burgh concerns. As Duncan puts it, the laws were 'a jumble of substantive rules and procedural technicalities with a smattering of economic legislation' and may have been initially 'drawn up under the influence or even precisely for Berwick' (1975: 482). Regardless of its initial importance, the burgh of Berwick, together with Roxburgh, were replaced in 1369 with Linlithgow and Lanark in the Curia Quatuor Burgorum (the Court of the Four Burghs) after continuous conflicts over the Borders with the English in this period (Walker 1990: 439).

Early medieval feudal reforms in Scotland were carried out by King David I (1124-1153), but MacQueen and Windram maintain that the burgh laws need not have been compiled during that period (1987:209-211). In fact, the earliest extant Latin text of the laws comes from around 1270, and the laws could have been ascribed to King David I simply by way of tradition, 'the good old law of the land' (MacQueen and Windram 1987: 210). In any case, the initial part of the Latin text of the Leges seems to have been influenced by the laws of Newcastle, a town which was going to and fro between England and Scotland in the twelfth century (MacQueen and Windram 1987:210). Later copies of the laws, rendered in the vernacular, could be found in many medieval burghs, which shows the growing prestige of Scots as a medium of formal discourse.

The first extant vernacular version of Leges Burgorum dates back to 1455 (the manuscript is currently listed as Adv MS 25.4.15, and was previously known as MS W.4 ult. in the Advocates Library); however it can be assumed that earlier versions must have also existed. Dolezalek (2010:104) lists fourteen manuscripts of the laws, of which five contain either excerpts or full versions in Scots. The laws were first printed in the early seventeenth century by Skene, and later critically revised in accordance with manuscript versions. They were included in the comprehensive edition of the Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland [APS], edited by Cosmo Innes in 1844. The editor stressed the importance of this collection of early burgh laws, saying that he believed '[. …

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