1.3 Appropriating the Medieval

To blur the periodisation effect the ScARF framework does encompass some key themes (including maritime archaeology and archaeological science) that cut across all the period foci. Within the medieval element of the framework there are further cross-cutting themes which link human behaviour then with human behaviour in earlier and later times. These include the range of issues that reflect medieval re-use and appropriation of the prehistoric and Roman past, and also the similar treatment of the medieval past in succeeding centuries. This way of being encompasses the landscape and the monumental scale – including the siting of early medieval power centres within areas of large-scale prehistoric monuments as has been argued for Forteviot and Scone (Driscoll 1998a, 170-73; Driscoll 1998b). It also embraces the re-configuration of cup-marked stones as Pictish sculptures[see note 3],the conversion of some monastic churches to parish churches and the secularisation of some monasteries – as it does the more portable scale of material culture – including the apotropaic use of Bronze Age arrowheads as elf-shot amulets or more prosaically as strike-a-lights, and the appropriation and melting for reuse of Roman silver by the Picts.

Such demonstrations of appropriation inform our understanding of the process of cultural biography – the way that material culture has use-lives, reflecting the ways people change and re-use it. Such dynamics not only operate across periods but within them, helping to break down a period as a monolithic block: thus some early medieval sculptures are redefined to endorse economic activity (as market crosses) or changed attitudes of justice and punishment (some have jougs fixed to them) and others were used to make manifest heroic tales and Romances (as with the Meigle stones and King Arthur).

The 2008 special issue of the journal Early Medieval Europe deals with three reception case studies, exploring in various ways the appropriation of early medieval material culture in the 19th and 20th-century ‘construction of myths of European origins and modern aesthetic responses towards the Middle Ages’ (Effros and Williams 2008, 1). In some respects Scotland led the way in the 19th century in this ethnogenesis myth-making, not least through the fiction of Sir Walter Scott and also his role in the re-invention of Highland costume and customs in connection with the Royal Visit of George IV in 1822[see note 4].

In the later 19th century he was followed by R. L. Stevenson and J. Buchan, both writers who, for example, exploited the folk-myth of the Picts as wee dark folk, something which has re-surfaced more recently in the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett (Bartlett 2001, 14-15; Trevor-Roper 1983; Pratchett, 2003 a and b, 2004 and 2006[see note 5]; Pratchett & Simpson 2008, 71-84 and Hall 2008). Wider issues of identity are reflected upon in the small number of films either set in the medieval period in Scotland or set in contemporary times with a medieval past evident. Most notable of the latter is I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945), set in the Western Isles it is a story of personal and social identity which at key points pivots around the ruins of a medieval castle and stories of the medieval past (Hall 2009a). There is plenty of scope for further work on how perceptions of the medieval past or specific medieval monuments or pieces of material culture are influenced by such films as Braveheart (US 1995), King Arthur (US 2004), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (UK 1975) and The Stone of Destiny (UK/CAN 2008).

Appropriations are often attributed to human flexibility and imagination but they do have their seamier side and whether there are acceptable limits to appropriation should be considered. In reality, of course, the study of the past has no power to limit human behaviour. However, should morally and historically indefensible positions (such as white supremacists in New Zealand claiming a pre-existing Celtic culture for those islands before the advent of Maori populations) be supinely tolerated as eccentric or actively contradicted at every available opportunity? Equally thorny, if less ‘politically turbulent’, is the complexity of local communities using their medieval past to help define themselves in the present, (for example combining the clearly solid, such as the Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab, with the opaquely chimerical, the implausible and unhistorical stories applied to the sculpture). This can wrankle a sense of objectivity and prod a desire to dispel ignorance, whilst often missing the point of their (i.e. the stories) purpose. However the Hilton and neighbouring communities neither can nor should be denied their stories – such phenomena are a given of human nature (Hall 2008) and can form the basis of a dialogue for everyone’s mutual benefit. Scotland has many such examples and not least amongst them the cult of William Wallace, renewed in the 19th century, with the construction of the Wallace Monument, Stirling and in the late 20th with the release of the film Braveheart (US 1995) – all its elements can be seen in microcosm in the creation and recreation of Wallace’s Sword (Caldwell 2007). Such monuments as the Hilton cross-slab or artefacts such as Wallace’s Sword of course stand ready to absorb whatever veneer of story and understanding that people want to apply to them, all grist to the mill of their cultural biography.

The three issues outlined above influenced the drawing up of the key themes by the Medieval Panel’s co-chairmen. These were the foundation of the Panel’s discussions in its meetings and in support of which the Panel identified the research priorities which could be pursued to take them forward. What now follows is an outline of those themes and the research questions identified by the Panel.

[note 3] Itself part of a wider phenomenon as demonstrated by the recent identification of a cup-marked stone at St Nons Chapel and Holy Well, St Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales as being the cult stone bearing Non’s fingerprints (impressed during the pangs of giving birth to David; Catling 2008).

[note 4] Scott’s influence is still palpable in the ethno-genesis of individual lives: in the closing decades of the 20th century Perth Museum was regularly contacted by an American enquirer adamant that he was the descendant of Scott’s heroine of medieval Perth, Katherine Glover, or The Fair Maid of Perth.

[note 5] Pratchett has utilised other aspects of Scotland’s medieval past including borrowing the title of his Monstrous Regiment (about female soldiers) from John Knox’s misogynist, reformation diatribe ‘The Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558).

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