In Praise of NetHack: Still The Most Imaginative Computer Game

This is the time of year in which I find myself continually reminding my students–not to mention myself–not to neglect self-care, even when there’s only time for small breaks. In that spirit, here’s a “review” of sorts of one of my favorite coffee-break timeouts.6a00d8341bf74053ef01b8d180d728970c-600wi

One of the themes of the “Tech” thread of this blog is that its definition of “tech” is time-agnostic and novelty-agnostic. In other words, it’s that the fact that a technology is new doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better, and that the fact that a technology is old doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile–and that, in fact, sometimes older technologies can actually work better for certain purposes. In that way, a paper codex (i.e. a “dead tree” book), as the levelling in ebook sales has shown, is still a better technology for reading, in many ways, than digital texts, although those, of course, have their place as well.

So this is a game review, but not of the usual sort. Not a new game, but an old one: Nethack.

For those not familiar with NetHack, it’s a computer game, originally written, in the deep backward and abysm of time (in 1987), for Unix systems. It has the distinction of being the oldest computer game still in continuous development. Think about just that aspect: expert game designers and programmers have been working on this thing, refining and improving it, for that many years. In many ways it’s the ancestor of a lot of more modern games: if you’ve ever played something like Diablo or Torchlight, you’ve engaged with one of NetHack’s direct descendants. More indirectly, it’s the ancestor of the first-person shooter: the original FPS games, like DOOM, were conceived as something like NetHack from a first-person perspective. Nethack also pioneered the idea of an environment wherein all the various elements could be manipulated and combined in many and surprising ways. This deep complexity gave rise to the fan acronym “TDTTOE,” or “The Dev Team Thinks of Everything.” This gives the game an almost infinite playability as the player slowly discovers possibilities upon possibilities, making it, too, a spiritual ancestor of games with fully manipulatble environments like Minecraft.

On its surface, NetHack is a “dungeon crawler” or “roguelike” game. You start out at the top level of an underground “dungeon” with a mission to retrieve a mysterious artifact that lies at its deepest level. To get there, you must pass through many, many levels made up of rooms and tunnels, where you encounter friends and foes, traps and obstacles, puzzles and mysteries. You also have an animal companion who travels with you, can can assist you in many ways (though you have to work to discover many of them).

For me, there are several great things about NetHack:

For one, it puts all its emphasis into depth and imagination. Played in its purest form, NetHack’s “graphics” consist only of ascii characters in a terminal window–no fancy images whatsoever. Like words in a good poem or a Shakespeare play, those ascii characters are simply prods for your own imagination, in which you flesh out the appearance of the dungeon and its denizens. It might seem strange at first to those accustomed to flashy xbox titles, but what one begins to discover as one gets used to playing the game is that there are no better graphics than the ones generated between your ears. NetHack is an adventure that takes place in the playground of your own imagination. And there’s no better place to play.

For another, once you get used to how the gameplay works, the game is incredibly clever. What might, at first, look like a very minimal interface with a very simple goal (get through all the dungeon levels without getting killed), the more one plays the more one discovers that all the energy that modern game developers put into graphics has instead been put into the imaginative and creative aspects of the game-play itself. The entire game is rife with possibility.

A third, less-touted aspect of the game (and my personal favorite) is that it’s very literary. Text shows up everywhere in the game, especially when one “looks” at any creature or item within. It’s also a game that’s very–to use the term my literary colleagues would apply–“intertextual.” That is, it quotes literary texts everywhere. For example, when one encounters a lizard as a “monster” in the game and “looks” at it, instead of some artist’s representation of a fantastical lizard, one gets this:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

It doesn’t take a lot of literary knowledge to recognize the quotation as one of the incantations of the Three “Weyard Sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Instead of simply accepting whatever graphical image of a lizard a game designer or artist might throw at him or her, then, the player gets a host of imaginative prompts. As the player imagines his or her way through the images in Shakespeare’s verse (detailing the scariest parts of the scariest creatures), and also, perhaps, realizing the connotations of this scene in Macbeth (the witches cooking up Macbeth’s evil fate), one develops not just a visual image of the lizard but an emotional one as well. The text gives you not only what the creature looks like but how it feels, invoking an entire atmosphere of dread, creepy stings, flicking forked tongues, boiling and bubbling.It’s not that the developers neglected the visual; it’s that they realized from the getgo that the original mechanism for “special effects” is literary language. Poetry. Words that convey not only visual but all other sensory and emotional impressions (find a graphics card that can do that!). That’s the lizard you’re fighting.


The player (@) looks at a statue in a room of the dungeon (o), yielding an image from C.S. Lewis.

Similarly, when a character finds a wand lying on the dungeon floor, he/she might be confronted with this:

‘Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority.’Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away.

Now that (with apologies to both Harry Potter and Paul Hogan) is a wand.

So there’s my advertisement for the game. The best graphics you’ve ever seen, because the graphics are literary and emotive as well as simply visual. The more you play, the more you discover.


In the same room, the player is attacked by  lichen, evoked with a passage from an atmospheric 19th century English romance.

The other nice thing about NetHack is that various developers have ported it to run on everything: your iPhone, your Android phone, your tablet, your PC running Windows, MacOS, Linux, whatever. It’s a tiny program that takes up negligible memory, and runs on even the oldest hardware, but in all other ways its a “bigger” game than anything else you could fit on your phone (it’s the only one I have on mine), because its scope is the scope of your own imagination.

Interested? There’s even more in praise of the game here, and a great Salon article here.

P.S. If you’d like to try NetHack, it is free and open-source software, that comes in many different “flavors.” The most basic version, which I prefer, consists only of ascii characters, but there are other versions that use various sets of more-or-less sophisticated graphics, known as “tiles” to make the game a little easier to navigate and give it more visual appeal.

To download and play Nethack on a PC or Mac, everything you need is available [here] This is the main Nethack site, which includes versions for Windows, Linux, and MacOS.

To play Nethack on your tablet or phone, free versions are readily available through the Google Play Store for Android devices, and the Apple App Store for iOS devices.

You can find a handy beginner’s guide to playing Nethack, including basic controls and gameplay, here.

Go forth! The Amulet of Yendor Awaits!


For those who aren’t used to the ascii interface, various graphical enhancements are available, like this one using simple graphical tiles. Here the player and his dog (Slinky), having tangled with a newt and a jackal,  encounter a potion, a locked treasure chest, and the stairway to a deeper level.


The Alt-Right is Hijacking the Middle Ages: Medievalists Aren’t Going to Let Them.

I was as disturbed as anyone tracking the reports of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend. Disturbed by the shouted slogans, the violence, the anger, the typically disturbing imagery of swastikas, confederate flags, and automatic weapons displayed alongside American flags. All that was sickening enough.

But then I noticed something else about the images; something equally–if not more–horrifying. It began as an uncanny sensation; the way it feels to stand in a creepy, abandoned house and still recognize, on some level, the traces of very familiar daily life that remain.

It took a little while for the reality to hit me: I was seeing images and concepts pulled from the area of study to which I’ve dedicated my professional life: the history and culture of the Middle Ages in Europe. The uncanny sensation came from the fact that, for me, encountering symbolism from the Middle Ages is what I do for a living every day, so I was literally reading those symbols in my knee-jerk fashtion as though they were appearing in the contexts in which they normally appear for me, familiar symbols with familiar meanings and connotations, encountered in the course of historical and literary study. The images had become so “normal” to me that the unusual context didn’t register at first, leaving me with a strange “something is off here” sensation that I could not, initially, put my finger on.

Then it hit me: I was reading those medieval images in my usual way, such that they were barely on my radar at first. It had to dawn on me that these were neo-Nazi thugs using these images and symbols in the service of their abhorrent ideology. The awareness of what they were doing grew on me through the course of the weekend, as I continued to study the images, and listened to what many of my fellow medievalist scholars were saying: This is what I study. None of these images and concepts have anything to do with the realities of medieval European history and culture. They are hijacking the Middle Ages.

Then came the next thought:


Oh. No. You. Don’t.

I don’t know how effective I’d be as a counter-protester on the streets of Charlottesville. I’m not a politician. Honestly, I’m pretty much an introvert. But this? This is something I can deal with. If this is a hijacking, it’s one for which I–along with my fellow medievalists–am well equipped to help mount a rescue.

Before I show you a few examples of what I’ve been noticing, as a medievalist, in the Charlottesville images, let me make one point of supreme importance:

The basic idea behind the neo-Nazi appropriation of the European Middle Ages appears to be the appeal to the idea of a “pure white race.” That is, the (entirely false) notion that Europeans in the Middle Ages were white people, that the Middle Ages in Europe represent a kind of “purer” time in which other perceived racial groups had yet to corrupt that purity.

Here’s the key point: There was no such thing as “White People” in the Middle Ages.

The concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness, ” in the ways in which we understand those terms in our present time, place, and culture, simply were not present in the Middle Ages. (This is not to say that the cultural processes by which later forms of racism developed were not underway in the Middle Ages, or that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have other, perfectly effective ways of creating difference and killing one another for it; but it is to say that those terms did not have the associations they do now.)  To talk about “white” culture in Medieval Europe is no less anachronistic than it would be to talk about “fourteenth-century Flemish smartphones,” or “the space stations of Carolingian France.” This alone renders the alt-right idea of a purely “white” medieval Europe absurd from the get-go. Were that not enough, we know from many varieties of evidence (literary, documentary, archaeological) that one traveling through Europe in the Middle Ages would have experienced a wide variety of skin tones, and a wide variety of ancestries from all over the known (at the time) world, including the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.

So, white supremacist misappropriations of images and ideas of medieval Europe are precisely that: misappropriations. They have nothing whatever to do with the historical and cultural realities.

Take a look at the following images from the Charlottesville demonstrations. I’ll try to unpack some of the salient features of each:


Edu Bayer, New York Times

This particular image has been reproduced and discussed quite a bit. Note the shield, the form of which is reminiscent of Germanic (Norse, Saxon) design. You might have seen Vikings carrying shields like these. The symbol on the shield is called a “Black Eagle.” Traditionally, it’s the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably, these white supremacists are thinking of the symbol as something connected with the idea of a “white” pan-European power. However, as several commentators, including Joseph Livingstone at the New Republic have pointed out, and as just about any scholar of the Middle Ages will tell you, this appropriation is more than a little ironic: the symbol was originally that of St. Maurice, an early Christian, and also a soldier in the 3rd Roman Legion, who was martyred for refusing the Emperor’s command to harass a community of Christians. The kicker is that Maurice was Egyptian, and looked like this:


Notice the left-hand shield in this image:


Edu Bayer, New York Times

The shape is based on that of the Roman Scutum, the design favored by the Empire’s legions. These groups, apparently, also have a thing about the Roman Empire, seeing it, too, as somehow nostalgic of a purer whiteness. Again, this is odd, since the Empire covered a very great deal of territory, and even most natives of Rome would hardly have been fair-complected. While Caucasian-looking skin was not unheard of in Rome, it was at lease sufficiently unusual that a shipment of fair-skinned slaves from Northern England caught the attention of the 6th century Pope Gregory I. The medieval historian Bede relates that Gregory, upon hearing that the slaves were called Angles (Angli in Latin), remarked that they were “Non Angli, sed Angeli.” Not Angles, but Angels. Clearly fair faces were not the norm in most of the Empire.

The symbol on the shield is even more interesting. It’s a character from a runic alphabet known as the Elder Futharc, a writing system used in Scandinavia in the 2nd-8th centuries or so, and which became the basis for a number of later runic scripts. It’s called an odal or othala rune. Phonetically, it sounds like the English letter “O.” Symbolically, it means something like “heritage” or “inheritance.” A version of the symbol was adopted by a unit of the Nazi SS in World War II, and has been appropriated by the present-day American National Socialist movement, mainly as a sort of less-recognizable (to outsiders) replacement for the swastika, in a sort of euphemistic re-branding. Of course, no ancient Norse person would have had any awareness of him/herself as “white,” and the ideas of heritage and inheritance had much more to do with the idea of the transmission of privileges and property within a family than anything having to do with “heritage” in its (thoroughly modern) nationalistic sense.

This last image is one that’s particularly upsetting to me as a specialist in Scottish history and culture:



The sigil on the two (again, Roman-influenced) left-hand shields is known as the “Black Saltire,” and is the sigil of the Southern Nationalist movement, including, most notably, the League of the South, a group that advocates a second Southern “secession” and the establishment of a new state dominated by what they call an “Anglo-Celtic elite.”

The saltire image is telling. The saltire is also known as the Cross of St. Andrew (one of the original Disciples of Jesus, and the brother of St. Peter). Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of Scotland, and a white-on-blue saltire is still the national Flag of Scotland. Already there’s some irony here, as both Peter and Andrew, as natives of Bethsaida, in Galilee–and professional fishermen who spent most of their time on the open water–would have had swarthy Middle Eastern (and sun-darkened) complexions.

The shield on the right may be significant as well. While some media outlets have noted that other organizations that use the image of a lion, such as the Detroit Lions, have already denounced the use of the image, both present-day Scots, and anyone with a passion for Scottish history, should be even more horrified. The symbol of the “Rampant Lion” is another important Scottish symbol, none other than the Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland. In Britain, the use of the image of the Rampant Lion is so


The Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland (Wikimedia image).

important that its use is highly regulated, by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the body governing the use of heraldry in Scotland, where such a use of the image would be considered illegal (in addition to being simply offensive). It’s been the traditional symbol of Scots royalty since the early 13th century, and, as such representative of a host of ideas, none of which is that of “whiteness.” Its misuse in this context is nothing less than nauseating.


It gets worse.

The Scots, as I’ve discovered, are of special importance to American white supremacists. The basic idea stems from a group known as the “Christian Identity” movement, which itself is a derivative of the idea of “British Israelism.” To make a long, tortured story short, the CI movement believes that medieval Celts are, in fact, one of the lost tribes of Israel. According to these groups, present-day Jews and Israelis are essentially impostors, and “Scots-Irish” descendants, in America, of medieval Celts, are really God’s Chosen People, the heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, and the descendants of those they see as the last “pure white” race.

Of course, this has nothing whatever to do with what we know from the documentary and archaeological records of where the Scots came from. And we most certainly know that even medieval Scots were a very ethnically mixed group, with influences ranging from Celtic and Norse, to Norman, to African (thanks to occupying Roman legions). In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, not even those living in Scotland could agree on who was really a “Scot,” and, especially in the late Middle Ages, the definition often hinged on political allegiances more than anything. The fourteenth-century poet John Barbour, in his poem The Bruce (about the life of King Robert I, 1274-1329), seems to think of Scottishness as exclusively a matter of allegiance to King Robert: Barbour even describes native-born Scots loyal to the English Edward I as “Englis,” and only when they, and even their English-born counterparts, swear allegiance to Robert does Barbour label them”Scottis men,” no matter where they came from.

As both a scholar of medieval Scottish history, literature, and culture–and as an American of Scottish ancestry–I ashamed to see these images and ideas abused in this way, appropriated to stand for things they never, ever meant.

For me (and for just about any medievalist), the Middle Ages don’t appear monolithic in any way, least of all monolithically “white” (as we, in the here and now, understand the term). Medieval Europe was a highly diverse time and place, much more connected to other parts of the world than, I think, most people are aware. One of the reasons for my own interest in the British Isles is that the population thereof in the Middle Ages was one of the most diverse I’ve ever encountered, a complex and vibrant mingling of languages, ethnicities, cultures, conflicts, and ideas. It is out of that diversity, because of that diversity, that the works of literature I love and study emerged.

I’m not sure precisely what combating the evil appropriation of the Middle Ages of the so-called “alt-right” is going to wind up looking like. There have already been some promising statements, such as this one, from groups of scholars of the Middle Ages. But certainly, one strand of our response has to be to find ways to make sure these appropriations fall on the least-fertile ground possible, on the ears of a public sufficiently well-educated about the realities of the Middle Ages to spot the deception. That’s a challenge I’m ready take up.


Prologue: White Supremacism, Scottish Identity, and the Declaration of Arbroath

I Am An Immigrant

There are few places in the world where I feel more rooted and at home than in my


Samuelson’s Confectionary on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Note the bilingual signage. 

“native” Minnesota. Even here, though, in my birthplace, I use the term “native” with great caution, almost irony: one can really only call oneself a “native” of this place if one is Dakota or Ojibwa. For the rest of us, the question is not whether we are immigrants, but only how many generations we need trace backward to the movement that made us immigrants.

Minneapolis is a city of immigrants, and always has been. In my own case, it was my great-grandparents’ generation who were the invandrara, from Sweden. Some started rural farms. Others ultimately settled in an area around Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis–referred to in those days as “Snoose Boulevard”–a district of recent immigrants, where Swedish was commonly spoken on the streets, where there were Swedish-language newspapers and theaters (as a colleague pointed out to me, the sign on the lower-left of the above image actually says something like “All Swedish language newspapers sold here”). My father remembers his early downtown-Minneapolis church where his grandparents’ generation still worshipped in Swedish-language services. Swedes in Minnesota in that era did not assimilate quickly, and made a point of maintaining dual loyalties–as naturalized Americans on the one hand, but as people still proud of their language and culture of origin on the other. This drew the usual prejudices that large groups of immigrants draw in any place and era. Echoes of the image of the “dumb Swede”, smelling of pickled herring, persist in present-day representations like Fargo and the lighthearted self-deprecations (read: Sven and Ole jokes) of we third-generation Minnesotans.

It might be surprising to some that Swedish-Americans, like many other European immigrants, and despite many generations of melanin-depriving Northern European climes, were not always initially accepted as “white people” in the germanic/Anglo-Saxon sense of the term: “whiteness,” of course, has never been a category based on biology, but a cultural construct made of many components. Being “white” meant being accepted as a certain kind of “us,” and Swedish immigrants were still initially regarded as a “them,” unqualified for (full) participation in the privilege of whiteness, regardless of skin tone. (This is not to suggest, of course, that Swedish immigrants were in any sense equally as oppressed as those of African origin who were violently captured and taken to the U.S. as slaves. My point here is about the ways in which “whiteness” is a cultural idea that is much more complex, such that pale skin per se did not automatically confer full access to that category.) First-generation Swedish immigrants were a community, in many ways, of “others” holding on to dual identities. By the 1930’s, less of that Swedish-language culture remained in the area, as Minnesotans of Swedish descent slowly became the cultural insiders rather than the outsiders, thus gaining the cultural status of “whites.” But they also held on to components of their Swedishness that had become unique to immigrant culture: I grew up with “Swedish” words and dishes that are incomprehensible to present-day Swedes. And the cycles of immigrations continue: The area around Cedar Avenue where they lived out those dual identities is still a place of immigrants who negotiate similar opportunities, problems, and stereotypes, the sounds of Swedish and German supplanted by those of Somali, Hmong, and Spanish (among others).

So I am an immigrant from a city of immigrants. My Swedish great-grandparents were the products yet another, earlier, emigration: from Scotland. They were, in some ways, refugees, fleeing famine in Scotland by signing up for service in mercenary regiments that fought for Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, and who, paid with land in Sweden by a cash-poor Gustavus, settled there. Members of the Scottish Family of Bruce, in turn, were also transplant: not a “clan” of indigenous Celts but a family of Anglo-Normans given land in Scotland by William the Conqueror after 1066. Those Normans, as the name indicates, were themselves immigrants: Norse Vikings who had settled on the continent. And back the line goes, in an endless cycle of removes, emigrations, and ever-changing ethnicities.

In the argument that follows, I’m going to speak from a particular position of identity and ethnicity: as a white, male, protestant of (in part) Scottish descent, who is both intensely interested in and proud of that Scottish component of my own heritage. I offer the foregoing personal history, as an immigrant at several removes, to try to lay bare, at the outset, the ethnic, cultural, and historical complexity–not to mention the artificiality–of what might at first seem a simple kind of identification. I am not a “white person” because of some kind of traceable genetic reality. The very concept of “whiteness” to which that previous statement refers would have been available to my great-grandparents’ generation. It might possibly (in an earlier, less-defined form) have been available to the seventeenth-century generation that emigrated from Scotland to Sweden (though certainly religious difference mattered more to them than matters of ethnicity or skin color). But that concept was certainly not available to the generation that emigrated from Normandy to Scotland, and all those generations that came before it. That “whiteness,” just like its companion terms such as “blackness” or “brownness”, is a product of culture and history, not of biology. This does not mean that such concepts are not real in the sense that they don’t have real effects on real people–they most certainly do. But it does mean that they are concepts that have been imagined into existence and not hardwired into human biology. When I claim identities like “Swedish-American” or “Scottish-American,” I want to recognise those things as important contributors to who I am, but I also want to recognise the degree to which they are artificial, and the ways in which such identifications can gloss over much more complex and significant realities. I also want to acknowledge the history that has created the present-day sense of those two ethnicities as “white” ones rather than something else, and the history of cultural and actual violence against those who didn’t fall into that category.

All of which is preamble to this: In the few posts that follow, I’m going to address what I think is an egregious–even evil–appropriation of something I value highly: that Scottish component of my own identity and ancestry. I’m going to focus on a particular component of that history, a fourteenth-century Scottish baronial letter to Pope John XXII known as the “Declaration of Arbroath.” I’ve worked on this document extensively as a student of medieval Scottish literature and culture, and became aware some time ago that there were white supremacist groups in the United States that printed and sold their own translations thereof, but I hadn’t looked into the matter deeply. Over the past few weeks, I have been doing just that, attempting to trace the history, sources, and reasons behind such a strange (mis)appropriation. The more I’ve delved into the matter, the more chilling the findings have become, uncovering traceable links from white-supremacist extremists to much more mainstream rhetoric, both about the Declaration and about Scottish and Celtic identities in general. This is why, for one thing, I’ve decided to publish the results of this work as a series of blog posts rather than as an academic paper: this information needs to be more widely accessible than a piece in a journal of which only scholarly specialists are aware.

Before I do, however, I want to make one additional prefacing point: I have been active, over the past decade or so, with several American organizations that bring together people of many different ethnicities and walks of life around a shared interest in Scottish history and culture. One, Family of Bruce International, is an organization that connects persons of that surname (or with interest therein) around the world. The other, The Minnesota Coalition of Scottish Clans, focuses on similarly bringing together “every Minnesotan who is Scottish by birth, by heritage, or by inclination.” Before I launch into a series about the appropriation of Scottish and Celtic identities by white supremacists, I want to acknowledge that I have not experienced any trace of the phenomena I’m about to discuss within them. These are organizations dedicated to the positive celebration of a culture and history and are not exclusive to those with some kind of imaginary “white” pedigree. They include diverse faces, skin tones, and origins. The people I have met, and with whom I’ve worked, played, and even shared my research, are a diverse crowd, and I’ve never experienced prejudiced attitudes. On the contrary, what I’ve witnessed has been an openness to anyone, from any background, who is interested in the history and culture of Scotland.

I mention this because I want, at the outset, to make a distinction between the downright evil appropriation of the ideas of “Celticness” or “Scottishness” for the purpose of naturalizing a false idea of a “pure white” biology and the positive celebration of interest in a fascinating set of cultures, histories, and individuals. A fondness for kilts and bagpipes does not a white supremacist make. At the same time, as I will argue, the fact that such American organisations can sometimes focus overmuch on stereopically “Scottish” phenomena (the kilts and bagpipes, haggis, etc.)–to the exclusion of a broader view of both historical and contemporary Scottish culture–may be part of what has left the ideas of “Scottishness” and “Celticness” strangely open to spurious white supremacist appropriations of those categories. In other words, I do fear that we of the Scottish American community may in some ways have (for the most part inadvertently) made American cultural ground more fertile for the extreme-right-wing hijacking of Scottishness.

In fact, one of my reasons for publishing this work in a more public space is to warn my colleagues in those organizations that such appropriations are taking place, and are–quite disturbingly–more prevalent than I had ever imagined. FOBI and MSCSC have long promoted historical and cultural accuracy and made specific efforts to counter destructive mythologies about the cultures and histories they hold dear. They are also effective vehicles for disseminating more accurate and balanced ideas to a broader public. I know that they will remain at the forefront of those efforts, and suspect there are ways we can do even more.


Love is Never A Mistake: Christ and Augustine on “Doctrinal Correctness”

Note: I wrote this post in early July of 2017, only a few days after I’d been told by my surgeon that I had four blocked arteries and would need major surgery. I wrote this only a day or two before the surgery, not knowing if I would live to write another. I asked myself “if there’s only one thing I have time to say publicly, what would it be?” This was what came out. Nine months later, I’m still here, my health mostly recovered. I get to read more, think more, say more, for which I’m more grateful than I can express. But had this turned out to be the last thing I published, I’d be okay with that.

I’m not a theologian. Let’s take care of that one straight off the bat.


I’m fascinated by theology, and love to read about it, discuss it, think about it–but at the end of the day, as a believing layman, I sometimes find myself wanting to simplify rather than complicate that belief. What does it really boil down to be a Christian believer in the world? When all the interesting theological thinking is done, what do I actually do to act on whatever belief I hold? Is there a simple principle that can guide my thought and action?

Luckily, it seems to me that there really is, stated in flatly unambiguous terms by my faith’s own central figure, in the Gospel of Mark:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’–this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34, NRSV)

The Bible is often a difficult text, rife with passages that require a lot of study and very careful interpretation, and upon which scholars have legitimate confusions and disagreements. But this isn’t one of those passages. It’s stone-cold clear: a scribe asks, essentially, “of all the various tenets of our faith, which one is the most important, the one that should trump all the others?” Jesus gives a twofold answer with stark clarity:

  1. Love God.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Boom. That’s it, folks, right from the Big Guy himself: the idea that that, of everything that we might think, believe, or do, this twofold commandment is the trump card. The concept that takes precedence over all the others.

St. Augustine usefully combines both these concepts into a single term, caritas.

Caritas is a Latin word, which is the root of the English word “charity”, but for Augustine means much more. He means precisely the two qualities Christ marks as the Most Important Thing Of All in Mark 12:

Caritas=Love of God and Neighbor

Augustine unpacks the importance of this concept in one of my all-time favorite books, called the De Doctrina Christiana (Concerning Christian Doctrine). The De Doctrina is ostensibly a book about how one should go about translating the Christian scriptures, but it also goes beyond that: it’s not just about linguistic translation, but about how the content of the scriptures–the Gospel itself–is best translated into our lives and cultures. How do we translate Caritas into everything we do?

Interestingly, Augustine takes the concept of Caritas as both his starting point and his main “razor” for both linguistic and cultural translation. In essence, he says that the end of scripture, its most important purpose, is exactly what Jesus says it is in Mark 12: caritas. Consequently, the most important rule of Biblical translation, for Augustine, is that any translation of scripture must ultimately convey that caritas. Even when we think we understand something in scripture, but our understanding does not lead to caritas, something is wrong:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all [boldface mine]…However…if he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity [i.e. caritas], which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.1

In other words, for Augustine, if one’s translation of scripture does not, ultimately, point toward and demonstrate love of God and love of Neighbor, that indicates that something is wrong, no matter how correct you might believe your translation to be. On the other hand, even if you make a mistake, if that mistake itself leads to the love of God and Neighbor, you’ve done little harm, as though you got lost in the middle of a journey but still wound up at the right destination anyway.

To put it even more simply: A mistake that still leads to caritas beats something you’re convinced is correct but doesn’t lead to caritas, every time.

To put it even more simply than that: love is the trump card. If what we believe or do does not show and result in love, something is wrong, no matter how right we think we might be. If what we believe or do is mistaken, but still shows and results in love, then, at least, we’ve still ultimately managed to do the right thing. We did it in spite of ourselves, perhaps, but we still did it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that too many believers (myself included, sometimes) have become stuck in the idea that right belief–what we might call “doctrinal correctness,” is the most important aspect of our faith. I suspect this is because it’s easier to create a laundry list of propositions and then mentally check them off (“yep, believe that, check; okay, believe that other thing, check…”) than it is to make sure we’re truly showing and promoting love of God and Neighbor in everything we do. I see it in my own dealings with fellow believers on social media, when I snark at people who I think are wrong. I see it in the accusations that fly back and forth over issues like positions on the status of LGBTQ persons or gender roles: “you can’t really be a Christian if you believe x or y.”

But according to Christ himself, that’s not really the question, is it? What makes someone a Christian, at the end of the day, is our ability to demonstrate love for God and Neighbor. Period. If we don’t do that, we’re not succeeding, no matter how correct we might think we are. When I snark at someone with whom I disagree, I’m not doing it right, no matter how right I think I am. If I try, as a believer, to “convict” someone of something I believe is wrong or sinful behavior, and that person winds up walking away feeling more shamed than loved, I have failed, no matter how correct I think my belief about his/her behavior might be. If that person walks away feeling loved, I’ve succeeded, whether my belief about that person’s behavior is correct or not. If I’m not sure whether my words or behavior toward another person are right, or if I’m not sure whether my belief is correct, erring on the side of love is never, ultimately, an error.

It’s a freeing principle for we imperfect people, and easy to remember:

When in doubt, love. When  not in doubt, be more concerned about showing love than being right. Love is never, ever, a mistake.

  1. St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), pp. 30-31.  


In Praise of the “And” in an “Or” Culture

I was struck recently by A New York Times column by Frank Bruni, anChaucer's Pilgrim Color individual of a kind of rhetoric that’s become a species unto itself in recent years: laments about the state of the “humanities” in contemporary universities.

I found myself agreeing with many of Bruni’s broadest points but questioning most of the particulars he used to make them. Like Bruni, I agree that university education broadly, and particularly in the humanities, is not simply about gaining what might be termed “job skills.” Rather, it’s about training that most important of human muscles–the mind–to be a sharper, nimbler, more creative, more adaptable instrument. It might, too, even be about helping students to create what Aristotle might call “flourishing” lives. Part of college can and should be about “getting a job.” Only part. The rest is about something bigger: building a life that honors and enhances every aspect of students’ existence: mind, body, and spirit. A humanist might call this training in becoming a whole person; a Buddhist might call it training in becoming one with the universe; a Christian or Jewish person, training in the love of one’s neighbor as one’s self.

What perplexed me about Bruni’s column, however, was the repetition of what I suspect has become a too-easy refrain in such laments about the humanities: the idea that the “problem” is the professors themselves, who have allowed their noble profession be become infected by the nefarious influences of an Ugly Thing called “Theory” or “Cultural Studies.” An often-used corollary to this is a concurrent accusation that humanities faculty have “dumbed down” their subjects in order to pander to popular cultural fads, playing to their students as “customers” rather than learners. It’s always seemed a little strange to me that these accusations are paired as though they’re not contradictory–professors in the humanites apparently manage to be too smart and too dumb, to complex and too simple, too theoretical and not theoretical enough, all at the same time.

Bruni recounts the lament of a former professor of his, an expert in Renaissance Poetry (who I’m sure is a wonderful person and accomplished scholar from whom I could learn much; I’m critiquing an idea here, not this individual), that “Chaucer has become Chaucer and …Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

That is one loaded “and.”

It’s used, in that sentence, seemingly, to encompass everything that’s gone wrong with teaching in the humanities. It’s those pesky “ands.” Why can’t we just teach “Shakespeare” and not “Shakespeare and..” Why not just pure Chaucer rather than “Chaucer and…”? Is the “and” what’s keeping us, as the same professor notes, from affirming college as an experience that “develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles…”?

I’d like to offer an alternative view, namely, that the “and” might be the most important thing for those of us who want to teach in the humanities toward the ends that Bruni himself values. The “and” muscle is likely the weakest one in our culture, and as such the most important muscle teaching in the humanities must train.

I might start by pointing out that Shakespeare himself was a particular fan of that correlative: Shakespeare loved “and” so much that many of his most famous lines use it with great intention and effect, as when Hamlet speaks of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or when he tells Horatio that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It is this figure of speech that also allows Iago, in Othello, to talk about the danger of expressing the “native act and figure” of his heart, or Prospero, in The Tempest to ask about his daughter’s memory of the “dark backward and abysm” of time. The techy rhetorical term for this particular use of “and” is hendiadys.

The effect of a hendiadys is to slow us down, derail our preconceptions about an idea, and lead us to consider more possibilities in richer and more complex relationships. Take Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” line: the phrase is in some ways so commonly known that we nearly gloss over it, but, as Simon Palfrey notes, a moment’s thought disrupts any knee-jerk impression: why slings and arrows? After all, one doesn’t shoot arrows with slings, and “bows and arrows,” which actually makes a lot more immediate sense, still fits the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse. So the figure gives us some pause: why slings and not bows? That pause leads us to reflect on both words. Slings make a circular movement, whipping around and around until practically invisible, and, when released, hurl a stone that can fell a Goliath. “Slings” functions grammatically as a noun here, but can also be a verb: “to sling.” On this end of Shakespeare’s “and,” fortune is something that whips us around, throws us willy-nilly into the unexpected with irresistible, destructive centrifugal force. The plural is also significant: there are lots of those things whipping us around. “Arrows,” on the other side of the “and,” are something else: arrows are about linearity; they point, fly in precisely directed rays. They pierce with precision. The discontinuity of the two terms on either side of the “and,” then, is what causes us to pause long enough to take Hamlet’s full meaning of the nature of “outrageous fortune:” it’s all the connotations of both of those terms, plus the disruption that happens in our own minds when we try to reconcile them. Hamlet’s fortune is never something we can turn into the easy equivalents we’d like the “and” to represent. That single hendiadys, too, is only one part of a famous speech that only becomes more full of substance and possibility the more one slows down to consider its words.

I might call Chaucer another big fan of the “and,” in the sense that he tends to add rather than subtract concepts. In the Canterbury Tales, we’re confronted by a whole series of implied “ands” in the portraits of the many characters, who, “by aventure yfalle in felaweshipe,” are about to set out on a pilgrimage toward the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. There’s always another one: a knight, and a squire, and a yeoman, and (a Miller and a Prioress and a Wyf of Bath and a Summoner and a Parson and…) always one more. When they begin their storytelling, one can never only consider that story in isolation, because their stories speak to one another, operating, at the level of structure, in a similar fashion to the way in which hendiadys operate at the level of words in Shakespeare: The Knight tells the first story, and almost everyone seems satisfied, until the Miller jumps in and insists on telling his story, which is in many ways a response to and critique of the knight’s. The next teller is the Reeve, who, incensed by the Miller’s insulting tale, tells a story about a corrupt Miller who gets his comeuppence (in a way that makes us question whether the outcomes of any of the tales has really been just). All three stories discuss similar themes: power, what constitutes “legitimate” authority, sex, what orders the universe. And each story adds a new dimension that both tears down and adds to the perspectives that have come before. The Knight’s Tale never stands as such. When it ends, we consider the Miller’s tale, which is both entirely the Miller’s and a response to the Knight’s, critiquing it and adding to it. The Reeve adds his own elements and responds to both Knight and Miller, such that the whole sequence can only happen as a sequence of ands. Each story must be taken in relation to the others (both the other stories, and the other pilgrims). It’s never the Knight or the Miller, the Miller or the Reeve. As if to emphasize this point, the next take–the Cook’s–is one that Chaucer famously left unfinished. The conversation the Knight starts has literally never ended: it only trailed off into another imaginary “and” that continues to resonate. And, one might say, that’s part of the point: Chaucer points out that the “and” is everything: as different as they are, the pilgrims keep adding, supplementing, but never completely succeed in creating real differentiation or division. They poke fun at each other, squabble, snark, and even come to fisticuffs–but they never part company, and the whole crew continues toward Canterbury together. The whole sequence of the tales is a rejection of “either/or” logic and an affirmation of and.

The last time I taught an undergraduate Chaucer course, my students started a discussion about how experiencing something like the Canterbury Tales might be helpful in their daily lives. There were a number of interesting takes on this, but the overarching idea the students generated (and not at my prompting, but, I think, at Chaucer’s) was the importance, in dealing with difference, to “hear the other’s story.” They discussed how helpful that kind of orientation toward difference might help in forums as mundane as difficult political confrontations on Facebook: what if, they posited, one’s response to an objectionable perspective from a Facebook acquaintance was not to immediately counter-assert, but to ask for a storytelling game, to ask “how did you come to believe that?,” and then to offer one’s own narrative of the same. Wouldn’t that allow for better, more productive, more affirmative communication? What if we all did what we could to turn our own Facebook feeds into Chaucerian storytelling games rather than tawdry political smear campaigns? What could we create? And, if we succeeded, what, in turn, might that help us understand about the Canterbury Tales in its own milieu? What if we brought Chaucer’s and to our own culture (which loves the or a lot more, wanting to separate us into Democrats or Republicans, us or them).

I might also point out that there has never been a time in which the study of Shakespeare and Chaucer has not been the study of Shakespeare and or Chaucer and. The only real difference, in what we might call “traditional” studies of both writers, is that the “ands” were simply unstated. The study of Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and formalism, or Shakespeare and traditional aesthetics, historicism, or textual studies, or Shakespeare and humanism. The same terms go for Chaucer. So it’s possible, at least, that the proliferation of “ands” in current course titles is simply the overt acknowledgement of the “and-ing” that’s always been happening in Chaucer and Shakespeare studies, as well as an affirmation, very much in the spirit of both Chaucer and Shakespeare’s own works, that there are always more “ands.”

The enterprise of the humanities–at least, the part of it that we want to encourage students’ senses of connection to the world and to themselves–is about those “ands.” So we help students train the “and” muscle by showing them the potential ands out there: Shakespeare and film, Chaucer and Psychoanalysis, Shakespeare and Pop Culture, Chaucer and How to I Handle My Crazy conservative/liberal/atheist/religious/tory/libertarian Friend on Facebook without Driving Us Both Brazy? The Winter’s Tale and Why Do I Keep Sabotaging My Own Relationships? The Reeve’s Tale and Rape Culture on Campus. Othello and How to Teach in a Diverse High School. Shakespeare and I Know What I Want to Do, but How am I Supposed to Live?

My Declaration of Arbroath Revitalised

A few months ago, I published a brief post on the 1320 document known as the 800px-Declaration_of_arbroath“Declaration of Arbroath” in the midst of what was, at the time, the ramp-up to the recent referendum on Scottish independence. It contained a brief reflection on the phenomenon of using that document in political debates that post-date the document’s creation, and included my own introduction to and edition and translation of the document.

Since then, that post has been one of the more often-visited pieces on my blog, so I’ve returned to it this week to update its content in light of more recent events in Scotland, and also to make it more readable and user-friendly. Specifically, one may now find:

  • A somewhat updated reflection on later uses of the Declaration
  • A much-improved and more easily readable text of my introduction to the document.
  • A downloadable version of my introduction, edition, and translation of the document formatted for easier printing (offered under a Creative Commons license)

That edition/translation was a labor of love for me a number of years ago, part of a program of research related to other issues concerning the Declaration. I’m glad to offer it, here, as a free resource.

You can find the updated post here:


Surfing the Matrix: A Medievalist Does Tech

Surfing the MatrixTheMatrixWallpaper1024 

Here’s an interesting etymology for you:

In the present, the word “Matrix” conjures a lot of high-tech imagery. Part of my mind immediately envisions that parade of mystical green characters cascading down a screen in front of Keanu Reeves, the manifestation, in raw digital code, of the virtual creation most people in that world accept as “reality.” That reality, in the film, is also not a disinterested one, but rather one imposed by the robotic conquerors of mankind to keep human beings docile as they unwittingly serve as the biological batteries that power their own enslavers.

But why is that thing called a “Matrix” as opposed to anything else? That’s where the medievalist and Latinist in me kick in. In the Middle Ages, the word “matrix” referred to the physical tool used to impress the form of a seal on another surface, such as wax or a coin. To own the “matrix” of a seal was to possess power: seals were the way in which power was transmitted. Normally, the power of a King or nobleman was expressed by his bodily presence. This is why, for sealmatrixexample, medieval monarchs typically didn’t headquarter their administrations in fixed capitals, but rather moved around their territories: to spread their power evenly, they had to spread their persons evenly. What allowed such a person to spread his power where his body was not was his seal, which was a sort of material symbol that acted as a stand-in for his physical presence. A document bearing the seal of the monarch bore the power of that monarch. Anyone with access to that seal had access to that power. Thus the word “matrix” in the movie is really just a reiteration, in a later, digitized era, of precisely what the “matrix” was in the middle ages: a virtual construct that transmits and spreads power.

But again, why, in the Middle Ages, was that tool called a “Matrix?” You need a geeky little Latin lesson to understand this: in Latin, the ending -er on a noun most often indicates a neuter or masculine gender, as in pater, “father,” or puer, “boy.” Mater simply means “Mother” in Latin, a female role. Interestingly, there’s a different kind of noun in Latin that expresses the idea of a person specifically as an agent of something, and agency is often gendered. Hence a pastor is a male person who tends sheep. If you want to talk about a female person who tends sheep, you change the ending, to pastrix. In the same way, mater simply indicates a mother. The word matrix, on the other hand, specifically denotes the mother in respect to the role of propagation. Metaphorically, then, matrix can mean origin, progenitor, cause, or even womb. The word also comes to refer, by metaphorical transference over time, to other things that are “wombs” or “origins” of power, such as public registers, lists–and, eventually, the patterns for seals, matrices.

Tracing the term through its medieval and classical origins, then, allows us to see more clearly the meaning of The Matrix in the present. It is, as it always has been, virtual power, or the potential for that power’s deployment. It is the “womb” that holds us (nurturing us, or holdings us captive?), or that contains the potential for and propagates power. Hence it is no surprise that the the denizens of the Matrix in the film exist, literally, in artificial wombs, floating in manufactured amniotic fluid, hooked up to mechanical umbilicals.

A Medievalist in the Digital Matrix

I just received a happy little automated note from WordPress reminding me, in a congratulatory tone, that I officially created this blog two years ago. Less-than-consistent blogger than I am, I appear to have waited to post anything until about a year ago, when I began my blogging experiment in earnest.

I named the blog “surfingedges” because I’m always very interested in strange and difficult middles, and seem to exist on quite a few of them: one of the main things I study as a scholar of medieval literature is the literal and imaginative borderland between England and Scotland in the Late Middle Ages, but my interest in that particular border only obtains because it is such a rich ground for exploring the way human identity behaves at its limits.

Looking back across a year of blogging activity, I’ve talked about that particular “edge” a few times, but I seem to have concentrated even more on three others:

The primary “edge” has been the often-blurry seam between medieval and modern. I think I’ve tried to take this in two directions: on the one hand, I’ve thought about ways in which texts and ideas from the Middle Ages can be useful and relevant to us in the present; on the other, I’ve also reflected on the meaning of modern representations of the Middle Ages in the present day, such as John Eldredge’s use of the figure of William Wallace.

The situation in which I work (as a professional scholar at an institution with a strong Protestant Christian affiliation), also leads me to deal with a third edge: that of the very strange, often surreal, hinterlands one encounters as both a professional learner and a person of faith. A subset of this hinterland is the set of often even-stranger relations one negotiates from such a position, between one audience that is often suspicious of any religious affiliation whatsoever, and another that is, equally often, suspicious of or even hostile toward anything they regard as too “secular” (or even politically liberal).

Looking back over my posts, though, there’s another edge that I’ve come to explore that seems incongruous with the rest: that of a scholar of the middle ages working with and in relation to various technologies. At first, finding, among my own blog entries, postings that had to do with technology seemed incongruous: what do things like my own development of a writing process centered around digital plain text have to do with my fascinations with temporal, imaginative, and political borders?

In large part, I think, I’ve been interested in technology because it’s the medium in which, especially in blog form, my interaction as a modern person with the Middle Ages takes place. It’s the matrix, if you will, both of much of my engagement with the past. It is through the digital medium that I and most of my fellow medievalists access texts, read articles, study images of manuscripts, and communicate our findings and questions with one another. For me, the digital field is also the one I’ve used to try to communicate the relevance of medieval studies to a wider audience.

I’ve had colleagues in other disciplines express surprise, at times, that I’m one of the people at my particular institution who is overtly interested in what’s known as the “digital humanities.” What does a medievalist, who studies things that were, originally, hand-copied my monks using organic inks on cured animal skins, have to do with interest in digital technologies in the present?

In part, it’s because medievalists, like any other scholars, exist and operate in that digital realm. Like other denizens of the matrix, we interact through and within its amniotic medium. But as those who deal in what were original very “analog” materials, I think medievalists have a sort of advantage: we tend to be acutely aware of the differences and similarities between the medium in which we do our work, and in which we interact with our subject matter, and the medium in which those who created the texts in which we study operated. The differences, of course, are obvious: screens and manuscripts seem like vastly different things. On the other hand, there are similarities: is the power conferred by the matrix of a seal any less “virtual” and figurative than the ghostly arrangement of pixels that organize light into an image of such a seal on a screen? How different is the stamping of a symbol on an impermanent surface like wax from the projection of a set of binary symbols in a pattern on a TFT display? Is the only real difference the speed at which the impression occurs and changes?

Also in part, it’s because awareness of the origins of the modern world in the medieval and classical worlds can help us understand the modern more fully. The concept of the “Matrix” in the Keanu Reeves film could not exist as it does in the present day without the evolution of the idea that I traced earlier in the article through the Middle Ages back to classical Latin. Every word we use, concept we think, comes to use through such a historical process. In a culture that tends to see itself as the hotbed of everything new, of innovations that only we enlightened moderns could dream up, medievalists can remind us that nothing we think is without a history, and that we can understand ourselves better by being mindful of that history.

Finally, I think medievalists can help us negotiate technology in the digital present by communicating a healthy sense of what technology is. We moderns often tend to be blinded by novelty, as though the term “technology” only refers to the cutting-edge of present-day science and tech. Medievalists (and, really, students of any other points our our more distant past), can help remind us that “technology” refers to a history of human making and not only its present. For example, when we hear the term “information storage and retrieval technology,” we tend, as a knee-jerk, modern response, to think of computers. Ones and zeroes encoded on optical, magnetic, or solid-state media. What a medievalist knows is that while a computer might be one information storage and retrieval technology, so is a paper codex. So is a wax tablet. Or a papyrus scroll. A computer can also be an information encoding device. As can a typewriter, a fountain pen, or a quill.

Technology, in many ways, can become more useful and effective for us in the present, I think, when we conceive of it historically, taking novelty out of the question. Doing so allows us to ask not “what’s the newest technology we can use” but rather “what is the best technology for the job?” in the realization that novelty may not be the best indicator. For example, I own a stack of 5.25 inch, 520k floppy disks that I used to store information with the Commodore 64 computer I had in high school. That computer is long gone, and there’s little chance I’ll ever retrieve the information stored on them again. On the other hand, I can go to the British Library and read a vellum codex created 700 years ago as if it were written yesterday. Which, then, is the better technology for long-term information storage?

On the other hand, medievalists are also at the forefront of making use of those very new technologies for studying the past. The digitization of manuscripts is making it possible for scholars to access medieval texts in ways that, previously, required expensive travel to various libraries around the world. Digitizing things like medieval records allows us to search for patterns therein that once took years of manual collation to see. I regularly work and collaborate with colleagues across the country–and across the Atlantic–in ways that would be virtually impossible without electronic forms of communication and data transmission.

Hence a thread for this blog, an “edge” which I plan on honoring and reflecting upon, along with the others, even more in the coming year: the edge where a medievalist stands, between the analog past and digital present and future. Surfing the matrix.

The Strange Afterlife of the “Declaration of Arbroath”: With an Introduction, Edition, and Translation


The “Tyningham” copy of the 1320 Abroath letter. This was the home “file copy” of the duplicate that was sent to John XXII in Avignon.

I was interested–but not entirely astonished–to find an article in a recent Scotsman about Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s presentation of a “new Declaration of Arbroath” as an expression of support for the present-day Scottish independence movement. I’m not Scottish, of course (save by very remote descent), so I don’t think I’m qualified to have an opinion on the independence movement one way or the other. As someone who’s fascinated with Scottish history, however, I’ve watched the contemporary independence movement with interest, and, now that the referendum as passed, with a very close “no” vote for independence (much to the chagrin of most of my Scottish friends), I will continue to watch the issue develop–possibly toward another referendum in the no-too-distant future, with great fascination.

Making reference to the famous document known as the “Declaration of Arbroath,” a letter sent by a number of Scottish magnates to Pope John XXII in 1320, expressing their support for Robert I and his polity (one of several competing polities in Scotland at the time), is not a new phenomenon. While the document itself would seem very bound to the particular circumstances of that group of magnates in 1320, the Arbroath document has been trotted out numerous times throughout Scotland’s history when issues of Scotland’s sovereignty and relation to its southern neighbor have come to a head. It was part, for instance, of the debates in 1689 over whether Scotland should throw in its lot with William of Orange, and again in the ramp-up to the 1707 Act of Union that made Scotland part of the British Commonwealth. Even drafting “new” Declarations of Arbroath is something that’s been tried before: in 2004 a conservative Scottish group drew up a “new” declaration in order to protest Scotland’s participation in the European Union. Referring to the original document, this new one stated that:

The tradition in Scotland, as set out in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, is that sovereignty belongs to the people. Today that sovereignty is vested in the British nation state and in the system of devolved government it has created. In whatever changes lie ahead in Europe, we the undersigned call for that sovereignty to be respected and maintained.1

Whether the nacio referred to by the original Declaration can be considered congruent with “the people” reference in this new one is a matter of debate (if you want my take, you can read my article on the subject via my site here;), but it’s fascinating to me that this letter from 1320 has such seeming power to communicate in contexts of which its creators could hardly have conceived. Salmond creates a similar kind of connection, suggesting that “The Arbroath Declaration didn’t simply help to ensure Scotland’s survival as an independent nation. It said that the wider community of Scotland could choose a government to protect their interests.”

In the interest of promoting awareness of the original document on which this latest Scottish iteration is based, I’ve included below a brief “primer” on the document (meant to be very friendly for non-scholars), along with my own edition and translation of the text.

If you would like a copy of my introduction, edition, and translation in an independent, printable PDF format, you may download it here. The document is issued under a Creative Commons license.


Creative Commons License
The Declaration of Arbroath: A Primer by Mark P. Bruce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

1 “The Declaration of Arbroath 2004,” Scottish Conservatives, 2004, <> (6 June, 2005).

The Declaration of Arbroath: A Primer

Prepared by Mark Bruce, Ph.D, FSA Scot

What is the Declaration of Arbroath?

The Declaration of Arbroath is a letter, written in Latin, sent to Pope John XXII in 1320 by a number of Scots noblemen who identify themselves as supporters of King Robert I (the Bruce). The main purpose of the letter was to ask the pope to pressure the English to cease hostilities against Scotland. The term “Declaration”—a term first applied to the document in the 18th century—is actually a little misleading. The letter’s medieval audience (which was just Pope John and his curia, or court) would have considered it a letter of petition or request and not a statement or “declaration.”

Where does it come from?

We know of the document because of an existing copy, a large parchment page preserved in the Scottish Record Office. This is probably the home-department “file copy” of the original document, which was sent to the Pope’s court in Avignon, France. So far, no one has found the original. We know the pope got it, though, because he wrote a letter in response to it, which quotes parts of the Declaration directly.

Why was it written in Latin and not English, Gaelic, or Scots?

Latin, in the Middle Ages, was the universal language of the Roman Catholic Church. Since the letter was written to the Pope, and composed by members of the clergy, it was naturally written in Latin, since Latin was the language that all clergy could understand no matter where they came from. In fact, those who drafted it would have considered it a vulgar insult to the Pope to write it in any other language.

Who wrote it?

Scholars aren’t one hundred percent sure who wrote the Declaration of Arbroath. The most likely candidate, however, is Abbot Bernard of Arbroath. Arbroath abbey, at the time the document was written, was the home of the king’s chancery. The chancery of a medieval king was like his main ‘information office,’ which had a staff that drew up and archived royal documents. These were often associated with religious houses, because the clergy were the people who knew how to read and write well. At the time, Abbot Bernard was the king’s chancellor. So, either he drafted the document, or it was drafted by one of his top chancery clerks. What we know for sure is that whoever wrote it was a master of medieval Latin prose and rhetoric—exactly the kind that could impress the Pope and his court.

If it’s a letter to the Pope, who’s it from, exactly?

One of the conventions of medieval letter-writing was that every letter had to start by saying who the letter was to, followed by a list of who it was from. The Declaration of Arbroath lists 38 names that include many of the most important and powerful barons in Scotland. King Robert himself was not one of the signers, since the document was designed to be a show of support for him from the magnates of the realm. Robert sent his own letter to the pope, as well.

Why was it written in the first place?

The Declaration of Arbroath is a document that’s very much tied up with the circumstances under which it was originally written. Those circumstances are related to two problems King Robert I and his supporters faced in 1319-20. Both problems threatened the stability of Bruce’s kingship despite his influential victory at Bannockburn in 1314.

One was increased pressure from Pope John XXII to enforce both an excommunication of Bruce himself for Bruce’s murder of a rival claimant to the Scottish throne, John Comyn, and an interdict of Scotland for Bruce’s recent recapture of Berwick-on-Tweed (which had been part of Scotland until it was captured by the English at the beginning of the Wars of Independence) in violation of a papal truce. (John XXII was vitally interested in maintaining that truce, since he viewed the conflict as delaying English participation in his projected crusade). Beginning in November, 1319, Pope John had begun to send what historian Grant Simpson calls a “hailstorm of threatening papal letters,” geared toward enforcing Bruce’s excommunication and Scotland’s interdict. Bruce had ignored these demands for some time, refusing, for instance, to accept letters addressed to “Robert Bruce, governing in Scotland,” rather than to him as Rex Scottorum, “King of Scots.” But neither Bruce nor his nobles could go on playing games of deferral forever, and Pope John was increasing diplomatic pressure.

The other problem was that, even though Robert had come a long way since his 1306 coronation in gathering support for himself in both northern and southern Scotland, that support in 1319-20 was still far from unified. Not only was there support for Edward II of England (among the Scots nobles that had been, as Bruce himself once was, received into Edward’s peace), but there was also support for Robert’s predecessor, John Balliol, whose throne Bruce, at least from one political point of view, had usurped. Several signers of the Declaration were tried for conspiring to kill Robert I not long after the Declaration was sent to Avignon. Fiona Watson argues, too, that many Scots nobles in the early 1300’s were likely to be more interested in the restoration of good government and a legitimate kingship than in the idea of a specifically Scottish kingship. Chris Brown, in discussing the origins of the second Scottish War of Independence, argues that in this period there were “real divisions of loyalty. Some Scots maintained their allegiance to the Balliols, some stood by the fealty that they had given to Edward I after John’s deposition, while some no doubt refused allegiance to Robert because he was an excommunicate or because they were simply horrified by the murder of John Comyn.” That the 1332 campaign backed by Edward III to put Edward Balliol, King John’s son, on the throne found significant support among Scots suggests that these internal divisions would have been current in 1320. Such divisions at home would certainly not have spoken well for Bruce’s cause.

Consequently, Bruce and his supporters needed a solution that would mollify Pope John and do so in a manner which occluded the divisions back home and created the illusion of a unified Scottish nobility with, of course, Bruce at its head. Part of that solution was the letter now known as the Declaration.

Is the Declaration of Arbroath evidence that the Scots invented modern democracy?

While scholars debate about the degree to which certain ideas in the Declaration can be considered politically innovative, none would say that the Scots actually invented modern democracy. In fact, the ideas of representative government and personal liberty, in the way we think about them as modern Americans, would have been alien to the Scottish aristocrats who sent the Declaration to Pope John. But that doesn’t mean that the Declaration isn’t important to the history of democracy. The idea of representative government actually has its roots in a debate that initially took place within the medieval church. The debate was essentially about what to do with a heretical pope. This was a big issue in the church, since the pope was supposed to be God’s right-hand-man on earth. In the case of a pope who was speaking against the traditional doctrines of the church, the problem was, basically, “how does an employee fire the boss?” The ideas that grew around this question came to be known as the “Conciliar Theory,” and several prominent medieval philopshers and theologians began to develop the idea that while the pope was the head of the church, he could be overruled or deposed by his council. Why was the council more powerful than the pope? Because the council represented the whole community of the faithful. Voila! Here’s the idea of a body of representatives speaking for the people. These ideas were becoming most fully developed at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth. The line in the Declaration that talks about the right of the barons of the realm to depose a weak king is one of the earliest examples of an idea from the Conciliar Theory being adopted into secular politics. The Conciliar Theory, and such early uses of it in the political world, were some of the sources drawn upon by later thinkers such as George Buchanan and John Locke, who really were the ones who, in the seventeenth century, began to articulate the ideas that we think of as foundational to modern, populist, representative democracy.

Is there a relationship between the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence?

It’d be cool if there was, wouldn’t it? There is some suggestive, circumstantial evidence for a relationship. We know that the Declaration was available in print, in both Latin and in English translations, in Jefferson’s time (although there’s not a copy listed in the catalog of his personal library, which we still have). We also know that certain of his close associates probably would have been aware of the document, and possibly that a couple of them may actually have viewed the manuscript of the Declaration in Scotland. For the best explanation of this circumstantial evidence, see the book by Edward Cowan in the “further reading” section. What we don’t have, unfortunately, is any direct evidence that they told Jefferson about it, or that he actually read it or drew upon it when he was drafting the American declaration. We also know that there were more local precedents that Jefferson most certainly drew upon, such as the 1689 British Declaration of Rights and the Mason draft of the Virignia Declaration of Rights of June, 1776.

There are some words and phrases in the two declarations that look similar—but it’s important to be careful about making a comparison between the American Declaration, which was originally written in English, and an English translation of the Declaration of Arbroath, which was originally written in Latin, because that kind of comparison looks at the translator’s words and not the writer’s. Even similarities in the Latin and English words can be deceiving. For instance, the Declaration of Arbroath talks a great deal about libertas, which, in the English versions, is usually translated by the modern English word derived from it, liberty. However, the Latin word libertas had a different set of meanings in the fourteenth century than the English word liberty does in the twenty-first. When we read the word liberty as present-day Americans, we tend to automatically think about it in the terms we’ve always been taught, as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Liberty, for us, refers to the right to freedom of every individual, regardless of race, class, or gender. In the fourteenth century, though, the Latin word libertas was most often used to refer to the special privileges of the nobility. So, when the barons say they’ll fight to the death for their libertas, it’s possible that they’re talking about maintaining their aristocratic privileges rather than about individual human rights. It’s also important to remember that fourteenth-century Scotland was a still a feudal society. To have freedom in that society, you needed a title of nobility, land, or (preferably) both. Historian Ranald Nicholson reminds us, however, that those who “lived and worked upon the land but enjoyed neither secure tenure nor complete personal freedom” greatly outnumbered those who “held their land by homage and fealty, quit of labour service or any other dishonorable ‘burden’” So, it’s important to remember that even though the American Declaration and the Declaration of Arbroath both appeal to something they call “liberty,” the writers of those documents may well have had very different ideas in mind.

What’s the difference between this translation and others?

Most translations try to make an original document read as smoothly as possible in the target language. Other translators, such as Sir James Fergusson, have already done an amazing job of creating smooth translations of the Declaration that convey the linguistic beauty of the original. However, creating a really smooth, fluent English translation of a Latin text means making a lot of substantial changes, because the grammar of Latin is so different from the grammar of English. These changes can alter some of the meanings of the original. In this translation, I’ve tried to supplement the others by staying as close to the original Latin grammar as possible, even where that meant making phrases and sentences that sound awkward in English. This should help English language readers to see a number of things about the original Latin text that are hard or impossible to see in the smoother translations. As such, it’s intended to be a supplment to, not a replacement for, those translations.

Where can I learn more (further reading)?

Here are some of the best sources for information concerning the Declaration of Arbroath. Most of them are out of print, but should be available at a university library or large public library—or through smaller libraries via interlibrary loan. If you’re unfamiliar with how to find scholarly books and articles, just ask your local librarian—it’s not hard when someone shows you how.

  • G.W.S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988) The definitive political biography of Robert Bruce.
  • Grant G. Simpson, “The Declaration of Arbroath Revitalised,” The Scottish Historical Review, 56 (1977). A seminal scholarly article on the context of the Declaration.
  • James Goldstein, The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993). Goldstein talks about the ways literary rhetoric was used to promote pro-Bruce nationalism in medieval Scotland. There’s a great section on the Declaration.
  • Fiona Watson, “The Enigmatic Lion: Scotland, Kingship, and National Identity in the Wars of Independence.” in Dauvit Broun, R.J. Finlay, and Michael Lynch, ed., Image and Identity: The Making and Re-Making of Scotland Through the Ages. (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1998).
  • A.A.M Duncan, “‘The Making of the Declaration of Arbroath,” in The Study of Medieval Records: Essays in Honor of Kathleen Major, ed. D.A. Bullough and R.L. Storey, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). Duncan does an amazing, close study of the physical details of the manuscript of the Declaration.
  • Rt. Hon. Lord Cooper, “The Declaration of Arbroath Revisited,” in Supra Crepidam: Presidential Addresss Delivered to the Scottish Historical Society (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1951)
  • Sir James Fergusson, The Declaration of Arbroath (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970). The best-sounding of all the translations of the Declaration, which makes some sacrifices in literal accuracy. Fergusson also includes a Latin text of the Declaration and much useful background information.
  • E.L.G. Stones, ed., Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174-1328: Some Selected Documents. (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965). This is a collection of other medieval documents relevant to the relationship between England and Scotland in the Middle Ages. It has the original Latin and French texts with facing-page English translations.
  • Edward J. Cowan, For Freedom Alone: The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320, East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2003). A recent study of the Declaration, including one of the best (to date) studies of the evidence regarding the potential relationship between the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence. Cowan is somewhat more optimistic than I am about the relationship.
  • A.A.M. Duncan, The Nation of the Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320). (London: The Historical Association, 1970). Another important translation, not as pretty as Fergusson’s, but closer to the original Latin.

Original Latin Text

English Translation

Sanctissimo Patri in Christo ac Domino, domino Johanni, diuina prouidiencia Sacrosancte Romane et Vniuersalis Ecclesie Summo Pontifici, Filii Sui Humiles et deuoti […] Ceterique Barones et Liberetenenetes ac tota Communitas Regni Scocie, omnimodam Reuerenciam filialem cum deuotis Pedum osculis beatorum.

To the Most Holy Father and Lord In Christ, the Lord John, by divine providence supreme pontiff of the Holy Roman and Universal Church, his humble and devout sons […], and other barons and freeholders and the whole community of the realm of Scotland, send all manner of filial reverence, with devout kisses of his blessed feet.1

Scimus, Sanctissime Pater et Domine, et ex antiquorum gestis et libris Colligimus quod inter Ceteras naciones egregias nostra scilicet Scottorum nacio multis preconijs fuerit insignita, que de Maiori Schithia per Mare tirenium et Columpnas Herculis transiens et in Hispania inter ferocissimas gentes per multa temporum curricula Residens a nullis quantumcumque barbaricis poterat allicubi gentibus subiugari. Indeque veniens post mille et ducentos annos a transitu populi israelitici per mare rubrum sibi sedes in Occidente quas nunc optinet, expulsis primo Britonibus et Pictis omnino deletis, licet per Norwagienses, Dacos et Anglicos sepius inpugnata fuerit, multis cum victorijs et Laboribus quamplurimis adquisuit, ipsaque ab omni seruitute liberas, vt Priscorum testantur Historie, semper tenuit. In quorum Regno Centum et Tredescim Reges de ipsorum Regali prosapia, nullo alienigena interueniente, Regnauerunt.

We know, Most Holy Father and Lord, and we gather from the chronicles and books of the ancients, that among other eminent nations our own nation of the Scots has certainly been distinguished with many acclamations, which, crossing from Greater Scythia through the Tyrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelling among the most ferocious tribes in Spain throughout the course of many eras, could not be subjugated by any people however alien, and coming thence twelve hundred years after the passage of the People of Israel over the Red Sea to the Seat in the West which they now hold, the Britons having been expelled and the Picts having been utterly destroyed, and often having been attacked by the Norwegians, Danes, and Angles, obtained that Seat through many victories and untold labors and held it free from all feudal obligation, as the historians of old always testify, in which Realm three hundred kings of their royal progeny have reigned, interrupted by no foreigner.2

Nobilitates et Merita, licet ex aliis non clarerent, satis patenter effulgent ex eo quod Rex Regum et dominancium dominus Jhesus Christus post passionem suam et Resurreccionem ipsos in vltimis terre finibus constitutos quasi primos ad suam fidem sanctissimam conuocauit. Nec eos per quemlibet in dicta fide confirmari voluit set per suum primum apostolum vocacione quamuis ordine secundum vel tercium, sanctum Andream mitissimum beati Petri Germanum, quem semper ipsis preesse voluit vt Patronum.

The merits and noble qualities of whom, did they not gleam from other things, shine forth clearly enough from this: that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, after his Passion and Resurrection, called them together, settled at the ultimate ends of the earth, just as the first to his most holy faith. Nor did he wish them to be confirmed in word of faith by anyone but the first-called of his apostles, though second or third in degree, Saint Andrew the Most Mild, the Blessed Peter’s brother, who desired always to have charge over them as their patron.

Hec autem Sanctissimi Patres et Predecessores vestri sollicita mente pensantes ipsum Regnum et populum vt beati Petri germani peculium multis fauoribus et priuilegijs quamplurimis Munierunt, Ita quippe quod gens nostra sub ipsorum proteccione hactenus libera deguit et quieta donec ille Princeps Magnificus Rex Anglorum Edwardus, pater istius qui nunc est, Regnum nostrum acephalum populumque nullius mali aut doli nec bellis aut insultibus tunc assuetum sub amici et confederati specie inimicabiliter infestauit. Cuius iniurias, Cedes, violencias, predaciones, incendia, prelatorum incarceraciones, Monasteriorum combustiones, Religiosorum spoliaciones et occisiones alia quoque enormia et innumera que in dicto populo exercuit, nulli parcens etati aut sexui, Religioni aut ordini, nullus scriberet nec ad plenum intelligeret nisi quem experiencia informaret.

Weighing all this, however, the Most Holy Fathers your predecessors, stirred in mind, supported that same realm and people with many favors and numerous perogatives, as the Blessed Peter’s Brother’s personal possession. So indeed our line lived, hitherto free and unmolested, under the protection of those same until that Mighty Prince of the English, Edward, father of the one who is now King, under the guise of a friend and ally, infested as an enemy our headless realm and people, who were then accustomed to neither malice nor treachery, wars nor insults, of whose massacres, violences, predations, burnings, incarcerations of prelates, torchings of monasteries, spoilings and killings of Religious, and all the other innumerable enormities which he exercised against the aforesaid people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank, no one could write or even fully comprehend save whom experience alone could inform.3

A quibus Malis innumeris, ipso Juuante qui post uulnera medetur et sanat, liberati sumus per strenuissimum Principem, Regem et Dominum nostrum, Dominum Robertum, qui pro populo et hereditate suis de manibus Inimicorum liberandis quasi alter Machabeus aut Josue labores et tedia, inedias et pericula, leto sustinuit animo. Quem eciam diuina disposicio et iuxta leges et Consuetudines nostra, quas vsque ad mortem sustinere volumus, Juris successio et debitus nostrorum omnium Consensus et Assensus nostrum fecerunt Principem atque Regem, cui tanquam illi per quem salus in populo nostro facta est pro nostra libertate tuenda tam Jure quam meritis tenemur et volumus in omnibus adherere.

From which innumerable evils we have been set free, by the help of He who after injuries heals and restores, through that most vigorous Prince, our King and Lord, the Lord Robert, who for his people and lineage, for the purpose of liberating from the hands of Enemies just as another Macabee or Joshua, sustained labors and hardships, hungers and perils, with glad spirit, who also, by divine disposition and according to our laws and customs which we will sustain to the death, by right of succession and all our due consent, we have made our Prince and King; to him, just as to He through whom salvation has been established for our people,4 and for the purpose of maintaining our libertas, we cleave as much by right as by merits, and to him in all things we will adhere.5

Quem si ab inceptis desisteret, regi Anglorum aut Anglicis nos aut Regnum nostrum volens subicere, tanquam inimicum nostrum et sui nostrique Juris subuersorem statim expellere niteremur et alium Regem nostrum qui ad defensionem nostram sufficeret faceremus. Quia quamdiu Centum ex nobis viui remanserint, nuncquam Anglorum dominio aliquatenus volumus subiugari. Non enim propter gloriam, diuicias aut honores pugnamus set propter libertatem solummodo quam Nemo bonus nisi simul cum vita amittit.

Whom, if he should desist from that which has been begun, wishing to subject our Realm to the King of the English or to England, we could be compelled to drive out forthwith as our enemy and as a subverter of his rights and ours, and we could make another our King who could suffice for our defense. For as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never under any circumstances be reduced to submission to the lordship of the English. Truly, we fight not for glory, riches, or honors, but for libertas alone, which no bonus6 gives up save along with his life.

Hinc est, Reuerende Pater et Domine, quod sanctitatem vestram omni precum instancia genuflexis cordibus exoramus quatinus sincero corde Menteque pia recensentes quod apud eum cuius vices in terris geritis cum non sit Pondus nec distinccio Judei et greci, Scoti aut Anglici, tribulaciones et angustias nobis et Ecclesie dei illatas ab Anglicis paternis occulis intuentes, Regem Anglorum, cui sufficere debet quod possidet cum olim Anglia septem aut pluribus solebat sufficere Regibus, Monere et exhortari dignemini vt nos scotos, in exili degentes Scocia vltra quam habitacia non est nichilque nisi nostrum Cupientes, in pace dimittat. Cui pro nostra procuranda quiete quicquid possumus, ad statum nostrum Respectu habito, facere volumus cum effectu.

Hence it is, Reverend Father and Lord, that we exhort your Holiness with bended knees and every impendence of prayers,7 inasmuch as, considering with sincere heart and devout mind that for Him whose vice-gerent you are on earth there should be no weighing nor distinction between Jew or Greek, Scot or Englishman, seeing with the eyes of a father the tribulations and straits brought by the English to us and to the Church of God, that you should deem fit to warn and to have exhorted the King of the English, for whom what he already holds ought to suffice since it was once wont to sustain seven kings or more,8 that he should leave we Scots, abiding in poor Scotland outside of which there is no habitation and desiring nothing but out own, in peace. For him we in fact desire to do anything we are able, with respect to our own tradition, for ourselves to gain peace.

Vestra enim interest, sancte Pater, hoc facere qui paganorum feritatem, Christianorum culpis exigentibus, in Christianos seuientem aspicitis et Christianorum terminos arctari indies, quantumque vestre sanctitatis memorie derogat si (quod absit) Ecclesia in aliqua sui parte vestris temporibus patiatur eclipsim aut Scandalum, vos videritis. Excitet igitur Christianos Principes qui non causam vt causam ponentes se fingunt in subsidium terre sancte propter guerras quas habent cum proximis ire non posse. Cuius inpedimenti Causa est verior quod in Minoribus proximis debellandis vtilitas proprior et resistencia debilior estimantur. Set quam leto corde dictus dominus Rex noster et Nos si Rex Anglorum nos is pace dimitteret illus iremus qui nichil ignorat satis novit. Quod Christi vicario totique Christianitati ostendimus et testamur.

It is truly in the interest of yours9 to act on this, Holy Father, who sees the ferocity of heathens raging against the sins of the Christians, and the boundaries of Christendom curbing inward every day, and you must see how much your holy memory would suffer if (God forbid) the Church in any part should suffer eclipse or scandal in your time. Arouse therefore the Christian Princes who, putting forward a false cause as a real one, feign not to be able to go to the aid of the Holy Land10 because of the wars which they have with their neighbors, the truer reason of whose impediment is that in their lesser neighbors they find their own advantage in fighting and weaker resistance. But with what glad hearts would we and our aforesaid Lord King go there if the King of the English left us in peace, He from whom nothing is hidden well knows, which we profess and declare to the Vicar of Christ and all Christendom.

Quibus si sanctitas vestra Anglorum relatibus nimis credula fidem sinceram non adhibeat aut ipsis in nostram confusionem fauere non desinat, corporum excidia, animarum exicia, et cetera que sequentur incomoda que ipsi in nobis et Nos in ipsis fecerimus vobis ab altissimo credimus inputanda.

But if your Holiness will not apply very much credit or sincere faith to the tales of the English or refrain to favor them to our prejudice, the ruin of bodies, the destruction of souls, and other things which trouble will follow, which will be done by them to us and by us to them we believe ought to be imputed to you by the Most High.11

Ex quo sumus et erimus in hiis que tenemur tanquam obediencie filii vobis tanquam ipsius vicario parati in omnibus complacere, ipsique tanquam Summo Regi et Judici causam nostram tuendam committimus, Cogitatium nostrum Jactantes in ipso sperantesque firmiter quod in nobis virtutem faciet et ad nichilum rediget hostes nostros.

From which, we are and will be ready to fulfill your will in all things to you His vicar, as obedient sons–insofar as we are bound–and to Him as the High King and Judge we commit the maintenance of our cause, casting our thoughts on Him and hoping firmly that he will instill virtue in us and bring our enemies to naught.

Sanctitatem ac sanitatem vestram conseruet altissimus Ecclesie sue sancte per tempora diuturna.

Datum apud Monasterium de Abirbrothoc in Scocis Sexto die mensis Aprilis Anno gracie Millesimo Trescentesimo vicesimo Anno vero Regni Regis nostri supradicti Quinto decimo.

May the Most High preserve your holiness and health to His Holy Church for the length of your days.

Given at the Monastery of Arbroath in Scotland on the sixth day of the month of April in the year of grace thirteen hundred and twenty and the fifteenth year of the reign of our aforesaid King.

1 In the middle ages, letter-writing was goverened by a strict set of conventions known as the ars dictaminis. This section is called the salutatio, or salutation, which not only lays out the to/from information but also marks the social relationship between the sender and reciever. This particular form of salutation is the one specified in period ars dictaminis manuals as the one for a ruler writing to the pope. This is possibly a significant move on the part of the writer, since the pope had not formally acknowledged the legitimacy of Bruce’s government!

2 This is the beginning of the next formal section of the letter, called the narratio, or narrative, in which the writer is to explain the cicrmstances for the reqest that will come in the next section, the petitio, or petition. This first part lays out the mythological beginnings of the Scottish people. Traditionally, the Scots went to Ireland first, and then to Scotland, and the idea of them going straight from Scythia to Scotland appears for the first time here in the Declaration. This may be because Edward Bruce, King Robert’s brother, had recently been killed in his failed attempt to become the King of Ireland. The pope would have known about this, of course, which means that Ireland would have been a little embarrasing to mention. Notice all the phrases that begin with “having been” here—the grammar is designed to make it look like the Scots destroyed both the Picts and Britons, when in fact the Britons had been driven out long before the Scots got there. The “Pillars of Hercules” refer to the Straits of Gibraltar.

3 The list of all the terrible things the English had done to the Scots closely follows a similar phrase in an earlier letter sent to the pope by the English, in which they say exactly the same thing about the Scots. Certain aspects of politics haven’t changed since the fourteenth century!

4 In other words, Christ.

5 Judas Macabeus (the “Maccabee”) was a Jewish leader in the first century a.d. who led a Jewish rebellion against the occupying Romans in Israel; Joshua, in the old testament, is the successor of Moses, who led the Hebrew people into the promised land.

6 I have left the words “libertas” and “bonus” in Latin in order to preserve the idea that their Latin meanings are different from those of their English cognates. In medieval latin, libertas can refer not only to the ideas of individual and state freedom, but also the the special privileges and perogatives of the nobility. The word bonus is often translated as “good man” or “honest man,” but it doesn’t just mean “any decent person.” It’s a specialized term that refers to those who have the status to be able to participate in government, which, in the middle ages, means the landed freeholders and nobility. It’s related to the term bon homme in French, also a term designating a landed gentleman. This passage, which asserts the right of the barons to depose a weak king, is the idea imported from the Conciliar Theory mentioned in the introduction.

7 This is the beginning of the next formal section of the letter, the petitio, in which the senders, having set up the circumstances, make their actual request.

8 The part of the British isles now known as England was, in the early Middle Ages, broken up in to seven different kingdoms, each with its own king. The writer is saying that the English shouldn’t want any more territory since the territory they have now used to be enough for seven different kings.

9 The Latin only uses a pronoun here, “yours” with an implied referent (i.e. “your [things]), a construction that works the same way as the phrase “you and yours” does in English. Since the pope, as the head of the Roman church, technically has the whole body of the faithful and all the posessions of the church under his care, “yours” means a bit more for him than it would for anyone else.

10 Pope John XXII, to whom this letter is addressed, was, at the time, trying to get together a new crusade to the holy land. He thought the Anglo-Scottish conflict was delaying the participation of both countries in his plan, which is why he had declared a truce between England and Scotland earlier. The Scots’ recent recapture of Berwick broke the truce, and the Pope responded by placing Scotland under interdict. The Declaration is, in part, the Scottish response to this situation. Here, the writer picks up on the idea to insinuate that English aggression, not Scottish, was responsible for the violation.

11 This passage always strikes me as a little dangerous—the idea is basically, “if the killing continues, Your Holiness, it’s all your fault!”