Material evidence? Re-approaching elite women’s seals and charters in late medieval Scotland
Seals, Sigillography, Material culture, Women’s history, Gender history, Identity, Agency, Authority
Medieval, Fourteenth century, Fifteenth century
Medieval Scottish women’s seals remain largely unexplored compared to the scholarship on seals and sealing practice elsewhere in medieval Britain. This article has two chief aims. First, it seeks to demonstrate the insufficiencies of the 19th- and 20th-century Scottish seal catalogues as a mediated record of material evidence and the use of them as comprehensive and go-to reference texts within current research on late medieval Scotland. This includes a discussion of the ways in which medieval seals survive as original impressions, casts and illustrations and how these different types of evidence can be used in the construction and reconstruction of the seal’s and charter’s context. Second, this paper will explore the materiality and interconnectedness of seals and the charters to which they are attached. A reading of these two objects together emphasises the legal function of the seal and shows its distinctive purpose as a representational object. While the seal was used in con-texts beyond the basic writ charter, it remained a legally functional and (auto)biographical object, and, as such, the relationship between seal and charter informs meaning in representational identities expressed in both. The article will apply this approach to several examples of seals belonging to 14th- and 15th-century Scottish countesses. Evidence reviewed this way provides new insight into Scottish women’s sealing practice and female use of heraldic device. The deficiencies of assuming women’s design to be formulaic or that their seals can be usefully interpreted in isolation from the charters to which they were attached will be highlighted. The interconnectedness of word and image conveyed personal links and elite ambitions, and promoted noble lineage within the legal context of charter production.