Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 October 2017
The early history of Scots law is insufficiently documented to allow much insight into the use of symbols and rituals in practice. There are hints as to what there may have been. For example, keepers of relics were involved in particular procedures in pursuit of stolen goods. From this we can infer that certain ritual or symbolic practices were likely. As over much of Europe, the rituals surrounding the ordeal and the judicial duel were practised, until the Church ceased co-operation with the former, the latter lasting in some circumstances until quite late in the Middle Ages.
Although there is a lack of evidence directing attention to symbolic communication before actual courts in Scotland, it is possible to consider how the very constitution of a court in the Middle Ages was in itself a symbolic communication, instructing those who attended or observed not only in the law and its procedures, but also in its values. This chapter will accordingly discuss aspects of the ceremonies involved in constituting a court in Scotland in the Middle Ages, focusing on a sixteenth-century description of what were called the claves curiae, the “keys of the court”, necessary for its proper constitution. Analysis of this will then be followed by that of a later description of a ceremony of admission as a lawyer, a ceremony rich in ritual and symbolism. This description permits appreciation of the significant change in Scottish legal culture: a change that created a court dealing in the learned law of the ius commune, in the proceedings of which much was reduced to writing, deliberations were secret, and legal professionals were much more clearly in charge.