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Research at St Andrews

Robert Houston


Robert Houston
Postal address:
School of History
Modern History
St Katharine's Lodge, The Scores
St Andrews
United Kingdom


Web address:

Direct phone: +44 (0)1334 462901

Fax: +44 (0)1334 462927

Research overview

I have just published a 200,000 word book with Oxford University Press entitled Punishing the dead? Suicide, lordship and community in Britain, 1500-1830 .

I have three main research topics at present, each of which will result in an academic monograph.

1) Comparison of regional social relations c.1600-1850 using petitions from agricultural tenants to their landlords in estates records from Cumbria, Perthshire, Wales, and Ulster. I ask what the different subjects and styles of petition tell us about the different rural societies of the component parts of Britain and Ireland. The independence of the peasantry and their relationships both with each other and with their estate are analysed as a way of understanding how social relationships were mediated by legal structures, patterns of authority, economic change, and institutional frameworks such as the very different forms of poor relief found in Britain’s diverse regions. The study is informed by methods of analysis derived from English literary studies as well as social history, especially the physical form and appearance of familiar and other letters.


 2) A study of the regional distribution and social meaning of contributory weddings in Britain, c.1500-1850. Variously known as bride ales, bid-weddings, penny weddings and Scotch weddings, some couples in Wales, the north of England, and Lowland Scotland solicited contributions from invited guests for food and household items to establish their new home. Far from begging or some kind of pauper marriage these types of wedding show the importance of community, hospitality, and reciprocity in some parts of Britain. The study uses contemporary comment, folklore, civil and ecclesiastical court records, borough and manor court minutes, diaries and autobiographies to present a contextualised account of contributory bridals. It argues for the importance of regional variation and local vernaculars in understanding national histories.

Provisional title: Bride ales and penny weddings: contribution and community in Britain from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century

 3) For the last 800 years coroners have been an important part of England’s legal landscape, best known for their role as investigators of sudden or suspicious death. Transplanted early on to Wales and Ireland, the office is found today in a recognisable form over much of the English-speaking world. In contrast, historians have largely ignored, misunderstood or dismissed the office of coroner in Scotland. Deaths were investigated at discretion and in private by Scottish magistrates or ‘procurators fiscal’, not by coroners. Coroners did, however, exist north of the Border and feature in many different types of document from financial records to contemporary descriptions and from charters to poetry. They dealt more with living miscreants and their assets than with the bodies and goods of the dead, but there are also differences between Scotland and England in historical origins, the status of incumbents, the means of their appointment, their relations with other judicial officers, and finally in the development of the role over time. The study blends legal, political, administrative, and social history. Provisional title: DID SCOTLAND HAVE CORONERS? SUDDEN DEATH AND THE OFFICE OF CORONER IN BRITAIN FROM THE TWELFTH TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

 I have a number of articles or book chapters in different stages of preparation, these mostly continuations of the project on suicide.

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