Graham, Michael F. “Conflict and sacred space in Reformation-era Scotland.” Albion 33, no. 3 (2001): 371-387.

Monday 16 January 2023

This article discusses efforts on the part of the Reformation-era Church of Scotland to act as a peacemaker within Scottish communities. In particular, the Kirk opposed the hitherto broadly-accepted practice of bloodfeud, whereby conflicts would be worked out through an escalating series of violent acts. The young Kirk felt an obligation to transform Scotland into a Christian society; since bloodfeuds were public un-Christian acts, the Kirk viewed them as crimes against the entire community rather than only those directly affected. Its strategy was to resolve disputes before they could escalate into a cycle of violence, by means of a public adjudication conducted by the elders of the parish, referred to as the Session. The party judged to be in the wrong would be obliged either to pay a fine, or to suffer a public humiliation, which often involved being made to sit in front of the altar, facing the congregation, through Sunday services.

Graham suggests that this strategy, while far from uniformly effective, did contribute to a reduction in the prevalence of bloodfeuds through the 16th century. On the other hand, he argues that the Kirk’s practices inadvertently led to a short-term increase in violence in the proximity of churches – strictly-enforced mandatory church attendance forced feuding community members into contact with one another, and an increased emphasis on the significance of the church as a sacred space made it a more effective stage on which to enact public acts of violent vengeance.

The historical practice of the Kirk Session is hardly likely to make a return, but it does make an interesting comparison with contemporary community-based conflict resolution initiatives, highlighting some of the potential strengths and weaknesses of such an approach.

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