Thirlage and its Relations
Bill Long 1/14/06
If one "predial" (i.e., relating to farm land) servitude in Scottish law not derived from the Romans was feal and divot, the other was thirlage. You can find the classic definition of thirlage easily enough on the Net. I provide here the entire passage about thirlage usually quoted in part from John Erskine as well as exposition of a host of words clustering around thirlage, words which expand our linguistic, and therefore our imaginative, universe.
Thirlage According to Erskine
In his 1802 edition of The principles of the law of Scotland: in the order of Sir George Mackenzie's institutions of that law, Erskine says:
"Thirlage is that servitude by which lands are astricted, or thirled, to a particular mill, and the possessors bound to grind their grain there, for payment of certain multures and sequels, as the agreed price of grinding. In this servitude, the mill is the dominant tenement, and the lands astricted (which are called also the thirle or sucken) the servient. Multure is the quantity of grain or meal payable to the proprietor of the mill, or to the multurer his tackman. The sequels are the small quantities given to the servants, under the name of knaveship, bannock, and lock or gowpen," Title 9, 12 (p. 221).
My, all of a sudden we are brought into a verbal world which we have never inhabited previously. Let's go one word at a time.
1. Astrict/Astricted. The word is a legal technical term here meaning "confined" or "restricted." The OED gives a theological application of the word from 1656 ("That astricted dispensation under the Old Testament"), but then it goes on to say that the specific definition applies to Scottish law. It refers to certain lands which are held on such terms that the tenant must take grain grown on them to a particular mill for grinding. Lands are astricted. The verb astrict can be used outside of the legal sphere, with applications as wide as medical usage ("to astrict the stomach") or moral philosophy ("the mind is astricted to certain thoughts"). But here it refers to land which is held under an obligation.
2. Thirl. Thirl can be a noun or a verb. To thirl means to astrict or limit to a particular mill. "The land was thirled to the lord's mill at Berwick." Thirl as noun means astriction to a particular mill, the duty of tenants in thirlage, or even the astricted lands. The words thirl and thrall and thrill are all linguistically related, with the last being a metathetic variant of thirl. Thus, an "obsolete" usage of thrill means "to make a thrall of, enthrall, enslave." From 1536: "To thrill us to maist schamefull servitude." As Erskine says elswere, "Thirlage..may be constituted...by the proprietor thirling his tenants to his own will."
3. Multure. This word has a rather complex history in Medieval French and Latin (the OED briefly goes through it), but signified the miller's wages, usually counted out as a proportion of the grain, due to him for grinding the grain grown on the astricted land. Multure could also refer to the right to exact this toll. We have this from 1681: "When a Superiour gives out Lands upon condition of Thirlage, the Multures are part of the reddendo or price" (reddendo means what must be returned or paid). A law using the term was passed in the mid-1740s under Geroge II--"Recovery of multures or services payable or prestable to their mills." Something that is prestable is an amount of money which is "capable of being paid or advanced," though it isn't clear to me from the language of the statute if it refers only to future multures. A 1990 quotation from a Scottish legal historian takes us yet further in our vocabulary search: "Insucken multures were paid by thirled tenants; outsucken multures had to be paid by those who, living outside the sucken or area of thirlage, nevertheless had occasion to bring their grain to the mill to be ground."
You reaction might be, "That sucks!" But, if you said that, you wouldn't be using "sucken" in its original signification. The next essay tries to do so, among other things.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long