PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Coventry regulations prohibition market offences public health commerce food supply bread wine ale fish meat produce pigs livestock craft guilds inns hosting sanitation waste disposal water supply street cleaning ditches
Subject: Prohibition of unsanitary and fraudulent commercial practices
Original source: Coventry City Record Office, Leet Book
Transcription in: Mary Dormer Harris, ed. The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's Register, London: Early English Text Society, old series, vol.134 (1907), 23-33.
Original language: Middle English
Location: Coventry
Date: 1421


We command you, in the name of the king of England, and the mayor and the bailiffs of Coventry, that every baker who bakes for retail shall sell 4 wastels for a penny and 2 for a penny, and 4 cocket loaves for a penny and 2 for a penny and no fewer; they are to be of best quality flour, well baked, and of the weight prescribed by the king's marshal, upon penalty of 13s.4d for the first infringemente, the penalty of 20s. fine for the second infringement, for the third to be sent to the pillory, and for the fourth to lose the freedom of the city for a year and a day. They shall sell 4 wheat loaves for a penny and 2 for a penny, and no fewer, and these are to be well baked without any [unbaked] dough inside, upon the same penalty. And 4 horseloaves for a penny – these to be made of bean-meal and peas-meal, without bran or draff – upon the same penalty. It is lawful for rural bakers to come into the city to sell their bread, so long as it is of the weight prescribed by the king's marshal; no-one is to prevent them, upon penalty of 6s.8d for infringement. No hosteler is to bake any kind of bread in his house, neither bread for people nor for horses, for retail, upon penalty of 6s.8d for every infringement; nor are they to impose too high a surcharge in their inns, not for beans, peas or oats, except as the statute prescribes; that is, a penny upon every shilling.

We order that no-one whatsoever bring into their establishment any wine until the mayor has examined it, upon penalty of 20s., and that no taverner offer wine for sale unless it is properly refined, upon penalty of 20s. each time that the mayor and his associates discover an infringement. They are to sell their wine by sealed measure, and are not to sell any red wine nor white wine of Gascony any dearer than 8d. a gallon, white wine of [La] Rochelle no dearer than 6d. a gallon, and Malmsey and Romeney for 16d. a gallon and no dearer, upon penalty of 20s. for every infringement. They are to sell no Osey, Algarve, or bastard until the mayor and his associates have examined it and set a price according to its value, upon penalty of 20s. for every infringement.

We order that no brewer sell a gallon of good ale, while it is new under the hair sieve, for dearer than a 1¼d; and when it is good and stale, for 1½d and no dearer. They are to sell by sealed measure and not by the cup or bowl, and with their sign hung out. They are to sell it outside or within their houses by sealed measure, upon the penalty of giving to whomever makes to the mayor a legitimate complaint against them 4d. (for his trouble) and a gallon of the best ale. And all the remainder shall be sold for a halfpenny, and no dearer, upon every infringement. The mayor shall take a distress from every brewer or huckster found in contravention, and [the brewer or huckster] shall pay 6s.8d for every infringement. No brewer is to sell a sester of ale to a huckster for more than 18d., upon penalty of 40d. for every brew that contravenes.

We order that no fisherman of the town or the countryside buy, through regrating, any kind of fish during Thursday night, nor on Friday until after nine o'clock, except in the case of lords of rural estates or other men of status for their household use, upon penalty of 20s. for every infringement. No man is to be so bold as to buy or receive into his house baskets of fish, through regrating, upon penalty of 20s. for every infringement and confiscation of all the fish found in their possession. No-one is to sell stinking fish for human consumption, upon the same penalty.

We order that no victualler, fishmonger, nor anyone else, go outside the city of Coventry to buy fish nor any other foodstuffs being brought to the city, nor buy the same within the city until nine o'clock and until it has been examined (to ensure it is fit for human consumption) in the presence of the mayor by those whom the mayor has appointed to supervise such victuals, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement.

We order that butchers are not to sell any diseased animals, rotten sheep, measly meat, nor sows in heat, upon penalty of 20s. for every infringement. They are not to offer on the Sunday any meat that is left over from the Thursday, unless it has been salted and is fit for human consumption, upon the same penalty. It is lawful for any rural butcher wishing to come and sell meat in the city to come on any day of the week he wishes and to rent a building [for that purpose] in any street he wants; no-one is to hinder him, upon penalty of 40s. and 40 days in prison. It is also lawful for every butcher within the city to slaughter any kind of beast suitable for human consumption, as much and as often as he wishes; no restriction is to be made among the butchers contrary [to this ordinance], upon penalty of 100s. [on the butchers in general?] and a penalty upon every butcher who respects such a restriction of 20s. and imprisonment as often as he is found in contravention.

We command that, as is ordained, cooks are to buy foodstuffs only in the common market and not through regrating – that is, by waiting at the ends of the town or in the highway – upon penalty of 6s.8d for every infringement. Cooks are not to sell any reheated meat, upon the same penalty. Cooks are not to throw any refuse – that is, feathers, hair, entrails of pigs or other animals – underneath their boards, nor into the high street, nor leave it lying about, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement. They are to sell a best-quality goose for no dearer than 4d., upon the same penalty. They are not to buy any kind of dead pikes or eels for baking or dressing up for human consumption, upon the same penalty.

We order that no hosteler, nor any other resident of the city, receive or store any kind of grain over a period of days without it being made available in the common market, upon penalty of 20s. for every infringement. No badger or any other man is to store grain in his house or in any hiding-place, but is to bring it to the marketplace and put the entirety up for sale, upon penalty of confiscation of all the grain. Anyone, whether townsman or country-dweller, who brings the mayor information about where such grain has been hidden or stored shall receive a strike of grain for his trouble. Any badger who comes to the city with grain for sale is to put it on display himself, at the end of West Orchard, upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement.

We order that no-one is to have pigs roaming in the high street, upon penalty of 4d. for the first infringement and 8d. for the second. Nor is anyone to keep pigs in baulks or sties by the highway, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement. No-one is to allow his pigs to wander in gardens or pastures, on penalty of 40d. for every infringement.

We order that in the future butchers or victuallers not make any ordinances or constitutions except under supervision of the mayor and bailiffs, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement. There are to be no gatherings for the purpose of the group supporting the quarrels of its individuals, nor is anyone to go to any bede-ale held outside the city, nor ride into the countryside, without permission from the mayor and bailiffs, upon penalty of up to 40s. for every infringement. No man should be so bold or foolhardy to go into the countryside and break into any lord's park, for the purpose of hunting his deer or rabbits, under penalty of 100s. fine and imprisonment.

No man is to permit ducks to wander the streets, upon penalty of confiscation of those ducks to the use of the city, as often as they are found loose.

No man is to walk large hounds or bitches along the highway, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement.

No man is to throw or cast anything at any stranger, nor be rude to him, nor extract straw, hay, or wood from any cart or horse, upon penalty of 40 days imprisonment and a fine for the infringement paid to the mayor.

We command, and it is ordained, that the city swineherd should drive the pigs of the city to wasteland and marshland outside the city, and not to other places such as meadows, fields or anywhere else they can cause damage, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement discovered, as the result of someone making a complaint.

We order that every dyer of the city who has a waturlade off the common river must pay to the chamberlains 12d. annually to the use of the city.

We order that every fisherman, or anyone else who has a board or rack set up in the Cross Cheaping in the highway, should put it away every Saturday afternoon (except during Lent), upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement.

We order that no townsman or country-dweller draw a sword or knife, nor any other weapon, against another person, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement, except in self-defence. If he strikes with the sword or knife he has drawn (except in self-defence), he shall pay 6s.8d to the bailiffs for every infringement.

We order that no resident of the city implead anyone else of the city, concerning a contract made within the city, in any court outside the city; but only in the court of the mayor and bailiffs of the city, upon penalty of 100s. for every infringement discovered, paid to the use of the city.

No man is to put mares in the common pasture, upon penalty of 20s. for every infringement, paid to the use of the city.

We order that no man is to bring faggots to the city, nor any other wood in carts, to sell on a Friday, upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement, paid to the use of the city.

We order that no butcher, nor other craftsman or anyone living in the close vicinity of the city, carry any bill, halberd, nor quarterstaff within the city, upon penalty of confiscation of the weapons, imprisonment, and a fine of 20s. for every infringement. If any of them wish to go to their pastures, they should leave their weapons at the outskirts of the town or in someone's house. With the exception that it is lawful for butchers or other townsmen or country-dwellers to use small staffs (and nothing more) to drive their animals to market.

We order that all hostelers warn their guests to leave their weapons at the inn – unless they are knights or squires who may have their sword carried after them – upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement.

No craftsmen of the city are to make prohibitions or other ordinances among their fellowship without the supervision of the mayor and his council, upon penalty of 40s. for every infringement, to the use of the city. If such an ordinance is reasonable and lawful, it will be allowed; otherwise it will be amended by the mayor and his associates. No member of a handicraft is to wear any livery other than that of the craft that he follows, upon penalty of 20s. and confiscation of the livery, unless it belongs to one of the city gilds.

No baker is to sell horsebread to any hostelry at a markup of more than 2d. per shilling, upon penalty of 6s.8d for every infringement, to the use of the city.

No stranger may sell bread in the city without it first being brought to the entrance of the Guildhall, for examination by the mayor to ensure it is of correct weight and consistency, upon penalty of 12d. for every trespass; no-one is to buy such bread until it has been examined, upon the same penalty.

We order that victuallers from outside town, who bring sea-fish, herring or any other victuals to the city to sell, are not to sell such fish or victuals until 9 o'clock and before they have been examined by the mayor to ensure they are fit for human consumption, and examined by those appointed by the mayor to survey such victuals, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement of which they are accused and convicted.

We order that no freshwater fisherman buy or acquire any fresh fish from country-dwellers, through regrating – that is, buying them from the country-dwellers and then re-selling them to their neighbours – upon penalty of 3s.4d. for every infringement.

We order that no man, either in person or through his servants, throw any dung from his stables or any other filth into the communal river, upon penalty of 6s.8d for the first offence, 13s.4d. for the second, and 20s. for the third. No-one is to make a purpresture or blockage with timber, stone or other refuse in the river, upon the same penalty. No one is to put dung onto his neighbour['s property], nor rake or sweep when it is raining, upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement. No man, in person or through his servants, is to throw into the city ditch any kind of muck, by day or by night, upon penalty of 6s.8d for every infringement discovered. No man is to plant a hedge within 8 feet of the ditch on the bank within [the city], or within 6 feet on the bank outside [the city], nor to dig up or remove clay from the same, upon penalty of 6s.8d for every infringement, to the use of the city, and also 40 days imprisonment, without any remission. No man is to carry dung onto or place it on the high pavement leading from the New Gate towards the quarry, except at the ash [tree], upon penalty of 2s. for every infringement. Nor shall any man in person, or through his neighbours, put dung in any place at the town's end, except outside the stakes set in the ditch beyond Friar's Gate, or in the pit outside Little Park Street Gate, or at Derne Gate, upon penalty of 2s. for every infringement. Every man is to clean the pavement in front of his house every Saturday of the year, upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement. Nor is any man to carry dung out of his house or stable into the street, unless they have carts ready to take it away, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement, paid to the use of the city within 24 hours.

We order that no man dig for clay at Botes Green, nor dig for sand under St. Nicholas' churchyard, upon penalty of 6s.8d for every infringement. No man is to dig for sand in Little Park without permission, upon penalty of 40d. for every infringement. All these fines, when levied, are to be put to the common profit of the city of Coventry.

It is ordained that all men who wish to have problems remedied through a general or special ordinance of the leet are to draw up petitions and deliver them to the mayor four days before the leet, so that he can bring to the leet the advice of the 24 [councillors] of the city on the matters contained in the bills, in order to expedite proceedings on the day of the leet. No bills will be accepted after the 4-day limit.

Every man who has been mayor or bailiff and every commoner of the city is to respond to a summons from the mayor, given reasonable warning, upon penalty of 6s.8d from men who have been mayor, 40d. from [former] bailiffs and chamberlains, and 20d. from commoners, for every infringement, levied for the use of the chamber.

The river and the brooks that come to and run through the city, as well as the Red Ditch, are to be enlarged to the width they ought rightly to have – which, due to encroachment by those residing on either side, have been made narrower, and the flow of the water has been blocked by filth, dung and stones. Every man is to scour the ditch and water fronting his property and clear it out to its old size, so that the waters pass through more easily in time of flood, avoiding various dangers encountered from floods in times past due to the blocking or narrowing of those rivers and ditches. [To be done] before midsummer day, upon penalty of 20s. from any man failing to comply. All the privies over the Red Ditch are to be removed and taken away by Whit Sunday, without any reprieve, upon penalty of 40s. from any man failing to comply.

The waterlades set within the current of those rivers and brooks are to be completely removed and done away with before Whit Sunday, upon penalty of 20s. With the proviso that, for the profit of the community of the city, the mayor is authorized by the general council of the city to negotiate with those residing by the waterside concerning their waterlades, in the following regard. That is, whoever wishes to have an easement in the form of a waterlade in the river may request that easement from the mayor, both in terms of its length (according to the river or brook) and width, in return for a certain [payment] to the Chamber as negotiated with the mayor and his council. Those waterlades for which an agreement has been reached with the mayor are to be raised [out of the water] every night to avoid the risk from floods occurring overnight, upon penalty of 20s. for default. Also, no dyer is to put the dregs from his vats, nor any other filth, into the communal river, upon penalty of 12d. for default.

Every man who has a house or land adjacent to the town ditch outside the town wall beside the ditch is to clean out the [section of] ditch beside his house or land – which has eroded, and been narrowed and blocked through the negligence of the occupants of those houses and lands – before Whit Sunday, upon penalty of 20s. from any man found failing to comply.

The mayor, recorder and bailiffs, together with 8 to 10 of the general council, are to have the wardens of all crafts of the city bring before them the ordinances and regulations governing their crafts. Those provisions that are lawful, good and creditable for the city are to be endorsed and all others rejected and held to be void. They [i.e. the crafts] are to make no new ordinances that are contrary to the law, to the detriment of the people, upon penalty of imprisonment and being fined at the king's will.

Country folk selling oatmeal are to stand near the gaolhouse door, along with bread sellers. They are to sell with sealed measures, according to the standard [set] for common benefit of the people, upon penalty of 20s.

From this time forward, no butcher is to slaughter any animal within the city walls, except pigs, upon penalty of 20s. for every failure to comply. As soon as the scalding-house ordered built by the city is completed and ready, they are to scald their pigs in that house, and no other, upon penalty of 20s. for every failure to comply. From this time forward, every butcher having meat to sell is to sell it on Saturday to any man who will buy it, upon penalty of 20s. for every failure to comply. All butchers are to sell all types of animal offal, so long as fit for human consumption, to any man or woman who will buy some of it, upon penalty of 2s. for every failure to comply of which accused. It is lawful for any resident of town or countryside to come and buy meat on Saturdays, as well as any other day of the week.

Fishermen who bring saltwater fish into the city are not to have lodgings at the house of any fishermen of the city, but only at inns designated by the mayor; their hosts are to take oath before the mayor to make a true statement to him of how many basketfuls and what kinds of fish the fishermen bring to their inns. Their hosts are responsible for ensuring that they [i.e. the fishermen] bring all their fish into the market, without laying out any fish in other fishermen's houses (nor are they to advise the fishermen to do so), upon penalty of 40d. from each of them found not to comply.

The Trinity Gild is to have its various closes and fields, which have been granted them in the past in return for payments due to the Prior – that is, £10 – for which the whole community is liable.

It is ordained that the boundaries of the city are to be ridden this year during May, on a day to be designated by the mayor, after receiving advice and at his discretion.


This set of ordinances was proclaimed publicly at the order of mayor John Leeder, shortly after his election in January 1421. For the most part, they represent not new by-laws but a compilation of ordinances already in effect in the borough, some of them echoing legislation or orders from the national level of government. There appears to be some basic thematic organization (suggesting an existing writtent list) until the last few clauses, which may represent new additions. It was not uncommon in towns for selected by-laws or constitutional provisions to be read out publicly, as a reminder, at the beginning of a new term of office of a borough executive, and this list may have been intended for that purpose.

As one of the clauses indicates, borough by-laws were framed by the leet jury (representing the community), which legislated in reaction to problems causing complaint among the citizenry. This was not an unnatural development from its original role of presenting crimes and misdemeanours upon which authorities were to take action; particularly if – as some historians believe (although the picture of the development of local government at Coventry is murky) – the leet court was the first institution within which the two communities under rival lordships were united. By the fifteenth century, however, the jury was likely following recommendations by mayor and council upon which petitions required legislative action. The difference between "general" and "special" ordinances of the leet was presumably that the former dealt with issues affecting the community, while the latter may have dealt with private complaints or time-limited problems.

The ordinances cover a lot of ground, but show borough authorities' fundamental concerns for suppressing commercial malpractices – particularly those which jeopardized the public sale of necessaries at a fair price – for public health and sanitation, and for preservation of the peace. Measures for protecting the water-supply or otherwise suppressing unsanitary conditions were frequently on the agenda of meetings of borough authorities. The year following the above ordinances one – concerning where butchers could slaughter animals (probably an innovation in 1421) – was overturned, doubtless the result of protests; butchers were permitted to slaughter cattle, calves and sheep on their own premises, and pigs in a community slaughter-house, but not in the streets. At the same time butchers were ordered to dispose of the entrails of slaughtered beasts in a pit in Poddy Croft, and to keep the entranceway to their shops cleaned of blood or filth. The year afterwards (1423) an ordinance prohibited pasturing livestock on the banks of the town ditch – this being a very common urban problem – because of the pollution their dung caused.

The difficulty in eradicating abuses related to sanitation are reflected in later reissues, or elaborations, of the ordinances; in 1426, for example, we encounter further prohibition of casting any kind of muck in the River Sherbourne, an order to demolish any pigpens, stables or other animal housing located by the riverside, and an order to block up drains from animal enclosures (presumably leading to the river or other watercourse); the leet jury begged the mayor to enforce such regulations, and wardens were appointed to keep an eye of different sections of the river. The weakness of medieval law usually lay in the matter of policing. This is evidenced again in a prohibition (1427) against dumping muck beside the cross outside New Gate, rather than on the muckhill on the right-hand side of the cross; the jury requested that if the town sergeant failed to levy fines on offenders, an equivalent amount should be stopped out of his wages.



"wastels" "cocket loaves"
These were breads of different qualities, wastel being the better.

"best quality flour"
In the original good boultre, which refers to the flour for the bread having been properly sieved with a fine cloth (or bolter); however the term was used to refer more generally to the finest flour.

"king's marshal"
One of the officials in charge of the royal household; lesser officers of the household included the clerks of the market, who travelled the country to check on the accuracy of weights and measures being used.

Residue left from malt after the process of brewing.

An innkeeper, i.e. one who both housed and fed guests (and their horses), not just the stablekeeper at an inn, as the term has come to be restricted in modern times.

"Malmsey and Romeney" "Osey, Algarve or bastard"
Malmsey wine was originally produced from a grape grown on certain islands in the Mediterranean (such as Madeira), but possibly later associated with a Venetian fortress on the Greek coast, known in Italian as Malvasia; the Venetians were leading dealers in this sweet wine. Romney, or Rumney, a similar kind of wine, was produced at Napoli di Romania (Romania being the name given at that period to Greece and the southern Balkans). They were later imitated in other wine-producing regions. Osey was a sweet wine from Alsace, while Algarve was from Spain and Portugal. "Bastard" refers to a sweet wine made from a blend of grapes or wines.

Signs were hung above doors, windows or stalls to indicate a retailing location; the signs symbolized the type of product. In the case of larger inns, it might be a sign bearing an image of an animal or some other thing (similar to the signs that still mark many English pubs today), while the more modest taverns might simply hang out a cutting of spruce or some other plant indicative of the source of the product.

A huckster was somewhat like a regrator, in being a middleman who resold goods by retail. The ending "ster" was a feminine form and hucksters (like brewsters and baxsters) were frequently women, selling small quantities of goods — often homegrown or homemade foodstuffs, poultry or dairy products — crying their wares from their marketplace stations or as they wandered the streets. They sold cheaply (to consumers unable or unwilling to purchase better), had a low profit margin, and tended to be wives supplementing household incomes or single women on the fringes of poverty. Borough authorities tended to view such itinerant sellers with suspicion, and 'huckster' today has acquired the pejorative connotation of a street vendor who may use pushy or devious methods to sell low-quality goods.

A sester (Cestron in the original) was a liquid or a dry measure; in this case it was evidently considerably greater than a gallon, although it was sometimes used for an amount less than a gallon; it should probably be thought of as a relative rather than an absolute amount (Lat. sextarium).

Thursday was a market day and thus a particularly busy one for the butchers. However, the essence of this order seems less related to specific days than to the idea that meat that was a few days old could not be sold unless steps had been taken for its preservation.

The boards under which cooks were forbidden to cast refuse were probably the counters on which they prepared, or from which they served, food, rather than floorboards.

A kind of hawker or pedlar.

"West Orchard "
A street leading to a western exit of the town.

Some kind of roofed structure, along the lines of a lean-to

Harris defined this as an artificial watercourse. However, the contexts in which the term occurs within the document suggest that they were rather a kind of aqueduct – perhaps a gutter-like structure – designed to divert or siphon off some of the water from a watercourse into a holding area on private property; in the case of dyers, this holding tank would have been used for industrial activities.

"Cross Cheaping "
A section of the marketplace.

"bill, halberd"
A bill was a pike with a hook-shaped blade and a halbert a cross between a pike and battle-axe.

A purpresture, or encroachment, involvement the usurpation of communal space for private use. Such offences had to be reported to the authorities, which might mean a local court or a royal judicial enquiry.

"Friar's Gate" "Little Park Street Gate"
These were both on the south side of the city

"clean the pavement"
The brief reference to keeping the streets clean had been expressed more fully in a shorter set of ordinances laid out immediately before those translated here. Those ordinances stated that: "Every man is to clean the street in front of his house between now and Thursday, and every Saturday hereafter – that is, each Saturday throughout the year – upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement, without any remission. No man is to rake or sweep [refuse] from one [place] to another, when it is raining, upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement, without any remission, and imprisonment." "No man is to put dung outside his house into the high street, unless it is carried away within 24 hours, upon penalty of 12d. for every infringement, without remission, to the use of the city."

"Red Ditch"
A major defensive work dating from the twelfth century, south of present-day Earl Street; the name was given to the southern part of the great ditch-works circuiting the town, and possibly to other sections.

"scald their pigs"
Pigs were (and are) immersed in scalding-hot water after being slaughtered.

"Trinity Gild"
The senior of two socio-religious gilds which may have been created, tempore Edward III, in part to represent the interests of the leading citizens at a time when the lordship of Coventry was divided. By the 15th century, however, they had been more or less integrated into the socio-political structure and featured prominently in town affairs.

"boundaries of the city are to be ridden"
Riding along the boundaries of the city by local officials was a common annual ceremony intended to reassert, and probably to keep fresh in the minds of city leaders, the extent of borough jurisdiction.

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: January 28, 2014 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2014