POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval urban self-government politics political thought values attitudes doctrine authority community sovereignty law hierarchy justice election decision-making consent consultation representation council mayor political conflict maladministration folkmoot processions guildhall riot

 Political theory 

The definition of 'politics' has altered somewhat, in its emphasis, over the course of almost two and a half millennia of philosophical consideration, since we first encounter the term in the writings of Plato in the context of city-state society of Ancient Greece. Today, 'politics' encompasses the wielding of power and influence, and the expression (both theoretical and practical) of ideologies of government, as different interests within a society vie – that is, compete, conflict, and seek consensus – concerning the direction, formulation and execution of public policy. This interplay and struggle for dominance between interest groups gives rise to concrete and determining actions (some of them aimed at the acquisition or enhancement of authority or control) and to the instruments and institutions that characterize a particular political system. Politics is most overtly manifested in societies – from primitive to modern – deemed democratic; but it is equally, if more subtly, operational in those whose government is aristocratic or autocratic. For politics is a fundamental dimension of human communality and a product of human nature itself.

Although 'politics' is not a term known to have been used in the urban society of medieval England, some of its key components – concepts of responsible government, power, and legitimate authority, for example – were certainly understood, if unscientifically articulated. This despite the fact that relatively few medieval philosophers focused their attention on political aspects of secular human activity. For most, power structures and the task of government were an integral part of a larger picture of the relationships between Man and Nature and between Man and God. It was not until the Late Middle Ages that we begin to see the notion emerging that political science might be something worthy of study in its own right, and then it was less from an abstract perspective than from observing actual practice and trying to rationalize this within existing theory and norms.

That being the case, we can hardly expect to find explicit statements of political doctrine issuing from pragmatic townsmen, few of whom had much formal education. For the most part, we have to infer their political views and values from the way they acted, the institutions and procedures they put in place, and the way they expressed themselves in documents related to the operation of government – documents such as charters of liberties, borough custumals and the by-laws that succeeded them, and records of legal disputes. Even here we are treading on uncertain ground, for most of the documents that have come down to us are official records, undetailed, formulaic, and impersonal; we cannot be sure whether (or to what extent) they reflect the political attitudes of the general populace or superimpose the terminology and perspectives of the clerics and lawyers who drafted them. Historians tend to rely on political crises to bring forth something more than the routine expressions of political viewpoints, but here again it is hard to know whether what was said in the heat of conflict represents everyday opinion. Nor should we automatically assume that principles, whether explicit or implicit, were necessarily upheld in practice.

Uneducated townsmen may have been, but stupid they were not. It would be a mistake to assume that they acted solely out of self-interest, or were driven purely by some kind of social and/or economic determinism, in developing their political institutions and behaviours. They did not operate in an ethical vacuum or independent of the larger political context of lordship. The Church promoted values such as peace and justice which had political dimensions, and the State (itself a relatively modern concept with limited applicability to the medieval period) had structures for formulation of law and the administration of justice that embedded political values. While we cannot be certain that the laymen to whom these were preached or on whom they were imposed shared these values, it is unlikely they were unaffected by them.

Nonetheless, the concepts historians have liked to use as yardsticks to characterize urban government – notably democracy and oligarchy – were not available for most of the Middle Ages, and even when they became so were largely the preserve of philosophers. In applying such concepts retrospectively we inevitably risk a present-minded interpretation of the past. However, although many values were shared, there was not a uniformity in political outlook within medieval urban society. Those medieval thinkers who wrote on, or around, politics reveal a range of ideas so that it would be hard to point to a political orthodoxy; we can expect a corresponding diversity of ideas, if less developed and less articulated, to have existed among the masses.

During the High Middle Ages philosophers naturally focused on autocratic systems and on issues such as authority and sovereignty, as a medieval world emerged in which popes, emperors and kings were key players. It was necessary to define the relationship within Christendom between these players, and the relationship of each with their subjects. But the twelfth century, in particular, saw the rise of urban communities with some measure of political autonomy (the degree varying from place to place within Europe) and with increasingly complex societies and internal power relationships. One of the more prominent of the traditional conceptualizations of medieval society, differentiating three orders – those who fought, those who worked, and those who prayed – was as early as ca.1100 being seen by some as needing modification, through addition of a fourth order: townspeople. But even within that fourth order there was not homogeneity. The growth of long-distance trade and the harnessing of rural and urban resources to fuel such trade, population growth prompting increased immigration into towns, and the integration of towns into the administrative framework of larger territorial entities, all helped bring about increasing specialization of labour: traders, producers, administrators, professionals. This accentuated stratification within urban society meant that such a society would encompass a range of goals and interests that had to be channelled, resourced, and harmonized through politics. At the same time that such developments were underway in secular society, organizational diversity was becoming more marked within the Church, notably with the formation of new religious orders of a fraternal character.

These developments must have helped prepare the ground somewhat for receptivity to Aristotelian ideas, when they were rediscovered by scholars and made available in Latin around the mid-thirteenth century. Already Neoplatonic ideas filtering down through the Church offered a more secular version of the traditional tripartite social hierarchy – rulers, warriors, and workers (the last sub-divided by some commentators into tradesmen and farmers) – which also represented a hierarchy of authority; this may have seemed more à propos to civic society, at least that of those European states where the militarized aristocracy had a strong urban presence. To Aristotle, of course, the city was a natural political unit and (in the absence of a strong religious philosophy that had a single divinity delegating power to earthly representatives) it was easy to view the community as a source of authority, and democracy as one of several viable political options. Aristotle himself preferred timocracy, a benevolent rule by the most virtuous and honorable members of society (the term was corrupted by medieval thinkers to be more akin to oligarchy, but aristocracy expresses a similar concept to the original use of timocracy). Aristotle's concepts helped medieval philosophers come to terms with the realities of emerging urban powers. Above all, attentions were directed at the city-states of northern Italy, closest in essence to those of ancient Greece; the Italian cities' efforts to assert freedom to the point of autonomy from any external authority made it necessary to produce some kind of rationalization, and some of the greatest political philosophers of the Late Middle Ages came out of that milieu. Unfortunately for us, towns in England, or elsewhere north of the Alps, received far less attention; the other side of that coin is that the work of political scientists was less likely to have any influence on the attitudes of English townspeople, although there was likely some filtering down of ideas, from the universities into Church sermons and national legal administration, and through the intercourse of merchants from different lands (fostered perhaps by a system in which English merchants 'hosted' visiting foreign counterparts).

We should not think, however, that Aristotelianism was the catalyst for a revolution in political thought. There is no necessity to look back at classical civilizations for our core heritage in this regard, although it may help us understand specific forms and trappings. To compete for dominance and to co-operate for survival are vastly more ancient traits of human nature – at once conflicting yet reinforcing – sufficient to explain the general shape of most social institutions and political constitutions in the medieval West. There was a long-standing foundation for the notion of the people as a source of authority, in the popular assemblies that made decisions affecting rural communities and in custom – practice given the force of law through repeated observance by a community – governing local communities. Concepts from Roman law – not least the famous maxim from Justinian that what touches all must be approved by all – also paved the way for medieval acceptance of Aristotelian ideas, whilst a growing appreciation of Ciceronian civic doctrine likewise bolstered the efforts of those integrating cities into the medieval political framework. But perhaps above all we must recognize that Christian ethics and values remained throughout the Middle Ages the foundation stone for all philosophy, political included. It was not Aristotle's convictions but more his concepts and language that were adopted and adapted for integration into established Christian thought.

This was a gradual process. Thomas Aquinas made the first major effort in the late thirteenth century; in so doing, he did much to make Aristotelianism more palatable to Christian thinkers. He took the descending theory that was inherent in Catholic orthodoxy, in which power was delegated from God, through the Pope, to princes, etc., and fused to it Aristotle's view of Nature and natural law as a source of human civilization and laws; this meant that secular government could claim to obtain its authority from God via the agency of Nature, without the intermediation of the Church. From this viewpoint, an ascending theory was possible and, without seeking to undermine the hierarchical establishment (although his ideas provided the fuel for later anti-hierocrats), Thomas acknowledged the existence of democracy in the sense of power emanating from the community: "they may elect their leaders from the people, and the election of leaders belongs to the people" [Summa Theologiae, I-ii, question 105, article 1]. It followed from this that the rulers represented the people (unless one wished to adopt the extreme view, not unknown in the Middle Ages, that election irrevocably transfers power to those elected). Although Thomas did not employ his arguments in an anti-monarchical fashion, he did follow Aristotle in concluding that the optimal form of government was a kind of limited monarchy, in which there was a dominant ruler at the head of a state but that ruler governed with the assistance and advice of the best men of the state, and through consultation with the people.

What Aquinas had started, successors extended to the logical conclusion of portraying the feasibility of sovereignty of the people. Thinkers such as John of Paris, Ptolemy of Lucca and Marsilius of Padua moved towards the conclusion that any ruler – unless behaving tyranically – required the consensus, or at very least the acquiescence, of the people to exercise their authority. In essence, that authority therefore derived from the people; and what the people could give, the people could take away. Bartolus of Sassoferrato and his student Baldus of Ubaldis came at the subject from a different perspective – that of legal realists observing what was going on within the Italian city-states – but arrived at essentially the same conclusion: that the will of the people was source of authority for law, simply because their consent to be subject to the law was the basis for its effectiveness. Observing that customary (unwritten) law was founded on the tacit consent of the community, Bartolus argued that the explicit consent of the people could equally well give rise to new, written laws; thereby, since government was viewed essentially as the formulation, application, and enforcement of laws, a people could be self-governing within its own territory.

There was thus a dichotomy, or perhaps ambiguity would be a kinder description, in the political system of medieval Europe. Descending and ascending theories of authority co-existed necessarily. Even though autocracy was the most conspicuous form of government, fostered by the requirement for wide-territory authority maintained partly by military might, by the inheritance of imperial ambitions, and by the theocratic underpinnings of the Church, there was a strong tradition of collective decision-making through institutions such as the folkmoot or Church councils. Monarchs were not in a position to be absolute rulers; their coercive powers were limited. For their orders to be carried out, they relied greatly on co-operation from local authorities. Consulting with selected subjects and obtaining their consent to important acts (e.g. legislation) was a practical necessity, perhaps especially in England where the feudal character of kingship made it particularly dependent on support from at least the king's immediate (baronial) subjects. England's towns, although not in a position to aspire to the communal autonomy of some of their continental counterparts, nonetheless held some power – particularly economic – in the kingdom and the king ignored them at his peril. It was in his best interest to allow them a measure of self-government. That self-government itself reflected a political dichotomy, in which principle and practice did not always walk hand-in-hand. Even though democracy and oligarchy as such were foreign concepts to the medieval townspeople, we can see expressions of each, both in the values and in the practice of politics, sitting – sometimes comfortably, sometimes less so – side by side in the towns.

Bristol The portrayal by Bristol town clerk Robert Ricart of his home town reflects social and political perspectives that he shared with other members of urban patriciates.
(click on the image for an enlarged version and more information)

 Political values and attitudes 

What then are some of the values and attitudes that shaped political beliefs in English towns? In many regards they seem similar to Aristotle's thought, yet emerged without any direct influence from that thought, largely out of a long historical development and practical considerations, just as Aristotelian theory was founded on the same in his time. One of the most commonly encountered terms with political implications is that of "community". Before exploring what this meant, we must first rid ourselves of any associations with egalitarianism or libertarianism, two fundamental tenets of modern democracy. The perception that medieval society was naturally divided into orders or ranks, just as modern society is seen as class-based, was so deeply ingrained that it was little discussed and rarely challenged. The Church blessed this belief by emphasizing that all orders had an important role in contributing to the well-being of the whole; the reward for the common people being content with their lot was the levelling that would take place in the afterlife. Aristotelian ideas did not alter this, for he had acknowledged that the challenge of government was to balance the often conflicting interests of poor, rich and middle class through a system that was politically stable.

Within urban society there had probably always been a reasonably clear socio-economic differentiation and the gap between haves and have-nots became more pronounced as the economy sophisticated. Successful entrepreneurs became quite rich and invested in land purchases, partly through aspirations to rise into the ranks of the gentry and partly because those lands generated raw materials that fuelled their commerce. Meanwhile, the urban population was swelled by individuals or families lacking sufficient land for self-support, but most of these only joined the ranks of wage-labourers or the impoverished. In the middle – for the general perception was, as in Aristotle's day, that of three urban ranks – established craftsmen or small retailers tried to protect themselves from new competition, or uphold their interests against those of the mercantile element, by creating associations (which we today refer to, not strictly accurately, as gilds) that controlled access to and regulated the performance of skilled occupations. While there were no rigid barriers to social mobility, only a minority were able to make a success of themselves; for the remainder there must have been frustration or hopelessness, buried under a facade of acceptance but occasionally prepared to boil over into violence.

Where there was hierarchy there were relatively clear authority structures; everyone knew his or her place, even if that place need not be considered fixed. Hierarchy was therefore considered conducive to order (the just accommodation of social needs in a directed, non-violent fashion), and in the interests of order the Church was happy to sanctify secular authority. In most places, and certainly in England, hierarchical authority was accepted as natural. Rights were not seen as inherent to the human condition, but particular to an individual or group, acquired through specific and documentable grants from an authority or through established practice from time immemorial (although in the Middle Ages, time beyond memory sometimes meant only a generation or two). Liberty was not an idealistic, generalized principle but a pragmatic goal involving the acquisition of immunity from external authority in specific areas of jurisdiction. Charters of borough liberties were thus instruments for according rights and transferring jurisdiction, with the concomitant authority, to the towns. In those towns liberties were mainly accorded to organized groups; affiliation with such groups enabled individuals to share in the liberties. One such group was the community.

"Community" was therefore a term with political connotations; but like many medieval terms, it seems to have been used imprecisely, or with the meaning varying from one occasion to another. Sometimes applied to the urban populace at large, more often it appears to have been intended to convey those residents who had some share in the special advantages and obligations of a self-governing town, and in whose interest and for whose benefit local government acted. There followed from this its applicability to public meetings for the purpose of learning of, or giving input on, governmental decisions. Initially at least it was used to encompass both ruled and rulers. Only towards the close of the Middle Ages, when constitutional developments had led to the establishment of political estates within the larger towns, was it used in ways suggesting intentional differentation of those two groups. Be that as it may, when the townspeople of Ipswich gathered in June 1200 to set up institutions for local self-government, what they were doing in essence was to create a political community: a consociation whose constituents agree to exercise their rights in an ordered fashion for mutual benefit; it may be significant that the term "community" in fact does not begin to be used in the record of proceedings until the key institutions were in place and empowered to act on behalf of the burgesses.

It is sometimes said that a key characteristic of medieval society is that it was organized into collectives, whether formal or informal, and that for most individuals identity came only through membership in such groups. There is some truth in this, but it is a generalization. The tithing system is one illustration of the importance of belonging to a group. Guilds and parishes are other examples of such collectives, or greater or lesser degrees of organization. There was no medieval concept of, or term for, "the individual"; legal texts instead used vaguer terms that meant "someone". And we may note that persons of the same name were differentiated by assigning them (or them taking) surnames that in most cases associated them with a larger group – whether family, occupation, or territorial unit. However, it would be wrong to think that medieval people had no sense of individualism; economic entrepreneurialism, along with preparedness to violate communal norms, provide indications that self-interest was a very real driving force. Nor should we forget that, for all its support of social structure, the Church's preoccupation was with the salvation of souls on an individual basis.

The purpose of a community was to give strength and support to individual needs and aspirations, on the assumption that such needs and aspirations were shared by members of the community, and to protect individual rights or the liberties with which the community had been endowed. It was the creation of unity (of overall purpose) out of diversity. To achieve this, it follows that any community needed and wished to organize and govern itself. At the extreme end of the concept, the "commune" was an association whose goal was to achieve independence from external authority, by force if necessary, through presenting a common front of persons bound to each other by an oath of mutual support. Often associated with revolutionary movements, the "commune" was more a continental phenomenon, only very occasionally manifesting itself in English towns; although its spectre was often raised by parties to political disturbances, charging their opponents of making "sworn confederacies". In fact the whole concept of citizenship, which required the taking of an oath of allegiance (e.g. Lynn, Ipswich), was not so very far from the communal principle. But for the most part a community was a far less revolutionary association that philosophers such as Aquinas portrayed as a desirable within society, arising from the natural human need for sociability.

If a community was an association of persons with common interests and mutual obligations, then it also followed that a "common good" could be identified. This is another concept that reflected political values of medieval townspeople; the notion is often captured in phrases talking about something being done for the benefit of the community. Individual interests were subordinated to communal interests, and private possessions could be called upon to meet communal needs (e.g. taxation). Lesser associations, such as craft gilds, might be regulated or even suppressed by government so that the interests of their members did not override those of the community at large. Just what the common good might be at any given point was, of course, open to interpretation; the concept of community might be invoked by either side in a political conflict, with those challenging the establishment using the term to infer a solidarity amongst an aggrieved populace, while those defending used it to suggest a state of orderly social relations they were trying to protect. Despite its susceptibility to interpretation, "community" was clearly intended to refer to an association imbued with some measure of political authority and capable of delegating that authority in order to administer itself. In that respect, charters granting incorporation towards the close of the Middle Ages did little more than formalize a situation long existing in the towns.

If day-to-day administration was in the hands of the upper crust of urban society, this was not inherently alarming to the rest of the community. Political authority was considered to be founded upon the law, and one of the principal tasks of government was to uphold the law. As noted above, early law (in the form of custom) had its origin in the will of the community. Those who governed were just as much subject to the law as anyone else, and faith was put in the supremacy of law – or more accurately of justice, the upholding of rights (ius). While absolute social equality may not have been a value to which townsmen subscribed – even though some custom emphasized equal opportunity – equality before the law was. It was believed all, poor or rich, should receive a fair trial – that is, procedural justice – without favouritism being shown by judges to any party, however powerful. This is evident from stipulations in officials' oaths or custumals (e.g. see the several mentions of this in the setting up of self-government at Ipswich), as well as in complaints of judicial maladministration in the context of urban political conflict. The same concern with equal justice was seen in the attitude towards taxation, that it should be fairly assessed; this too was a recurring source of complaints against borough governments. Such complaints suggest that the practice of government too often did not match the ideal.

Nonetheless the ideal of rule by law was there, if perhaps less ingrained than it is today, and adherence to the principles underlying the concept of community and common good was expected to assure that. The common good had two dimensions: on the one hand, the pursuit of what was beneficial to the community in terms of meeting the material needs of members; on the other, the fostering of moral virtue. The purpose of law was to encourage moral behaviour. The view of government as a "stewardship of the rich" was based on the assumption that the wealthier members of society were worthier – that is better qualified (in part from an ethical standpoint) – to administer justice and act for the common good. Such men had a major stake in the material well-being of their community; success in life had brought them wisdom and experience in managing affairs; they had a natural authority, which came from the respect they had already earned within the community; and as men already wealthy, they could afford the time required to serve their community with minimal financial reward, and they should be capable of generosity and less susceptible to corruption. Wisdom and virtue were the qualities that it was hoped the urban upper class would bring to the administration of existing law and the formulation of new laws. Such appears to have been the theory, most of whose foundations are evident as far back as the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle; although to find it explicitly expounded in the Middle Ages we have to look outside England, to writers such as Brunetto Latini, we occasionally catch sight of these principles in borough documents such as officials' oaths of offices (e.g. the mayoral oath at Bristol).

Power and wealth thus went hand-in-hand with the acquiescence of the community. Since all English rulers, from kings down to bailiffs, were considered to be limited in the exercise of power by custom, law and the need to consult with the community, what was of concern was not whether government was democratic or aristocratic, but whether it was just and beneficial. An important part of the task of a just and beneficial government was to achieve and preserve peace, love and harmony across the social hierarchy which, as noted, was not itself open to question; such was the glue that held a community together. The normal acquiescence of the ruled must have been tempered with at least a dash of skepticism, if not mistrust, judging from sporadic, though not necessarily always justified, complaints of maladministration or official corruption. The other side of that coin was a distaste felt by at least some members of the ruling class for the unruly masses, and even resentment of any claim by the ruled to have some say in elections or other decision-making. For example, the opinionated thirteenth-century London alderman and chronicler Arnald fitz-Thedmar, who derived wealth from his considerable real estate, contemptuously dismissed craftsmen and others from the lower ranks of urban society as fools, a vulgar rabble, and worse; a century later they could still be referred to as inferior persons lacking sufficient intelligence to warrant them having a say in government. Such a bias has a pedigree traceable to Aristotle, who also felt that vulgar artisans were unqualified for any leading role in politics, since their main virtue lay in their manual skills rather than in the kind of wisdom needed to govern.

Justice was not simply a matter of legal administration, there was also the question of social justice. It was the duty of government to protect the defenceless and provide for the needy; hence the courts showed particular concern for the rights of widows and orphans, and urban governments involved themselves in the administration and even the founding of hospitals for the sick and the impoverished. Interestingly, this may have benefited the ruling class most, as there was a distinction between the poor worthy of charity – those downwardly mobile, having suffered from misfortune – and those unworthy, having fallen into poverty through sin or laziness. For the wider community, benevolent rule manifested itself in the provision of public facilities such as a supervised marketplace, sanitation measures, a water supply, the maintenance of roads and bridges, and police and defensive provisions. Insofar as medieval urban society was fraternalistic, it was so in the context of benevolence within a stratified society, rather than an egalitarian sense.

Not only charity, but the promotion of amicable relations was a moral duty of government; which is part of the reason why government was prepared to intervene in personal disputes to try to mediate a peaceful resolution. In a similar fashion, maintenance of peace and order (which, we must remember, was at least as much in the interest of government as in that of the governed) required that dissent not be tolerated to the point where it brought about a disruption of social or political relations. The late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw many urban governments specifying acceptable and unacceptable behaviours at council or community meetings.

If we can see that justice, benevolence and social harmony were yardsticks according to which the quality of government was measured, it is not so easy to see how such ideas came to be infused as fundamental urban political values. It is hard to imagine that townsmen were avid readers (or rather, in most cases, the audiences of readers) of the treatises of philosophers and theoreticians such as those mentioned above. To some, perhaps a large, extent the way in which government was fashioned was dictated by a limited set of options available as solutions to problems common to most societies. The options were narrowed and defined by the context of Christianity and its moral and ethical teachings, by the emerging model of national government and the influence of that government over the developmental course of local administration, and by a long-standing tradition of communal decision-making and informal law-making.

On the other hand, we cannot entirely rule out either direct or indirect influence of some of the ideas of classical or medieval philosophers. The presence of an adapted version of Latini's tract on good government among London records, although an isolated occurrence, shows that some townsmen had enquiring minds and might see the relevance of such ideas to their own environment. This was London, of course, a law unto itself among English towns; but by the same token a source of influence and inspiration. We should remember that not all townsmen were uneducated. Clerks, notaries, lawyers became increasingly common participants in urban government during the Late Middle Ages; some are visible among reform movements that challenged the political status quo in towns, and perhaps they may been channels for populist political ideas, however diluted. The clergy itself could be influential among the townspeople to whom they preached; the level of education among the clergy varied, but ideas spread through the universities might well have filtered down to townsmen. A diversity of political viewpoints existed within the ranks of the Church; friars in particular could be relatively radical, although we should avoid reading anything sinister into the occasional use of friaries for meetings of political dissenters, while the fact that clergymen are sometimes listed among groups making political mayhem may also not be significant in regard to the introduction of populist ideas.

Another mechanism for the spread of ideas or news of political developments was travel, both by traders and pilgrims. In the case of towns that were destinations of international commerce, residents were well-positioned to learn from foreign counterparts what was going on in the communes of France or the city-states of Italy, for example. But even the smaller towns had a measure of access to these types of travellers. Nor should we ignore the filtering of political ideas through London. In the final resort, however, it is probably sufficient to think that the ideas expressed by men like Latini (who was less concerned with the type of government, he incorporating concepts associable with both descending and ascending theories, than with its quality), Aquinas, or even Bartolus, were themselves shaped not only by classical forbears but by what was to them a rational interpretation of the nature of society and its political dimension; and that the same ideas might occur to others who were also, for their own reasons, preoccupied with issues of governance.

Public assembly
Political values at opposite ends of the spectrum are reflected in public gatherings for folkmoot meetings (perhaps not dissimilar from the gathering above) and civic processions (below).
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Procession

 Consent and representation 

If both philosophy and tradition provided grounds for an ascending theory of authority that stood in juxtaposition to the autocratic rule that, on the surface, seems more characteristic of the Middle Ages, there remains the question of how and to what extent the principle of the community as the source of authority was manifested in practice. The dichotomy between theory and practice has often led historians to dismiss the former as empty and characterize English urban governments as oligarchies. However, the seeming contradictions are perhaps of the essence of politics. That the majority of even the enfranchised male adult residents of a town had little say in the day-to-day decision-making of local government is no less true of modern democracies than it was of the medieval situation, and does not diminish a principle that is today considered in essence democratic. The idea that decision-making (that is, legislative) authority was grounded in the people was, if not a universal, then a widespread opinion for much of the Middle Ages; from this viewpoint, the role of the executive was to uphold laws authorized by the community. We may note that it was not a usual feature of borough charters to include grants of the right to make by-laws, probably because it was taken for granted – although the charters, by prescribing the scope of borough jurisdiction, defined the limits within which local legislation was valid; occasionally the explicit recognition of the town's lord was sought for such a right, but perhaps only in special circumstances dictated by particular need.

A concomitant of the people-as-source-of-authority principle was that executive officers were servants of the community, appointed by the latter to operationalize its will, expressed in a way that might better be thought of as collectively than democratically. The situation in England was of course complicated by the fact that towns, although self-governing in some respects, were also under the authority of the king; so they were subject not only to laws made locally but those imposed from above, and their executive was answerable to both community and king – the issue then became one of prioritization, and in that battle the growth of a national system of administration gradually won the upper hand. But we should not let this situation muddle us. The election of representatives to whom popular authority was delegated was a well-established principle in the medieval period, in both the secular and ecclesiastical spheres, at times applying to rulers at the highest levels of power. In fact, there was a large literature discussing elections in the ecclesiastical context and the way they transferred authority. Documents from urban archives are by contrast far more concerned with procedures than principles, but it seems clear that elections were political events in which at least the entire enfranchised citizenry, if not the male adult community-at-large, was expected to participate (until late in the Middle Ages, when efforts were made to more closely define the electorate), and lip-service was generally paid to the idea that officials were elected by the community, even when the actual practice was somewhat different.

For power – which requires both means and opportunity – inevitably rested on consensual at least as much as coercive foundations. This is illustrated by events at Ipswich in 1344; there the bailiffs felt powerless to apprehend the assassins of a prominent but unpopular townsman because the community condoned the deed and not even a handful would not support the bailiffs in the execution of their duty. It has already been noted that the English monarchy itself was reliant on consensual support from the baronial community which – as John, Henry III and Edward II discovered – was willing to resort to rebellion to restrain the king from absolutist tendencies and ensure that the nobility was properly consulted, and their advice listened to, on matters of national import requiring decisions. The barons even recognized that, in a sense, they were only representing the community of the realm; those who overthrew Edward II and Richard II made some effort to evidence popular consent for their actions. A powerful group of barons in 1258 used force to impose on the monarchy constitutional and administrative changes (the Provisions of Oxford, expanded the following year as the Provisions of Westminster), which among other things established a new consultative council that advised the king on matters of state, required the broader community to be consulted through parliaments held three times a year, controlled appointments to the major bureaucratic posts, and reformed abuses such as excessive taxation. The same sorts of concerns are seen in movements for governmental reform at the local level.

Taxation, which necessitated the infringement of the rights of the king's subjects, and legislation were in particular matters felt to require community consultation and consent, and parliament came to be the principal mechanism through which this was achieved; it was a kind of court that came to assume a conciliar role. While parliament's emergence as a regular tool of government served a number of differing ends, including the monarchy's efforts at centralizing administration, and we should beware of thinking of the medieval institution as a fundamental of democracy, it did represent for the nobility a venue through which they would be consulted and could give or withhold their support for royal initiatives, and for the common people a public forum in which their concerns and grievances could be put before the king. The king was not, constitutionally, obliged to pay attention to his barons or his commons, but he was expected to act for the common good; from a practical standpoint he required their willing assistance to govern effectively. Edward I paid explicit homage to the political principle that decisions affecting the community must be agreed to by that community.

At the local level too, taxation and legislation were types of governmental decisions felt to require community consent; it is hard to say to what extent this mirrored and to what extent it paralleled developments at the national level. Historians are not certain what are the practical implications of phrases such as "by the consent of the community", before the fifteenth century when we see the spread of lower councils intended to represent the community and give consent on its behalf. But the very fact that, prior to the introduction of those mechanisms, such phrases are almost ubiquitous in urban records of important decisions taken by the borough authorities is itself a clear indication of the perceived source of authority. Although some historians continue to argue that "urban political theory normally expressed a descending concept of political power" [Rigby and Ewan, Cambridge Urban History of Britain, 305], on the grounds that jurisdiction was accorded to executive officers by the king or other lord of the borough, this is not the view expressed in most medieval urban records. To dismiss phrases referring to community consent as rhetoric, lip-service or mere formulae simply because they are ever-present, or to assume that consent simply masked acquiescence in decisions made by an elite, is to miss the point. The rare occasions when we hear of the community rejecting proposals are suggestive that consultation may well have actually taken place, as opposed to being taken for granted, even though that consultation may have been of a yea-or-nay character, as opposed to meaningful discussion. In most cases, rejected proposals likely never saw the light of day in urban records.

At the same time, nor should we be naive enough to imagine that the community at any time took the lead in governmental decision-making, or that political assemblies were necessarily attended by the entire qualified populace, or even a majority. Today political apathy contributes to giving the community a largely acquiescent role in most political decision-making, and we should not expect higher standards from our medieval forebears. Given the belief, noted above, that government was best conducted by those of moral fibre and prudent judgement – the probi homines or prudhommes – it is most probable that the community was content to approve much of what was put before them, something that does not diminish the importance of that approval. And there is ample evidence that items of business of genuine concern to the community would draw large crowds to the town hall to hear debates and express opinions; this in itself posed a problem for government.

Consultation involved tapping into the collective wisdom of the community (a notion that increasingly fell into disrepute as the growing socio-economic divide fostered contempt for the rabble). Decisions that could be described as consensual were more likely to win adherence from the populace, and provided legitimacy for the suppression of any future opposition or resistance. There was a low tolerance for dissonance in society, for fear that dissenting opinions might lead to factionalism or violence; in the absence of strong policing mechanisms, there had to be reliance on consensual behaviour, or at least the appearance of consensus. Urban governments preferred to have it recorded that decisions were reached or elections made through unanimous agreements, and criticisms of government or any of its members were increasingly addressed through by-laws that imposed fines or, where the dissenter was unrepentant, sterner judgements to the point of exile. In the same way, higher levels of government were often reluctant in intervene in local disputes (unless a sustained breakdown of public order occurred), preferring for matters to reach an accord locally.

The impracticality of the community as an institution of government, even if its role were restricted to consultation and consent, must have been as apparent to our medieval counterparts as it is to the citizens of modern democracies. Just as authority to administer had to be delegated to executive officers, so the authority to deliberate and make decisions had to be delegated to a select number of representatives. In most if not all cases this had probably come about naturally before any constitutional provision was put down in writing. Again, it made sense in the context of medieval values for these representatives to be drawn from the prudhommes, the wiser men of the community, and the domination of town councils by such men should not fool us into thinking of urban government as oligarchic. Towards the close of the Middle Ages the need to obtain the best advice manifested itself in the retention of legal experts by those towns with a budget that could accommodate the expense. Even when chosen from electoral districts (which we do not know to have been general practice) councillors were intended to be representatives in the sense of acting for the entire collective, rather than particular neighbourhoods or interests within the community.

Consilium is another of those imprecise medieval terms; it is often difficult to tell from the context whether it refers to a relatively informal process of obtaining counsel, or suggests a more formal institution, the council. Although a council was apparently a formal component of the constitutional arrangements established when Ipswich acquired rights of self-government in 1200, we cannot be sure that this unique account is either reliable or typical; although, if we can put our faith in it, then it would seem that a council was no innovation in English communities in 1200 (quite how the men of Ipswich would have known this is not clear). It seems likely, however, that in many towns formal councils evolved out of informal counselling or some quasi-judicial body; I have discussed this elsewhere and will not go into the matter again here.

The task of the council was not, at first at least, to stand in place of the community in assenting to local legislation or other executive decisions. It was to advise the executives and to actively participate in the formulation of legislation and decisions. The urban constitution continued to provide for general assemblies at which the community could be sounded out on important matters. But during the latter half of the fourteenth century and continuing more strongly into the next, we see some significant changes taking place, with attempts to redefine the political community by restricting popular participation to the enfranchised segment and to major occasions, such as elections; and/or to substitute for the assembly a second (lower) council intended to represent the interests of the rank-and-file or, sometimes, the crafts – which suggests growing recognition that the original (upper) council had failed to represent popular opinion, as opposed to the interests of the class from which it was drawn.

The complex reasons for this change are still imperfectly understood, and I always feel as though venturing into quagmire when I try to summarize the trends. In an urban population where the gap between rich and poor had grown, in part as the wage-earning class was swollen with immigrants, where the wealthier burgesses now had as much if not more in common with the rural gentry, and where economic success was more dependent on competition rather than collaboration, it must have been increasingly difficult to identify a "common good". Socio-economic differentiation brought with it more class consciousness and corresponding attitudinal change, a growing divide in trust between the urban estates. Achieving social harmony was relying more and more on ceremonies that symbolized at the same time hierarchy and unity, and more attention was given to proceduralism and orderliness, to ensure that political meetings were not disrupted by unruly mob behaviour. The desire for order began to take precedence over the principle of community consultation. With new magisterial powers delegated by the king to local government, and with local custom increasingly superseded by national statute, it became easier for the urban ruling class to divorce itself from the concept of the community as the pre-eminent source of authority. Theory notwithstanding, the practical operation of government was in the hands of an elite, and the fifteenth century saw a largely successful effort towards capturing this reality within the urban constitution; the effort included dispensing with popular assemblies. These trends tended to proceed more rapidly in the larger towns, where social, economic and political divides were more marked.

Two other, related, trends in the development of the political system should be mentioned. One was that the concept of community assent, as a collective and unanimous agreement to political decisions, was replaced. The "what touches all..." maxim implied unanimity, and urban records of decisions often claimed not merely the consent of the community, but of the entire community. It was not the role of such records, or in the interest of local government, to chronicle debates or political manoeuvring that may have lain behind decisions; nor have we much evidence on whether, at borough elections in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, voting was conducted through careful counting, through loudest shout, or some other method. As the recognition sank in that a council could, in some regards at least, substitute for the entire community, it opened the door for the notion that a section of the council might substitute for the entire council. The challenge of achieving full council attendance or of consensus within conciliar ranks made the concept of majority vote attractive. It was usually a numerical majority, although some philosophers argued that quality (i.e. of the councillors, in terms of experience, wisdom, status) might also be a governing factor – a matter which seems less arcane in the context of English medieval towns, if one considers the emergence of an influential elite within the ranks of the council.

That upper elite is one indication of the second trend that must be mentioned, which concerns the changing relationship between executive and council. Maud Sellers [York Memorandum Book, part II, Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), v], perhaps influenced by Norwich's historian William Hudson, distinguished between the "communal period" of borough government and the "magisterial period". Despite being prone to the inadequacies of any generalization, this may be one useful way of thinking about the changing character of urban government over the course of the Late Middle Ages. By "magisterial" Sellers had in mind a government focused on the executive officers (mayor and bailiffs), although Edward Miller later narrowed this definition to the mayoralty alone [A History of Yorkshire: The City of York, Oxford: University Press,1961, 70]. But we would do better to think of it as government focused on a small group of particularly influential townsmen, highly experienced in government (through having borne the mayoralty), and assigned special judicial authority.

The case of Beverley, where the council became so prominent that an executive magistrate was dispensed with entirely, may at first glance appear to be an exception to the rule. But perhaps we are missing the point. At Lynn and at York, for example, we see in the late fourteenth century power being more evenly shared among a group within urban society, as restrictions were put on the frequency with which a man might hold the mayoralty; such provisions may have been intended both to spread the burden and to prevent the office acting as a vehicle for political dominance. At Kingston upon Hull in 1379, the subjection of mayor, bailiffs and chamberlains to the supervision of a council of eight, whose members could not be re-elected until after an interval of three years, could be interpreted as a democratic move; but it is just as likely to be a move by the urban upper class as a whole to bring local government to rein.

During the thirteenth century the nascent mayoralty relied in part on a cult of personality; we find individuals who provided strong leadership being maintained in power for consecutive terms; some of the earliest mayors seem to have held office for several years in a row. This was perhaps the result of popular demand, or perhaps due to the prominence of a controlling interest in the town. At that period a conciliar group was hazy: even though it is partly attributable to the poverty of urban archives that we see little of such a group, it is also likely that such a group was relatively informal, notwithstanding the evidence of Ipswich which is known only through the rewriting in the late thirteenth century, at the instance of a group representing conciliar interests. The emergence of a conciliar institution within local government should perhaps be viewed in a similar light to the development of a baronial interest intent on placing a check upon monarchical power.

By the close of the fourteenth century we see the mayor as less of an urban monarch and more as the president of a group of peers. Only in special circumstances might one acquire unusual prominence through re-election to consecutive terms – such as William Frost at York during the late 1390s and early 1400s, when the city had to come to terms with the major new powers it had acquired, or William Appleyard at Norwich who was instrumental in obtaining county status and a mayoralty for the city. The constitutional role of the council was by now not only formalized but entrenched and power was devolving towards it. It was possible for leading townsmen to exercise considerable influence from within the council without being in occupation of the mayoralty; Nicholas Blackburn at York and Richard Whittington at London are examples of men who had served long, performed well as mayor, and continued to have command respect and exercise influence in those years when not mayor. These men of experience and authority were needed as the scope of judicial administration of urban government necessarily increased, to ensure continued independence from external authorities in an age when the royal government control over justice was extending; above all the delegation of Justice of the Peace authority to that select group of townsmen provided the bolster that established an elite within an elite. Yet even as they were obtaining their enhanced independence from county officialdom and increased authority over the urban community, they were being tied more directly, more closely to the central government and to the will of the king. While, socially and economically, they were building closer ties to the landed gentry of the county, whose interests were often not the same as those of the urban traders.

York guildhall Salisbury guildhall
Housing administration in confined spaces, such as guildhalls, was one of several factors encouraging the development of forms of government based on delegation of authority from the community to a limited set of representatives. Representation and restrictiveness are two sides of the same coin.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)
London guildhall Norwich guildhall


 Political conflict 

In the above discussion we can see some of the causes for political conflict within medieval towns. Before reviewing that, it should be noted that many conflicts were occasioned not by disputes internal to the community, but by those between the community and other authorities. These might be disputes with the lord of the borough – particularly where that lord was a conservative ecclesiastical institution – prompted by the desire for greater autonomy. Whereas the king, as an absentee landlord, was less resistant to leasing out new privileges, extensions of jurisdiction, or sources of income, lords with a local presence were more inclined to hold onto their jurisdiction and try to milk it for whatever revenues it could bring in. Or again the disputes might arise from a competition for jurisdiction, territorial or commercial, with a manor, market, or another town in the vicinity. Such disputes sometimes served to instil a sense of solidarity within the community, but on other occasions might divide local opinion and even prompt internal power-struggles, often with an alliance of convenience between the lord and the lower class, in opposition to the ruling class.

External opponents were useful tools for giving an urban populace a sense of united purpose. But such enmities could not be perpetually pursued. There was ample time for townspeople to look within and realize that some of their principles – community, the common good, justice for all, social harmony – were not well reflected in the practice of government. The community was a collective of individuals, motivated at least in part by self-interest, and a collective of other groups, each of which had its own interests. Mutual support for the purpose of common prosperity must have been a more attractive proposition for those in the lower ranks of urban society, than for those who had risen to the top. Wealthy townsmen could attribute their success as much to their personal capabilities and individual initiative, not forgetting family connections, as to membership in a privileged community; many may also have felt that their superior characteristics and skills entitled them to a dominant role in government.

The task of governing was not an easy one. Urban rulers were torn between loyalties: to the community, to family, to their trade, to their social peers, and to their personal business. The difficult choices faced in reconciling those interests, and the corresponding demands on their time and energy, only increased as the Late Middle Ages progressed. The drawn-out foreign wars in which English kings engaged during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, along with their heavy demands for financing through taxes and their adverse and sometimes disastrous effects on commerce, put a pressure often severe on urban resources. The growth of the English cloth industry added another complication by encouraging ambition among the cloth-producing and cloth-retailing groups, who wanted a share of the decision-making power in the hands of established merchants who had built their success on trade in agricultural produce and other raw materials. In fact, there was periodic if not continuous pressure on established urban families to maintain their socio-economic position as capable new men migrated to the town or rose from the lower ranks. In some towns, such as Colchester, the ruling class was not so heavily mercantile that it had difficulty incorporating the nouveaux riche. But where the mercantile elite had been long entrenched, as at London, tensions inevitably resulted as different interest groups quested for a share of power. The ramifications of national political conflicts, bad harvests and their effect on the urban food supply, the demand for higher wages after plague had decimated the labour-force, the growing complexity of the national legal system, the scare given to the establishment by the Peasants' Revolt, are other factors impacting on the challenges faced by local administration.

It was too much to expect that local administrators could maintain a harmonious balance of interests – politics is more pendulum than a balance. It was easy to succumb to the temptation to favour one's own, although we should not automatically assume that many did. The common good, virtuous government and social harmony were ideals; the failure to achieve them was more conspicuous in some cases than in others. We find complaints about, and popular outbursts against, maladministration from the second half of the thirteenth century into the first half of the fifteenth, and so far no clear pattern has emerged to explain the timing – perhaps there is no pattern. The problem was not blamed on unattainable ideals or flaws in the political system per se, but on human failure: greed and corruption on the part of specific rulers. Embezzlement of communal funds, unjust assessment of taxation, perversion of justice were the types of charges commonly levelled, and they speak to the values we have already noted. The failure was seen as human, not systemic, and the usual solution was typically to replace the erring rulers with others from the same class and introduce greater fiscal accountability and limits on the behaviour of officials. In fact, it might have been difficult to significantly alter the political system in a way that would have been acceptable to the king. In the latter phase of internal political conflict, in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, concerns were less over misgovernment than constitutional changes that were putting urban rulers beyond the control of the populace. Indirect election of councils or executives and the transformation of councils into life membership bodies, gaps in whose ranks were filled by co-optation, fractured the chain of authority and reduced the prospects for men of ambition to rise to the highest levels of society.

Historians have much debated the character of internal political conflicts within English towns. If there is no consensus, it is partly because our knowledge of the conflicts is in most cases sketchy, particularly as regards motivation of the players. It is partly because we cannot always take at face value the statements of official records. And it is partly because the causes were complex, varied from case to case, and were probably not well understood even by those involved. What appears to be a popular movement seeking political reform was often a mix of interests, some or many of which were likely self-seeking. There was certainly a political dimension to the conflicts, even if the notion of a struggle between democracy and oligarchy owes more to the perspective of nineteenth-century scholars, their eyes on municipal reform of their own era, than to any conscious or overt ideological differences of the participants. There were no political parties in the modern sense; to avoid misleading modern audiences, historians prefer to talk of political alliances by using the term "faction", in part because they usually surface in the context of factionalism, i.e. conflict.

We can perceive a variety of dimensions to factions. From one perspective we can identify personal ambition for power, whether on the part of one or more outsiders or disaffected insiders, or family rivalries at play in a political arena. From another we might see a clash between rich and poor, the powerful and the disempowered, but such outbursts were generally reactive, without any clear agenda, unless there was some kind of strong leadership; it may have been the appearance of such a leader that explains the timing of political unrest. From a third, a power-struggle between different economic interests, such as craft vs. mercantile; but socio-economic inequalities, as we have noted, were less an infringement of medieval values than were abuses of positions of trust. Nor can we ignore the possibility of national events having a ripple effect on local affairs. More in-depth study of more episodes of political division will be needed before we can see if any general conclusions may be drawn about the phenomenon.

Consider, however, the following contemporary commentary on constitutional conflict:

The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention. The leaders in the cities, each provided with the fairest professions, on the one side with the cry of political equality of the people, on the other of a moderate aristocracy, sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish, and, recoiling from no means in their struggles for ascendancy engaged in the direst excesses; in their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not stopping at what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict or the authority of the strong arm to glut the animosities of the hour.
This was in fact Thucydides [The Peloponnesian War, Bk.III, ch.10, trans. Richard Crawley (1874), online source: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/thucydides/thucydides_3.htm] speaking of an ancient Greek city-state in the fifth century B.C., but much the same words, with only minor changes, might well have issued from the pen of a chronicler of late medieval England. The complexities of and challenges faced by urban society led to political problems and solutions that were in many regards similar across time and space, not least because options were limited and human nature is what it is (as Thucydides too observed). The quotation should be kept in mind while reading accounts of specific conflicts in this section of the Florilegium Urbanum.

Much attention has been given by historians to urban conflicts because they are the more conspicuous events in a local political history otherwise largely unwritten, and of course because they are fascinating. But it should not be thought they are typical, nor that the picture of urban society we see through them is necessarily normal. They were not really revolutionary, in that they were not trying to overthrow the existing order. Furthermore, there was some recognition, beginning with Magna Carta, that if a ruler acted outside the law or failed to uphold the law, or promulgated law for personal gain of the advantage of an interest group that ran counter to the common good, such rule was unjust. In this situation, it was believed that aggrieved parties should, in sequence, speak seek out against injustice, seek redress through the legal process, and try to persuade the ruler to reform; if that failed, then the final and justifiable resort was to use armed force to protect communal rights and depose the offending ruler. In the case of towns, theoreticians argued that the extreme measure was only acceptable if supported by the entire community. Hence, in urban conflicts we often seem to find complaints to the king, followed by attempts to introduce political reforms (either by winning control of the administration, or through pressure-tactics of popular demonstrations), before the most serious outbursts of violence take place, with the name of the community invoked at each stage.

Let me reiterate that such outbursts are exceptions to the rule, although when political passions were aroused the resulting disputes could be bitter and sometimes prolonged. Allowing for the biases of surviving records, we are safer to assume that acquiescence in governmental decisions was a more typical behaviour of the community, for politics was about lordship and loyalty. Yet a recognition that rulers relied on such acquiescence is reflected in the resort to mob action to express popular displeasure. However, ultimately, political conflict resolved to the advantage of the ruling class, even where they had to make power-sharing compromises, as the monarchy was inclined to support the status quo and to reinforce it so that it could better meet its own priority of maintaining social and political order.

Mob violence; drawing by J.C.B. Knight
In the seventeenth century the London mob became notorious for its rioting; the disempowerment of the lower classes had left no other avenue for expression of discontent or resistance to tyranny. Mob action was equally a concern for, if not a fear of, London authorities from thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.

 The character of government 

Historians have played rather loose and free in labelling urban governments in medieval England as oligarchic; they have become ensnared by an historiographical tradition. The control of government by the upper class, with the acquiescence of lesser social orders, does not make it oligarchic; the term would more usefully be restricted to its Aristotelian meaning of monopoly of power for selfish gain or other corrupt purposes. When urban governments became oligarchic, as sometimes happened, we can see that it was considered unnacceptable from the popular complaints and open opposition, these often accomplishing at least a partial corrective to the situation. Aristotle might have classed the government of medieval English towns as aristocratic, which for him did not have the negative connotations it has today; or, more likely, as a polity – a category he defined as a range of mixed constitutions, combining elements of democracy and aristocracy, and preferable to democracy (which he deplored as a tyranny of the majority not well-qualified to govern). Today, 'democratic' is probably the closest term we have to categorize it, for it is hard to see substantive differences between government in medieval towns and modern western democracies. On the other hand, constitutional features that might be interpreted as devices conducive to oligarchy were becoming more formally incorporated in municipal government across England in the fifteenth century, as concern for maintenance of public order prompted sacrificing unwieldy popular participation in favour of a more closely structured form of power-sharing in which the democratic dimension sometimes appears nominal.

It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on periods of popular discontent in towns and assuming that medieval townspeople were constantly disillusioned with government. To put things into a comparative perspective, let me describe modern public perspectives on the character of government in my own country, Canada. A survey-based study (sample size 1500) conducted by Leger Marketing in April 2002 concluded that the majority of Canadians believe Canada's political system to be corrupt at every level of government. This is, it should be remembered, in a nation considered one of the more open democracies of the world. Of those surveyed, 69% believed that there was a high or moderate level of corruption at the federal level, 68% felt the same about the provincial level, and 53% of the municipal level of government. Politicians themselves were the most highly blamed for this perceived state of affairs, while their entourage and senior civil servants were the groups next targeted for blame. One particular area of grievance was the channelling of public money into the pockets of politicians' peers (i.e. other members of the same capitalist class), via purchases of goods and services. Furthermore 22% of Canadians felt that their political system is not truly democratic. Although the Prime Minister responded to the survey with a prompt denial of corruption in government, within the next few weeks several Cabinet ministers would lose their posts through scandals.

A second survey (sample size 2000) touching on the health of democracy, conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies and Environics/Focus Canada in June/July 2002, found that three-quarters of Canadians believe the wealthy members of society have too much influence over political decision-making, while over two-thirds feel the same about a superior external power (the United States) and about leading commercial interests. Individuals and small businesses are perceived as being correspondingly deprived of political influence; individuals in particular are seen as disempowered. I, for example, could not imagine successfully pursuing political power at almost any level of government, lacking the connections and the financial resources required. Only a very small minority of citizens seek active participation in government, and the extent of consultation (however superficial) of the citizenry on government decisions is far more restricted than it was in medieval towns – most calls for referendums on matters of import are rejected.

We should bear in mind that public criticisms of the political system are not necessarily valid. What is important is that they represent public perceptions and suggest a disenchantment, warranted or not, with the power-structure and with politics. Yet it is a system of rule in which, for the most part, citizens willingly acquiesce, criticism peaking only when governmental acts are widely perceived not to be benevolent or for the public good. The same cynicism, or realism, depending on one's standpoint, is seen in the statement of a newspaper editor that: "clearly those attracted to executive power today seek it via the legislature, posing as the people's tribunes at election time so as to become their masters." [John Robson, "Gay marriage vs. Magna Carta", Ottawa Citizen, 17 July 2002, p.A16] Many people living in western democracies hold the opinion that politics by its very nature fosters corruption, whether manifested through rhetorical dishonesty or through misuse of power for personal benefit, and they feel excluded from the decision-making process. A sense that such public consultation as exists is largely for the sake of show and that one individual's vote makes little difference to the outcome of an election have played a role in de-motivating citizen involvement in the political system, except through organized interest groups. A fatalist attitude towards political corruption is visible at all levels: Canada's Prime Minister, upon dismissing one of his ministers for giving a contract to a former lover, was quoted in the media as shrugging things off: "These things happen." It is worth noting that much of the attention focused, at this time of writing, on Canada's political system comes towards the end of an administration which has held several consecutive terms in office, and one of the complaints is that too much power has become focused in the office of the Prime Minister.

Dangerous though comparisons can be, there are nonetheless many parallels here that might be drawn with the situation in English towns in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when our records of local government have become fuller and more regular. A similar growth in alienation from the political system, a feeling of exclusion from meaningful participation, a fear that power-holders act to protect their own interests more than the interests of the community – interests that, as noted, had become increasingly complex and difficult to reconcile – and an increased attention to supposed corruption or maladministration, are features that become more pronounced in that period, although we cannot be certain how much this is a facet of the better records. Popular frustration may help explain why there was a preparedness to look for leadership to men on the peripheries of the ruling elite, men held back on the normal path of political advancement and prepared to seek power by championing popular reform. Fear of this may similarly be a factor in explaining why more strenuous efforts were made by the authorities to create disincentives to popular dissatisfaction, by imposing heavy punishments on aggrieved members of the community who criticized, slandered, spread rumours about, or even laid hands on members of the governing body.

Whether resentment of the ruling elite was justified is not easy to assess. Popular discontent is muddied by the struggles of different interest groups within the community, mainly economic interest groups, to increase their influence, by personal ambitions or vendettas, by divisions within the ruling class, and by long-standing conflicts between internal and external authorities for jurisdiction in urban matters. We cannot rule out the possibility that medieval complaints about urban governments are sometimes, or in part, the consequence of false perceptions or misunderstandings. I have elsewhere indicated that the taxation system used in Lynn was inevitably subject to misunderstanding. Taxation is inherently unpopular; in my own time strenuous efforts are being made by governments at all levels to lower taxes or at least prevent tax increases, at a devastating cost to social services, so politically unpopular are taxes. We must therefore be careful in taking medieval complaints at face value. Which is not to say, either, that complaints were groundless.

The central government was prepared to intervene where it seemed that there were grounds for accusations of maladministration or corruption. The concern was partly for the king's oppressed subjects, partly over the threat to sources of royal revenues, and partly because the king considered that all exercise of power was by royal delegation, which gave him an inherent interest in local government. It was in part the royal interventions that tended to be frequent in the thirteenth century – often resulting in suspension of city privileges, including self-government, and imposition of more direct royal rule – that encouraged the urban ruling class to document the urban constitution.

Populist sentiment and values in urban society were ultimately stifled by the monarchy, whose interest – like that of townspeople – was less in the character than in the effectiveness of government in achieving the common good. From the perspective of the king, however, the common good involved the standardization of administration across the realm and the preservation of law and order. It was partly in consequence that, at the close of the Middle Ages, borough government had become more closed, with the citizenry less directly involved in matters such as elections and the scope of elections having been narrowed (when alderman were chosen for life, and the mayor selected from their number), albeit that the number of citizens involved in the corporation had expanded with the introduction of large second councils. However, the additional judicial powers accorded to an elite-within-the-elite by the central government made it easier for a small group with little accountability to the populace to dominate the larger towns.

The emergence of relatively independent local government, with a developed corporate identity and more elaborately structured administrative hierarchy, characterized in part by greater bureaucratization and proceduralization, took place in the context of a growth in scope and strength of the central government of king and parliament. The central government, with its perspective of descending authority, favoured closed corporations as an agency for ensuring public order. This imperative gave strength to the organic tendency for power to devolve to the few most active in politics – those whom today we might consider professional politicians.

The reality of a political system is shaped in part by the constitutional confines that it inherits and implicitly endorses (or works to amend). Also, in part, by its broader environmental context: constraints, opportunities, and societal world-view. But at least equally by the personalities, philosophies, perspectives, needs, and interests of the men (and today the women) who are the gears within the political machine. All these factors need to be carefully considered when assessing the character and quality of any political system, preferably on its own terms. The sources available to us may never prove to be sufficient to obtain an intimate picture of urban politics in medieval England. Yet, rather than jumping to judgement, mindlessly reiterating the interpretations of earlier scholars who had access to poorer information than we have today, or unconsciously aiming to portray urban political systems as inferior to modern democracy, historians have an obligation to constantly review and question the assumption that medieval town governments were essentially oligarchies. This assumption is widespread and it is generally felt that the subject has been sufficiently studied to support such a conclusion. But in fact much more work remains to be done before we can arrive at a truly meaningful understanding of politics in medieval English towns.

London alderman London alderman
Medieval urban government was only as good as the men who ran it, and as stable as the faith the community had that those men were acting in the public interest. A few bad apples were enough to seed distrust in the relationship between rulers and ruled. It may be less that this gulf – a divide of interests, perspectives and even values – grew larger as the late Middle Ages progressed, than that it became more institutionalized.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)
Bristol sheriff Modern London ward officers


 Further reading 

BARRON, Caroline. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People 1200-1500. Oxford: University Press, 2004.

BLACK, Anthony. Political Thought in Europe 1250-1450. Cambridge: University Press, 1992.

BURNS, J.H., ed. The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c.350-c.1450. Cambridge: University Press, 1988.

DOBSON, R.B. "The Risings in York, Beverley and Scarborough, 1380-1381", pp.112-42 in The English Rising of 1381, ed. R.H. Hilton and T. H. Aston, Cambridge: University Press, 1984.

JONES, Sarah Rees. The Government of Medieval York: Essays in commemoration of the 1396 Royal Charter. Borthwick Studies in History, no.3. York: University of York, 1997.

REYNOLDS, Susan. "Medieval urban history and the history of political thought." Urban History Yearbook, 1982, 14-23.

RIGBY, S.H. and Elizabeth Ewan. "Government, power and authority 1300-1540," pp.291-312 in The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, volume I: 600-1540, ed. D.M. Palliser. Cambridge: University Press, 2000.

TAIT, James. The Medieval Borough: Studies on its origins and constitutional history. Manchester: University Press, 1936.

WILLIAMS, Gwyn. Medieval London, from Commune to Capital. London: Athlone Press, 1963.


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Created: May 27, 2003.
Last update: September 21, 2016
© Stephen Alsford, 2003-2016