Charles Gross, contrasting the towns of the Middle Ages with those of his own time, stated that "there were in the former fewer class distinctions, more equality of wealth, and more harmony of interests than there are in the latter." This may be true in a relative sense, but we ought not assume from it that the medieval urban population was a homogeneous group in which distinctions - of wealth, social status, and interests - between individuals were negligible. The theory of parity, discussed in chapter 1, was an ideal which arose out of probably sincere and church-inspired notions of justice and fair play, and the belief that the prosperity of each townsman depended upon the fortunes of the community as a whole. But the theory was incompatible with the human urge to exploit the facilities of the town as a centre for the distribution of goods and services. Profiteering, and the free trade which permitted it, could not be separated by mere laws from mercantile ambition; although with the end of the period of economic expansion, replaced by one of instability in trade (from circa the latter part of the fourteenth century), the merchant class dug in its heels and returned to a self-imposed, and self-interested, protectionism. We have only to look at lists of local or national taxations to appreciate the unequal distribution of wealth. Class differences based on social and economic determinants were present in the borough from Anglo-Saxon times and intensified - or at least became more exaggerated in medieval consciousness - in the later Middle Ages. They proved a destructive force, which Christian ideas of the 'common good' were too vague to counteract.
Structure of Borough Government | Social and Economic Background of Office-Holders
Monopolisation of Office | Attitudes Towards Office-holding | Professionalism in Administration
Quality of Government | Conflict and Solidarity in Urban Politics
|Created: July 30, 1998
|© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003