Introduction to the history of medieval boroughs


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The growth of self-government

"Seal of the community of burgesses of Bristol " (inscription on left-hand view).

Imprints from 'common seals' were affixed to documents to indicate the town's official approval of a document's contents. As important instruments of borough government these seals were stored in locked chests and their use was often controlled within the constitution.

They bore images that symbolized urban characteristics considered significant by townspeople. In the case of Bristol, the town fortifications and a quayside are represented on the left-hand view, while on the reverse of the seal (right-hand view) we see a ship approaching the "secret quay" – though whether a fishing boat (as fish and eels swimming beneath it might imply) or a merchant ship is unclear; in either case it is the importance of a maritime-based economy which is being referred to. By the close of the Middle Ages it was recognized that such seals indicated the corporate nature of borough government.

Model depicting the York Shambles (butcher's market), from the York Heritage Centre.
One of the principal tasks of borough government was to regulate local commerce and industry:

The butchers' market presented particular problems due to the human health hazards involved in the slaughter of animals and disposal of their entrails, as well as risks from sale of spoiled meat.
Photo © S. Alsford


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Created: April 5, 1999. Last update: October 29, 2014 © Stephen Alsford, 1999-2014