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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: September 2019

Introduction

Summary

The records of medieval town courts survive in archives across Britain. Unrolling these records, often within the local archives spread across England, allows access to a wealth of information on medieval urban society. At first glance, the records document the minute details of everyday life and relationships, and the identities of the people who inhabited these towns – but when examined systematically, they also reveal overarching practices of custom, justice and government within medieval urban communities. They therefore offer unrivalled detail on the experience of urban living in the Middle Ages at all levels. No other records could tell us, for example, whose animals were responsible for destroying their neighbours’ gardens, the weapons used in violent assaults, or the typical debt owed for a barrel of herring. These minute fragments are fascinating in their own right, but the nature of these records and their content gain greater significance when considered as part of a whole genre of evidence. By gathering together studies of multiple towns and their courts, it is possible to bring these details into greater focus, and it is this collective analysis which was the rationale behind a workshop and conference held at the University of Nottingham in 2014 and 2015. These gatherings brought together historians and archivists from across Europe and North America to discuss the multifarious ways in which urban communities were administered, how justice was exercised and how disputes – always more numerous in towns – could be peaceably resolved through the forum of the town court or, more commonly, courts. Reflecting the rich value of court records, these symposia produced a range of case studies offering fascinating characteristics and details on a variety of subjects relating to town courts and the societies that they served. This volume brings together a number of these important studies in a collection dedicated, for the first time, to medieval town courts, allowing us to compare and understand town courts, their records, and the wide-ranging subject matter revealed therein, in their broader context.

Due to their voluminous, unwieldy nature, relatively little work has been undertaken on town courts and their records in comparison to English manor courts, despite the volume of surviving records and their value to economic, social and legal historians.