Barbara Hanawalt is well known for her work on medieval London, which has focused in numerous books and articles on childhood, the poor, parish gilds, and women, while she has also written on gender, crime, and social control in medieval England more generally. Here she pulls together many aspects of her earlier work into a brief account of civic culture in late medieval London that will serve as a useful introduction to the many dimensions of medieval urban life for both students and scholars.
Hanawalt makes an important observation early on, that immigrants outnumbered long-term residents in late medieval London. English society in the Middle Ages was of course hierarchical, yet the urban hierarchy of mayor, aldermen, sheriffs, etc. in London was not based on birth but wealth and ability. “Heredity did not play a decisive role in the city, since most elite families did not perpetuate themselves beyond three generations, because they died out or moved to the country as gentry” (13). Hence the use of civic ceremonial was not mere theater, but served a crucial didactic purpose and was the means of production of social capital for the ruling elite: “the repetition of rituals, such as the annual election of the mayor, created a seasonal cycle to the year and reinforced a renewal of power and a sense of orderliness” (162). Similarly, power was revealed visually not just through ritual but by clothing as well. The livery of city and gild officials set them apart and elevated them above their comrades, just as the removal of clothing, whether head coverings or shoes, in public acts of punishment, debased the malefactor so displayed.
The right of London to be self-governing extended back to William the Conqueror and beyond. In the twelfth century London added the right to elect its own sheriffs and to settle cases in city rather than royal courts. King John's 1215 charter recognized “that the Barons of the city of London shall choose for themselves each year a mayor among themselves” (33). A mayor held a rank equivalent to an earl, and with time the city would come to see itself as a peer of the realm in its own right. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, relations between London and the crown were frequently strained, and Hanawalt briefly recounts the nature and consequences of the conflict between two rival mayors, the draper John of Northampton and the grocer Nicholas Brembre, in the 1380s. By the fifteenth century, she argues, the civic leaders in London had developed sufficiently stable institutions and loyalty among the citizenry to avoid being drawn into disputes over the royal succession.
Some of this stability came from the preservation and elaboration of the civic ceremonial of London. This process was begun by Arnald Fitz Thedmar, in the Liber de Antiquis Legibus, written in the reign of Henry III. This was followed by the Liber Horn (1311) of Andrew Horn, chamberlain of the city from 1320 to 1328. Along with collecting documents such as charters, the assizes of bread and ale, and lists of civic officials, he also drew on work of Bruno Latini, including a section on the difference between a tyrant and a king, which was certainly apropos for the time in which he lived. Nearly a century later, London rituals were codified in the Liber Albus, written by John Carpenter, the common clerk of London, in 1419. He details the process for the election of the mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs, whom he places into a hierarchical model of the body politic: the mayor as head; the sheriffs as eyes; and other officials as limbs. Carpenter provides the basis for a detailed account of the election ceremonies in London on 13 October (significantly, the Feast of St. Edward the Confessor), followed by the ritual involved in his oath-taking a fortnight later, in both the Guildhall and the Exchequer.
In a chapter titled “Rebellion and Submission,” Hanawalt describes the importance attached to maintaining the dignity of all elected officials, whose dignity extended to the mayor, the city itself, and ultimately to the king. Thus, incidents of insult and slander were taken very seriously and if the most draconian punishments (such as losing a hand for striking a civic official) were seldom carried out, yet imprisonment and public abasement necessarily preceded mercy and reconciliation. Even the shaming rituals imposed on lesser members of society for their misdeeds, such as time in the pillory, generally allowed for reintegration into civic society on the basis of future good behavior.
Hanawalt presents a thorough explanation of gilds, which she describes as “incubators of citizenship,” and follows the process from apprenticeship through to journeymen and bachelors, and on to liveried members of the gild. The parallels between civic government and gild governance are stressed, along with the development of the gildhall and gild feasts. The wards and parishes, along with parish gilds, are then presented as another means of instruction into civic life, open to aliens and strangers as well as those with citizenship.
Students will find this volume very accessible. It is well organized and written in a lively style, with numerous case studies and examples drawn from documentary sources. They will also appreciate the many illustrations, the glossary at the end of the volume, and the bibliography.