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Medieval Towns Midterm

Posted March 29th, 2018 at 01:24 PM by Futurist

Medieval Towns Midterm

In this essay, I will explain how the development or functioning of the medieval town of Ipswich reflects the development of the commercial revolution and rise of towns more generally. Specifically, I will use the document “Oaths of officers and burgesses” and a couple of other additional documents to help make my case here.

The oaths of the various public officials in Medieval Ipswich demonstrate these public officials' jobs as well as the regulation and development of trade in Medieval Ipswich. For instance, the Ipswich Burgess' Oath of 1346 forbade the burgesses from pretending that the goods and merchandise of outsiders (as in, people who are not from Ipswich) of outsiders was their own (in order to avoid paying the King's customs). Similarly, the burgesses in Ipswich in the late 15th century likewise had to take a similar oath in order to ensure that Ipswich will not “lose any right or profit – that is, custom, toll or other profit to which [Ipswich] has a right.” In turn, this indicates that trade in Medieval Ipswich and in other Medieval towns was highly valued for the revenue that it brought both to these towns themselves and to the governments of these towns. In addition to this, the Bailiffs' Oath in early 15th century Ipswich indicates that the bailiffs in Ipswich and other Medieval towns were expected to preserve and protect the rights of their King and Crown in their cities as well as to treat the people of their towns decently and to regulate the various foods (especially bread, wine, ale) in their towns (presumably so that everyone in their towns will have enough food to eat). Meanwhile, the oath of the Chamberlain in early 15th century Ipswich required him to collect all of the required rents and taxes in Ipswich as well as to ensure that all of the collected tax revenue is spent on the benefit of Ipswich rather than on his own benefit. In turn, all of this indicates that government officials in both Ipswich and other Medieval towns were expected to be honest, decent people who would avoid robbing, swindling, and mistreating the town, the King/Crown, and the townspeople. Indeed, Medieval Ipswich placed a very high value on the rule of law—something which is especially evident in its early 15th century Sergeant-at-mace's oath, which required its Sergeant-at-mace to “duly and honestly execute all summonses, attachments, decrees, orders and requirements of court, bailiffs and coroners that pertain to [his] office.” In other words, sergeants-at-mace were expected to enforce the law and the rulings of legal institutions such as courts in their towns. Similarly, the portman in mid-15th century Ipswich was bound by oath “to well and faithfully keep and govern the town of Ipswich,” to “maintain, to the best of [his] ability, all liberties, franchises and good customs of [Ipswich,] … to give [his] full aid and support to the indifferent rendering of judgements of the court” (“with equal regard to every person, both rich and poor”), and to “do the best [that he] can for the honour of the town.” Unsurprisingly, both the councillor (councilor) and the common clerk in Medieval Ipswich likewise had to take similar oaths in the 15th/16th century. Indeed, the councillor in mid-15th century Ipswich was bound by oath to respond to the “commands of the bailiffs,” “not to procure, agree to, or give advice to any major decision that [he] consider[s] prejudicial or to the damage or dishonour of the town,” and to “give [his] fullest support, advice and agreement to the preservation of the liberties of the town, for the profit, benefit and honour of the town and its burgesses.” Meanwhile, the common clerk in late 15th and/or early 16th century Ipswich was bound by oath to keep a record of all pleas, legal proceedings, and legal judgments which occurred in Ipswich as well as to “behave well and honestly in all things that pertain to his office.” Indeed, as one can see, there appear to be a large amount of common themes and trends in all of these oaths of government officials in Medieval Ipswich.

While the oaths above only directly pertain to the Medieval town of Ipswich, they nevertheless also provide a large amount of information about Medieval towns and Medieval trade in general. For one, the oaths above show that Medieval Kings, rulers, and royalty considered towns to be valuable and profitable and thus took measures to ensure that they will get their fair share of towns' revenue. Indeed, this certainly isn't surprising; after all, more revenue for Medieval Kings means that they will have more money to spend on their desires—whether these desires be wars, attempts to strengthen and consolidate their rule at home, military expansion, palace construction, or something else entirely. Thus, one can probably legitimately say that a part of the urbanization which occurred in Europe in the late Middle Ages was guided from above—especially considering the various rights and privileges that Medieval European monarchs and rulers gave to various towns. For instance, the 1155 charter of the French town of Lorris (granted by French King Louis VII) provided various privileges and benefits to this town and to the townspeople who lived there (“Medieval Sourcebook”). Similarly, the Dublin town charter of 1192 ensured that the citizens of Dublin “cannot be sued outside the city, are exempt from the judicial duel and the murdum fine (levied on a community when an unidentified body was found within its bounds)[, and] cannot be penalized for 'miskenning'[] (“verbal slips in their legal pleasings”) (Bartlett 170). In addition to this, the Dublin town charter of 1192 ensured that “[n]o judicial inquests are to take place within [Dublin,] placed “limits … on the amount of judicial fines[,] … g[a]ve the citizens of Dublin special privileges in the law court,” and allowed the citizens of Dublin “to enjoy certain liberties of person and property” as well as to “build as they wish and [to] have collective control of all space within the city bounds” (Bartlett 170). If that wasn't enough, this charter also ensured that “[n]o lord can control the marriage of the[] children or widows” of the citizens of Dublin and gave the citizens of Dublin the right to form guilds—a right that the burgesses of Bristol, Dublin's mother town, already had (Bartlett 170-171). In addition to all of these legal rights, the 1192 Dublin town charter gave a large amount of economic privileges to the citizens of Dublin (Bartlett 171). To elaborate on this, Dublin's citizens were exempted from paying toll (internal customs duties) throughout English King John's lands, were allowed to distrain for debt (as in, “seize the property of those who have failed to pay their obligations to them”), became immune from the collective liability for other citizens' debts which was a common feature of the medieval urban regime, and became allowed to have various economic monopolies within Dublin” (Bartlett 171). Indeed, since many Medieval European towns provided owed a large amount of their growth and success to the charters and actions of European Kings, monarchs, and rulers, it only makes sense for Medieval European monarchs and rulers to demand a large part of the revenue from Medieval towns for themselves—as was the case in Ipswich.

In addition to all of this, the oaths of various government officials in Medieval Ipswich indicate that Ipswich and other Medieval towns placed a very large importance on the rule of law, on not having corruption, and on a type of liberty. Indeed, this certainly wasn't only true of English Medieval towns, but also of Medieval towns throughout Europe. For instance, “the family of [Castilian and Spanish] towns [that] possess[ed] the law code of Cuenca-Teruel” had “almost a thousand clauses[]” in their law code which “regulat[ed] matters as varied as inheritance rights, homicide, military obligations, Jewish-Christian relations, irrigation and pasturage, the public baths[,] and even the penalties for taking roses and lilies from another[ person]'s vineyard” (Bartlett 173). This emphasis on the rule of law, on not having corruption, and on a type of liberty arguably helped Medieval European towns significantly grow and become economically prosperous, flourishing, and relatively wealthy by helping to encourage many people to settle in these towns and to engage in commerce and trade there. Indeed, one might even be able to argue that a somewhat similar system of benefits and incentives allowed large-scale population growth (including urban growth) to occur centuries later in countries (such as the United States of America) where the rule of law is widely respected. After all, cities and countries that have good, clean, and efficient government certainly appear to have the potential for large-scale population growth, urbanization, and increase in trade and commerce
In addition to all of this, it is worth noting that the various oaths of government officials in late Medieval Ipswich indicate that the government of Ipswich still had a relatively provincial mentality during this time in spite of the fact that trade was already becoming more and more long-distance by the 14th and 15th centuries. Indeed, this is especially evidenced by the desire to tax the goods and merchandise of outsiders as well as by the desire to conceal the secrets of the town of Ipswich—both of which are evident in the 1346 Burgess' oath. Frankly, this type of mentality certainly isn't surprising. After all, in spite of the increased long-distance trade that was occurring by this point in time, nationalism was not as widespread in the Middle Ages as it became after the Industrial Revolution. In turn, this means that people who lived during the Middle Ages were more concerned with their villages, towns, cities, and areas than they were with their countries. In contrast, one does not appear to hear very much about town charters or city charters nowadays, which in turn indicates just how much things have changed in regards to this over the last several hundred years.

In the grand scheme of things, the development or functioning of the medieval town of Ipswich reflects the development of the commercial revolution and rise of towns more generally in various ways. The functioning of the Medieval town of Ipswich (and especially the oaths of the various government officials there) reflects the commercial revolution in the sense that it discusses how foreign trade should be handled and dealt with, which in turn indicates that foreign trade was an issue of importance to the government of Ipswich. In addition to this, the functioning of the Medieval town of Ipswich demonstrates that Medieval towns focused on granting certain rights, benefits, and liberties to their citizens, on protecting the interests of their King and Crown, and on establishing the rule of law on their territory. In turn, the functioning of the Medieval town of Ipswich demonstrates the necessary requirements for a successful town and city and demonstrates how towns and cities can successfully expand, grow, and become economically vibrant and prosperous. Indeed, towns such as Ipswich certainly provide a large amount of information about Medieval towns and about Medieval European urbanization in general. After all, many of the things which are true of Ipswich are likewise true of many other Medieval European towns (as well as of Medieval European cities).


Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Print.
"Medieval Sourcebook: Urban Privileges: Charter of Lorris 1155." Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York. Feb. 1996. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
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