Seminar Nine

Civic Identities

Much excellent work has been done on the texts and rituals of later medieval civic identities in England, notably in the drama (the York, Chester, and other mystery cycles for instance, or The Book of Margery Kempe‘s uses of urban space as a kind of holy theater) and also on the late medieval London of Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Usk and others. Earlier civic identities are less well-researched, partly because there are fewer materials and partly because the vernacular of civic identity before the fourteenth century is as likely to be French as English. But one has only to think of the representations of towns in romance, hagiography, lyric and chronicle in these earlier centuries to see that there is a great deal more to be investigated. (What does ‘Wallingford’ connote in Chrétien de Troyes’ Cligès, for example? Or the fact that Erec finds Enide in one town and performs the Joie de la court in another? How far is the Haveloc material in Anglo-Norman and Middle English chronicle and romance the matter of Grimsby and its identity (as claimed in the modern town’s web site and display of a thirteenth-century town seal representing Grim, Haveloc and Goldeboru)? What continuities, if any, are there between Matthew Paris’s representation of the town of his monastery’s patron saint, St Albans, and the monastery’s vigorous defense against the 1381 rebels and their targeted destruction of the charters giving the monastery rights over the town? What can we understand from the personal ownership of the Roman de Thebes by the fighting bishop Despenser who crushed the 1381 revolt in his town, Norwich?).

The great period of town and market development in England and one of particular significance for the position of that other major urban player, the monastery, is from the twelfth to the end of the fourteenth centuries. Borough charters – the documents of identity as a burgess – and even more so, borough custumals, the rules of each town, continued in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to be in French if they were not in Latin, as did town identities. In the thirteenth century those who own land by burgage tenure don’t need a lord’s permission to buy and sell. Title deeds enable entry to a city community and show one’s status, defining one as a householder (versus a landless tenant). So, as Sarah Rees-Jones has shown (in a forthcoming paper), we have moved, in Clanchy’s terms, from memory to written record: identity is no longer an agreement with your lord, held in the communal memory of witnesses, and embodied not so much in your charter’s text as in the material object, the charter, itself. Now documents have power not as memorial objects but as themselves constitutive. Writing itself creates trust and status, and the city and writing become associated as marks of inclusion. A civic literary and legal culture distinct, but not separate from, agrarian and aristocratic life is developing. In the vastly increased development of new towns after the Conquest, royal, seigneurial and monastic town lords compete with burgesses for revenue, prestige, control. In this complex history, much discussion has focused on how far towns offered a distinctive kind of freedom within the structures of feudal lordship. The extent to which a commune of citizens could conceive of themselves as a collective and act as one was often important in the defense of their burghal privileges, as well as in the initial securing of a town charter.

A number of discourses and genres of documents could be studied beyond the present small selection; for example model cities: the role of the heavenly Jerusalem in conceptions of civic and urban identity (numerous illustrated apocalypses of the thirteenth century show the heavenly Jerusalem descending at the end of time: cf the role of the city in the Gawain-poet’s Pearl), the earthly Jerusalem or Rome as holy cities on mappae mundi and in pilgrimage discourse, and the Other of these, Babylon (source of division–and of linguistic variety); the role of female mythic, saintly and allegorical patronage in civic identity; the literature of entries and procession; the literature and records of gilds, the role of gilds in communitarian discourse (cf Langland’s Piers Plowman, the possibility that Julian of Norwich addresses the guildsmen of Norwich in her term ‘evene cristene’): the question of when and how the medieval city becomes dystopic and utopic, etc.

Here we concentrate on some documents of urban identity that cross the divide between the culture of record and literary culture and which illustrate the uses of French in imagining and regulating medieval civic culture in England.


  1. The Re-Founding of Chastiel Bran in Fouke le Fitz Waryn, pp. 3-7 (text and translation: ANTS and G. S. Burgess).
  2. Brunetto Latini, Qui veut bone electioun faire… la maniere coment chescun bon Meire se devra porter entre ses sougis duraunt le temps de sa Mayrie: extracts contained in the London Liber custumarum in Munimenta Gildhallæ Londoniensis: Liber Albus, Liber Custumarum et Liber Horn, ed. H. T. Riley, vol II, pt I (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), pp. 16-25. Text in extract: for online translation go to ORB source book, Florilegium Urbanum, Liber custumarum.
  3. From the regulations of the Feste de puy (ibid, pp. 216-228): Text in photocopy, together with photocopy of MS treatment of 3. For translation, see below.
  4. Item usé en la dite vyle de Gippewyz de antiquité: Ipswich cap. 54 from Borough Customs, ed. Mary Bateson, vol 2, (London, Quaritch, 1906). (one paragraph, text and translation in photocopy: with photocopy of opening of ms of Ipswich custumal).
  5. C. Bonnier, ‘List of Towns’, English Historical Review 16 (1901), 50-52. (photocopy).
  6. For translation: Please look at 2b (the Puy regulations, pp. 216-228) and translate from En primes…quant il serra eslu (p. 220/4-16) and the crowning of the royal song (E por ce qe la feste roiale du Pui… droitement escrite, saunz defaute, pp. 224/24-225/1).


  1. General
    • Maryanne Kowaleski: one page summary description of town records in French (photocopy attached to this seminar plan).
    • Helen Fulton, Representing the Town in Medieval Literature (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press), Introduction, by kind permission of Professor Fulton.
    • Sheila Lindenbaum, ‘London Texts and Literate Practice’, Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 284-309 (an excellent study of documentary practice and urban writing in late medieval London, arguing, inter alia, that where Gower on the one hand uses poetry as an alternative holding operation of documentary culture in the face of political and religious failure in the city’s institutions, Chaucer on the other tries to make the city safe for writers, divesting political resonance from the discourses of documentary culture by attributing them to the individuality of his speakers).
  2. For the Liber Custumarum and the London Puy:
    Anne F. Sutton, ‘Merchants, Music and Social Harmony: the London Puy and its French and London Contexts, c. 1300’, London Journal 17 (1992), 1-17.
  3. On language
    W. Rothwell, ‘Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice: From Oriental Bazaar to English Cloister in Anglo-French’ (on late medieval Anglo-French business language): at under “Articles on Anglo-Norman Topics.”


All to read extracts 1-3 and note what they offer concerning civic identities.
We would like (1) a report on Fulton with points for discussion, (2) a paper on French as a mode of civic identity in medieval London


  1. A crucial resource for anyone interested in French and civic literacies and texts is the Bibliography by Maryanne Kowaleski and Rebecca Slitt. A few further suggestions for interesting approaches and/or information follow here: more specific bibliographies can be developed for those wanting to do projects in the area of civic/urban literacies.
  2. A fundamental history of English urban development is Maurice Beresford, New Towns of the Middle Ages: Town Plantation in England, Wales and Gascony (Lutterworth Press, 1967, repr. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1988).
  3. R. H. Britnell provides a good commercial/political history in The Commecialization of English Society 1000-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  4. Carol Meale, ‘The Libelle of Englysshe Polycye and Mercantile Literary Culture in Late-Medieval London’, in London and Europe in the Late Middle Ages, ed. Julia Boffey and Pamela King (London: Queen Mary and Westfield College, 1995), pp.181-227.
  5. For a tour de force reconstructing later medieval civic literacies and much else from cadastral sources, see Daniel Lord Smail, Imaginary Cartographies: Possession and Identity in Late Medieval Marseilles (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).