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Town clerks and the authorship of custumals in medieval England



This article examines the expertise and duties of clerks in medieval English towns, particularly their roles in creating custumals, or collections of written customs. Customs could regulate trade, office-holding, prostitution and even public nuisance. Many clerks were anonymous, and their contributions to custumals understudied. The careers of relatively well-known clerks, however, do provide insights into how some clerks shaped custumals into civic repositories of customary law. By analysing their oaths and known administrative practices, which involved adapting material from older custumals, this article argues that town clerks played critical roles in transmitting customary law to future generations of administrators.



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I am grateful to Maryanne Kowaleski, Christina Bruno and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne at Fordham University, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for Urban History, for their advice on earlier drafts of this article. I am also indebted to the participants of the Learned Clerk in Late Medieval England Symposium (Bates College) and the California Medieval History Seminar (Huntington Library), in particular Marcia Colish of Yale University, for their helpful suggestions and comments.



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1 Fleming, P., The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar, Bristol Record Society, 67 (Bristol, 2015), 60–4; and Smith, L.T. (ed.), The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar by Robert Ricart, Town Clerk of Bristol 18 Edward IV (Westminster, 1872), xiixiii (henceforth Smith, MBK), provide a more detailed and analytically rich description of this illustration.

2 A likely older custumal survives as the ‘Constituciones ville Bristoll’ in Cambridge University, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library MS 405, fols. 236v–239r.

3 Bristol Archives (BA) CC/2/7, fol. 158v. Smith, MBK, 75, clarifies that Ricart was likely referring to the Little Red Book (presumably because there are no oaths in the Great Red Book, the city's other great register that recorded the business of borough government).

4 What little we know of Ricart himself has been summarized in Burgess, C., ‘Ricart, Robert (fl. 1478)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

5 Clanchy, M.T., From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307, 3rd edn (Malden, 2013), 98100; Jones, S.R., ‘Civic literacy in later medieval England’, in Mostert, M. and Adamska, A. (eds.), Writing and the Administration of Medieval Towns: Medieval Urban Literacy I, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 27 (Turnhout, 2014), 220.

6 Martin, G.H., ‘English town records, 1250–1350’, in Britnell, R.H. (ed.), Pragmatic Literacy, East and West: 1200–1330 (Woodbridge, 1997), 126.

7 Minnis, A.J., Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1984), 94–5.

8 See, for example, Martin, G.H., ‘The diplomatic of English borough custumals’, in Prevenier, W. and de Hemptinne, T. (eds.), La diplomatique urbaine en Europe au Moyen Âge: actes du congrès de la Commission internationale de diplomatique, Gand, 25–29 août 1998 (Leuven, 2000), 313–14, 317.

9 Bateson, M., Borough Customs, vol. I, Selden Society, 18 (London, 1904), xi, xv–xvi.

10 See, for examples, Pollard, G., ‘The medieval town clerks of Oxford’, Oxoniensia, 43 (1966), 4476; and Alsford, S., ‘The town clerks of medieval Colchester’, Essex Archaeology and History, 24 (1993), 125–35.

11 See, for examples, Bahr, A., Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London (Chicago, 2013), 52104; Mooney, L.R. and Stubbs, E., Scribes and the City: London Guildhall Clerks and the Dissemination of Middle English Literature, 1375–1425 (York, 2013), 716; and Richardson, M., Middle-Class Writing in Late Medieval London (London, 2015), 55103.

12 See, for examples, Brewer, T., Memoirs of the Life and Times of John Carpenter, Town Clerk of London in the Reigns of Henry V and Henry VI (London, 1856); Kellaway, W., ‘John Carpenter's Liber Albus’, Guildhall Studies in London History, 3 (1978), 6784; Cannon, D. (née O'Brien), ‘London pride: citizenship and the fourteenth-century custumals of the city of London’, in Jones, S.R. (ed.), Learning and Literacy in Medieval England and Abroad (Turnhout, 2003), 179–98; and the introductions to Smith, MBK, i–xxvi; and Murray, K.M.E. (ed.), Register of Daniel Rough: Common Clerk of Romney, 1353–1380 (Ashford, 1945), i–lxxxvi.

13 J. Croft, ‘The custumals of the Cinque Ports, c. 1290 – c. 1500: studies in the cultural production of an urban record’, University of Kent Ph.D. thesis, 1997, 32–3, 44.

14 K. Bevan, ‘Clerks and scriveners: legal literacy and access to justice in late medieval England’, University of Exeter Ph.D. thesis, 2013, esp. 150–74.

15 Pollard, ‘The medieval town clerks of Oxford’, 49–51; Barron, C.M., London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500 (Oxford, 2004), 185–8.

16 Williams, J.H., Town and Crown: The Governance of Later Thirteenth-Century Northampton (Northampton, 2014), 230.

17 Kent History and Library Centre NR/LC1, fol. 17v: ‘Explicit per me Johannem Bell tunc temporis clericum communem euisdem ville anno regum Regis Henrici septem post Conquestum Anglie terciodecim’; Croft, ‘The custumals of the Cinque Ports’, 333.

18 Riley, H.T. (ed.), Munimenta Gildhallæ Londoniensis: Liber Albus, Liber Custumarum, et Liber Horn, Rolls Series 12, vol. I (London, 1859), 529; translated in Riley, H.T. (ed.), Liber Albus: The White Book of the City of London (London, 1861), 452.

19 Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages, 187.

20 Alsford, ‘Town clerks of medieval Colchester’, 126.

21 Biggs, D., ‘A Plantagenet revolution in government? The officers of central government and the Lancastrian usurpation of 1399’, Medieval Prosopography, 20 (1999), 193–4; Pollard, A.F., ‘The medieval under-clerks of parliament’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 16 (1938), 6587.

22 Britnell, R.H., ‘Colchester courts and court records’, Essex Archaeology and History, 17 (1986), 135.

23 Miller, E., ‘Medieval York’, in Tillot, P.M. (ed.), Victoria County History of Yorkshire: The City of York (London, 1961), 74.

24 Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages, 188.

25 For how this phenomenon played out in Norwich, see Rutledge, E., ‘Lawyers and administrators: the clerks of late thirteenth-century Norwich’, in Harper-Bill, C. (ed.), Medieval East Anglia (Woodbridge, 2005), 8398.

26 Shuffelton, G., ‘John Carpenter, lay clerk’, Chaucer Review, 48 (2014), 437–8; Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages, 188.

27 Tucker, P., ‘Dunthorn, William (d. 1490)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

28 Miller, ‘Medieval York’, 74.

29 Dobson, R.B., ‘John Shirwood of York: a common clerk's will of 1473’, in Aston, M., Richmond, C. and Horrox, R. (eds.), Much Heaving and Shoving: Late-Medieval Gentry and their Concerns: Essays for Colin Richmond (Lavenham, 2005), 109–20.

30 Norfolk Record Office (NRO) KL/C 10/2, fol. 18r: ‘magister Willemus Castellacre dixit prefato Willemo Assheborne quondam Paulus modo Saulus etc’; see also Parker, K., ‘Politics and patronage in Lynn, 1399–1416’, in Dodd, G. and Biggs, D. (eds.), The Reign of Henry IV: Rebellion and Survival, 1403–1413 (York, 2008), 216.

31 Croft, J., ‘An assault on the royal justices at Ash and the making of the Sandwich custumal’, Archaelogia Cantiana, 117 (1997), 1719.

32 Ibid., 20.

33 Lee, J., ‘“Ye shall disturbe noe mans right”: oath-taking and oath-breaking in late medieval and early modern Bristol’, Urban History, 34 (2007), 2738.

34 BA CC/2/1, fols. 18r–19v: ‘Ceo oyetz vous Maire et bones gentz qe ieo serrey foyal et loyal a nostre seygnur le Rey et a les maire et communaltee de B. et le counseyl del dist nostre seygnur le Rey et de la ville celerey et loyalment les plez pledez en la gihald de la diste ville devaunt les distz maire et bailifs par lauys de la [Recordour] en roule entray et nulle fause querele ne meynteyndrey nautry droyt ne destourberey a moun ascient, et la fraunchise la pecz custumes et ordinaunces qe bones sount garderey et defenderey. Et toutz les briefs comissiones remembraunces et totes altres choses tochauntes la diste commun a lyuerez a moun poayr saluement garderey et altres choses appendaunts a [moun] office loyalment fray a moun ascient sy dieux meyd et. c.’, Smith, MBK, 75.

35 Britnell, ‘Colchester courts and court records’, 135.

36 Riley (ed.), Liber Albus, 270; NRO KL/C 9/1, fol. 4r: ‘Sir j shal be trewe & buxum to ye meyr of lenn & truli writen & trewe record maken & trewe counceil ȝyue whane i am clepid yerto or bodum & alle oyer yingis do & vsen yat longen or pertenen to ye office of comyn clerk of lenn. So god me helpe atte hooli doom [and ye counseil of yis toun treuly kepyn].’

37 Ferguson, R.S. and Nanson, W. (eds.), Some Municipal Records of the City of Carlisle (Carlisle, 1887), 4950.

38 Ibid., 42, the title reads: ‘This Called the Regestrar Governor or Dormont Book of the Comonwelth of Thinhabitances Within the Citie of Carlell Renewed in the Year of Owr Lord God 1561’.

39 Ibid., 43. Dormont is similar in meaning to a ‘coucher’ or ‘ledger’ book.

40 M.D. Myers, ‘Well-nigh ruined? Violence in King's Lynn, 1380–1420’, University of Notre Dame Ph.D. thesis, 1996, 219–37. The struggle in King's Lynn focused on the exclusivity of its civic elections and membership of its citizenry. These and other economic tensions, such as the perceived mismanagement of the town's funds, erupted into violent clashes between members of two merchant factions in 1412–16. See also Parker, ‘Politics and patronage in Lynn, 1399–1416’, 210–27. Stephen Alsford summarizes this King's Lynn oath in, accessed 29 July 2017, though another recension of this oath, dating to the second quarter of the fifteenth century, can be found in the Register of Freemen (NRO KL/C 9/1, fol. 4r).

41 There are not too many examples of town clerks being dismissed from their office, whether for breaching secrecy or other protocols, because, as Barron notes (London in the Later Middle Ages, 185), they were not term-limited administrators, but rather permanent, salaried officers. Clerks presumably stayed in their positions permanently until they died or retired. London's town clerk Roger Spicer (alias Tonge) had been dismissed in 1461 for his political allegiance to the Lancastrians. According to Tucker (‘Dunthorn, William (d. 1490)’, citing London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Journal 6, photograph 502), Spicer had been found guilty of ‘great offences and rebellions against the King which he had many times committed’. As noted in a 1454 memorandum in BA CC/2/2, fol. 73r (Great Red Book), Bristol's town clerk John Joce had been dismissed, apparently for corruption: ‘In Primis the said maire and notable persones ffor certayn causes and consideracons suche as moue thaim haue utterly remoued and put Awey Iohn Ioce laat Tounclerk of Bristowe forsaid fro the Office of Tounclerk and the said Ioce neuer to be accepted In to the said Office heraftyr.’

42 Hartrich, E., ‘Charters and inter-urban networks: England, 1439–1449’, English Historical Review, 132 (2017), 220–1.

43 The scholarship on these ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ towns is mostly covered in surveys of the development of urban centres in the high Middle Ages. See, for examples, Ballard, A., British Borough Charters, 1042–1216 (Cambridge, 1913), xliii; Tait, J., ‘The borough community in England’, English Historical Review, 45 (1930), 529–51, esp. 540–5; Miller, E. and Hatcher, J., Medieval England: Rural Society and Economic Change, 1086–1348 (London, 1978), 70–4; and Nicholas, D.M., The Growth of the Medieval City: From Late Antiquity to the Early Fourteenth Century (London, 1997), 141–2.

44 For a list and discussion of mother towns, including Continental comparisons, see Gross, C., The Gild Merchant: A Contribution to British Municipal History, vol. I (Oxford, 1890), 241–81. See also Snell, F.J., The Customs of Old England (New York, 1911), 201–10.

45 Watson, A., ‘An approach to customary law’, in A.D. Renteln and Dundes, A. (eds.), Folk Law: Essays in the Theory and Practice of Lex Non Scripta, vol. I (Madison, 1994), 153.

46 British Library MS Add. 37791 (The Red Parchment Book of King's Lynn), dating to c. 1305–78, has a considerable amount of material taken from the London custumals, especially fols. 3–36.

47 BA CC/2/7, fol. 3r: ‘It is therefore Necessary and conuenyent to the officers of this worshipfull Toune of Bristowe for to knowe and vnderstande a parte of the Auncient Usages of the saide noble Citee whiche shalbe shewid them in the saide vith principall by a boke that was sometyme belonginge to that worshipfull personne Henry Daarcy Recorder of that noble Citee of London in Edwarde the thirde daies.’ Ricart here mistook Darci for a recorder rather than the erstwhile mayor of London during the fourteenth century. Barron (London in the Later Middle Ages, 328–9) identifies a draper by the name of Henry Darci, who held London's shrievalty in 1327–28 and the mayoralty twice in 1337–38 and 1338–39. Thomas, A.H., in Calendar of Early Mayor's Court Rolls, 1298–1307 (Cambridge, 1924), xxv–xxvi, speculated that Darci's custumal may have been the Magnus Liber de Chartis et Libertatis Civitatis, which was at London's Guildhall from c. 1327 until sometime in the sixteenth century.

48 Smith, MBK, xx. M. Merry, ‘Ricart's Kalendar: urban ideology and fifteenth century Bristol’, University of Kent MA thesis, 1994, 15 n. 27, entertains the possibility that copies of the texts Ricart needed for the Kalendar may have been in either private or corporate collections in Bristol. Merry also considers the possibility that Ricart spent time in London for the composition of his Kalendar. See also Fleming, P., ‘Making history: culture, politics, and The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar’, in Biggs, Douglas L., Michalove, Sharon D. and Reeves, A. Compton (eds.), Reputation and Representation in Fifteenth-Century Europe (Leiden, 2004), 289316; and Fleming, The Maire of Bristowe, 12–14, for an examination of Ricart's chronicle writing, and his influences, in the Kalendar.

49 Bevan, ‘Clerks and scriveners’, 154–7.

50 Mooney, L.R., ‘Vernacular literary manuscripts and their scribes’, in Gillespie, A. and Wakelin, D. (eds.), The Production of Books in England, 1350–1500 (Cambridge, 2011), 192211.

51 Lindenbaum, S., ‘London texts and literate practice’, in Wallace, D. (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge, 1999), 295–6, explains that the practice of making compilations to create distinct institutional cultures proliferated in London amongst guilds, confraternities, and even hospitals.

52 Kellaway, ‘John Carpenter's Liber Albus’, 67–84.

53 Carrel, H., ‘Food, drink and public order in the London Liber Albus’, Urban History, 33 (2006), 176, 182–3.

54 Brewer, Memoirs of the Life and Times of John Carpenter, 141, citing LMA 9171/4, fol. 85r.

55 M. Davies, ‘Carpenter, John (d. 1442)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, suggests that one of these ‘little’ books may have been a version of the Liber Albus.

56 Horn's will is summarized in Sharpe, R.R. (ed.), Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, Part I: A.D. 1258–A.D. 1358 (London, 1889), 344–5; and partly transcribed by Catto, J. (‘Andrew Horn: law and history in the fourteenth-century England’, in Davis, R.H.C. and Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. (eds.), The Writing of History in the Middle Ages: Essays Presented to Richard William Southern (Oxford, 1981), 370–1), who cites LMA Hustings Roll 57, no. 16: ‘alium librum de statutis Anglorum cum multis libertatis et aliis tangentibus civitatem’. See also Cannon, ‘London pride’, 181–5.

57 Kellaway, ‘John Carpenter's Liber Albus’, 75–84; Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages, 181, 186–7, 361.

58 B.R. Masters, ‘The town clerk’, Guildhall Miscellany, 3 (1969), 59, citing LMA Journal 8, fol. 91. Barron (London in the Later Middles Ages, 186, citing LMA Journal 3, fol. 44) speculated that Carpenter might have been paid 10 marks for either composing the Liber Albus or serving as an MP.

59 Fleming, The Maire of Bristowe, 2, believes Ricart was clerk only until c. 1489, when Thomas Harding replaced him. See also J. Lee, ‘Political communication in early Tudor England: the Bristol elite, the urban community and the crown, c. 1471 – c. 1553’, University of the West of England Ph.D. thesis, 2006, appendix 1, for a list of Bristol's civic officers from 1450 to 1553.

60 BA CC/2/1 (colophon): ‘Liber rubeus ville Bristollie in quo continentur plurime libertates franchesieque constituciones dicte ville. Ordinaciones diuersarum arcium composicionesque plurimarum cauteriarum ac aliarum multarum cartarum libertatum a tempore quo non existat memoria impetratum Ricart Rº.’

61 Veale, E.W.W. (ed.), The Great Red Book of Bristol, vol. I (Bristol, 1933), 2.

62 The handwriting and orthography of the ordinances in BA CC/2/2 (Great Red Book), fols. 30v–32r, are similar to those on fols. 27v–30r, which are signed. Ricart's handwriting slightly changes depending on the subject matter and language (English or Latin), but his distinctive signature, at the very least, clearly marks the pages of the Little Red Book and Great Red Book for which he was responsible for composing.

63 BA CC/2/7, fol. 1v. Fleming, The Maire of Bristowe, 5, argues that the custumal was also originally intended to be a finding aid for the increasing accumulation of civic documents after the mid-fourteenth century.

64 Benham, W.G. (ed., trans.), The Oath Book or Red Parchment Book of Colchester (Colchester, 1907), 28–9; Benham, W.G. (ed., trans.), The Red Paper Book of Colchester (Colchester, 1902), 6971. Britnell, R.H. (‘The oath book of Colchester and the borough constitution, 1372–1404’, Essex Archaeology and History, 14 (1982), 96 n. 13) confirms through handwriting analysis that Aunger is the author of the Colne River proclamations of 1382.

65 Britnell, ‘The oath book of Colchester’, 96, also states that Aunger's is the earliest clerical hand that can be discerned in the Oath Book, suggesting that he might have been responsible for creating that custumal. Another crucial adaptation he made from the Red Paper Book was copying the New Constitutions of 1372, which were likely written by his predecessor, into the Oath Book to better preserve them.

66 Ibid., 99.

67 Benham (ed., trans.), Red Paper Book, 33–4.

68 See, for example, Cannon, ‘London pride’, 189–94.

69 Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich (SROI) C/4/1/1, fol. 87v: ‘Sciendum est quod die lune proxima post ffestum exaltat sancti Crucis predicto anno L vj. Johannes le Blake Clerk qui nuper erat communis clericus ville Gippewyco fugit extra eadem villam Gippowici per eo quod indictatus fuit in patria de pluribus latronibus. Et assportavit secum quidam Rotulum de legibus et consuetudinibus predicte ville qui vocabatur le Domosday et alios plures Rotulos de placitis eiusdem ville de tempore diuersorum Balliorum ut patet in Rotulum placitorum predicte ville de anno supradicto.’ The first time this memorandum appeared was in the early fourteenth-century Black Domesday (SROI C/4/1/1, fol. 87v) and the second and third times, word-for-word, in two recensions, the mid-fourteenth-century White Domesday (SROI C/4/1/2, fol. 15r) and the Great Domesday (SROI C/4/1/4, fol. 23r), which Richard Percyvale, a prominent citizen, compiled in c. 1520.

70 The circumstances of le Blake's theft and its effects on Ipswich's record-keeping practices are examined in Martin, G.H., ‘The English borough in the thirteenth century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 13 (1963), 139; Martin, ‘The diplomatic of English borough custumals’, 313–14; and Masschaele, J., ‘Toll and trade in medieval England’, in Armstrong, L., Elbl, I. and Elbl, M.M. (eds.), Money, Markets, and Trade in Late Medieval Europe: Essays in Honour of John H.A. Munro (Leiden, 2007), 146, although Masschaele discusses a Henry Black rather than Johannes le Blake.

71 SROI C/4/1/2, fol. 14v.

* I am grateful to Maryanne Kowaleski, Christina Bruno and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne at Fordham University, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for Urban History, for their advice on earlier drafts of this article. I am also indebted to the participants of the Learned Clerk in Late Medieval England Symposium (Bates College) and the California Medieval History Seminar (Huntington Library), in particular Marcia Colish of Yale University, for their helpful suggestions and comments.

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