19.01.02 Hanawalt, Ceremony and Civility

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Aude Mairey

The Medieval Review 19.01.02

Hanawalt, Barbara A. Ceremony and Civility: Civic Culture in Late Medieval London. Oxford: OUP, 2017. pp. 248. ISBN: 978-0-19-049039-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Aude Mairey
LaMOP (CNRS - Université Paris I)

Barbara Hanawalt is one of the most renowned social historians on late medieval England, and more particularly on London. Ceremony and Civility is, as she announces in her preface, her "final book on London." After numerous studies on women and children, this book takes on the analysis of masculine elites and the city's institutions they dominated. Nevertheless, her aim is not to propose one more study of their organisation and workings, even if she does discuss these aspects, but rather to connect them with the expressions and representations of the elites' values of the "civil society," as well as their effective power, formal or informal. In a city in constant renewal with a huge population of immigrants, particularly after the Black Death of 1348, she argues that ceremonies and rituals, often accompanied by oaths, constitute "an active performance of power" in order to educate the Londoners (immigrants or not) on the core of the city's values, beginning with the common good and the necessity to maintain the hierarchical order of the society in harmony.

In this line, Hanawalt adapts the work of the anthropologist Catherine Bell, who has argued that the performance of rituals allows for a mapping of the relationships of power, in relation with the crucial use of the medieval urban space. In my opinion, this approach is also interesting from the point of view of the study of the communicational system of the end of the Middle Ages, because it takes in account all the aspects of this system--oral, visual, and even sensorial--in addition to the surviving written sources. Certainly, the historian is tied to these, but Hanawalt has accumulated a huge knowledge of the records of any type as well as of the collections of various documents--historical, judicial and so on--a knowledge which allows her to pursue her argument with numerous lively examples throughout the book.

The first chapter charts "the urban environment," with an extensive presentation of the urban space. She also sketches the social structures of the city, which underwent many changes in the second half of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth. These were marked, notably, by the depopulation due to the Black Death, but also by the concentration of the wealth and the power in fewer hands than before, forming a restricted oligarchy, though different from the hereditary nobility by its constant renewal. After a presentation of the principal institutions, the ceremonies and the rituals of the city, detailed in the following chapters, the author insists on the importance of the citizenship, accorded only to a little minority of probi homines who restlessly maintain their hegemony by all the means at their disposition. The chapter ends with some considerations about contemporary observations on London, dealing especially with the symbols of the great seals and the mythical history of the town, notably the Trojan myth, often integrated in descriptions of the city--the most famous being maybe the one written by William Fitz Stephen in his preface of the Life of St Thomas Becket (1183), a true "encomium of the city" taken over in the Liber Custumarum compiled by Andrew Horn in the 1320s and again in the Liber Albus compiled by John Carpenter in 1419--two crucial books for the political, judicial, historical and ethical government of London.

The second chapter is dedicated to the relations between the city and the crown, which is not, contrary to other capitals such as Paris, installed in the city itself but at Westminster--even if the Tower marks the power of the king at the extreme east of the city. According to Hanawalt, managing these relations is the greatest challenge for the London's government, insofar as the king accorded the city's charters of privileges, notably enlarged in the twelfth century and, later, in the fourteenth century. Yet, the king could revoke the charters and take along the control of the city. The most turbulent period was probably the second half of the thirteenth century, in relation with "national" political troubles. An extreme case is the control of the city by Edward I between 1285 and 1298. In the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, nevertheless, the charters were revoked only once, by Richard II between 1392 and 1394, again in a troubled period. But this "national" context also mixed with internal strives, especially between the guilds who fought for precedence in the government, a climax being reached in the 1380s. According to the author, the relations between the crown and the city, as well as the internal contestations, were smoothed in the fifteenth century. In this general context, the ceremonies and the rituals linked to the crown, always splendid and very onerous, be it coronations or royal entries organised at diverse occasions (marriage, victory, etc.) were instrumental to London, its government and its inhabitants, because they allowed to show a symbiotic relation between the two powers (even if these were unequal) as well as the hegemony of the city's oligarchy.

The third chapter focuses on the urban government and the significance of civic rituals. Hanawalt begins by tracking the conceptions of the civic power expressed in important compilations, such as the Liber Custumarum and the Liber Albus mentioned earlier. According to her, these conceptions were conservative by nature, hierarchical and organic at the same time, but the most important figures such as the mayor, the sheriffs and the aldermen, had to show example and maintain the harmony of the body politics.

In practice, the annual election of the mayor meticulously described in its procedure as well as in its magnificent ceremony of installation, was meant to express the dignity of the office, even if the first act of the new mayor was to take an oath at Westminster to serve the king and the kingdom. The increasing sophistication of the ceremony and the feasts given at this occasion marked it as one of the most important symbols of the oligarchy's power. The expansive and colourful liveries, strictly regulated by a special committee, as well as the music, the banquets and so on, were meant to impress by acting on all the senses of the people of London. The two sheriffs elected annually, also took oaths in a ceremony that became more and more elaborate. As for the aldermen, the leaders of the 24-25 wards of London, they were generally elected for life; no specific ceremony was organised at their installation but, as they formed the core of the government's city, they played a major role in all the civic rituals and ceremonies of the town, which were numerous during the year.

Despite the insistence of the elites on the maintenance of the order, some troubles inevitably occurred--this is the object of the fourth chapter. Hanawalt does not consider the main revolts of the period, as those of 1381 and 1450, which she considers as "national" troubles, but focuses on the daily disorders in the city. The preoccupations of the rulers mainly turned on the "cleanness" of the city in all its senses--physical and spiritual. The supply of food and its quality were one of their main concerns, as the records of the Assizes of Bread, the Assize of Ale or the control of the wine by the Vintner's Company show. The physical cleanness of the city and the privacy of the inhabitants were also a preoccupation. But the control of oral expression--insults, slanders, rumours, traitorous words--was equally crucial, especially during periods of trouble. As for immoral behaviours, there were also, of course, tracked down.

Yet, the punishments differed markedly according to the social rank. Concerning the elites, the trespassers were often condemned to offer a large quantity of wine (a commodity particularly important) or to pay a fine. The worst punishment was the exclusion of the citizenship, but the government often showed mercy, concerning, for instance, the disputes between guilds or quarrels between members of the oligarchy and of the nobility, because they tried to contain factional strife as much as possible. For commoners, the punishments were generally harsher. But besides the imprisonment or the imposition of fines, very common chastisements were the rituals of public shame--perambulations with bare head and bare feet throughout the city, pillories, and so on. According to the author, these rituals were as didactic as the festive civic ceremonies, in order to encourage a good behaviour. The importance of the city's reputation was also at stake and this is reflected in the language used in the records to qualify the trespasses.

All these elements reappear at the level of the guilds, analysed in the fifth chapter. Guilds were crucial to the life and government of the city because their preeminent members were the main actors of London's institutions, and entering a guild conferred citizenship. From the fourteenth century onwards, guilds were increasingly organised into corporations, even if they maintained a link with their religious origins by helping their poor members, for instance. After a sketch of the ways in which they functioned, showing that the duties and the decisions of the wardens were often similar to those of the city's government, Hanawalt shows that, for guilds, key elements were the apprenticeship, formalised by a contract that was often quite costly, and the expectations of learning of a craft. The oath taken by the apprentice before the leaders of the guild was equally important, as an initiation ritual. The organisation of a guild also reflected the social divisions of the city. The principal masters wore the whole livery (gown and hood), while lesser-ranked members wore only the hood and some wore nothing. As for the city's liveries, those of the guilds were of the upmost importance and equally regulated. The weight of a guild's reputation and relative status were often displayed in ceremonies and symbolised by the liveries, as well as in events such as feasts and banquets.

Below the masters were the journeymen (also named bachelors or yeomen) who were employed by masters but were not members of one guild. They could represent a potential threat, but many became increasingly organised during the fifteenth century, to the point of being "integrated" in the larger structures of the guilds proper. As for foreigners and strangers, their integration was quite difficult and they were often shunned, even if members of guilds often employed them.

The last chapter, "Civic Lessons for the Mass," treats mainly the basic units of the city, that is the ward and the parish, places of local solidarity. The alderman and the wardmote, the court of the ward, maintained the order; it was before them that a newcomer had to swear the oath of franckpledge just after his arrival. As for the parish, it was the nexus of the day-to-day life, the link between the citizens and the non-citizens, including women, Londoners and newcomers, particularly when related to a parish guild. But, even before a newcomer took his oath, he generally had to spend the first days in a tavern or an inn—the owners had, in theory, some responsibilities for their presentation in the parish.

Finally, in the lively streets, the serjeant-at-arms was also the common crier and patrolled the city to advertise the proclamations, ordinances and other daily news. But conversely, we have evidence that the serjeant's were not the only speeches that were heard: political songs or bills posted on the doors could also imbalance the harmony so desired by the oligarchy. For that matter, the urban space was also marked by visual lessons on civic virtues, be it on the doors of the towns or, markedly, on the frontage of the Guildhall renovated at the beginning of the fifteenth century, a final example of this shared "civic culture," ultimately very secular, that contributed to promote the men who most conformed to it.

On the whole, Barbara Hanawalt's book is an excellent synthesis on London, inasmuch as it exposes vividly nearly every aspects of the urban life from the Guildhall to the ill-famed taverns. Her approach of the importance of the didactic nature of the ceremonies and rituals concerning the values and the power of the oligarchy is also very stimulating. Besides, it is well written and accessible to students and even a larger public, all the more so that it contains a glossary and an index of the notions, institutions and so on, explained in the book.

Yet, some important concepts are sometimes not very clearly defined. I will not return to the debate concerning the meanings of "ceremony" and "ritual" that she mentions, but does not really elucidates. But she does not explicitly define, for instance, the expression "common good", which is regrettable because it is a key notion of its book and above all of the political culture of the period, linked to the importance of the new knowledge of Aristotelian politics in the second half of the thirteenth century--we can see that with an example she cites of the use by Andrew Horn of the Italian Brunetto Latini who was one of the first to explicitly define, in French, the importance of these ideas for the government of the late Middle Ages.

Besides, her focus on the growing stability of the government of London by a more restricted oligarchy at the end of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, parallels the political unrest of a part of the population, especially the journeymen or yeomen, sometimes expressed in open rebellion, and which has been recently the subject of several studies on "popular politics," including those of David Grummitt or Christopher Fletcher for instance. Nevertheless, this "final book" of a fine historian is a great one and largely deserves to be read if one wants to understand the life of the most important city of late medieval England.

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