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22.06.26 New/Steer (eds.), Medieval Londoners

22.06.26 New/Steer (eds.), Medieval Londoners

Caroline Barron has inspired and encouraged many scholars of medieval England through either her scholarship or generosity, and often through both. This collection of essays, edited by two of her former students, Elizabeth A. New and Christian Steer, is a tribute to her in expression as well as in content. Focused on London, and mostly situated in the fifteenth century or later, contributors to this volume provide a level of detail in their contributions that suggests a strong influence by the honorand and her long career, steady presence at conferences and in the seminar room of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), and robust list of publications. Methodologically, the volume’s contributors employ biography, close textual analysis, spatial analysis, and archaeology to understand the vibrant reality of life in medieval London from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, as explained by New in her introduction. Although it covers a wide range of topics, it is an enjoyable experience to lose oneself in the pages of Medieval Londoners. Throughout, one finds oneself imagining the neighborhoods of this medieval city and following the careers, aspirations, and associations of the people who lived within it.

Vanessa Harding’s chapter introduces the reader to the lay of the land demographically and culturally. Often looking back from the early modern period, “Families in later medieval London: sex, marriage, and mortality,” provides an important foundation of information on which is built the rest of the collection. Here, Harding explains the appeal of London socially and financially for migrants, the ways in which (and the why for) women and men made unions and contested them, the importance of community and reputation, and the necessity for adaptability for those living in the city’s parishes and suburbs. From here, the volume incorporates chapters that discuss community (by Matthew Davies, Justin Colson, and J. L. Bolton), business and social networks (by Martha Carlin, Julia Boffey, Charlotte Berry, and M. T. W. Payne), civic identity and government (by Anne Sutton and John McEwan), and memorialization (by Stephen Freeth and John Schofield, Julian Luxford, and Christian Steer).

As a number of contributors mention in their chapters, Barron’s scholarship often highlights the “small people” of London (including her 2008 article of that title in the Local Historian). [1] It is apt, then, that the majority of the chapters in this volume touch upon community and network formation and function. In three strong contributions, Davies, Colson, and Berry elucidate the ways that business and social ties were inextricable in late medieval London. In their chapters, they strive to contextualize what is known about London from other extant, and often better studied, sources that were produced by or for the elite. In his chapter, “Aliens, crafts and guilds in late medieval London,” Davies examines with care the alien subsidy rolls, the database built by the England’s Immigrants project, and craft ordinances, to deepen our understanding of the often-violent rhetoric and action against aliens (non-citizens born outside of England) in late medieval London. Davies points out that the majority of the capital’s population was comprised of non-citizens although the majority of contemporary records were produced by citizens (124). His point here, about the ways that documentary evidence can influence the questions scholars ask, is germane and also representative of Barron’s own work. After explaining that aliens were concentrated in the clothing-making and metal- and leather-working trades in the fifteenth century, and were concentrated in the wards of Langbourne, Tower, Farringdon Without, and Broad Street, Davies considers the tailors who attempted to limit non-citizens to selling secondhand clothing. Davies successfully reads prescriptive records against the descriptive tax records to argue that aliens were critical to the overall manufacture, sale, and circulation of goods in this late medieval city.

Whereas Davies’s attention is on non-citizens across London, Colson hones in on one particular space, the Starr Inn (or “le Sterre”) on Bridge Street in his chapter, “A portrait of a late medieval London pub.” Using the Starr Inn as a case study and tracing its ownership (individual and corporate) between 1403 and 1505, Colson argues that this was a space where “middling people” (37) from a variety of trades and backgrounds came together to hold meetings, secure credit, witness agreements, and negotiate marriages and business contracts. In her chapter, “‘Go to hyr neybors wher she dwelte before’: reputation and mobility at the London Consistory Court in the early sixteenth century,” Berry pulls on threads of analysis raised by both Davies and Colson, namely reputation and movement around the city which were critical to the functioning of communities. Drawing upon Consistory Court depositions, Berry follows the case of Agnes Cockerel as she sued John Beckett for maligning her fama, forcing her to relocate to another parish within London. Berry makes the critical argument that mobility around London at this time depended upon “highly localized networks of social knowledge” (107) and was gendered because of contemporary expectations for household and neighborhood management.

Boffey, Carlin, Bolton, and Payne offer a different entrance point to the study of late medieval London’s networks: a close reading of a specific record or set of records. In her analysis of MS. HM 140 in “Household reading for Londoners?” which was a compilation of texts including poems written by Lydgate and Chaucer as well as a guide for apprentices and hand-written business-related annotations, Boffey argues that the compilation was likely owned by a mercantile household with ties to the capital. Carlin’s study of the Book of the Harshorn is an interesting, and complex, examination of the sleuthing of one individual, Thomas D. (likely Thomas Danvers). Danvers, Carlin argues, wrote the text on behalf of his patron and drew upon paleographic, material, and historical evidence to support his patron’s case for property ownership in Southwark. Bolton and Payne draw upon sets of records from a scrivener named William Styfford and from a network of booksellers, including Peter Actors, who had connections with the Bardi in the late fifteenth century, respectively. Combined, these two chapters argue for the sophistication of trading networks and banking structures in London at the time that relied upon the knowledge and written records of experts. These four chapters engage with very close textual study of didactic texts, ledgers, legal documents, and other records that help the reader to understand the various webs that tied people together across and beyond late medieval London.

The development of civic government and identity are common lines of inquiry for Barron in her prolific scholarship, and the chapters in this collection by Sutton and McEwan build upon that work. While a number of the contributions in the volume revolve around ward or parish management, these scholars train their eye on influential, elite men in positions of power (and the documents they left behind) to understand the complexity of civic identity and government in late medieval London. Sutton provides a biography of Nicholas Alwyn, a man from Spalding who served as city councilman, tax collector, auditor, alderman, and mayor, as well as having served in parliament. With this biography, Sutton suggests how influential immigrants to the capital, with their connections within and beyond the city, are important to recognizing the complicated and nuanced nature of personal civic identity and London’s governing structure. In his chapter “Charity and the city: London Bridge, c. 1176-1275,” the earliest chronologically in the volume, McEwan is interested in change over time in the management of one of London’s main thoroughfares and what that transformation suggests about the development of civic government. After tracing the endowment of the bridge and the establishment of a charitable organization to maintain the bridge, McEwan posits that the loss of the administration of the bridge to royal control (specifically to Queen Eleanor) in 1265, after the city’s revolt against Henry III failed, was a turning point in the story of London Bridge and in the larger story of civic government. Once the bridge was restored to the city in 1275, McEwan argues that the city’s inhabitants agreed to the widening of the reach of civic government to include “the administration of an endowment that provided the Londoners with an amenity that improved their lives and remembered past benefactors” (241).

Commemoration, personal and collective, is the last topic addressed in this volume. Freeth and Schofield focus their chapter on the parish church of St. Botolph Billingsgate and combine archaeological, osteological, and written evidence to posit that John Reynewell (an alderman, sheriff, and mayor of London) may have been buried in the church of this wealthy London parish. The surviving evidence suggests that Reynewell may have left much of his London property to the city for charitable and pious purposes. Similarly, Julian Luxford examines a testament of another Londoner, Joan FitzLewes, in “The testament of Joan FitzLewes: a source for the history of the abbey of Franciscan nuns without Aldgate,” to argue for a different type of commemoration. Rather than memorializing an individual after death, Luxford argues that FitzLewes left a document that noted her own “social death” before entering the Minories (283). Luxford’s analysis is refreshing in its focus on the complex negotiations of religious women as they navigated expectations for enclosure, their own aspirations, and the political landscape of communal life and death. Steer’s chapter, as much about community as commemoration, is an appropriate penultimate chapter to this volume. Through a close examination of Grey Friars church and the activities of the Greyfriars, who had a flexible “commemorative portfolio” (309), Steer convincingly argues that the building of tomb monuments, the observance of anniversaries and the establishment of chantries, as well as donations for construction and maintenance, were all important ways for Londoners to support the Franciscans and commemorate their lives and loved ones. He also adroitly illustrates that Grey Friars was a keystone in the community structure for a vast array of Londoners from 1225 to 1538.

Taken together, the research in this volume is sharp and careful, and it builds upon important work on medieval Londoners by scholars including Barron herself, the chapters’ authors, and many other scholars referenced in this work. The volume is beautifully augmented with numerous maps, figures, and tables, and includes a number of translations of the sources under study here. Although more substantive examination of women’s experiences would have been welcome, especially as Barron’s scholarship has been important for women’s history as noted by Jo Fox in the Foreword, Clive Burgess’s concluding chapter speaks to the influence of her work on this subfield, notably her oft-referenced article “The ‘Golden Age’ of Women in Medieval London.” [2] Burgess is correct in his assessment in the last chapter to this collection when he writes that “[Caroline Barron] is held universally in great affection” (324) and this is as much for her generosity, as noted by many of the contributors, as for the rigor of her research. London is a fascinating city with a rich history, and this is a collection that puts into sharp relief many of its inhabitants from the late Middle Ages who helped define the contours and inner workings of its communities. Those who value Caroline Barron’s scholarship will find much to appreciate in this volume compiled in her honor.



1. Caroline M. Barron, “Searching for the ‘small people’ of medieval London,” The Local Historian, 38 (2008): 83-94.

2. Caroline M. Barron, “The ‘Golden Age’ of Women in Medieval London,” in Malcolm C. Barber and Keith Bate, eds., Medieval Women in Southern England, Reading Medieval Studies, 15 (Reading: Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Reading, 1989), 35-58.