Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Local Government, Part 1

A village meeting.
What was the level of communication between the typical medieval citizen and the authorities? What role did the citizenry play in legislation?

Municipalities in the Middle Ages were much smaller than what we usually have now. Considering that 95% of the population was agrarian and needed land for sustainability, there might be only a few dozen families in a couple square miles, looking to each other for trade and the mutual benefit that comes from knowing all your neighbors. Everyone, or representatives of families, could easily spread the word to gather at the village square to discuss matters that applied to the entire community.

What happens in a town the size of London, however? Estimates for the middle of the 14th century (post-Plague) put London at 25,000 to no more than 50,000. How do you keep that large a population involved by "scaling up" the village model of meeting in the square?

Well, you break it down into villages, or rather, "wards."

London was divided into 24 wards, 12 on each side of the Walbrook. (The Walbrook is/was a river that flowed north to south and emptied into the Thames. It is one of the "lost rivers" of London. Yeah, I'll explain that some day.) A 25th was added in 1394 due to post-Plague growing population.

Each ward had an elected official, the alderman. Every other year, the alderman was required to hold a "ward mote" (from the Anglo-Saxon moot = assembly) of the residents of the ward. Well, not all residents. Everyone over the age of 15 was required to attend, including servants. Unless you were a woman (your husband or father would represent you), or a knight (your allegiance was to the king, not the ward), or his squire (you do what your knight tells you), or a clerk (university students were not yet trusted to be useful members of society), or an apprentice (the master you were apprenticed to would handle it, thanks).

For convenience, meetings were held in the principal church in the ward. A beadle would call the roll—two rolls, actually, to separate freemen from servants—to make sure everyone was there who was required. Those absent were fined four pence.

What was on the agenda? We will look at that next.

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