Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Local Government, Part 2

A modern Aleconner [link]
We know that, in medieval London, an alderman held an assembly called a Wardmote every other year, at which attendance by every male in the ward over a certain age (with some exceptions) was required. The purpose of these meetings was manifold.

One major occurrence was to administer the "Oath of Frankpledge"; this was an oath that imposed upon each attendee an obligation to civic duty. (Knights and some others were exempt, since they owed allegiance to different authority.) The oath:

You shall swear, that you shall be good and true unto the King of England and to his heirs, Kings, and the King's peace shall you keep; and to the officers of the City you shall be obedient, and at all times that should be needful, you shall be ready to help the officers in arresting misdoers, and those disobedient to the King's peace, as well denizens as strangers.  And you shall be ready, at the warnings of the Constables and Beadles, to make the watches and other charges for the safeguard of the peace, and all the points in this Wardmote shown, according to your power, you shall well and lawfully keep. And if you know any evil coven within the Ward of the City, you shall withstand the same or unto your Alderman make it known. So God you help, and the Saints.
Regarding the line "as well denizens as strangers": A "citizen" was a native; a "denizen" was a foreigner residing locally; a "stranger" was someone present without a fixed local address. The potentially disruptive behavior of strangers (who of course had no oath of obligation to the municipality) was a constant concern. Since visitors had to stay somewhere, innkeepers were made responsible for the actions of their temporary tenants. In 1384, in London, innkeepers were required to answer for the customers' actions if the customers stayed longer than a single day and night. A guest whose behavior required the attention of the authorities could cost the innkeeper a fine of £100.

After the oath came the elections. Various positions needed to be filled by the male citizens. The Beadle [Old English bydel: "a person who makes a proclamation] was responsible for disseminating information orally in a society without Twitter or newspapers. He was the first "social medium." Also elected for a two-year term were aleconners, whose enviable job was to test bread, ale, and beer for quality. Scavengers had the less enviable task of finding and removing trash from public spaces.

These practices helped to maintain order in a large city such as London, by dividing it up into Wards of a more manageable size and putting responsibility into the hands of people who were neighbors of those they policed and served. Although written laws and contracts were used at this time, the verbal contract of the frankpledge served to bind the men to their obligations. The frankpledge quoted above comes from the Liber Albus, the White Book. We should talk about that next.

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