about this project
- The Consistory Court of the Diocese of London
- Medieval Canon Law and Consistory Court Litigation
- Late Medieval London and its Hinterland
- Editorial and Translation Conventions
- Further Reading
- Credits and Acknowledgements
Late Medieval London and its Hinterland
By the fifteenth century, London had long been by far the largest and most important city in England. In modern terms, however, its great size was only relative, and even in contemporary terms it could not rival Paris or the great Italian cities such as Florence or Milan. Surviving records do not allow us to state with precisions its fifteenth-century population; likely between 40,000 and 50,000 souls crowded into a space of slightly more than a square mile, while an additional population, relatively small as yet, spilled out into the suburbs outside the City boundaries and across the Thames in Southwark.1 Its sheer size as well as its location made London the economic center of the realm, playing a pivotal role in international trade and featuring the most diversified and specialized workforce. The population of London ranged from the poorest of the poor to the wealthiest merchants and the mightiest aristocrats of the realm, the latter often keeping London houses (and very occasionally being invoked in the cases that came into the Consistory court, although not appearing as witnesses or litigants).
As in most other urban centers in this period, London's population could not reproduce itself: the swift spread of disease in the close living conditions of the city meant that mortality rates outstripped fertility. It was through immigration that London kept its population roughly stable throughout the fifteenth century, and probably even increasing it somewhat in the decades around 1500. Many Londoners were newcomers who had their origins elsewhere in England: they frequently came to the city as adolescents to apprentice to a trade, enter into domestic service, or simply find wage labour of any kind. Others came from elsewhere in Europe: Flemings, Germans, Scots, Irish, Italians, Spaniards, French, and other "aliens" came to London, sometimes as international merchants, sometimes as manual labourers, beer brewers, or workers in other trades, sometimes falling into crime and prostitution.
London itself was divided into different kinds of administrative units. Most relevantly for the Consistory court records, London had more than one hundred parishes, many of which extended over only a few streets, and on average each ministered to about three hundred people.2 The Consistory records give a good sense of parish and neighbourhood life (categories that were obviously overlapping), where social hierarchies, household structures, gender expectations, and patronage networks all intersected to constitute the complicated late medieval urban situation. The City of London itself -- which included much, but not all, of the territory within the City walls and into the extramural suburbs -- was divided into twenty-five wards. Each ward was represented in the City government by an alderman, who was invariably a wealthy and well-connected merchant; aldermen held their positions for life and were men of great importance in their neighbourhoods. Each year one of the aldermen would serve as mayor of London. As the testimony in the Consistory court frequently indicates, the ecclesiastical and civic hierarchies often worked hand in hand with one another, including in the regulation of marriage and sexuality.3
Beyond the city of London itself, the diocese of London extended to the counties of Essex, Middlesex, and parts of Hertfordshire. In relative terms, these areas of England were quite densely populated, with a prosperous agricultural economy. The areas around the city of London (which indeed have long since become part of Greater London) had close trading ties to the city. Not surprisingly, more litigants came from the areas closer to the city than from the furthest reaches of the diocese. The Consistory court records illuminate many aspects of rural life in this period -- including household structures, domestic architecture, migration, labour, literacy, marriage, and devotional life -- as L. R. Poos showed through his use of the London Consistory testimony in his important book on Essex in the late medieval period.4
1 On the population of London, see Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 237- 42. This book is the best guide to the city's later medieval history. See also Barron's useful essay "London 1300-1540," in Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. 1, ed. David Palliser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 395-440. Although in a few ways superseded by recent studies such as Barron's, Sylvia L. Thrupp's The Merchant Class of Medieval London, 1300-1500 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948; rept., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962) remains indispensable.
2 Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages, 4-5; Clive Burgess, "London Parishioners in Times of Change: St. Andrew Hubbard, Eastcheap, c. 1450-1570," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 53 (2002): 38.
3 See Shannon McSheffrey, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
4 L. R. Poos, A Rural Society After the Black Death: Essex 1350-1525 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).