Borough and Town: A Study of Urban Origins in England

By Carl Stephenson | Go to book overview

II
URBAN LIBERTIES ON THE CONTINENT

1. URBAN DEVELOPMENT IN NORTHWESTERN EUROPE

IN THE preceding chapter an effort has been made to summarize leading explanations for the growth of towns in mediaeval Europe. The result, it is hoped, has been to show that the history of the English borough is not a subject unto itself, but one which must be studied as part of a broader investigation. To understand urban liberties in England is impossible without some knowledge of urban liberties on the Continent. And thanks to the researches outlined above, the task of providing an introductory sketch of this sort is by no means formidable. Much of the work has, indeed, already been done -- and done most admirably -- in M. Pirenne's little book on the towns of the Middle Ages. No substitute for his synthesis is here intended; but it may be of advantage, by supplementing generalization with a few concrete examples, to provide definite materials for comparison with the English charters and customals.

This purpose of illustrating developments common to Britain and the Continent must, in the first place, govern the selection of examples. Since the student of English municipal institutions is primarily interested in the northwest of Europe, little attention need be given to problems peculiar to Mediterranean countries. The choice of towns, furthermore, is naturally limited to those whose early history, through easily available materials, is most fully known.

The ensuing discussion makes no pretension to being based on exhaustive research, but in so far as documents are cited, they have been independently analyzed and compared. In the field of archaeological investigation, to go beyond the work of the few scholars who have appreciated its importance has of course been impossible, and the lack of more complete information, particularly on the growth of French cities, has been keenly felt. Nevertheless, the mass of evidence produced by intensive study of local topography is already considerable, and from it may be drawn conclusions of prime significance for the historian of mediaeval England.

In the following pages it is therefore proposed first to consider such data as we have for the earliest period of urban growth, and then to examine prominent grants of liberties. The latter may be taken up

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