The Making of Borough Customary Law in Medieval Britain

Esther Liberman Cuenca, Fordham University


This dissertation is the first in-depth, cross-regional investigation into the history of customary law in British towns during the Middle Ages in over a century. Most studies of law in medieval Britain have focused on the development of English common law or canon (church) law, which both had long institutional and academic traditions devoted to training men in their practice and philosophies. Borough customary law, which governed the lives of the vast majority of people in medieval British towns, was neither taught nor learned. Based on two relational databases that collate data drawn from hundreds of legal texts, this study tracks the transition from when the law was a part of seigniorial or royal responsibility (exemplified in charters) to when it came under the custody of urban oligarchs (whose lawmaking powers were deliberately outlined in custumals). By investigating its documentary formats, authorship, claims to legitimacy rooted in past history, and articulation through oaths, this study makes two principal claims about borough custom: First, borough customs advanced the mercantile interests of an urban elite, who used law to assert their political independence from their lords and establish their identities as morally upright and even-handed patriarchs. In so doing, borough custom was crucial to the development of a distinct bourgeois identity in medieval Britain. Second, borough customary law gave shape and meaning to the conception of the common good in medieval towns, as many such laws helped burgesses and lawmakers articulate policies they believed benefitted the entire civic community. Custom was a flexible form of law, adaptable to the needs of urban administrators. As customary law in British towns evolved over time, it became more concerned with defining political authority, maintaining moral conventions, and articulating a consensus on the nature of the common good for urban populations.

Subject Area

European history|Law|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Cuenca, Esther Liberman, "The Making of Borough Customary Law in Medieval Britain" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13881190.