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POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval politics government ethics officers behaviour duties justice election political thought values political conflict speeches offences punishment

Subject: Ideal qualities and behaviour of rulers
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Custumarum, ff.6-8
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Custumarum, Rolls Series, no.12, vol.2 (1860), 16-25.
Original language: French (with Latin section titles)
Location: London
Date: late 13th century


Whoever wishes to make a good choice of a sovereign governor, having station and jurisdiction, should pay attention to the points that follow.

1. The three foundations on which the government of towns should be based.

All lordships, all stations, are delegated by the sovereign Father [i.e. the Pope]. Within the holy establishment of the things of this age, he wishes that the government of cities should be supported on three pillars: that is, justice, reverence, and love. A governor should have justice so firmly set within his heart that he does right to everyone, and does not show favour to one side or the other. For Solomon says that a just king will never bring misfortune. Reverence is the part of burgesses and subjects, for it above all other things of the world is most compatible with the merits of faith, and overcomes all hardships. It is for this reason that the Apostles say "Honour your Lord." Love ought to exist in one party and the other. For the sovereign ought to love his subjects wholeheartedly and with a clear faith, and look after the common profit of the city and all its people by day and by night. On the other side, the subjects should love their sovereign loyally and honestly, and give him advice and support to maintain him in office. For, in that he is only one man among their number, he could not do or accomplish anything without them. Because the mayor or the governor is, as it were, the head of the citizens, and everyone wants to have a sound head – for, when the head is ailing all the members become afflicted in consequence – and because above all they should make sure that they have such a governor as will lead them in the right direction, according to right, reason, and justice, they should not select him by lot or by luck, but through the foresight of wise and informed counsel. In which selection, they should pay attention to 12 things.

2. Twelve things to consider when making an election.

The first is, as Aristotle says, that men acquire wisdom through long experience of many things, and no-one can acquire such experience except through a long life. Thus it appears that young men cannot be wise, even though they have the means to gain knowledge. For this reason Solomon says that it is bad for a country to have a young king. Nonetheless, a man may be of great age yet little sense; for which reason the burgesses should choose a sovereign who is young in neither one nor the other.

The second is, that they give consideration not to his or his family's power, but to the nobility of his heart and to the honourableness of his behaviour and his life, and to his ability to perform virtuous acts in his household and in his other positions of authority. For the house should gain renown for a good master, not the master for a good house. If his nobility comes not only from his family connections but also from his strength [of character] and his heart, his worth is that much more complete.

The third is, that he be just. For Tully says that intelligence without justice is not intelligence, but malevolence, and that nothing can be worthwhile without justice.

The fourth thing is, that he have sufficient ability and subtlety of understanding to determine the whole truth in things, to easily understand and know what is the right thing to do, and to perceive the reason behind things. For to be deceived through lack of knowledge can lead to disaster.

The fifth is, that he have strength and resolve from greatness of heart, rather than from malevolence or vainglory; and that he not readily believe anything anyone tells him. There was once a city of which no-one could be the ruler unless he were the best. As long as this custom lasted, nothing but good happened to the community – for he who does not think more of himself than he is worth ought to be honoured for what he is worth. For a person should not be considered a reputable man because of his status, but because of what he does. The wise man prefers to be [judged] a lord by his acts than by his looks.

The sixth is, that he not be driven by avarice or by other desires. For these are two things which lead to a sovereign's downfall. It is very dishonourable, for one who does not allow himself to give way to fear, to be overcome by greed; or, for one who does not allow himself to be defeated by great challenges, to be conquered by his desires. Rather, a man must diligently guard against being too covetous of position; for very often it turns out that such men are not the most suitable.

The seventh is, that he be a good speaker. For it is required of a governor that he speak better than anyone else, since all the world believes to be wise he who speaks wisely. But above all it is necessary that he guard against saying too much, for garulity leads to indiscretion. Just as a single [out-of-tune] string can make an entire lute sound discordant, so one unfortunate word can be the undoing of a rational argument.

The eighth is, that he not spend extravagantly, nor deplete or waste his resources. For all who do so have to resort to robbery or plunder. Nonetheless, he should not shun that vice [of spending] to such a degree that he becomes too much the reverse or too parsimonious – for this is the thing that places the worst stain on the reputation of a ruler.

The ninth is, that he not be too quick-tempered, and that he not let his anger or foul moods last too long. For when anger governs a ruler it is like a thunderbolt which allows no time for truth to be told or a just judgement made.

The tenth is, that he be rich and magnanimous. For if he is well-endowed with other virtues, it is likely that he will not have been corrupted by money. Nonetheless, I have more praise for the good poor man than for an evil rich one.

The eleventh is, that he not hold any other office. For it cannot be believed that one man might be capable of [exercising] two, nor of more than the government of a populace.

The twelfth is the most important of all: that he keep faith with God and the people. For without faith and without loyalty, upright [government] is never maintained.

3. Concerning discords and hostilities that arise in cites through the negligence of rulers.

These [above] virtues, and others, are what good citizens ought to take into account before electing their mayor – that is, he should possess many virtues and few vices. Yet most people do not pay attention to his manners nor his virtues, but confine themselves to the wealth and power he commands, and are often misled as a result. The reason that fighting and hatred have so greatly increased, here and in other cities and towns, is because of division within the community and different preferences of the burgesses, who are [split] into two parties. Whichever [party] loses, even though it is to the benefit of the other, it is inevitable that ill-will results. On the other hand, if the governor is not very wise, he may incur the resentment and bad opinion of those who elected him, to the point that those from whom he hoped for support prove to be his undoing.

4. The procedure by which a new mayor ought to be chosen, when an election must be held.

When the time comes to elect a new governor for the coming year, the sovereign should call together the council of reputable men of the town who are most familiar with its constitution. The choice should be made on their advice, according to the ordinance already established. If, however, the citizens wish to have as governor for the coming year the same man who was so during the past year, I recommend that he not undertake the government if he can honorably avoid it. For a second term in office is unlikely to win widespread support.

5. The manner in which a mayor ought to conduct himself and act towards those over whom he rules, on his last day in power when he must resign his office.

When the last day of his term of office arrives, he should call together the good men of the community and, to win the citizens' love and goodwill, say a few gracious and agreeable words to them: remind them of the benefits they have acquired during his term; thank them for the support and respect they have shown to him and his [officers?]; dedicate himself and all his efforts throughout his life to the honour of the community; and request the chamberlain, and other worthies [i.e. of local government], that all [legal] disputes and pleas introduced before him during his term be brought to a conclusion through just judgements. And, the better to win over the hearts of the people, he should say that if anyone, contrary to his [burgess'] oath, has committed an offence against him through ignorance, negligence, or any other reason, he forgives him – unless it be a murderer, robber, or other wrongdoer convicted by the town for offending against the well-being of the community. On no account should he forget to say that if he has done anything beneficial to the community, he is well satisfied; and that concerning any offence he may have committed, unreasonably or contrary to town laws, he is very sorry about it and is ready to make amends as best he can, to the greatest and the least, at any time. Then, he should pray God to give them such a governor who is wiser and can lead them better than he was able to during his term; and then commend them, great and small, to God and offer them his thanks and good wishes.

6. The manner in which every good mayor should conduct himself among his subjects, during the term of his mayoralty.

Keep in mind, you who govern the city, the holy oath you made when you took the office of your rule. Keep in mind the law and its injunctions, and do not forget God and the saints; rather, go often to church and pray to God for yourself and your subjects. For the prophet David says that unless the Lord watches over the city, they labour in vain who guard it. [Therefore?] Honour the pastors of Holy Church; for God himself said: "He who receiveth you, receiveth me."

Be religious and manifest your faith, for there is no better thing in an earthly prince than to have righteous and true belief; it is written, "When a just king sits on the throne, no evil can assail him." For this [reason], protect the Church, the house of God. Protect widows and orphans, for it is written, "Be defenders of widows and orphans"; that is, you should defend their rights against wicked acts of the powerful, [but] not to the extent that the powerful lose their rights because of the tears of the weak. For you have under your protection the great, the small, and the middling. Therefore it is incumbent:

  • that you take office with a pure heart and good intentions;
  • that your hands to be clean [of any offence] towards anyone, before God and before the law;
  • that you defend community property, and give to each what belongs to him;
  • that you ensure to the best of your ability that there be neither hostilities nor disputes among your subjects;
  • and, if there is, that you show no favouritism to one side over the other, not for money, nor for women, nor for anything else;
  • that you listen diligently to pleas and complaints;
  • that you bring petty quarrels to a swift resolution, without [aggravating] strife;
  • that you carry out all [duties] written in the books and ordinances of the town;
  • that you maintain community works and structures, and have repaired the bridges, roads, ditches and other things.

Do not allow wrongdoers to escape without punishment; in particular you should be uncompromising in passing sentence – according to the law and the usages of the town – on murderers, traitors, those who rape maidens, and who commit other such crimes. Control your officers in such a way that they do no wrong to anyone. Keep around you such counsellors as are good and wise, men of principle, and loyal to yourself. Behave so as to seem terrible to the bad, and agreeable to the good. Furthermore, take care that you remain well-endowed with virtues and free of vices.

You should beware of [committing] those things [i.e. vices] which you command others to guard against; according to the words of the Apostle: "Henceforth I will chasten my body and bring it into subjection, so that it be not damned for chastening others." Cato says that it is an awful thing for a master to have an accusation turned back against himself; yet, to tell the truth, whoever so turns it deserves praise. For to speak fair yet behave badly only serves to condemn oneself by one's own words. From now on you should guard against drunkenness, pride, anger, deceitfulness, avarice, covetousness, and lewdness. For each of these is a mortal sin in God's eyes, and can easily result in a governor falling from power.

In particular you should beware of talking too much. For he who says little, but says it well, is considered a wise man; talkativeness always reveals flaws. You should also beware of laughing too much; for it is written that laughter comes from the mouth of a fool. Despite this, you may laugh and amuse yourself well enough upon occasion, but not in such a way as a child or a woman, nor laughter as seems feigned or contemptuous. He who is good at other things will be that much more held in awe if he presents a serious countenance, particularly when he is sitting in judgement. Also, you should not sing your own praises, even though good folk praise you; and do not be annoyed if bad folk fail to praise you. Beware of charlatans who flatter you to your face. Rely on your own opinion of yourself, rather than that of others. And be as sorry to be praised by bad folk as you would be by your own bad deeds.

Also, guard against justice being bought for money, for the law forbids it. Also, ensure that you keep yourself detached from your subjects, or you will arouse resentment or suspicion. Also, beware of desiring offerings from any whom you govern; for a man who receives a gift or a service has sold his freedom, and acquires from it an obligation just like a debt.

7. The differences that experts have found between governors.

According to what wise masters say, there tend to be great differences among governors, with some preferring to be feared than loved, and others wishing more to be loved than feared. Those who are feared wish to be known for great rigourness; because they want to appear stern and severe, they inflict on their subjects harsh punishments and suffering – for by so doing they imagine that men will fear them the more. The masters prove this by the arguments of Seneca, who says: that withholding punishment corrupt cities; that [tolerating] an abundance of wrongdoers encourages habits of wrongdoing; that he who is made to suffer harshly loses the resolve of his malevolence; that mild behaviour from a ruler dispels a malefactor's feelings of shame; that [a man] more fears a punishment imposed by his ruler than [one imposed] by his friend; that the more openly that suffering is inflicted, the more others profit from the example; and that everyone dreads the severe, the tough-minded, and punishment.

Against this [line of argument], others say that it is more effective to be loved than feared, since love cannot exist without fear, but fear may well exist without love. Tully says that there is no surer way in the world to protect one's situation than being loved, nothing more dreadful than to be feared. For anyone hates him whom he fears, and he whom everyone hates is apt to come to ruin; no riches can withstand the hatred of many. Cruelty is an enemy of [human] nature. It is inevitable that someone will fear him or those by whom he wishes to be feared; power that relies on fear never lasts long. Each punishment should be inflicted without injustice, not for [the benefit of] the ruler, but for the good of the community; nor should it be more than warranted by the offence. Nor ought anyone to be condemned for the crimes of others. No government should be irrational or negligent.

Tully says, "Beware that you do nothing for which you cannot show the reason." Seneca says that he does wrong who caters to his reputation rather than to his conscience; and that cruelty is nothing more than hard-heartedness and [satisfaction in] heavy punishments. For which reason I say that he who is immoderate is cruel. Plato says that a wise man does not pass sentence because an offence was committed, but so that it not be committed again thereafter.

8. The difference between a king and a tyrant.

What difference is there between a king and a tyrant? They are equal in fortune and power. But the tyrant commits bloody deeds for his own gratification, whereas the king does it out of necessity. The one is loved, the other feared – the latter considered comparable to a bad father who every day openly beats and is severe with his child. The surest safeguard in the world is the love of the citizens, something that gives rise to the most wonderful thing in this worldly life: that everyone wishes you to live [forever]. Those words are the key to understanding this debate. For clemency, which is the opposite of cruelty, is the curbing of the heart in regard to the pain it can inflict. Tully says that the best characteristics in a ruler are clemency and pity, if they are associated with justice; without which, the city cannot be governed.

Seneca says, "When it is my time to sit in judgement in the city, I discover so many vices among the populace that, to cure the evils, it is necessary that some be remedied through reprimand, others by exile and banishment, others by pain, others by poverty [i.e. heavy fines], and others by harsh punishment. Although I have to go ahead and condemn them, I will not proceed through anger or cruelty; rather, I proceed through the course of law, according to the guidance of wise men – a way of judgement not motivated by contempt or by anger against evil-doers."

It is not appropriate for a governor either to be wholly cruel or always showing clemency. For it is as cruel to pardon everyone as it is to pardon no-one. But it is an act of high clemency to confound offenders by pardoning them. Therefore I say that no-one should pardon a misdeed; for the judge condemns himself by absolving an wrong-doer. At the same time, he should not be too cruel; for no punishment should be greater than the crime [warrants], or should be inflicted on the innocent. For if [such] a penalty is [inflicted] corporally, then it is homicide; and if monetary, restitution ought to be made.


This extract from London's Liber Custumarum (Book of Customs), a reference-book style compilation, was not an English product but taken from Li Livres dou Trésor, an encyclopedic and widely-circulated work written (ca.1265) in French by a Florentine moralist and conservative populist, Brunetto Latini (d. 1294), who was later mentor to Dante. Latini trained as a notary and served the Republic of Florence, during a turbulent time in its political history, as secretary (i.e. head of its chancellery) as well as advisor, ambassador and once on the chief executive body of the city. He therefore had a strong sense both of urban administration and of civic community – which he considered the fundamental expression of politics – as opposed to an aristocratic form of government, in which he saw no inherent political virtues. His Trésor, however, was written during a period of exile, before he became a leading member of the Florentine administration, and was coloured by his own experience of partisan strife in Italian cities.

The Trésor was translated into other languages. It was targeted at an audience of townspeople – both rulers and ruled. Latini had doubtless seen executive office taken by men whom he, as one schooled in administration, considered wanting in governmental experience. Although wide-ranging, the Trésor's preoccupation was with the political and ethical problems faced by urban government, and for the most part it dealt with the subject from a very practical, if conservative, standpoint. He accepted the natural stratifications of society, and saw it as the role of the ruler to achieve a balance between the interests of the different groups. He emphasised particularly adherence to the rule of law as a counter to decision-making of a more arbitrary nature based on personal partialities, partisanship, or emotional inclinations, which he considered the trademark of a tyrant. As an educated man and a professional administrator himself, he favoured the selection of rulers from a meliocracy of the wisest and most capable, and believed that the uneducated masses were susceptible to deceit by eminent men who were more show than substance.

Not surprising, then, that this primer came to the attention of the London authorities, although how is less easy to explain; perhaps one of the orders of friars, who were known for their intellectual pursuits, was the importing agency. Nor surprising that it interested the authorities, or at least one member, enough to copy into a volume apparently known as the Liber Legum Antiquorum Regum (Book of Laws of Ancient Kings), which was in post-medieval times dismantled and parts bound up with parts of a similarly dismantled Liber Custumarum. Both volumes, like the Trésor, bear witness to attention being paid to the craft and the professionalization of government, and their compilation may have been associated with the administrative reforms of the 1320s. Perhaps an initiative, it has been argued, of chamberlain Andrew Horn and town clerk Hugh de Waltham. Horn is suspected to have been not only a compiler of the Liber Custumarum, but a set of guidelines to prepare the city to face a dreaded eyre, a chronicle of London, and an idiosyncratic legal treatise; at his death in 1328 he bequeathed the city archives some of those works, along with other historical and legal works. Waltham spent the last 45 years of his life in the city bureaucracy and oversaw a number of reforms in administrative record-keeping; he married into the aldermannic class and acquired substantial property in the city.

These may have been the men who felt that Latini's treatise captured their own perspective on what made for good urban government; the political perspective of Latini is not incompatible with that expressed in the Mirror of Justices of which Horn may have been the author. The version in the Liber Custumarum is imperfect, in that it has been edited somewhat, parts rearranged slightly, and other parts omitted, according to what was considered applicable to the local situation; but it is the version London's rulers had for their guidance. The London transcriber, seeing it as a useful manual or code of conduct for the election of London's mayors and for their moral behaviour during their term of office, also substituted in the earlier chapters Meyre for the original terms (notably podestà) used to denote persons of authority, and made other minor changes to remove the geographic and historical context of the original.

Although Latini was writing from his experience of the Italian communal regimes of mid-13th century – an environment which gave rise to a number of treatises on civic government – evidently the concepts he conveyed were harmonious with political philosophy, such as it was, in English towns. A number are also expressed within the customs and ordinances of London and other towns, such as for example the obligation of a ruler to protect widows and orphans; we should beware, however, of inferring from that evidence any direct influence – both sources simply indicate political ideology of the period. At the same time, we should remember that, even though only an extract was copied into official London records, the administration or one of its members had presumably owned a complete copy of the Trésor, with all the other political advice it dispensed, perhaps since years before the compilation of the Liber Legum Antiquorum Regum.

A separate indication of the concern of Londoners for the characteristics of their rulers – perhaps even an echo of Latini's recommendations – is seen in the discussion in city records of the nature of aldermannic office and the requirements for its candidates:

"For no-one is to be accepted as an alderman unless he has no physical deformities, is sensible and judicious in his thinking, is well-to-do, morally sound, trustworthy, and free – there being no suggestion whatsoever of a low-born or servile background. This to avoid any disgrace or scandal that, should he be susceptible to reproach because of his ancestry, might reflect shame on the other aldermen and the whole city."
Liber Albus [ed. Riley, 1859, p.33, my translation]
And the author of the late thirteenth century London chronicle in Liber de Antiquis Legibus also expresses political attitudes – attributing them to some of his fellow Londoners – compatible with Latini's philosophy.

Towards the close of the Middle Ages we see a further reflection of the virtues of good government. The facade of the south porch of the Guildhall was adorned with statues representing Law, Learning, Justice, Discipline, Temperance and Fortitude.

Given that a number of towns consulted the London authorities and archives on constitutional matters – such as Lynn and Norwich in the context of constitutional disputes of the early 15th century – it is not impossible that Latini's advice came to their attention. We may perhaps see a reflection of this in the mayoral speeches, similar to that proposed by Latini, recorded in Lynn's assembly records of the 1420s and in the account of mayoral elections in Ricart's Kalendar.



Soverain here has not the restrictive sense in which we use it today, to refer to a king or queen, but means "supreme ruler" in the sense of a town's or city's chief executive officer (as opposed to other, non-supreme, rulers – such as members of the urban council).

"station and jurisdiction"
Dignete is the actual term used in the original, which I have translated in this document as "station" or "position"; the term refers to the dignity, or social respect, associated with high office. The term which I have rendered as "jurisdiction" in the title, and also elsewhere (in its verb form) as "delegated", is in the original "baillie", whence a bailiff.

"Solomon says"
Riley was uncertain to what the first attribution to Solomon refers. It might perhaps be 1 Kings 1:52 "And Solomon said, If he will shew himself a worthy man, there shall not an hair of him fall to the earth: but if wickedness shall be found in him, he shall die." The second attribution to Solomon is, Riley believes, from Ecclesiastes 10:16 "Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!"

"the Apostles say"
Riley believed the attribution to the Apostle to be an allusion to 1 Peter 2:17 "Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king."

The head-body metaphor was a common one in medieval political theory.

The term in the original for which I have substituted "lute" (as something more readily intelligible to the modern reader) is "cytole" – an instrument, similar in shape to a lute, except for having a flat back (which may make it one of the ancestors of the guitar).

"reputable men"
Beyond what I have proposed as the characteristics connoted by prodeshommes, the term as used here is further qualified by reference to them being the townsmen the most knowledgable about the city's laws (a characteristic to be expected of councillors); this phrase is very similar to one used a few years later in the preface to the redrafted Ipswich custumal. See also my definition of the related term discretiores.

"David says"
Latini's paraphrase of David is from the opening of Psalm 127: "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."

"it is written"
Riley believes the quotation about a just king to be an allusion to Proverbs 20:8 "A king that sitteth in the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eyes."

"it is incumbent"
The various responsibilities of a ruler are not in the original presented as an itemized list; I have rendered them so here to improve readability.

"words of the Apostle"
Riley identifies the allusion as to 1 Corinthians 9:27 "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway."

"it is written"
Riley identified Ecclesiastes 7:6 "For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity."

"keep yourself detached"
The point here seems to be that, were the ruler to be seen to be too companionable with some of those he rules, it might lead to suspicion of favouritism and to faction (Edward II provides an example of this in action).

Crualte here means cruelty not (in most instances) in the most common modern sense of causing pain and suffering for delight or through indifference, so much as the merciless infliction of corporal punishment. It is in this sense that a ruler might be fier – a term here translated, severally, as rigorous, stern or harsh – or motivated by orgueil, pride in the sense of a belief in one's moral superiority, which causes one to be contemptuous of law-breakers.

"high clemency"
This sentence seems to be at odds with the rest of the paragraph. Riley thought the text defective here. But perhaps Latini was being sarcastic (unlikely), or meant that true clemency comes from avoiding the mistake of granting pardons. Latini partly had in mind, in this paragraph, the influence of eminent men in obtaining pardon for their crimes; hence his earlier admonition to the ruler not to maintain close personal friendships during his term of office, which might encourage him to bend the law to help out friends.

"legal treatise"
The authorship of Mirror of Justices is uncertain; Horn's name is certainly connected with it, but whether as author or as possessor of a copy is not clear. Although the work acquired some attention in the post-medieval period, only the single medieval copy is known, increasing the probability the work is of Horn's authorship. It is a strange perspective on English common law, full of contradictions, with much being presented as the reverse of the actual situation – truly a mirror image. Its editor, Maitland, was mystified as to whether it might have been intended as some kind of satire written by a too-clever young man in possession of that dangerous commodity, a little learning; or whether a diatribe against the administration of royal officials, couched for safety's sake in a romanticized treatise of what the author thought the law ought to be. If indeed written by Horn at an early stage of his life, before he had acquired the wisdom suggested by his later compilations, it was perhaps a revival of that youthful mixture of mischievousness and idealism which led him, as he approached a state when he would be beyond the reach of worldly authorities, to pass along Mirror of Justices to the civic authorities, to make of it what they would.

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