Medieval freedom of information

“Freedom of information” and “open data” as concepts of governance have modern associations, partly because a steady progress is widely presumed from “closed” in the past to “[relatively] open” now, and partly because a lot of our associations with those terms are naturally digital, since that is our main enabling technology. If you try to take this concept back in time by, say, googling “medieval open data” like a lazy dilettante you will find a lot of people and research centres digitising medieval source material, mapping medieval landscapes or townscapes using modern mapping data and interpreted historical accounts, or doing interesting crunchy things with metadata from given record classes. The “open” in medieval open data means open to us, now. It never means open to them, then.

But you do come across something very like the phenomenon of freedom of information in the context of the Peasants’ Revolt. The “peasants”, (who I think we are still agreed were among the more prosperous members of their communities, unless some kind of Python-based revisionism has taken place in the last twenty years), were famously extremely well-versed in the notion that documents of authority were important. Tax records, manorial rolls and title deeds could record serf or free status, manor of origin, duties and dues owed to lordship, duties and dues owed to the Crown in a way that directly impacted their lives. According to M. T. Clanchy, whose work underpins the field of medieval literacy, serfs as early as the reign of Edward I were required to have their own seal for the purpose of authorising documents, so whether or not this is a literate culture by modern standards, it is certainly a bureaucratic one. The people who marched on London in the summer of 1381 selectively seized or burned documents as they went, culminating in the destruction of the archives of John of Gaunt in the Savoy Palace on the Strand.

This was clearly understood to be targeted rather than randomized destruction by contemporaries, because elsewhere, shocked by the revolt into considerations of citizenship and the common weal, authorities thought it appropriate to make documents, not more protected from the commons, but more accessible to them:

The first of the ordinances produced by Bristol’s civic elite towards the end of 1381 sought to make civic government more accessible to the commons of the town. Although ‘all the records, papers and muniments touching the Commons’ were to be preserved ‘within the Guildhall or in some other privy place under lock’ (‘ou en aultre place prevee sur serute’), two or three of the commons, in addition to the mayor, were now to be given their own keys in order that ‘every man can have copies or the records when need be’. The town’s civic archive was to be available for public consideration: no longer was government to be carried out in private beyond the scrutiny of the commons. The revolt of 1381 had underlined for Bristol’s rulers the need to be more sensitive to pressure from below and to adopt a more consultative style of civic government.

C. D. Liddy, War, Politics and Finance in Late Medieval English Towns: Bristol, York and the Crown, 1350-1400 (Boydell & Brewer 2005), pp 96-7.

This doesn’t get called freedom of information or open data because those are anachronistic terms and it’s not really the main story Liddy is telling here. Actually this passage follows a fifteen-page account of how the city of York slowly stopped being a complete banana republic over the course of the 1370s. In places, to a given definition of this term, it is completely hilarious. The ship racket was the best thing in town – taxes raised from York’s citizens were used to build and maintain two ships for the Crown’s use, but as there was no such thing as a consistent Royal Navy at that point, the elite merchant class basically got two free ships funded by the people to run their stuff in whenever they weren’t required by the Crown.

But anyway, I would love to know more about what happened next in Bristol. How was this power of access to the archives communicated to people? Was it really complete? Who used it and when, is this traceable in court records? And did other authorities make similar provisions? And most importantly of all, was there any rowing back from all this later?

After I read that passage I had a look around for other examples, but it’s hard graft for a feckless blogger, because that anachronistic and yet so convenient uniting concept of “freedom of information” isn’t employed by medieval historians. Christ, I’ll have to go to a library. It’s an example of the kind of historical enquiry Dr Will Pooley referenced the other day, when he appealed for the term historians use when they’re using a record class systematically to gather data of a kind the source was not intended to record. To some extent you could say (and somebody did) that’s how we use all sources, there’s always that interpretational veil, but I get the distinction he is making:


I don’t have an answer to his question (actually it’s amazing how few useful operational terms historical enquiry has in common use, unlike archaeology where your “middle range theory” is what most human people would call an overview) but in essence I feel like what he is describing here is what I would like to do with “medieval freedom of information”. It surprises me that one can construct the concept at all, so there might be more surprises and even suggestions for modern open data and FOI practitioners.


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