Bridges, Law and Power in Medieval England, 700-1400

Alan Cooper

In Bridges, Law and Power, Alan cooper explains the relationship between the changing laws and powers connected with medieval English bridges and the responsibility to keep them in good shape.

Bridges were still very few until the tenth and eleventh centuries:

“The charter bounds, name of places and other narrative evidence give us room to deduce that there were but a few bridges in England before the tenth century. It also reveals that bridges were significantly built on areas that initially had no bridge between 900 and 1200”

A lot of reasons constituted to the rise of bridges, some of which are rapid environmental changes , the banking system made fords less usable and a transition from the use of pack animals to horse carts

But why was it that bridgework obligations appeared in earlier Anglo-Saxon charters?  Cooper critically views Boniface and the 749 Gumley Charter and claimed that the obligations were actually not an important aspect of governance, but merely borrowed from Roman and universal laws.

Cooper overviewed debates on the reason for the bridgework, its connection with the military and country wide bridgework obligations, studying six common early bridges. Construction of bridges and imposing bridge work laws were among the West Saxon state-building and public order.

After the Norman Conquest, the idea of a world bridge-work obligation, past even the remittance of the King quickly faded out.

William and sons revoked bridge-work as a sign of goodwill.. When they chose to remove their highly favoured monastic institutions from collective public functions, it became open to all from whatever background to also excuse themselves from such obligations by forgery.

How was it then possible for the bridges to get maintained between the 13th and 14th century?

Obligations remained, though not globally. Some were attached to some estates in particular, others to bigger areas. Various court cases showed how there were several attempts to force or break obligations, through lawful guises and creation of chronicled stories

Resolving to philanthropy and charitable trusts, some common misconception was first corrected about London Bridge:

The completion of the stone bridge at London was initiated by the King, from the knowledge he acquired in his French possessions, employing a French constructor, who introduced French building techniques and methods for funding.

He also examines examples of bridge donations and approved alms collector who gave assistance in return for donations, mostly in areas a distance from the bridges involved.

Another method used for raising funds for maintenance of bridges was through pontage and tolls on goods for sale. They were similar to pavage grants, for paving towns and to legislations about the king’s highway”. There was difference between road and bridge maintenance, but in ancient England, the king had supreme powers over both

Bridges Law and Power is a discourse on a relatively shallow topic, but has more deep material set aside for footnotes which is about a quarter of each of the pages. No concrete legal backing or any precise knowledge of the era. For the laymen, it presents a different view on ancient state-building and development of English legislations with some fascinating details