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

The Bridges of Medieval England: Transport and Society 400-1800

David Harrison
Oxford University Press 2004

Part 1 of The Bridges of Medieval England is an overview of bridges, analyzing their numbers, where they are located and the time their structures were built or rebuilt. Harrison gives a critical analysis of some routes and waterways where there are traces of bridges.
During the Dark Ages, there was a return to fords; new bridges were now constructed on their sites instead of areas that had the Roman bridges.
We may have a clearer view of the routes of the late Anglo-Saxon England better than roman routes from a guide of the 18th or even the early part of the 20th century as painted.

Two centuries after Norman Conquest, there was a remarkable boost in transportation which brought bridges to the frontline of interests in the new road system.
Certainly, many bridges had been in existence at about 1350, more also, enough proves abounds to support claims that some of these bridges were established even before the 13rd century.
In all these claims, the exact number of new bridges constructed could not be ascertained.
It is most likely that some of the bridges found in the 12th and 13th centuries were constructed around the late 11th century, but the exact number of bridges was not known.
Harrison further produces some analysis, linking bridges to a more complex history

Towards the end of Saxon era there was a road (known then as the main road) that linked London through Nottingham and Doncaster to the North. According to Domes day Book, a portion of it was referred to as the road heading to York in Nottinghamshire. Going to York through Blyth and Doncaster. In 868, it is most likely that this part of the road had been used when the York based Danes captured Nottingham. Trent of the fort was here. This route became significant about 50 years later. This was as a result of the construction of a bridge effectively directing traffic from north to south to the bridge. It was unarguably a most vital Trent crossing in the 11th century. William I (William the conqueror) passed through the same route on his journeys to and fro his major campaigns in the north in 1068 and also in the spring and autumn of 1069.

The periods (about 500 years) after the year 1250 were relatively stable years.
The period specifically after 1760 in the 18th century witnessed another change in the situation. Numerous bridges were constructed at different places. Bridges were now used to replace ferries left on secondary roads. This led to a drastic change in bridge construction, which has lingered to the present day. However, except for some handful of river crossings, others remained as they had been back in the dark ages.

Part II swings to bridge structures.
Harrison kicks off with threats confronted by bridges, especially those imposed by great floods. The main construction materials were timber, timber and stone, or arched stone; this was traced by archaeology, illustrations, descriptions and surveying of existing bridges.
Harrison provides a history of bridge construction: Causeways and early timber deck type of bridges, vaulted stone bridges, coffer dams bridges etc. He also viewed regional differences and specifications.

Within the 11th and the 15th centuries, there were contrary dispositions in various parts of the country. Most of the bridges on lowland in the southern parts and midlands retained same designs and pattern of construction for centuries. However, great progress was made amongst the medieval masons: most paramount was the ability to carve out a base for even worse conditions; also important was erection of mega arches, and recognition of its value and also vital was construction of large divided arches.

There have been claims and counter claims that these old-age bridges were of substandard quality and had low maintenance. On his part, Harrison examines the claims differently:
By the later part of the middle ages, there were well structured constructions, which were followed by regular maintenance. Bridges were still useful even when they were in terrible states .in the event that a part of them falls, they were patched. If it happens to be a major damage, a transient one is erected as substitute, pending the renovation of the collapsed bridge.

Part III examines the funding of construction and maintenance.
Financial records were improved upon during the later era, but great resources were dedicated to fund bridges in earlier periods. Such financial resources were generated from donations, bridgework commitment and tolls; the county councils had practically taken over the responsibility for funding and maintenance of bridges by 1900, but
When motor vehicles were invented and introduced, landowners still repaired the bridges because it was more of a liability they had inherited a number of almost a thousand years old, or from funds they got from bridge estates set up for almost same period.

The Bridges of Medieval England has 16 pages with white and black images of bridges. It has basic similarity with English history and a blend of architectural terms. It also used some Latin quotations without offering a corresponding translation in English. However, it is easily accessible, giving a brilliant mix of architecture, history, human geography and engineering.

Medieval Iceland: Sagas, Society and Power

Jesse L. Byock

After the settlement of Iceland in the 10th century, The Icelandic Free State came to exist and it lasted until the mid-13th and became one of the most intriguing political milieu. Without any external threats, (and also no indigenous population to get things complicated) the settlers in Iceland’s created a society filled with  farmers without any executive government and social hierarchy, with law and order being maintained by an interaction between law, feud and personal relationships. This made medieval Iceland to be an intriguing sociological and political “experiment” as well as a fascinating history — and I think Medieval Iceland will make an excellent introduction to it.

Byock started with a very brief survey of the legal and historical sources. Turning his attention to the Icelandic sagas, he took a stand in the historiographical debate of their value as sources, He was arguing for their own importance in comprehending the social and economic background. He also presents a draft filled with the  history of the Free State, from the creation and settlement of the legal system, through an evolution, This was until Iceland became controlled by the Norwegian crowns between 1262-1264. In 1000, Iceland adopted Christianity, However, this was not achieved by conflict or war, rather it was through negotiations and, with Iceland being distant from the central Church authority, their new religious belief was made to fit with the structures that already existed.

Byock’s focus is mainly on governance and most especially the relationship between gothar (” the chieftains”) and the farmers  Gothar had some special sources of wealth — some limited taxes and also a chance at setting prices for imports; trade and tithes were open to all the farmers. The power of gothar is on their status as the legal advocates and also a gothorth is not a hereditary and territorial chieftaincy but rather “it is a professional vocation that’s got to do with entrepreneurial overtones”. The relationship between ordinary farmers and gothar is flexible, because farmers are free to change their allegiance and be subject to only the limited obligations, and the binding forces of the society is client-advocate relationship, fictive and real kinship relationships, and also formalised ties of friendship.

3 chapters present cases from the Sturlunga sagas and the family, illustrating just how this system of governance really worked in practice. Conflicts caused by Sturlunga and property illustrate the relationship between farmers and also the way in which gothar can utilize their status as advocates in other to get concessions. The fate Arnkell’s has towards the Eyrbyggja saga shows the limitations on the ambitions of gothar and a few of the “balances and checks” of the system. And the struggle between Geitir and Brod-Helgi in Vapnfirthinga saga shows just how broad the networks of support was needed in other to safely carry out the direct action.

The great Tibetan Empire inside Central Asia: 

The History of the fight for Power among Turks, Arabs, Chinese and Chinese during the Early Middle era

Christopher I. Beckwith

Before the Game between the Russians and the British, some early great empires competed for influence and control inside Central Asia. Inside the great Tibetan Empire of Central Asia, Beckwith gives a narrative of happenings running from between 600 to 850 and presents a handful of Tibetan point of view, but uses Arab and Chinese sources and offers what is likely a history of Tarim basin and the surrounding areas.

The origin of Yarlung dynasty is just mirky; This is a historical narrative that commenced around 600. The seventh century witnessed a 3-way battle over the great Tarim basin between the Chinese, Mongolic-native speaking people also called the T’u-yü-hun Tibetans or the Aza. The defeat of the Tibetan Tang in 670 was the end of 2 decades of the Chinese domination of Tarim Basin”, named “the Pacified West”.

A seesawing balance of power ensued, which involved the Western and Eastern Turks (On oq). The Tibetans always had the ascendancy, not until an internal collapse gave the Chinese the opportunity to retake the “4 Garrisons” — Kucha, Khotan, Agni, and probably Kashgar — in 692.

The early 8th century saw the Tibetans focus their attention to “Western Regions” inside Tukharistan and Pamirs. The Arabians under the command of general Qutayba fought against the Western Turks, while the Chinese and the Tibetians  interfered. In 715 the Arabians took a raiding party and Ferghana as they reached Kashgar, which brought them to the the Tang Empire  border, but the importance of the event wasn’t comprehended by both parties at the time.

The conflict between Tibet and China still continues, with the Tibetans in partnership with the Türgis confederation of Western Turks. Tibetan states in the west have defected to the Chinese, with the Tibetans being defeated by the Chinese troops in Little Balur and also blocking their way to the west. Meanwhile, A Sogdian revolt was subdued by the Arabs.

The alliance of the Tibetan-Türgis fought both the Arabs and  the Chinese, but that period witnessed an increase in power from the  Chinese, with 750, “the acme of Chinese political power and military inside Central Asia”. The Chinese were also successful in battle against the eastern Tibetans. However, their success in battle brought about the conflict between the Tang and the Arabs, who won them in the great battle of Talas in 751.

A Lu-shan rebellion in 755 and an ensuing conflict was what weakened the Tangs as well as gave the Tibetans their ascendancy, though they did not take Khotan, not until the early 790s. Other key members include the Uyghurs and Qarluq confederation, while the Tibetans got involved in a conflict with the Arabs. Beckwith’s continued his narrative in less detail (in 765, the Old Tibetan Annals ended) down to 866, when only bits and pieces was what remained of the great Tibetan Empire.

In his epilogue, Beckwith talks about the medieval great Tibetan Empire using the context of a broader Eurasian history, stressing the very importance of international trade and Central Asia during that period. He was very critical of others and Pirenne who have dismissed the Tibetans and Franks as “barbarians” and went on to downplay what the achieved — and he’s got a reasonable case here, though he went far in putting down the early Arab caliphate, the Byzantine Empire and Tang China. (Beckwith has taken some idiosyncratic positions: for instance, his prologue, a complain about no evidence for the Sino-Tibetan family language.  however, he is up front about his limits: his inability to scan Arabic for names and the lack of familiarity with  South Asian sources.)

The great Tibetan Empire inside Central Asia presents a continuous narration of political and military events, without an attempt to cover religion and culture also. It is dense with the names of places and people, but the main text is very readable, with discussions of sources, historiography, epigraphy, the links to archaeology, and much more relegated to the footnotes, which will take up about a third of most of the pages. The only map provided is ok but too small; readers who are not familiar with the region will have little trouble following the events. And there is a useful 15 page bibliographical essay that discusses the sources for the period.

As being the one and only general history of the region in the early medieval era, The Tibetan Empire inside Central Asia will be essential reading for area specialists. Its layout also makes it accessible to lay readers with some background in the area.