We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. By continuing to browse this repository, you give consent for essential cookies to be used. You can read more about our Privacy and Cookie Policy.

Durham Research Online
You are in:

Cultures of surveillance in late medieval English towns: the monitoring of speech and the fear of revolt.

Liddy, Christian D. (2016) 'Cultures of surveillance in late medieval English towns: the monitoring of speech and the fear of revolt.', in The Routledge history handbook of medieval revolt. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 311-329. Routledge history handbooks.


The sheriffs, wrote John Carpenter in his 1419 book of the customs of London, ‘are called “the eyes of the mayor”’. They are ‘the eyes of the mayor, watchful and supportive of the responsibilities which the said mayor, as one person, is not able to bear on his own’ (Sunt quoque Vicecomites Majoris oculi, conspicientes et supportantes partem sollicitudinis quae dicti Majoris personae singularitas portare non sufficit). At first glance, Carpenter’s metaphor does not seem at all surprising: the inhabitants of late medieval English towns were accustomed to think of their communities as urban bodies. The organological metaphor was so familiar that it could serve multiple and, sometimes, conflicting functions. It informed contemporary attitudes towards public health and animated far-reaching social, moral, and environmental policies. Politically, organic imagery could appeal for a state of reciprocity between the limbs of the urban body politic. More contentiously, it could demand the subordination of the various members of the body to the chief magistrate, the ‘head’. Carpenter’s appropriation of the metaphor was unusual because of his interest not only in the ‘head’, but also in the ‘eyes’. If the ‘head’ represented intellect and reason, and was the source of wisdom, the ‘eyes’ were the senses. The burden of office in London was too great for any one man, Carpenter suggested. The mayor could not do everything; he needed help to discharge his official duties. The sheriffs were there to share the heavy weight of public responsibility. They were the mayor’s ‘eyes’; they could see what he could not. dread was large-scale, open revolt. The argument here is that surveillance arose from a complex connection between rebellion and speech.

Item Type:Book chapter
Full text:(AM) Accepted Manuscript
Download PDF
Publisher Web site:
Publisher statement:This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge in The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt on 29/11/2016 available online:
Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:14 June 2017
Date of first online publication:29 November 2016
Date first made open access:29 May 2018

Save or Share this output

Look up in GoogleScholar