This article examines 45 preambles in collections of urban customary law (called custumals) from 32 premodern towns in England between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. Urban custom was the local law of English towns, and constituted traditions and privileges that gained legal force over time. How lawmakers conceived of “bad” custom—that is, the desuetude or corruption of custom—was crucial to the intellectual framework of urban law. Evidence from preambles shows that lawmakers rooted the legitimacy of their laws in “customary time,” which was the period from the supposed origins of their customs to their formalization in text. Lawmakers’ efforts to reinforce, ratify, and revise urban customs by making new custumals and passing ordinances were attempts to broaden their autonomy and respond to the possibility of “bad” custom.
Esther Liberman Cuenca(ORCID ID 0000-0002-1174-4975) is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston-Victoria in Victoria, Texas. Her research specialties are urban history, medieval law, and medievalisms. She teaches courses on world history, women's and gender studies, and the digital humanities. She is currently working on her book manuscript, The Making of Urban Law in Medieval England.