Middle-Class Writing in Late Medieval London, by Malcolm Richardson

Research output: Contribution to JournalBook Review


Malcolm Richardson’s excellent book on writing culture in late medieval London opens with an unexpected anecdote about piracy. After two mercantile vessels were beset by pirates in the English Channel, the Merchant Adventurers of London responded with a flurry of different written instructions to ensure the safe return of the stolen goods. Messages politic, economic and, above all, bureaucratic quickly made their way back and forth across the Continent. Richardson wittily introduces the ubiquity of the written word in late medieval society, and his lively style—full of dry asides and references to medieval parallels in modern society—propels the reader along through four substantial chapters.

The driving question of the book is: why (and when) did the English ‘middle classes’ take up writing? Unlike earlier scholars, Richardson does not begin his study in the fifteenth century, which is typically seen as the period when advancing literacy and increased governmental and civic bureaucracy led to an ‘outburst of document creation’. Instead, he argues that for about a century and a half prior to this, members of urban elites gradually came to value and utilise written documents—and then began to write them for themselves. The major narrative strand of the book traces the relationship between writing and what Richardson calls the ‘proto-capitalist culture of middle-class London’. Richardson acknowledges the frustrations involved in using the term ‘middle class’, and explains that he mainly intends it to mean merchants and artisans. The problem with this rather vague term is that it can occlude socio-economic and cultural differences between the groups who fall under its large umbrella, which unfortunately Richardson does not take time to unpack.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)434-435
JournalThe English Historical Review
Issue number537
Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2014
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'Middle-Class Writing in Late Medieval London, by Malcolm Richardson'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this