Charter of Lorris Is Written

The Charter of Lorris served as the model charter for more than eighty medieval European towns, defining the nature of the urban liberties of townspeople in France.

Summary of Event

The Charter of Lorris was an early and significant charter guaranteeing urban liberties. It served as a model of urban privileges for French towns in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The granting of such urban charters represented a major transformation in medieval politics, society, and economy. Roman cities in the early Middle Ages had deteriorated into stagnant markets populated mostly by the administrative or military personnel of bishoprics or lay lords. Although markets never fully disappeared and local traders still plied their wares, towns no longer were the thriving centers of long-distance trade or handicraft production. Compared with cities of imperial Rome, there were fewer governmental functions and cultural activities. The medieval population was overwhelmingly rural, and most peasants by the ninth century were serfs—they were not free and owed various forms of labor service and taxes to their lords. Serfs had to bake their bread in the lord’s oven. Although legally not slaves, serfs Serfs had no access to public courts of law; they could not leave the estates and could not marry outside the estate without obtaining the lord’s permission and paying a tax. Their dependency on their lords made them virtual slaves. [kw]Charter of Lorris Is Written (1155)
[kw]Lorris Is Written, Charter of (1155)
Lorris, Charter of (1155)
France;1155: Charter of Lorris Is Written[1990]
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Louis VI
Louis VII

Beginning in the tenth century, the medieval population began to grow and rural production of grain increased. The rise in population and food production, particularly in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, made possible the reemergence of urban life. Once again towns attracted long-distance traders in luxury commodities, such as spices and silk, and in sugar, salt, metals (iron, copper, tin), precious metals (gold and silver), furs, cloth, wine, foodstuffs (grain, salted fish), and so forth. Towns became centers of important manufacturing, especially in cloth. Merchants and craftspeople organized themselves into guilds and soon demanded privileges commensurate with their growing economic power. Towns sometimes staged violent revolts against their lay or ecclesiastical lords, or peacefully obtained charters securing a high degree of autonomy and, most important, freeing townspeople from many of the exactions owed by serfs.

In Mediterranean towns, as in Italy, the concept of citizen (civis) was retained, encompassing all the urban dwellers, whether aristocrats or commoners. Yet northern towns beyond the Alps, as in France and Germany, drew a distinction between those living in the central fortress (bourg) and the merchants and craftspeople living outside the bourg in a trading area called a port, vicus, or Wik. In the north, the term “burgher” was extended to mean townspeople, socially distinct from lay lords or knights, and personally free.

The town was an association (universitas)—a collective legal personality, where political power belonged to the town. Towns were theoretically autonomous in administrative, judicial, and fiscal matters; they were largely freed from monarchical government. This development was more fully realized in Italy, where towns became city-states. The principle of urban autonomy and independent councils with elected officers also spread to France, Flanders, and Germany. In France, the monarchy still retained administrative prerogatives. Monarchs and other great territorial princes found it to their economic benefit to support towns and to grant charters of liberties, because towns offered vast new sources of revenue through new taxes and payments for charters.

An important element in the development of urban liberties was the growing power of the Church, which sought independence from lay control and lay investments of bishops. The Church’s policy of a Pax Dei (peace of God) sought to protect the clergy and others from war. This implied exemption from the policing power of the monarchy, and the idea of Church privileges was applied to towns.

Towns, however, were not democracies. Government was generally in the hands of wealthy merchants, who formed the urban patriciate and dominated local politics through the merchant guild. Craft guilds were often represented in government but rarely exercised decisive government control, except through periodic rebellions and force. Yet the towns were also the vehicles of an economic revolution, bringing in new wealth in commerce and manufacture and offering new economic techniques and a new economic system in credit, banking and money exchange, investments, and capital.

Towns became centers of intellectual life in the cathedral schools and universities. Their economies made possible the building of the great Gothic cathedrals. Towns attracted peasants seeking to escape serfdom. Peasants who could establish that they had lived a year and a day in a town could obtained their freedom. The rural nobility encouraged peasants to trade in towns in return for new taxes. Some rural villages were given “charters” to help promote the growth of markets. The nobility required money in order to obtain the goods traded and manufactured in towns. Peasant labor services and taxes in kind were commuted to money payments. Thus the rise of towns Towns, rise of was instrumental in slowly changing and even ending serfdom in parts of western Europe.

The Charter of Lorris was granted to a small town in north-central France, not far from Orléans. The original royal charter was given by King Louis VI Louis VI (king of France) , often called the Father of Communes, but was later lost. The earliest extant document is a redaction written in 1155 and granted to the town and parish of Lorris by King Louis VII Louis VII (king of France) . Unlike Italian towns, Lorris retained an important presence of royal power in administrative and judicial matters in the office of provost. According to article 35, all provosts and sergeants were required to uphold the liberties or customs of the charter.

The charter’s customs clearly differentiated townspeople from the peasantry. Townspeople were exempted from taxes common to peasants, such as the tallage (or taille—a tax levied on people or land) described in article 9 and the inheritance tax (mainmorte). Through the provision in article 24, townspeople were freed from the peasant tax to bake bread in the lord’s oven. Taxation;France Marriage fees were not imposed. The charter granted the right to sell one’s home and to leave the town, unless one had committed a crime (article 17). Townspeople were exempt from labor service (corvée), which was typical of peasant life, except to cart the king’s wine to Orléans twice a year (article 15). In article 18, the charter enshrined the concept that to live a year and a day within the town secured one’s freedom.

The charter also provided important judicial privileges. These included autonomy from the abbot for those who had lands in the domain of the monastery of Saint Benedict. Townspeople had the right to be heard before the king’s court within the town. They were not under the judicial authority of any provosts other than the royal provost in Lorris. These provisions effectively provided judicial freedom from neighboring powerful lay or ecclesiastical lords. The charter also preserved privileges in judicial procedures (the right to bail and the necessity of witnesses to crimes) and security over property. Judicial duels were regulated, and various fines and provost fees were reduced. Laws and law codes;France

Certain limited seignorial (feudal) rights were preserved, however. A quitrent (cens), or fixed rent of six derniers for each house or acre of land in the parish, was levied; the king and his queen had the right to have provisions for a fortnight. Military duty could be imposed but townspeople were not required to go beyond one day’s march. Taxes in rye for the provision of the sergeants were levied but restricted, and the king had the right to sell from the royal vineyards with public notice. According to article 2, however, no tax was imposed on food for one’s own consumption or grain grown by one’s own labor.

To encourage commerce, article 6 of the charter enacted the right of free movement of traders; commercial taxes were regulated; and no tolls were taken on the roads to Étampes, Orléans, or Milly.


The Charter of Lorris became the standard custom of privileges for more than eighty towns, mostly small ones, located in the royal domain. Lorris was typical of French urban privileges in that it granted personal liberty, free movement, control over one’s property, and limited autonomy. In the thirteenth century, royal power increased over many French towns, and the French bourgeoisie became politically and economically tied to the monarchy. This development would have extremely important consequences for the future political history of France.

Further Reading

  • Beatty, J., and O. Johnson. Heritage of Western Civilization. 8th ed. 2 vols. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995. Volume 2 contains a translation of the Charter of Lorris.
  • Hilton, R. H. English and French Towns in Feudal Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A major comparative study of feudal urban life.
  • Nicholas, David. The Growth of the Medieval City: From Late Antiquity to the Early Fourteenth Century. New York: Longman, 1997. Discusses land ownership, commerce, industry, law, and more in the history and growth of cities and towns in early medieval Europe.
  • Petit-Dutailles, Charles. The French Communes in the Middle Ages. Translated by Joan Vickes. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1978. This work is a classic study of French towns.
  • Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1925. An important analysis of the rise of towns.
  • Reynolds, Susan. Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1984. An examination of the nature of urban and rural communities in the Middle Ages.
  • Sonnenfeld, Albert, Jean-Louis Flandrin, and Massimo Montanari. Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. Translated by Clarissa Botsford et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. An extensive, nearly six-hundred-page collection of essays on the history and culture of the food, foodstuffs, food production, diets, eating behaviors, dining habits and formalities, and more of ancient times to the present, including an essay on the urban diet in the Middle Ages.