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How Merchant Towns Shaped Parliaments: From the Norman Conquest of England to the Great Reform Act

Charles Angelucci, Simone Meraglia, Nico Voigtländer

NBER Working Paper No. 23606
Issued in July 2017, Revised in February 2020
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Economic Fluctuations and Growth, Political Economy

We study the emergence of urban self-governance during the Commercial Revolution in the 12th- 13th century and show that municipal autonomy shaped national institutions over the subsequent centuries. We focus on England after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and build a novel comprehensive dataset of 554 Medieval towns (boroughs). We show that merchant towns were particularly likely to obtain Farm Grants – the right of self-governed tax collection and law enforcement. We present evidence that self-governance, in turn, fostered enfranchisement: Farm Grant towns were much more likely to be summoned directly to the Medieval English Parliament than otherwise similar towns. We also show that self-governed towns strengthened the role of Parliament: They resisted royal attempts to introduce patronage and maintained broader voting rights; they also raised troops to back Parliament against the king during the Civil War in 1642, and they supported the modernization of Parliament during the Great Reform Act of 1832. Finally, we compare England’s institutional path to Continental Europe and discuss the conditions under which urban self-governance fosters institutional development at a higher level.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23606

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