Online Medieval Sources Bibliography

An Annotated Bibliography of Printed and Online Primary Sources for the Middle Ages

Source Details

Benham, W. Gurney, ed., trans., The Red Paper Book of Colchester (Colchester: Essex County Standard Office) Read this source online

Text name(s): 

Number of pages of primary source text: 166


Dates: 1300 - 1550

Archival Reference: Essex Record Office D/B 5 R2, which is unavailable to the public. There is, however, public access to the microfilm copy: Essex Record Office T/A 465/158.

Original Language(s): 

  • English - Middle English
  • Anglo-Norman
  • Latin


  • Translated into English.
  • Original language included.

Translation Comments: Only some selections have been translated. The Anglo-Norman and Middle English passages have been left alone. The Latin has been translated.

Geopolitical Region(s): 

  • England

County/Region: Colchester; Essex

Record Types: 

  • Law - Local Ordinances
  • Chronicle, Annals
  • Charters, Deeds
  • Custumal
  • Taxes

Subject Headings: 

  • Government
  • Economy - Trade
  • Economy - Guilds and Labor
  • Economy - Crafts and Industry
  • Law - Secular
  • Towns / Cities


  • Index
  • Introduction


Since public business in the Middle Ages was judicial in character, the custumal and the court roll were the principal registers of a medieval borough’s administration. Custumals were compiled for a practical purpose: to guide, and even educate, successive generations of civic officials tasked with keeping law and order within their boroughs. Custumals may have been modified to reflect the changing needs of the community, but they also may have been copies of local laws from neighboring towns. Borough custumals are prescriptive sources that shed light on the social and economic practices in a medieval town. Colchester had two town custumals in which important memoranda—such as court cases, royal correspondences, local ordinances, oaths of office, and even town histories—were recorded. The Red Paper Book contains ordinances governing the town’s guilds and crafts, markets and trade, and the duties of civic officers. Documents such as wills, property deeds, and donations have also been enrolled. The contents of the Red Paper Book (named for its red cover) are presented as they appeared in the original text (there is a useful “Kalendar of all matters contained in this book” on pp. 2-4). Benham, the editor, only translated the Latin passages and let the Anglo-Norman French and Middle English passages speak for themselves, though he did translate and even provided editorial headings for each document. The memoranda contained within range from the early 14th century to the middle of 16th century and appear out of order (that is, they do not appear in chronological order, although the earliest portions of the custumal tend to appear at the beginning of the book). For more information on this source, see R.H. Britnell, “The Oath Book of Colchester and the Borough Constitution, 1372-1404,” Essex Archaeology and History 14 (1982): 94-101 and Growth and Decline in Colchester, 1300-1525 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Introduction Summary: 

The introduction is only a couple of pages describing the provenance and discovery of the book.

Cataloger: ELC