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Wandering the medieval streets of London

Here, take my hand. Come on, I won’t hurt you. Nope, just grab hold of me so that I can drag you with me, seven centuries backwards in time. What, you don’t want to? I promise I’ll bring you back. Cross my heart. (Sheesh: some people are SO unadventurous!)

From The Life of St Denis

Now that you’ve overcome your fear, allow me to introduce you to life in the 14th century.
Oh, you think it smells.
Well, yes, I suppose it does. So much humanity squished together—at least here in medieval London where the houses are sort of crammed in side by side. This, however, is a good neighbourhood. Rich, even. If you just follow me inside here (mind the high threshold), I’ll show you around in this well-appointed 14th century home. Here’s the main room—look at the paintings that decorate the plaster walls, pretty, aren’t they? And no, it isn’t true our medieval ancestors only hung their Turkish carpets on the wall or draped them over a table. When Eleanor of Castile became queen of England back in the previous century she introduced the fashion of actually having a carpet or two on the floors—if you can afford it. This rich London vintner apparently can—but you can see they usually walk around the carpet, lying there to display their wealth.

Vintners testing the produce?

Note the silverware on the table, the beeswax candles on their holders. Only rich people have beeswax candles—the rest have to make do with rushlights or tallow candles. Tallow candles stink. Rushlights give off a smoky light that irritates the eyes. No wonder most people go to bed once it’s dark. Our vintner even has a couple of glass goblets. Probably come all the way from Venice, as has the silk his wife is wearing. Well, the silk comes from even further afield, but those Venetians have hogged the Eastern markets—just as the Hanseatic merchants have cornered the herring market.
Other than the treasures already described, this room has one more feature that shout to the world our vintner—let us call him Master Ralph—is not only rich, but also an early adopter. His windows are all glassed, small diamonds of greenish glass allowing in some daylight. This room is where the master of the house entertains and conducts business. It is also where he and his family eat and as this is a fish day they’ve just enjoyed a meal of stockfish. I know: enjoy and stockfish don’t really go together, but in this household the fish (which is bought dried, left to soak back into shape in lye and water and then boiled) is served with a nice creamy allspice sauce.

Even a merchant’s wife had to be useful…

If you look at the lady of the house, you will note she’s wearing both veil and wimple. The cote-hardie is of excellent cut, a deep blue shade embroidered in green that matches her kirtle. A ring or two on her fingers—not at all as ostentatious as her husband, whose various digits glitter with gold and jewels. The lady has a number of keys hanging from her embroidered girdle. One of these keys is for the spice chest in which she stores everything from cardamom to black pepper and cane sugar. The sugar is extremely expensive, comes in miniature loafs and is, according to Ralph, an unnecessary indulgence when there is honey to use instead. Not that he is aware of it, but Ralph is right: sugar consumption in his time and age is as yet not the addiction it will become, but come Tudor times, the rich and wealthy will lose most of their teeth due to their sugar craving.

After their meal, the family and their guest—a gaunt Flemish gentleman named Nicholaas who trades in wool and eyes the vintner’s wife with covetous eyes whenever Ralph looks elsewhere—enjoy a goblet or two of wine. Nicholaas has news of the ongoing conflict in France, shaking his head as he recounts the disaster of Crécy.
“Disaster?” Ralph bristles. Good King Edward routed the perfidious French!
“For the French.” Nicholaas grins, adjusting the lace-trimmed coif that adorns his head. “All that ransom money will fill the English king’s coffers.”
They discuss the impact of the war on trade, agreeing these are good times for men with wares to sell, before Ralph decided it is time to retire for the night. His guest has been offered a bed by the hearth in the main room but has declined, saying he’ll dare the curfew and return to the room he’s rented in the inn a few houses down the lane. Besides, he adds, after all this good food and wine, he needs the privy.
Ralph bids Nicholaas goodnight, orders one of his apprentices to bank the fires while he locks the doors—both to the house and to his storage rooms. He ascends the stairs with a lit taper. The bedroom door is open. In the pallet bed sleeps Ralph’s pride and joy, his two sons. Two heads of tousled curls lie close together, and he crouches to adjust their blankets whispering “may the Lord keep you safe this night and all other nights.”

He blows out the taper and undresses. His wife helps him with his embroidered robe, hanging it carefully from one of the clothes pegs. She is already ready for bed, the hair she never displays in public fully visible, a dark braid snaking down her back. In only her chemise, she orders the room, grumbling—as mothers have done through the ages—about toys and clothes left all over the place.
Ralph has finished washing face and hands and retires to their bed. He discards his shirt, throwing it to land at the foot of the bed. His wife casts him a look from under her eyelashes.
“Come, Elizabeth,” he says. And she does, blowing out the single candle on her way. Sheets rustle. She giggles. He calls her his dear heart.

Outside, Nicholaas braves the rain and dark, arriving safely at the inn. He orders ale, studying the maid’s arse as she hastens to do his bidding. What will it cost, he muses. A groat? He looks for the innkeeper. Their eyes meet. The innkeeper holds up two fingers. Two groats? Nicholaas isn’t sure the scrawny lass is worth it, but an evening in the company of the fair Elizabeth has left him with an itch. He wonders, as he always does, when Ralph will properly look at his sons and see just who they resemble. Nicholaas smiles into his ale and decides the maid will do for tonight.

The maid doesn’t want to accompany the Flemish trader upstairs, but when Jack the innkeeper gives her that look she knows she has no choice. She needs her earnings—how else to pay for the upkeep of her daughter who lives with the innkeeper’s mother? She sighs and smooths at the worn fabric of her skirts. Work is hard to find for an unwed mother and pleasing the Flemish trader will leave her with an extra groat. Soon enough, she’ll have enough saved to buy herself a new kirtle. Maybe it should be in yellow, she thinks bitterly as she mounts the stairs. The colour of a harlot for the inn’s little whore.

Jack watches her out of sight before blowing out the few candles he still has burning. The fire is carefully banked—he does that himself. It’s not that long ago one of the louts that went for his servant almost managed to set the whole building alight due to his careless handling of the fires. The innkeeper hums to himself as he goes about his tasks. His little country cousin provides a welcome addition to his earnings and should she balk he can always threaten her with turning her out—her and her bastard brat both.

In the kitchen the cook has set the oats to soak for tomorrow. Bowls and mugs are neatly stacked and the pantry is locked. Jack calls for one of the younger lads that work for him. His tunic is worn thin over his elbows, the hose has been patched so many times it is a miracle it still holds together, and the coif covering the lad’s hair is in need of a wash. Jack sets him to sweeping out the ashes in the large hearth. They are still hot and by the time he’s done, the lad will likely have burns over his hands and forearms. Will teach him to be more careful next time.

Jack steps outside into the small yard. There’s a stench from the privy that has him reminding himself he must send over the bridge to the tanner in Southwark and ask him if he still wants to buy the piss. He cranes his head back and peers up at the stars.
“The firmaments of heaven,” he murmurs, scratching his chest. He sniffs his sleeve. Time for a bath, he concludes. Yes, a nice long bath down at the bath house. Tomorrow, God willing.

from the Northern French Miscellany, France, 1277-1286, Add MS 11639, f. 517r

Right, dear reader, it is time for us to leave Jack, his nameless cousin, Nicholaas, Ralph and his false wife.
You want to know what happens next? Will Ralph find out, will the cousin escape her imposed prostitution? The answer to both those questions is no.
What? You want me to give the cousin a chance? She’s already been given one, saved from starving to death on the street by Jack. I know, I know: all very sad, but life back then was harsh.
There’s nothing we can do to change that, so before you get permanently stuck here in the mid-fourteenth century take hold of my hand, okay? Back we go to our time, to modern comforts and things like tea and chocolate. But in difference to Jack, we can rarely see the stars winking down at us in London anymore which is a shame, IMO. The price of progress, I suppose!

1 thought on “Wandering the medieval streets of London”

  1. Thanks for sharing this interesting post, Anna. I’ve spent a lot of time in early 14th century England and yet yours is so much more “real,” a much more colorful depiction 0f London of that very long time ago.

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