The Late Medieval City

A Tudor depiction of the market of East Cheap; note the number of butchers’ shops, in a city where meat was at a premium.


This Companye

The visitation of “the death” in the last months of 1348 destroyed 40 per cent of London’s population. Perhaps 50,000 people died within the city. A decade later, one-third of the land within the walls remained uninhabited. It was called “the great pestilence” as well as “the death,” and reoccurred with extraordinary virulence eleven years later. London (like most other European cities) remained under the threat of bubonic plague for the rest of the century. It was not an urban disease but it flourished in urban conditions; it was transmitted by rats, living in the straw and thatch of medieval dwellings, as well as by close respiratory proximity.

Yet London seems inured to disaster, and there is no evidence of any discontinuity in the history of this period. It was said that in the city itself there were not enough living to bury the dead but, for those who survived, the disease offered an unparalleled opportunity to thrive and flourish. Many, for example, became prosperous as a result of unexpected inheritance; while, for others, the demand for labour meant that their worth was greater than they had imagined. The late fourteenth century was a time when many families, those of labourers and merchants alike, moved from the neighbouring provinces to the great city in order to make their fortunes. From this period dates the apocryphal history of Dick Whittington, which once more spread the story of London as “Cockaigne” or the realm of gold.

The real Richard Whittington was a member of the mercers’ guild, and London’s history cannot properly be understood without also understanding the nature of those fraternities which combined the regulation of work with religious observances and parish duties. London may not have been recognised as a “city of god” upon the earth, but there were many late medieval theorists who believed that the city itself was the pattern of human existence as well as an emblem of human harmony.

There seem to have been trading guilds since the time of the Saxons, gegildan, later known as “frith guilds,” which also possessed military or defensive functions. In the twelfth century certain traders, such as the bakers and the fishmongers, were allowed to collect their own taxes without being “farmed” or tolled by the royal administration. As part of a complementary, if not directly connected, process we find the various trades congregating in separate areas; the bakers were ensconced in Bread Street, while the fishmongers might be found in Friday Street (good Catholics ate no meat on Fridays).

The growth of craft guilds, located in a specific area, cannot be distinguished from the parish guilds of the same vicinity. The tanners who pursued their noisome craft along the banks of the River Fleet, for example, were accustomed to meet at their own “fraternity” in the Carmelite house in Fleet Street. By the late thirteenth century there were approximately two hundred fraternities in which craft regulation and religious observance were mingled. In the church of St. Stephen, Coleman Street, for example, three fraternities are recorded; while at St. James Garlickhythe there was a “litel companye” of joiners. It was a typically late medieval arrangement, which effectively allowed a self-regulating and self-sustaining community to prosper within the context of a rapidly developing city. In the early fourteenth century was issued a royal charter in which it was formally announced that no man might join a specific craft without the recommendation and security of six other members of that craft; a further stipulation decreed that only members of a craft might be admitted to the freedom of the city. Only citizens, in other words, could belong to a trade guild. In this fashion the guilds acquired enormous economic power within the city. One ordinance, for example, required that ale or beer could be bought only from freemen enfranchised in and inhabiting London.

But in London economic power in turn purchased political and social preeminence so that, in 1351 and again in 1377, the crafts themselves elected the Common Council of the city. It ought to be remembered, also, that there were “many craftes” and “mochel smale poeple” who would simply have met for business in their local church. The religious and social constraints of these trading “mysteries”—the word has no sacred significance, but comes from the French métier—are also implicit within the ordinances of the guilds themselves which emphasised the importance of honesty and good reputation. The rules of the fraternity of St. Anne at St. Laurence Jewry, for example, demanded that “yif any of the company be of wikked fame of his body and take othere wyues than his owene or yif he be a sengle man and be holde a comone lechour or contecour or rebell of his tonge” then he is to be admonished. After three such warnings, if unavailing, he is to be expelled so that “godemen of this companye ne be nat sclaundered bi cause of hym.”

There are other aspects of these guild ordinances which reveal the very condition of the time. It is noted in the same rules that anyone who “vse hym to lye longe in bedde & atte risyng of his bed ne wil nat worcke to wynne his sustenaunce & kepe his house & go to the tavernne to the wyn to the ale to wrastelynge to schetynge,” “schal be put of for euermore of this companye.” Clearly the enjoyment of drink and what might now be termed “spectator sport” was not considered compatible with good working practice; the same admonitions against urban amusements were made by Daniel Defoe in his seventeenth-century manual on London trade. In a similar spirit there are injunctions against any who acquire an “euel name” as “theft or commune barettour or comune questmonger or meyntenour of quereles”; the guilds were here condemning those who breached public peace, as if the act of quarrelling or disputing might itself be construed as sinful in a community whose harmony was maintained only with great difficulty. The emphasis here is upon good standing, and the avoidance of shame among equals; it is typical of the regulations which “smale poeple” devised in order to protect their “good name” and therefore assist them in the remorseless pressure to move “upward” in the hierarchy of trades. That is why the ordinary workmen or “journeymen” sometimes tried to combine against their employers, but the city authorities were generally able to prevent any “union” of the lower workers. There came a time when the victualling and manufacturing trades were indeed engaged in bitter dispute about precedence and power, but it was essentially only a further stage in the continual restless and dissatisfied movement of those “lower” trades and professions who gradually pushed themselves forward into the social and political life of the city. This is the true history of London which lives and moves beneath the incidents and events of public record.

But no account of medieval London would be complete without an understanding of the elaborate and complicated manner in which the Church itself remained the single most disciplined and authoritative director of the city’s affairs. In the simply material sphere, the administrators of the Church were the biggest landlords and employers both within and without the walls. Many thousands of people, both secular and spiritual, owed their livings to the great abbeys and monastic foundations of the city, but these large communities also owned ancient lands and manors beyond the jurisdiction of the city itself. The bishop of St. Paul’s, for example, owned the manor of Stepney which stretched to the boundaries of Essex on the east and to Wimbledon and Barnes on the south-west; the canons of that establishment possessed thirteen other manors, ranging from Pancras and Islington to Hoxton and Holborn. This territorial power is a direct expression of secular, as well as spiritual, authority which dates from a very early period indeed; during the steady disintegration of Romanised England, and the dissolution of Roman London, these magnates of the Church had already become the true governing class of the country. The bishop of each province had taken on “the mantle of the Roman consul” and, in default of other public institutions, the parish church and the monastery became the centre of all organised activity. That is why the earliest administrative records of London emphasise the power of the Church authorities. In 900 we read that “the bishop and the reeves who belong to London make, in the name of citizens, laws which were confirmed by the king,” and it was customary for priors and abbots also to become aldermen. There was no distinction between secular and spiritual power because both were seen as intrinsic aspects of the divine order.

London itself was a city of churches, containing a larger number than any other city in Europe. There were more than a hundred churches within the walls of the old City, sixteen alone devoted to St. Mary, and it can reasonably be inferred that many were originally of Saxon date and of wooden construction. In London Walter Besant has noted that “there was no street without its monastery, its convent garden, its college of priests, its friars, its pardoners, its sextons and its serving brothers.” This may seem exaggerated but, although not every lane and alley contained a monastery or a convent garden, a look at any map will show that the main thoroughfares did indeed harbour religious institutions great and small. Beside the 126 parish churches there were thirteen conventual churches, including St. Martin’s le Grand and the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem; there were seven great friaries, including the Carthusian friars of Hart Street; there were five priories, among them St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield and St. Saviour’s in Bermondsey; there were four large nunneries and five priests’ colleges. Of the hospitals and refuges, for the sick and the indigent, we have records of seventeen in areas as diverse as Bevis Marks and Aldgate, Charing Cross and St. Laurence Pountney (among them a refuge for the insane at Barking, and thus the phrase “barking mad”). This is not to mention the chantries, the church schools and the private chapels. It is a further indication of the sanctity of London that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there was continual reconstruction of these sacred edifices. The piety of Londoners is not in doubt.

The evidence of medieval wills in London is of some consequence, and in the last testaments of John Toker, vintner (1428), of Robert Ameray, cordwainer (1410), of Richard Whyteman, wax-chandler (1428), and Roger Elmesley, wax-chandler’s servant (1434), there are tokens of a simple but profound piety. In the details of these testaments there is all the paraphernalia of ordinary London life, with bequests of towels and spoons, beds and blankets; Roger Elmesley left an iron rack for roasting eggs as well as some peacock feathers and “my roller for a towell,” but his main wish was that he be buried “vnder the stone with-oute the Dore of the porche” of St. Margaret Pattens in Little Tower Street. He was concerned also with the spiritual destiny of his godson, to whom he left “a prymmer for to serve god with,” as well as “a litel cofur to putte in his smale thynges.” All of these wills mention sums of money to be given to the poor, or the imprisoned, or the sick, on condition that these disadvantaged would then pray for the soul of the departed. John Toker the vintner, for example, gave various bequests to the priests of St. Mildred’s in Bread Street “forto praie for my soule” with other moneys to be paid to the prisoners of “Ludgate, Marchalsie Kyngesbenche,” as well as to the “pore folk lying sike in the spitell of our lady with-oute Bisshopes-gate, Oure lady of Bedlem, Oure lady of Elsingspitel, of Seynt Bathilmewys in Smythfeeld, And seint Thomas in Sowthwerk.” Many of these institutions exist today, albeit in altered form, while others linger only in the folk memory of London. John Toker left to his apprentice Henry Thommissone “my mancion that is cleped the Mermaid in Bredstreet” which is the very same tavern where Shakespeare and Jonson were supposed to have drunk. The history of London is a palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths.

The patron saint of the medieval city was a seventh-century monk who ruled as the bishop of London: Erkenwald was the spiritual leader of the East Saxons for eighteen years and, after his death, many miracles were vouchsafed on his behalf. The wooden cart or litter upon which Bishop Erkenwald would travel through the streets of London, when age and sickness prevented him from walking through his diocese, became the centre of a cult. Fragments and splinters of this vehicle were credited with curative properties, and the litter was enshrined behind the main altar of St. Paul’s with the relics of the saint himself. The physical remains of Erkenwald were sealed within a leaden casket which was fashioned “in the form of a gabled house or church,” thus rendering in sacred space the physical topography of the city itself.

The cult of Erkenwald survived for many centuries, testifying once more to the piety or credulity of the citizens. There was a miracle at Stratford, where now an industrial park is sited by the River Lea, as well as many other reported wonders in the thoroughfares around St. Paul’s itself. It was in fact something of a miracle that the physical remains of St. Erkenwald survived the various fires that visited the cathedral, most notably the great fire of 1087, after which the relics were placed in a silver shrine befitting Lundoniae maxime sanctus, “the most holy figure of London.” We read of the servants of the abbey moving the body of the saint to yet another great shrine clandestinely by night, since its exposure during the day would have created hysteria among the crowd assembled. This devotion was not of the populace alone. Even in the early sixteenth century the shrine of St. Erkenwald was an object of pilgrimage to the most successful lawyers of London who, on being nominated as serjeants of law, would walk in procession to St. Paul’s in order to venerate the physical presence of the saint.

Legends of dead saints may seem of little relevance, but they were part of the very texture of London life. The citizens when they first carried Erkenwald’s body to the cathedral, declared: “We are like strong and vigorous men who will … undermine and overturn cities heavily fortified with men and weapons before we will give up the servant of God, our protector … we ourselves intend that such a glorious city and congregation should be strengthened and honoured by such a patron.” There is indeed an Erconwald Street in the western part of the twenty-first-century city. So we may still name him as the patron saint of London, whose cult survived for over eight hundred years, before entering the temporary darkness of the last four centuries.

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The medieval city can be understood in a variety of ways, therefore, whether in terms of its violence or its devotion, its commercial imperatives or its spiritual precepts. The bells of the church tolled the end of each trading day, and the traders’ weights were tested and measured at the market cross. Could we say that the administrators of the Church in London were thoroughly secularised? Or that the citizens, avid for trade and capable of great savagery, were thoroughly spiritualised? The question lends absorbing interest to the lives of medieval Londoners. Perhaps the perpetual press of business and of domestic routine was viewed in the terms of eternity. Perhaps there was so much savagery because life itself, in contrast to the immortal soul, was considered to be relatively worthless. The city then becomes the true home of fallen humankind.

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