Another in the series of posts taken from my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …
Social History contd.
Entertainment and Culture
For the entertainment of the many and the edification of the few, there was at West Smithfield archery, wrestling and cock-fighting, a weekly horse fair, and an annual Bartholomew Fair every August from the twelfth century, and there were also regular jousting tournaments from the fourteenth. At East Smithfield, there was a further fair; on Undershaft an annual May Fair; and on Cheapside further tournaments.
In the Tower of London, from the thirteenth century, there was, bizarrely, a menagerie of elephants, lions, bears and so on.
Louis IX of France presented Henry III with an African elephant in 1255, which became one of the prize exhibits in the menagerie, before it died in 1257, likely of a surfeit of the red wine fed to it by its keeper, one Henri(cus) de Flor (surviving records indicate that the cost of transporting the elephant to the Tower, building a special house for it there, and feeding it, was well over £50, at a time when a knight could live comfortably for a year on £15). Visitors to the menagerie were allowed “free” entry if they presented the warders with a cat or dog to feed to the lions. The polar bear was able to feed itself by fishing in the Thames (at the end of a long tether).
On Bankside in Southwark, from the mid-fifteenth century, there was animal-baiting (the oldest record of the royal office of “Master of the Bears” is from 1484, which was during the reign of the last Plantagenet King, Richard III). On Moorfields, in the winter, when the Walbrook froze over, which it evidently did repeatedly in the Medieval period, there was improvised ice-skating, as described by Fitzstephen (“[T]he younger crowd … equip each of their feet with an animal’s shin-bone, attaching it to the underside of their footwear; using hand-held poles reinforced with metal tips, which they periodically thrust against the ice, they propel themselves along as swiftly as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a crossbow”). And on the Thames, when it froze over, which it evidently did repearedly between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, impromptu “frost fairs”. Records indicate that in all the river froze over nearly forty times between 1142 and 1895, becoming the site of “frost fairs” at least in 1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14. Everywhere, all the time, there was drinking, gambling, and rough sport. Repeated attempts were made over the years to ban football. In 1314, the Mayor of London, Nicholas de Farndone, issued the following order: “And whereas there is great uproar in the City, through certain tumults arising from the striking of great footballs in the fields of the public, from which many evils perchance may arise, which may God forbid, we do command and do forbid, on the King’s behalf, on pain of imprisonment, that such game be practices from henceforth within the city … ”. Also wrestling within the bounds of St Paul’s! An order issued in the fifteenth century read as follows: “That no manne ne childe, of what estate or condicion that he be, be so hardy as to wrestell, or make any wrestlyng, within the seintury ne the boundes of Poules, ne in non other open place within the Citee of London, up peyne of emprisonement of fourty days, & making fyn un-to the chaumbre after the discrecioun of the Mair & Aldermen”. And, of course, there were “stew-houses”, or brothels. A set of “Ordinances for the Governance of the Stews” had to be issued as long ago as 1161, and a “Proclamation as to Street Walkers by Night, and Women of Bad Repute” in 1393. The latter read in part as follows: “Whereas many and divers affrays, broils and dissensions have arisen in times past, and many men have been slain and murdered [!] by reason of the frequent resort of, and consorting with, common harlots … , we do by our command forbid … that any such women shall go about … the … city, … but they are to keep themselves to the places thereunto assigned, that is to say, the Stews on the other side of the Thames [on Bankside in Southwark], and Cokkeslane [Cock Lane] … ”.
There were also, though, occasional royal spectacles, and civic ceremonials such as the Lord Mayor’s Show. And miracle, mystery or morality plays, “holy plays, representations of miracles, which holy confessors have wrought, or representations of torments wherein the constancy of martyrs appeared”, from at least as long ago as the twelfth century; including the Creation and Passion performances staged by the City clerks and apprentices at the Clerks’ Well in Clerkenwell in the fourteenth and fifteenth.
And London was the home of the courtier, diplomat, bureaucrat, poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer (1342?-1400), and figured prominently in his famously bawdy and redolent works, which were originally written in Middle English; and of his fellow – “Ricardian” – poet and friend John Gower (1330-1408), the inventor of the iambic tetrameter (Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; Gower in Southwark Cathedral). Chaucer was variously employed as a “Varlet de Chambre” by Edward III, between 1367-74; as the “Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides” by Edward III and Richard II, between 1374-86; and as “Clerk of the King’s Works” by Richard II, between 1389-91 (he is also thought to have studied Law at the Inner Temple, in c. 1366). In the course of his employment, in 1373, he is thought to have come into contact with Petrarch and Bocaccio, and to have been introduced to Italian poetry, in Italy. Between 1374-86, he would undoubtedly have met travellers from all over the country and continent at his then place of work at the Custom House on the river-front in Billingsgate, including those making the pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, some of them perhaps providing inspiration for the colourful characters he wrote about in the “Canterbury Tales”. He would appear to have written “The House of Fame”, “The Legend of Good Women”, “Parlement of Foules”, and “Troilus and Criseyde”, and also at least to have begun to write “The Canterbury Tales”, at this time, at his lodgings in Aldgate. Earlier, in 1369, he had written “The Book of the Duchess” in honour of his mentor John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche of Lancaster (who died of the plague that year).
Contemporary representations – most of them, it has to be acknowledged, of the rich – indicate that the everyday dress of both men and women essentially throughout the Middle Ages consisted of various types of gown. The materials from which the gowns were made varied across society, with the wearing of expensive fabrics and furs restricted to the ruling classes, and that of cloth-of-gold to royalty, as stipulated by the so-called “Sumptuary Laws” (and the later “Acts of Apparel”). Materials that have been found during the course of archaeological excavations in London include variously woven sheeps’ wool, goats’ hair, linen, silk and velvet; variously dyed with madder (shades of red), kermes (further shades of red), weld (yellow), woad (light blue), indigo (dark blue) and indigo purple. The cuts varied both across society and through time, as a general rule tending to become shorter and closer through time.
In the church of St Helen, there is a memorial to the gentleman John (de) Oteswich and his wife Mary, that is thought to date to the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It depicts John wearing a long, loose gown with flared sleeves, of a type known as a “houppelande”, and also as carrying on his belt a short sword, on his left hip, and a sort of man-bag known as a “scrip” on his right. And Mary wearing a similar gown, covered by a “coat-hardie”, and a veiled head-dress or “wimple”. The Medieval men and women of London were clearly concerned not only about their clothes, but also their hair, eyebrows, ears and nails, as evidenced by the discoveries in archaeological excavations of diverse accessories, including girdles, buckles, strap-ends, mounts, brooches, buttons, lace chapes, pins, beads, chains, pendants, rings, bells, purses, cased mirrors, combs, cosmetic implements and sets, and needle-cases. The physical evidence is supported by literary sources – the Carpenter’s wife in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” plucked and darkened her eyebrows!
Throughout Europe, men’s shoes became increasingly elongated and pointed at the toe from the twelfth century to the fifteenth, to the extreme extent in the late fourteenth to fifteenth that the points had to be tied to the wearers’ legs to prevent tripping! Such shoes, known as “crakows” or “poulaines”, after Krakow in Poland, became particularly popular in England after the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, though their wearing was subsequently restricted to Lords, Esquires and Gentlemen by a “Sumptuary Law” in 1463, and eventually banned altogether in 1465 (an anonymous monk of Evesham wrote in 1394: “With this Queen there came from Bohemia into England those accursed vices … half a yard in length, thus it was necessary for them to be tied to the shin with chains of silver before they could walk with them”). Fine fourteenth-century examples have been found on the foreshore of the Thames near the second Baynard’s Castle, built in 1338, and the Royal Wardrobe, built in around 1361, that would likely have been worn by high-status individuals associated with one or other of these buildings (their impracticality would have ruled out their use by working men).