Tag Archives: Richard of Devizes

MEDIEVAL LONDON

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Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

History

The Medieval period  was one  of historical, political, religious and social transformation, not to say turmoil, over four hundred years, and under four  royal houses; of historical events that determined the then-future destiny of the country of England and its capital city.  It was a time of conquest and oppression; of crusade and pilgrimage; of pestilence and  penitence; of fanfare and  plainsong.   It  was also a time of  rebellion and war, unending war: war between the English  and the  Scots, and the French, and the Welsh; and,  when there was no-one else willing to fight, war among the  English, in “The Anarchy” of  the twelfth century, the Barons’ Wars of  the thirteenth,  and the Wars of the Roses of  the fifteenth.  The defining spirit of the age  may be said to have been one of ebullient confidence,  undercut in the dead of night by dread.  The attitude toward death, less fearful than that of our own modern age; that toward an uncertain  after-life, in Heaven, Hell or  Purgatory, much more so.  What perhaps most  set the Medieval apart from our age  was  the nature and degree of religious observance: the Latin masses and sung chantries; and the  repeated summonings by bells.  It would have felt utterly alien to us, to our more secular  sensibilities.  For me, this is its  fascination.

There are sufficient surviving records of one kind or another to enable us to undertake a reasonably accurate reconstruction not only of the history of but also of the social history of Medieval London.  These include the “Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London” of 1188-1274, deriving from the so-called “Liber de Antiquis Regibus”, produced for  the Alderman Arnald Thedmar or FitzThedmar in the late thirteenth century; the “Letter-Books of the City of London” of  1275-1509, of which the most important are  the  “Liber Horn”, produced  for the City Chamberlain Andrew Horn between  1311 and sometime in the 1320s, and the  “Liber Albus”, produced for the Common  Clerk John Carpenter in the years up to 1419; and a multitude of  other court, corporation, and ward records, many now in  the Guildhall Library or London Metropolitan Archives.    More personal contemporary eye-witness accounts include those of William FitzStephen, writing, in the prologue of his “Vita Sancti Thomae” or “Life of St Thomas”, in 1183; Richard of Devizes, also writing in the late twelfth century;  Jean Froissart, writing between 1377-1410; Wenzel Schaseck and Gabriel Tetzel, both writing in 1465; and the anonymous author of “A Chronicle of London”, writing around 1483.

FitzStephen memorably, if gushingly, described  London, as “the most noble city”, a city that  “pours out its fame more widely, sends to farther lands its wealth and trade, lifts its head higher than the rest”, a city “happy in the healthiness of its air, in the Christian religion, in the strength of its defences, the nature of its site, the honour of its citizens, the modesty of its matrons”, a city in which  “the only pests … are the immoderate drinking of foolish sorts and the frequency of fires”.

Richard of Devizes wrote, at more or less the same time, although in a markedly  different tone: “Whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find … in that one city.  … [D]ice and gambling; the theatre and the tavern.  … [M]ore braggarts … than in all France … .  Acrobats, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses”.

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Froissart was a French courtier from Valenciennes who made repeated visits to England between 1361, when he came to join the entourage of Edward III’s Queen, Philippa of Hainault, and c. 1400.  He wrote a series of “Chroniques” or “Chronicles” between 1377 and c. 1410, the first sometime after 1377; the   second, in 1388; the third, in 1390; and the fourth, in c. 1410.  The  “Chroniques” cover, among other important events in the history of London, and indeed England, the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381; Richard II’s power-struggles with Parliament,  and with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of  Gloucester, and the other Lords Appellant, in 1386-8; and the King’s  eventual decline and deposition at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke, the Earl of Derby (and future Henry IV), in 1397-9.

Schaseck, from Birkov in what is now the Czech Republic, visited London as part of the diplomatic delegation of Leo of Rozmital in 1465, and wrote: “London is a grand and beautiful city and has two castles. In the first, located at the very end of the city surrounded by the ocean’s gulf, lives the English King. He was present at the time of our arrival. Across the gulf there is a bridge made of stone and quite long, and houses have been built on both sides of it stretching its full length. I have never seen such a quantity of kite birds as I have here. Harming them is forbidden and is punishable by death”.   Tetzel, from Grafenberg in what is now Germany,    visited London as part of the same delegation in 1465, and wrote: “We have passed through Canterbury through the English kingdom all the way to the capital, which is home to the English King. Its name is London and it is a very vigorous and busy city, conducting trade with all lands. In this city there are many craftsmen, and mainly goldsmiths and drapers, beautiful women and expensive food”.

The Coronation of Richard I, and the Anti-Semitic Riot that followed (1189)

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The  Duke of Normandy  was formally crowned King Richard I at Westminster Abbey on this day in 1189.  According to one account, which now  resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the coronation ceremony was accompanied by “evil omens”, including the presence of a  bat fluttering around the king’s head during the crowning, and the mysterious pealing of bells.  Shortly afterwards, representatives  of the Jewish community, who had been barred from the ceremony, arrived at the abbey to present gifts and their respects to the newly-crowned king, only to beaten and stripped by the king’s men, and thrown out onto the street.  Sadly, this came to be taken as a licence to attack the entire – sizeable – Jewish  population of London.  According to Roger of Howden, in his Gesta Regis Ricardi, the “jealous and bigoted” citizens went on to kill many, including Jacob of Orleans, a respected scholar, to burn  the houses of many others, and to force  the remainder to seek sanctuary in the Tower of London, or to flee the city altogether, until it was safe to return.  And according to another chronicler of the event, Richard of Devizes: “On the very day of the coronation, about that solemn hour in which the Son was immolated to the Father, a sacrifice of the Jews … was commenced in the city of London, and so long was the duration … that the holocaust could scarcely be accomplished the ensuing day … ”.  A horrified Richard was forced  to issue a writ ordering the cessation of the  persecution of the Jews (he also  allowed those who had been forcibly converted to Christianity to  revert to Judaism).  Those guilty of the most egregious offences against them were  executed.

 

“Every quarter of it abounds with grave obscenities” (Richard of Devizes)

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Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts and descriptions of the historic City of London, this one written by Richard of Devizes in the late twelfth century, i.e., at the same time – although not in the same tone – that William FitzStephen wrote his  …

“I do not like at all that city.  All sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens.  Each race brings its own vices and its own customs into the city.  No one lives in it without falling into some sort of crimes.  Every quarter of it abounds in grave obscenities … .  Whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find it in that one city.  Do not associate with the crowd of pimps; do not mingle with the throngs in the eating-houses; avoid dice and gambling; the theatre and the tavern.  You will meet with more braggarts here than on all France; the number of parasites is infinite.  Acrobats, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses.  Therefore, if you do not want to dwell with evil-doers, do not live in London”.