LIVING CONDITIONS - Indoors,The streets,Food,Game and poultry, referat


Indoors – In its simplest form the medieval Londoner’s house was a squalid, unhealthy hovel. Built of timber and clay, as we have seen, it would probably have no more than two rooms. The floor would be of beaten earth, perhaps strewn with rushes. In winter it would be cold, damp, and smelly; in summer hot and smelly. If it had a fire at all, it would be in a clay-lined depression or on a slab of stone in the floor, the smoke having to escape as best it could through the thatch. The “windows” would be small and unglazed, and in cold weather wooden shutters, cutting down the already limited light to almost total darkness, would close them. After sunset the only lighting would be by tallow candles (cheaper than wax) or more probably by tallow dip- smoky, dim and evil- smelling. If the house had more than one floor the stair would be an external ladder.

Sanitary arrangements were primitive and consisted at most of a rudimentary earth closet; but many of the citizens had to use the public latrines provided in each ward. Such animals as the householder might own would share the “comforts” of the home with the family.

The furniture would hardly compete with what a modern camper- and a stoic at that – would consider the absolute minimum; a trestle table, a wooden bench, a couple of stools, the beds mere ledges with straw-filled palliasses. One can imagine with what joy the medieval family would welcome the end of winter and the approach of spring, with the prospect of escape from these miserable surroundings into the fresh air.

In the better- class town houses one might find wooden floors and in the wealthiest even stone paving or tiles. Furniture would include a few wooden chairs and stools, and probably big chests both for seating and for storing household vgoods. Rushes would still be strewn on the floor, unless the owners were able to afford an imported rug or two. The wooden bed- frames would have a criss- cross mesh of rope netting to support the feather mattresses, and for the richer a four- poster canopy with hangings would help to keep out the injurions night air after bedtime.

In the poorer houses wooden platters and bowls would be used at tables with the minimum of cutlery- the normal eating implements in most homes were knives and fingers. The middle- class Londoner would use pewter plafes and mugs, and perhaps a spoon made of cow’s horn. His wife might also be the proud possesor of a piece or two of glazed eartheaware- but one imagines this would be kept “for best”. There are some examples of green glaze and of brown and yellow slipware in the Guildhall Museum.

The top – class merchant would probably have provided his house with tapestries or some form of fabric wallhangings. There might be down – filled cushions on the wooden chairs and rugs on the floor- perhaps even a skin or two if he had a friend in the fur trade. There would be plenty of good wax candles in sconces or lanterns. If his wife still scattered rushes as a floor – covering, she would mix some sweet – smelling herbs among them.

If the house were suitably placed, for instance backing on to the Walbrook, it might have a privy or latrine discharging straight into the stream – a very refined adjunct not enjoyed by many citizens. 

Even such sophisticated furnishings as these, however, would not spell comfort to us; no interior-sprung mattresses, no upholstered armchairs, no electric light or gas fires, no washing up liquid kind to your hands’, no running water, and no draught-excluders!     

The streets - The streets of medieval London must have been unbelievably sordid. When they were paved, which was by no means general, they were cobbled, and the surface sloped inward from the sides to a runnel down the middle.

There were no pavements for pedestrians; these were not considered necessary until the comparatively modern method of draining the roadway from the centre to gutters at the sides was introduced.

Householders were supposed to bring their slops out of the house and empty them into the runnel, but often the temptation to throw them out of an upper window was too great. Kitchen refuse was thrown out to rot in piles in the streets, blocking up the channel and sometimes causing foul-smelling floods which would seep over the door sill if the housewife had not taken the precaution of fitting a foot-high board in the doorway to prevent it. The butcher did their slaughtering in the streets, and the offal and blood added to the awful tide. You probably know that the Great Fire of 1666 broke out in Pudding Lane running from Eastcheap down the hill towards the river; but the name apparently has nothing to do with the cooking of delectable puddings. The 16th-century chronicler Stow says it was so called because ‘’

the butchers of Eastcheap have their scalding houses for hogs there, and their puddings and other filth of beast are voided down that way to the Thames dung boats’’

In those days of no refrigeration butchers and fishmongers could not hope to keep their wares fresh in warm weather; and this added to the noisome condition of London’s streets.

This disgusting state of affairs was in no way due to neglect on the part of the city fathers. They did what they could, issuing innumerable ordinances against the fouling of the streets and taking action against offenders whenever possible, but almost to no avail. In this matter of cleanliness the medieval Londoner was his own worst enemy.

There is a story of man known as a rakyer who was employed by the ward of Cheapside to collect the dung and filth in the ward, but who found it easier to shove it over the boundary into the adjacent ward of Coleman Street. He was prosecuted, but this example could probably be multiplied a thousandfold. In 1421 another citizen was present [that is, summoned] for ‘making a great nuisance and discomfort to his neighbours by throwing out, horrible filth on to the highway the stench of which is so odious that none of his neighbours can remain in their shops’.

The City Corporation appointed scavengers to supervise street cleaning. Originally they had been Customs officials of the same standing as Chaucer was at one time, responsible for overlooking the unloading of imported goods at the wharves and quays. They were given the additional task of supervising the cleaning of the streets; then they were made responsible for the repair of the pavements; and later they undertook the supervision of fire precautions in new buildings. Carts were supplied to take the city’s garbage to laystalls outside the walls, and boats to clear the rubbish from the riversideareas. By 1400 special     had been appointed on which houschold rubbish was to be put outside house does for collection by the rakvers. But all these efforts were fruitless because of citizens’lack of cooperation, and London remained an easy prey to the epidemics of plaque and lesser visitations throughout the Middle Ages.

Although the City has been largely rebuilt several times and has received face-lifts in the way of roadwidening here and there, many of the streets are still the same width as they were in medieval times. Walk along Cannon Street of King Williams Street and look down the side turnings. This, plus your imagination, will give you some idea of the roadways of medieval London.

Food - With 50,000 inhabitants, medieval London was a large and prosperous sales district for food producers, and its supplies came from a much wider area than the meadow and pasture immediately outside the walls. Also, a large tract north and cast of city was reserved as a royal forest [‘forest’ in this connection meant an uncultivated region used as a royal hunting ground and not necessarily a wooded area] and produced little in the way of food.

Meat - It is clear that meat was an important part of the diet, and cattle probably provided 60 per cent or more of it. The quality seems to have varied, from fat beef cattle reared for the market and driven long distances to be fattened and shaughtered in the London area to lean old plough oxen and worn-out cows from points nearera hand. But all found a market, regardless of quality.

The supply of meat was seasonal because supplies nof winter-feed for cattle were very limited and many animal, had to be slaughtered in the autumn. The medieval Londoner had no means of keeping meat fresh, so most of the surplus autumn meat was either smoked or salted in casks of brine. Beef and mutton were usually salted; pork was often smoked for ham and bacon. Another problem was the provision of the large quantities of salt needed to preserve meat on such a scale, and some places on the coasts of Essex and Kent flourished on the extraction of salt from seawater. This led in turn to the slaughtering of cattle and their salting down for transport to London as ready-prepared meat.

Game and poultry - Game such as deer, hares and rabbits were a welcome source of fresh meat to relieve the winter monotony of salt meat, but it is doubtful whether anyone but royalty, nobility, and poachers tasted much venison-and the penalty for poaching deer from the royal forests was usually death. Domesticated birds were a more widely available source.

Geese, ducks, and chickens were to be had all the year round. Pigeons were reared for eating, which accounts for the many handsome stone-built dovecotes one sees in the grounds of old manor houses and medieval monasteries. Geese and ducks came to London “on the hoof”, so to speak, and to preserve the birds’ feet on the march [what could one do with a lame duck-carry it?] they were first driven through wet tar or pitch spread on the ground and then through sand. This provided a’sole’for their webbed feet and enabled them to complete the long trek from the country to London.

Fish - Fish was an important item on the menu, apart from its obligatory use in Kent and on fast days. Apart from those caught in the Thames and numerous smaller streains in the district there were many artificial fishponds in palaces and monasteries, where species like carp and tench were bred, and where fish caught elsewhere could be kept alive until needed. Shellfish and crustaceans were popular; cockles, mussels, whelks, crabs, lobsters, and shrimps were eaten, and of course oysters, which from the quantities of shell turned up during archacological ‘digs’ seem to have been the most popular.

A great deal of dried and salted fish-cod, haddock, herring, and whiting particularly-was imported from Scandinavia, the Baltic, and the Netherlands.

Vegetables - It is clear that most of our modern vegetables were known in the Middle Ages, but there is very little evidence of their use. Root vegetables either were not often eaten or else they were considered so ordinary as not to merit any mention, in the writings of the time. Apart from cabbage, beans, and peas, the only varieties, which constantly crop up are onions, garlic, and lecks, and perhaps this gives us a clue. These strong-flavoured vegetables, together with many herbs some of which we would regard as weeds, must have been used to sharpen up the flavour of that dull old salt meat, or to disguise the fact that the fresh meat was a bit on the high side.

Peas and beans could be dried and cabbage could be pickled, for use in the winter when nothing fresh was available.

Fruits - The medieval man-in-the street ate much the same varieties of home grown fruits as we do, with the addition of some, like quince and mulberry, which are not common these days, but the foreign fruits which we accept as part of our normal diet-oranges, bananas, and so on-were not imported in the Middle Ages.

Dairy produce - Dairy produce was an important element, but fresh milk was probably little used in London, as it would not keep or travel. Most of it would be made into cheese and butter on the farms. The medieval cow was small, and goats’and ewes’ milk was used to supplement the butter and cheese making.

Bread - Although a lot of home baking obviously went on, it was by no means as universal as we might imagine, as can be seen from the many references to professional bakers and to the sizes, prices, and quality of loaves. This was probably due mainly to lack of suitable baking ovens in the smaller houses

Drinks - Ale was the staple drink of everyone in the Middle Ages, but cider and perry were also available. Wine was imported in large quantities, much of it from the English territories in France, but it was not drunk in anything like the same quantities as ale, even in the wealthy households.

Cooking the food - Most cooking was of course done on an open fire, and there were three methods; in a cauldron-which was very much more than just a big stewpot. It was in fact a medieval pressure-cooker in which several foods could be cooked in separate jars at the same time; baking in a closed oven-which we often, mistakenly, call roasting; and roasting proper on a turning spit before the fire.

A baking oven for bread and pies was found only in the bigger houses, and was quite separate from the open fire, from which it derived no heat though it might for convenience be alongside it. Built of brick and clay the oven was pre-heated by making a fire inside it. When the right temperature had been reached, the fire and ash would be raked out and the bread, pies, or cakes put in to bake.

If the medieval housewife got tired of ‘slaving over a hot stove’ [and if her husband could afford it] she could always nip down the street and buy some of the many varieties of hot or cold food, which were on sale in the city.

Water supply - The provision of water for the citizens of London was a constant and growing problem as the population increased. The main sources in early medieval times were the numerous streams such as the Walbrook, the Fleet, and the Thames itself, and also many wells within the City. The situations of some of the wells are recalled by place-and street-names such as Well Court and Clerkenwell [the clerks’ well]-but wells had a habit of drying up or becoming polluted. The river and its tributaries became more and more foul as the City grew, and many ponds, which had earlier existed, were drained and built over.

In the early 12th century the citizens has asked the king’s permission to pipe water from Tyburn to the City, and by 1285 the Great Conduit in Cheapside was under construction. This was a big lead cistern with stone supports round it into which water was piped from Tyburn, probably through bored-out elm trunks, which were normally used for piping as they did not rot The Conduit was fitted with brass taps at which the people could fill their buckets and casks. On festive occasions such as coronations, it is said the Conduit ran with wine-but basically what the Londoner wanted was water, if not drinking then for cooking and washing.

Other conduits were laid, but it was not until Elisabeth’s reign that an enterprising Dutchman built the first watermill, or ‘forcier’, near London Bridge; this made use of rush of water through the arches to provide pressure to pipe the water into streets and houses. But by this time the river was so polluted that an Italian visitor described it as ‘hard, turbid, and stinking’.

Even in the mid-19th century, when cast-iron mains were laid by the nine water companies then operating, the supply was turned on only for two or three hours three times a week.

One can appreciate that in the Middle Ages it must have often been impossible to wash oneself frequently owing to lack of water, and it is no wonder that King John was regarded as rather peculiar because he had as many as eight baths in the short space of six months!

Language - From the Norman Conquest onward, three languages were used in England; Norman french by the court and nobility, Latin by the Church and in official documents, and English by common folk of Anglo-Saxon stock.

The first state document to be issued in English was the proclamation of Henry III’s assent to the Provisions of Oxford [a constitutional document reforming the government of the country] in about 1269.

I n 1362 Edward III’s parliament enacted a statute terminating the use of French in the law courts, and in the same year the king made the first royal speech to Parliament in English. .

By the end of Richard II’reign [1399] English had become the everyday language of the court, though one presumes that the king and family, noblenen and bishops could all speak French as well. About twelve years earlier Geoffrey Chaucer had written his famous Canterbury Tales, one of the oldest surviving poems in English.

Traces of Norman French still survive, however. For instance, the Queen’s assent to parliamentary bills is announced in the House of Lords with the words ‘a Reine le veult’-‘The Queen wills it’.

The English accent in the Middle Ages, and indeed as late as Shakespeare’s day, was not the Southern English speech we know today. It was much more akin to the Northcountryman’s dialect. Muirhead’s Blue Guide to England says of Langstrothdale, a remote valley at the head of Wharfedale in Yorkshire, that ‘the dialect of this dale agrees more nearly than any other with Chaucerian English as used, for example, in the Reeve’s Tale’. So if you would like to hear medieval English, go to Ilkley and drive northward up Wharfedale. Follow B6160 from Threshfield to Buckden and turn left there onto an unclassified road into Langstrothdale!

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