Love, health and the weather: 9 things medieval Londoners worried about
As today, people in medieval London worried about health, crime, money, the weather and relationships. But of far greater consequence for them was the possibility of going to hell
Here, Toni Mount, the author of Everyday Life in Medieval London: From the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors reveals nine of the most pressing concerns of people living in the capital in the Middle Ages…
People have always had concerns about health, be it their own or that of loved ones or neighbours – after all, in the medieval period a sickness might be contagious, and even a splinter could turn septic and prove deadly.
Living in the days before antibiotics, medieval folk had far more than us to worry about. Even a visit to the apothecary – the medieval pharmacist – brought concerns of its own: were the medicines for sale really as described?
The adulteration of medicines was a serious matter in the Middle Ages, and the Lord Mayor of London charged the Grocers’ Company with the task of making certain that no goods went on sale before they were ‘garbled’ (checked for purity and quality). During an inspection in 1475, the apothecary John Davy was pilloried, imprisoned and fined for selling ‘sanders’ (sandalwood), which was nothing more than his own “fabricated powder”.
Other strange and revolting imports included a cask containing ‘putrid wolves’, which William of Lothbury claimed could cure ‘the wolf’ disease. Physicians were asked to look into the matter, but since they could find no such disease in their medical books to require such a remedy, William was fined severely and the goods destroyed.
More like this
Crime was as much a worry for medieval Londoners as it is for us today, but whereas we have a police force to deal with such matters, back then there were only the beadles – one for each city ward and a couple of constables to assist him.
Here is an example of this trio in action: in 1474, the beadle of the ward of Farringdon suspected that Joan Salman and Walter Haydon – neither of them wedded – were alone together in a house near the Old Bailey. With two burly constables, the beadle approached the house. The door wasn’t locked, so the beadle and one constable went in, leaving the other at the door to prevent the couple making their escape.
They crept up the stairs to the bedchamber and caught Walter in bed with Joan – “a loose, immoral woman”. The pair were arrested and taken to the Counter (the sheriff’s prison).
In the event of a crime, whoever discovered it first was obliged to “raise the hue and cry” by shouting, banging on doors or clattering pots and pans; rousing the neighbours or anyone within earshot. The idea was that they should all give chase and apprehend the culprit. Only small children, the sick or the lame were excused from taking up the pursuit if they heard the cries of alarm. Otherwise, under a statute of 1275, they were considered to be aiding and abetting the criminal, and could find themselves under arrest. However, if someone raised the hue and cry unnecessarily, they would have to pay a fine.
After curfew, burglary was common in London, despite it being a capital crime. Shops and private houses could be robbed of jewellery, cloth, shoes and blades – anything that might turn a profit. In 1502, a man was arrested in Cornhill for being a “steler of pypes and gutters of lede by means of cutting of theym by nyghtes time”.
3) The weather
The weather was always a hot topic of conversation in medieval London, and in 1089 there was a lot to talk about: in August, there was an earthquake “over all England”, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Then in November came a storm of hurricane force that ripped through London, demolishing 600 houses and damaging the Tower of London and several churches. Florence of Worcester described how the roof was lifted off the church of St Mary-le-Bow and six rafters were flung into the air before being driven into the ground by the force of the wind to “seven-eighths of their 27 feet lengths”, landing in the order in which they had been positioned in the roof.
Meanwhile, John of Brompton recorded that the storm swept away the timbers of London Bridge and the Thames overflowed its banks on both sides, the waters flooding the land to a considerable distance.
Tacuinum Sanitatis, a 14th-century handbook of health showing a couple in field during a day of north wind. (Photo by Prisma/UIG via Getty Images)
Youngsters were another cause of concern, especially if they were mischievous and got into scrapes. The consequences could be tragic, as in the case of Richard le Mazon; an eight-year-old schoolboy who lived on London Bridge.
Richard and his friends often dared one other to dangle from a beam that stuck out from the bridge over the rushing river underneath. One day, on his way back to school after dinner in July 1301, Richard tried this feat, but had forgotten to take off his heavy satchel. He lost his grip on the beam and fell into the Thames. His satchel dragged him underwater and he drowned.
5) Money and status
Concern about their status in town could be another thing keeping medieval Londoners awake at night. From about 1330, with the patronage of Queen Philippa (wife of Edward III), England developed its own textile industry as the queen encouraged weavers from Flanders to come to London and set up shop. Good quality, home-produced cloth was now affordable, and even ordinary Londoners were buying and wearing fine clothes.
Citizens were often tempted to emulate courtiers, with their colourful satins, pearls and fine furs. The new clothes being worn by Londoners made it difficult to tell an ordinary citizen from a lord: if a knight passed by, he expected the ‘common folk’ to make way for him and men to doff their caps, but now he looked no grander or better dressed than any number of merchants; their relative positions in the social hierarchy were blurred. Clearly, this situation had to be put right.
In 1337 there came regulations that would later become known as Sumptuary Laws. Extended in 1363, the laws originally applied only in London, and regulated who could wear what kind of cloth, jewellery and particular styles of clothing, to prevent ordinary people dressing like lords and ladies. Those who owned land were always seen to be of a higher status than those with comparable wealth tied up in trade. Therefore a merchant who owned goods worth £500 was considered the social equal of an esquire or gentleman worth only £100. These persons and their families could wear cloth to the value of £3 per bolt or roll of fabric, but no jewels or precious stones, gold, silver, embroidery or silk, and no fur except lamb, rabbit, cat or fox.
Parliament thought these rules were such a great idea that they were re-issued to include means of travel – on foot, by donkey or on horseback and, if so, on what kind of horse – and how often you could eat meat during the week. The laws were continuously updated as fashions changed, on account of the “outrageous and excessive apparel of many people above their estate and degree”. In other words, the humble folk were getting above themselves.
In medieval London there was the worry as to whether or not a couple was legally wed. In those times, a simple exchange of vows between a couple – made in the tavern, the street or even in bed – followed by ‘consummation’ was considered a valid marriage by the church. No witnesses were required, so it could be difficult for either party to prove or disprove afterward that they were married.
While still an apprentice, John Borell, a wax-chandler in London, had an affair with Maud Clerk, a maidservant in the household of a disreputable priest, Father Jeffrey. Once John qualified and set up his own shop, he wanted to marry a respectable young woman, Letitia. Everything was arranged for their wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral, but as the ceremony reached the part where it was asked if there was any impediment or objection to the marriage, Father Jeffrey stood up, claiming John was already married to his serving girl, Maud.
John denied it, but the priest and Maud demanded compensation. The dispute went to court and poor Letitia – the innocent bride – saw all her dowry wasted on lawyers and fines to be paid by her new husband. Their marriage was confirmed as valid, but the newly-weds were left almost penniless.
A couple being married by a clergyman. Central miniature, folio 102v, Book IV by Henricus von Assia (13th century). (Photo by: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)
7) Punishment for breaking guild rules
This played on the minds of its members, as anyone failing to keep up standards would suffer the consequences. In 1364, the London vintner, John Penrose, was found guilty of selling bad wine; the penalty being that John had to drink a large measure of his sub-standard wine before the rest was poured over his head.
Such humiliating treatment was a common punishment: bakers of underweight loaves were put in the public stocks, where passers-by could throw mouldy bread rolls at them, while sellers of rotten fruit and vegetables would be pelted with stinking cabbages and tainted apples – or worse! Guild members were expected to behave properly, too. The London goldsmiths fined one of their members severely – not for his own bad behaviour, but because his wife used foul language.
8) What to have for dinner?
The age-old daily worry of every housewife: how to give the family a good meal on a tight budget. The most common dinner, for rich and poor alike, was pottage: a thick soup, much like today’s porridge (from which the word comes). Pottage was a popular starter for an elaborate meal or, for the poorer household, the main – and possibly only – course. Here is a recipe for a winter pottage:
Peel onions and boil them in slices, then fry them in a pot. Now halve your chicken and grill it over the fire, or if it be veal the same; and let the veal be put in in gobbets and the chicken in quarters and put them with the onions in the pot; then have white bread toasted on the grill and steeped in the sewe (juices) of the meat; and then bray (crush) ginger, cloves, grains of paradise and long pepper, moisten them with verjuice (crab-apple juice) and wine, but strain them not, and set them aside. Then bray the bread and run it through a strainer and put it in the pot and boil all together; then serve it forth.
Tacuinum Sanitatis, a 14th-century handbook of health showing women cutting pig's trotters. (Photo by: Prisma/UIG via Getty Images)
9) Going to hell
Of far greater consequence for the medieval Londoner was the horrible and, in their minds, very real, worry of going to hell if they died unexpectedly. Without a chance to confess their sins, receive absolution and the last rites, an eternity in hell would be the outcome for them on the Day of Judgement.
For this reason, St Christopher was of great importance as people went about their daily work, because he ensured a holy death by warding off a sudden, accidental fatality. Many churches placed wall paintings, images or statues of St Christopher – usually opposite the south door so he could be easily seen – in the belief that this was sufficient to keep the viewer safe for the rest of the day. St Christopher is usually depicted as a huge man – larger than life-size – with a child on his shoulder and a staff in one hand.
Even if they didn’t attend mass every day, a quick peek through the church door at the image of St Christopher was probably an early morning ritual for many Londoners to ensure they were safe from sudden death and hell – at least until tomorrow.
Toni Mount’s book Everyday Life in Medieval London: From the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors is now available in paperback from Amberley Publishing. To find out more, click here.
Claim your summer book + FREE access to HistoryExtra.com when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed