The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

by Ian Mortimer
The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

by Ian Mortimer


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Now in paperback, a literary time machine that takes readers into the sights, smells, and tastes of the fourteenth century—a book that is revolutionary in its concept and startling in its portrayal of humanity.

The past is a foreign country. This is your guidebook. A time machine has just transported you back into the fourteenth century. What do you see? How do you dress? How do you earn a living and how much are you paid? What sort of food will you be offered by a peasant or a monk or a lord? And more important, where will you stay?

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England is not your typical look at a historical period. This radical new approach shows us that the past is not just something to be studied; it is also something to be lived.

Through the use of daily chronicles, letters, household accounts, and poems of the day, Mortimer transports you back in time, providing answers to questions typically ignored by traditional historians. You will learn how to greet people on the street, what to use as toilet paper, why a physician might want to taste your blood, and how to know whether you are coming down with leprosy.

The result is the most astonishing social history book you’re ever likely to read: revolutionary in its concept, informative and entertaining in its detail, and startling for its portrayal of humanity in an age of violence, exuberance, and fear.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439112908
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 10/25/2011
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 55,773
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ian Mortimer is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was awarded the Alexander Prize in 2004 for his work on the social history of medicine. He holds a Ph.D. in history and a higher doctorate from the University of Exeter. He has written five other medieval books, most recently the revolutionary study Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies. He has also worked for several archive and historical research organizations in the U.K., where he lives with his wife and children.

Read an Excerpt



Welcome to Medieval England

What does the word "medieval" conjure up in your mind? Knights and castles? Monks and abbeys? Huge tracts of forest in which outlaws live in defiance of the law? Such images may be popular but they say little about what life was like for the majority. Imagine you could travel in time; what would you find if you went back to the fourteenth century? Imagine yourself in a dusty London street on a summer morning. A servant opens an upstairs shutter and starts beating a blanket. A dog guarding a traveler's packhorses starts barking. Nearby traders call out from their market stalls while two women stand chatting, one shielding her eyes from the sun, the other with a basket in her arms. The wooden beams of houses project out over the street. Painted signs above the doors show what is on sale in the shops beneath. Suddenly a thief grabs a merchant's purse near the traders' stalls, and the merchant runs after him, shouting. Everyone turns to watch. And you, in the middle of all this, where are you going to stay tonight? What are you wearing? What are you going to eat?

As soon as you start to think of the past happening (as opposed to it having happened), a new way of conceiving history becomes possible. The very idea of traveling to the Middle Ages allows us to consider the past in greater breadth — to discover more about the problems which the English have had to face, the delights they found in life, and what they themselves were like. As with a historical biography, a travel book about a past age allows us to see its inhabitants in a sympathetic way: not as a series of graphs showing fluctuations in grain yields or household income but as an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time. You can start to gain an inkling as to why people did this or that, and even why they believed things which we find simply incredible. You can gain this insight because you know that these people are human, like you, and that some of these reactions are simply natural. The idea of traveling to the Middle Ages allows you to understand these people not only in terms of evidence but also in terms of their humanity, their hopes and fears, the drama of their lives. Although writers have traditionally been forced to resort to historical fiction to do this, there is no reason why a nonfiction writer should not present his material in just as direct and as sympathetic a manner. It does not make the facts themselves less true to put them in the present tense rather than the past.

In some senses this idea is not new. For many decades architectural historians have been re‑creating images of castles and monasteries as they appeared in their heyday. Museum curators similarly have reconstructed old houses and their interiors, filling them with the furniture of a past age. Groups of individuals have formed reenactment societies, attempting to discover what it was like to live in a different time through the bold, practical experiment of donning period clothing and cooking with a cauldron on an open fire, or trying to wield a replica sword while wearing heavy armor. Collectively they remind us that history is much more than an educational process. Understanding the past is a matter of experience as well as knowledge, a striving to make spiritual, emotional, poetic, dramatic, and inspirational connections with our forebears. It is about our personal reactions to the challenges of living in previous centuries and earlier cultures, and our understanding of what makes one century different from another.

The nearest historians have come to considering the past at first hand is the genre of "what if ?" or "virtual history." This is where historians consider what would have happened if things had turned out differently. For example, what if Hitler had invaded Britain in 1940? What if the Spanish Armada had been successful? While such speculations are open to the obvious criticism that these things did not happen (with the implication that there is no point considering them), they have the great virtue of taking the reader directly to a moment in time and presenting events as if they were still unfolding. This can bring a real immediacy to a narrative. Put yourself in the shoes of the duke of Wellington at Waterloo, or Nelson at Trafalgar: they were only too well aware of the consequences of defeat. So too were their political masters back in England. They certainly considered the past that never was; so to reconstruct what might otherwise have happened brings us closer to those leaders in the moments of their decision-making. Just think: if Henry IV had not returned to England in 1399 to remove Richard II from power, we would have had several more years — perhaps many more — of Richard's tyrannical rule, probably resulting in the destruction of the Lancastrian dynasty and all those who supported it. In the spring of 1399 that likelihood was the key political issue and one of the reasons why Henry did return. It was also the principal reason why so many men supported him. In this way it is clear that seeing events as happening is crucial to a proper understanding of the past, even if the results are just as speculative now as they were at the time.

Virtual history as described above is only useful for understanding political events; it has relatively little value for social history. We cannot profitably speculate on what might have happened if, say, the Black Death had not come to Europe; it was not a matter of decisionmaking. But as with a reconstruction of a typical medieval house, virtual time travel allows us a clearer, more integrated picture of what it was like to live in a different age. In particular, it raises many questions which previously may not have even occurred to us and which do not necessarily have easy answers. How do people greet each other in the Middle Ages? What is their sense of humor like? How far away from home do individuals travel? Writing history from the point of view of our own curiosity forces us to consider a number of questions that traditional history books tend to ignore.

Medieval England is potentially a vast destination for the historical traveler. The four centuries between the Norman invasion and the advent of printing see huge changes in society. The "Middle Ages" are exactly that — a series of ages — and a Norman knight would find himself as out of place preparing for a late-fourteenth-century battle as an eighteenth-century prime minister would if he found himself electioneering today. For this reason, this guidebook concentrates on just one century, the fourteenth. This period comes closest to the popular conception of what is "medieval," with its chivalry, jousts, etiquette, art, and architecture. It might even be considered the epitome of the Middle Ages, containing civil wars, battles against the neighboring kingdoms of Scotland and France, sieges, outlaws, monasticism, cathedral building, the preaching of friars, the flagellants, famine, the last of the Crusades, the Peasants' Revolt, and (above all else) the Black Death.

Having emphasized that the focus of this book is fourteenthcentury England, a few caveats must be added. It is not possible to recover every detail of the period on the basis of fourteenth-century English evidence alone; sometimes the contemporary record is frustratingly incomplete. Also we cannot always be sure that the manner of doing something in 1320 necessarily held true in 1390. In some cases we can be sure that things changed dramatically: the entire nature of English warfare altered over this period, and so did the landscape of disease, with the catastrophic advent of the plague in 1348. Thus, where necessary, details from the fifteenth century have been used to inform descriptions of the later part of the fourteenth century, and the thirteenth century has been used to inform judgments about the early part. This blurring of time boundaries is only necessary where very difficult questions are raised. For example, we have relatively few sources underpinning our understanding of courtesy and manners in the fourteenth century whereas we have several excellent sources for the early fifteenth. Since it is unlikely that good manners developed overnight, the later evidence has been used as the fullest and most accurate available.

Many types of source material have been used in writing this book. Needless to say, contemporary primary sources are of vital importance. These include unpublished and published chronicles, letters, household accounts, poems, and advisory texts. Illuminated manuscripts show daily life in ways which the texts do not always describe: for example, whether women rode sidesaddle. A wealth of architectural evidence is available in the extant buildings of fourteenthcentury England — the houses as well as the castles, churches, and monasteries — and the ever-expanding literature about them provides even more information. In some cases we have documents which complement the architectural record: building accounts and surveys, for example. We have an increasing array of archaeological finds, from excavated tools, shoes, and clothes to the pips of berries found in medieval latrines, and fish bones on the waterlogged sites of ancient ponds. We have a plethora of more usual archaeological artifacts too, such as coins, ceramics, and ironware. The extent to which a good museum can give you an insight into how life was lived in the Middle Ages is restricted only by your own curiosity and imagination.

But most of all, it needs to be said that the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the fourteenth century is an awareness of what it is like to be alive in any age, and that includes today. Our sole context for understanding all the historical data we might ever gather is our own life experience. We might eat differently, be taller, and live longer, and we might look at jousting as being unspeakably dangerous and not at all a sport, but we know what grief is and what love, fear, pain, ambition, enmity and hunger are. We should always remember that what we have in common with the past is just as important, real, and as essential to our lives as those things which make us different. Consider a group of historians in seven hundred years' time trying to explain to their contemporaries what it was like to live in the early twenty-first century. Maybe they will have some books to rely on, some photographs, perhaps some digitized film, the remains of our houses, and the odd council rubbish pit but overall they will concentrate on what it is to be human. W. H. Auden once suggested that to understand your own country you need to have lived in at least two others. One can say something similar for periods of time: to understand your own century you need to have come to terms with at least two others. The key to learning something about the past might be a ruin or an archive but the means whereby we may understand it is — and always will be — ourselves.

Copyright © 2008 by Ian Mortimer


The Landscape

Cities and Towns

It is the cathedral that you will see first. As you journey along the road you come to a break in the trees and there it is, massive and magnificent, cresting the hilltop in the morning sun. Despite the wooden scaffolding at its west end, the long eighty-foot-high pointed lead roof and the flying buttresses and colossal towers is simply the wonder of the region. It is hundreds of times bigger than every other building around it and dwarfs the stone walls surrounding the city. The hundreds of houses appear tiny, all at chaotic angles, and of different shades and hues, as if they were so many stones at the bottom of a stream flowing around the great boulder of the cathedral. The thirty churches — though their low stumpy towers stand out from the mass of roofs — seem humble by comparison.

When you draw closer to the city walls you will see the great gatehouse. Two round towers, each more than fifty feet high, stand either side of a pointed arch, newly built, with a painted statue of the king in a niche above the grand entrance. It leaves you in no doubt about the civic pride of the city, nor its authority. Beyond these gates you are subject to the mayor's jurisdiction. Here reside the king's officers, in the castle on the northeastern perimeter. Here is a place of rule and order. The high circling walls, the statue of the king, the great round towers, and — above it all — the immense cathedral collectively impress you with their sheer strength.

And then you notice the smell. Four hundred yards from the city gate, the muddy road you are following crosses a brook. As you look along the banks you see piles of refuse, broken crockery, animal bones, entrails, human feces, and rotting meat strewn in and around the bushes. In some places the muddy banks slide into thick quagmires where townsmen have hauled out their refuse and pitched it into the stream. In others, rich green grasses, reeds, and undergrowth spring from the highly fertilized earth. As you watch, two seminaked men lift another barrel of excrement from the back of a cart and empty it into the water. A small brown pig roots around in the garbage. It is not called Shitbrook for nothing.

You have come face-to-face with the contrasts of a medieval city. It is so proud, so grand, and in places so beautiful and yet it displays all the disgusting features of a bloated glutton. The city as a body is a caricature of the human body: smelly, dirty, commanding, rich, and indulgent. As you hurry across the wooden bridge over Shitbrook and hasten towards the gates, the contrasts become even more vivid. A group of boys with dirty faces and tousled hair run towards you and crowd around, shouting, 'Sir, do you want a room? A bed for the night? Where are you from?' struggling between them to take the reins of your horse and maybe pretending that they know your brother or are from the same region as you. Their clothes are filthy, and their feet even filthier, bound into leather shoes which have suffered the stones and mud of the streets for more years than their owners. Welcome to a place of pride, wealth, authority, crime, justice, high art, stench, and beggary.

The city described above is Exeter, in the southwest of England, but it could almost be any of the seventeen cathedral cities. You could say the same for many of the large towns too, except for the fact that their churches are not cathedrals. Arriving in every one of these places involves an assault on all the senses. Your eyes will open wide at the great churches, and you will be dazzled by the wealth and the stained glass they contain. Your nostrils will be invaded by the stench from the sewage-polluted watercourses and town ditches. After the natural quiet of the country road, the birdsong, and the wind in the trees, your hearing must attune to the calls of travelers and town criers, the shouts of laborers and the ringing of church bells. In any town on a market day, or during a fair, you will find yourself being jostled by the crowds who come in from the country for the occasion, and who live it up rowdily in the taverns. To visit an English town in the late fourteenth century is a bewildering and extreme sensory experience.

A major town is an intimidating place. Already you will have seen the desiccated remains of thieves left hanging on gallows at windswept crossroads. At the principal gates of a regional capital you will find the heads and limbs of traitors on display. When you enter the city of York (the largest city in the north) you will see the blackened heads of criminals stuck on poles above the city gates, their eyes plucked out by birds. Legs and arms hang by ropes, each the relic of a treasonable plot, now riddled with maggots or covered with flies. These remains remind you of the power of the king, a greater and more ominous shadow behind the immediate authority of the mayor and aldermen, local lords, sheriffs, and judicial courts.

This, you could say, is the landscape of medieval England: a place of fear and decay. But the moment you walk under the shadow of a city gatehouse, you realize it is much more than that. In Exeter, for example, as soon as you enter the great gate of the city, you face the wide and handsome prospect of South Street. Some of the finest houses and inns are here, the gable ends of their steeply angled roofs neatly meeting the street. On your right is the church of Holy Trinity, a cult of special devotion in the late fourteenth century. Farther down you have the handsome town house of an abbot. On your left is a row of merchants' houses, some with their shops open, with silks and other expensive fabrics on show inside the covered shop fronts. For a moment you might notice the uneven surface of the road, which is dust, or mud after it has rained. But then you will be distracted by the amount of activity around you. Ponies and packhorses are ambling through the town, towards the marketplace, laden with grain and guided by peasants from the local farms. Priests pass by, robed in their habits, with crucifixes and rosaries hanging from their girdles. Perhaps a black-robed Dominican friar is preaching to the people at the top of the street, watched by a small circle of admirers. Workers are driving their sheep and cattle into market or steering carts laden with eggs, milk, and cheeses towards the line of shops known as Milk Street.

The city is so alive, so full of busy people, that within a short while you have forgotten about the decapitated traitors. And Shitbrook's stench is no longer in the air; now there is a remarkable absence of animal dung in the streets. All is revealed in South Street when you see a servant shoveling up horse dung from the area in front of his master's house. As you walk towards the center of the city, you will encounter more traders' shops tightly packed together in small street-front premises — sometimes tiny rooms of less than forty square feet — but all with their distinctive projecting signs to tell the illiterate their trade. Some are paintings depicting the items on sale, such as a painted knife indicating the shop of a cutler. Others are three-dimensional objects: a bushel on a pole, showing that freshly brewed ale is available, or a bandaged arm, marking a surgeon's premises. At the top of Smithen Street, which leads down to the river, you can hear the clang of blacksmiths hammering away at their forges and shouting in guttural voices at their apprentices to fetch water or bring coal. Others in the same street are setting up stalls, hanging out ironwares such as scissors, rushlight holders, and knives to attract the attention of those coming in from the surrounding countryside. A little farther on you come to Butchers Row, or the Shambles, where the counters of the shops are laden with meat lying exposed in the sun, with joints and carcasses hanging from hooks in the shade of the shop behind. Listen to the thunk as the cleaver comes down and strikes the chopping board, and watch as the leather-aproned butcher lifts the red meat onto the scales, balancing it carefully with metal weights until he is satisfied that he, at least, is getting a good deal.

It is here, among the city's shops, that your preconceptions of medieval England will begin to fall apart. Walk into the center of any large town or city and you will be struck by the extraordinary range of costumes, from russet-clad peasants to richly dressed merchants and esquires and their wives, and maybe even a knight or nobleman. Their traveling cloaks might hide the colorful hues of their clothes in grey winter but, in this sunlight, the rich reds, bright yellows, and deep blues are shown off, trimmed with furs according to social rank. Similarly the languages and accents you hear in a city give a cosmopolitan air to the place. Foreign merchants are regularly to be found in the greater towns and cities, but even in the smaller ones you will hear both French and English spoken in the street, and occasionally Latin and Cornish. Over the hubbub of the morning's business you will hear the town crier, calling from the crossroads at the center of the town, or laughter as friends share a joke. Over it all the practiced cries of the street vendors ring out as they walk around with trays of food, calling out "Hot peascods" or "Rushes fair and green," "Hot sheep's feet" or "Ribs of beef and many a pie."

Given the noise and the textures of the place, you may be surprised to learn how few people actually live in the greater towns and cities of England. In 1377 the walls of Exeter encircle six or seven hundred houses where about twenty-six hundred citizens live. But that makes it the twenty-fourth largest community in the whole kingdom. Only the very largest — London, with more than forty thousand inhabitants — can properly be called a great city when compared to the largest Continental cities of Bruges, Ghent, Paris, Venice, Florence, and Rome, all of which have in excess of fifty thousand. However, do not be misled into thinking that towns like Exeter are small, quiet places. The inns add considerably to the total, albeit on a continually shifting basis. Travelers of all sorts — clergymen, merchants, messengers, king's officers, judges, clerks, master masons, carpenters, painters, pilgrims, itinerant preachers, and musicians — are to be found every day in a town. In addition you will come across crowds of local people coming in from the countryside to buy goods and services or to bring their produce to the retailers. When you think of the sheer variety of wares and services which the city provides, from metalwork to leatherwork, from the sheriff 's courts and scriveners' offices to apothecaries' and spicemongers' shops, it soon becomes clear how the daytime population of a city can be two or even three times as great as the number of people living within the walls. And on a special occasion — during a fair, for example — it can be many times greater.

The total of 100,000 taxpayers in the thirty largest communities indicates that about 170,000 people — about 6 or 7 percent of the population of the kingdom — live in towns. There are about two hundred other market towns in England with more than four hundred inhabitants. In total, about 12 percent of English people live in a town of some sort, even if it be a small town of just a hundred families. It follows that the majority live in rural areas, coming into their local town or city when necessary. The majority walk in, and walk home, carrying whatever they have bought or driving whatever livestock they have to sell. It is this purposeful coming and going of people, this movement, which makes a medieval city feel so vibrant and alive.

Town Houses

The range of people living in a city is matched by the wide variety of buildings to be found within the walls. You have already seen some of the most handsome and prestigious houses, situated on the widest, grandest, and cleanest streets, which are almost always those leading from the principal gates into the center of town. But not all citizens dwell in the luxury of handsome three-storey houses. You will have noticed the small alleys, sometimes no more than six or seven feet wide. They look dark on account of the jetties of upper storeys which close in over the thoroughfare, so that the second and third storeys of houses facing each other come within just three or four feet. Houses here have little light and probably no outside space. Some alleys are barely more substantial than muddy paths. If there are no servants to clear them, and if the householders fail to clean them, before long they become dank, smelly, and altogether unsavory. Walk along one of them in winter, on a murky afternoon in the rain, and your impression of richness and civic pride will soon be washed away. The rain splashes down into wide muddy puddles through which you will have to pass, and the lack of light (due to the lowering clouds and the overarching houses) rinses all color from the scene. Then you see the rivulets of water trickling between the buckets of offal and kitchen rubbish outside a house, carrying the liquid of rotting food into the street. Next time you walk along here in the churned-up mud, the stench of decay will fill your nostrils.

These two- and three-storey buildings are nowhere near the bottom end of the housing hierarchy. If you walk down a few more of these dark alleys, you will see that there are turnings off which are even narrower. The most densely inhabited areas of a city are warrens of tiny lanes and paths, sometimes no more than three or four feet wide. Here you find the poorest houses: low, single-storey rows of old timber buildings, with no proper foundations, subdivided into small rented rooms. You can see that they are old: the shutters hang at angles or have disappeared completely. The shingles (wooden tiles) are slipping from the roofs, which are covered in lichen and moss or streaked with birdlime. The paths and alleys leading to them are little more than stinking drains, effectively open sewers. They are the most dilapidated buildings in the city, but because they are not on a main street, and because they do not threaten civic pride (because no visitors or wealthy people see them), the authorities do not force the owners to keep them in good repair. If a door is open, you may just discern in the gloom a single room divided into two unequal parts, the smaller for the children to sleep in, and the other for cooking and the adults' mattresses. There is often no toilet, just a bucket (to be emptied at Shitbrook). The tenants of these houses spend almost the whole day away from home, at their workplaces; they eat in the street and urinate and defecate where they can, ideally in the municipal toilets on the city bridge. Their children grow up similarly out of doors, playing in the street. They were the urchins who ran up to you when you first approached the city gate.

Walking through the alleys and lanes of a medieval city, you are bound to come face-to-face with a high wall. This is not the great wall encircling the settlement but one of a number of subdivisions you can expect to find — around monasteries, for example, or protecting the houses of rich knights, prelates, and lords. In most cities you will find the precincts of the cathedral area enclosed by a wall, with gates allowing people in during daylight hours and firmly keeping them out after dark. Similarly, the older monasteries, which may date back to Saxon times, tend to be located in the center of the city. All towns have at least one walled-off religious enclosure, and some have more than a dozen. For this reason, space inside even the most extensive city is relatively scarce. Often a third of the whole area inside the walls is given over to the monasteries and religious precincts. Add the tenth or so given over to the royal castle, and a similar area for the parish churches, and it is clear that almost the entire population has to live in half the city — with most of the best sites occupied by the large houses of the wealthy. Hence the immigrant population has to be squeezed into small tenements constructed on the sites of destroyed houses or alongside a churchyard. Few inhabitants of these slums make enough money to move up into the houses of the prosperous traders and freemen of the town.

Walk back to the market square or the main market street of the city and look around. Notice how almost all the houses are narrow and tall. Each is no more than about fifteen or sixteen feet wide. Most are three or four storeys in height, with shutters either side of the unglazed windows. This arrangement of narrow, tall houses means that many merchants can have a frontage on the main marketplace. At ground level you see the heavy oak door to the building. To its side, and occupying most of the front of the house, is the shop front. At night and on Sundays this is closed up and looks like a wooden barricade across a large window. But during trading hours the lower half is hinged down to form a display counter and the upper half is hinged up, and propped, to provide a shelter for the goods. The shop inside may actually be a workshop — perhaps of a leatherworker, jeweler, tailor, shoemaker, or similar craftsman. Other traders — butchers and fishmongers, for instance — tend to work out of doors, standing in front of their counters, using their shops' interiors as storage areas. In either case, the house above is where the trader and his family live. Only the richest merchants — those who specialize in goods transported in bulk, by sea — have separate houses and warehouses. This close relationship of residence and work premises means that many shop buildings have some fine touches of decoration: tiled or slate-hung upper storeys, or projecting wooden beams with carved corner pieces. Some even boast carved and painted coats of arms or heraldic beasts.

And then you turn a corner and see some totally different houses, altogether larger and set sideways onto the street. Your eye is immediately drawn to the pointed gatehouse, with a crenellated stone tower above, or the long wooden house with large oriel windows projecting over the road. These are the houses of the wealthiest and most important citizens. Just as the various types of traders congregate together — the dyers by a watercourse, the cloth merchants in Cloth Street, the butchers in Butchers Row — the majority of the most influential citizens also live close to one another in the widest, most prominent streets. Here you may find the town house of a major financier next to that of a knight or an archdeacon. At the start of the century such houses may well be still made of wood, but increasingly they are being rebuilt so that by 1400 the majority are proud and sturdy stone structures, with chimneys and glazed windows. This is why, when gazing down a street of well-spaced high-status town mansions, you will invariably see one or two covered in scaffolding. Close inspection will reveal that the scaffolding is made up of poles of alder and ash lashed together, supporting planks of poplar, with pulleys for raising and maneuvering stones and baskets of tiles. In this way, the dilapidated remains of the thirteenth century are gradually being swept away, and new and extended structures are taking their place.

These types of accommodation — from the single-room alleyway slums to the tall merchants' houses and the wide stone mansions of the wealthy — do not fully illustrate the variety in building and accommodation in a city. There are, in addition, the smart houses of the canons and other officers within the cathedral precinct, each with its scriptorium, chapel, and library as well as living quarters. In the case of Exeter, there is the royal castle, with its ancient gatehouse (which is already three hundred years old by the time the Black Prince visits it in 1372). There is the guildhall abutting the high street, the bishop's palace adjacent to the cathedral, and the College of the Vicars Choral (who sing Mass in the cathedral) just outside the cathedral close. The finest inns, with their signs displayed above their wide arched gates, are to be found on the main streets. The towers of the town gatehouses also provide accommodation to a select few civic servants. At the bottom end of society, accommodation for some visitors is provided by letting out sleeping space in the barns and stables that are to be found dotted around the city. Many houses are subdivided so that, in a row of three old traders' houses, you might find a dozen poor families. There are also the monastic guesthouses, the friaries, and the hospitals. And as you leave the city itself and pass into the suburbs you will have the distinct impression that, while the residents might be relatively few in number, the structures in which they live show greater variety than any modern city, even though the latter has twenty or thirty times as many inhabitants.

One last thing. Before you leave, turn around and look back along the main street. Have you noticed that the roads are practically the only public spaces? There are no public parks, no public gardens, and large open squares are very rare in English cities except where they serve as the marketplace. The street is the sole common outdoor domain. The guildhall is only for freemen of the city, the parish churches are only for parishioners. When people gather together in large numbers they meet in the streets, often in the marketplace or at the market cross. It is there that news is disseminated by the town crier, jugglers perform, and friars preach. But the market cross is only the central point in this network of conversations. Gossip is spread by men and women meeting in the lanes and alleys, at the shops, in the market itself, or at the water conduits. It is not just the buildings that make a medieval city but the spaces between them.


No trip to medieval England would be complete without a visit to London. It is not just the largest city in England but also the richest, the most vibrant, the most polluted, the smelliest, the most powerful, the most colorful, the most violent, and the most diverse. For most of the century the adjacent town of Westminster — joined to the city by the long elegant street called the Strand — is also the permanent seat of government. To be precise, it becomes the permanent seat of government. In 1300 the government is still predominantly itinerant, following the king as he journeys around the kingdom. However, from 1337 Edward III increasingly situates his civil service in one place, at Westminster. His chancellor, treasurer, and other officers of state all issue their letters from permanent offices there. After the last meeting at York (1335), parliaments too are normally held at Westminster. Richard II does hold six of his twenty-four parliaments elsewhere (at Gloucester, Northampton, Salisbury, Cambridge, Winchester, and Shrewsbury), but doing so only strengthens the feeling that Westminster is the proper place for parliamentary assemblies, so that the commons can more easily attend. All these developments, plus London's links with European traders and banking houses, enhance the standing of the capital. Its importance as an economic and a political center at the end of the century is greater than that of all the other cities in England combined.

Visitors arriving in London are overwhelmed by the spectacle — stunned by the sight of so many houses, so many shops, so many wide streets (in excess of twenty feet), and so many markets. They remark on the number of swans gracefully moving up the river, and on the whitewashed arches of London Bridge. They are engrossed by the hundreds of small boats bobbing up and down the Thames. By day the quays seem very busy, with both local and international trade, for ships of a hundred tons can dock here, bringing merchants and their goods from as far as the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Visitors are equally fascinated by the crowds. The forty thousand inhabitants of the capital are joined by travelers and businessmen from all the corners of Christendom. So many of them are dressed in fine velvet, satin, and damask that all you can do is gawp at their finery as they swish into this shop or strut out of that one, attended by their servants.

London, like every city, is a place of huge contrasts. The streets — even the main ones — have tubs of putrid water positioned here and there, supposedly in case of fire but more often than not full of decaying rubbish. The few streets that do preserve some vestige of road surface are so badly paved that the stones serve more to preserve the puddles than to assist transport. Elsewhere the heavily trodden mud seems to last all year. Inhabitants will draw your attention to how "evil smelling" this mud is just after it has rained (as if you need telling). And yet these are not the worst of London's problems. The stench and obstruction of the animal dung, vegetable rubbish, fish remains, and entrails of beasts present problems of public sanitation on a scale unmatched by any other town in England. With forty thousand permanent citizens and sometimes as many as one hundred thousand mouths to feed and bowels to evacuate, it is impossible for a city with no sewage system to cope. You will see rats everywhere. The place is infested with them. Such is the level of detritus, especially in the town ditches, that it is also infested with dogs and pigs. There are frequent attempts to eradicate the wild pig population, but each one bears testimony to the failure of the previous effort. If you cannot get rid of the pigs, what hope is there for eradicating the rats?

Ten Places to See in London
1. London Bridge. The nineteen huge arches spanning the Thames constitute one of the engineering marvels of the kingdom. The surface is twenty-eight feet wide, with buildings taking up seven feet on either side. These are cantilevered for an extra seven feet out over the river, with shops opening onto the bridge and merchants' houses above. There is a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas halfway along and a drawbridge for the security of the city towards the southern end. Watch out for the rapids between the arches at changes of the tide; the city youths take bets on shooting them in rowboats.
2. St. Paul's Cathedral. This church, started in the twelfth century and recently extended (finished in 1314), is one of the most impressive in the country. At 585 feet long, it is the third-longest church in the whole of Christendom. Its 489-foot spire is the second tallest in England, dwarfing that of Salisbury (404 feet) and second only to that of Lincoln Cathedral (535 feet). But forget statistics; it is the beauty of the church — especially its rose window at the east end and its chapter house — for which it deserves to be on any list of London sights.
3. The Royal Palace in the Tower of London. You are, of course, familiar with the White Tower, the great building left by William the Conqueror, but most of the visible castle — including the moat — actually dates from the thirteenth century. Here is situated an extensive royal palace, including a great hall, royal solar (private living room), and a multitude of lordly chambers. In addition, a royal mint is based here, as are the royal library and the royal menagerie. Edward Ill's collection of lions, leopards, and other big cats is kept here from the late 1330s and is continually being supplemented with new animals.
4. London Wall. All great cities are walled but London's wall is special. It rises to a height of eighteen feet and has no fewer than seven great gatehouses: Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate, and Bridgegate (the last leading onto London Bridge). These are the city's security at night; their immense oak doors are secured by heavy drawbars. In times of war the citizens can defend their city as if it were an immense castle.
5. Smithfield, just outside the city walls, is home to the main meat market of the city. Needless to say, this is where people regularly meet in the course of shopping. Even more people gather, however, for the three-day fair held here every St. Bartholomew's Day (August 24). As it is still a field, literally, it provides a suitable ground for jousts and tournaments.
6. The Strand runs from the bridge over the Fleet, just outside Ludgate, along the north bank of the Thames to Westminster. Not only does it afford the medieval traveler the best view of the river, it is also where the most prestigious houses are situated. Several bishops have palaces along this street. Most impressive of all is the Savoy, a royal palace which is home to Edward III in his youth. Later Edward passes it on to his son, John of Gaunt, under whom it becomes the most wonderful town house anywhere in the kingdom. However, it is burnt to the ground during the Peasant's Revolt (1381) and remains a burnt-out shell for the rest of the century.
7. Westminster Palace. The ancient great hall, built in the eleventh century, is the scene of many famous feasts. In the last decade of the fourteenth century, Richard II replaces the old twin-aisled layout with an incredible single-span wooden roof, one of the most stunning carpentry achievements of any age, designed in part by the great architect Henry Yevele. Directly across the courtyard you will see Edward III's bell tower, completed in 1367, also designed by Yevele. The bell hanging within it, called "The Edward," weighs just over four tons and is the forerunner of Big Ben. Also within the precincts are the main chambers of the government, namely the Painted Chamber, the Marcolf Chamber, and the White Chamber (the rooms where the Houses of Parliament meet); the Exchequer, the Royal Courts of Justice, and the royal chapel (St. Stephen's). Here too you will find the private royal residences, the Prince's Palace (the chambers of the prince of Wales), Queen Eleanor's palace, and, most importantly, the Privy Palace, where the king spends time with his family and favorites. Edward II keeps a chamber here for his friend Piers Gaveston; Queen Isabella has one for Roger Mortimer.
8. The Church of Westminster Abbey was almost entirely rebuilt by Henry III in the thirteenth century at a cost of more than £41,000 (making it the second-most expensive building in the whole of medieval England). Here Henry III himself is buried, together with two of his fourteenth-century successors: Edward I (d. 1307) and Edward III (d. 1377). The finished but still-empty tomb of Richard II (d. 1399) is also here, awaiting his reburial in the reign of Henry V. Do note the brilliant wall paintings, which do not survive into modern times. Similarly make sure you see the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, plated with gold and encrusted with precious jewels.
9. Tyburn. Most towns and cities execute their thieves and murderers outside the gates of the castle. London is different. The place for common thieves to be hanged is at the junction of Tyburn Road (the forerunner of Oxford Street) and Watling Street (one day to be Edgware Road). Gallows stand here permanently, beneath the high elm trees which grow beside the Tyburn stream, and executions take place almost every day. The best-attended are those of high-status traitors. Roger Mortimer is executed here in 1330, his naked body being left on the gallows for two days.
10. The Southwark Stews or bathhouses are a tourist attraction of an altogether different sort. Prostitutes are not tolerated in London except in one street, Cock Lane. Hence Londoners and visitors resort to the stews at Southwark, on the other side of the river. Here men may eat and drink; have a hot, scented bath; and spend time in female company. In 1374 there are eighteen establishments, all run by Flemish women. Contrary to what you might expect, there is little or no stigma attached to those who frequent the stews: there are few sexually contracted diseases and the marriage vows only require the fidelity of the female partner; the man may do as he pleases. Some clergymen rail against such immorality, of course, but few directly allude to Southwark. Most of the bathhouses are rented from the bishop of Winchester.

The fundamental problem is that of scale. London is a walled city spilling over into its suburbs. There are more than a hundred overpopulated parishes. Even after the Great Plague of 1348-49 — which kills off the citizens at the rate of two hundred each day — people arrive continually from the countryside to take their place. Thus there is an unremitting stream of residential rubbish. There is also a constant demand for more products. London is a major manufacturing center and so it consumes, among other things, thousands of animal carcasses and hides. The easiest way of transporting these is on the hoof, alive, but this means slaughtering, skinning, and butchering thousands of animals daily in residential areas. At the start of the century you can find tanning — one of the smelliest occupations of all — being carried on next to people's houses. Likewise pelterers (sellers of animal skins) and fullers (cleaners of raw wool) ply their trades in streets alongside spicemongers and apothecaries. The resultant incongruity is like having a perfume shop situated next to a fishmonger's — but far worse, for the smell of rotting meat is associated with diseases in the medieval mind, often for good reasons. You know things are really bad when, in 1355, the London authorities issue an order preventing any more excrement from being thrown into the ditch around the Fleet Prison on account of fears for the health of the prisoners.

The state of London does improve. This is largely due to the efforts of successive mayors and aldermen to clean up the streets. The first step is the establishment of a mechanism for appointing official swine killers, who are paid 4d for each pig they remove. In 1309 punitive fines are levied on those who leave human or animal excrement in the streets and lanes: 40d for a first offense, 80d for a second. In 1310 tailors and pelterers are forbidden from scouring furs in the main streets during daylight hours, on penalty of imprisonment. The following year the flaying of dead horses is prohibited within the city walls. From 1357 there are rules against leaving dung, crates, and empty barrels lying by the doors of houses, and against throwing rubbish into the Thames and the Fleet, the latter river being almost completely blocked. In 1371 all slaughtering of large beasts (including sheep) within the city is prohibited; henceforth they must be taken to Stratford Bow or Knightsbridge to be killed. Finally, the passing of the Statute of Cambridge in 1388 makes anyone who throws "dung, garbage, entrails and other ordure" into ditches, ponds, lakes, and rivers liable to pay a fine of £20 to the king. With that legislation, the idea of parliamentary responsibility for public hygiene has finally arrived, and — in London's case especially — not before time.

Forget, if you can, the noxious smells and obstructive rubbish of the city and concentrate on its virtues. Look at how many goldsmiths and silversmiths there are, how many spicemongers' shops, how many silk merchants' emporia. There are people who will declare that London is a great city because you can get all the medicines you require. There are certainly more physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries here than anywhere else in England. You will also find a communal running water supply — fed through a series of conduits — even though the pressure is sometimes low, as a result of all the siphoning off to private houses. On certain special occasions the conduits are even made to run with wine — for example, on the arrival of the captive king of France in 1357, or to celebrate the coronation of Henry IV in 1399.

Small Towns

You might think that a small settlement with three or four streets and about a hundred houses and twenty or so stables does not deserve to be called a town. You would probably describe it as a village, and — with a population of perhaps just five hundred — a small one at that. You would not necessarily be wrong: there are many places this size which are certainly best described as villages. But similarly there are many such settlements which are undoubtedly towns. What distinguishes them as such is their market.

All the reasons for emphasizing the importance of the city to its hinterland also apply to small towns. If they have a market, people will come to buy and sell. Farmers regularly need new plowshares, for which they must come into town. They also need to sell their livestock and grain. They or their wives need to buy bronze or brass vessels for cooking, and salt, candles, needles, leather goods, and other items. If you happen to live in a remote manor, perhaps twenty-five miles from the nearest city, you do not want to travel that far for minor commodities, such as a few nails to mend a broken trestle. It would take you two days to get there and back and the cost of a night's accommodation. Hence the need for so many small market towns — by 1300 almost nowhere in England is more than eight miles from one, and most places are within six miles. That is a far more manageable journey for the man in need of a few nails or a plowshare.

The small towns of medieval England are unlike the cities and large towns. They do not have eighteen-foot-high stone walls around the perimeter. Nor do they have substantial gatehouses. They tend to be gathered around a marketplace, with the parish church on one side (usually the east), with the houses themselves and their garden walls marking the boundaries. The center is generally the market cross. The other principal structures, apart from the church, are the manor house, the rectory or vicarage, and the inns. You will find no guildhall here, nor a monastery or friary, although it is possible there is a hospital, for the accommodation of poor travelers. If not, there may well be a church house, fulfilling much the same purpose.

The streets are muddy, rutted, and uneven, the center of each one being a drain carrying whatever detritus has been discarded by townsmen and market visitors. As for the marketplace itself, it has probably been partially filled with ramshackle wooden houses. Over the years, lines of market stalls have become rows of two- and three-storey houses in which traders live above their shops. They have little or no outside space. Hence they add to the density of even the smallest town, making the once-spacious marketplace into a series of narrow alleys. The strict orders stopping unsavory trades being carried on in the main streets do not apply in a small town. There is every likelihood that as you glance into the workshops you will see piles of animal entrails being slopped into a bucket. Similarly there are normally no rules preventing roofs from being thatched (unlike in a city or large town). Hence these rows of cheap houses in marketplaces present a huge fire risk, being built of wood and cob (a mixture of clay, straw, dung, and animal hair) with roofs of thatch. When one catches alight, the whole line tends to go up in flames. Unsurprisingly such a conflagration only encourages the lord to build a replacement row on similarly shaky principles. Within a few months, the streets are foul with debris again and the alleys partially blocked by empty barrels and broken crates, the conflagration all but forgotten.

Small towns are not just muddy carbuncles on the medieval landscape. Each preserves at least part of its original open market square, and in summer, when the stalls are all set up, and the shops are open, with the sunlight shining onto the wooden worktops, there is a totally different feel to them. The size of the crowd that gathers on market days will surprise you: several hundred people come in from farms and manors in the surrounding parishes. In addition there are the travelers and the long-distance merchants who journey from market to market selling their wares. Colors abound, music is to be heard in the streets. The alehouses and inns are full to overflowing; there is laughter, shouting, and banter, and much parading of strutting horses. Most of all there is a sense of excitement that leaves you in no doubt that this small community of a hundred houses is not merely a provincial outpost of the trading world but an integral part of it. The holding of a market has transformed this part of the landscape into a hubbub of commerce, discussion, gossip, and news, if only for one day each week.

The Countryside

In summer the roads are dusty. Carts and packhorses trundle along, overtaken by groups of pedestrians and the occasional galloping messenger. If you escape your fellow travelers, the road is quiet. There is suddenly nothing to hear except the birdsong, the rumble and creak of cartwheels, and perhaps the rushing water of a stream or a river. The quiet distance of the hills and fields becomes the focus of your attention.

In the modern world, an English field is a small square patch of ground between two and ten acres. You are used to seeing them all spread out across the hills like a patchwork quilt. They are very different in the fourteenth century. Throughout most of the country — in fact in all areas apart from Devon and Cornwall, parts of Kent and Essex, and the northwest — you will encounter massive, irregularly shaped fields of between seven hundred and twelve hundred acres, with no hedges, fences, or walls. Within each huge field there are individual strips of land, each one of about an acre, marked out and maintained separately by tenants, so that they resemble an enormous set of allotments. These strips are all grouped in "furlongs" — not to be confused with the unit of distance used in more recent times — and the furlongs are surrounded by "baulks," or paths. School history lessons will probably have led you to believe that one in every two or three fields is left fallow every second or third year, but, as you can see for yourself, it is not the huge fields that are left fallow but the individual furlongs within them. Two out of every three furlongs are planted with grain of some sort — mostly wheat, oats, and barley — but every third one is left fallow, grazed in the meantime by cattle, sheep, goats, or pigs.

Around these huge areas of land, bounded by ditches and earth walls, are commons of grassland for sheep, or woodlands to provide firewood and building materials, or wide low-lying meadows in which to grow hay. Commons and meadows are to be found in all areas of England, many thousands of upland acres being given over to grazing sheep. Here and there you will see small fields or enclosures, surrounded either by stone walls or a ditch, bank, and hedge, where the animals are kept when brought in for winter. But such walls and raised hedges are few in number. You could saunter straight off the highway onto the grass verge and into the fields. Many grazing animals do exactly that and trample all over the harvest crops, much to the annoyance of the villagers and the embarrassment of the hayward whose duty it is to protect the crops.

Contrary to what you might expect, the woodland area is not very much greater than in the modern world — that is to say about 7 percent of the land. However, almost every inch of the medieval woodland is managed carefully. Some areas are cornered off and coppiced and then surrounded by high earth banks with hedges on top to stop the deer and other animals from eating the new shoots. The coppiced trees provide poles for charcoal burning, for fences and staves, or just for firewood. Other areas of the woodland are managed for timber, with spaces being cleared to encourage the trees to grow tall and straight. Great oaks are prized commodities, allowing wide structural spans to be crossed with a single beam. There is relatively little fallen wood lying on the ground, especially in those woods near villages. The right to gather sticks and fallen timber is one which the manorial lord often grants to his tenants, and they take advantage of every last twig of it. In many areas it is their sole means of keeping warm through the long winter months. Where there is more fallen wood than the local tenants can use, the rights to gather it are sold. When the forest of Leicester is impassable, the lord sets a price of 1d for six cartloads of dead wood. That sees the forest floor quickly cleared.

You might notice something else as you wander through the wood. Where are the conifers? In medieval England there are just three coniferous species — Scotch pine, yew, and juniper — and juniper is more of a bush than a tree. There are very few evergreens at all — holly is the only common one — so the winter skyline is particularly bleak. Every other pine, spruce, larch, cedar, cypress, and fir you can think of is absent. In case you see pine or fir boards used in a lord's castle and wonder where the trees are, the answer is that they are in Scandinavia: the timber is imported. Nor will you find holm oaks, red oaks, redwoods, Turkey oaks, or horse chestnuts. The trees that cover England are largely those introduced during the Bronze Age and Roman periods mingled with the species which repopulated the British Isles after the last Ice Age: rowan, ash, alder, field maple, hazel, sweet chestnut, whitebeam, aspen, some poplars, silver birch, beech, lime, walnut, willow, elm, and hornbeam. And of course the good old oak. Both forms of oak are common: the small sessile variety that thrives in hilly areas, and the far more valuable pedunculate sort used for building houses and ships.

Now you are looking more closely at the landscape, you might notice some more subtle differences. That squirrel in the trees above you is a red one — the grey variety has yet to reach Britain. In the fields the cattle are smaller than their modern counterparts: much smaller. So too are the sheep. The breeding programs to produce large farm animals will not take place for several centuries. The lichens hanging from the boughs above the path through the wood are probably unfamiliar, as many more varieties survive in the unpolluted air. With darkness closing in over the trees, and a long way yet to the next town, you might wonder whether there are still wolves in medieval England...Rest assured that there are not. Well, probably not. The modern tradition states that the last English wolf was killed in North Lancashire in the fourteenth century but you are very unlikely to meet it. Ralph Higden, writing at Chester in 1340, comments that there are now "few wolves" left in England. The last set of instructions to trap and kill wolves is issued in 1289, so if you want to see an indigenous wild wolf, you will have to go to the Highlands of Scotland. There are still some wild boar in the aristocratic hunting parks or chases but they too have been brought almost to the point of extinction, so the chances of your being gored by one are remote. The only really dangerous beast to be encountered in the woods and forests of fourteenth-century England is — as you have probably guessed — man. Groups of armed men, like the Folville and Coterel gangs, do roam the forest roads looking for stragglers to rob. But that is a business to consider in the chapter on law and order, not here.

The Changing Landscape

There is a common misconception that the English countryside is unchanging. "As old as the hills" is a phrase one often hears. However, those hills are slowly being developed. Some are being cleared of undergrowth and coming under the plow for the first time. Some are being enclosed within field boundaries, for the more efficient management of large flocks of sheep. The gentle slopes where oats once grew are now increasingly manured carefully so that they can yield wheat. The flat ground is also changing. The Lincolnshire Fens, Somerset Levels, and Romney Marsh are all much smaller than they used to be; many square miles of marshland have been reclaimed through the construction of long drainage ditches. Wheat, oats, and barley grow where once eels were farmed.

There are many factors affecting change in the medieval landscape, and not all of them are of human origin. For example, the silting up of rivers can hugely affect the patterns of economic development and trade in a region. A prosperous port can very quickly become a ghost town, with a ripple effect on the roads and hinterland. Coastal erosion has similar consequences. At the beginning of the century the East Anglian town of Dunwich is one of the most important ports in England. It has a Benedictine priory, two friaries, six parish churches, two chapels of ease, and a church belonging to the Knights Templar. But if you go there in January 1328, be warned: a terrific storm on the night of the fourteenth will destroy part of the town and shift enough gravel and pebbles to block the harbor entirely. Dunwich's importance to shipping is extinguished. If you stay around the area for the next twenty years you will see the rest of the town suffer, economically decaying after the loss of its harbor. In 1347 another almighty storm sweeps away four hundred houses and two parish churches. Go there and you will hear the crashing of buildings as they collapse into the sea and the screams of terrified people trapped by fallen timbers in the darkness, struggling to escape the sea spray and gale.

Climate change is another factor affecting the landscape. At the beginning of the century it is not unusual to buy English wine. Many noble and royal houses have extensive vineyards. Not so a hundred years later. By 1400 the vineyards of England have all gone. The mean temperature for the year has dropped by about one degree centigrade. This does not sound like a very great difference but it represents a severe setback for some communities. The weather is that little bit colder in every circumstance, including when there are rain clouds nearby. The greater rainfall leads to flooded roads and ruined crops. In 1315-17, during the terrible years of the Great Famine (a consequence of prolonged heavy rainfall), animals may be seen drowned in their flooded pastures. Flooding also leads to greater numbers of parasites and a prevalence of crop diseases. If you tour any part of England during the Great Famine you will see the peasants digging and repairing ditches in the hope of saving their crops. Many fail and whole families die as a consequence, killed by the diseases connected with malnutrition. With fewer people left to tend the land, more acres are abandoned and return to waste ground. In this way even a slight variation in temperature can wreak profound changes upon the countryside.

The factor which affects the landscape more than any other is disease. From 1348, waves of plague depopulate rural manors to such an extent that the entire way of managing the land changes. It is not just the people killed by the disease itself who matter. If a manor suddenly has a third of its workforce wiped out, then a third of the lord's rents go unpaid. The lord might demand that the surviving tenants work twice as hard. However, if he is not paying them and the lord of the next manor who is in need of workers is offering to pay them good money for helping with his harvest, they are likely to forget their bonds of service to their original lord and move, taking their families with them, even though it is against the law. In this way the lord of a manor might lose not just a third or a half of his manorial tenants but all of them. Then, faced with the prospect of a useless piece of land, he will wonder how he can make money out of it. One solution is to forget about arable farming altogether and let the manor revert to grazing land where a large flock of sheep can be kept. Thus you may see several thousand acres of well-tended grain around a village turn into a grassy down in just a few years, the ruined church tower left as the sole reminder that here was once a community.


In total more than a thousand villages have been deserted and are in ruins by the end of the century. Thus a visit to England in 1300 is a very different experience from a visit in 1400. Even those communities that continue to thrive are affected by the Great Plague of 1348-49 ("the Black Death," as we refer to it). In the 1350s and 1360s most villages have abandoned houses on the outskirts. Robbed of their valuable timbers, their roofless cob walls are sadly collapsing into the mud and untended grass and weeds. In some places the repairs to a onceprosperous parish church are beyond the means of the parishioners. Rather than replace the roof of one aisle or one chapel, they will pull down the walls and fill in the arches, shrinking the church to suit both their budget and their requirements.

A fourteenth-century village is far from picturesque. Forget postcard images of flowers in pots at the doors of quaint thatched cottages. It is a visual mess in both layout and presentation. The first house you might see has low walls of limewashed cob and narrow windows with external shutters. A broad thatched roof rises from about chest height to twenty-five feet or more, with smoke coming from one of the crude triangular openings — makeshift louvers — built into either end of the ridge. The thatch itself, which probably is laden with moss and lichen, extends out over the walls by a good eighteen inches, giving the whole building the aspect of a frown. The cobbles of the toft (the area on which the house is built) are uneven and have partially sunk into the mud. A small fence runs around the whole house and garden. Adjacent to the house are water butts and piles of firewood. Nearby are a hut containing the privy, a working cart, the remains of a broken cart, a haywain, a thatched stable, a goose house, a henhouse, a barn, and perhaps a small brew house and bake house.

After a few minutes of staring at this conglomeration, you might start to realize how the whole toft, together with its garden, has been arranged. The firewood is located within easy reach of the house. Likewise the privy — a smelly earth closet — is close (but not too close) to the door. The reason the thatch extends so far out over the walls is to protect them from the rain and snow, for they are composed of cob or clay, straw, and animal dung. The henhouse and goose house are positioned where they are in order to keep them safe from foxes and other predators at night. The broken cart is there so it can be repaired or reused for something else: a principle of recycling which applies to almost everything in medieval England. The garden at the rear is where the householder grows vegetables and herbs. The barrels are deliberately placed to collect rainwater — the cleanest water available — as it runs off the roof. Gradually you realize that there is a wholly different aesthetic at work here. Of course there is no need for flowers in a pot to beautify a medieval house. To the medieval yeoman's eye, the beauty lies in having the necessities of life close at hand. To the family which lives here, beauty lies in the smoke issuing from the roof openings and the knowledge that there is plenty more firewood just outside the door.

Once you understand the aesthetic difference between the modern concept of a comfortable home and the practicalities of living in the fourteenth century, you will begin to understand why the village looks as it does. Practicalities take precedence over beauty and thus become ideals, or things of beauty, in themselves. Yes, the houses appear to have been scattered all over the place, as if each toft were a giant playing card from a pack that the Devil once tossed over his shoulder in a fit of pique. Nevertheless there is a reason why each one is where it is. Many stand alongside the lanes which lead to their allotted acres in the open fields, permitting easy access for the carts and oxen. The mill stands where it does because the river runs that way. Other houses are situated where they are because of their wells, or because there is a frost pocket that chills a certain area of land in winter, or because a certain area is liable to flood. The village develops in line with the contours of necessity. Now you can see why medieval parishioners have no compunction about simply lopping off one aisle of the church when the population of the village shrinks. The harmonious symmetry of the church is destroyed, as they realize; but the resultant smaller building is better suited for the reduced population, and there is a different sort of harmony in that.

Your first impression on reaching the heart of any one English village will be that all the houses look much the same. Whether they are built individually or in groups, they are almost all single storey and no more than sixteen feet from front to back — all medieval houses are just one room in depth. Village houses also tend to have the same style of construction and roofing as one another. However, across the wider landscape, this appearance of similarity is misleading. There are differences of size, purpose, and construction methods. And, of course, there are substantial regional variations. In some parts of the country stone is more easily available than oak. On Dartmoor, where large beams cannot easily be transported but stone is plentiful, people live in granite houses and thatch them with reed or bracken, which needs to be replaced annually. In parts of Cornwall houses are built of slate blocks and roofed with slate slabs. In Kent, elm is used in the frames of a substantial minority of houses. In most regions, stone buildings are a status symbol. The majority of rural workers live in timberframed houses thatched with straw.

Most village houses measure between twenty-five and forty feet in length, but some are square one-roomed cottages and others sixty-foot-long yeomen's houses. The latter are handsome two-bay halls, with a two-storey wing at each end and many outbuildings. At the other extreme, a widow's cottage may be just a single-storey, one-room dwelling of about thirteen feet square, with a porch and a henhouse by the back door. In some regions, especially in the West Country, you will still find longhouses; these can be anything up to ninety feet long, with one end accommodating cattle and the other the farmer's family. Bear in mind that in these remote regions, a village will not necessarily be a series of grouped houses but may well consist of a number of scattered farmsteads, with only a handful of them being in sight of the parish church.

At the start of the fourteenth century there is a great deal of shoddy building. Many rural workers' houses are built cheaply, without proper foundations but with their beams placed straight into the ground. Of course, without a foundation plinth the timbers rot, so houses of this type need replacing every thirty or forty years. Early in the century, however, things start to change. More houses begin to be built with stone foundations, or footings, for timber and cob walls or rebuilt entirely with walls of stone. The roofs are also improved. A technique is developed in some parts of the country whereby the top level of thatch is replaced regularly while the base level is kept in place. Some of this fourteenth-century base thatch lasts so well it may be found in the roofs of houses in modern times, after more than six hundred years — complete with the dried bodies of medieval grasshoppers and ladybirds which happened to be crawling across it when it was cut.

Apart from the church, the highest-quality buildings in any village are those constructed by the lord of the manor. Some of these are stone residences for the lord and his family. But even if the lord does not reside there himself, there will be a manor house or barton set at the heart of his principal farm or demesne (land that he does not rent out but keeps for his own use). Here all the tenants of the manor come to pay their rents, fines, and other dues to the bailiff and to join in the communal meals held at Christmas and on other special occasions, such as harvesttime. The gamut of farm buildings clustered around a manor house may make it appear more like a hamlet — with its huge threshing barns and haylofts, ox houses and brew houses, stables, slaughterhouse, granary, goose house, henhouse, shearing shed, bailiff 's house, and workers' cottages.

Of course there are many other individual buildings which make up the rural landscape. In the past, Cistercian monks were keen to build their monasteries in remote places, and although the great age of monastery building has long since gone, their huge and strikingly elegant churches still dominate their valley settings. Likewise, although most castles in England are situated within or adjacent to towns, a few do stand in rural areas, guarding roads and harbors. Sir Edward Dallyngrigge's new fortress at Bodiam in Sussex is a good example; so are the Pomeroy family's castle at Berry in Devon and the Talbot family's seat at Goodrich in Herefordshire. You may also notice the open tin mining in the southwest, where deep scars in the hillsides attest to the quarrying and washing of mineral ore, or the vast fishponds situated on the estates of the great monasteries.

For the sake of advising the would-be visitor, perhaps there is just one other essential thing to say. Not all of rural England is the same. In some of the hilly regions it is not possible to use wheeled transport. This means that the character of the landscape is altogether different from lowland England. Building materials are gathered from the immediate vicinity. Being prone to heavy rainfall, and poor for arable farming, the manors have far lower populations. Many abandoned settlements are to be found in these regions after the Great Plague. Also, being poorer and relatively isolated, these manors are normally ignored by their lords. So they do not attract the best master masons to rebuild the churches or manorial buildings, and the structures that are erected are often provincial in character and amateurish in execution. At the other extreme, areas of East Anglia are very flat and fertile, and thus rich. They are also relatively safe, unlike rural areas bordering on Scotland and Wales.

The largest areas of abandoned landscape are to be found in the far north, in parts of Cumberland and Northumberland. Here there are parishes and manors, in theory, but for much of the fourteenth century there are few or no people. This is for three reasons: climate change, plague, and the frequent incursions of the Scots. The ruined houses and chapels are left open to the elements. A huge parish like Bewcastle in Cumberland, consisting of more than forty thousand acres, is almost uninhabited. A similar situation prevails in Northumberland. The land is border land, guarded by the valiant Percy family, lords of Alnwick, but for the most part it is empty. Areas like Redesdale, which were once well populated, have been largely abandoned. The massive parish of Simonburn, measuring thirty-three miles by fourteen and covering more than 150,000 acres, is so sparsely populated that its tithes are insufficient to maintain a single priest. No royal tax collectors go there. No one goes there. Battles take place from time to time, and you will find the odd obstinate crofter eking out a living from a smallholding hidden in a valley, but sometimes you can ride for a whole day in this region and see no one. It is simply not worth building a home in a land where there is a strong likelihood that your crops with be burnt, your animals stolen, and you and your family assaulted and killed by the invading Scots. It is certainly a far cry from the villages and small towns in the Midlands and the south, where young children can be found playing in the dust of the street.

Copyright © 2008 by Ian Mortimer

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