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From A Source Book of London history from the Earliest Times to 1800 edited by P. Meadows, London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd, 1914; pp. 12-17.


circa YEAR 1173 A. D.

A Norman Picture of London.

TheWilliam Fitz-Stephen was a native of London, and lived there much of his life. This description of his birthplace is prefixed to his “Life of Thomas Becket,” perhaps because he did not wish Canterbury to eclipse London in his narrative. This account of the capital city is clearly a fanciful picture, containing much exaggeration; but apart from its quaintness, it is interesting as showing how a medieval writer treated a subject which would now be discussed precisely and minutely, with accurate details and statistics.

Source. — William Fitz-Stephen’s Descriptio Nobilissimæ Civitatis Londonæ.

Of the Site Thereof.

Among the noble cities of the world that Fame celebrates the City of London, of the Kingdom of the English, is the one seat that pours out its fame more widely, sends to farther lands its wealth and trade, lifts its head higher than the rest. It is happy in the healthiness of its air, in the Christian religion, in the strength of its defences, the nature of its site, the honour of its citizens, the modesty of its matrons; pleasant in sports; fruitful of noble men. Let us look into these things separately. . . .

Of Religion.

There is in the church there the Episcopal Seat of St. Paul; once it was Metropolitan, and it is thought will again become so if the citizens return to the island, unless perhaps the archiepiscopal title of St. Thomas the Martyr, and his bodily presence, preserve to Canterbury, where it is now, a perpetual dignity. But as Saint Thomas has made both cities illustrious, London by his rising, Canterbury by his setting, in regard of that saint, with admitted justice, each can claim advantage of the other. There are also, as regards the cultivation of the Christian faith, in London and the suburbs, thirteen larger 13 conventual churches, besides lesser parish churches one hundred and twenty-six.

Of the Strength of the City.

It has on the east the Palatine Castle, very great and strong, of which the ground plan and the walls rise from a very deep foundation, fixed with a mortar tempered by the blood of animals. On the west are two towers very strongly fortified, with the high and great wall of the city having seven double gates, and towered to the north at intervals. London was walled and towered in like manner on the south, but the great fish-bearing Thames river which there glides, with ebb and flow from the sea, by course of time has washed against, loosened, and thrown down those walls. Also upwards to the west the royal palace is conspicuous above the same river, an incomparable building with ramparts and bulwarks, two miles form the city, joined to it by a populous suburb.

Of Gardens.

Everywhere outside the houses of those living in the suburbs are joined to them, planted with trees, the spacious and beautiful gardens of the citizens.

Of Pasture and Tilth.

Also there are, on the north side, pastures and a pleasant meadowland, through which flow river streams, where the turning wheels of mills are put in motion with a cheerful sound. Very near lies a great forest, with woodland pastures, coverts of wild animals, stags, fallow deer, boars, and wild bulls. The tilled lands of the city are not of barren gravel but fat plains of Asia, that make crops luxuriant, and fill their tillers’ barns with Ceres’ sheaves.

Of Springs.

There are also about London, on the north side, excellent suburban springs, with sweet, wholesome, and clear water that flows rippling over the bright stones; among which Holy Well, Clerken Well, and Saint Clements are frequented by greater 14 numbers, and visited more by scholars and youth of the city when they go out for fresh air on summer evenings. It is a good city indeed when it has a good master.

Of Honour of the Citizens.

That City is honoured by her men, adorned by her arms, populous with many inhabitants, so that in the time of slaughter of war under King Stephen, of those going out to muster twenty thousand horsemen and sixty thousand men on foot were estimated to be fit for war. Above all other citizens, everywhere, the citizens of London are regarded as conspicuous and noteworthy for handsomeness of manners and of dress, at table, and in way of speaking. . . .

Of Schools.

In London three principal churches have by privilege and ancient dignity famous schools; yet very often by support of some personage, or of some teachers who are considered notable and famous in philosophy, there are also other schools by favour or permission. On feast days the masters have festival meetings in the churches. Their scholars dispute, some by demonstration, others by dialectics; some recite enthymemes, others do better in using perfect syllogisms. Some are exercised in disputation for display, as wrestling with opponents; others for truth, which is the grace of perfectness. Sophist who feign are judged happy in their heap and flood of words. Others paralogise. Some orators, now and then, say in their rhetorical speeches something apt for persuasion, careful to observe rules of their art, and to omit none of the contingents. Boys of different schools strive against one another in verses, and contend about the principles of grammar and rules of the past and future tenses. . . .

Of the ordering of the City.

Those engaged in the several kinds of business, sellers of several things, contractors for several kinds of work, are distributed every morning into their several localities and shops. 15 Besides, there is in London on the river bank, among the wines in ships and cellars sold by the vintners, a public cook shop; thee eatables are to be found, every day, according to the season, dishes of meat, roast, fried and boiled, great and small fish, coarser meats for the poor, more delicate for the rich, of game, fowls, and small birds. If there should come suddenly to any of the citizens friends, weary form a journey and too hungry to like waiting till fresh food is brought and cooked, with water to their hands comes bread, while one runs to the river bank, and there is all that can be wanted. However great the multitudes of soldiers or travellers entering the city, or preparing to go out of it, at any hour of the day or night, — that these may not fast too long and those may not go supperless, — they turn hither, if they please, where every man can refresh himself in his own way. . . . Outside one of the gates there, immediately in the suburb, is a certain field, smooth (Smith) field in fact and name. Every Friday, unless it be a higher day of appointed solemnity, there is in it a famous show of noble horses for sale. Earls, barons, knights, and many citizens who are in town, come to see or buy. . . . In another part of the field stand by themselves the goods proper to rustics, implements of husbandry, swine with long flanks, cows with full udders, oxen of bulk immense, and woolly flocks. . . . To this city from every nation under heaven merchants delight to bring their trade by sea. . . . This city . . . is divided into wards, has annual sheriffs for its consuls, has senatorial and lower magistrates, sewers and aqueducts in its streets, its proper places and separate courts for cases of each kind, deliberative, demonstrative, judicial; has assemblies on appointed days. I do not think there is a city with more commendable customs of church attendance, honour to God’s ordinances, keeping sacred festivals, almsgiving, hospitality, confirming, betrothals, contracting marriages, celebration of nuptials, preparing feasts, cheering the guest, and also in care for funerals and the interment of the dead. The only pests of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires. To this may be added that nearly all the bishops, 16 abbots, and magnates of England are, as it wee, citizens and freemen of London; having there their own splendid houses, to which they resort, where they spend largely when summoned to great councils by the king or by their metropolitan, or drawn thither by their own private affairs.

Of Sports.

Let us now come to the sports and pastimes, seeing it is fit that a city should not only be commodious and serious, but also merry and sportful; . . . but London . . . hath holy plays, representations of miracles which holy confessors have wrought, or representations of torments wherein the constancy of martyrs appeared. Every years also at Shrove Tuesday, that we may begin with children’s sports, seeing we all have been children, the schoolboys do bring cocks of the game to their master, and all the forenoon they delight themselves in cock-fighting: after dinner, all the youths go into the field to play at the ball.

The scholars of every school have their ball, or baton, in their hands; the ancient and wealthy men of the city come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men, and to take part of the pleasure in beholding their agility. Every Friday in Lent a fresh company of young men comes into the field on horseback, and the best horseman conducteth the rest. Then march forth the citizens’ sons, and other young men, with disarmed lances and shields, and there they practise feats of war. Many courtiers likewise, when the king lieth near, and attendants of noblemen, do repair to these exercises; and while the hope of victory doth inflame their minds, do show good proof how serviceable they would be in martial affairs.

In Easter holidays they fight battles on the water; a shield is hung upon a pole, fixed in the midst of a stream, a boat is prepared without oars, to be carried by violence of the water, and in the fore part standeth a young man, ready to give charge upon the shield with his lance; if so be he breaketh his lance against the shield, and doth not fall, he is thought to have performed a worthy deed; if so be, without breaking his lance, he runneth strongly against the shield, down he falleth 17 into the water, for the boat is violently forced with the tide; but on each side of the shield ride two boats, furnished with young men, which recover him that falleth as soon as they may. Upon the bridge, wharfs, and houses, by the river’s side, stand great numbers to see and laugh thereat.

In the holidays all the summer the youths are exercised in leaping, dancing, shooting, wrestling, casting the stone, and practising their shields; the maidens trip in their timbrels, and dance as long as they can well see. In winter, every holiday before dinner, the boards prepared for brawn are set to fight, or else bulls and bears are baited.

When the great fen, or moor, which watereth the walls of the city on the north side, is frozen, many young men play upon the ice; some, striding as wide as they may, do slide swiftly; others make themselves seats of ice, as great as millstones; one sits down, many hand in hand to draw him, and one slipping on a sudden, all fall together; some tie bones to their feet and under their heels; and shoving themselves by a little picked staff, do slide as swiftly as a bird flieth in the air, or an arrow out of a crossbow. Sometime two run together with poles, and hitting on the other, either one or both do fall, not without hurt; some break their arms, some their legs, but youth desirous of glory in this sort exerciseth itself against the times of war. Many of the citizens do delight themselves in hawks and hounds; for they have liberty of hunting in Middlesex, Hertfordshire, all Chiltrn, and in Kent to the water of Cray.


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