When Knights were Bold - E. M. Tappan

Life in Town

Some of the towns in Europe had existed since the days of the Romans, but those that grew up during the Middle Ages were usually situated near some convent or castle. A large convent served as an inn for travelers; it had the care of many manors; and often it was also a school and a place of pilgrimage. The castle, too, entertained a large number of guests and controlled numerous manors. Men were needed at both places for all sorts of work, and there was a sale for whatever they produced. Moreover, they were sure of protection; and these were three good reasons why people should make their homes under the walls of convents and castles. Occasionally it came to pass that a manor village grew into a town. If it chanced to have a particularly strong manor house with moat and heavy stone walls, it might put up fortifications and prove itself so valuable as a defense that the lord was very willing to have it become a town. He would give it a charter, or written promise of privileges and protection; and this would bring many more people within its walls to increase his income by their taxes. Sometimes a town was founded by a king or noble, who decided that a certain place was a good location. The story is told that once when Edward I of England was on a hunting expedition, his attention was attracted to a tiny village on the wide river Humber near which some shepherds where watching their flocks. "That would be a most excellent place for a fortress," he said to himself, "and a city there would be sure to carry on a great deal of commerce." He asked the shepherds how deep the river was and to what height the tides rose. The land belonged to a convent, but the abbot was willing to take other land in exchange. Then the king published a charter, declaring the rights that he would give to all merchants who would carry on their business in the place. So it was that the town of Hull was founded. A wall and towers were built for defense, and the settlement flourished. The fact that it is to-day a city of a quarter of a million of inhabitants proves the wisdom of Edward in choosing its location. Such a made-to-order town was commonly spoken of as the new town  or the free town. Sometimes it never received any other title; and that is why we have such names as Neustadt and Freiburg in Germany, Villanueva and Villafranca in Spain and Villeneuve and Villefranche in France. King Edward was not so fortunate in another of his towns, that of Winchelsea. The old settlement had been washed away by the ocean, and the king laid out another one on a new site two miles away. But the French had their eyes open, and they pounced down upon it before the walls were done. People did not take a liking to it, and in spite of the king's efforts, it never flourished. Curiously enough, within the last four hundred years, the sea, which had laid the old town in ruins, has retreated from the new town, and the former seaport is now a village a mile and a half from the ocean and surrounded by a salt marsh.

Italian towns were stronger and larger than those of France. Each one held wide-spreading territories, and therefore the whole country was really in their hands. Spain had chartered communities earlier than France or England. In these Spanish towns citizens of a certain amount of property paid no taxes; but if fighting men were needed to protect the country, they were bound to serve and also to provide horses for themselves at their own expense. For this reason, a man's horse could not be seized for debt. In France, the citizens must defend their land if necessary; but they could be called out for only a limited time and to a certain distance from the walls of their home city. There was another law which also tended to make them somewhat independent. This was that before they agreed to enter upon any piece of military service, they had a right to take into account the nature of the cause for which they were called into service. This was an excellent arrangement; for if two nobles, for instance, took up arms because of some trivial quarrel, the citizens could not be forced to join in it.

A town, then, in the Middle Ages was simply a large village with walls and towers. It had special privileges, granted by the king or by the convent or the noble in whose province it was situated, and it was sure to gain more either by purchase or by some shrewd bargaining with the owner in his time of need. A town usually had many customs peculiar to itself. At Chester in England, if a fire caught in a man's house and the flames spread, he must pay his next neighbor two shillings, and pay the town a fine of five shillings. In some of the English towns it was the rule for the mayor and corporation to walk once a year around the boundaries, inspecting the landmarks. A company of children were taken with them, and in order to impress the limits upon their minds, copper coins were given to them at each turning; a far more agreeable method than the old Roman fashion of sacrificing a lamb or a pig at every corner. To be called a city, a town must be the residence of the bishop. For a long while, a town was as much a piece of private property as a manor. Its lord could sell it if he chose, and the citizens could do nothing to hinder him. The value was somewhat in proportion to its size. It was therefore of advantage to the owner to have the number of inhabitants increase, and strangers were usually welcome.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The walls about a town were thick and high. Watchmen were always on guard to give the alarm at the approach of an enemy. The houses were built of various materials. There were cottages of mud, and there were comfortable residences of brick. Some were built of wood with the framework arranged in elaborate patterns. Others were ornamented with plaster decorations and painted panels. In many cases, the lower story was of stone and the rest of the house of wood. Roofs thatched with straw or reeds were common for a long while; but at length it was required that tiles should be used. Windows were sometimes glazed, and sometimes the space was filled in with wooden lattice work. There were churches and inns for travelers, and there was always a town hall in which the business of the town was transacted. The town halls on the Continent were larger and more splendid than those in England; but the English halls were not to be ashamed of by any means; for it was a matter of pride with a town to have as handsome a hall as could be afforded.

By far the greater number of people in a city were either craftsmen, that is, manufacturers of various articles, or merchants. To become a craftsman required a long training. If a boy wished to be a carpenter, for instance, his parents selected some master carpenter and asked him to take their son as an apprentice. If he was willing, both parents and master signed a formal agreement. The parents gave their son into the charge of the master for a fixed number of years, promising on the boy's part that he would be obedient and diligent and would not tell any of his master's secrets. The master agreed to give the boy a home and his clothes and to teach him all that he himself knew about the carpenter's trade. The boy was not supposed to be of much service during the first years of his apprenticeship; but long before the end of his time had come, he was expected to be able to assist his master enough to pay him for all previous trouble and expense.

After the boy had learned the trade and his time was up, he became a journeyman. This name is thought to have come from the French journée, meaning day, because he worked by the day. Many journeymen never rose any higher, but an industrious workman could soon save enough money to set up for himself, which meant becoming a master, having a shop in his own house, hiring journeymen, and taking apprentices. Providing himself with tools was not a difficult matter, for they were few and simple. Two axes, an adze, a square, and a spokeshave were all that were necessary; and their combined cost was only one shilling. Materials were often supplied by the customers. No journeyman was allowed to become a master until he had presented a masterpiece, or an excellent piece of carpentry to the gild, or society of carpenters, and had thus shown to them that he was able to do work that would meet with their approval.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The merchants varied in rank from the great importer whose vessels sailed wherever desirable exports could be found to the small tradesman whose little shop was in his own house. Some of these merchants were both rich and generous, and attained to high positions in affairs of state. They built for themselves handsome houses that were probably decidedly more comfortable than the castles of the time. The house of one of the smaller traders was usually a combination of shop and home and storehouse. The building was generally narrow and high with a gable overlooking the street. In the gable was a door, and from this door a crane projected. The lower floor was a basement or cellar. The first floor was given up to the shop. Above that was the living room, and back of the living room was the kitchen. The floor above was the general sleeping room, and over this was the great garret. This was used as a storeroom, and goods were lifted to it by means of the crane in the gable. Often a "salesroom" was merely a bench under a porch. Here whatever the workman made was spread out for the passers-by to see, and purchase if they would. Many signs swung over the street, and on each of them was painted some device to suggest the business of the house. The boar's head—a favorite Christmas dish—was often adopted as a tavern sign. The pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales  spent the night at the Tabard Inn; and doubtless this had a wooden sign representing a tabard, or sleeveless jacket worn over armor. The Flying Horse was the name of a tavern in Canterbury, and we can easily guess what the sign must have been. The ivy was sacred to Bacchus, the god of wine, and therefore the custom arose of putting a spray of vine or even a green bush over the door of a place where wine was sold. To this day the mortar and pestle often indicate an apothecary's; the shop of the pawnbroker is marked not by a name, but by three golden balls, taken from the arms of the Lombards, the first great money-lenders in England; and the twining stripes of the barber's pole signify either the flowing blood or the bandages used in bleeding, for in early times the barbers were also the bleeders.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The streets in mediæval days were narrow and, except in made-to-order towns, they were crooked and rambling. The upper stories of the houses often projected so far over them that opposite neighbors could almost shake hands from their windows. In front, the houses must have been rather gloomy, but back of them there were usually gardens, which must have been a great delight to the good folk of the time; for they not only walked in them, but played chess and danced and ate their dinners in them. In England, lilies and roses seem to have been the favorite flowers; but marigolds, poppies, violets, and foxgloves were often seen. Many plants were cultivated as medicines, among them sage, mallows, and nightshade. In the vegetable gardens there were lettuce, cresses, onions, melons, cucumbers, and beets. Apples and pears were common, and cherries seem to have been well known and general favorites. Every year, when the cherries were ripe, feasts or fairs were held in the orchards, which were called cherry fairs. People seemed never to weary of trying experiments on the cherry tree. An old book on gardening declared that grapes could be made to ripen as early as cherries. This is the way it was to be done: A grapevine must be set out beside a cherry tree; and after it was growing thriftily, it must be drawn through a hole bored through the tree. The bark of the vine was to be cut away from the part that went through the tree, and the hole must be completely filled. After a year had passed, the vine was supposed to be so much at home in the tree that its own roots might be cut off, and it would find its food in the sap of the cherry. It was a faithful monk who gave this recipe; but one cannot help wondering whether he had ever tested it or only reasoned it out in his cell; and whether, even if it was a success in the fifteenth century, the daring gardener who ventured to try it in the twentieth would not come to grief. Any one who is more fond of pomegranates than peaches may wish to try another recipe that seems to have been in good standing at about the same time. This one bade that when the peach-tree was in bloom, it should be sprinkled with goat's milk several times a day for three days, whereupon it would not fail to produce pomegranates. Surely this was a far simpler and easier method than grafting. There was ample opportunity for even the Londoners to try all such experiments; for, besides the smaller gardens within the city, there were large and spacious orchards just beyond the walls with plenty of room for trees of all sorts.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Outside the city wall was a ditch or moat two hundred feet broad. This was dug in the early part of the thirteenth century as a means of fortification; and for many years it was kept in good order. At length, however, it became so foul that every householder in London was taxed fivepence, the price of a day's work, to help pay for cleaning it out. More agreeable waters abounded on the north side of the city; for there lay pastures and meadow land rich in springs and streams. The springs were all named, and a number of them were walled in. Richard Whittington, the hero of the nursery tale, "thrice lord mayor of London," left money to build a stone coping about one of them. In the thirteenth century water was brought into the city in lead pipes, "for the poor to drink, and the rich to dress their meat." In the clear streams the mill-wheels turned merrily about, and the crops grew abundantly in the fertile soil.

Toward the end of the twelfth century a law was passed that the lower parts of houses at least should be built of stone and the roofs should be covered with slate or tile. This was to prevent destruction by fire. William Fitzstephen, clerk of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote an account of London in his time, the latter part of the twelfth century, and he says that "the only pests of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires." Some years later, a man built a house with a lofty tower of brick, which seems to have greatly annoyed the Londoners. They looked upon it as manifesting a desire on the part of the owner to show himself superior to his neighbors; and folk thought that the blindness which came upon him was a deserved punishment for his pride. The second house that was built with a tower "to overlook neighbors" was reared by a young tailor. The poor young man was soon attacked by gout and was not able to climb his own stairs; and this was rather uncharitably regarded as a judgment come upon him. It is possible that the next owner of this house did not venture to retain the tower; for the record says "he new buildeth it." No historian has handed down the name of the person who built the third tower, but it must have been a man of unbounded fearlessness and audacity.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Even stonebuilt houses were not places of safety in the troublous times of the twelfth century. It was a common practice for bands of wealthy young men to roam the streets at night, killing any one whom they chanced to meet and breaking into houses. One of these fashionable ruffians was finally captured. He offered the king five hundred pounds of silver to let him go free; but the king commanded him to be hanged, and for a long while citizens slept more peacefully.

One convenience of the city Fitzstephen felt to be the very height of luxury. This was a cookshop on the bank of the river. He says that if unexpected visitors arrived, their host could slip down to the river bank, and there he would find fish, fowl, and meat, fried, roasted, or boiled, as he would, to carry to his hungry guests. Fitzstephen had unlimited confidence in the resources of this cookshop, for he declared that, no matter how great a multitude of soldiers or travelers entered the city at any hour of the day or night, they could be quickly served with all the delicacies of the season. Either the "multitude" of the Middle Ages was not so very large, or this really was a most remarkable cookshop.

London had many churches, and it was well supplied with hospitals. These latter were for the blind or poor or insane or for lepers. Richard Whittington endowed an almshouse which he called "God's House," for thirteen poor men. Thirteen was a favorite number in charities; but often there were restrictions far more whimsical than this. At the close of the fifteenth century, somewhat later than the Middle Ages, King Henry VII endowed a home for thirteen poor men. One must be a priest, forty-five years old and "a good grammarian." The other twelve men were to be fifty years of age and without wives. Every Saturday as long as they lived, the priest was to receive fourpence a day for his food. The others, who perhaps were not so good grammarians, were to receive only twopence-half-penny a day. Every year each man was given a gown and hood. The charge of the house, the cooking, and the care of the poor men in illness was put into the hands of three women, each of whom was to receive one gown each year and sixteen pence every Saturday. Coal and wood were provided; it was ordered that "a discreet monk," who was to paid forty shillings a year, but was to receive no gown, should be overseer of all.

Many persons of wealth gave away food in large quantities. One kind-hearted bishop had every week more than two hundred pounds of wheat made into bread to give to the poor. One of the archbishops of Canterbury gave on Fridays and Sundays a loaf of bread to every beggar who came to his gates; and sometimes there were five thousand of them. To people who were too sick or too feeble to come, he sent meat, bread, and drink, and often money and clothes. One of the oddest of charitable whims was that of Henry III in the twelfth century. Soon after the close of the Christmas season, all the poor and needy boys and girls that could be found were brought into a great hall and made comfortable before a big fire. Soon they saw a rare and wonderful sight, for the king's children, the princes and princesses, were led into the room. These royal youngsters were carefully weighed, and a quantity of food equal to their weight was distributed among their hungry guests.

There seems to have been a good supply of schools in London, for in the twelfth century there were three especially notable and also a number of lesser fame. These were connected with churches, and upon festival days people flocked to their doors to listen to the boys. The good folk of that time believed that the surest proof of a pupil's diligence and talent was his ability to argue; and on these occasions the boys did their best to get the better of one another in argument. The listeners watched eagerly to see who used good, clear, logical reasoning, who manifested skill in persuasion, and who spoke flowingly, with a lavish supply of words, but with few genuine arguments. After the more serious part of the programme had come to an end, the boys had a bout of capping verses, in Latin of course, and contending about the rules and principles of grammar. Then came an hour of vast amusement; for now they set to work to make witty rhymes and speeches about one another. They were not allowed to mention names; but they were free to jest keenly as they chose about one another's faults and oddities, "nipping and quipping their fellows." Long after the formal school exercises in the churches had been given up, the boys used to go to Smithfield, or smooth field, just outside the city, for their duels of argument. A platform had been built up under a tree, and upon this a boy would take his stand, make some statement in grammar or philosophy, and uphold it until he was argued down by some boy of keener wit. This second boy then mounted the platform and upheld some statement of his own choice until he, too, was obliged to yield. At the close of the arguing, prizes were given to those who had done best. After a while these debates were given up; but the tradition was handed down by one class of boys to another, and even in the sixteenth century, they were continued in a fashion that perhaps entertained the boys quite as much as the more formal displays of earlier times. The most famous school in the thirteenth century was that of the cathedral of Saint Paul's. Its pupils were called "Paul's pigeons" because many pigeons were bred about the church. A later, but most excellent school, was that of Saint Anthony's. There was a legend that this kind-hearted saint had been followed about by a favorite pig. No boy would forget that story, and of course the pupils of Saint Anthony's were nicknamed "Anthony's pigs." When a company of "Paul's pigeons" chanced to meet some of "Anthony's pigs" in the street, some boy from one group was sure to demand of the other group, "Will you hold an argument with me?" This was a challenge which could not be slighted. Some question in Latin grammar was chosen, and the contest proceeded, first by argument, but before long by blows with fists and satchels of books. The challenge was always made in Latin, "Salve te quoque, placet tibi mecum disputare?" but it came to mean little more than the very modern, "Hello, want to fight?"

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


But the amusements of London were not limited to Latin contests and street brawls. On Shrove Tuesday of each year, the schoolboys carried game cocks to school, and all the forenoon master and pupils watched them fight. In the afternoon, the young men of the city went to the ball ground to play, while their elders cantered out on horseback to watch the game. Every Friday in Lent some of the young men went through various manœuvres on horseback, and others with shields and blunted lances carried on a mimic war. After a while this was given up, and the knights' practice with the quintain took its place. Prizes were given to those who did best. The favorite prize was a peacock. At Easter time, the banks of the Thames, the wharves, bridges, and houses were filled with people waiting to see an interesting sort of naval contest. A pole was firmly fixed in the midst of the stream, and on it a shield was hung. The young man who was to try his fate took his position with lance in hand in the bow of a little boat some distance above the pole. He had neither oars nor paddle, but the current filled the place of both, for a time was always chosen when the tide was going out rapidly. The feat was to charge upon the shield with the lance and not lose one's balance. If the lance did not break, the contestant was sure to tumble into the water. The unlucky youth was in no danger; for on each side of the shield were two boats full of men to rescue him; but the shouts of laughter that echoed up and down the river must have been worse than the wetting. All summer long there were sports of different kinds, such as leaping, dancing, wrestling, shooting, and casting the stone. When winter had come and the flats north of the city were frozen, then there was sliding on the ice, which Fitzstephen describes as follows: "Some, striding as wide as they may, do slide swiftly." Another amusement was for one to take his seat upon a cake of ice "as big as a millstone," while his companions took hold of hands and drew him about. The interesting part of this amusement seemed to be that the "horses" frequently slipped and all tumbled down together. Another sport was evidently a forerunner of skating. Fitzstephen describes it thus: "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 cross-bow." One exercise which seems to have been required of the young apprentices was to practice with bucklers and "wasters," or blunt-edged swords, in front of their masters' doors at twilight. The girls were not forgotten, for garlands were hung across the streets as prizes, and for these the maidens danced to the music of a timbrel, or drum. It is a pity that all the amusements were not as simple and harmless as these; but the cruel and revolting cock fighting as well as bear and bull baiting, that is, muzzling and tying up one of these animals to be attacked by dogs, were not given up even after people became in many respects far more enlightened than during the Middle Ages.

In Smithfield there was held every Friday except on specially holy days a horse-market. Everybody went to it, earls and barons and knights as well as the common citizens. There were horses broken and horses unbroken, there were handsome, graceful amblers, there were steadfast trotters for men at arms, and there were strong, sober steeds for the plough or farm wagon; there were pigs and cows and sheep and oxen. It was quite allowable to keep as many pigs as one chose within the city; but by the fourteenth century the Londoners were beginning to feel that the pigs ought not to be permitted to roam about the streets at pleasure; and the stern decree was passed that whoever kept a pig must feed it at his own house; that is, all pigs must board and lodge at home. Whoever chanced to find one wandering about the streets of the city, had a right to kill it; and if the owner wished to have the carcass, he must pay fourpence for it. Verily, as honest Fitzstephen declared, London was "a good city indeed" when it had a good master.