Some time ago I read something that changed the way I think about life in medieval homes. It also changed the way I write about them in my novels. Like you, probably, I think about the human inhabitants of buildings, but we should also be considering the animals that shared domestic spaces with their owners. Be warned, though. People didn’t really keep pets in the Middle Ages. The animals they accommodated earned their keep, one way or the other. One of my chickens hasn’t laid an egg in eighteen months. In the fourteenth century, I’m afraid she would have found her way to the stew pot.
I mentioned in a previous post that people in towns kept pigs. If you had a garden, you kept a pig, usually more than one, because you killed an adult pig in November to eat during the winter. There are many reports of pigs being a nuisance in towns, because they escaped from their gardens, damaged the neighbours’ gardens and added to the general chaos and filth that was a street in a medieval town.
Dogs were also kept by many people, mostly for hunting/poaching. They needed to be exercised, so they would also be in the streets, again, adding to the chaos and mess.
Fewer people owned horses, because they were expensive and most people didn’t need one. I don’t suppose that I need to add that they also contributed to the filth of medieval streets. It’s no wonder that the rushes that covered most ground-level floors had to be changed so often. People must constantly have been treading things in from outside, although they probably slipped off their pattens before they got too far inside the house.
Wealthy people kept hawks of various kinds. These were generally kept in a mews, but wealthy people, then as now, liked to show off their wealth, and their favourite birds went everywhere with them. There would be perches in the solar, where the birds would sit for visitors to admire.
It’s difficult enough these days to imagine what the inside of a medieval house or castle would look like when it was full of people, but it’s even more difficult to remember to think about the animals that lived with them.
A few weeks ago I visited my first English Heritage site since covid arrived here. It was Old Sarum and I was attending an event put on by English Heritage for members. It wasn’t exactly a guided tour, but an expert member of staff took us to various places on the ramparts while talking about the history of the site in chronological order. Since it was originally an Iron Age fort that was later occupied by the Romans and then, possibly, the Saxons, it took a while to get to the part that really interested me. This isn’t to say that the stuff about the Ancient Britons and Romans wasn’t interesting, it was, but I had come to learn more about the medieval castle.
The day was gloriously sunny, if somewhat windy, and it was wonderful to find out a bit more about Old Sarum, described by English Heritage as ‘one of the most enthralling historic sites in southern England’. This is an interesting claim, given that Stonehenge is, literally, only a few miles up the road.
So, what did I learn about the things I was most interested in: the medieval castle and cathedral? The first was that a tunnel had been built under the outer bailey and the ramparts in the Middle Ages which probably led to a sally port on the other side of the ramparts. What, you might be asking, is a sally port? It was a small, fortified door, probably well-hidden. In this instance the tunnel leads north to Salisbury Plain. Our guide informed us that this was probably where a besieging army would camp. The sally port would allow the defenders of a castle to leave it, probably under cover of darkness, and harass the besiegers. I suspect that they might also have used it to send for help. I had heard of sally ports before, but had no idea how they might work. In other castles the sally port was at the least defensible part of the castle. This would enable the defenders to surprise the attackers and deter them from focusing on that area. The castle at Old Sarum was never besieged, so the sally port, if there was one, was never used in a desperate situation.
Probably my favourite new fact from the day is that the ramparts, being made of compacted chalk, would have been white when they were first restored in the Middle Ages and the outer walls of the castle were whitewashed. Forget the grey blobs of stone that we see on the tops of hills these days; the builders of these castles wanted to make a statement. Old Sarum was built by William the Conqueror very shortly after he arrived in England and he wanted the Saxons to know that he was in charge. A white castle on top of a white hill would have given exactly that message. It was still white a century or so later when relations between the castle and the cathedral had broken down. One of a long list of complaints that the monks sent to the pope was that the castle and its hill were so white that it blinded them to look at it. Not long after this a new cathedral was built a few miles away in what is now Salisbury.
The final thing I learned was that there were probably only about twenty soldiers at Old Sarum, castles being built so that you didn’t need lots of defenders. I think this must have been the number when the king wasn’t in residence, but it does seem a small number for what is a very large site. The hill on which the castle sits is very steep, however, and I for one would not like to try to climb up it whilst arrows and other things were being launched at me from above. Perhaps it would only have taken twenty men to protect it after all
Last week we looked at religious hermits, who were allowed to leave the places in which they were based. Today we’re looking at anchorites and anchoresses, who were not allowed to wander; they had a fixed place where they lived and had to stay. When I write ‘anchorite’ in this post I also mean ‘anchoress’. I’m just too lazy to type both every time. When I write ‘anchoress’, though, I don’t also mean ‘anchorite’.
Anchorites were also known as recluses. Sometimes they were literally walled in and were not able to leave their cell. They had to have the permission of their bishop for this and he would officiate at a service, similar to the one for lepers entering a lazar house, during which they renounced the world. For both lepers and anchorites it symbolised that they were dead to the world and everyone in it.
To be walled up meant that there was no way in or out of the cell, only windows which looked out onto different parts of their, very small, world. The bishop was involved because he had to be satisfied that the anchorite’s character was such that he could survive spiritually and physically. Anchorages were usually attached to a parish church in a town, which meant that there were people around to look after them. Anchorites had one or two servants. One of them was for errands and one for protection. I’m not quite sure how that worked for anchoresses. Mother Julian of Norwich, for example, had two women, Alice and Sara. We’ll come on to Mother Julian in a moment.
A cell usually had three windows, an altar, a bed and a crucifix. Through one window the anchorite could see the altar of the church to which the cell was attached. Through the second window the servant passed food. This window connected to the servant’s quarters. Only one window looked onto the outside world. This was the parlour window (the smallest) and the anchorite could speak to visitors through it. It was small so that the anchorite could see very little and thus not be tempted by the outside world.
The three elements of the anchorite’s life were silence, prayer and mortification. In this instance, mortification means the subduing of the body’s desires. These might be for food, comfort, alcohol, sex or movement in the outside world. The requirement for silence wasn’t absolute, since the anchorite could speak to visitors and the servants. It was mental and spiritual detachment that were important rather than physical isolation.
Like the hermits who lived in their cells in a monastery, there was a sense of community among anchorites. Their servants carried verbal messages between them, so these were clearly not long and involved communications.
One of the earliest books written in English, the Ancrene Riwle, was written for anchoresses. It was written for three sisters and set out a rule of behaviour for anchoresses who were not attached to any particular order.
Probably the most famous English anchoress of the fourteenth century was Mother Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in English. I have to add, that we know about, since books are such fragile things and someone else could have written a book that has since been lost or destroyed. Her book was Revelations of Divine Love, which was about some visions she had in 1373. All but one of them took place in a single night. She wrote them down and spent the next twenty years meditating on them. Her cell was attached to Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, and it’s possible that she took her name from the church. It’s just as likely, though, that it was her own name, since it was a common name for women at the time. Very little is known about her apart from what is in her book and what Margery Kempe included in her own writings about a visit she made to Julian.
Anchorites either had to have enough wealth to pay their own expenses or have someone who paid for them. Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, supported an anchorite in Cornwall, of which he was the duke, who said masses for Edward’s ancestors.
Last week Ellen Hawley wrote a post that mentioned medieval burgesses. I read it and wasn’t sure that I agreed with something that she quoted from a website that gave a definition of medieval burgesses. In my head and, I’m afraid, in my novel His Ransom, burgesses were the men who governed a town. This week’s research has shown that my earlier research was sorely lacking and I apologise now to anyone who has read the novel for the misinformation.
It’s true that governing bodies of towns were made up of burgesses, but burgess was not the title of a member of the governing body. A burgess was a free man who lived in a borough, paying rent to the lord of the manor. He was neither a serf nor a villein bound to a particular manor. Instead, he had many rights over the land he rented. Serfs and villeins were not eligible to become burgesses, even though some of them would have been able to afford the rent.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor could create a borough/town within their manor by making their tenants burgesses. Burgesses held a plot of land (usually less than half an acre) and paid a fixed rent for it. This meant that they didn’t have to provide agricultural services to the lord.
Their rights to this piece of land were quite extensive. They could sell it (or leave it to someone who would in turn become a burgess), sublet it or mortgage it. They also had the right to sell and buy goods in the town’s markets without having to pay tolls. This is what many of them ended up doing.
A borough was originally a centre for trade with a wall around it. Alfred the Great created many of them in the tenth century with the idea of having places that could be defended against the Vikings. This was in a time before castles first appeared in England. The borough’s walls and its soldiers provided protection for the market and its inhabitants.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor created boroughs and towns in order to have markets and fairs on their land, which would provide extra income for them. As well as the profit on the rents paid by the burgesses, it also gave the lord’s serfs and villeins somewhere nearby to sell and buy goods, paying tolls to him for the privilege, since they didn’t live in the town.
There were 100 boroughs in England in 1086. By 1300 there were over 500. Some of them had been created by various kings and some by abbeys, but most had been made by lords of the manor.
A burgess was eligible not just to sit on a town’s governing body, but he could also be selected to represent the town in a parliament. Parliament was not a permanent institution, but met for a few days (usually about a fortnight) more or less once a year, at least during the reign of Edward III, at the behest of the king. You’ll note that I use the word ‘selected’ rather than ‘elected’. The method of selection varied from town to town, but the representatives were usually selected by the other burgesses.
A very complicated selection system was used in King’s Lynn, where the mayor chose four burgesses who chose another four, then the eight selected another four. These twelve men selected the men they sent to parliament. There were also rules about which groups could provide the twelve men. The objective seemed to have been to ensure that the town’s representatives in parliament really did represent the views of those who ran the town. You’ll note again, that they weren’t representing the views of everyone in the town, but only those of the burgesses.
Over the years, burgesses tended to become wealthy men from trade. As a consequence, they were expected to look after the poor and infirm. They would, themselves, have seen this as a religious duty. They provided the money for hospitals and gave money to abbeys and friaries for the support of the poor and other good works. In Southampton they paid for a conduit to carry water from a spring about a mile outside the town down the hill and into the town. The photograph at the top of the post is the fourteenth-century Conduit House at the bottom of the hill, halfway between the spring and the town.
This post was inspired by a conversation I had with Dr. Christopher Monk in the comments to a post a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, this post doesn’t deal with the issue we discussed.
If you’re like me, everything you know about leprosy comes from the Bible, a Sherlock Holmes short story and the film Ben Hur. None of that prepared me to learn how rampant the disease was in England in the Middle Ages, nor that it was considered to be extremely contagious. This was later discovered not to be the case.
It was due to this belief that lepers were expelled from their homes to live together in leper colonies or, in more urban areas, hospitals, where their movements were restricted. Lepers were known as lazars, after St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. Lazarus was the man covered in sores who begged outside the gate of a rich man in a story told in the Gospel of St. Luke. He is not to be confused with the Lazarus who lived in Bethany and was raised from the dead in the Gospel of St. John, although the confusion was fairly common in the Middle Ages. Leper hospitals were often, unsurprisingly, known as Lazar houses. Lepers were also known as ‘Christ’s special sufferers’.
Although leprosy was declining in Europe in the fourteenth century, this was also the time when people were most hostile towards lepers and they were accused in many countries of conspiring with the Jews to poison wells, thus causing the Black Death.
Leprosy was presumed to be incurable, but doctors came up with treatments to make their patients more comfortable. Leprosy destroys the cell structure of the skin, nerve endings and lymphatic glands. It was difficult to diagnose, though, as the symptoms varied from patient to patient. These included sores (hence the belief that Lazarus was a leper), impaired breathing, loss of sensitivity in nerves and loss of eyebrows. These were also, however, signs of other diseases. Loss of feeling in toes and fingers was generally considered a good indication that someone had leprosy.
As with all medieval illnesses, doctors and patients believed that leprosy was caused by an imbalance in the humours and that different kinds of leprosy were caused by different imbalances. Elephantia was caused by melancholic blood; leonine by choleric blood; tyria (serpent disease) was caused by phlegmatic blood; and alopecia (fox disease) by blood corrupted by something external to the body. Gilbert the Englishman, a thirteenth-century physician, wrote that it was usual for more than one of these imbalances to be involved. Hoarseness was another sign and a recommended form of diagnosis was to ask the patient to sing.
As in most diseases the patient’s urine, blood and pulse could be used to make a diagnosis. With leprosy the hairs were also examined. If they were thin, pale and grey, it could be a sign of leprosy. I suspect that it was less useful as a diagnostic tool with older patients.
Charity and compassion are not modern inventions and many hospitals were established in the twelfth century, both by the wealthy and by monasteries. Among them were hospitals for lepers. They were run by monasteries and convents, and the patients were known as brothers or sisters.
The statutes of a leper hospital in Gloucestershire have survived from the end of the twelfth century and the inhabitants were required to live by a rule similar to that of monks and nuns. Interestingly, like monks, they could be expelled if they did not amend bad behaviour after having been called to account for it for a certain number of times. People in hospitals were expected to attend services in the same way as monks and to pray for the souls of the hospital’s founders and benefactors. Inmates generally wore a grey coat and a scarlet hat, making them very noticeable if they ever left the hospital precincts.
By the beginning of the fourteenth century there were more leper houses than there were hospitals for the sick in England. It was at this point, however, that leprosy began to decline.
You may be wondering what the photograph at the top of the post has to do with leprosy. I took it from the presumed site of the lazar hospital in Southampton looking back to the town’s main gate to illustrate how far away it was from the town. You can’t even see the gate in my photograph, as it’s about half a mile away. In the fourteenth century what you would have seen was partly common land and partly fields. You would also have seen two windmills. It was on the road north to both Winchester and London, so there would have been many opportunities for travellers to bestow their charity on the hospital’s inhabitants, which they did. As an aside, don’t worry about my safety/sanity as I took the photograph. It was just after seven on a Sunday morning and I was standing in the middle of a zebra crossing, having looked both ways before stepping into the road.
The leper hospital in Southampton, St Mary Magdalene (a common dedication for lazar houses), was set up by 1173. It was given its own lands by its founders, wealthy merchants in the town. As well as gifts from travellers, it was financed by revenues from these lands, legacies and a duty of a penny on each tun of wine imported into the town, a major wine importer. A tun was a little short of 1,000 litres. The area where the hospital was situated became known as Marlands. The patients would have grown vegetables, fruit and plants for medicines.
The hospital was on both sides of the road to the north and I wonder whether one side of the road housed women and the other men, or whether the patients were on one side and the staff on the other.
Lepers essentially left the world of the living to go into a lazar house. They went through a ritual burial, kneeling under a black pall, such as would be put over a coffin, while a mass was said over them. At the end their feet were covered with earth. Everyone knew that they would never return to their homes and families.
We’re back with medieval crafts and trades this week, looking at carpenters. There have always been carpenters. Two thousand years ago, Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, was a carpenter and there were carpenters two thousand years before him. Their craft remained unchanged for centuries. We know that carpentry improved by leaps and bounds in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though, mainly because so many examples of their work, in the shape of barns, like the one above, survive. The carpenter’s work isn’t obvious from the outside, but once you’re inside you look up and see this:
I could fill this post with photographs of cruck rooves, but I won’t, as carpenters did far more. Since wood is a natural material, however, other examples of their work are much rarer.
Almost every village and manor had a carpenter. Carpenters provided their own tools, even if they were working on someone else’s site. Their main tools were saws, axes and augers ( a tool for boring holes in wood).
When I think of carpenters, I tend to think of them in domestic settings, mainly because they provided the furnishings for a house: the stools, chairs, tables, chests, beds, cupboards and cradles. As we have seen, though, they were also involved in the building of a house: working on the roof, the ceilings, the floors, gates and doors.
Their work was also important in agriculture. Here they worked closely with smiths to make tools, such as ploughs, spades, hoes, axes and sickles. Smiths made nails. Iron was expensive, though, and a carpenter had a number of choices for fastenings before he had to use nails.
It took both of smiths and carpenters to make saws, hammers, exes and knives. Some tools, like the axe, were fairly easy to make, others, like the saw, required a lot of precision on the part of the smith.
Still in the countryside, they built watermills and windmills that ground grain to enable people to make bread.
Carpenters even had a military use. They built trebuchets and other catapult weapons as well as the protective housings used to provide cover when armies attacked castles during sieges. Working with smiths again, they also made weapons such as pikes.
Carpenters might not have invented the technology that people in the fourteenth century depended on, but they built it. They built the wheels used on building sites of castles and cathedrals to life stones from the ground to the heights of the building. They made ladders and scaffolding for the other craftsmen to use.
As you can tell, there’s not a lot of information available about carpenters and they haven’t left that many examples of their craft behind them. I leave you with a rare example of their work that was dug up in Winchester.
This post is less about ransoms as such than the conditions under which medieval prisoners of war were kept whilst waiting for their ransoms to be paid. Fragglerocking asked last week if they were kept in prisons. Sometimes they were, but mostly they weren’t. This could have something to do with the status of the prisoner, or with the ability of the captor to pay for secure accommodation.
During the fourteenth century, there really weren’t that many places to keep prisoners. Criminals were usually kept in town gates whilst awaiting trial. There were always guards there to check on people coming in and going out of the town who might have to pay a toll, so they could also keep an eye on the prisoners. As you can see from the photograph of Southampton’s town gate above, though, there wasn’t room to keep many prisoners. It didn’t fit well with the chivalric code, either, to treat men who had been captured in a battle like common criminals. Then there was the problem of status. You might want to keep a man who was a servant or a minor knight in a place like this, but you wouldn’t want to keep a knight from whom you were hoping to receive a large ransom here. Some men did, though, in the hope of extracting an even larger ransom from them. Generally speaking, though, the higher status a prisoner had, the better his accommodation.
Town gates weren’t the only places with prisons; some castles also had them, like this one at Portchester Castle.
As you can see, it’s little more than a pit. Sadly none of the children in the castle that day got down there to give you an idea of scale, but it’s small. It’s probably about six feet wide by eight or ten feet long, which would be reasonably comfortable for one man, but there might be more than one prisoner to be kept. The pit is certainly secure (although prisoners managed to escape from both town gates and castles, mainly because they weren’t kept in good repair or because they bribed their keepers), but it’s not somewhere you’d want to keep an honoured prisoner, especially if there was the possibility that you might be his prisoner in a few years.
Unless you were the holder of the castle, accommodating your prisoner there or in the town gate was expensive, especially if their captivity was lengthy. We looked at some of the reasons why it could take a while for a ransom to be paid last week.
Captured knights were often left in the hands of other people in prisons like these, but many were kept in their captors’ own homes. Not only were landholders very mobile, moving frequently between their properties, but fighting was probably continuing elsewhere. Someone might be prepared to take one or more prisoner with him from place to place, but he wouldn’t want to take them somewhere where they could provide assistance to their own side, either by escaping or by acting as spies.
Some knights were allowed quite a bit of freedom within the bounds of their captivity. They were allowed to move freely within the building where they were kept and some were allowed to walk around outside, with a guard, of course. Some were even allowed their own servants and horses. At least one man was allowed to have his wife with him.
I don’t know yet how my protagonist, Geoffrey, will spend his captivity. It will, I think, suit his personality to spend his first weeks in the castle in close confinement, but that won’t help at all with building the relationship that will be at the centre of the novel.
Last week I briefly mentioned paper and vellum and I thought it might be interesting to look at these in a bit more detail. As a vegetarian I’m not thrilled by the idea of investigating how animal skins were turned into the perfect writing surface, but the maker in me is fascinated by the process and the great skill of those involved in it.
I said that paper was known but little used in fourteenth-century England. It had been invented in China over two thousand years ago, where it was originally used for wrapping. By the ninth century it was used for fans, umbrellas, kites, lanterns, playing cards, toilet paper and paper money. It was probably first used for writing in the third century and this spread eventually to the Muslim world. As most things did, it entered Europe via Muslim Spain, but it still hadn’t made its presence felt in northern Europe by the end of the thirteenth century. Its time would, of course, come with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. For the moment, though, books were handwritten on parchment and vellum. Parchment used sheep and goatskin, while vellum was made of calfskin. The latter was the more expensive of the two. Over the centuries, however, vellum has come to mean a high-quality product, regardless of the type of animal skin used. For both products the process was the same. It was both time-consuming and smelly.
All stages of the process required great skill to avoid damaging the skin. First the animal had to be skinned. This is the bit that makes me most queasy, but I have nothing but admiration for the men who were able to skin an animal without putting a hole in the skin, particularly given the very basic nature of the tools involved. With no electric lighting available, it must have been a task for bright days, no matter how many times you’d done it before. The fewer blemishes the skin had the better. If the animal had received an injury that scarred its skin, it reduced the value of the skin itself, even if the scar had healed.
When the skin came off it would have been covered with hair or wool, bits of muscle, blood and fat, none of which was desirable in the finished product. The skin would be left in running water for a couple of days to get rid of most of the unwanted elements. The next step was to soak it in urine or lie to remove the hair. Essentially the skin started to rot in the urine and the hairs fell out.
Most vellum and parchment was produced in monasteries. The tanning vats above were built in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, when the number of monks at Rievaulx had fallen considerably. They were built in an unused area of the monastic complex, because the smell produced by soaking animal skins in urine was horrendous. By the time that these vats were built abbeys were required to lease their tanneries to laymen, but in the fourteenth century it would have been the monks themselves, or, more likely, their servants, who carried out the tanning process, although there were also professional parchment makers outside the monasteries. The tanning vats were near a stream, as the hides were washed in water as well as soaked in urine.
Once the hairs were removed the skin was stretched on a frame and scraped with a curved knife to create the correct surface for writing. The skin couldn’t be allowed to dry out during this stage. The knife was curved rather than pointed to reduce the risk of nicking the skin. Despite this, small holes could appear in the skin and they would be sewn up, sometimes in a decorative manner and sometimes in a discreet manner. If the hole was too small to be sewn, it was left and some scribes made use of them in tiny illustrations on the page. The pegs holding the skin to the frame would be tightened gradually so that the skin was stretched thinner until it was smooth and shiny and blemish-free, and ready to be written on.
Parchment and vellum are extremely long-lasting and it was only in 2017 that MPs decided to stop writing the UK’s laws on it. The oldest Act of Parliament stored at Westminster dates back to 1497, although there are, of course, much older documents written on parchment. By way of contrast, Siena seems to have made the switch to paper by 1302.
Some time ago I wrote a post about pilgrimage and how many people travelled from their homes to visit shrines. The shrine didn’t have to be far away or even devoted to an important saint, but it had to be a shrine that contained a holy relic of some kind.
Some shrines were huge and the pilgrims could go inside. Others were much smaller. The main thing was that the shrine should contain a holy object. In some places the pilgrims were permitted to see the relic, in others the relic was only displayed on special occasions, if at all. A relic could be a part of a saint’s body, something the saint had touched, something associated with a miracle performed by Jesus or an object associated with him. Most famously these last were parts of the True Cross or the crown of thorns. All these objects were believed to have the power of healing, protection, forgiveness or spiritual guidance depending on the saint involved.
This belief in the powers of relics went back to the first days of Christianity. Since shrines and reliquaries contained objects of power, they also, by association, became objects of power themselves.
One of the outcomes of the second Council of Nicaea in 787 was that every church should have a relic, in or on the alter or beneath it in a crypt. Even small parish churches needed a relic in order to be consecrated.
Much has been made of the vast number of fake relics during the early Middle Ages, as there was easy money to be made from selling them to churches. There were, for example, many heads of John the Baptist. Many people were aware that fake relics were in circulation. They could accept that a particular relic might not be all that was claimed for it, but still believed that it had power because people accepted it as a relic. Others simply believed that relics possessed the power of self-replication.
Most pilgrims brought money to shrines. At some of the larger pilgrimage sites part of the money was spent on souvenirs of the trip in the form of pilgrim badges like the one at the top of the post. These were a proof that the pilgrimage had been completed, which was useful if the pilgrimage was a form of penance ordered by the pilgrim’s priest, or a punishment.
Pilgrims didn’t just buy souvenirs, they also left gifts at the shrine. A gift could be money, but it could also be a precious object. Pilgrims who undertook the journey to thank the saint for a healing miracle, for example, might leave a model of the affected body part made of gold or silver. Sometimes, however, the person giving thanks was not very wealthy and their models were made of wax. Wealthy pilgrims might also give money to the church housing the shrine. Pilgrimage was a commercial proposition from the beginning of the fifth century. Offerings left at the shrine, however, were rarely touched by the church housing the shrine, even in times of great financial need.
Most English shrines were dismantled during the Reformation and the precious metals left by the pilgrims were taken to the royal mint.
This photograph shows a medieval shop. It’s closed. You can tell because the wooden counters at the front have been lowered. If it were open, the counter would be raised as it is in the photograph of the model below. Some shops have a board on top as well, which provides shade in the summer and shelter from the rain in winter for customers. At night the counter forms a shutter for the window, increasing the security of those within.
Like most medieval shops, it’s narrow at the front to allow as many shops as possible to be crowded into the street, but it stretches back quite a long way. It’s on three levels: a cellar below ground in which the goods sold by the shop are stored; a ground floor level where business is transacted and money stored; and an upper floor where the owner and his family sleep. On the ground floor there’s also a hall where the family eats and the servants sleep. In some shops the hall is upstairs to allow a workshop to be set up in which the goods for sale are manufactured.
The shop above sells wine. You can tell this because from the barrel hanging outside. Literacy rates are quite high in fourteenth-century England, but not everyone can read, so signs showing the purpose of the shop use pictures or objects. A cutler might have a picture of knives on display and a surgeon’s sign usually has a representation of a bleeding arm wrapped in bandages.
Shops were a feature of medieval towns along with markets. Most towns were to be places where goods were created and traded. Although people could make much of what they needed, there were many specialised items that had to be bought, including nails, horseshoes, good quality candles, cloth, ironware and leatherware.
A market was the town’s main feature and it was usually, as we discovered in the post on St. Michael’s, in front of a church. Market stalls could be semi-permanent, or even permanent, and the main difference between market stalls and shops was that the shops sold goods for which there was a high demand in the town, while markets sold things for which demand was lower. Furs and expensive fabrics, for example were sold in markets by merchants who moved from town to town. Fish was usually sold in markets, since it had to be transported from the coast. Smiths, weavers, butchers, bakers, carpenters, drapers (selling woollen cloth) and mercers (selling linen) had shops.
Shops didn’t just sell goods brought in from elsewhere, however. Often the products they sold were made on the premises, for example by goldsmiths, shoemakers, cutlers, smiths, weavers and bakers. Butchers, carpenters and mercers also had shops, although they didn’t manufacture anything.