Medieval homelessness and moral judgment

This post was written for Stray Voices, a project based at the Centre for Metropolitan History which uncovers the hidden histories of homelessness. You can find the original post here.

As Christmas approaches and the nights get colder, this time of year often sees modern Londoners expressing sympathy for the city’s homeless population through events like Sleep Out London and winter coat collections.

However, modern attitudes to the homeless are complex. This is very obvious in perennial debates about the morality of giving money directly to homeless people. The New Statesman recently ran two opposing opinion pieces. One decried the ‘abject morality’ of withholding cash from the homeless on the grounds that it might be spend on drugs or alcohol. The other, written by the chief executive of a London homeless charity, was appalled at the ‘inhuman fatalism’ of those who, like the writer of the first piece, advocate giving money regardless of whether it funds addiction.

Homelessness and the response of the settled population are topics fraught with anxiety in modern society. Much of it stems from concern about making moral judgments of others; how far is it right to make assumptions about homeless people on the basis of their circumstances or their appearance?

These kinds of debates about homelessness and vagrancy have a very long history in England and indeed across Europe. In medieval Christianity, poverty was thought to be a virtue. Following the example of Christ, the Franciscan friars were founded in the thirteenth century. They were bound to travel and preach the gospel, embrace poverty and reject property ownership. The friars were popular, especially in towns and cities.

However, with the advent of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, the holiness of unsettled poverty was severely questioned. Between a third and a half of the population of England died and as a consequence both economy and society were refigured. Scarcity of labour gave workers the power to demand higher wages. Statutes in the years after the plague attempted to limit wages to pre-plague levels and enforce dress codes which prevented peasants from displaying wealth above their station. However, where landowners refused to pay what was demanded, many rural people simply went on the road in search of work or alms elsewhere. In these circumstances, the church and authorities across Europe began to develop nuanced attitudes towards poverty, particularly the wandering poor, which drew distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ beggars; between those who were capable of labour but refused and those who, through no fault of their own, were incapacitated. In some ways, the tension between charity and judgment of who is ‘deserving’ has never fully been resolved, recurring in the following centuries from the 1601 poor law to its reform in 1834 and into our present ‘Age of Austerity’.

In the later fifteenth century, after a long period of stability, population levels were beginning to rise. Although it was to be another century before the city returned to its pre-plague population, the modest increase in population seems to have been the cause of much anxiety amongst the city’s rulers and the crown. A statute was passed in 1495 which attempted to discourage the poor from travelling in search of work called for the poor to seek alms or work only in the place where they lived, were ‘best known’ or born.(1)

Attempts to criminalise vagrancy and wandering beggars often associated homeless people (or ‘vagabonds’ as they were often called) with immoral behaviour. Proclamations decried them as ‘mighty beggars… which may get their living by labour and will not labour’.(2) These ‘idle persons’ could even be the cause of crimes by the settled population. In 1482, the city issued two proclamations denouncing vagrancy, one focussing on ‘great beggars’ and the other on ‘strumpets, misguided and idle women daily vagrant and walking about by the streets and lanes’. These women, it pronounced, encouraged Londoners in the ‘stinking sin of lechery’.(3) Homeless women, ungoverned by men and free to move around the city at will, transgressed sexual mores as well as offending by their idleness.

This harsh rhetoric was encouraged by the crown, and intensified in the early decades of the 1500s. However, this was a society where most policing was done by ordinary members of the public and where observation by neighbours was the basis for determining who had committed crimes.

In my research, I’m interested in how neighbourhood communities in London responded to the mobile and how they worked to marginalise individuals. This rhetoric, which encouraged the perception of the homeless as cause of multiple social problems, fed in to how individuals were judged. John Fuller, a servant from Essex, was judged to be a vagrant in London because he travelled to the city on business for his master’s family. In 1470 the parishioners of St. Mary Axe, London described him as a poor man and a drunkard who was ‘called by many names that he does not always use’.(4) John Fuller’s experience highlights how determination of who was a ‘vagrant’ could be contingent and how much it might be related to other behaviours which were considered problematic.

Then, as now, attitudes to homelessness were bound up with moral judgment of the circumstances and behaviour of vagrants. As the case of John Fuller suggests, in the late fifteenth century the two could become so entwined that an individual could be determined to be homeless on the basis of their appearance and behaviour rather than any knowledge of their lack of a home. One seeming continuity with the present day is the myriad of judgments and assumptions made about those who lack a settled home.

  1. Marjorie McIntosh, Poor Relief in England, 1350-1600, (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 43-44.
  2. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Court of Common Council Journal 8, ff. 49-49v.
  3. LMA, Court of Common Council Journal 9, ff. 14-14v.
  4. London Consistory Court Deposition Book, DL/C/205, ff. 225, 236-36v.
Uncategorized, urban history

Women, reputation and the courts in late medieval London: the case of Agnes Cockerell

This is a blog I wrote for the Women, History and the Law project website as part of a series for Women’s History Month 2017, drawing on my research into the late medieval records of the London consistory court. You can find the original post here.

For women and men in late medieval cities, a good reputation was very important. Cities were such unhealthy places to live that urban death rates were very high, meaning that most people were migrants to the city rather than having been born there. In a city with a constant flow of unfamiliar faces, securing your place in society meant making sure you became known amongst your neighbours for all the right reasons. For women, reputation was very closely associated with sexuality; the go-to insults for hitting back at a woman who offended you were ‘whore’, ‘drab’ or ‘filth’, all of which meant about the same thing, insinuating that a disruptive woman was also of loose sexual morality.

In November 1521, a case was brought in the London consistory court by Agnes Cockerell which highlights just how far women valued their reputation and the potential it had to affect their standing in the community. It also suggests that engaging with the courts was a means through which a woman’s reputation was negotiated. The competing jurisdictions of London courts could be played off against one another to secure a good name or attack the public image of a neighbour.

Agnes brought the case against John Beckett, capper, and his wife Elizabeth of the parish of St. Sepuchre without Newgate, accusing them of having defamed her by misrepresenting her character. Agnes was a former neighbour of the Becketts’, but she had left the parish after a terrible row with them. The row was witnesses by John Gruege, a fletcher, whilst sat working in his shop opposite John Beckett’s house in late June 1521. Stood in the door of John’s shop, Agnes ‘said openly and in an audible voice and an evil and angry manner’ to John:

‘thow pyllery knave and papyr face knave I shall make the to were a papyr and make the over dere of a grote and to shytt in thy wyndowes and I have done with the’

[thou pillory knave and paper-faced knave, I shall make thee to wear a paper and make thee over-dear of a groat and to shit in thy windows and I have done with thee]

In essence, Agnes threatened to sue John until legal costs reduced him to poverty and the public humiliation of the pillory (although any suggestions for the meaning of the threat about making him shit in his windows would be much appreciated!). In response, John told her to ‘gete the[e] hens [hence] dame, I pray the hens or ells wyll I’. Elizabeth Beckett added ‘I defye the dame. I sett not by thy malesse[malice] thow art known well, I nowe what though arte’.

Following this incident, Agnes left the parish of St. Sepulchre. The next event which witnesses described was the arrival of Alice Bayly, a 69-year-old widow also referred to respectfully as Mistress Bayly, at the Becketts’ house two weeks later accompanied by her apprentice Richard Holand. Bayly approached John Beckett as he worked in his shop and asked him whether he knew ‘Maystres Cockerel the midwyff’ who had recently lived in that neighbourhood. Beckett said he did, but according to Holand he evaded Bayly’s next question about Agnes’ character, instead inviting her to ‘come nere and drynke’.

londonmap sepwoolnoth.png

Map of London parishes c. 1520, with St. Sepulchre and St. Mary Woolnoth parishes highlighted.

After retiring from the shop into his house, Alice Bayly and John Beckett were joined by Elizabeth. There followed a conversation about Agnes Cockerell’s character. Bayly explained that ‘I have letten her a howse off myn and I wolde be glade to knowe off what conversation [character] she wer’. She had taken a penny from Agnes as surety for her rent, but had been concerned by rumours concerning the ill fame of Alice and her servant, Robert Dyngley. The house which Bayly had intended to lease to Agnes lay in the parish of St. Mary Woolnoth in the heart of the city at Lombard Street: as the map shows, this was a move quite a long way from suburban St. Sepulchre. Evidently, the rumours of Agnes’ bad character were remarkably widespread. John Beckett was initially evasive, telling Bayly to go and speak to Agnes’ previous neighbours at Holborn Cross. Implicitly, St. Sepulchre was not the first parish which Agnes had left in disgrace; she had apparently already moved between parishes of the north-western suburbs and had perhaps chosen St. Mary Woolnoth in the hope that a move to the city centre would outrun her reputation.

At length, both John and Elizabeth Beckett were persuaded to speak. They told Bayly that she had been deceived in letting to Agnes, since ‘Dyngley her servaunt kepyth her’ and Agnes was ‘a brothel of hyr taylle’. ‘Taylle’ might mean either her appearance (that she appeared as a prostitute) or her rear end (that she prostituted her body). In other words, Robert Dyngley, rather than the servant of a humble midwife, was in fact Agnes’ pimp. They recalled that Agnes had been ‘warnyed [warned] ought of the howse she dwelt in for hyr yll name’, following a search of her house made at night. This search would have been made by the constable of the ward, probably with the help of a few local men, and this method was a common way of catching suspects who were thought to be carrying out moral crimes. It was as effective against fornicating teenagers as it was against prostitution. According to one witness, both Agnes and Dyngley were imprisoned following the search and subsequently Agnes was expelled from the ward.

The Becketts also warned Bayly about Agnes’ reliability as a tenant, saying that ‘she wyll leve no thing unstuck’ and that Bayly ought to be wary ‘that she do not pute yow clene ought of your howse for ye shall fynde hyr a crafty dame’.

Although Agnes Cockerell was suing the Becketts for defamation, Holand, Bayly and even Agnes’ own witness Gruege all agreed that these words were not spoken maliciously or in a defamatory manner. There is also a marked cautiousness in the manner that John and Elizabeth Beckett approached discussing Agnes Cockerell’s reputation with a stranger from another neighbourhood. Unlike similar cases, where accusations were often pronounced angrily and in a public street, John took great pains to first move the discussion to the more private space his house’s interior rather than the shop. In the witness statements, both he and Elizabeth are presented as hesitant and maybe even nervous in telling Bayly about Agnes’s bad reputation.


The prodigal son feasting with prostitutes. Print, 1512-1583. Rijksmuseum.

Although Agnes was expelled from the ward, she seems to have made a very conscious choice about where to live next. In moving to a city centre parish, Agnes perhaps calculated that not just geographic distance but also social distance would insulate her from the consequences of a chequered reputation. The hesitancy of the Becketts also suggests a social distance between St. Sepulchre and the city centre. Reputation in the city was formed within the neighbourhood, through gossip amongst friends and neighbours. Once Agnes moved to a distant neighbourhood, it was awkward for the Becketts to risk being charged with defamation by acting as conductors of Agnes’ reputation to a stranger from a different parish. In moving, Agnes understood this and attempted to portray this transfer of knowledge outside the social space of St. Sepulchre as defamation. Knowledge which in one place was treated as commonly known fact, as attested by Agnes’ own witness John Gruege, became potentially defamatory when removed from the social context which legitimated it. The ‘truth’ about Agnes was only proved to be true within one neighbourhood.

What’s also interesting about Agnes’ case is the court she took it to. The consistory court was responsible for ‘moral’ matters like defamation across the whole diocese of London, covering not just the city but a large swathe of the surrounding countryside. By contrast, the main mechanism for dealing with this kind of anti-social behaviour in the secular London justice system was at the level of the ward, through local policing, warnings and, as Agnes found, expulsions for repeat offenders. Therefore, reputation was both created and policed by essentially the same community, based in the neighbourhood. By countering her treatment in St. Sepulchre with a consistory court suit, Agnes attempted to prove her character in a forum which transcended the social networks and gossip of a single parish. Perhaps she felt this was the only way to ensure she could freely move to a new place having deterred former neighbours from talking.

As to the final decision, we will probably never know: the records of London consistory court decisions in the early sixteenth century are lost. The competing stories about Agnes Cockerell which were heard by the court, humble midwife or conniving prostitute, still provide fascinating insight into the strategies women could employ to negotiate a world which sought to judge and fix their reputations.


International Women’s Day 2016: Finding the “ordinary” woman in history

Prompted by it being International Women’s Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about what my research into neighbourhood society in 15th century London can tell us about ordinary women.

When events like International Women’s Day come around, there is often a tendency to discuss the history of women in terms of the famous. For instance, this year results of a poll commissioned for IWD by arch-nemeses of the patriarchy Foxy Bingo found that Princess Diana is considered the most iconic woman of all time. As a social historian, my research is primarily concerned with women and men who were never famous or wealthy. These people obviously form the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived. Therefore, this post is in honour of all the Joans, Agneses and Alices of fifteenth-century London, as a reminder that worthy famous role models are just one part of addressing the challenges that face women the world over today: to make real change, you first need to understand the social situation of ordinary women and girls.

At the moment, I’m working on wills from a number of parishes in London, taking chronological samples from the period 1390-1540 in order to examine the social networks and other ties which shaped neighbourhood communities.

Single women and widows were free to make their own wills in this period, while a married woman could only make a will with the permission of their husband. As a result, 19% (88) of my sample are wills made my female testators. 57 of the women described themselves as widows, and of the remaining women 2 state that they are married at the time of making the will and 1 expressly describes herself as a single woman.

 Facts and figures about 15th century women…

As my research at the moment is mainly quantitative I wanted to pull out some interesting bits of data about how the women of 15th century London made their last wills and what their primary concerns seem to have been.

  • Women were more likely to leave gifts to other women, forming 35% of the recipients in female-authored wills compared to 28% in men’s wills.
  • Women’s charitable giving focused on institutions and causes in London but beyond the boundaries of their own parish. By contrast, men’s charity was equally likely to be parish-based as it was to be directed at other causes in London.
  • Women were more likely to remember godchildren and servants in their wills, but much less likely to leave gifts for family. This is probably because of the large number of widows making wills who may well have outlived their kin.

There are also fascinating examples of individuals acting in ways which are suggestive of deeper information about their lives and ties to others. Margaret Brere, who died in 1438, described herself in her will as a Weaver at a time when it was unusual for a woman to profess a trade in an official document (despite many carrying them out). Margaret left an incredibly long list of household and craft goods to Agnes Fulk, a woman described as her servant. They evidently lived together, as Margaret left the bed in which Agnes slept to her as a bequest. While gifts to servants (and living with servant) was nothing unusual, the extensive list suggests nearly everything Margaret owned was left to Agnes. I tend to think that Agnes, rather than a servant, was probably more like a business partner and a close friend, or perhaps they were a couple.

Glimpses like this suggest much of the position of women in the past and the ways in which they lived their lives. Hopefully in this brief blog post I have managed to get across the importance of marking International Women’s Day by remembering the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary, women of the past and present.

PhDs, student life

PhDs, project management and a gruitous screenshot from The Princess Bride

A doctorate is basically a 3 or 4 year exercise in time and expectation management. Unlike other projects, both the time and expectations are your own.

Before you read this I really should confess that I don’t consider myself an expert on this subject. I am very much still trying to figure out the best way to do this myself, and I suppose this blog is a part of that progress.

If you read one of my previous blogs, you’ll know that before starting my PhD I had an office job. I’ve had a couple of them since finishing my BA; I did my MA part time while working. This is a great strategy for your bank balance but also a surefire way to alienate your colleagues, especially when you’re doing Latin homework or reading a monograph on your lunch break.

As part of one of my jobs I had some project management training, since my job ended up revolving around making sure that a website was kept up to date and in working order, and that all the people involved in making that happen were… well, making it happen.

This kind of project management is very different to the kind that a history PhD involves. Firstly, there are far more people involved. At the very least, there is usually a manager somewhere who is ultimately responsible if things don’t happen. Usually there are far more people though; ‘stakeholders’ who you can map onto a wonderful things called stakeholder analysis charts and RACI matrices. Secondly, your relationship to the ‘project’ is not usually personal; while it might consume a lot of your time, and when things don’t go well it can feel crushingly personal, ultimately unless you really are a senior manager your whole job rarely depends on a project successfully being completed.*

*It probably goes without saying that if you’re a professional project manager, it is a good idea to successfully complete projects.


Disclaimer: my thesis may not end up looking like Cary Elwes emerging from the fire swamp.

These differences are pretty crucial and mean that while project management is a great transferable skill, it is also one that I think needs to be sold to PhD students in the right way. Speaking from personal experience, a student induction talk on project management using some generic slides from some marketing training website just creates a disengaged room full of people.

The biggest difference with managing a history PhD (and probably the humanities in general) is the lack of stakeholders other than yourself. Of course, the supervisor is effectively playing the role of the manager, and does have a stake in your completion of the thesis within 4 years. Some universities even penalize academics whose students consistently fail to complete on time. However, for most PhDs (other than people working on pre-arranged projects) it is you who has written the proposal and you who will be doing all the work. It’s your baby, and if you make the brave decision to leave they won’t hire anyone else to look after it. For me at least that creates a very personal attachment to the thing, and I think the danger is that being so close to it makes it far harder to be objective and realistic.

For this reason, I think it’s important for me to see the PhD as a project to be managed rather than 100,000 words which will magically surface from the fire swamp of my brain after 3 or 4 years. Just breaking things down into manageable tasks that allow me to feel a sense of achievement at the end of a week and helps me stay sane. It also helps me to know when I can stop working; I am currently clinging to the idea that evenings and weekends are for doing other things. (I’m not sure how viable that is as a long term plan given that every waking minute is meant to be spent networking, according to Guardian Higher Education).

I’m sure I will find as time goes on that this will become harder. For instance, I’m currently working through things by focusing on one type of primary source at a time while keeping secondary reading and various other bits of work for my supervisor and research training courses going in the background. Which is methodical but risks being a blinkered in how I analyse my sources, and makes me slow to respond to suggestions of other things I should be looking at.

Hopefully, a methodical and planned approach will serve me well over the next few years, and give me a better chance of completing before the funding runs out.

How do you organise your research? Do you think ‘project management’ is the way forward, or do you prefer a less rigid approach? How long can a rational approach to doctoral research stave off the inevitable descent into madness? All questions which I would love to see answers to in the comments below.

urban history

Dirty streets and shifty people

Some metaphorical connections are remarkably long lived. There’s something about the experience of living in cities, whether now or in the middle ages, which makes us connect unappealing places with disruptive or ‘immoral’ behaviour.

This week I’ve been reading lots of cases from medieval neighbourhood courts called ‘wardmotes’. Every year, 12 men of the community were nominated in each of London’s 25 wards. Their job was to investigate problems in the local area. What’s most interesting about these courts is that the type of problems they looked at seem, at first sight, to be bizarre and unconnected.

In the space of a few sentences, the neighbours in Breadstreet ward in 1422 complain that:‘the door of the cellar of Adam Smalstrete and the two windows are defective’

  • ‘the door of the cellar of Adam Smalstrete and the two windows are defective’
  • ‘the rent of Norton in Legges Alley is ruinous to the great danger and nuisance of the people there’
  • ‘Guyse Pawnser and Willyman his wife are common bawds’
  • ‘Henry Kyngeston and his wife Johane, foreigners, keep a shop and sell victuals openly against right’

This is typical of the records; the wardmotes are a mixture of complaints about the street hazards, crumbling houses, rowdy neighbours, economic rule breakers and generally suspicious people which bothered the community (or at least those represented by the 12 jurors). They’re fascinating, and sometimes catty, sources for neighbourhood tensions. But what they also highlight is the kind of moral equivalence given to the human and physical urban nuisances encountered by London dwellers in the Fifteenth Century.

When Mr and Mrs Kyngeston are complained of in the same breath as a cellar causing a danger to passers-by, they are in some way conceived of as part of the same problem. They are a disturbance interrupting the smooth operation of the urban community. The free movement of street traffic and the good moral character of the neighbourhood are parts of the same ideal which has been disrupted. It’s all the more interesting when you know that London had other courts to deal with the broken cellars and bawdy types, so there was no need to bring these problems to the wardmote. And yet people, for centuries, went to the wardmote and made their complaints about all the problems which blighted the urban ideal in their neighbourhood.

I would argue that this connection, between the moral and physical environments, is still one we make now. Today there has been a furore over the resignation of a member of the shadow cabinet who tweeted a picture depicting a house with England flags and a white van outside. The strength of the response is testament to the fact that we associate the choices people make about their homes with a complicated array of moral and political assumptions about the inhabitants.

More specifically, although 150-odd years of the acceptance of germ theory means we no longer think actual ‘foul air’ causes disease, a rubbish strewn city street still prompts all sorts of assumptions about the social character of the neighbourhood. Local councils spend millions cleaning graffiti off walls every year, although spray paint doesn’t damage walls or put people in danger; it’s the moral assumptions viewers of the graffiti which necessitate its removal.


Researching the poor (or ‘How I learnt to stop worrying and start loving databases’)

‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men’. This quotation from 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle formed the basis for a question on an undergraduate history exam I took. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure you’d struggle to find anyone (or at least any academic historian) who agrees with Carlyle now, but then what and who historians study has changed much since the 1840s.

Carlyle’s statement I think ought to be read in the context of the conception of history he and his contemporaries worked with. It is factually accurate that, from good old Thucydides down to angry 18th century Christian-baiter Edward Gibbon, the subject of history was ‘past politics’. Politics, and the public sphere, were male (or at least were largely perceived to be so). The documentary sources used by historians were written by, about and for the ‘great men’ of European nations. So his statement reflects the form of history he and his contemporaries researched. The past experience of everyone else who wasn’t rich, powerful and male was considered to be of quaint, antiquarian interest.

However, the purpose of this blog is not to rehash my essay of many years ago on how historians came to study a wider variety of past people and experiences. It’s about the value of studying everyone else, the historical 99% if you will.

On a basic level, it’s easy to make the emotional case. After all, there are very few of us alive today whose ancestors would have been part of the medieval nobility or urban mercantile class. And one element of our interest in history is a fascination with our own origins, a search for meaning in our own lives through past experience, which is easier if we feel a connection to those we study. But I’m always wary of the emotional argument; academic study is necessarily something of a selfish task, but just bringing things down entirely to the personal level is reductive. Also, given that studying the poor involves a lot of tedious, data-related tasks, I doubt this kind of motivation would keep you going very long.

For me, the more persuasive reason for studying the poor is that I start from the position that all human experience is valuable and interesting. And far more humans have experienced powerlessness and marginalisation than ever experienced power and grand social standing. Historians of the modern era often feel that their work can give a voice to those whose views and culture would otherwise be lost or drowned out.

Unless you, like Eleanor Paston here , were rich enough to get yourself modelled in marble after death, its very unlikely you would leave behind a letter (or even a shopping list) in the 15th century.

Unless you, like Eleanor Paston here , were rich enough to get yourself modelled in marble after death, its very unlikely you would leave behind letters (or even a shopping list) in the 15th century.

In the period I study (the 15th century), individual voices of the non-wealthy are very difficult to find. Before mass literacy, the ability to record your own personal experience was reserved for people like the prosperous Paston family. This means that if you want to find out what life was like for, say, an ordinary woman who sold beer in the streets you need to get a little creative with how you read records that were never intended to tell you about her life. If you want to find out about the neighbourhood she lived in, or how typical she was, you need to look at large amounts of sources and try to find patterns and connections.

This means that what can start as an investigation into individuals leads towards the very impersonal world of databases. It means taking disparate sources of information like records of property holding, wills and courts, which are often incomplete and internally inconsistent, and trying to turn them into something which the cold logic of Ctrl+F and A-Z sort functions can understand. The personal experience of Maud or Joan becomes a data point for dissection, fodder for a trend line.

This is hardly the kind of thing many people come into medieval history for, but surprisingly databases do offer us the opportunity to understand very personal experiences. For instance, by plotting out records of people witnessing each others’ wills, you can find social networks within and across a city. And databases drive even more ambitious projects, like Mapping Medieval Chester, which allow people to easily find the medieval neighbourhoods within the modern street plan.

While sometimes tedious, using databases alongside some creative reading of other records, we can take history beyond the ‘great men’ and attempt to retrieve parts of everyday life which are otherwise difficult to see.


Senses of place and past

There are very few experiences which link us to other humans who lives hundred of years ago. I would argue that walking through a market is one of them.

As I look forward to starting a PhD in a couple of weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my motivations for starting such a mammoth research project. As my topic is medieval urban history, I’m forced to consider my choice every time I tell someone why I’m about to leave my office job. The topic usually elicits blank stares or, in one case, the conviction that I must be a Downton Abbey fan. (I’m not).

But walking home through Ridley Road market the other day, I had a flash of conviction. The smells, the clamour, the food, the glorious mix of languages and the rubbish strewn chaos seem to me essential human experiences. And in being so, they form a tenuous thread to all past societies.

Ridley Road market now.

Ridley Road market now.

Ridley Road itself is the only one of Hackney’s markets to have kept the feeling of being an essential service to the community. It is open 6 days a week and the food on offer is usually cheaper than the supermarkets. The businesses there seem to be from every community in Hackney. The other markets, although lovely places, largely offer street food and artisan produce at far higher prices, and to a more homogenous crowd.

Ridley Road was established in the 1880s. My Grandad remembered going there as a child in the 30s and the excitement of buying sweets there. Given that he grew up a few miles away on Holloway Road which had its own market (his dad was a stallholder), it tells you something of the size and success of Ridley Road at that time that it could draw in people from across north London. Indeed, in the 1930s Hackney Borough Council (who we met in a previous blog) had to chop down the trees which lined the road as the market was so busy and pressure on space so acute.

The bustle and chaotic scramble for space continue to this day, as anyone whose ever tried to walk down the Road at setting up or closing down time can tell you. And this experience, dodging crates, vans and leftover fruit which smears the ground, I believe is one which connects us not just to my grandparents generation in the early 20th century but also to the London of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Pieter Breugal, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.

Pieter Breugal, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Breugal paintings always seem to me a good start for imagining medieval street life.

In late medieval times, the regulation of markets was a constant headache for London’ authorities. Trying to order trade in the streets was a never ending and seemingly impossible task. Nominally different types of goods were supposed to go to different markets and prices were meant to be the same no matter who you bought from. In practice, before the advent of the modern state (let alone the police service or Trading Standards) the rules were flouted every day. People raised their prices. 100s of women wandered the streets selling ale or vegetables or bread away from the markets. Stall holders caused a nuisance by leaving their carts in the road or not clearing up dropped produce. It was every bit as pungent and noisy and crowded as Ridley Road, and the presence of Flemish beer brewers and Italian cloth merchants gave London a cosmopolitan feel.

One of the reasons I’m going back to study history is because I believe that, no matter how different the society, history is about trying to understand and appreciate our common humanity across time and place. And the sensory experience of walking through a market can give that uncanny feeling of walking somewhere timeless. Any agrarian society which has towns or cities needs markets to get food to people who aren’t directly involved in growing it. In the same way that people looking round ruined medieval abbeys are always fascinated by the foundations of the toilet block, theres a strange quality to spaces where humans, no matter what funny clothes they wear or strange languages they speak, carry out some basic functions.

In other words, we all shit and buy vegetables, whenever and however we live.