7 November 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of our blog. To celebrate this joyful occasion we have invited a special guest. Kathryn Warner is a historian of the 14th century with a particular focus on Edward II and his reign. In her books she illuminates the lives of the famous figures of the era, but not only that. So far she has written biographies of Edward II, Isabella of France, Hugh Despenser the Younger, the daughters of Edward I, the nieces of Edward II, Philippa of Hainault, John of Gaunt and Richard II. In her latest book she takes us to fourteenth-century London, one of Europe’s largest medieval cities, which she explores using a rich variety of important sources that provide first-hand accounts of everyday life and personal interactions between Londoners on the verge of disaster… the outbreak of the Black Death.
Thank you for accepting our invitation, Kathryn. We are both hounoured and thrilled to welcome you to the blog on this special occasion. You supported us and encouraged our work from the very beginning, for which we are always grateful. Your latest book, London, a Fourteenth-Century City and Its People is a social history of England’s capital told in a rather unconventional way…
Was it like writing a biography of a famous historical figure? Could such a comparison be made?
Actually no, I found it a very different experience, though in a really good way! I’d previously only written biographies, with the exception of my book Living in Medieval England: The Turbulent Year of 1326, which, though it was primarily based on Edward II’s household account for that year and featured him heavily, was a work of social history. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing that book and illuminating the everyday lives of English people alive in 1326, and wanted to do more. We’re fortunate that numerous sources survive from fourteenth-century London: wills, letter-books, coroners’ rolls, records of the Assize of Nuisance, court rolls, plea rolls, royal writs, chancery rolls, and so on. It’s possible therefore to make a vivid portrait of the city and its residents 700 years ago, and to examine what their lives – and deaths – were like. It felt like a very different piece of work, and much as I enjoy researching and writing biographies, I really enjoyed this one too! The book contains lots of short chapters focusing on different aspects of London life in the first half of the fourteenth century, including: Houses; Misadventure; Fun; Privacy; Sanitation; Health; Fire; Punishment; Families; Food; and much, much else.
What difficulties have you encountered while working on this particular book?
I suppose one issue would be that things were generally only recorded because they went wrong in some way. To give a couple of examples, we know that at least one school must have existed in London at the beginning of the 1300s as there’s a tragic case, recorded in the Coroners’ Rolls, of an eight-year-old boy called Richard Mason falling from London Bridge and drowning in the Thames one morning when he was on his way to school. We also know that it was possible to hire hackney horses in London in order to travel to other parts of the country and that people did this, because of something that happened in 1327. Around Christmas that year, an apprentice fishmonger named Andrew Modyngham hired a hackney to ride to Sussex, and spent a few days in and around Hastings and Winchelsea with a friend who lived in the area called John Roger. While Andrew was there, a group of locals, on hearing that he came from London, ‘villainously abused’ him and beat him up. The indignant Andrew complained to the authorities on his return home, and they sent a letter to the authorities of Winchelsea, which still survives. Otherwise, we’d have little idea that fourteenth-century Londoners went on holiday to other parts of England, because there was no reason for anyone to record this. As one final example, we know that Londoners played a game which involved throwing tiles of some description, apparently something like quoits, and the reason we know this because in 1276, one man was hit on the head with a tile thrown by the friend he was playing with, and died a few days later.
Having recently experienced pandemics ourselves we can put ourselves in a fourteenth-century Londoner’s shoes, but could the two really be compared?
The Black Death arrived in London in late 1348, and raged in the city for the next few months. The death toll appears to have been at least 35% and perhaps 50% or even more, so no, I don’t believe the recent Covid pandemic is in any way comparable. One chronicler says that between 2 February and 12 April 1349, over 200 bodies were buried every day in a new burial ground next to Smithfield, a number which does not include the many victims buried in the many dozens of city churchyards.In October 1328, there had been twenty-four wardens of the mistery (guild) of butchers; in October 1349, there were only twelve. Of the eight wardens of the mistery of cutlers appointed in 1344, all were dead by the end of 1349, and the same applied to all six wardens of the hatters appointed in December 1347. In Edward III’s twenty-first regnal year, which ran from 25 January 1347 to 24 January 1348, twenty-two people in London died after making their wills, and between 25 January 1348 and 24 January 1349, thirty-four people did. Between January 1349 and January 1350, the wills of just under 350 people were proved. Between January 1350 and January 1351, the number was fifty people, and the following year, only seventeen. The 350 people who died in 1349 after making their wills represent only a small minority of the total number of Londoners who died of the pestilence, as most people had few possessions to bequeath and had no reason to make a will, but this figure gives an indication of the possible death rate in the city; ten times more Londoners died in the plague year of 1349 than in 1348, sixteen times as many as in 1347, and twenty times as many as in 1351.
John Youn the fishmonger died before 4 May, and his widow Joan died before 9 June; when she made her will on 11 May, she had already lost her husband, grandson, son-in-law, and daughter Margery. Her other daughter Joan, a nun, perhaps survived, though this is uncertain.
These are just a handful of the many tragic stories that happened in London, and of course elsewhere across Europe, in the late 1340s. The population of London at the time was around 80,000 or 100,000, only a fraction of its modern size, and the Black Death killed tens of thousands of people in the city.
It is indeed difficult to imagine the enormity of the disaster. You have disscussed it in detail in your book. What about your upcoming projects? What the future holds? For us, the readers?
I’m currently working on three books. One is a detailed account of Edward II’s sexuality and relationships; one is a history of various parts of Europe and the Mediterranean seen through the eyes of a French noble family, the Brienne/Beaumonts; and the last is called Life in the Medieval Town, a work of social history. I’m particularly enjoying writing the second one, which encompasses part of the history of the Crusader States, the Holy Roman Empire, the Empire of Constantinople, the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon, and the kingdoms of France, England and Scotland. The Brienne/Beaumont family, originally from Champagne, lived in and exercised political influence in all these diverse places. And doing more social history, writing about numerous aspects of people’s lives in medieval English towns, is endlessly fascinating too.
What do you think Henry the Young King, a historical figure from the 12th century, would have found most astonishing about London in the 14th century?
By the early 1300s, London had grown enormously and had spread well beyond its walls, so I think Henry would have been astonished by how many people now lived there, and how remarkably diverse it was, with inhabitants from all over Europe and further afield. Henry probably wouldn’t have recognised much of Westminster Abbey, as his nephew Henry III (r. 1216-72) had a great deal of work done on it, and St Paul’s was also enlarged and extended between 1255 and 1314. Henry III, his son Edward I and Edward’s wife Eleanor of Castile, great-granddaughter of the Young King’s sister Eleanor, queen of Castile and named after her, were and are all buried in Westminster Abbey, and I can imagine him wanting to visit their tombs.
A great fire in 1212, twenty-nine years after Henry the Young King died and in the reign of his youngest brother King John, destroyed much of the London he would have known. Construction on the first-ever stone bridge across the Thames, now called Old London Bridge, was begun in the mid-1170s and finished thirty years later also in John’s reign. The Young King would have seen work starting on the stone bridge and would surely have liked to see it completed, and Old London Bridge stood for 650 years after his death, until the early 1830s.
Although most London houses were still made of wood in the fourteenth century, there were some new stone houses which Henry might have been impressed to see, and one remarkable piece of thirteenth-century engineering was the great conduit which stood at the junction of Cheapside and Poultry and brought fresh drinking water to the centre of London from the River Tyburn several miles away. Finally, I can imagine that Henry would have enjoyed seeing and visiting some of the new religious houses founded in and around London, such as the Minoresses outside Aldgate, established in the early 1290s by Henry’s great-nephew Edmund of Lancaster (born 1245, King John’s grandson) and his wife Blanche of Artois, great-granddaughter of Philip Augustus, king of France, and also a great-granddaughter of the Young King’s sister Eleanor, queen of Castile.
Thank you for this fascinating and inspiring insight into historian’s work. It was lovely to have you here, on the blog, on this special occasion. Best of luck with your work.
You can purchase Kathryn’s books here and read her Edward II blog here.
Great blog, thanks Kasia and KathrynReplyDelete
Lovely to hear from both of you. Some of the rest of us have fallen behind with our historical studies and projects due to all that pesky 21st century-business, but Kathryn is still going strong. And wow, who needs a time machine when you have books like 'London in the Fourteenth Century' - ! :)ReplyDelete