From the Medieval times to the present, much has changed in London. Today’s Covent Garden used to be the site of Medieval London until the 800s. Later on, inhabitants relocated to the walled Roman city where they used to reside. The old city’s sturdy fortification protected Medieval Londoners from attacking enemies.
London only had 8,000 residents back in early medieval times but eventually grew and prospered to become England’s largest and wealthiest Medieval city. During the mid-16th century, when the Renaissance slowly erased the Middle Ages, London was home to more than 100,000 inhabitants.
Religion pretty much defined the Middle Ages. The Medieval city of London housed several Christians who venerated particular saints, wore badges and often embarked on religious journeys (also known as pilgrimage). The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the height of Medieval London, recounted the experiences of pilgrims travelling to the shrine of Thomas Becket and the stories they shared during such journeys.
Wealth made or broke the quality of life for Londoners. The have-nots did not own ovens so they bought their bread from bakeries and shops that sold bread or already-cooked food. Skilled workers earned a pittance and could barely afford a brand new pair of shoes no matter how hard they toiled.
Medieval London kept a small Jewish community composed of people who earned their living through lending money and building stone houses. Jealousy took a toll on Medieval city dwellers and before the end of the 13th century, the entire community of Jews were forced to vacate England.
The divide between rich and poor was so remarkably obvious that Medieval Londoners living below the poverty line had to wear patched or repaired second-hand shoes. A portion of the population catered to the needs of poor people, offering a variety of services including shoe and clothing repair or patching.
Mendicants littered the streets. Those who refused or were unable to work ended up begging for their food. Citizens were not obliged to support beggars. On occasion, local parishes, religious orders, nobles and other wealthy Londoners took part in charitable works for the poor.
It was a different story for the rich people of Medieval London. Well-to-do city dwellers wore pointed leather shoes with criss-cross designs and were always up-to-date when it came to the latest fashion. They exported goods like silk, exotic spices, carpets, fruits and gems from various parts of the world. Inhabitants from far-flung Medieval towns and villages came to London to try their luck. London was the big apple of Medieval times.
Children in Medieval London were less carefree and only a few of them managed to survive until adulthood. Once and a while, they were allowed to play games. Boys enjoyed skating, sledging and playing ball while girls played with their miniature dolls. However, accidents and illnesses were rampant. They could not go to school unless their parents were rich enough to pay their tuition. Children of poor families learned to work at a young age usually as servants (e.g. page boys, maids) in noble houses.
London, like most Medieval towns, had narrow streets full of tall, irregular-looking houses with protruding and more spacious upper floors. At the turn of the 14th century, most Medieval houses were three stories high. The trend developed out of the need to have more space. Because of congestion, many London dwellings frequently caught fire even after a law banning thatched roofs was passed. Residents could barely afford to buy sturdier roof materials.
Houses were mainly composed of thatched roofs mixed with clay, walls cut out from hard timber and clay floors interlaced with straw in the early Medieval era. For typical Medieval households, the hearth served several purposes: a makeshift kitchen where food was cooked all year round, and was also a heater during winter season.
Wealthier segments of the population built stone houses instead of wooden ones. The finest and largest houses in Medieval London, complete with gardens and courtyards, belonged to members of the nobility and clergy. Most of these grand abodes stood along the Strand, the pathway leading to the palace of Westminster. Local parishes and monasteries were scattered all over the city.
Thames was the lifeblood of Medieval London. Many historic structures like the Tower of London, St. Mary’s Church and The Barley Mow were built near it. The river supplied much of the town’s water, providing irrigation to nearby fields and giving residents their daily nourishment. During the Roman era, the Romans constructed a defensive wall and a moat that surrounded the port city of Londinium. It later became known as the London wall and protected the city from Saxon invaders.
For much of the 14th century, St. Paul’s Cathedral was regarded as the largest structure throughout Britain. The Church’s influence was so deeply rooted that not only were schools and hospitals part of its jurisdiction but it also decided when citizens would take their meals, the type of food they had to eat and the days that should be considered holidays. The number of parishes that were built all over London grew to more than a hundred by 1200.
Medieval London would not be complete without the historic Tower of London, also known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress. This majestic castle sat at the bank of the River Thames, right at the heart of London. Erected in 1066, the structure came as a result of the Norman Conquest of England. 12 yeas later, William the Conqueror built the White Tower which served as a prison for monarchs and nobles until the 20th century. Many Londoners and the English race in general were offended by its construction. Part of the castle was used as a royal residence.
Many believed that the Black Death originated from the East when a Genoese ship docked at the shores of Sicily. Eastern ships were eventually banned and had to seek safer harbors elsewhere. Medieval inhabitants called the plague several names from “Pestilence” to “The Great Mortality.” Some believed it was a form of divine punishment if not a sign of an impending Apocalypse.
There were those who blamed the Jews for spreading the disease, claiming it was an attempt to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth. This ignorance led to the killing of a number of Jews. The Black Death spread quickly in England, claiming several lives from Gloucester to Oxford before hitting London.
The already meager population was greatly reduced with hardly anyone left alive. In truth, however, the Black Death was caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis, found in the bloodstream of black rats and fleas that hovered around the rats like parasites. Fleas went to look for substitutes, including humans, after the death of their rat hosts.
Having existed as early as the Roman civilization, the Medieval city of London rebuilt itself in the era that followed and still flourished after a period of time. The city continues to make history at present though once beset with enormous challenges in the form of feudalism and the Black Death.
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