As a follow-on from the blog I wrote yesterday about history not just being dates, I was interested to read today that in the 1400's 80% of England's population lived out in the countryside and lived off the land...it seems an incredibly high percentage, until you remember towns were very small...nothing like the size they are in our present day.
No factories of course or housing estates...not many shops either...
I find it difficult to imagine actually...we are so used to newsagents and clothes shops...seeing the postman on his rounds...having our rubbish collected every week. Being able to cross the road fairly safely on a zebra crossing...
To try to visualise a town enclosed by a wall with a main entrance for visitors...beaten earth streets...a market square of course, there was always a market square where miscreants were put in the stocks or people would congregate to watch a dancing bear and to hear the latest proclamation from the town crier...open drains and gutters...one armed beggars perhaps, hoping for a few alms or a piece of bread...there'd have been ale houses, rough and dirty places but a traveller could get a bed for the night...sharing with whoever else was passing through. Actually the practice of sharing a bed with your fellow travellers was still practiced up until the middle of the 1800's...
The town would have smelt...the river would have been a harbinger of disease, used as a dump for dead animals and the contents of peoples piss-pots. But there'd have been a well in the middle of the market square where townsfolk could draw fresh water...until someone dumped a dead pig into it. There was no understanding that foul water could cause disease...they'd have used the well for convenience rather than for health reasons.
Just outside the town walls would have been the local leper-house...cared for by local monks from the nearby monastery. They'd come out for a Sunday Mass...with the leper at the front of the crocodile ringing a bell to warn everyone to keep away. Once at the Church they'd have stood outside...following the service through the 'Lepers Hole'...a window just big enough for most of them to watch the proceedings.
The town gibbet would also have been outside the walls...usually on a hill or a well-used footpath so the hapless criminal encased inside could act as a warning to everyone as to the fate which might befall you if you went outside the law. Very many towns in England, and to a certain extent in Ireland, still have laneways called Gibbet Lane to this day.
Larger town walls was where the heads of those who had been hung, drawn and quartered were displayed until they rotted away...so you'd have been surrounded by death in many forms...from those who didn't survive the stocks...and many didn't. It wasn't just rotten vegetables people threw at them...it was often stones and sharp sticks as well. To the man in the gibbet and the heads on spikes on the wall...and the dead animals floating down the river...
With no television, newspapers or radio, the general population relied on travellers to bring the news of far off towns. Travelling the length and breadth of the country either on foot or by horse the travellers carried their wares with them...dye-stuffs and herbal receipts...carefully mixed chalk paints to decorate the grand houses with stencils...little bags of salt and nutmegs...cinnamon and salves for sores...lengths of beautiful fabrics from the East and a pet monkey chattering on their shoulder.
As they travelled about they picked up gossip about the King and his Mistresses...listened in on conversations in lodging houses...spied on soldiers and were privy to secrets told while the teller was drunk on rough ale...they'd have known of battles fought and new taxes to be paid and must have been an invaluable source of information.
They'd have told the town crier of anything of interest to the country people visiting town for market day and to the townspeople themselves...he'd have stood on a wooden podium and announced the latest news to everyone there...
It is difficult to put yourself in that market place six hundred years ago, of course it is. To listen aghast at the news that the King has been overthrown and another taken his place and that the battle held at No-man's-land ended in a victory and from now on you'd have to pay a penny more each year to your Lord of the Manor...but there must have been good news as well...maybe the town crier announced there'd be work available on the new castle being built...stone masons and labourers were needed and if you're interested please queue up over there by the well. He might have said there was a new shoe-maker in town...the other chap died from the ague if you remember...and the new man isn't expensive at all and would welcome orders.
All of us...every single one of us...would have had ancestors who lived in those days. Whether we hail from Ireland or Wales...from Italy or Sweden...the times of the common peasants in Mediaeval days are much the same. We may not be able to find them now...buried in long deserted graveyards or covered over in concrete and a high rise block of flats. Their own personal stories may well be left untold...but those 'common' people who ploughed the land with teams of oxen and bought a little bag of nutmegs from a man in colourful robes with a monkey on his shoulder...they were your people. Your ninth great grand uncle perhaps...or a remote cousin by marriage...but they were part and parcel of who you are.
I personally think that is quite astounding and it is the small details which keep me needing to know more...