Memoirs Of A Medieval Time Traveller

By Dr Matthew Green Last edited 19 months ago
Memoirs Of A Medieval Time Traveller

There are many traveller's reports of Elizabethan and Stuart London, but nothing from the middle ages. So we decided to travel back in time and find out for ourselves. Here's our diary.

3 September, 1391

I arrived in the dead of night. The city lay under curfew, dead to the world. Between the battlements of Bishopsgate, a pinprick of light appeared — a watchman’s lantern. I checked my sword was by my side. It was.

To pass the hours till sunrise, I walked around the ancient city walls, admiring the belt of monasteries, market gardens and archery fields. I found dead dogs floating in the stinking ditch and came to appreciate, belatedly, the place name Houndsditch.

Strange to think that this compact, fortress-like city would eventually crack out of its medieval shell, sprawl into the suburbs and blossom into the biggest city in the world.

Medieval London is a vast, seething, chaotic mess. There are timber-framed houses pitching over the street; dark, winding back-alleys, and wild pigs rampaging through the streets.

Pigs were rife on the street of medieval London. Photo by liborius in the Londonist Flickr pool

4 September, 1391

The sun appeared in the sky, the postern gates creaked open, and hordes of farmers' wives, tradesmen and cattle surged into the city.  

Medieval London is a vast, seething, chaotic mess. There are timber-framed houses pitching over the street; dark, winding back-alleys, and wild pigs rampaging through the streets.

By God, it stinks. Rotting offal, discarded shit, stagnant pools of water, animal hides roasting on the banks of the Fleet, fish baking in the sun – all coagulate into a miasmic concoction you will never forget. The loudest noise you ever hear is the pealing of church bells and thunder.

By God, it stinks. Rotting offal, discarded shit, stagnant pools of water, animal hides roasting on the banks of the Fleet...

Spent the day wandering the serpentine streets, eventually arriving at Cheapside, London’s main high street, which is unusually spacious with brightly-painted wooden townhouses and a side-street called Gropecunt Lane.

I saw a man tied to a stake, surrounded by minstrels thumping drums. Suddenly, he was forced to drink an entire bottle of wine in one go — nearly choking — before the bottle was smashed over his head. He was a corrupt vintner, I learned.

Decided to get an early night. Retired to the George Inn in Cornhill. I had to share a lice-ridden straw mattress with two naked men.

5 September, 1391

Breakfast was a barrel of oysters washed down with ale. You don’t drink the river water here unless you’ve got a death wish. Most people are slightly — or very — drunk all day long, eight pints of wine or ale being the average quotient for someone of means.

Got lost, stumbled into a blind alley, and found a man gauging out a horse's eyes. Apparently this is the only way to make sure stolen horses don't return to their masters.

Visited London Bridge. It took an hour to cross but here I found some of the finest shops in town, a magnificent octagonal chapel to St Thomas à Beckett, and the White Bear Tavern, which has an ingenious method of preparing fast food. A fishing rod is suspending through a trap door then a fish whisked up, slammed between two baps of bread, and served to the customer raw. Medieval sushi!

At the Southwark end of the bridge I caught the eye — or rather eye-socket — of a traitor's head impaled on a wooden spear. It might have been William Wallace of Braveheart fame, who was skewered 80 years ago. I enjoyed this little reminder of what lay in store if, at any point, I was deemed a traitor to the crown.

A fishing rod is suspending through a trap door then a fish whisked up, slammed between two baps of bread, and served to the customer raw. Medieval sushi!

Went to Bankside and saw a spot of bear baiting, drank deep in a riverside ale-house, and was nearly led astray by a Winchester Goose.

Back in the City, the bells sounded for curfew: the men left the ale-houses, women their workshops, ships came bankside to moor, all lights were extinguished, and the whole city sank into a deep slumber, with watchmen patrolling the streets.

6 September, 1391

Visited the anchorite in St Lawrence Jewry. He's destined to spend the rest of his life walled into a tiny, airless cell. He's there out of choice, hoping for a glimpse of God. He likes it; he was a nobody before, now people think he's a prophet.

Saw a wild pig dart into a shop and bite a new-born baby to death. The ward's swine killer appears before magistrates tomorrow.

The Old St Paul's Cathedral

7 September, 1391

London is so unfamiliar to me. Baynard's Castle, the Fleet Prison, vineyards in the City, Big Tom in Westminster — all are destined for oblivion. The Thames, Tower and the odd stone church are the only buoys of familiarity in this alien world.     

St Paul's couldn't be more different. Remorselessly gothic, it has one of the biggest lead-and-timber spires in the world, and the most beautiful rose window I have ever seen. Tried to buy a book in the churchyard, but think I got the wrong idea. It seems stationers' stalls are where you take texts to be alchemised into illuminated manuscripts. Hardly anyone can read anyway.

Went to the Smooth Field (Smithfield) where a tilt was in progress. Two heavily-armoured knights attempted to knock each other off their horses with enormous lances. Silly. Enjoyed a hot beef pie and a coconut shell of rich red wine from Gascony.

I made my way to the royal hawk house in the village of Charing to buy myself a gyrfalcon.

Photo by Jordi Corbilla in the Londonist Flickr pool

8 September, 1391

Hired a wherry at Paris Garden Stairs and headed upriver, taking in the luscious riverside palaces of bishops and noblemen. Saw the sorrowful wreck of the Savoy, burned down 10 years ago in the peasants' revolt.

Alighted at Scotland Yard — where Scottish kings are humiliatingly made to come and pay tribute to their English counterparts — and made my way to the royal hawk house in the village of Charing to buy myself a gyrfalcon.

A woman advised me to run to the nearest church to seek sanctuary...

Unfortunately, a mishap occurred en route and to cut a long story short, I was blamed for stabbing someone outside an alehouse while the real culprit fled unseen. A woman advised me to run to the nearest church to seek sanctuary since, according to the law of infangenthef, they had every right to cut off my head. How I ran.

17 October 1391

This is my last night among the rapists, larcenists and coin clippers of Westminster Abbey. My 40 days are nearly up. Tomorrow, I must either submit to the machinery of justice — a bad idea — or vow to abjure the realm of medieval London forever.

I opted for the latter.

Dr Matthew Green is the author of the critically acclaimed London: A Travel Guide Through Time, out now in Penguin paperback. He also runs a monthly wine tour of Medieval London.

Last Updated 13 July 2016