Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Old-Time London
By Sir Walter Besant (1836–1901)
From ‘London’

THE LONDON house, either in Saxon or Norman time, presented no kind of resemblance to the Roman villa. It had no cloisters, no hypocaust, no suite or sequence of rooms. This unlikeness is another proof, if any were wanting, that the continuity of tenure had been wholly broken. If the Saxons went into London, as has been suggested, peaceably, and left the people to carry on their old life and their trade in their own way, the Roman and British architecture—no new thing, but a style grown up in course of years and found fitted to the climate—would certainly have remained. That, however, was not the case. The Englishman developed his house from the patriarchal idea.  1
  First, there was the common hall; in this the household lived, fed, transacted business, and made their cheer in the evenings. It was built of timber, and to keep out the cold draughts it was afterwards lined with tapestry. At first they used simple cloths, which in great houses were embroidered and painted; perches of various kinds were affixed to the walls, whereon the weapons, the musical instruments, the cloaks, etc., were hung up. The lord and lady sat on a high seat; not, I am inclined to think, on a dais at the end of the hall, which would have been cold for them, but on a great chair near the fire, which was burning in the middle of the hall. This fashion long continued. I have myself seen a college hall warmed by a fire in a brazier burning under the lantern of the hall. The furniture consisted of benches; the table was laid on trestles, spread with a white cloth, and removed after dinner; the hall was open to all who came, on condition that the guest should leave his weapons at the door.  2
  The floor was covered with reeds, which made a clean, soft, and warm carpet, on which the company could, if they pleased, lie round the fire. They had carpets or rugs also, but reeds were commonly used. The traveler who chances to find himself at the ancient and most interesting town of Kingston-on-Hull, which very few English people, and still fewer Americans, have the curiosity to explore, should visit the Trinity House. There, among many interesting things, he will find a hall where reeds are still spread, but no longer so thickly as to form a complete carpet. I believe this to be the last survival of the reed carpet.  3
  The times of meals were: the breakfast at about nine; the “noon-meat,” or dinner, at twelve; and the “even-meat,” or supper, probably at a movable time, depending on the length of the day. When lighting was costly and candles were scarce, the hours of sleep would be naturally longer in winter than in the summer.  4
  In their manner of living the Saxons were fond of vegetables, especially of the leek, onion, and garlic. Beans they also had (these were introduced probably at the time when they commenced intercourse with the outer world), pease, radishes, turnips, parsley, mint, sage, cress, rue, and other herbs. They had nearly all our modern fruits, though many show by their names, which are Latin or Norman, a later introduction. They made use of butter, honey, and cheese. They drank ale and mead. The latter is still made, but in small quantities, in Somerset and Hereford shires. The Normans brought over the custom of drinking wine.  5
  In the earliest times the whole family slept in the common hall. The first improvement was the erection of the solar, or upper chamber. This was above the hall, or a portion of it, or over the kitchen and buttery attached to the hall. The arrangement may be still observed in many of the old colleges of Oxford or Cambridge. The solar was first the sleeping-room of the lord and lady; though afterward it served not only this purpose, but also for an ante-chamber to the dormitory of the daughters and the maid-servants. The men of the household still slept in the hall below. Later on, bed recesses were contrived in the wall, as one may find in Northumberland at the present day. The bed was commonly, but not for the ladies of the house, merely a big bag stuffed with straw. A sheet wrapped round the body formed the only night-dress. But there were also pillows, blankets, and coverlets. The early English bed was quite as luxurious as any that followed after, until the invention of the spring mattress gave a new and hitherto unhoped-for joy to the hours of night.  6
  The second step in advance was the ladies’ bower, a room or suite of rooms set apart for the ladies of the house and their women. For the first time, as soon as this room was added, the women could follow their own vocations of embroidery, spinning, and needlework of all kinds, apart from the rough and noisy talk of the men.  7
  The main features, therefore, of every great house, whether in town or country, from the seventh to the twelfth century, were the hall, the solar built over the kitchen and buttery, and the ladies’ bower.  8
  There was also the garden. In all times the English have been fond of gardens. Bacon thought it not beneath his dignity to order the arrangement of a garden. Long before Bacon, a writer of the twelfth century describes a garden as it should be. “It should be adorned on this side with roses, lilies, and the marigold; on that side with parsley, cost, fennel, southernwood, coriander, sage, savery, hyssop, mint, vine, dettany, pellitory, lettuce, cresses, and the peony. Let there be beds enriched with onions, leeks, garlic, melons, and scallions. The garden is also enriched by the cucumber, the soporiferous poppy, and the daffodil, and the acanthus. Nor let pot herbs be wanting, as beet-root, sorrel, and mallow. It is useful also to the gardener to have anise, mustard, and wormwood…. A noble garden will give you medlars, quinces, the pear main, peaches, pears of St. Regle, pomegranates, citrons, oranges, almonds, dates, and figs.” The latter fruits were perhaps attempted, but one doubts their arriving at ripeness. Perhaps the writer sets down what he hoped would be some day achieved.  9
  The in-door amusements of the time were very much like our own. We have a little music in the evening; so did our forefathers. We sometimes have a little dancing; so did they, but the dancing was done for them. We go to the theatres to see the mime; in their days the mime made his theatre in the great man’s hall. He played the fiddle and the harp; he sang songs, he brought his daughter, who walked on her hands and executed astonishing capers; the gleeman, minstrel, or jongleur was already as disreputable as when we find him later on with his ribauderie. Again, we play chess; so did our ancestors. We gamble with dice; so did they. We feast and drink together; so did they. We pass the time in talk; so did they. In a word, as Alphonse Karr put it, the more we change, the more we remain the same.  10
  Out-of-doors, as Fitz-Stephen shows, the young men skated, wrestled, played ball, practiced archery, held water tournaments, baited bull and bear, fought cocks, and rode races. They were also mustered sometimes for service in the field, and went forth cheerfully, being specially upheld by the reassuring consciousness that London was always on the winning side.  11
  The growth of the city government belongs to the history of London. Suffice it here to say that the people in all times enjoyed a freedom far above that possessed by any other city of Europe. The history of municipal London is a history of continual struggle to maintain this freedom against all attacks, and to extend it and to make it impregnable. Already the people are proud, turbulent, and confident in their own strength. They refuse to own any other lord but the king himself; there is no Earl of London. They freely hold their free and open meetings, their folk-motes,—in the open space outside the northwest corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard. That they lived roughly, enduring cold, sleeping in small houses in narrow courts; that they suffered much from the long darkness of winter; that they were always in danger of fevers, agues, “putrid” throats, plagues, fires by night, and civil wars; that they were ignorant of letters,—three schools only for the whole of London,—all this may very well be understood. But these things do not make men and women wretched. They were not always suffering from preventable disease; they were not always hauling their goods out of the flames; they were not always fighting. The first and most simple elements of human happiness are three; to wit, that a man should be in bodily health, that he should be free, that he should enjoy the produce of his own labor. All these things the Londoner possessed under the Norman kings nearly as much as in these days they can be possessed. His city has always been one of the healthiest in the world; whatever freedom could be attained he enjoyed; and in that rich trading town all men who worked lived in plenty.  12
  The households, the way of living, the occupations of the women, can be clearly made out in every detail from the Anglo-Saxon literature. The women in the country made the garments, carded the wool, sheared the sheep, washed the things, beat the flax, ground the corn, sat at the spinning-wheel, and prepared the food. In the towns they had no shearing to do, but all the rest of their duty fell to their province. The English women excelled in embroidery. “English” work meant the best kind of work. They worked church vestments with gold and pearls and precious stones. “Orfrey,” or embroidery in gold, was a special art. Of course they are accused by the ecclesiastics of an overweening desire to wear finery; they certainly curled their hair, and, one is sorry to read, they painted, and thereby spoiled their pretty cheeks. If the man was the hlaf-ord [lord],—the owner or winner of the loaf,—the wife was the hlaf-dig [lady], its distributor; the servants and the retainers were hlaf-oetas, or eaters of it. When nunneries began to be founded, the Saxon ladies in great numbers forsook the world for the cloister. And here they began to learn Latin, and became able at least to carry on correspondence—specimens of which still exist—in that language. Every nunnery possessed a school for girls. They were taught to read and to write their own language and Latin, perhaps also rhetoric and embroidery. As the pious Sisters were fond of putting on violet chemises, tunics, and vests of delicate tissue, embroidered with silver and gold, and scarlet shoes, there was probably not much mortification of the flesh in the nunneries of the later Saxon times.  13
  This for the better class. We cannot suppose that the daughters of the craftsmen became scholars of the nunnery. Theirs were the lower walks—to spin the linen and to make the bread and carry on the housework.  14

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