Keywords: medieval commerce streets stalls artisans shopkeepers services crafts Troy legends urban design Lydgate London
Subject: Shopping streets
Original source: 1. University of Glasgow, Hunterian Museum; 2. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 148
Transcription in: G.A. Panton and David Donaldson, The "Gest Hystoriale" of the Destruction of Troy. Early English Text Society, vol. 39 (1869), xlvii, 53-54.
Original language: Middle English
Location: generalized
Date: 14th century


[1. Description of the streets of Troy]

The streets were straight and of a good width,
Spacious and airy in the middle;
The sides of which were ingeniously designed
As arcades to give protection from showers,
Supported on simple marble pillars,
Providing sidewalks free from drenching rain.
There were stalls standing along the sides of the street
Where craftsmen were stationed and displayed their wares
For people to buy or just view, as they pleased –
All the crafts that can be imagined, each in its own fashion:
Goldsmiths, glovers, top-notch girdlers,
Saddlers, shoemakers, skilful seamstresses,
Tailors, weavers, turners of vessels,
Wrights, websters, walkers of cloth;
Armourers, arrowsmiths with axes for war,
Bell-founders, book-binders, skilled brasiers,
Merchants, moneyers, mongers of fish,
Parmenters, painters, and pinners too;
Butchers, bladesmiths, bakers, mixed in with
Furriers, fletchers ... many men of craft;
Taverners, tapsters, throughout the town,
Spurriers, spicers, spinners of cloth,
Cooks, chandlers, curriers of leather,
Carpenters, cutlers, skilful coucheours,
With barbers placed at corners of the streets.
All these masters honest folk, living
In properties off adjoining lanes.

2. How the goldsmiths, and thereafter every craft, were established in separate streets.

Goldsmiths first, and wealthy jewellers,
Then, separately, skilled embroiderers,
Weavers too – of woollens, linen,
Cloth of gold, damask, and satin,
Velvet, sendal, double samite – each
And every cloth men yearn to seek.
Also smiths with skill to forge well
Swords, poleaxes, and spears of sharp steel,
Darts and daggers that can maim and wound,
And quarrel heads, sharp and shapedly ground.
So too were there skilful armourers:
Bowyers and, alongside, fletchers,
Those too who make arrow shafts,
And others, each at busy tasks
For the war, to make horse harness,
Painted banners, surcoats armoured,
Standards, pennons with their markings,
Bright new jettons for the sparring.
In sum, all crafts that ever might be
Could be found within that city.


The name of Homer meant little to the people of medieval Europe, but his story of the Trojan War, passed down through writers of the Early Middle Ages, captured the medieval imagination to the point where not a few regions and cities sought to self-aggrandize, from a heritage perspective, by claiming fugitive Trojans, or their descendants, as founder figures; in England the disruption and changes to society and tradition brought about by the Norman Conquest bolstered an interest in seeking roots in the classical world of great empires, heroic deeds, and sophisticated culture. The legend of Troy made its way into influential works that were viewed by medieval audiences as true history, such as that by Geoffrey of Monmouth. What so fascinated the medieval mind was not simply a good story, nor its acceptability as ancient history, but that it provided lessons about statecraft and morals, outside of a Christian framework, by illustrating the fall of a flourishing civilization and how disastrous things can happen even to men and women who, for the most part, were virtuous and admirable. Narratives, whether fictional or historical, were not simply a form of medieval entertainment, they were expected to have educational value, offering guidance for behaviour by exemplifying political prudence and moral values (or lack thereof).

The most widely known version of the story was Guido delle Colonne's Historia Trojana, itself based (though unacknowledgedly) on the Roman de Troie written ca.1160/85 by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, a poet who sought to make the classical legend more appealing to audiences of his own time by infusing it with chivalric elements. Guido de Columpnis was a thirteenth-century Sicilian writer, living at Messina, and employed as judge in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor; several legal documents attested by him as judge survive. Dante mentions him as a vernacular poet, and five poems by him also survive. His Latin adaptation of Sainte-Maure's French poem was, however, a condensed and prose version; the first book was written in 1272, then the work was put aside, to be returned to and completed hastily in a three-month period in 1287, prompted by Guido's fear he might die before finishing it. He did not assign it a title, but later scholars referred to it as the Historia destructionis Troiae, and some as the Historia Trojana.

It was perhaps partly his haste in completing the work that prompted its modern editor, Nathaniel Griffin, to characterize it as "an essentially pedestrian piece of work, devoid of any claim to high literary excellence, and extremely wordy" [Guido de Columnis. Historia destructionis Troiae, Cambridge, Mass.: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1936, p.xvi]. However, its narrative is fluent, readable, and capable of holding an audience's attention, and this is probably part of the reason Guido's work acquired and held popularity; Griffin (while noting that his research was not exhaustive) identified 136 manuscript copies made in various parts of Europe, mostly dating from the fourteenth century, and a number of editions were produced on the printing-press in the latter half of the fifteenth century. The appeal of Guido's version may also owe something to its use of a mixture of fate and free will to explain the causes of the events of the story; this dichotomous perspective perhaps being the product of the environment in Sicily, a crossroads of philosophies: Christian belief in free will and Greco-Arab belief in determinism.

The popularity of Guido's work inspired its own imitators. The Gest Hystoriale, from which the first text given above is extracted, returned to the form of an alliterative poem, "partly a translation and partly an amplified paraphrase" [Panton and Donaldson, p.xl] of Guido's text. Its author is unknown, and we have it only through an imperfect mid-fifteenth century copy, but based on the dialogue, the seeming familiarity of the writer with city life, and the impression he was educated and well-travelled, the editors suspected the author to be some nobleman connected with the Scottish court in the second half of the fourteenth century, taking Edinburgh as his model for the description of the city streets. Far better known is the version, also in Middle English, by John Lydgate, whose Troy Book was another poetic rendering of the story, written between 1412 and 1420; it survives in 23 manuscripts or fragments. Still later, in 1473, the Recoeil des histoires de Troyes (1464) by Raoul Lefevre became the first book that Caxton translated and printed in the English language.

The second text given above is taken from Lydgate's ambitious version of the Troy story, which translated the sense rather than the terminology of Guido's account, while also amplifying that account with new elements and digressions. Lydgate entered the Benedictine monastery of Bury St. Edmunds at age fifteen and may later have run a school there for noblemen's sons. He began his Troy poem at the commission of Henry, Prince of Wales. His additions drew on sources such as Jacobus de Cessolis (for the invention of chess), John Trevisa (for the labours of Hercules). While Lydgate did not venture explicitly into social or political philosophy, the moral lessons of the story – and particularly the importance of the virtue of prudence in princes (exemplified notably by Hector), would have been easily grasped by the aristocratic audience for whom Lydgate was writing. Lydgate was no recluse, for monasteries such as that of Bury St. Edmunds often had close connections with secular spheres such as government and commerce, and monks could be agents both of secular and ecclesiastical public policy. Until his retirement, Lydgate spent much of his life outside his monastery, including travelling to France and perhaps Italy. He obtained patronage from members of the royal court and, from the time of his commission to write the Troy Book, was in essence the court poet, his numerous compositions including a ballad to celebrate Henry VI's coronation and the Fall of Princes commissioned by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

The two descriptions, by Lydgate and the author of the Gest Hystoriale, of the craftspeople/retailers lining the city streets correspond to a similar passage in Guido de Colonna's version (though Sainte-Maure had no such passage). Guido's version was to an extent inspired by his Italian context, for his artisans are said to be at stationes around plazas, reflecting the open-air benches characteristic of commerce in Italian cities, but his list of workers of the mechanical arts is very different, with only a few also found in the English or Scottish versions. In fact, Guido's list seems to be based on what he imagined would have been found in a city of classical antiquity, architecturally splendid and beautified by works of art in public settings; thus his list includes architects, painters, stone-sculptors, marble-carvers, artists working with gold, bell-founders, book-binders – persons most unlikely to have been found at English market stalls. Such a list would have meant little to the audiences that later popularizers of the story were targeting, although it goes on to mention craftsmen who would have been more familiar to medieval townspeople: such as seal-makers, plumbers, skinners, fullers, carpenters, wheelwrights, bakers, taverners, wax-chandlers, merchants.

The list of the Gest represents, its editors claim, artisans and settings that would have been visible in Edinburgh, including lockable booths in its High Street. However, in fact there is little if anything therein alien to the environment of a good-sized English town. The editors also assert [p.xlviii] that Lydgate's list – since it too differs from that of Guido but contains some of the same categories of trades in the Gest, with goldsmiths heading each list – is borrowed or adapted from the Gest. But there are really no significant similarities between the two lists that would not naturally derive from a British context and from a superficial influence of Guido's preoccupation with fine crafts. The lists of Lydgate and the Gest are approached quite differently. The latter's is organized for alliterative effect (a characteristic diminished in my translation), while Lydgate, conscious of his audience, is particularly concerned to talk of artisans making weaponry (something absent in Guido), broadening that theme to include producers of ornamental trappings of war.

With the medieval interest in Trojan refugees as ancestors and city-founders, it was natural that Troy itself should be perceived as one of the great cities of antiquity, almost utopian in its vision of what a city should be, a portrayal that heightens the poignancy of its fate. The description of its shopping streets was part of a larger section of Guido's narrative, dealing with Priam's re-founding of Troy after it was razed to the ground during the reign of his father. Priam resolves to rebuild bigger and better, with strong walls and towers. He gathers from the region workmen: skilled masons and carpenters, men learned in geometry and engineering, sculptors, painters and metal-workers to decorate the city with marble, colours, and crests. The description of the new Troy is intended to portray an ideal city; it shows some understanding of urban planning and reflects, albeit with occasional hyperbole, features of many of the large cities of medieval Europe – particularly those of Italy. It also reflects characteristics or principles we find in philosophical portrayals of towns.

The site of old Troy is levelled out, and surveying undertaken to determine the extent of the new city. The stonemasons then, using their knowledge of geometry and the tools of their trade (compass, square, level, and line), start to build new structures with well-shaped stones, and they create a city without peer, impregnable and beautiful. Its high walls are faced with marble and at each corner a crown of gold, and are pierced by six gates giving entrance to the city, each gate flanked by towers whose corners are decorated with stone figures representing defenders; each tower is equipped with artillery and portcullises. Each set of gates is equipped with iron bars to hold them shut, brass locking mechanisms, backed up with heavy chains strung between bars embedded in the ground. Turrets are decorated with brass figures representing various wild beasts to dishearten attackers. These defences are augmented with barbicans and bulwarks.

The palaces and mansions inside the city are built high, of marble and of timber, and the architecture adorned with sculptural features. The layout of the streets provides for them to be airy and spacious – appealing to the eye and the nostrils. Along the side of each street are covered colonnades for the comfort of pedestrians, wide enough to accommodate two abreast. Every house is roofed with lead, and rain channelled off through gargoyle spouts or pipes leading to iron gratings set in the ground above subterranean drains. Streets are paved with red and white stones, checkerboard fashion, and Priam provides for every craft imaginable to be represented within the resident population, each established in its own street, such occupational groupings being perceived as useful and convenient.

Through the middle of the city runs a river that is an invaluable asset, for it supplies fish for the townspeople, its swift current powers mills for grinding corn, and engineers build conduit pipes to channel the water into the town for use in washing the streets and carrying off filth through sewers that appear to have been dug below the streets, thus protecting the residents from foul or unhealthy odours that might bring about disease.

To populate his city, Priam recruits immigrants, both young and old, from neighbouring regions and their existing settlements, as well as the homeless, and he gives them all citizenship. With the population growing, he turns his attention to cultural matters, promoting martial values and skills by instituting regular tourneys, jousts, and wrestling contests, promoting strategic thinking by encouraging the game of chess, and fostering drama as a means of teaching virtues.

The city represented in Guido's idealized Troy is more akin to FitzStephen's fond portrayal of London, than to the unfriendly and untrustworthy society reflected in London Lickpenny, a satirical work – once attributed to Lydgate's authorship, though no longer held to be so – with a quite different character and purpose to the history of Troy. The London Lickpenny is far less interested in the structures and facilities of the city than with the people who inhabit it, although the narrative proceeds through different locales, from Westminster to Cheapside and beyond. The narrator, a visitor from the provinces (and thereby a 'hick') is seeking justice for some grievance in the royal courts, but finds that Londoners are all driven by gain. As a penniless outsider, he cannot interest any lawyer, law clerk, or judge in his case; to make matters worse, his hood is stolen as he jostles through the milling crowds. He is pestered by street vendors wanting him to buy useless articles such as felt hats and eyeglasses, by taverners enticing him to come in and eat (until they discover he has no money), and by the street vendors crying their wares. Making his way through West Cheap, Candlewick Street, and East Cheap he passes by the shops of cloth-dealers, and then cookshops selling more food he cannot afford. The atmosphere in East Cheap is more carnival-like and boisterous. At Cornhill he sees stolen goods for sale, his hood among them, but is powerless to regain it. Heading south to Billingsgate he seeks a free ride out of the city on a barge, but is turned away, and leaves London on foot via the bridge. This unappealing portrait of a city whose people are interested only in profit, satire though it be, is far from the mutually supportive society envisaged as Troy, or from the celebration of London's civic virtues and commercial prosperity in Lydgate's King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London, describing a pageanted parade that follows much the same route (though in reverse) taken by the narrator of the Lickpenny.

One common feature of the Lickpenny and the poetic descriptions of the streets of Troy, however, is the implicit zonal segregation of trades into neighbourhoods, or into their own streets, conscious or unconscious. This is something not commonly found today, although in London Carnaby Street and South Molton Street were in recent times specialized groupings of women's fashion shops, and Portobello Road is famous for its collection of antique shops, while the Ponte Vecchio in Florence still provides a visually striking example of the clustering of shops of jewellers and goldsmiths. But the seeming rows of retailers of various types and the lively atmosphere of shopping streets is still something that twenty-first century city-dwellers can identify with, even in these days of indoor malls and online shopping.



The editors identify these as makers of iron utensils used in cooking. However, we should probably interpret this more conventionally as the makers of belts and girdles, an important component of dress which required skill bother in leather-working and metal-working, and also incorporated the use of precious metals to decorate some products. It may be noted that the Girdlers' Company at London has as part of its crest three griddles (and its patron saint was Lawrence the Martyr, executed by burning him on a gridiron), a word providing a punning connection with girdle.

Probably intended not in the modern sense of a sewer of clothing, but of a decorative sewer – that is, an embroiderer. Note that the original text uses the male form for all occupations.

"turners of vessels"
Producers of wooden tableware.

Another name for weavers, who are listed in the previous line as telers, this repetition being purely for alliterative effect.

This was a name given to fullers because they immersed cloth in fulling preparations by walking on it in the vats.

"with axes"
The implication here seems to be that the arrowsmiths, who made only the iron heads of arrows (fletchers being separately listed), also made other metal weapons.

Workers in the clothing industry, they originally worked with leather and fur and were perhaps a branch of the skinners. But as cloth became the prevalent material they switched to the specialization of finishing clothing off with trimmings (e.g. of fur) and decorative elements (some possibly of leather), and were perceived more akin to tailors; they also seem to have produced domestic furnishings of cloth with decorative character. This specialized trade is not evidenced in many towns, but in a few (such as Norwich and Winchester) they were evidently numerous enough to have a street, or a stretch of a street, named after their craft.

Manufacturers of pins of various materials, sizes, and purposes.

Makers of knives, daggers, swords, etc.

The editors suggest this might mean upholsterers or jewellers (who set stones). Embroiderers is another possibility.

"Cloth of gold"
A luxury textile into which a yarn wrapped with gold thread is woven (as the weft). Cloth could also be embroidered with gold thread, and it is no random choice that has the embroiderers intermediate between the goldsmiths and weavers in the poem.

A fabric typically of silk (though wool and linen could also be used), in which different warp and weft yarns are integrated, with the warp used to create a pattern on the cloth, though all usually of a single colour. The name derives from Damascus, though by Lydgate's time most damask was being produced on Italian looms.

"double samite"
A heavier silk with a satiny gloss, associated with Byzantium before silk weaving was established at Venice and Lucca. A luxury cloth that involved several different yarns (sometimes with one or more gold-wrapped), it tended to be restricted to the upper ranks of the social scale. Double samite is occasionally heard of and may represent a more heavily-woven version.

The best-known use of this term (also rendered as jeton) applied to disc-shaped counters positioned on a marked board for purposes of financial accounting. But it was evidently applied to small ornamental discs too, sometimes decorated with heraldic arms.

"Guido de Columpnis"
Griffin believed this to be the correct version of his name, corrupted by scribal error to make it appear he belonged to the noble Roman Colonna family. Not to be confused with the like-named author of De Regimine Principum, who was a member of that family.

"lockable booths"
These were incorporated in a row of tenements, built between the Tolbooth and the Bell-house (meeting-place of the guilds) in the mid-fifteenth century and occupied by goldsmiths and jewellers.

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Created: October 28, 2014. © Stephen Alsford, 2014