INTRODUCTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: William FitzStephen medieval London topography churches fortifications festivals recreation sport entertainment schools education food commerce government tournaments combat hunting
Subject: A description of London
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Custumarum, ff.3-5
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Custumarum. Rolls Series, no.12, vol.2 (1860), 2-15.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: ca.1174/1183

You can visualize the London described by FitzStephen with the help of a 1:2500 scale map of the city, as it was in the late thirteenth century, just published by the Historic Towns Trust


1. The fame of the city of London

Among the splendid cities of the world that have achieved celebrity, the city of London – seat of the English monarchy – is one whose renown is more widespread, whose money and merchandize go further afield, and which stands head and shoulders above the others. It is fortunate in the wholesomeness of its climate, the devotion of its Christians, the strength of its fortifications, its well-situated location, the respectability of its citizens, and the propriety of their wives. Furthermore it takes great pleasure in its sports and is prolific in producing men of superior quality. Each of which characteristic I shall address in turn.

2. The mild climate

There, without question, "the mild sky doth soften hearts of men", not so that they become "[weak slaves] of lust", but so that they are not brutal and uncivilized, instead being of a kind-hearted and generous disposition.

3. Christian worship there

The bishopric is seated in the church of St. Paul there. At one time it was a metropolitan see, and it is believed that it will be again, if the citizens return to this island – unless perhaps the title of archbishop, which the Blessed Martyr Thomas held, should preserve that status in Canterbury, which has it now. Since St. Thomas has graced both of those cities – London in the early part of his life, and Canterbury in the later part – each has just grounds to argue against the other, with regard to [a claim on?] that saint. In relation to Christian worship, there are also in London and in its suburbs thirteen conventual churches and one hundred and twenty-six lesser, parish churches.

4. The setting and security of the city

On the east side stands the royal fortress, of tremendous size and strength, whose walls and floors rise up from the deepest foundations – the mortar being mixed with animal's blood. On the west side are two heavily fortified castles. Running continuously around the north side is the city wall, high and wide, punctuated at intervals with turrets, and with seven double-gated entranceways. Similarly, London had wall and turrets on its south side; but that greatest of rivers, the Thames, which teems with fish, through the ebb and flow of the tide lapping against the wall, has over time undermined it and caused it to collapse.

In addition, further to the west, two miles from the city and linked to it by a populous suburb, there rises above the bank of that river the king's palace, a structure without equal, with inner and outer fortifications.

5. The cultivated gardens

Beyond the suburban houses, on every side and adjacent to each other, the citizens have beautiful and spacious gardens, planted with trees.

6. The pastures

To the north there are tilled fields, pastures, and pleasant, level meadows with streams flowing through them, where watermill wheels turned by the current make a pleasing sound. Not far off spreads out a vast forest, its copses dense with foliage concealing wild animals – stags, does, boars, and wild bulls.

7. The fields

The arable fields of the city are not gravelly and parched, but are like the fertile fields of Asia which "make glad the crops"; their cultivation fills the granaries "with sheaves of Ceres' stalk".

8. The spring waters

There are also in the northern suburbs of London springs of high quality, with water that is sweet, wholesome, clear, and "whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright". Among which Holywell, Clerkenwell and St. Clement's Well have a particular reputation; they receive throngs of visitors and are especially frequented by students and young men of the city, who head out on summer evenings to take the [country?] air. Truly, a good city – if it has a good lord.

9. The reputation of the citizens

The city has won repute for its men and glory for its martial prowess, and has a very large population; so that, during the ruinous wars of the time of King Stephen, it was able to marshal an estimated 20,000 cavalry and 60,000 infantry fit for battle. The citizens of London are universally renowned and talked about for their superiority over those of other cities in the refinement of their dress, manners, and dining. [see notes]

10. Proper behaviour

The married women of the city are true Sabines.

11. The schools

The three principal churches of London – St. Paul's (seat of the bishop), Holy Trinity, and St. Martin's – possess schools, by ancient right and privilege. But, thanks to the support of a number of those scholarly men who have won renown and distinction in the study of philosophy, there are other schools licensed there.

On holy days, the schoolmasters assemble their students at the churches associated with the particular festival, for purposes of a training exercise. There the students debate, some using demonstrative rhetoric, others using dialectical logic. Yet others "hurtle enthymemes", while those who are more advanced employ syllogisms. Some undergo the debating exercise just to be put through their paces, it being like a wrestling match of the intellect; for others it is to help perfect their skills in determining the truth. The contrivances of sophists receive credit for the torrent and flow of their arguments. Others apply false logic. Occasionally some speakers strive to persuade by delivering rhetorical orations, taking care to observe the rules of their art and not to leave out anything related to them. Boys from different schools fling versified arguments against each other, disputing matters of grammatical principles or rules governing the use of the future or past tenses. There are those who make use of epigrams, rhymes, and metrical verse – types of sarcasm traditionally heard at street-corners; with "Fescennine License", they freely ridicule their associates, without naming names. They hurl "abuse and jibes"; with Socratic wit they take digs at the character flaws of their fellows, or even their elders, and "bite more keenly even than Theon's tooth" with their "bold dithyrambs". The audience being "ready to laugh their fill", "with wrinkling nose repeat the loud guffaw".

12. The daily routine of the city

Every morning you can find those carrying on their various trades, those selling specific types of goods, and those who hire themselves out as labourers, each in their particular locations engaged in their tasks. Nor should I forget to mention that there is in London, on the river bank amidst the ships, the wine for sale, and the storerooms for wine, a public cookshop. On a daily basis there, depending on the season, can be found fried or boiled foods and dishes, fish large and small, meat – lower quality for the poor, finer cuts for the wealthy – game and fowl (large and small). If friends arrive unexpectedly at the home of some citizen and they, tired and hungry after their journey, prefer not to wait until food may be got in and cooked, or "till servants bring water for hands and bread", they can in the meantime pay a quick visit to the riverside, where anything they might desire is immediately available. No matter how great the number of soldiers or travellers coming in or going out of the city, at whatever hour of day or night, so that those arriving do not have to go without a meal for too long or those departing leave on empty stomachs, they can choose to detour there and take whatever refreshment each needs. Those with a fancy for delicacies can obtain for themselves the meat of goose, guinea-hen or woodcock – finding what they're after is no great chore, since all the delicacies are set out in front of them. This is an exemplar of a public cookshop that provides a service to a city and is an asset to city life. Hence, as we read in Plato's Gorgias, cookery is a flattery and imitation of medicine, the fourth of the arts of civic life.

13. Smithfield

In a suburb immediately outside one of the gates there is a field that is smooth, both in name and in fact. Every Friday (unless it is an important holy day requiring solemnity) crowds are drawn to the show and sale of fine horses. This attracts the earls, barons and knights who are then in the city, along with many citizens, whether to buy or just to watch. It is a delight to see the palfreys trotting gently around, the blood pumping in their veins, their coats glistening with sweat, as they alternately raise then lower both feet on one side together. Then to see the horses more suitable for squires, rougher yet quicker in their movements, simultaneously lifting one set of feet and setting down the opposite set. After that the high-bred young colts, not yet trained or broken, "high-stepping with elastic tread". Next packhorses, with robust and powerful legs. Then expensive war horses, tall and graceful, "with quivering ears, high necks and plump buttocks". Prospective buyers watch as all are put through their paces: first, their trot, followed by their gallop (in which their two sets of legs, front and rear, are thrust out forwards and backwards, in opposition to each other).

On occasions when a race is about to be held between these chargers – or perhaps other steeds who, like their kind, are strong enough to bear riders and lively enough to race – the fact is loudly proclaimed and a warning goes up to clear lesser horses out of the way. Two or sometimes three boys prepare themselves to take part as riders in such contests between the fleet-footed creatures. Skilled in controlling horses, they "curb their untamed mouths with jagged bits"; their biggest challenge is to prevent one of their competitors from taking the lead in the race.

The horses too, in their own way, psych themselves up for the contest: "their limbs tremble; impatient of delay, they cannot stand still". When the starting signal is given, they leap forward and race off with as much speed and determination as they can muster. The riders, eager for glory and hoping for victory, try to outdo one another in using spurs, switches or cries of encouragement to urge the horses to go faster. You start to believe that "all things are in motion", as Heraclitus put it, and lose faith in Zeno's theory that motion is impossible – so that no-one could ever reach the end of a racetrack!

In a separate part [of Smithfield] are located the goods that country folk are selling: agricultural implements, pigs with long flanks, cows with swollen udders, "woolly flocks and bodies huge of kine". Also to be found there are mares suited for pulling ploughs, sledges, and two-horse carts; some have bellies swollen with foetuses, while around others already wander their newborn – frisky foals who stick close to their mothers.

14. Ships and commerce

Middlemen from every nation under heaven are pleased to bring to the city ships full of merchandize:

"Gold from Arabia, from Sabaea spice
And incense; from the Scythians arms of steel
Well-tempered; oil from the rich groves of palm
That spring from the fat lands of Babylon;
Fine gems from Nile, from China crimson silks;
French wines; and sable, vair and miniver
From the far lands where Russ and Norseman dwell."
[see notes]
According to the chroniclers, London is far older than Rome. For it was founded by the same race of Trojans, but by Brutus prior to Rome's foundation by Romulus and Remus. Consequently both still have in common the same ancient laws and institutions. The one, just like the other, is divided into wards. In place of consuls, London has sheriffs chosen annually. It has a senatorial order and lesser officials. It has a system of sewers and conduits in the streets. Judicial pleas, arguments, and deliberations each have assigned places, their courts. It has days fixed by custom for the holding of assemblies.

15. Religious observances

I cannot think of any city more commendable for the habits of its citizens in attending church, in observing the divine festivals, in giving alms, in providing hospitality, in formalizing betrothals, in contracting marriages, in celebrating weddings, in throwing banquets, in keeping guests entertained, as well as in attention to the burial and funeral needs of the deceased.

The only problems that plague London are the idiots who drink to excess and the frequency of fires.

To all this I should add that almost all the bishops, abbots, and lords of England are residents and, for all practical purposes, citizens of London. They have imposing houses there, where they stay and make lavish expenditures when summoned to the city by the king or archbishop to take part in councils or important gatherings, or when they come to deal with private business.

16. Recreational activities

Let us look more closely now at the city's recreations, since it is not productive for urban society to be always serious or practical – it also needs to smile and have fun. In relation to which, on the signet seals of the High Pontiffs, down to the time of Pope Leo, there was engraved on one side Peter the fisherman and over him a key, as though it were being passed down from heaven by the hand of God; around which, the motto "For me thou lef'st the ship; take thou the key". While on the other side was engraved a city, with the words "Golden Rome". Again, it was said in praise of Rome and Caesar Augustus:

"All night it rains; with dawn the shows return.
Caesar, thou shar'st thine empery with Jove."

17. Miracle plays

In place of such theatrical performances and plays, London has religious drama portraying the miracles performed by the Holy Confessors or the sufferings endured by martyrs illustrating their constancy.

18. Cockfighting and ball games

Let us begin with boys' games (for we were all boys once). Each year on the day called "Carnival" schoolboys bring fighting-cocks to their schoolmaster, and the entire morning is given over to the boyish sport, for there is a school holiday for purpose of the cock fights.

After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.

19. War games in the fields

Every Sunday in Lent, after lunch, a "fresh swarm of young gentles" goes out into the fields on chargers and "steeds skilled in the contest", each being "apt and schooled to wheel in circles round". Crowds of the lay sons of citizens pour through the city gates armed with military spears and shields; the younger carry spears whose metal point has been removed. "They wake war's semblance" and practise military exercises. With a view to joining in the combats, there come many of the king's entourage, when he is in residence; and from the households of earls and barons, young men not yet invested with knighthood. Each is consumed by a hope for a victory. The fierce horses whinny, "their limbs tremble; they champ the bit; impatient of delay they cannot stand still"[see notes]. When finally "the hoof of trampling steed careers along", the young horsemen have divided themselves into troops; some unhorse their comrades and speed past, while others chase those who retreat, but fail to catch them.

20. Naval exercises

At Easter they hold games that are a sort of naval tournament. A shield being securely fastened to a mast fixed mid-river, a young man standing in the prow of a small boat, propelled by the current and by several rowers, has to strike that shield with a lance. If he can splinter the lance by striking it against the shield and manage to avoid being thrown off his feet, his prayers have been answered and his objective achieved. If on the other hand the lance strikes it square on without breaking, he'll be cast into the fast-flowing river, and the boat will move on beyond him. However, there are anchored on either side two boats holding several young men to pluck out of the river any contestant who has taken a plunge, once his head emerges above water-level or "once more bubbles on the topmost wave". On the bridge and on galleries overlooking the river are numerous spectators, "ready to laugh their fill".

20. Summer games, such as wrestling and the like

On festival days throughout the summer young men exercise through sports such as athletics, archery, wrestling, shot-put, throwing javelins (by use of a strap) beyond a marker, and duelling with bucklers. "Cytherea leads the dance of maidens and the earth is smitten with free foot at moonrise".

21. Winter baiting of boars, bull and bears with dogs

On most festival days during winter, before lunch, boars foaming at the mouth and hogs armed with "tusks lightning-swift" fight for their lives; they'll soon be bacon. And fat bulls with horns or monstrous bears, under restraints, are set to fight against hounds.

22. Games on the ice

When the great marsh that laps up against the northern walls of the city is frozen, large numbers of the younger crowd go there to play about on the ice. Some, after building up speed with a run, facing sideways and their feet placed apart, slide along for a long distance. Others make seats for themselves out of ice-slabs almost as large as millstones, and are dragged along by several others who hold their hands and run in front. Moving so quickly, the feet of some slip out from under them and inevitably they fall down flat. Others are more skilled at frolicking on the ice: they equip each of their feet with an animal's shin-bone, attaching it to the underside of their footwear; using hand-held poles reinforced with metal tips, which they periodically thrust against the ice, they propel themselves along as swiftly as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a crossbow. But sometimes two, by accord, beginning far apart, charge each other from opposite directions and, raising their poles, strike each other with them. One or both are knocked down, not without injury, since after falling their impetus carries them off some distance and any part of their head that touches the ice is badly scratched and scraped. Often someone breaks a leg or an arm, if he falls onto it. But youth are driven to show off and demonstrate their superiority, so they are inclined to these mock battles, to steel themselves for real combat.

24. Those who amuse themselves with birds of prey

Many citizens enjoy sports involving high-flying birds – falcons, hawks and the like – or hounds for hunting in the woods. The citizens have hunting rights in Middlesex, Hertfordshire, throughout the Chilterns, and in Kent as far as the river Cray. The Londoners, in a time when they used to be called Trinovantes, repulsed Caius Julius Caesar, who "rejoiced to make no way save with the spilth of blood". Regarding which, Lucan writes: "To the Britons whom he sought, he showed his coward back".

25. Sons and daughters of the city of London

The city of London has been the birthplace of a number of persons who brought under their rule many kingdoms and the Roman empire, and many others who, through their excellent qualities, have been "raised to the Gods as lords of earth", just as had been promised to Brutus by Apollo's oracle:

"Brutus, past Gaul beneath the set of sun,
There lies an isle in Ocean ringed with waters.
This seek; for there shall be thine age-long home.
Here for thy sons shall rise a second Troy,
Here from thy blood shall monarchs spring, to whom
All earth subdued shall its obeisance make."

During Christian times it gave birth to the noble emperor Constantine, who dedicated the city of Rome and all symbols of empire to God, St. Peter, and Silvester the Roman pope, to whom he showed his subordination by holding his stirrup; he preferred the title Defender of the Holy Roman Church, rather than the traditional one of emperor. So that the peace of His Eminence the Pope should not be disturbed by the hurly-burly of worldly affairs occasioned by his presence, Constantine entirely withdrew from the city he had handed over to the Pope, and built the city of Byzantium for himself.

In modern times, London has produced majestic and celebrated rulers: the Empress Matilda, King Henry III, and the blessed Thomas the archbishop, Christ's glorious martyr, "than whom she bore no whiter soul nor one more dear" to all good people in the whole of the Latinized world.


FitzStephen's Description has survived to us in several versions, some part of the biography of Becket, some independent (while some versions of the biography lack the Description). It has been printed and translated, in whole or extracts, a number of times since 1598, when Stow included a transcript in his Survey of London; he appears to have had access to another version, not now extant. The best-known translation is perhaps that of H.E. Butler, a professor of Latin at the University of London, published in 1934 as an accompaniment to Sir Frank Stenton's study Norman London (Historical Association Leaflets nos.93, 94). The translation by Butler, who was also qualified to identify many of the classical sources that FitzStephen quoted or adapted, was based on an examination and collation of several of the surviving versions. Christopher Brooke has more recently thrown fresh light on the Description, although I have not had access to his full translation.

The version in Liber Custumarum (hereafter L.C.) is not the oldest extant, having been copied into the London volume of memoranda in the early fourteenth century. Nor is it the best, for the copyist has made alterations to parts of FitzStephen's text he found unintelligible and has divided the text under a larger number of headings than other versions have. Those headings, none of which may have been present in FitzStephen's original, represent a more logical division than in the other versions; although even they do not fully do justice to the range of topics FitzStephen covered or occasionally disturb the logical flow of the narrative. I have chosen to translate the L.C. version simply because it reflects a city perspective, both from its author and from the editor-copyist of the L.C.. In attempting to render the literary style into modern, accessible English, I have inevitably taken more liberties than are necessary with other, more bureaucratic documents translated in this Florilegium. The reader is referred to Professor Butler's translation for something more faithful, for the most part, to the original Latin, as well as for references to the sources of quotations from other authors (which is not our principal concern here). In cases of such quotations, I have avoided modernizing but instead have relied on Professor Butler's expertise in the classics.

Flaws in translation aside, we must beware of taking all elements of FitzStephen's description too literally. Keeping in mind that he views London through a Christian perspective, the lavish praise he bestows on the city is partly intended to elevate his readers' opinion of it, perhaps at the expense of other cities (English or continental European), through the use of conventional motifs that draw an unstated comparison with the concept of the Heavenly city: Jerusalem idealized. Hence the emphasis on the virtues of the city and (most of) its inhabitants, as exemplified through the number and quality of its religious institutions and the wholesome natural setting, as well as the sturdy protective fortifications. For FitzStephen the prestige of the city rests on its righteousness in seeking to emulate the Heavenly city. This allegorical dimension to the contemporary descriptions and depictions of medieval towns was quite common (see for example that of Bristol) and is something for which we must make allowance when reading or viewing them.

On the other hand, FitzStephen's account is wide-ranging in its interests – at least more so than many other examples of the encomium urbis genre of literature: it is not preoccupied with ecclesiastical buildings and their relics, patron saints, local martyrs, or the like, as the chief glory of a city. Thus, for example, St. Paul's is but briefly mentioned, FitzStephen seeming rather more taken by the Thameside cookshop; and, while lip-service is paid to the the church-going of the citizens, it is more their recreational pastimes that engage his attention. These are the reminiscences of one who has often had happy hours during a London childhood, but also one who sees the essence of urban life more in its secular than its religious manifestations.



"men of superior quality"
The association that FitzStephen seems to imply between sports and the men of the city is that it is the heavy involvement in sporting activities that produces manly males. On the other hand we should not forget that this account of London is a preface to the biography of Londoner Thomas Becket, a man of superior quality in FitzStephen's eyes.

"weak slaves of lust"
This quotation, part of which is missing from the L.C. version, in this context means decadent.

"church of St. Paul"
St. Paul's cathedral was founded in the early 7th century as the seat of the bishop of the East Saxons. After fire destroyed one of a succession of versions of the building in 1087, it was rebuilt on an even larger scale and this version lasted throughout the Middle Ages. It was the largest structure in the city.

"if the citizens return to this island"
The seemingly cryptic phrase "if the citizens return to the island" (which I have modified with a slight clarification) has been identified as an allusion to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History [Leo Gourde, An Annotated Translation of the Life of St. Thomas Becket by William Fitzstephen, M.A. thesis, Loyola University, Chicago, 1943, p.2] specifically the prophecies of Merlin therein. Professor Brooke believes that in his adaptation of part of one of the prophecies, FitzStephen envisaged a possible restoration following the Second Coming of Christ. However, Derek Keene, while agreeing on the source, links the phrase to Geoffrey's portrayal of the relationship between Britain and Brittany and the possibility that Britons would return from the latter to the former ["Text, Visualization and Politics: London 1150-1250", Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., vol.18 (2008), p.90]. How FitzStephen saw the connection betwen that issue and the upgrading of London to an archbishopric is less clear, but it is evident he was torn between his loyalties to Canterbury and London.

"just grounds"
The L.C. version of the passage concerning whether Canterbury or London should have metropolitan status (i.e. the head of an ecclesiastical province) omits – probably more than a scribal error – an additional argument favouring Canterbury: that Becket's tomb was there.

"one hundred and twenty-six"
The number of 126 parish churches cannot be confirmed with certainty, but historians generally accept the high figure on the understanding that the "suburbs" included a large surrounding area of what is now Greater London. Having said that, it is likely that most of these churches (perhaps a hundred or so) lay within the city walls. English townspeople seem to have preferred worshipping in small churches with their close neighbours.

"royal fortress"
The fortress on the east side of the city was the Tower of London, built by William the Conqueror to ensure his control of one of England's power centres, which had resisted his claims to sovereignty. Although its size, intentionally, overawed the citizens, the Tower in the 12th century occupied a smaller site than it did later: basically the great keep (the White Tower) atop an existing small hill, surrounded by a palisaded ditch/rampart. The myth about the keep's mortar being mixed with the blood of beasts perhaps, Brooke cautiously implies, had some connection with the fact that butchers operated in East Smithfield, to the northeast of the Tower. FitzStephen's choice of "fortress" to describe the Tower, as opposed to "castle" for the other Norman strongholds in London, may have been intended to differentiate the royal bastion from those that were privately held.

The western strongholds, likewise probably built by William the Conqueror or with his permission, as part of his early programme to subdue England, were (subsequently) known as Montfichet Castle and Baynard's Castle, both named after families who at one time held the lordships of those fortifications. Castle Baynard was built in the southwestern corner of the city, just inside the city wall, and its lords later claimed – perhaps with justice – to hold the hereditary generalship of the city militia. The original castle lasted only to the 13th century, when the site was given to the Dominicans, although a more scaled-down version was later built. The site of Montfichet Castle is not known with certainty, but was probably just to the north of Baynard's, and was also gobbled up by the Dominican precinct.

The city wall was the medieval citizens' principal inheritance from Roman Londinium. Unlike its medieval successor, which had no stretch along the riverfront, the Roman wall surrounded the city on all sides, and the Thames stretch evidently survived into the early Middle Ages, for local place-names such as Billingsgate and Dowgate would seem to reflect openings through the wall; it was around such openings that goods were being landed. Archaeologists found the remains of part of this stretch in 1975. But that side of the walled circuit was not maintained, since the river frontage was gradually being extended into what had once been river and built on. Whether FitzStephen's reference to the Thames stretch was just a folk memory by his time, or whether some fragments of wall remained, we are not sure. Around the remainder of the wall there were six main gateways at this time: Aldgate on the east side; Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate on the northern circuit; and Newgate and Ludgate facing west. FitzStephen probably intended the Tower's postern gate as the seventh.

The suburb between the city and the palace of Westminster was more properly the site of the old Saxon town of Lundenwic, straddling the Strand and with settlement spreading as far west as the future Westminster. Although largely abandoned during the period of Viking incursions, this area was repopulated after Edward the Confessor refounded and enlarged the abbey there and established a palace nearby. In the 13th century Westminster attained borough status of its own. We can understand why Professor Brooke preferred to translate FitzStephen's suburbano as "faubourg", thinking of the orientation towards Westminster rather than London. The administrative capital and the commercial centre together defined what is modern London.

"suburban houses"
The suburban stretch between London and Westminster was beginning to become popular as the location of town houses of the nobility.

"if it has a good lord"
This aside is taken by some to be as close as FitzStephen dared come to an admonishment to Henry II, who is markedly absent from the list of worthy monarchs at the end of the Description. The dig, however, may be aimed more at the Empress Matilda, to whom the Londoners were opposed, rather than at Henry – Christopher Brooke suggests that FitzStephen had in mind the crisis of 1173, when London supported Henry against his rebellious son.

"20,000 cavalry and 60,000 infantry"
These figures are an obvious exaggeration (not atypical of medieval writers dealing with numbers greater than were countable), for the total population of the city in the 13th century is unlikely to have amounted to half that total. But certainly London did muster large forces to take part in the civil war between Matilda and Stephen.

following "dress, manners, and dining"
Curiously, the L.C. version omits here two sentences one might think the scribe would have taken pains to include. The first states (Butler's translation) that: "The inhabitants of other towns are called citizens, but of this they are called barons"; it has been suggested that the term represents a Latinization of the Anglo-Saxon burh-thegn, reflecting the superior status of merchants active internationally, but this is looking further than necessary – "baron" was a term widely employed in a variety of circumstances, ranging from no more than male head of a household to a tenant-in-chief of the king, either of which might be applicable to the leading men of London. Possibly, however, the omission of this sentence from the L.C. version reflects a change in use of "baron", restricting it more to the upper urban class. The second omitted sentence states (Butler) that: "With them a solemn oath ends all strife", a reference to the prominence of purgation in urban judicial procedures, which is echoed in the charter of Henry I to London.

The Sabine women of Roman legend had become a metaphor for chastity, propriety and fidelity.

The school attached to St. Paul's is heard of during the reign of Henry I. St. Martin-le-Grand was a college of secular canons in existence by 1068. Holy Trinity, Aldgate, was an Augustinian priory founded by Queen Matilda; its prior was also an alderman of the city, due to the priory's lordship of the Portsoken ward of London, acquired from the cnihtengild.

An enthymeme is a simple type of argument, in contrast to a syllogism which is a more complex form of argument. The quotation may have been a paraphrase of something by Juvenal.

"versified arguments"
Versification was presumably a device for assisting with memorization.

Fescennine verses were a crude precursor to Roman dramatic verse, often with a satirical or sarcastic bent (in some regards, limerick-like).

"Theon" "dithyrambs"
The L.C. version does not actually use those two terms, the copyist (or the source from which he copied) having failed to understand the terms, or their classical source (Horace), and having substituted other terms. A dithyramb was a song in praise of Bacchus and here perhaps connotes a bawdy verse.

The cookshop that FitzStephen singles out may have been located on the vintner's quay, near to where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames. There was no shortage of cookshops along that stretch of the Thames bank between the bridge and the Fleet estuary, where most harbourage was situated; these shops catered particularly to travellers, and some were partitioned to create modest accommodations, despite municipal injunctions against cooks keeping hostels, and efforts to dismantle the illicit lodgings. By the thirteenth century many of the cookshops had been superseded by legitimate hostels.

Butler argues that "goose" (anserem) is a corruption of "sturgeon" (acipenserem), which appears in other versions, on the grounds that the latter would appear more of a delicacy.

The point which FitzStephen, in somewhat garbled fashion, has taken from a Latinized version of Plato is that cookery is like medicine in catering to the physical needs of citizens.

"field that is smooth"
The derivation of Smithfield is, as FitzStephen correctly states, from the fact that the field was "smooth" (level and/or trampled flat). It is West Smithfield to which he refers, there having been another field of the same name on the east side of the city, just outside the Tower.

Horses of subdued temperament, easy to ride (especially for women).

"two or sometimes three boys"
An addition in some other versions, meaning "according to what the arrangement is", may imply the races were organized by spectators wishing to wager on the results.

Here the term means cattle.

FitzStephen's use of the term "institores" (salesmen or hucksters) rather than "mercatores" may or may not have some significance (perhaps derogatory?), so "middlemen" may catch his tone better than "merchants".

following the verse on merchandize
This lengthy quote (by an author unknown, but inspired by Virgil), while it may appear fanciful at first glance, and likely FitzStephen's knowledge of geography was weak, nonetheless provides a fair reflection of the type of goods involved in the London luxury trade of this period, and of the general area of the world from which they came. London had long been an important trade destination. I have used verbatim Butler's translation of this part of FitzStephen's text.

"it was founded"
FitzStephen doubtless took this legend of London's founding by Trojans fleeing the wreck of their Homeric city from the Brut or, more likely, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had it from even older tradition; the oracle quoted in chapter 25 is from Geoffrey, although FitzStephen reassigns the source from Diana to Apollo. The Trojan legend was of some psychological significance to Londoners, judging from the fact that it resurfaced periodically. At one point leading politician Nicholas Brembre was said (perhaps scurrilously) to be contemplating renaming London "New Troy", as the legend had it named originally. By 1433 the myth was sufficiently engrained for the London authorities to be prepared to assert the claim before a royal commission, in the context of a jurisdictional dispute with the Dean and Chapter of St. Martin-le-Grand, that the city had been founded on the model of Troy and had been called at some point prior to the Conquest "Troynovant". Furthermore at the same period the claim was made that a certain city custom – that a villein would become free who resided in London for a year and a day without challenge from his lord – was in effect before the time of Edward the Confessor and was modelled on similar provision at Troy. Thus the legend had come to serve as more than just a fancy or pretension.

"in common"
Some continued to argue, down into the 19th century, the influence of Rome on medieval urban institutions. The comparable elements are, however, so fundamental to organized civic life that we do not need to resort to such an argument.

The two dozen wards – 12 on either side of the Walbrook – were a basis for raising manpower for policing and defence of the city (several encompassed territory surrounding a part of the city wall). An alderman had authority in each ward and presided over his own court (wardmoot), comparable to a hundredal jurisdiction; wards seem to have been named after the incumbent alderman. The wards may perhaps trace their roots to a time when London lacked a centralized authority and certain areas were administratively independent communities of varying types; their precise boundaries may not have become fixed until the 11th century.

By the time FitzStephen wrote, two sheriffs administered on behalf of the king London and a large area of adjacent territory (Middlesex); as a collection of administrative areas comparable to hundreds, this territory had a status analogous to a shire. The fundamental duty of a sheriff was to collect and deliver revenues due to the king. During Henry II's the office was frequently held by citizens, and sometimes earlier – the charter of Henry I to the city tries to formalize this, but we cannot be certain of the authenticity of the charter. It was likely the sheriffs who came to preside in the husting court, although that institution is heard of as early as the late 10th century, later to be superseded by the mayor (an office post-dating FitzStephen) in the role.

"senatorial order"
In using this term (Senatoriam dignitatem), FitzStephen is probably thinking more in terms of the office of alderman than a class of patricians, although it would be possible to read into it that some Londoners were at this time perceived as worthier than others of holding aldermannic office.

Even though FitzStephen's term is jus statuendi, I am inclined to think that he was not referring to any specific statute formulated by city government – at this period it being doubtful whether London had such communal organization – but by the 'natural law', or custom, later encapsulated in writing as a quasi-constitution.

Here the term refers to governmental meetings involving public presence and participation. He was likely thinking of the folkmoot, which met three times a year, and the husting court which, as Henry I's charter indicated, convened every Monday.

The transcription has putatio, which would be nonsensical in its translation of "pruning" but has been interpreted as "fornication". Entirely apart from the fact that the Latin for that would be putagio, it seems unlikely that fornication, although doubtless as offensive to FitzStephen, would have been as conspicuous a folly as drunkenness, and we may recall that he has already (section 1) praised the chastity of London's matrons. We can clearly prefer the potatio of other versions.

FitzStephen makes an interesting distinction between cives and municipes. While it is risky to read anything too precise or fixed into this, FitzStephen himself grew up in the urban community and may have been conscious of a distinction. To effect a translation inevitably results in an interpretive decision, and the temptation is to distinguish between those who were residents of the town, which the passage goes on to support, and those who were members of the civic community – the latter being fully subject to local jurisdiction and sharing in communal privileges and obligations. Whether "citizenship" was, at this date, more formally defined in terms of freeman status is questionable; FitzStephen's statement might suggest not. But we may remember that true Londoners had, by the time FitzStephen wrote and perhaps within the scope of his personal memory, forcefully expressed collective identity in the form of the commune.

"boys' games"
It is possible that FitzStephen was using pueri in the general sense of "children", but more likely that his thinking was focused on boys – himself and his fellow playmates from school. His text as a whole shows little perception of the female dimension of urban society.

Carnival (or Carnilevaria in the Latin) was Shrove Tuesday, the festival marking the beginning of Lent when meat-eating (carnivorax) was put aside (levare); it was consequently taken as an opportunity for great feasting and drinking – by the end of the Middle Ages it had almost become orgiastic in its excesses, which were condemned by the Church.

"ball game"
FitzStephen's use of the term is the earliest reference in England to what eventually became football.

By workers (exercitatores), FitzStephen was probably thinking of the apprentices and journeymen; the masters of the trades and crafts were perhaps included among the older (majores natus) citizens.

Lent, the few weeks before Easter, was presumably a natural time to practice horsemanship, weapons and combat skills, since it preceded the preferred campaigning season. That the river-based contests were later may have been to allow the water to lose some of its winter chill.

"lay sons"
FitzStephen means those who were not being trained for a career in the Church.

"military spears"
By qualifying spears with "military" FitzStephen as presumably contrasting the pike-like spears used by soldiers with shorters spears used for hunting.

following "cannot stand still"
FitzStephen appears to have forgotten he has already made use of this quotation (section 13).

This is of course London Bridge; since it was the only one in existence at that period, it needed no distinguishing name. It is not clear whether the galleries (solariis) were actually part of the structure of the bridge, as was the case in later centuries, or were part of buildings on the riverbank. FitzStephen probably felt no need to clarify, expecting his readers to know. The bridge was one of those features of London FitzStephen took for granted and felt no need to dwell on. He could not know that, by representing the crossing of the Thames, it also reflected the reason why settlement was established at London in the first place and why London became important under the Romans, the hub of their road system in Britain. It was they who built the first London bridge, just east of the site of the medieval and present bridge. The site was probably dictated primarily by the availability of suitably solid ground on the southern bank of the Thames, which was marshier than the northern bank, for a road leading south. Not long after FitzStephen wrote, the city authorities rebuilt the bridge in stone; it was an expression of the confidence of communal government, and has remained one of the foremost symbols of the city, down to modern times.

This seems to be a plausible interpretation of saliendo, literally "leaping" (although a related term meant "tumblers").

"(by use of a strap) beyond a marker"
The relatively lengthy qualifications attached to javelin throw were presumably to make it clear that the purpose was to throw a distance, rather than hit a target.

These were small, round shields intended for practice or lightly-armed combat; we may assume that swords of some kind were also used in the one-on-one combats.

"great marsh"
This lay in the area now remembered by the names Moorfields and Moorgate. It served as meadowland when it was kept drained, thanks in part to the Walbrook – a stream which divided the city into eastern and western halves – channelling water into the Thames. During the Middle Ages, the moor was not kept well-drained, and the Walbrook's course was encumbered with debris and garbage cast therein by the citizens; consequently, the area became boggy.

"slide along"
The run-and-slide recreation was still, in my schooldays, a favourite playground activity during the winter, done exactly as FitzStephen describes.

Numerous examples of such crude ice-skates have been found at archaeological sites, dating from the 8th century to the close of the Middle Ages. The Museum of London has a set of bone skates possibly contemporary with Fitz Stephen.

"hunting rights"
The extensive area of hunting rights probably owes much to the role of London as a centre of one of the early Saxon kingdoms. Compare with the clause in Henry I's charter.

"King Henry III"
Henry II, wishing to secure the succession of his heirs, had his eldest son Henry crowned in 1170; "the young king", however, did not outlive his father to take sole possession of the throne.

"city perspective"
A further known copy, made from the Liber Custumarum version in the late fourteenth century, is notable for several updates made to reflect the situation at that time. It was selective in what it copied, showing interest in passages on city administration and economy and ignoring those on social recreations. But it retained the reference to the supposed Trojan roots of London, showing a continuing interest in that legend. See Hannes Kleineke, "Carleton's book: William FitzStephen's 'Description of London' in a late fourteenth-century common-place book," Historical Research, vol.74 (2001), 117-26.

"allegorical dimension"
On this, see Keith Lilley, Urban Life in the Middle Ages 1000-1450, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002, 26-32.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: October 21, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2019