INTRODUCTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: Richard Devizes medieval chronicles satire towns cities society London Winchester Canterbury Oxford Exeter Bath York Ely Bristol Jews
Subject: A critique of English towns in the twelfth century
Original source: Corpus Christi College library (Cambridge), MS. no.339; British Library Cott.Ms.Domit.A.XIII
Transcription in: J.T. Appleby, ed. The Chronicle of Richard of Devizes of the Time of King Richard the First. London: Thomas Nelson, 1963, 65-67.
Original language: Latin (English translation by Appleby)
Date: 1190s


When you reach England, if you come to London, pass through it quickly, for I do not at all like that city. All sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens. Each race brings its own vices and its own customs to the city. No-one lives in it without falling into some sort of crime. Every quarter of it abounds in grave obscenities. The greater a rascal a man is, the better a man he is accounted. I know whom I am instructing. You have a warmth of character beyond your years, and a coolness of memory; and from these contrary qualities arises a temperateness of reasoning. I fear nothing for you, unless you live with evil companions, for manners are formed by association.

Well, be that as it may! You will arrive in London. Behold, I prophesy to you: whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find in that one city. Do not associate with the crowds of pimps; do not mingle with the throngs in eating-houses; avoid dice and gambling, the theatre and the tavern. You will meet with more braggarts there than in all France; the number of parasites is infinite. Actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses. Therefore, if you do not want to dwell with evildoers, do not live in London. I do not speak against learned or religious men, or against Jews: however, because of their living amidst evil people, I believe they are less perfect there than elsewhere.

I do not go to the extent of saying that you should not go to any city whatever, since in my opinion there is nowhere for you to live except in a city; I refer only to which city. If, therefore, you arrive in the neighbourhood of Canterbury or if, indeed, you pass through it, your journey will be wasted. There is a whole collection of men there who have been abandoned by their lately deified leader, I know not whom, who was high priest of the men of Canterbury, who now, through lack of bread and of work, die in the open day in the broad streets. Rochester and Chichester are mere hamlets, and there is no reason why they should be called cities, except for the bishops' seats.

Oxford scarcely sustains, much less satisfies, her own men. Exeter refreshes both men and beasts with the same provender. Bath, placed or, rather, dumped down in the midst of the valleys, in an exceedingly heavy air and sulphureous vapour, is at the gates of hell. Neither should you choose a seat in the Marches, Worcester, Chester, or Hereford, because of the Welsh, who are prodigal of the lives of others. York is full of Scotsmen, filthy and treacherous creatures scarcely men. The region of Ely stinks perpetually from the surrounding fens. In Durham, Norwich, and Lincoln there are very few people of your sort amongst the powerful, and you will hear almost no-one speaking French. At Bristol there is no-one who is not or has not been a soap-maker, and every Frenchman loves soap-makers as he loves a dung-heap.

Outside the cities, every market-place, village, or town has inhabitants both ignorant and boorish. Moreover, for such qualities always look on Cornishmen as we in France consider our Flemings. In other respects, that country is most blessed with the dews of heaven and with richness of soil. In each locality there are some good men, but there are fewer of them by far in all of them put together than in one city, Winchester.

That city is in those parts the Jerusalem of the Jews; in that city alone do they enjoy perpetual peace. That city is a school for those who want to live and fare well. There they breed men; there you can have plenty of bread and wine for nothing. Monks are there of such mercifulness and gentleness, clerks of such wisdom and frankness, citizens of such courteousness and good faith, women of such beauty and modesty, that for a little I would go there myself and be a Christian among such Christians. I send you to that city, the city of cities, the mother of all and better than all others. There is one vice there and one alone, which is by custom greatly indulged in. I would say, with all due respect to the learned men and to the Jews, that the people of Winchester lie like sentries. Indeed, nowhere else under heaven are so many false rumours made up so easily as there; otherwise they are truthful in all things.


Richard de Devizes' chronicle of events of the early years of Richard I's reign (1189-92) was produced for the benefit of a former Prior of St. Swithun's and is not believed to have circulated much beyond perhaps a small group of friends. Only two versions are known to have survived and that there may not have been others is suggested by the lack of references to his work by later writers.

Richard was a man of distinct prejudices and quite willing to make them known – at least among that circle of intimates for whom his chronicle was produced. Among those prejudices was a distaste for urban society, other than that of the city in which he lived. On the other hand, his opinions may have been distorted somewhat by the satirical character of his work; parts of his chronicle are irreverent and intended to amuse – his humour is perhaps at its best in his critique of the towns and the surrounding passages. Dr. Appleby's translation so well captures this character that I have thought it futile to try to offer here a new translation of my own, although I have broken the text into shorter paragraphs to make it easier to read.

The context for Richard's critique is a fictional speech by a French Jew to a young orphan he had befriended; having advised the boy to seek his fortune in England, which he describes as "a land flowing with milk and honey", he goes on to recommend the places to avoid – being practically all of the towns he mentions. Since the Jew can only recommend the youngster to his fellow Jews in England, there is no notion that the boy might go beyond urban centres, where Jewish communities congregated. Ironically, the boy later becomes the purported victim of a ritual murder by the Jews; this was a time when attacks on Jewish communities were incited by similar accusations elsewhere, attacks to which Richard refers at the beginning of his chronicle, while noting that Winchester did not get caught up in that madness. There is an additional irony in that Richard, like most Englishmen of his time, had no love for the French (nor evidently for any other foreigners); thus the critique of English towns may itself be intended to be seen by readers as suspect because of its source – perhaps Richard was seeking to escape any possible censure by portraying his own opinions as those of another.



"all this tribe"
Since the foregoing list was inspired in part by lines from Horace's Satires, and probably other classical sources, we must beware of taking it too literally.

"abandoned by their lately deified leader"
The leader was Becket, and the "abandonment" refers to a dispute which turned nasty between the monks of Canterbury and some of Becket's successors as archbishop.

"bishops' seats"
The technical distinction between a city and a town was the the former was the base for a bishopric and therefore home to a cathedral.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003