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   Chapter 5 SAXON CITIZEN.

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 5934

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Londoner of Athelstan and Ethelred was an Anglo-Saxon of a type far in advance of his fierce ancestor who swept the narrow seas and harried the eastern coasts. He had learned many arts: he had become a Christian: he wanted many luxuries. But the solid things which he inherited from his rude forefathers he passed on to his children. And they remain an inheritance for us to this day. For instance, our form of monarchy, limited in power, comes straight down to us from Alfred and Athelstan. Our nobility is a survival and a development of the Saxon earls and thanes; our forms of justice, trial by jury, magistrates-all come from the Saxons; the divisions of our country are Saxon, our municipal institutions are Saxon, our parliaments and councils are Saxon in origin. We owe our language to the Anglo-Saxon, small additions from Latin, French, and other sources have been made, but the bulk of our language is Saxon. Three-fourths of us are Anglo-Saxon by descent. Whatever there is in the English character of persistence, obstinacy, patience, industry, sobriety, love of freedom, we are accustomed to attribute to our Anglo-Saxon descent. In religion, arts, learning, literature, culture, we owe little or nothing to the Anglo-Saxon. In all these things we are indebted to the South.

Let us see how the Anglo-Saxon Londoner lived.

He was a trader or a craftsman. As a trader he received from the country inland whatever it had to produce. Slaves, who were bred like cattle on the farms, formed a large part of the exports; hides, wool, iron, tin, the English merchant had these things, and nothing more, to offer the foreigner who brought in exchange wine, spices, silk, incense, vestments and pictures for the churches and monasteries, books, and other luxuries. The ships at first belonged to the foreign merchants: they traded not only at London, but also at Bristol, Canterbury, Dover, Arundel, and other towns. Before the Conquest, however, English-built ships and English-manned fleets had already entered upon the trade.

The trader, already wealthy, lived in great comfort. He was absolute master in his own house, but the household was directed or ruled by his wife. Everything was made in the house: the flour was ground, the bread was baked, the meat and fish were salted; the linen was woven, the garments were made by the wife, the daughters, and the women servants. The Anglo-Saxon ladies were remarkable for their skill in embroidery; they excelled all other women in this beautiful art.

The Anglo-Saxon house developed out of the common hall. Those who know the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge can trace the growth of the house in any of them. First there is the Common Hall. In this room, formerly, the whole family, with the serving men and women, lived and slept. There still exists at Higham Ferrars, in Northampton, such a hall, built as an almshouse. It is a long room: at the east end, raised a foot, is a little chapel; on

the south side is a long open stove; the almsmen slept on the floor on reeds, each man wrapped in his blanket.


Everybody lived and slept in the Common Hall. All day long the women worked at the spinning and weaving and sewing and embroidery. Women were defined by this kind of work-we still speak of spinsters. Formerly relationship through the mother was called 'on the spindle side,' while, long after the men had to fight every day against marauding tribes, relationship through the father was called 'on the spear side.' All day long the men worked outside in the fields, or in the warehouse, and on the quays or at their craft. In the evening they sat about the fire and listened to stories, or to songs with the accompaniment of the harp.

The first improvement was the separation of the kitchen from the hall: in the Cambridge College you see the hall on one side and the kitchen the other, separated by a passage. The second step was the construction of the 'Solar,' or chamber over the kitchen, which became the bedroom of the master and the mistress of the house. Then they built a room behind the solar for the daughters and the maidservants; the sons and the menservants still sleeping in the Hall. Presumably the house was at this stage in the time of King Ethelred, just before the Norman Conquest. The ladies' 'bower' followed, and after that the sleeping rooms for the men.

There was no furniture, as we understand it. Benches there were, and trestles for the tables, which were literally laid at every meal: a great chair was provided for the Lord and Lady: tapestry kept out the draughts: weapons, musical instruments, and other things hung upon the walls. Dinner was at noon: supper in the evening when work was over: they made great use of vegetables and they had nearly all our modern fruits: they drank, as the national beverage, beer or mead.

But everybody was not a wealthy merchant: most of the citizens were craftsmen of some kind. These lived in small wooden houses of two rooms, one above the other: those who were not able to afford so much slept in hovels, consisting of four uprights with 'wattle and daub' for the sides, a roof of thatch, no window, and a fire in the middle of the floor. They lived very roughly: they endured many hardships: but they were a well-fed people, turbulent and independent: their houses were crowded in narrow lanes-how narrow may be understood by a walk along Thames Street; they were always in danger of fire-in 962, in 1087, in 1135, the greater part of the City was burned to the ground. They lived in plenty: there was work for all: they had their folk mote-their City parliament-and their ward mote-which still exists: they had no feudal lord to harass them: as for the dirt and mud and stench of the narrow City streets, they cared nothing for such things. They were free: and they were well fed: and they were cheerful and contented.

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