Life in a Medival City - Illustrated by York in the XVth Century
by Edwin Benson
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It is interesting to note that Wiclif (d. 1384), one of England's greatest men, was ordained in York. He stands out as a "daring and inspired pioneer" who strove to provide the land with priests who were true and earnest shepherds. He attempted the superhuman task of reviving true religion among a people that had become to a certain extent dull, irreverent, ignorant, and thoroughly superstitious.

By the fifteenth century the Church was suffering from those ills which needed and later gained drastic treatment. The Church had done almost miraculous work in the first few centuries of its existence, if we think only of the success with which it substituted its system of morality for that of pagan Rome. The fifteenth century followed those centuries when the Church of England, under the direction of great and earnest men, was doing its work with conspicuous success. Yet, the very forces that enabled the Church to make itself a living power in the Dark Ages, the early centuries embracing the Fall of Rome, the Empire of Charlemagne, and the kingship of Alfred the Great, became harmful to its continued activity beneficially in many directions. The inadequacy of its work in these centuries appears in the lack of spiritual activity and in the predominance of the material side of religion. The mediaeval Church suffered badly from excessive conservatism, which led towards sloth and a complacent inactivity. The morbid element showed itself during the fifteenth century mainly in lack of real earnestness, in the enjoyment of luxurious laziness, and in the steady neglect of the age to revise its Christianity. The Church moreover, with its complete segregation from other estates of the realm had become unpopular socially, while in its political and temporal aspects it had become an immense corporation with strong vested interests. Kings found it necessary to fight it; religious reformers had to rise up and overcome every form of repression used against them. The decadence is exemplified incidentally in the increasing poverty in material and expression of the monastic chronicles, which practically died out by 1485. The period of turmoil and change was yet to come.

Such was the general state of affairs. Nevertheless the forms and practices of the Church continued. The granting of indulgences and pardons, the inexhaustible demand for Peter's pence, went on vigorously. A recognised means of publicly raising funds was employed in February 1455-6, when the Archbishop proclaimed an indulgence of forty days to those who would help the Friars Preachers, whose cloister and buildings including 34 cells together with their books, vestments, jewels, and sacred vessels, had been destroyed by fire.

The faith of the ordinary citizen was, however, intact. The Church came into the people's life daily. The citizen could not walk away from his home without seeing a church, and meeting a priest or a friar. He attended the Church services and fulfilled his religious duties. Baptism, marriage, death, illness, public rejoicing, soldiering, dramatic entertainments, the language of daily life—all these bore the stamp of the Church. The very days of relief from work were holy-days, feast days in the Church's calendar. Taking part in the public processions on Corpus Christi Day, a great annual holiday, was a religious exercise; at the same time this day was devoted especially to entertainment. Wills of the century show that the citizens lived as religiously as formerly. This spirit is seen perhaps most characteristically in the numbers of candles that wealthy citizens bequeathed for use in church, and in the sums of money they left to specified clergy and other "religious" for the provision of masses for the souls of themselves, their wives and families, and for those for whom they ought to pray. Masses were thus provided for by hundreds, and in some cases by thousands. The following extracts from the will[5] of a rich citizen and merchant of York, who had been sheriff and mayor of the city, show admirably the spirit of a member of the middle class in the fifteenth century:—

"In the name of God Amen. The 4th day of September in the year of our Lord 1436, I Thomas Bracebrig, Citizen and merchant, York, sound of mind and having health of body, establish and dispose my Will in this manner. First, I command and bequeath my soul to God Almighty, to the blessed Mary, Mother of God and ever Virgin, and to All Saints, and my body to be buried in the parish church of St. Saviour in York, before the image of the Crucifix of our Lord Jesus Christ, next to the bodies of my wives and children lately buried there, for having which burial in that place I bequeath to the fabric of the same parish church 20s. Also I bequeath for my mortuary my best garment with hood appropriate for my body. Also I bequeath to Master John Amall, Rector of the said parish church for my tithes and oblations forgotten, and that he may more specially pray for my soul, 20s. Also I bequeath for two candles to burn at my exequies 30 lbs. of wax. Also 10 torches to burn around my body on the said day of my burial, and that each torch shall contain in itself 14 lbs. of pure wax.... Also I bequeath to 10 men carrying or holding the said 10 Torches in my exequies 10 Gowns, so that each of the said 10 poor men shall have in his gown and hood 3-1/2 ells of russet or black cloth, and that the aforesaid gowns shall be lined with white woollen cloth. And I will that my Executors shall pay for the making of the same gowns with hoods.... Also I will and ordain that two fit and proper chaplains shall be found to celebrate for my soul, and the souls of my parents, wives, children, benefactors, and for the souls of those for whom I am bound or am debtor, as God shall know in that respect, and for the souls of all the faithful departed, for one whole year, immediately after my decease, in my parish church...."

The will is a very long one. Altogether 470 lbs. of wax, to last 15 years, would be necessary to satisfy the requirements of the will. 765 masses are specially arranged for; besides, provision was made for masses to be said by more than 21 chaplains, the religious of 5 priories for women, and by every friar and priest of the four orders of friars in York. There were also bequests to 2 anchoresses, 1 anchorite, and 1 hermit, to pray for the soul of the testator and the souls aforesaid. Bequests were made to the poor of St. Saviour's; to lepers "in the 4 houses for lepers in the suburbs," to the poor in maisons-dieu; to the prisoners in the Castle, in the Archbishop's prison, and in the Kidcote. The testator ordered gifts of coal, wood, and shoes, and 1000 white loaves of bread, to be made among the poor and needy. The bequests to relatives and directions to the Executors occupy a large part of the Will, which is that of a particularly wealthy and important citizen. Charity, however, was a marked characteristic of these men who had become rich through trade. With a generous spirit they put into practice the teachings about giving to the poor and to prisoners. The amount of money spent in founding chantries, in paying priests for masses for the departed, testifies to their faith.

It was part of the policy of the Church to keep the instruction of the people, young and old, in its own control. Practically all the educational work in York during the century was the work of the Church.

Through the monasteries and hospitals the Church did valuable work in feeding the poor, helping the needy, and in educating the poorer citizens' boys. The royal Hospital of St. Leonard did such work. It was a peculiar institution, being under the authority of the King, and containing a sisterhood as well as a brotherhood. It included a grammar school and a song-school. As an institution it was self-supporting; food was made on the premises, and the carpenters' and similar work was done by brethren in the Hospital's own workshops.

The large number of priests were variously employed. There were priests who officiated in the monastic churches, in the parish churches (as rectors and chaplains, of whom there were 300 in York in 1436), in the cathedral where the number of chantry-chapels was very great and where services were held simultaneously as well as frequently. Some priests were vicars, that is, while the living or "cure" of souls was held by the rector, the vicar was the actual priest in charge, for the rector probably held more than one benefice and could not serve personally in more than one. Generally it was a corporate body, like the Dean and Chapter, or a monastery, that was the rector of a number of livings at the same time.

Of the many clergy serving the Minster the Dean, who was the incumbent, ranked first. Much of the revenue of the Dean and Chapter, the Governing Body, came from landed possessions in York and various parts of the surrounding country. These possessions, divided into prebends, provided livings for the thirty-six prebendaries or canons, who collectively formed the Chapter. Each canon served at the Minster during a specified portion of the year, when he lived at his residence at York. The residences of the prebendaries were mostly round the Minster Close. While his own parish was served vicariously while he was at York, each canon had a minor-canon or vicar-choral to act as his deputy at York when he was absent. These vicars-choral formed a corporate body and lived collegiately in the Bedern. The numerous chantries in the Minster were served by priests who also lived collegiately but at St. William's College. The College, at the head of which was a Provost, was founded about the middle of the century. Previously these priests had lived in private houses.

The parish priest was occupied in performing the services in his church, in hearing confessions, in teaching the children, in visiting, interrogating, consoling, and ministering the Sacraments to the sick and dying, and in guiding and sharing the life of his parish generally. Each parish church had a number of clergy besides the parish priest attached to it: the number varied from one to ten or more according to the number of chantries at the church. Each priest was helped a great deal in parochial affairs by the parish clerk. The latter was the chief lay official for business in connection with the parish church. His duties required him to be a man of some education.

The Archbishop was both bishop of the diocese of York, and head of all the dioceses which together formed the Northern Province of the two provinces into which England was divided for the purpose of Church rule. His diocese formerly extended so far south as to include Nottingham and Southwell.

The Archbishop was a Primate and occupied a high position in the State. Besides being supreme head of the Church in the northern province, he was a great landowner. He possessed, besides his palace near the Minster, a number of seats (like Cawood Castle) in the country. When he was in London he resided at his fine official palace, York House. The Archbishops were great lords of the realm in every way. Archbishop Neville, brother of Warwick "the king-maker," celebrated his installation in 1465 with a very famous feast. The huge amount and delicacy of the dishes prepared, the number of retainers employed, the splendour of the scene, which was honoured by the presence of the Duke of Gloucester and members of some of the most noble families in the kingdom, all the details of this sumptuous feast, were intended to impress King Edward IV. with the might of the Nevilles.

Ecclesiastical preferment was often a reward for services in other branches of the service of the State. Sometimes great offices in the Church and the State were held simultaneously. Thus, Archbishop Rotherham was also Chancellor of England for a time. Both Richard Scrope and William Booth, archbishops of the century, had been lawyers. The appointment of George Neville, who had been nominated when only twenty-three to the see of Exeter, was a purely political one, the bestowing of a high and lucrative office on a member of a noble family that was enjoying the full sunshine of popularity and power. The King could also benefit from Church positions otherwise than by presenting them to partisans. During the two and a half years that the see of York was kept vacant between the time of the execution of Archbishop Scrope and the appointment of Henry Bowett (in 1407), the revenues went, in accordance with the established practice, to the royal purse.

There were also "clerks," educated men, but not priests, who were in "minor orders." Many a man, asserting that he was a clerk, made application for trial by an ecclesiastical court, so as to get the benefit of the less stringent judgment of the Church courts, to which belonged the right of dealing with ecclesiastical offenders.

One abuse within the Church was pluralism, that is, the holding of more than one office at the same time with the result that the holder was drawing revenue for work he could not himself do. William Sever, for instance, while Abbot of St. Mary's, York, became Bishop of Carlisle. These two high offices, one monastic and the other secular, he held simultaneously from 1495 to 1502.

The religious orders were of two kinds, viz. monks (and nuns) who lived in seclusion in monasteries, abbeys, or convents, and friars, who lived under a rule but came out into the world to preach and work. Both kinds took the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to the rule (e.g., Cistercian or Benedictine, Franciscan or Dominican). Some, but not all, monks and friars were priests. There were four well-known orders of mendicant friars, viz. Franciscan (Grey friars, friars minor), Dominican (Black friars, friars preachers), Carmelite (White friars), Augustinian (Austin canons). Monks and friars wore sandals, and long, loose gowns with hoods or cowls which they could pull over their heads to serve as hats. The alternative titles of some of the orders of friars came from the colour of their friars' gowns. The Carmelites used undyed cloth, which was white in comparison with the black of the Dominicans. The Benedictine monks of St. Mary's Abbey wore black garments. Their heads were shaved on the crown, the technical term for which was the tonsure.

Monks spent their time in attending the frequent services in the monastery church, which they entered at the night and early morning services directly from the dormitories; in copying manuscripts, which occupied a large part of their day; in contemplation and in study; in manual work; in recreation. The cloister where work was carried on and the church were the essential buildings of the monastery. Monastic life centred in these two places. Its arrangements were dictated by the purpose of making a religious atmosphere pervade everything; thus a religious book was read at meals.

The luxury and laxity that obtained in monastic life were not confined to the fifteenth century. The Archbishop had frequent occasion in the fourteenth century to complain, for instance, of the use by monks and nuns of ornaments, and of clothes of finer material than the traditional rule permitted. He condemned the wearing of clothes cut to a worldly pattern. The religious had to be admonished from time to time not to admit strangers within the cloister, and to conform in all respects strictly to their rule.

During the century St. Mary's Abbey contained about sixty monks, including the Abbot, the supreme head, and the Prior, who held the second highest office; besides, there was a very large number of lay-brethren, servants and officers, for in addition to the internal work at the abbey, there was the management of the abbey estates and business. Abbots and monks were always keen traders. Altogether the personnel of St. Mary's might have numbered about two hundred.

The influence of such a monastery as St. Mary's was very far from being restricted to affairs within the abbey walls. Through its Abbot it had a spokesman in the House of Lords. There were cells dependant on the abbey and often at a distance. The Abbot had a number of residences in the country and one in London. The abbey itself had numerous possessions of land and manors in many parts of the country. This was a principal source of revenue. St. Mary's Abbey also had jurisdiction over many churches, not only in York and Yorkshire, but in other counties as well. The other monastic institutions and the Minster and some of the hospitals, for example St. Leonard's, had similar rights of jurisdiction and the ownership of land, property, and churches.

In some of the churchyards there lived anchorites, anchoresses, and hermits. These were individuals who chose to live a solitary life spent in prayer and religious work. Anchorites led a life of strict seclusion, for they were literally shut in their cells, from the world. They did not, however, eschew all intercourse with others, for their solitary lives of devotion, and in some cases of study, gave them a reputation for wisdom that led people to seek them for their advice. Permission was given by the Church authorities to those who took up this mode of life, the assumption of which formed part of a special service. The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge, who held the see from 1508 to 1514, contains an office for the Enclosing of an Anchorite. Hermits lived in less strict seclusion. Their aims were similar, but they went about in the world doing good works.

One of the worst features of the religious decadence of the Middle Ages was the craftiness of such spurious types of men as those whom Chaucer painted in the Pardoner and the Somonour, and Charles Reade depicted in the peripatetic "cripples" of "The Cloister and the Hearth." Chaucer wrote in the true spirit of comedy mores corrigere ridendo, but Langland, his contemporary, who described similar types of men of State as well as of Church, did so from the point of view of a moral reformer whose satire is a trenchant weapon.

There were many other types of religious men, but it must suffice to refer to Pardoners, who by virtue of papal bulls gave pardons, expecting, exacting if necessary, a reward in return, and to mention only palmers and pilgrims, who were seen in York when they came to visit the shrine of St. William in the Minster. The palmers were pilgrims who had visited the Holy Land. They liked to wear a scallop-shell in their broad-brimmed hats as a sign of their extensive travels. Journeying from shrine to shrine was a favourite occupation, a professional one, of those pilgrims who loved a wandering and easy life, seeing the sights and living at the expense of the monastic hospitality. Some pilgrimages were done by proxy, through the employment of professional pilgrims. A pilgrimage to a shrine celebrated for miraculous cures or the efficacy of the spiritual benefit derived from worshipping at it and invoking the help of the saint, was for many an exercise of deep religious devotion. There is no doubt, moreover, that at the shrines of the saints the Church proved itself a great healer. It was in fact the popular physician. Apart from surgery, the medical practice of the twentieth century is in some ways the successor of that of the Church of the fifteenth.

When very popular religious men died, or when, if they were already dead as in the case of William, Archbishop of York (who died in 1153 and was canonised in 1227), popularity sprang up, it was quite usual for it to be discovered that miracles were being wrought at their tombs. The case of the popular Archbishop Scrape who was executed is a typical one. In this way the calendar of saints was enlarged, the devout had a new interest, the Church maintained its position in the popular eye and mind, and its funds increased.

The mediaeval Church, however, appeared perhaps at its best in its Church services, which drew their effect from the sanctity of the magnificent building (whether cathedral or parish church), the awe inspired by the Church politic, the use of Latin and the learned atmosphere, the religious teaching, and, not least, the imposing ceremonies, and the ornate ritual performed amid a profusion of lighted wax candles by priests and dignitaries in resplendent vestments.


The only school engaged in higher education in York in the century was St. Peter's School, a very old foundation, where Alcuin, who (in 782) had carried educational reform to the land of the Franks, had been master. At this school, which was attached to the cathedral, were educated those who were to spend their lives in scholarship, especially, as now, after residence at Oxford or Cambridge; future priests and clerks; the sons of the nobility and of the more wealthy members of the merchant class in the city. Other regular schools were the Grammar School at the royal Hospital of St. Leonard and the one at Fossgate Hospital. This educational work was one of the most valuable kinds of public work done by these hospitals.

A more elementary and less well organised education was given by the parish priests and the chantry priests, from whom the children of the city generally, boys and girls, received at least oral instruction.

Girls usually received a practical upbringing at home. The only schools for girls were those attached to women's monasteries, of which there was St. Clement's Nunnery alone in York.

Educational welfare work, as distinct from direct and organised class-teaching, was carried on by the friars, the religious men who lived under a rule but who went out to work in the world, instead of spending their lives in seclusion as the monks did. The Dominican and Franciscan Friars played an important part in education by teaching, especially at the Universities. Education was also a foremost interest of the Augustinians, who supported a college at Oxford.

Books, which had all to be written by hand, were scarce. The copying of manuscripts, which was done mostly in the monasteries, was laborious work. Instruction was given as a rule orally, but also by means of pictorial art and drama. The stained-glass windows were more than ornamental additions to the church building: they were part of the means of instruction. Mediaeval drama had originated in the Church's effort to make events described in the gospel more real through their representation dramatically.

The teaching of manual skill and craftsmanship was entirely the work of the masters of the crafts under the general supervision of the guilds. The work of the age was made beautiful, and being handwork each piece of work gained the interest of individuality. The details of architectural ornament, in consequence, show wonderful diversity of form. The naive spirit of the ordinary handicraft workman was often reflected in his work. The arts of the goldsmith, silversmith, bell-founder, vestment-maker (which required elaborate embroidery), and the sculptor, were practised in York with excellent results.

There has never been a university of York, although under Alcuin the school of York was doing work of high quality, work that gained European fame. Even within the last hundred years, when so many provincial universities and university colleges have been established, York, one of the most appropriate places, has not obtained a university.

News and information reached the citizens mainly from personal intercourse. Merchants visiting other cities discussed with fellow merchants not only their immediate business but also past and current events. Pilgrims, palmers, and sailors recited their adventures on distant seas and lands, and told of the wonders of the world. The ordinary citizen, who read little, depended on conversations with better-informed citizens and strangers. The city council was continually in communication with the King and the great officers of State: information filtered down from the council to the citizens. The messengers often supplied the latest semi-official news. Officials and servants attached to the royal service or to that of nobles or of ecclesiastics (like the Archbishop of York), were the source of much political gossip. The news of the country passed to and fro between the city and the monastic lands, the castles, the manors, and the forests by means of the visits of men who lived at those places. Markets and fairs and public assemblies, whether the holding of assizes or on State visits, were occasions for the dissemination of news. The ordinary citizen gathered news and information also from the pulpit and from guild and parochial meetings, and from the bellman. The only authoritative news he received at first hand he got by listening to the public reading of proclamations.

In the Middle Ages educated men who had no inclination for the life of the Church, monastic or secular, nor for landed proprietorship, with which was combined hunting and soldiering, became clerks. The clerks in the royal service helped in the work of administration of national affairs. Tradesmen's sons of ability and opportunity succeeded in gaining good positions in this service. Nobles also employed clerks.

Altogether there seems to have been in the fifteenth century good provision for higher education. The people of the Middle Ages were not illiterate. The outstanding age of illiteracy (not to mention a host of other evils) in England was the age that began with the Industrial Revolution, when statesmen failed to make the public services keep pace with the rapidly increasing population and the rapid development of new conditions. That there was as large a public ready and eager to buy the books that printing from type made possible has been regarded as a disproof of general illiteracy. The books were published in the vernacular: the people read them. It was in 1476 that Caxton set up his press at Westminster. The first printing press established in York was set up in 1509.

Nevertheless the general state of education and scholarship in England in the fifteenth century was at a low level, mainly owing to lack of enthusiasm and to the limited subjects of study. Natural science was unable yet to flourish. Mediaeval education was humanistic, but the old springs of this form of study were nearly dried up. The Greek classics were entirely lost. Even the few Latin classics that the mediaevals possessed, they did not understand aright. To Virgil's AEneid they gave a Christian interpretation! Grammar was the basis of study, which dealt mainly with such works as those of Cicero, Virgil, Boethius.

The fifteenth century, the last century of an age, was a backwater in education as in literature. The great revival was to come. The fifteenth century was indeed a century of revolution in so far as under the almost placid surface of continuity and conformity, there were forces of revolt at work, probing, accumulating knowledge and experience, perhaps unconsciously, for the day of liberation and change. The Bible was not yet popularly available. Wiclif had been a pioneer in the work of translation and publication, but Tyndale and Coverdale in the sixteenth century supplied what he had aimed at doing in the fourteenth. The fifteenth century was the quiet dark hour before the dawn. As Coleridge expressed it: No sooner had the Revival of learning "sounded through Europe like the blast of an archangel's trumpet than from king to peasant there arose an enthusiasm for knowledge, the discovery of a manuscript became the subject of an embassy: Erasmus read by moonlight because he could not afford a torch, and begged a penny, not for the love of charity, but for the love of learning." But even then, when the enthusiasm and the will were there, such was the dearth of material for learning that, as in the case of Erasmus, the pioneers had practically nothing to work at but the classical texts and a few meagre vocabularies with etymologies of mediaeval scholarship. In 1491 Grocyn began to teach Greek at Oxford. In 1499 Erasmus first visited England. Referring to his visit to this country in 1505-6 he wrote: "There are in London five or six men who are thorough masters of both Latin and Greek; even in Italy I doubt that you would find their equals." England's position was, therefore, in this respect a good one.


In the Middle Ages holidays were taken at festivals marked in the Church calendar. Some feasts, like that of Whitsuntide, were universally observed. The ordinary length of a festival was eight days, that is, the full week—the octave. Apart from pilgrimages, the ordinary people travelled little. Moreover the life and property of travellers were not altogether secure in the forest land, with the result that treasure and distinguished people travelled under the care of an armed escort. A large city like York was practically self-supporting in public amusements. The fifteenth century saw the full development of the religious mystery plays, and the allegorical morality plays, which with their comic interludes had become popular from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The feast of Corpus Christi (instituted about 1263) was the most important time in the year for the playing of these typically mediaeval dramas. Begun more than three centuries earlier within the Church and performed by the clergy, as a dramatic reinforcement of the services and preaching, the mediaeval drama owed its origin mainly to the Church which maintained its influence as long as this drama continued. It soon came into the care of laymen, who took part in the productions. In the fifteenth century, these plays, which were produced almost entirely by laymen, were so numerous that they were formed in cycles or groups. The texts of some of the most famous cycles, those of York, Chester, Wakefield, and Coventry, have survived. The various trade-guilds made themselves responsible for the production of one pageant of the local cycle, or two or three guilds joined to produce a pageant, so that the whole city produced a large number of plays to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. Among its officers a guild had its pageant-master, whose duty it was to supervise the guild's dramatic work.

The York plays, the texts dating from the middle of the fourteenth century, are extant. In 1415 fifty-seven pageant plays were produced. Productions were made in York down to 1579. The following are examples taken from among the fifty-seven plays and guilds:—

The Shipwrights produced the Building of the Ark, the Fishers and Mariners " Noah and the Flood, the Spicers " " Annunciation, the Tilers " " Birth of Christ, the Goldsmiths " " Adoration, the Vintners " " Wedding in Cana, the Skinners " " entry into Jerusalem, the Baxters " " Last Supper, the Tapiters and Couchers " Christ before Pilate, the Saucemakers " " Death of Judas, the Bouchers " " Death of Christ, the Carpenters " " Resurrection, the Scriveners " " Incredulity of Thomas, the Tailors " " Ascension, the Mercers " " Day of Judgment.

The full cycle gave in dramatic form the leading episodes of the Scriptures from the Creation to the Last Day.

While the trade-guilds were thus responsible for individual pageants, help and control were given by the Guild of Corpus Christi (inaugurated in 1408 and incorporated in 1459), and the city council. The guild had a very large number of members, among whom were the Archbishop, many bishops and abbots and nobles. These dramatic productions belonged to the religious and social sides of the guilds. The plays, however, did not always provoke pleasure, for sometimes members of some of the guilds complained of the financial burden they were forced to bear in order to produce the plays allotted to them.

The guilds also took part in public processions with torches on Corpus Christi Day in celebration of this popular festival. In the processions, which were closely connected with the religious and guild-phases of city life, there walked city clergy wearing their surplices, the master of the Guild of Corpus Christi, the guild officials, the bearers of the shrine of the guild, the mayor, aldermen and corporation, and officers and members of the Guild of Corpus Christi and of the city trade-guilds. As the procession went on its way litanies and chants were sung by the clergy. The shrine, the central feature of the procession, was presented in 1449. It was itself of gilt and had many images some of which were gilded, while the main ones under the "steeple" were in mother-of-pearl, silver, and gold: to it were attached rings, brooches, girdles, buckles, beads, gawds and crucifixes, in gold and silver, and adorned with coral and jewels.

On the occasion of the processions and performances of pageants, as at fairs, the city was filled with a boisterous multitude which turned what was by tradition a religious exercise and entertainment, to a time of riotous merry-making, and uncouth disorder. In 1426 a kind of crusade was preached by a friar minor, William Melton, against the riotous and drunken conduct of the people at the Corpus Christi festival. He denounced the disgracing of the festival and affirmed that the people were forfeiting by their conduct the indulgences granted for the festival. The result of the friar's crusade was the holding of a special meeting of the city council, which decided that the processions and pageants were to be held on separate days, the pageants on the eve of Corpus Christi, and the procession on the feast itself. Formerly both had taken place on the same day.

The pageants were produced in suitable parts of the city. Stages on wheels were brought to these places, some of them open spaces, others main streets. The stages, which were the work of citizen workmen, were of three storeys, the central and principal one, the stage proper, representing the earth. Demons, in gaudy attire, came up from the flame-region of the lowest storey; divine messengers and personages came down from the star and cloud adorned tipper storey. The tiring-room was below and behind the stage. The acting was by members of the guilds. They, no doubt, practised here, as elsewhere, the ranting delivery of their speeches so denounced by Hamlet in his critical address to the Players, whom he admonished to speak "trippingly on the tongue" and not to "out-Herod Herod." There are several references in Shakespeare to these plays of the Middle Ages. For instance, in Twelfth Night:

"Like to the old Vice ...... Who with dagger of lath In his rage and his wrath, Cries, Ah, ah! to the devil."

and in Henry V.:

"... this roaring devil i' the old play that every one may pare his nails with a wooden dagger."

Stands for spectators were erected by private enterprise for profit in many places in the city. The general assembly, preparatory to the beginning of the performances {original had "performanes"}, took place on Pageant Green, now called Toft Green (which lies behind that side of Micklegate which is opposite Holy Trinity). The first performances were made at the gates of Holy Trinity Priory (on the west side of the river); there were four performances in Micklegate (a street near the Priory); four in Coney Street (the main street on the east side of the river)—and likewise performances in other parts of the city. The last three performances took place at the gates of the Minster; in Low Petergate, and in Pavement, which was one of the city market squares.

When Richard III. came to York in 1483, part of his entertainment consisted of performances of pageants.

The only other public dramatic entertainments were crude, coarse, popular plays, done by strolling players. A mediaeval crowd at fair time was entertained by mountebanks, tumblers, and similar rough makers of unrefined mirth.

The Corporation had a band of minstrels in its service.

Of physical games archery was the most practised. This was the national physical exercise, one which had helped the English soldiers to gain a great reputation for themselves, as at Agincourt (1415). At York the "butts," where men practised archery, were outside the city walls.


Class divisions were well marked. They appeared in manners, in dress, and in occupation.

Fashions varied considerably as the century progressed. There were close-fitting dresses and loose ones, small head-dresses like the caul (a jewelled net to bind in the hair) and high and broad erections that went to the other extreme. Men now wore their hair long; later they had it close-cropped. Perhaps the most wonderful fashion was that which men followed in wearing hose of different colours. With all the vagaries of fashion the most striking feature of dress was the use of rich and a manifold variety of colours. Excepting the case of the dress of the religious, which was generally of a sombre hue, colour characterised men's clothes as much as it did the dresses of women. The doublet was the coat of the time. Sleeves were generally big. Long and pointed shoes were characteristic, but it was the cloak that proved so effective a piece of dress, the cloak that has such scenic possibilities, that can so nicely express character. There were only few kinds of personal ornament. The most usual were brooches, belts, chains, and pendants, and especially finger-rings, of which the signet ring was a popular form.

The nobles, great landowners, in many cases of Norman origin, were lords over a considerable number of people. York, being a royal city, escaped many of the troubles consequent on rule by an immediate overlord. Besides himself, his family, and personal servants, a lord provided for a retinue of armed retainers, who formed a kind of body-guard and a force to serve the king as occasion demanded; in addition, important household officials, such as secretaries and treasurers. Among noblemen's followers there were many dependents, some, no doubt, parasites, but a number, especially if literary men, in need of patronage to help them to live as well as to pursue their vocation.

The different kinds of religious men have already been mentioned from archbishops and abbots to the scurrilous impostors who used a religious exterior to rob poor people, at whose expense they lived well a wandering, loose, hypocritical life. In York, there were monks and friars, cathedral, parochial, and chantry priests, and clerks. The monastic life was a recognised profession. In the monasteries there were, besides regular monks, novices or those who aspired to take the full monastic vows, and, especially in the fifteenth century, by which time the importance of lowly, arduous service for the brethren and personal labour had lapsed, a very large number of semi-religious and lay brethren, who were really servants to the regular monks. In the fifteenth century the religious houses were extremely wealthy. Some of the monks were of noble birth. Nobles, when travelling, usually lodged at the monastic houses, which were dotted all over England. The kings resided often at abbeys when visiting the provinces. Richard III., when Duke of Gloucester, resided at the Austin Friary in York.

The one monastic house for women was St. Clement's Nunnery. There were, moreover, sisterhoods in the hospitals of, for example, St. Leonard and St. Nicholas.

St. Leonard's Hospital, among its many functions, was a home of royal pensioners.

The townspeople were chiefly merchants and tradesmen and those they employed, and the wives and families of all of them. Men of this type, both rich and poor, rose to important positions in trade and city life, and in the King's service. Some entered the service of nobles. Great dignity was attached to the higher positions of authority in city and guild life. Trade led to wealth and increased comfort and a higher social state. Men in the King's service received preferment more often than direct monetary reward.

Women had only the monastic life to enter as a profession. They could become full members of a number of the York trade-guilds. The social position of women in the retrograde fifteenth century fully agrees with the absence of women from among those who achieved notability in the city during the century.

The most interesting type of citizens was that composed of the freemen, who formed the vast majority of the inhabitants. As the name implies, they were historically the descendants of the men who in earlier times were freed from serfdom. It was the freemen who, through the Mayor and Corporation, paid rent to the King for the city, its rights and possessions. There are still, it may be noted, freemen of the city, distinct from those distinguished men who have received its honorary freedom. The main privileges of the mediaeval freemen included the right of trading in the city, and of voting. They also had rights over the common lands attached to the city, and they were eligible to fill the offices of local civic government if thought wealthy enough to be elected into such a "close self-elected corporation."

Soldiers of the royal army were stationed in York at the Castle. The Wars of the Roses, wars of kings and nobles, lasted from 1455 to 1485 and, although York itself hardly experienced the warfare, it saw contingents of the forces of both sides, as well as the leaders and royal heads of both parties.

There lived in the city a number of men in the royal service. Some worked at the administrative offices of the royal forest of Galtres, Davy Hall, where the chief officer himself dwelt. There were also the men who worked at the royal Fish Pond near which was Fishergate in which street most of these men lived.

Those afflicted with leprosy, a disease which in England disappeared toward the end of the fifteenth century, dwelt apart for fear of infecting the healthy. The four hospitals outside the four main entrances to the city served to keep the disease isolated.

York received from time to time a large number and a great diversity of visitors. Distinguished visitors usually received gifts from the Corporation. Kings, queens, and full court and retinue came, and sometimes the entire houses of Parliament. At such times great crowds of nobles, spiritual lords, commoners, officers, military and civil, thronged the city and taxed its accommodation. On such an occasion as Richard III.'s attendance at the Minster for mass, or the visit of Henry V., the narrow streets were packed to suffocation with people assembled to watch the processions of gorgeously arrayed sovereigns, princes, peers, ecclesiastics, soldiers, and distinguished commoners. The Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III., was very popular in the North, especially in York, where he was received (as in 1483) with magnificence and festivity. The north was loyal to him and gave him much support in his political schemes.

The visits of the royal judges of assize, of sailors and pilgrims, have already been mentioned. Pedlars, who were active nomad tradesmen, were always to be found in town and country dealing in their small wares.

Last, and some of the unhappiest, among the types of people to be found in a mediaeval city were serfs who had absconded from the lands or the service to which they were bound. They sometimes fled to a city for the security it afforded. Serfdom, however, was rapidly disappearing.


[1] G. Benson: "Parish of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York."

[2] De heretico comburendo, 1401. In 1539 Valentine Freez, a freeman, and his wife, were burnt at the stake on Knavesmire for heresy. Frederick Freez, Valentine's father, was a book-printer and a freeman (1497).

[3] Cf. French journee.

[4] Sauce was much used. The people of the Middle Ages had an especial liking for spices and highly-seasoned foods.

[5] As translated from the Latin by the late Mr. R.B. Cook and found among his valuable contributions to the publications of The Yorkshire Architectural Society.



Life in York in the fifteenth century was active. Trade, home and continental, was flourishing. Building operations were in hand; work was always proceeding at the Minster or at one or other of the religious houses and churches. There were so many social elements established in and visiting York that something of interest was always taking place. Entertainments were plentiful and pageants were as well produced in York as anywhere in the kingdom. The city enjoyed a particularly large measure of local government. Its reputation was great. According to contemporary standards it was a fine prosperous city, one that contained resplendent ecclesiastical buildings that were second to none. In short, it was a "full nobill cite."

Although the present city looks, in parts, more typically mediaeval than modern, York to-day forms a very great contrast with the fifteenth-century city. We are separated from the fifteenth century by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and Tudor England, by the Civil War and the Restoration, by the "age of prose and reason," the keen-minded and rough-mannered eighteenth century, by the Industrial Revolution, and by that second Renaissance, the Victorian Age, during which the amenities of daily life were revolutionised. Radical changes are to be seen, for example, in the style of architecture, the mode of transmission of news, the methods of transport, the form of municipal government, the maintenance of the public peace, and in social relationships, more particularly with regard to industry and commerce and the parts played by employer and employed. The number of inhabitants to-day is about six times that of the mediaeval city. The contrast, which is so great in most ways as to be quite obvious, is an interesting and profitable study, but it might have been founded on more precise data, for, great as is the amount of valuable material that York can supply concerning its history, investigation shows how much greater that amount would have been had the city and its rulers during the last century or two realised the value of the accumulated original historical riches that it contained.

Whereas the moderns obliterated practically all they came against, fortunately the earlier people were content to make no change beyond what was immediately necessary. Hence the survival of material most valuable to the historian and archaeologist. York, as it is to-day, is a city marvellously rich in survivals of past ages. It is also, as a result especially of the nineteenth century, a city of destruction. While we may regret but not repine at the disappearance of much of interest and value as the result of progress, yet wanton, ruthless destruction, such as has taken place within the last century, deserves the sternest denunciation. In spite of its being, in consequence, a "city of destruction," York is a store-house of original material for the history of England. Its records are in earth, stone, brick, wood, plaster, bone, and coin-metal; on parchment, paper, and glass; above the ground and below it—everywhere and in every form. This wealth of historical material, connected with practically every period of our national history, is a priceless possession and one that is not yet exhausted.

Printed by William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., London and Beccles.


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