Exploring everyday life in early Anglo-Saxon London

About this series: In the period I work on – fifteenth century London – Londoners had developed all sorts of legends and myths and had lots of ways of retelling their past. These histories fascinate me and are my main topic of research. However, in this series I am investigating the truth or fiction behind some of those myths. I don’t claim to be an expert Anglo-Saxonist.

This post continues a four-part miniseries where I investigate London’s early history, pre 800 A.D.

  1. A history of London to circa 800 A.D.
  2. The Battle for London, 296
  3. Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon London
  4. St Erkenwald and the Christianisation of London

Why don’t we take a walk in Lundenwic

We start in the old and abandoned city of Londinium. I want you to imagine a city in ruins. The city walls are still there and are standing strong, but most of the rest is disintegrating. Some of the strongest old public buildings may be holding out quite well. However the private architecture was mostly of brick and wood – neglect and the elements must be taking their toll. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

But in the west quarter of the city, activity has returned. There is a great wooden Cathedral and St Paul’s, and the church of St Martin Ludgate stands to attention at the west gate of the city. Around it there presumably would have been a bishop’s palace with all of the administration, food, priests and monks that that entailed. The singing of monks would have echoed through the empty city.

Below: I’ve found this map on the internet of Anglo-Saxon find-sites, but haven’t been able to verify its original source. Sourced.

https://d2o7bfz2il9cb7.cloudfront.net/main-qimg-ac318099e0b491ef1c6d9598988405ec

Moving to the West, a great road runs out of the gate and along the north side of the river. Lundenwic has grown up around this road, with jetties protruding into the river and a messy tangle of houses. Lundenwic looks quite different to the Roman city: it is unplanned, spontaneous and messy. Expect bendy and confusing sideroads, and mud underfoot.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the city is how low density it is. The Anglo-Saxons pretty much never built houses of multiple stories. Most of the houses would be small, low, wooden buildings which were widely spread out, each house in the middle of a large and spacious plot.

Even in their urban setting Londoners would have maintained large and generous gardens with farm animals and some crops – archaeologists have found many pig, sheep and cow bones throughout London. Pigs would have been ideally suited to the urban environment – able to eat any refuse and rubbish. They probably broke out and ran loose regularly. Expect to see dogs, pigs, and small children in the messy, muddy street!

Above: The Museum of London’s recreation of an Anglo-Saxon London house. https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/3114/5615/2159/med-saxon-house.jpg

For the ordinary Anglo-Saxons in these small houses, there would be a great variety of trades. The women probably gather in a hall to spin wool and make cloths – this appears to have been considered distinctive women’s work at the time.

For the men, their jobs are more various. There are boats to be made, and pots to be shaped, which were probably two major industries. Other craftsmen would have worked metal. Some particularly fine Anglo-Saxon metalwork and jewellery survives. It is likely that they were similarly skilled in more perishable materials such as ivory, bone and wood. Others would have worked leather, hides or fur.

More surprising to modern people might be the range of rural professions: gardens needed to be tended and livestock looked after. There were still large forests close to London so forestry and hunting would have been significant employers.

Slave Life

Anglo-Saxon craftsmen were not the poorest or worst off in society. Instead they were the middle. At the bottom were the slaves. Anglo-Saxon slaves were, for the most part, war captives. Some were kept in personal service by the big men of London. Many however would have reached their highest prices by being exported. We should expect to find a slave market and many chained humans on the dockside of London, awaiting export.

At least one of these exported slaves made it into the pages of history. He was a blond haired and blue-eyed boy of a fair and striking beauty who was sold to Italian slavers. Pope Gregory the Great encountered him in the street in the year 595AD and asked what sort of a boy this was. His owner replied that the slave was an Angle, that is an Englishman. ‘He is not an Angle’, the pope replied, ‘but an Angel’. It was apparently at this moment that Pope Gregory resolved that he had to bring the English to Christianity.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/db/Westminster_Cathedral_Non_Angli_sed_Angeli_si_Christiani.jpg

Image: Pope Gregory meets the blond slave boy. A mosaic of Westminster Abbey. Public domain

Imma the Slave

A rather different London slave shows up in another anecdote from Bede, (Ecclesiastical History, IV, Ch. 22, see here). It is however a story which may stretch the credulity of a modern reader.

There once was a noble boy called Imma, who was a personal servant to King Egfrid of the Northumbrians. In 679 he was sent to fight for his king in a great battle with the Mercians. The Northumbrians lost.

Cowering in fear, Imma hid amongst the slain corpses for a day and a night. Eventually he sat up, and bound his wounds as best as he could. He tried to sneak off to find shelter but on the way, he was rumbled by a Mercian Earl. The earl demanded to know who he was.

Facing a powerful Mercian and his fearsome army, Imma’s courage failed him. He did not admit who he was but instead cried out:  “I am a peasant, poor and married, and I came to the army with others to bring provisions to the soldiers”. The Earl seemed convinced that he Imma was not worth killing, and instead took him into slavery.

Imma was bound in heavy iron chains, but around 9am on the next day something remarkable happened: the chains fell off of their own accord. The Earl had Imma bound again. Yet the next day at 9am, the lock popped open once more. And the next day, and the next day. The Earl was perplexed. What was this, magic? A cunning trick?

https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/mol/mediaLib/242/436/one94_18195_5160a.jpg

Above: A deed concerning the sale of a roman slave named Fortunata, ‘healthy and not liable to run away’, worth 600 denarii. From Roman London, 80-120AD. Museum of London, see https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/523294.html

Back in the north, news of Imma’s death reached his brother, Tunna, the abbot of Tunnachester. Tunna fell into deep mourning and resolved to say a mass for the soul of his dear departed brother, every day around 9am. And every day, just as he said mass, Imma’s chains popped open.

Back in the south, the Earl was perplexed. What was going on? Was it magic? Or some sort of a trick? Imma informed him that he knew the cause: his brother’s monastery was praying for him. The Earl was furious! This meant that Imma was not a peasant but a noble! He had deserved to die on the battlefield! But now that the Earl had taken Imma under his protection, he could hardly kill him now! Yet as his chains kept falling off, he couldn’t even keep him as a slave.

The Earl decided to cut his losses and brought Imma to the London slave mart. There he was sold to a rich man named Freson. Freson soon discovered, no doubt to his horror, that he had purchased the only slave in all of England who could not be bound. Freson made the best of it that he could and ransomed Imma back to his relatives.

And so the story ended happily, for almost everyone. Unlike, sadly, the stories of most slaves in reality.

Elite Life

We have looked at the world of the slave and the craftsman; but what about Freson and his ilk, the rich men of London. What was their lives like?

Freson probably lived in a great hall. Halls were the biggest sort of Anglo-Saxon home, but they were also more than that: they were hubs for the community, centres of hospitality and hubs for the economy. Halls were wooden structures built on a grand scale: one at Mucking, 30 miles from London was about 50 feet (15m) long and 25 feet (7.5m) wide.

Below: West Stow Anglo-Saxon village. This is an attempt to re-create early Anglo-Saxon halls and houses, and gives a good introduction to domestic architecture:

To understand the hall, you really need to understand how the economy works. In the early Saxon economy, there was not a lot of money. By that I don’t mean that everyone was poor, but rather that there weren’t many coins. In particular there was a lack of small change. Small transactions were very hard to do. It made much more sense for people to exchange goods, and only use coins for big things like long distance trade or taxation.

Our local big man comes in here: local craftsmen and farmers will give him their produce. Beneath his wooden floor there are storage containers full of cloth, leather, hides and jewels – all of the things that the community makes. He is hoarding them, ready for his next voyage. When he comes back, he’ll have traded them for things in demand – better cloth, foreign jewels, wine, silks, spices and other exotic items.

In return for taking these goods, he has to throw open his house to his dependents. Wine, ale, mead, pork, grain, pottage – he provides it to them. So don’t be surprised as you enter the hall – through the doorway in the middle of the long side – to find that it is packed with people. The hall is the centre of the social life of the area!

https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/3914/5615/2459/med-golden-garnet-brooch.jpg

Above: Museum of London: A garnet broach of the mid 7th century, discovered in a grave at Covent garden. See https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/3914/5615/2459/med-golden-garnet-brooch.jpg

The atmosphere is thick and heavy in the hall. That isn’t just because of the crush of people and the sweet-smelling food. It is also because the hall is poorly ventilated. A hearth burns in the middle and the smoke rises into the thatch above. There is no chimney, only some vents in the gable ends. Even more puzzling to modern eyes, a section of the hall is often devoted to the animals, adding a whole new range of smells to the palette.

The people in the hall have finished eating. As the dark night sets in, an elder stand up and offers to recite some poetry. The Anglo-Saxons were great tale tellers and I would like to end this tour with a section from a real Anglo-Saxon poem.

Undefined

Above: A drinking horn of about 800AD. Museum of London, see https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/136202.html

This poem is called ‘The Ruin’ and it is pretty much the only poem from this period about a city. In it, the poet wanders in a ruined city and laments its destruction. He tries to imagine what it was once like to live there when it was a thriving town.

Whilst we don’t think that this poem is about London – more likely it is about Bath or Chester – but I think it can give us an idea of what the city was like. When he describes the crumbling ruin, it gives us an idea what it was like to stand in the ruins of Londinium. And when he imagines a city filled with life and treasure, maybe we can find an echo of thriving Lundenwic.

I’ve rearranged the pieces of the poem to try and make it a bit easier to understand:

Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.

The Ruin, translation sourced from here

But, we must sigh, he doesn’t any more. The ruin is an empty shell. There is however life in Lundenwic yet.

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A pub crawl with Tudor poets, part 2: two gatherings of gossips

This is part two of a short series. We are doing a pub crawl through Tudor London, using poetry. You can find part one here.

                Song of the Gossips, (Balliol College, MS. 354)    

I much more artful and interesting poem is the ‘Song of the Gossips’. This one was collected by a London merchant and grocer called Richard Hill, who kept a personal notebook of fun poems and trivia from about 1509 to about 1536. Hill’s notebook is a great source, which I’m sure I’ll come back to often in this blog. His tastes in poems and literature were wide-ranging: we can use him with equal authority on religion, sex, beer brewing recipes, and even occult practices!

One of Hill’s appointments was as panter – a sort of party planner – to the city. This meant that some of his livelier poems might have been performed publicly at merchant booze-ups in the city. I can fully imagine that the “Song of the Gossips” might have gone down well at a party. It has a bouncy rhythm and there is a nice, simple, singalong chorus:

                How, Gossip mine, gossip mine?

                When will we go to the wine?

                Good gossips mine!

I like to imagine a whole tavern singing along. Sadly, no tune survives. Perhaps a modern folksinger can resurrect it? Anyway, lets get on to the poem:

I shall you tell a full good sport:

How gossips gather with those of their sort,

and they seek their bodies to comfort.

When they meet,

In lane or street.

Good gossip mine!

But I dare not, for their displeasure,

Tell of these matters half the substance!

But yet, somewhat of their governance (i.e. how they rule themselves)

As far as I dare,

I will declare.

Good gossips mine

The story proper starts with a group of ‘gossips’ who meet in the street. They challenge each other to show where the best wine is, and they shortly end up in a tavern. There, they summon all of their gossip friends and instruct them to order up a feast:

“Call forth our gossips, by and by!

 Eleanor, Joan and Margery,

Margret, Alice and Cecily,

For they will come,

Both all and some,

Good gossips mine!

And each of them will some food bring:

Goose or pig, or capon wing,

Pastes of pigeon, or some other thing!

For we must eat,

Some manner of meat.

Good gossip mine!

[…]

Now we be in the tavern set,

A draught of the best wine let them fetch,

To bring our husbands out of debt!

For we will spend,

Till God more sends!

Good gossips mine!

When we compare to ‘A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware’, it is quite noticeable how much better developed these characters are. On a basic level, they have names! There is also some fun to be had out of a general sense of female companionship, and of eating and drinking together. They seem to have pre-existing relationships with each other, for example in one verse a woman sighs:

 “I wish Anne were here.

She would make us cheer”.

Anne never shows up – it is just a bit of unnecessary back story and characterisation which helps make the women feel a bit more real.

Satire-laced realism is also on display near the end of the poem, when a woman leaves without paying her part of the bill:

One cast down her shot, and went a way

“Gossip”, said Eleanor, “What, did she pay?”

Replied she, “Not a penny! Lo! Therefor I say

Now she shall not

Be one of our lot

Good gossips mine!”

The poem’s attention to society and reality has a darker side: it comes out through domestic violence.

Several women express fear that their husbands will beat them for having been in the pub. One of the women suggests that she need to sneak home and work out where her husband is: she fears that she will be beaten if her husband finds out that she was at the tavern. When they exit the pub at the end of the poem, they agree to walk around town and split up so that they don’t look like they’ve come from the pub: (“Turn down the street, when you come out/ And we will compass round about”).

In another verse a woman named Evis explains why she is sad:

                For my husband is so foul,

                He beats me like the devil of hell

                And the more I cry

                The less mercy”

Thankfully, this poor woman has two supportive friends. There is Alice, who curses men; and Margaret, who fights them:

                Alice, with a loud voice spoke then:

                “Evis”, she said, “Little good he can

                do that beats or strikes any woman,

                And especially his wife.

                God give him a short life!

                Good gossips mine.

                Meek Margret said: “So may I thrive,

                I know of no man who is alive,

                Who can give me two strokes, but he gets five!

                I am not affeared,

                Though he have a beard!

                Good gossips mine!

In “A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware”, some fairly tame criticisms are hurled at mankind. But in the “Song of the Gossips”, the satire has a much more savage bite. The poem very directly faces up to the everyday violence that many women faced.

The poem ends on a lighter note:

This is the plan that gossips take:

Once in a week, merry will they make,

And all small drinks they will forsake.

But wine of the best,

Shall have no rest.

Good gossips mine!

Some be at the tavern thrice in the week,
And some be there every day, each!

Or else they will groan and make themselves sick.

For things used,

Will not be refused,

Good gossips mine!

One thing that I really like about this poem is the way that it really focuses on the women, their relationships and their conversations. It is a satirical and over the top portrait of tavern life.

The conversation topics for the women feel very familiar: food! drink! money! married partners! friends who haven’t come out tonight! Plans for after the pub! Husbands are only one of the many topics.

It still probably represents a man’s eye view of these things – note for instance that all of the women are said to be spending their husband’s money. In fact many women in medieval London earned their own money from spinning or brewing. It is quite likely that many of the women would have been spending their own money. Our poet doesn’t seem to have thought of that.

If you want to read more of this poem then you can find it in Songs, carols and other Miscellaneous Poems, Ed. Roman Dyboski, (London, 1907), here.

You can see Richard Hill’s manuscript here

                Samuel Rowlands, ‘Tis Merry when Gossips meet, (London, 1609)

The latest of our texts is also by far the longest at about 20 pages. It is also unique because we know the name of its author. Like the ‘Song of the Gossips’, this poem sees several ‘Gossips’ gather in the tavern and talk somewhat broadly about life. However, in this instance there are only three. They have titles rather than names: Widow, Wife and Maid.

Widow and wife are cousins, but Maid’s connections are a bit less clear: if we read this literally then this poem presents us with a family trip to the pub. However, this isn’t just a family reunion. The poet has assembled three women to represent the three stages of a woman’s life: childhood, adulthood and old age. There is an allegory about age hanging over this poem which means that it is not just satirising pub culture and daily life.

Widow acts as the ringleader, and draws the other two women to the pub:

                Widow:                Here’s widow, wife and maid: In faith, lets drink!

                                                A parting pint, and so good make us even.

                                                Slip in, good cousin, you are net to the door.

                                                One pint of kindness and away, no more!

                Wife:                     No, in good faith: I say I must away,

                                                My husband is forth, our shop must be tended.

                Maid:                    My mothers gone to church, I cannot stay.

                                                If I be found from home, she’ll be offended

                Widow:                I’ll lead the way myself: Lord here’s a life!

                                                I know these shifts, since I was Maid and wife. (Page 10)

Wife suggests that they take a quick pint standing at the pub’s street hatch. The crafty old woman doesn’t want to drink in the street. She cajoles them upstairs, where they procure a private room.

Widow relishes her freedom, but wants to spend it away from the company of men. She explains that you couldn’t pay her to drink in front of men, but she will act as she likes around women:

                Widow:                No lovers nor suitors here that sees it,

                                                We have good time and liquor, lets not lose it. (Page 12)

Despite this, the widow can’t secure a female only retreat in the way that she’d like. The room keeps being invaded by men.

At one point it is a fiddler, who plays for money:

“Shut the door pray cousin, after that base groom

We’ll have no fiddling knave disgrace our room!”.

Another unwelcome male invasion is more insidious: tobacco smoke seeps out from the male parts of the pub. Tobacco was a new fad that was becoming popular as England was establishing its first Virginia colonies. The three women are less than impressed: The widow remarks “Fou! what a filthy smell? / As sure as death I am even likely to choke”. The wife remarks that she has forbidden her husband to smoke, and summons juniper to clear the air, (page 28).

A third unwelcome male intervention comes in the form of a laughing serving boy. The widow immediately assumes that his laugher is a personal insult to her dignity. She upbraids him fiercely, demands don’t you know who I am???, and threatens to boycott the pub.

The real joy of this poem isn’t really in its observations about pub culture though. They mostly come from having three female characters at different stages of life talk about themselves.

The widow is the dominant character. She has wealth, and no man to tell her what to do. She clearly relishes the freedom that this gives her. The widow has strong views on men and their beauty: she has a lingering hatred for gingers, but declares “I love a black man, cousin, with my soul” (22). I think she means black hair, but frankly it isn’t totally clear. She tells us that she is being courted by a kind and handsome man, though also one who has “prettie lands” (page 19). She is wily and knows all the tricks in the book, and has been feigning illness in order to test how interested he is. The widow is by turns scandalous, cynical and skilful. She is fully able to live without a man; and if she does live with one, can bend and manipulate him to her will. She is, in short, the worst nightmare of many of the male readers of this text!

The widow is highly nostalgic and has a tendency to reminisce about past times. She has clearly always had an active social life. At one point, a woman called Jane is mentioned, who Widow used to party with. Jane and Widow used to live in Bucklersbury together, a central street just of Cheapside. Now however Jane has married a man called Roger and moved out to London Wall, far from the heart of the city:

                Widow:                Lord, the pranks that we mad wenches played!

                                                My mistress got my master to consent

                                                One midsummer, she being very ill,

                                                to leave the city and go lie in Kent.

                                                By which good hap, we had the house at will:

                                                There Roger, Jane and I met every night…

                                                No music in the evening we did lack,

                                                Such dancing, cousin, you would hardly think it;

                                                Whole pottles of the daintiest burned sack,

                                                It would doo a wench good at the heart to drink it

                                                Such a store of tickling galliards, I do vow,

                                                Not an old dance, but “John Come kiss me now”. (page 13)

By contrast, the wife is more sober and conservative. The Widow represents a “radical” position of being able to live without a man. By contrast the wife is much more dependent. She voices strong support for the idea that every woman should be married off. She also supports the idea that marriage should be as young as possible, to save girls from teenage lechery. She is very proud of her husband and a bit defensive of him. But she also declares that she doesn’t care if he knows she has been to the pub. She boasts of her ability to use feigned sicknesses to manipulate him.

Her youth appears to have been conservative and conventional:

                Yet trust me cousin, when I was a girl,

                For tavern, no young man could get me to it.

                Neither love, gold, precious stones, or pearl.

                My tongue denied, when my hard inclined to do it.

                For, by my faith, I ever loved good wine,

                But often refrained, I was so maiden fine. (Page 25)

The Maid is young and inexperienced, aged only 15. After only one cup, she remarks “Good Lord, I am become a mighty drinker!” (Page 12), so she is clearly something of a lightweight. She is in general the quietest member of the group, and is often happy to ask questions rather than say much. She states that she will only marry a handsome man, and expresses wishes to marry for love: “A fig for wealth, ‘tis person I affect” (26).

Most of their conversation however ends up being about men and age: specifically, is it better to be a maid, a wife or a widow? It is a long argument and I’m not going to repeat it all. They don’t quite come to a conclusion, but I’d suggest that the Widow often seems to have the best of it. Ultimately, it is an interesting slice of pub culture, but is perhaps more noticable for its attempts to satire women and their relationship with men.

If you want to read more, you can find a nineteenth century edition here.

Summing up

Our three poems have strong similarities. They all start with a group of women meeting by chance in the street and heading to be pub. They all show groups of women who start to talk about things that they couldn’t if men were present. They all carry with them a sense of scandal, satire and naughty fun.

Beyond this, they take some noticeably different routes. “A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware” takes a highly bawdy route that will scandalise and titillate its readers. “Tis merry when Gossips meet” mixes scandal and satire of social relationships with a more thoughtful discussion of age and social status amongst women. Meanwhile the “Song of the Gossips” is an ode to female friendships and the importance of female relationships, with a good dose of humour and satire thrown in.

Each of the poems is about satirising and mocking drunken women. But in each of them, the women gain a sort of power through companionship and time spent away from men. The poems are not totally comfortable reading for men. “A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware mocks male inadequacy right where it hurts. The “Song of the Gossips” raises the idea that many men are tyrants. Even when women come together in the pub for jollity and fun, their steps home have to be guided by a fear about male violence. In “Tis Merry When Gossips Meet”, the widow raises the frightening (to Tudor men at least) prospect of a woman who is not dependent on men, nor is supervised by them. The Tudors used pub songs to talk about these fears, inadequacies and insecurities. Even in their laughter, there is sometimes something dark and a bit painful.

A Pub crawl with Tudor Poets, part 1: A bawdy ballad of the 1400s

This is part one of a two part blog. You can find part two here

The pub today is at the centre of the social lives of many English communities. It’s a centre of community life, fun and sociability. You can often learn a lot about a local area and its people from its pubs.

So one way that we might try to get to know Tudor London is by visiting one of its pubs. In this blog I want to look at some of the poetry and literature that came out of Tudor England that celebrated the pub and pub culture. By looking at how Londoners had fun and relaxed, I hope we can see humanise the past a bit.

One thing that is surprising about Tudor pub literature is that an awful lot of it focuses on one topic: women! Many modern pubs remain quite manly spaces. This might well have been true for the Tudors too: female pubgoers are portrayed as massive cliques of raucous women, much like modern hen parties. This invasion of a manly space by large groups of women was, of course, ripe for comedy.

So for today’s blog we are going to go on a sort of literary pub crawl with three city poets. Each of them describes a group of women in the pub. All are satirical and humorous; sometimes they are dirty, other times surprisingly sad. Whether they reflect real pub culture or not, they give us an insight into the sort of things that readers in Tudor London found funny.

A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware (National Library of Wales, MS. Porkington 10, a manuscript of the late 1400s)

The oldest of our three poems is also the one that puts city men’s insecurities most obviously on show.

This poem, rather like the Canterbury Tales, starts with an assembly of people in the pub. In this case though this assembly consists of ten women. As with the Canterbury Tales, our heroines decide to create a competition in which everyone present should tell a tale.

                Leave off, and listen to me

                Two words or three

                And harken to my song

                And I shall tell you a tale

                How ten wives sat at Ale

                with no man them among.

                [The first said:] “Since we have no other song

                For to sing us among

                Tales let us tell

                Of our husband’s ware

                Which of them most worthy are

                Today to bear the bell. (i.e. to win the competition)

Husband’s “ware” here could mean their goods, perhaps suggesting that their husbands are merchants. However, it is also a euphemism. She has actually challenged everyone to tell a tale about their husbands’ penises.

If this poem is to be believed – (hint: it isn’t) – then one thing united wives in the late 1400s: they all had tales of woe to tell about their husband’s penises. Here is a representative example:

                The third wife was full of woe

                And said, “I too have one of those

                That does nothing at time of need

                Our sir’s breech, when it is ajar,

                His pentil peeps out before

                Like a worm’s head.

                It grows all within the hair!

                Such a one saw I never

                Standing upon a groin!

                Yet the shrew is hoodless

                And in all things is useless!

                For that, Christ give him care!

The poem is, as you can see, not very high brow. In fact, it is often both crude and artless. Our poet had a clear taste for “gross-out” humour. Each woman’s woes are pretty similar and overall the poem feels a bit repetitive.

Most of the wives either complain about small penises, or about impotence:

                The ninth wife sat them night

                And held her sausage up high

                The length of a foot:

                “Here is a pentil of fair length;

                But it bears a sorry strength.

                God do him good!

                I bow him, I bend him,

                I stroke him, I wend him;

                The devil may him starve!

                But be he hot, be he cold,

                Though I could tear him twofold

                Yet he may not serve”

By the end of the poem, the wives (and the poet) have quite forgotten that this was a competition and there was meant to be a winner. Then again, the wives probably believe that no husband was worthy to win it. If you take this poem at face value – (and again, you shouldn’t do that) – then married women were having a pretty miserable time in the late 1400s. No wonder they turned to drink!

Men may not come off very well in this poem, but I still think that this is quite a man’s poem. It is built wholly around a penis joke and there is no attempt to characterise the women or show their friendships. When women are left alone, they have nothing to talk about but men and their penises! It strikes me as something that would go down well as a private joke between men in the 1400s, but probably not as a great sample of real tavern talk

If you want to know more about this poem, you can find an edition here

You can see the original poem in its manuscript context on the website of the National Library of Wales. Our poem starts on image 114, here

This is part one of a two part blog. You can find part two here