Description of the most noble city of London

[William Fitzstephen, who died about the year 1190, was a trusted clerk in the service of Thomas ą Becket, and was present at his murder. He wrote the Life of his great chief, and prefaced it with this description of London. The original was written in Latin. This translation is from the 1912 edition of John Stow, A Survey of London (1598, 1603).]

Of the Site thereof

Among the noble cities of the world that Fame celebrates, the City of London of the Kingdom of the English, is the one seat that pours out its fame more widely, sends to farther lands its wealth and trade, lifts its head higher than the rest. It is happy in the healthiness of its air, in the Christian religion, in the strength of its defences, the nature of its site, the honour of its citizens, the modesty of its matrons; pleasant in sports; fruitful of noble men. Let us look into these things separately.

Of the Mildness of the Air

If the clemency of the skies there softens minds, it is not so that they corrupt in Venus, but that they be not fierce and bestial, rather benign and liberal.

Of Religion

There is in the church there the Episcopal Seat of St. Paul; once it was Metropolitan, and it is thought will again become so if the citizens return into the island, unless perhaps the archiepiscopal title of Saint Thomas the Martyr, and his bodily presence, preserve to Canterbury, where it now is, a perpetual dignity. But as Saint Thomas has made both cities illustrious, London by his rising, Canterbury by his setting, in regard of that saint, with admitted justice, each can claim advantage of the other. There are also, as regards the cultivation of the Christian faith, in London and the suburbs, thirteen larger conventual churches, besides lesser parish churches one hundred and twenty-six.

Of the Strength of the City

It has on the east the Palatine Castle, very great and strong, of which the ground plan and the walls rise from a very deep foundation, fixed with a mortar tempered by the blood of animals. On the west are two towers very strongly fortified, with the high and great wall of the city having seven double gates, and towered to the north at intervals. London was walled and towered in like manner on the south, but the great fish-bearing Thames river which there glides, with ebb and flow from the sea, by course of time has washed against, loosened, and thrown down those walls. Also upwards to the west the royal palace is conspicuous above the same river, an incomparable building with ramparts and bulwarks, two miles from the city, joined to it by a populous suburb.

Of Gardens

Everywhere outside the houses of those living in the suburbs are joined to them, planted with trees, the spacious and beautiful gardens of the citizens.

Of Pasture and Tilth

Also there are, on the north side, pastures and a pleasant meadow land, through which flow river streams, where the turning wheels of mills are put in motion with a cheerful sound. Very near lies a great forest, with woodland pastures, coverts of wild animals, stags, fallow deer, boars and wild bulls. The tilled lands of the city are not of barren gravel but fat plains of Asia, that make crops luxuriant, and fill their tillers' barns with Ceres' sheaves.

Of Springs

There are also about London, on the north side, excellent suburban springs, with sweet, wholesome, and clear water that flows rippling over the bright stones; among which Holy Well, Clerken Well, and Saint Clements are held to be of most note; these are frequented by greater numbers, and visited more by scholars and youth of the city when they go out for fresh air on summer evenings. It is a good city indeed when it has a good master.

Of Honour of the Citizens

That City is honoured by her men, adorned by her arms, populous with many inhabitants, so that in the time of slaughter of war under King Stephen, of those going out to a muster twenty thousand horsemen and sixty thousand men on foot were estimated to be fit for war. Above all other citizens, everywhere, the citizens of London are regarded as conspicuous and note­worthy for handsomeness of manners and of dress, at table, and in way of speaking.

Of Matrons

The City matrons are true Sabine women.

Of Schools

In London three principal churches have by privilege and ancient dignity, famous schools; yet very often by support of some personage, or of some teachers who are considered notable and famous in philosophy, there are also other schools by favour and permission. On feast days the masters have festival meetings in the churches. Their scholars dispute, some by demonstration, others by dialectics some recite enthymemes, others do better in using perfect syllogisms. Some are exercised in disputation for display, as wrestling with opponents; others for truth, which is the grace of perfectness. Sophists who feign are judged happy in their heap and flood of words. Others paralogize. Some orators, now and then, say in their rhetorical speeches something apt for persuasion, careful to observe rules of their art, and to omit none of the contingents. Boys of different schools strive against one another in verses, and contend about the principles of grammar and rules of the past and future tenses. There are others who employ in epigrams, rhymes, and verses the old trifling banter, and with Fescennine license freely pull their comrades to pieces, without giving their names, fling at them scoffs and sarcasms, touch the faults of schoolfellows or perhaps of greater people with Socratic salt, or bite harder with Theonine tooth. The hearers ready to laugh much Ingeminant tremolos naso crispante cachinnos. [Quotation from Persius.]

Of the Ordering of the City

Those engaged in the several kinds of business, sellers of several things, contractors for several kinds of work, are distributed every morning into their several localities and shops. Besides, there is in London on the river bank, among the wines in ships and cellars sold by the vintners, a public cook shop; there eatables are to be found every day, according to the season, dishes of meat, roast, fried and boiled, great and small fish, coarser meats for the poor, more delicate for the rich, of game, fowls, and small birds. If there should come suddenly to any of the citizens friends, weary from a journey and too hungry to like waiting till fresh food is bought and cooked, with water to their hands comes bread, while one runs to river bank, and there is all that can be wanted. However great the multitude of soldiers or travellers entering the city, or preparing to go out of it, at any hour of the day or night, - that these may not fast too long and those may not go out supperless, - they turn hither, if they please, where every man can refresh himself in his own way; those who would care for themselves luxuriously, when set before the delicacies there to be found, would not desire sturgeon nor the bird of Africa nor the Ionian godwit. For this is the public kitchen, very convenient to the city, and part of its civilisation; hence we read in the Gorgias of Plato that next to medicine the office of the cooks, as the adulation of imitators, makes the fourth part of civility.

Outside one of the gates there, immediately in the suburb, is a certain field, smooth (Smith) field in fact and name. Every Friday, unless it be a higher day of appointed solemnity, there is in it a famous show of noble horses for sale. Earls, barons, knights, and many citizens who are in town, come to see or buy. It is pleasant to see the steppers in quick trot going gently up and down, their feet on each side alternately rising and falling. On this side are the horses most fit for esquires, moving with harder pace yet swiftly, that lift and set down together, as it were, the opposite fore and hind feet; on that side colts of fine breed who not yet well used to the bit Altius incedunt, et mollia crura reponunt. [Quotation from Virgil's Georgics.] In that part are the sumpter horses, powerful and spirited; here costly chargers, elegant of form, noble of stature, with ears quickly tremulous, necks lifted, haunches plump. In their stepping the buyers first try for the gentler, then the quicker pace, which is by the fore and the hind feet moving in pairs together. When a race is ready for such thunderers, and perhaps for others of like kind, powerful to carry, quick to run, a shout is raised, orders are given that the common horses stand apart. The boys who mount the wing-footed by threes or twos according to the match, prepare themselves for contest; skilled to rule horses, they restrain the mouths of the untamed with bitted bridles. For this chiefly they care, that no one should get before another in the course. The horses rise too in their own way to the struggle of the race; their limbs tremble, impatient of delay they cannot keep still in their place; at the sign given their limbs are stretched, they hurry on their course, are borne with stubborn speed. The riders contend for the love of praise and hope of victory, plunge spurs into the loose-reined horses, and urge them none the less with whips and shouts. You would think with Heraclitus everything to be in motion, and the opinion to be wholly false of Zeno, who said that there was no motion and no goal to be reached. In another part of the field stand by themselves the goods proper to rustics, implements of husbandry, swine with long flanks, cows with full udders, oxen of bulk immense, and woolly flocks. There stand the mares fit for plough, dray, and cart, some big with foal, and others with their young colts closely following.

To this city from every nation under heaven merchants delight to bring their trade by sea:

Aurum mittit Arabs; species et thura Sabaeus;

[The Arabian sends gold; Sabaean, spice and incense; Scythian, arms; from its rich wood fat soil, Babylon sends oil of palms; Nile, precious stones; Norwegians, Russians, many furs and sables; Seres, her purple clothing; Gaul, her wines.]

London is, on the faith of the chroniclers, a much older city than Rome, for by the same Trojan forefathers this was founded by Brutus before that by Romulus and Remus. Whence it is that they still have the same laws established in common. This city, like that, is divided into wards, has annual sheriffs for its consuls, has senatorial and lower magistrates, sewers and aqueducts in its streets, its proper places and separate courts for cases of each kind, deliberative, demonstrative, judicial; has assemblies on appointed days. I do not think there is a city with more commendable customs of church attendance, honour to God's ordinances, keeping sacred festivals, almsgiving, hospitality, confirming betrothals, contracting marriages, celebration of nuptials, preparing feasts, cheering the guests, and also in care for funerals and the interment of the dead. The only pests of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires. To this may be added that nearly all the bishops, abbots, and magnates of England are, as it were, citizens and freemen of London; having there their own splendid houses, to which they resort, where they spend largely when summoned to great councils by the king or by their metropolitan, or drawn thither by their own private affairs.

[Section on sports omitted here]

Stephen Alsford gives another transcription, with commentary.