London Bridge and Its Houses c.1209-1761 by Dorian Gerhold – a review.

Reblogged from A Medieval Potpourri @

London from Southwark, c.1630. Old London Bridge is in the right foreground and old St Paul's Cathedral on the skyline to the left. This is one of the few remaining pictures showing the city before the Great Fire. Oil on panel, Dutch School not signed or
A view of the bridge  from Southwark, c.1630.  Note the houses that are standing to the south of the Stone Gate, shown here adorned with heads on pikes, were in fact on the first pier of the bridge.  This is one of the few remaining pictures showing the city before the Great Fire. Oil on panel, Dutch School not signed or dated.

Since my earlier post on  Old London Bridge – A Medieval Wonder!  I am happy to say that the wonderful book Old London Bridge and Its Houses with its wealth of information by  Dorian Gerhold has been reprinted.   Being born and raised in London I always had a deep, deep  interest in old London and its history but perhaps of anywhere that I have read about (or visited if it still stood) none has  piqued my interest more than the old medieval bridge with its long and chequered history.  Building work commenced in 1176 led by Peter de Colechurch, a priest, chaplain and architect,  who would later be interred in the chapel that stood on the bridge.   It’s quite frustrating that the many views of the bridge created by artists over the centuries, although charming, have only captured the backs of the houses.    What would it have looked like in its heyday when it was crowded with medieval shops each with its own sign swinging outside?  What would the medieval shopper seen?  It would have been the medieval equivalent of Harrods or even Hatton Garden and a trading area for prestigious trades to which people would travel long distances to buy the superior goods that were available.   Street traders were not allowed and no one went there for a hot pie or a loaf of bread.  Indeed a Humfrey Searel was imprisoned for selling apples in 1617.  Shops selling food and drink in the period spanning the middle ages – of which I find the most interesting and am concentrating on here –  were unknown.    The few grocers that were trading on the bridge in the 14th and 15th centuries sold more specialist items such as spices and even dyes.

imageA view of Old London Bridge by an unknown artist.   The area just to the  south of the Stone Gate was known as Bridge Foot.  Getty Images.      

In the time span which I am focussing on here, the 14th and 15th centuries, five trades dominated the bridge – haberdashers, glovers, bowyers, fletchers, cutlers with a few pursers and stringers. The haberdashers sold an enormous range of items including ‘thread of various sorts, dress accessories such as combs, purses, girdles, bracelets, spectacles, looking glasses, undergarments, hats, writing materials such as parchment and paper, rosaries, garment fasteners such as laces, points, pins, buttons and miscellaneous small items such as thimbles and money boxes’.  When from 1285  ‘every freeholder in England with land worth between 40s and 100s a year was expected to keep in his house, a sword, a knife and bows and arrows and from 1363 all able-bodied men were expected to practice archery’ it can be seen that the bowyers, fletchers and stringers would be kept busy.  Interestingly after 1371 it was no longer allowed to make both bows and arrows.  You had to choose one trade or another.  Of course naturally some people ‘resisted’,  as you do, and a gentleman living on the bridge, Robert Verne, found himself in hot water when it was discovered in September 1375 he was making both.  He thereupon promised to stick to being a fletcher only.  By October he had broken his promise and the Mayor fined him and ordered him to be a bowyer.

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