Medieval Butcher

Medieval Butcher

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Middle Ages Food - Meat

Middle Ages Food - Meat
Middle Ages food included a vast range of different meat, especially for the wealthy royalty and nobles . The meats included venison, beef, pork, veal, goat, lamb, rabbit, hare, mutton, swans, herons and poultry. Chickens were believed to have been introduced to England by the Romans. Only Lords and Nobles were allowed to hunt deer, boar, hares and rabbits. The punishment for poaching could result in death or having hands cut off - these types of meat were therefore not available to the poor. The more exotic game birds including thrushes, starlings, blackbirds, quail, cuckoo, lark. peacocks etc, which were eaten during the Middle Ages, have been detailed on:

Recycling and upcycling waste in the late medieval urban economy

In the second part of our ‘Environment & History’ series, historians James Davis, Catherine Casson and John Lee share their research on the re-circulation of waste and by-products in medieval England. This forms part of a unique trans-disciplinary collaboration between medieval historians and academics in the field of sustainability. Their historical case studies examine the three elements of reuse, repair, and recycling, emphasise the significance of institutional policies towards waste management, and thereby help to inform current models of transformational environmental change.

The next essay in the ‘Environment & History’ series will be added on Wednesday 10 February 2021 with ‘Hydropower & Salmon: Historical Case-studies for Modern-day Problem Solving’.

The circular economy

Contemporary environmental concerns about the consumption of finite resources and the production of waste have led to the concept of a circular economy. In this model, processes, products, and systems are designed to keep resources in use for as long as possible in order to extract their maximum value, eliminate waste, and then recover and regenerate these materials.

We are examining the circulation of waste in medieval crafts, identifying practices of recycling, repair, reuse, and upcycling, as well as discovering networks of waste management through crafts working together to use the by-products of others. While modern-day models of upcycling and sustainability are inspiring our work, we are also sharing our evidence for the re-circulation of waste and by-products in medieval England with academic researchers in sustainable consumption, Professor Frank Boons, Dr Helen Holmes, and Harald Wieser at the University of Manchester. By working with these specialists in consumption and the circular economy we are hoping to reach a wider audience.

Academic research in the field of sustainable consumption has rarely utilised historical data and generally considers each element of reuse, repair, and recycling in isolation. It tends to focus on the role of consumers in making decisions. Our research from the Middle Ages examines all three elements of reuse, repair, and recycling, and highlights the key role of institutional policies in both promoting and discouraging more sustainable waste management.

Butcher killing pig. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Rawl. liturg. e. 14, f. 16r, Book of Hours. © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0. Available via Digital Bodleian.

Butcher, baker, candle maker

The medieval butcher probably supplied over twenty-five specialist trades that produced a range of commodities from bottles and boots, to gloves and saddles. After their prime cuts were sold from designated stalls and shops, butchers’ off-cuts of meat ended up in pies and pastries. Little of the rest of an animal was wasted, and the importance of the whole carcass was reinforced by institutional ordinances that prohibited butchers from separating the skin and horns before coming to market, like those of Leicester in 1467:

‘every bocher of the cuntray that bryng flesshe to the market [shall] bryng the skynnes and talowe of the same flesshe with hem in payne of forfetyng thereoff.’

The hides and skins of animals went to local tanners and skinners, who would then supply shoemakers, saddlers, and others. Tallow was acquired by those who made candles for everyday use, as opposed to the more expensive wax variety produced exclusively by chandlers tallow was also purchased by soap makers. There was a fine line between legitimate by-products and fraud, with regular offences in Exeter for those who used inferior fats in their candles.

The inter-relations between crafts led to the spatial clustering of urban occupations, as at Winchester, where chandlers’ workshops were conveniently located on the butchers’ route to offal pits. The bones of animals could be boiled for glue, while horns were carved for drinking vessels, combs, needles, lantern leaves and spectacles. Many of these products were those in increasing demand as standards of living and disposable income rose after the Black Death.

From rags to riches

Our research is revealing similar circulations within the English textile industry of recycling, reuse, and repair, together with inter-craft networks of waste management. There was an active market for second-hand clothes and fabrics, and dealers known as ‘upholders’, fripperers, or ‘phelipers’ can be identified in several medieval English towns including London, Coventry, Norwich, and Nottingham. Botchers re-made garments from old ones. One preacher, the Franciscan friar Nicholas Bozon (fl. c.1320) even used a repairer of old clothes as an analogy for Judgement Day:

‘the simple folk will be exalted for their good deeds and the haughty abused for their pride. Then God will do as the mender of old clothes, who turns the lappet to the front and what was uppermost, downwards.’

With materials expensive and production labour-intensive, little was wasted. Most textiles must have been re-cut and reused until they were finally discarded as worn-out rags or latrine-wipes.

The textile industry’s waste products were coarse tufts and wool offcasts, removed before spinning, known as flocks the unwoven ends of the warp threads left on the loom, and other pieces of waste thread or yarn after weaving, termed thrums and shearings cut from the cloth, also called flocks. These waste products were put to three main uses: stuffing and quilting hat and cap making, and cloth making.

Flocks were used for stuffing beds, cushions, and mattresses, and could be bought for this purpose. The bursars of Durham Cathedral Priory, for example, bought flocks for repairing cushions in one of the prior’s chambers in 1335/6, and paid 16d. for flocks to fill saddles around 1343. Complaints were voiced when these fillings were deceptively mixed or substituted, like the claims made by the Worshipful Company of Upholders in London in 1474 of

‘Featherbeds and bolsters stuffed with feathers and flocks, pillows of down stuffed with thistle down and cats tails, mattresses stuffed with hair and flocks and sold for flocks, mattresses of netish [bovine] hair and horse hair which is called tanners’ hair, jacks [stuffed or quilted tunic] made with rotten cloth and painted clothes of old woollen cloth, cushions stuffed with hair and sold for flocks.’

As a consequence of this petition, the city authorities in London granted the wardens of this guild the power to search for these wares across the city and seize all wares that were insufficiently or not truly made. National legislation followed with an act of 1552 specifying that beds were to be stuffed only with dry feathers or down, and no quilt mattresses or cushions were to be sold that had been stuffed with anything except feathers, wool, or flocks alone. This fraud was not confined to the medieval period, and even in the twentieth century, it was necessary to introduce parliamentary legislation to prescribe filling materials and standards of cleanliness, including the Rag Flock and Other Filling Materials Acts of 1951 and 1981.

Although thrums were off-cuts or waste threads, they were of sufficient value to be exported and recorded in the customs accounts. For example, in 1390/1, four ships left Boston, Lincolnshire, with cargoes including thrums, mostly taken by foreign merchants. Thrums were knitted into caps, and thirty-five dozen ‘thrumhattes’ were imported into Hull by the Anne of Hull in April 1453. Thrums were also used for mops, like those bought in 1466 for the household of Sir John Howard, first duke of Norfolk, to apply pitch to the side of a boat.

Felting was a way of using up waste material from the textile industry including flocks and clippings. Urban authorities, however, repeatedly rejected the use of flocks in felt caps. Representatives of the craft of cappers complained to the mayor and aldermen of London in 1311 that caps were being imported from abroad made of flocks mixed with wool. In Coventry in 1515, it was ordered:

‘that no capper in this city from henceforth flock any cap and so utter (sell) it, upon the pain to forfeit the caps so flocked, and the said caps burnt, and over that for every cap so found faulty and burnt to forfeit 4d…’

Flocks and thrums were also used in cloth-making, including adding to the yarn, and to the cloth during fulling. Guilds, urban authorities, and central government, however, sought to limit the use of flocks in cloth-making. It was feared that utilising flocks and thrums damaged quality and unfairly undercut the production costs of other manufacturers. Several towns, including London, Bristol, and Coventry, had draconian regulations for cloths produced using flocks or thrums. Bristol weavers, for example, were warned that if any cloth was found made of thrums, the cloth, and the instrument on which it was worked on, were to be burnt. These urban regulations were mirrored by national legislation, such as that of 1464 which stated that no person making any woollen cloth, ‘shall mingle or put in or upon the same cloth, nor into the wool whereof the said cloth shall be made, any lambs wool, flocks, tallow or cork’. Exemptions were made, however, following a petition to Parliament, for cloths produced in parts of Devon and Cornwall, which used coarser wool, to include flocks in their manufacture.

Cap, fulled and felted, mid-sixteenth century. British Museum, Museum number 1856,0701.1882 © The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Quality control and consumption

As we have shown, guilds and urban authorities frequently restricted the extent to which craftsmen could innovate and even reuse materials. The close supervision of manufacturing practices and attempts to standardise these practices through the appointment of searchers, together with other regulations on quality, may have encouraged the linear movement of materials rather than their circulation, since they favoured new goods over reuse as a means to protect standards. We see this in the strict rules applied to late medieval cordwainers, who were not to use any old leather in their shoes, and for furriers in London who were forbidden from buying or selling second-hand furs. In York, any skinner who mixed old with new skins would have his product burned in the middle of the street as an example.

Consumer protection was another motivation for regulation. There were concerns that the use of waste materials from production could be used to defraud customers, by substituting inferior quality material for superior quality material. Waste material was often associated more with old, worn, or defective materials, rather than with, for example, off-cuts. Some professions did attempt to exploit consumers by, for example, mixing old and new materials and passing the finished product off as new. But the regulations also made it difficult for shoemakers, for example, to use up several different off-cuts of leather to create a shoe.

The capacity of institutions to restrict the reuse of materials was limited though, particularly when the market for products was widening. The Black Death of 1348-53 had led to a significant increase in material living standards for those who survived. Recent research has suggested that within half a century of this catastrophic pandemic, the average income in England increased by almost 50%. The late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw growing demand for small consumables, many of which were cheaply made and finished, and we can speculate that they were ideal for using up scraps and defective materials. Cheap metal pilgrim badges (pewter or lead) were produced in their thousands and were a growth trade of the fifteenth century. Felt caps were increasingly popular by the mid-fifteenth century and made of compact wool bits to this could also be added bits of fur or hair, not necessarily legitimately.

Repair and reuse also became more acceptable as the Middle Ages progressed. Customers were often involved in the process, providing items from their household to be repaired, reused, or upcycled. The development of shoes with two-piece soles in the late fourteenth century made repair and reuse easier for cobblers, while many shoes in the fifteenth century incorporated heel stiffeners, which could be derived from scrap materials. Metalworkers, as expected, would often melt down old products for reuse. For instance, we know that silver was often given by customers to silversmiths or goldsmiths in the form of old plate or coins, and most silver spoons were made in this way. Pewterers accepted pewter scraps as part-payment for new products. The wills of fifteenth-century London brasiers show large stocks of old metal and brass, probably off-cuts waiting to be melted down, as well as hammers for breaking up scrap. The later fifteenth century saw a rise in demand, particularly from urban consumers, for small, low-cost brasses as a cheap and popular form of commemoration. Discarded pieces of memorial brasses, which used latten plate, could be re-engraved on the reverse without disfigurement. The inscription to Robert Symson, master of the hospital of St James near Northallerton, was erroneously engraved as ‘Northampton’ in 1497, but reused just five years later by reversing the plate to provide an inscription to yeoman William Pope in the church of Cowley, Middlesex. Wills provide occasional hints at the circulation of manufacturing materials. In Ipswich, for instance, in 1473, Alice Andrew requested that all her brass and latten should be melted down for the new bell at the church of St Mary at the Quay.

In a medieval urban society, where raw materials could be relatively expensive and profit margins tight, the re-employment of scraps and by-products was an essential part of craft strategy. The circulation of by-products also had an environment impact in terms of reducing their urban footprint. The greater the level of circulation, the lower the overall use of materials and energy for a given number of outputs. Medieval artisans were seemingly well aware of the potential value of their industrial ‘waste’. This affected the location, coordination, resourcing, and costs of their crafts, and how they responded to changes in consumer demand. Certain crafts/trades grew due to these established patterns and networks of medieval waste management. Institutions were not always supportive of attempts to reuse and recycle materials, but medieval craftsmen found means to circumvent these restrictions and supply growing consumer demand. As modern consumers, manufacturers, and governments seek to increase the reuse, repair, and recycling of commodities, there is much that we can learn from the medieval economy.

Medieval consumption – feasting beside a fireplace with fine tableware and table linen. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Rawl. liturg. e. 14, f. 5r. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0. Available via Digital Bodleian. This image was also used for the blog-post header.


Dr James Davis is a Reader in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and author of Medieval Market Morality: Life, Law and Ethics in the English Marketplace, 1200-1500 (Cambridge, 2012).
Dr Catherine Casson is a Lecturer at the Alliance Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester and author of The Entrepreneur in History: From Medieval Merchant to Modern Business Leader (Basingstoke, 2013).
Dr John Lee is a Research Associate at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and author of The Medieval Clothier (Woodbridge, 2018).

We often talk about the importance of the industrial revolution and how it changed the world around us, but not many know that such a revolution occurred during the high middle ages. The invention of the heavy plough (described above) presented a unique implement which transformed the difficult, low-yielding, clay-rich soil of northern Europe from a clearly inferior soil to the most high-yielding farmland a farmer could wish for. Clay is naturally an incredibly fertile soil, but due to its heaviness it was difficult to turn and renew, and thus clay-rich farmland became gradually more infertile. The invention of the heavy plough changed this in fact it was, almost by itself, entirely responsible for an explosion of population in northern Europe. It was probably the reason that, even with the diminished number of farmers after the outbreak of the Black Death plague, the population managed to re-stabilise and eventually sky-rocket. You can read more about this phenomenon in the article “The Heavy Plough and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe”, linked in the references below.

Can you think of a medieval tool used in agriculture that we forgot to mention? Are there other collections of items you’d like to see or learn more about? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll try to publish it for you (artwork and all)!

All assets created by us are free to use and authorised by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International. This means you can use them as you wish for non commercial use by attributing somewhere the creators. If you want the PSD or PNG transparent versions of them, let us know, we are more than happy to share.

1. Eating local was a necessity, rather than a social phenomenon

A person&rsquos diet was based on the same rule which dominates the real estate industry centuries later location, location, and location. Besides being seasonal, available food depended on the region in which one resided. In less populated areas where game was available it was often the center of the menu at dinner. Anything which lived in the woods or flew in the air was considered game. There are recipes for robins, and their eggs, from the medieval period, which were old then. Swan was a delicacy on the tables of the wealthy. On many estates in England and in Europe deer was considered the property of the landowner, and tenants could be punished for killing them. But rabbits and squirrels were fair game.

Beef became a feature of the meals of the wealthy but the less fortunate could not afford it, nor did they have the means of preparing large cuts of beef on their smaller hearths. They subsided on much smaller meats, rabbits, squirrels, rodents and birds such as pigeons, robins, larks, and doves. Chickens were valued for their eggs and seldom killed for the plate in the early medieval period, it was far more likely for poultry to be in the form of geese or duck. Often they too were the property of the landowner, and the tenant who killed them faced severe punishment including branding or maiming, for the sin of having roasted duck for his families dinner.

Medieval Butcher - History

Preserving our trade means knowing the past, as well as teaching the next generation.
Here is a timeline of the butchers' marks on history. Guilds have long been the recorders for meat cutters. We are telling your stories.
We are all part of the same story.

-Before recorded history: University of Miami scientists and underwater archaeologists discovered the remains of a butchered giant sloth at a Florida sinkhole. The remains are thought to be about 12,000 years old. An earlier discovery of a sharpened stick and tortoise remains had led them to believe the area was used as a butcher shop for early man.

- 30 AD: In the Bible, Matthew 22:4, Jesus references butchery in a parable: “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’” This dates to 30 AD, the earliest written evidence I have come across. There are earlier references to butchering in the Bible, but this is the first to reference it as a distinct profession. Website Submission via form - Rory Groves. (Thank you Rory!)

-2nd Century AD: An ancient relief work from Rome depicts a butcher shop, where the butcher is busy in his work with the help of a cleaver. The relief also displays a butchers table for dressing the meat and hooks for hanging them.

-975 AD: This is the earliest history of butchers in London (London's Ward of Farringdon Without), when the butchers used to meet regularly at the Butchers Hall located in various parts of the city.

-11th Century: The Shambles, the oldest street in York which is mentioned in The Domesday Book of William the Conqueror, was the location of the meat market in York and the center of the butching profession. "Shambles" means - "Butchers stalls, a Meat-Market".

-1272: The first reference to a Guild structure in York appears in the Freemen's Rolls of 1272, with thirty-six names that include two citizens, Robert Withenskirtes and Nich. de Nunnewk, registered as Freemen Butchers. The Butchers' Gild held sway in matters of hygiene, weights and measures, meat restricted days and fast periods, and over 'foreign' (i.e. non-guild) butchers. The Gild Searchers operated as overseers for the good of the trade with powers of search of shops and stalls, of imposition of fines and of application of correction and punishment.

-Mid-14th Century: In the Mediterranean world, there was a rise in the political importance of the butcher due to a receding of cereal crops, mostly owing to the effects of the Black Death. The massive scale of death in both the Muslim and Christian Mediterranean led to the expansion of a sylvan-pastoral economy because of the reversion of farm land to pasture, causing the appearance of more meat on the peasant's table.

-1415: There were 96 craft guilds in York, at the peak of guild control of trade and civic life.

-14th Century: The Worshipful Company of Butchers was started and remains one of the UK's oldest guilds.

-16th Century: In Europe, the butchers from the town of Cesky Krumlov took a major initiative to form guilds. This guild issued several rules and restrictions for slaughtering animals, such as the slaughtering could be performed only at the mentioned slaughterhouse and not in private houses or meat market. The town of Cesky Krumlov grew up with the help of these skilled craftsmen.

-16th Century: In Jerusalem, members of the butcher's guild filled the hisba office, one of the oldest institutions of the Islamic state, responsible for promoting good and forbidding evil as proscribed in the Koran. The muhtasib, the head of the hisba office, inspected market activities and collected taxes, such as the "butcher's seal tax" guaranteeing the quality of meat.

-1556: Standards of workmanship were protected through the apprenticeship system. In London the authorities decided that: "Until a man grows unto the age of 24 he has not grown into the full knowledge of the art that he professeth." Seven years was generally agreed as the minimum period of training and servitude before the apprentice became a 'freeman to ply his trade'. Apprentice registration was controlled so that children of freemen had priority of admission to the learning of a craft. Guild Masters were responsible for the Indenture and for the entry of apprentices in the City's Register, following one month's probationary period.

-1640: The first meat packers in America started in the New England area and as the frontiers pushed westward, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers were used by the early settlers of the Midwest to transport cured meat from that area to the East Coast, via the Atlantic Ocean, before and after the War of 1812. Practically all meats were dry salt cured during this time, making salt a very scarce and valuable commodity. It has been reported that during the Civil War a Mississippi governor actually traded cotton for salt to Union troops in order to preserve meat for the Confederate troops of Mississippi.

-1720: Isaac Varian, my nine-times great grandfather first appears of record as a butcher in the city of New York in 1720, his shop was located at the Old Slip Market. This side of my family is of French origin and had emigrated from France to Holland about the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1598).

Isaac Varian was admitted freeman of new York City, January 23, 1733. He followed the avocation of butchering in New York for many years and has always been regarded as one of the "fathers of the guild". In 1750 he was lessee of stand No. 3, in the "Fly Market" and had occupied it since December 10, 1735. In 1737-38 he was a member of the military company of Captain Cornelis Van Horne. In May, 1740, Isaac Varian was proprietor of a stall in the "Meal" or "Wall Street Market." In 1784 he appears as a petitioner for the establishment by Richard Deane of a public slaughter house on the North river. He is also the "Isaac Varian, butcher," who lived or was in business at 105 Queen (now Pearl) Street 33 Bowery Lane in 1790 35 Bowery Lane, 1791 38 Bowery Lane, 1792 to 93 61 Bowery Lane in 1798. He accumulated considerable property including the second oldest home in the area, the Valentine-Varian house which was a 260 acre estate in what is now the Bronx.

Isaac Varian's youngest son was also Isaac, son of Isaac (1) and Elizabeth (De Voe) Varian, was born in New York City, September 8, 1740, died on one of his estates in Westchester County, New York, May 29, 1820. He was a butcher in New York City, residing and doing business at 176-180 Bowery from 1806 to 1818. His name frequently occurs in the records from that period. In 1784 he was one of the petitioners for the news New York slaughter house, and in 1805 he was one of the first butchers located in Catherine Market. July 20, 1790, with Gilbert Coutant, he petitioned for a place in the Fly Market, and in 1803 occupied stand No. 29 there.

In 1795 he signed with others the certificate of apprenticeship of Caleb Vandenberg. He prospered and accumulated a handsome competence, consisting of landed estate both in New York and in Westchester counties. The old "Varian House" and the farm on which it was situated was originally purchased by him and for a long period existed as a prominent landmark on Manhattan Island and is presently the home of the Bronx Historical Society. Website Submission via form - Michael Strunk. (Thank you Michael)

-Late 1700s-early 1800s: Americans took their cattle and hogs over the Appalachians after the Revolutionary War, and the volume of livestock in the Ohio River Valley increased rapidly. Cincinnati packers took advantage of this development and shipped barreled pork and lard throughout the valley and down the Mississippi River. They devised better methods to cure pork and used lard components to make soap and candles. By 1840 Cincinnati led all other cities in pork processing and proclaimed itself Porkopolis.

-Early 19th Century: The island of Guernsey near France became renowned for its meat market. Many of the butchers from this island later settled in United Kingdom and got known as Guernsey Butchers.

-1835: The 1835 Municipal Reform Act finally abolished all guild trade privileges. In York, guilds withered and nearly all passed away except for two with property. These, The Merchant Adventurers and The Merchant Taylors, converted into social and charitable institutions. A third, The Butchers' Gild, struggled on into the 20th century, with just a single member by 1940.
-1839: The Chicago city council granted Joseph Blanchard the right to construct the city's first public market and to rent out stalls to local butchers, grocers, and produce dealers. The council prohibited the sale of retail proportions of meat, eggs, poultry, and vegetables anywhere else in the city during market hours.

-Late 1800s: The development of direct-expansion ammonia refrigeration and the development of electricity allowed the meat processing industry to become a year-round business and not one controlled primarily by atmospheric temperature.

-1865: Chicago was the U.S.'s largest meatpacking center and the acknowledged headquarters of the industry. It was able to gain this title because most Midwestern farmers also raised livestock, and railroads tied Chicago to its Midwestern hinterland and to the large urban markets on the East Coast. In addition, Union army contracts for processed pork and live cattle supported packinghouses on the branches of the Chicago River and the railroad stockyards which shipped cattle.To alleviate the problem of driving cattle and hogs through city streets, the leading packers and railroads incorporated the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company and built an innovative facility south of the city limits. Accessible to all railroads serving Chicago, the huge stockyard received 3 million cattle and hogs in 1870 and 12 million just 20 years later.

-Mid-late 1800s: Pork packers such as Philip Armour built large plants west of the Chicago stockyards, developed ice-cooled rooms so they could pack year round, and introduced steam hoists to elevate carcasses and an overhead assembly line to move them. Gustavus Swift, who came to Chicago to ship cattle, developed a way to send fresh-chilled beef in ice-cooled railroad cars all the way to the East Coast.

-Early 1890s: At the behest of foreign governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started inspecting pork exports.

-Late 1890’s-early 1900’s: Some of the major meat packing companies of the Mid-West (Swift, Armour and Cudahy) established some distribution points (branch houses) at various locations along the Mississippi River as well as near some towns served by the railroads. The predominant meats sold through these branch houses were dry-cured pork (i.e., hams, bacon, salt meat, etc.), canned meats and lard. At first the customers would pick up these products from depots or docks and carry them back to their stores. Later on, local delivery was provided by horse or mule-drawn wagons.

-Early 1900s: Mechanical refrigeration increased the efficiency of both pork and beef operations. Moreover, Chicago packers were preserving meat in tin cans, manufacturing an inexpensive butter substitute called oleomargarine, and, with the help of chemists, turning previously discarded parts of the animals into glue, fertilizer, glycerin, ammonia, and gelatin.

-1906: Upton Sinclair's sensational novel The Jungle led to the Meat Inspection Act, which put federal inspectors in all packinghouses whose products entered interstate or foreign commerce.

-1920: The meat industry promoted itself through little recipe booklets, most of which were published by the (U.S.) National Live Stock and Meat Board. These booklets, which were published through the '50s and featured titles like 250 Ways to Prepare Meat, Your New Meat Cookbook, Meat Recipes to Please, Medley of Meat Recipes, There's Always Time to Cook Meat, Today's Meat Cookery, All About Meat. The booklets were distributed to consumers for free via local retail outlets.

-1920: Combination grocery stores that sold perishable items were developed.

-1920's: U.S. Government inspectors began grading beef and pork.

-1930's: Large supermarkets challenge the dominance of the small neighborhood stores, whether they are independent or a member of a chain. The supermarket took advantage of several developments to become a viable method of marketing low-priced food. The availability of nationally branded packaged foods allowed supermarkets to replace full-service clerks with self-service aisles and counters staffed by “checkout girls.” Increased use of the automobile and home refrigeration encouraged customers to abandon daily trips to neighborhood groceries, meat markets, vegetable stands, and bakeries for weekly trips to the supermarket, where all their food needs were met under one roof.

-1940: Mr. F. Wright, butcher of Goodramgate, York, and Mr. C. N. B. Crombie, solicitor of York, persuaded the last remaining member of The Butcher's Gild to swear in new members. As a result, the present Gild is able to claim continuous membership from its mediaeval roots. The first Court of the modern Butchers' Gild was held in 1940 at the Hermitage, Stockton on the Forest.

-1941: The first Feast of the modern Butchers' Gild was held in the Davy Hall, Davygate on Shrove Tuesday.

-1943: The first new-era Master of the Butchers' Gild took office.

-1950: The City Council was able to provide The Butchers' Gild with a suitable hall, appropriately in The Shambles.

-1960s: Business in the older railroad stockyards and city packinghouses declined sharply due to a rise in new packing plants. Unlike the compact, multistory buildings in Chicago, these new plants were sprawling one-story structures with power saws, mechanical knives, and the capacity to quick-freeze meat packaged in vacuum bags. Large refrigerator trucks carried the products over interstate highways to supermarkets.

-1967: U.S. Congress requires states to perform inspection and grading duties in plants selling within state boundaries.

-1970: Chicago's Union Stock Yard closed.

-1991: The authorities looked for a 'commercial rent' for the Butcher's Hall located in The Shambles. The Butchers' Gild was unable to match the sum proposed and moved out (although the doorway in the Shambles is still carved with the name 'Butchers Hall'). The Gild was fortunate in being able to move into, and furnish, the recently renovated 'Jacob's Well' in Trinity Lane, Micklegate.

-2002: During the late 1990's, the Butchers' Gild debated and accepted the notion of the entry of Lady Members. (History indicates that this was always acceptable and was particularly applied when a widow continued the running of a business after the loss of her husband). The first three ladies in the modern era were admitted to the Company on Shrove Tuesday, 2002.

-2004: Subscribing membership to the Butchers' Gild is in the order of eighty persons.

-2004: Butchers once again become important to restaurants when Danny Meyer asks Pat LaFrieda, a third-generation Manhattan meat purveyor, to craft a custom blend of hamburger for his Shake Shack restaurant. The butcher’s name gained so much currency that Keith McNally commissioned a special LaFrieda Black Label made from prime dry-aged cuts that is fashioned into $26 hamburger at his new Minetta Tavern.

-2006: Bill Buford's article "CARNAL KNOWLEDGE: How I became a Tuscan butcher" is published in the New Yorker, which fashions an operatic meat hero out of Dario Cecchini, a towering, Dante-spouting butcher from the Chianti countryside.

-2009: Quality meat from small producers has started to make a comeback. These farmers do not send their animals to the large processors that dominate the meat industry, creating a demand for butchers. The rise of locally raised meat, and the popularity of so-called off-cuts is causing a rise in the butcher shop.

-2011: The Butcher's Guild formed and began accepting professional members

Medieval Surgery Was Often Fatal

Hospitals in the Dark Ages were reserved for the sick or dying. More like hospice care than modern hospitals, the blind, the desperate, and those with spiritual needs stayed in hospitals. If surgery was required, people went under the knife at the barbershop where a barber (or a butcher!) would try to allay ailments like ulcers, kidney stones, and eye cataracts.

As an interesting tidbit, the signature striped poles outside of barbershops represent the color of blood and the white of bandages characteristic of medieval surgery. Again, anesthetics were not used, and instruments were not sterilized. Unsterilized tools would cause fatal infections.

The Shambles—York’s Famous Medieval Street

We can learn a lot about the history of a place just from its name.

“Shambles” is an archaic term for an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market.

Aptly named The Shambles, this beautiful medieval cobbled street in York was once lined with butcher’s shops and stalls, or benches, for displaying meat known as “Shamels” in Anglo-Saxon.

The Shambles, Heritage Plaque, York. Credit Peter Hughes

As you walk down the ancient street and look up, the overhanging timber-framed buildings—some dating from the 14th century—appear to almost touch in places.

Jettying was a building technique used in medieval times in which the upper floors projected beyond the lower floors, thus increasing available space without obstructing the street.

It had the added benefit of not raising property taxes, which were based on the ground floor area.

The Shambles, York. Credit Neil Howard, flickr The Shambles’ overhanging buildings. Credit Nilfanion The Shambles, York. Credit Neil Howard, flickr

In 1872, there were twenty-five butchers’ shops lining the street, but now there are none.

The Shambles, York. Credit Chris Combe Shambles in Snow. Credit Matt Cornock

Today, the Shambles is a wonderful place to stroll, to shop, and to eat.

Quaint little shops, cafes, tea rooms, and restaurants line the street—winner of Google’s Most Picturesque Street in Britain for 2010.

No. 1 Shambles. Credit Tim Green

Shop window in The Shambles, York. Credit Jhsteel Shopping in the Shambes. Credit Poliphilo The Shambles. Credit Jhsteel, Richard Croft The Shambles Tea Rooms, The Shambles, York. Credit Poliphilo

And with street signs like this, you won’t have to worry about losing your way.

Signpost at the bottom of The Shambles. Credit Peter Whelerton

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Several “snickelways” lead off the Shambles. In his book A Walk Around the Snickelways of York, author Mark W. Jones coined the word Snickelway from the words snicket (a passageway between walls or fences), ginnel (a narrow passageway between or through buildings), and alleyway (a narrow street or lane).

Take a little snickelway off the shambles called “Little Shambles” (they thought of everything), and you walk into Shambles Market, a historic and vibrant open-air market complete with fresh produce, unique crafts and essential merchandise. Sample the street food and enjoy courtesy seating and even Wi-Fi!

Little Shambles, York. Credit Baz Richardson, flickr The Shambles Market, York

The Shambles Street View. Take a virtual walk back in time to medieval York.

The medieval marketplace: a time traveller’s guide to shopping in the Middle Ages

How much did average items cost in a medieval market? And what was for sale? Ian Mortimer, author of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, takes us on a shopping trip in a 14th-century marketplace, from the sights and smells to how to avoid being conned out of your wages…

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Published: November 25, 2020 at 6:05 am

The poet WH Auden once suggested that, in order to understand your own country, you need to have lived in at least two others. But what about your own time? By the same reckoning, you need to have experienced at least two other centuries. This presents us with some difficulties. But through historical research, coming to terms with another century is not impossible.

We can approach the past as if it really is ‘a foreign country’ – somewhere we might visit. And we do not actually need to travel in time to appreciate it – just the idea of visiting the past allows us to see life differently, and more immediately. Come shopping in the late 14th century and see for yourself.

The medieval marketplace

“Ribs of beef and many a pie!” you hear someone call over your shoulder. Turning, you see a young lad walking through the crowd bearing a tray laden with wooden bowls of cooked meats from a local shop.

All around him people are moving, gesturing, talking. So many have come in from the surrounding villages that this town of about 3,000 inhabitants is today thronged with twice as many. Here are men in knee-length brown tunics driving their cattle before them. Here are their wives in long kirtles with wimples around their heads and necks. Those men in short tunics and hoods are valets in a knight’s household. Those in long gowns with high collars and beaver-fur hats are wealthy merchants. Across the marketplace more peasants are leading in their flocks of sheep, or packhorses and carts loaded with crates of chickens.

Crowds are noisy. People are talking so much that chatter could almost be the whole purpose of the market – and in many ways it is. This is the one open public area in the town where people can meet and exchange information. When a company performs a mystery play, it is to the marketplace that they will drag the cart containing their stage, set and costumes. When the town crier rings his bell to address the people of the town, it is in the marketplace that the crowd will gather to hear him. The marketplace is the heart of any town: indeed, the very definition of a town is that it has a market.

What can you buy? Let’s start at the fishmongers’ stalls. You may have heard that many sorts of freshwater and sea fish are eaten in medieval England. Indeed, more than 150 species are consumed by the nobility and churchmen, drawn from their own fishponds as well as the rivers and seas.

But in most markets it is the popular varieties which you see glistening in the wet hay-filled crates. Mackerel, herring, lampreys, cod, eels, Aberdeen fish (cured salmon and herring), and stockfish (salt cod) are the most common varieties. Crabs and lobsters are transported live, in barrels. In season you will see fresh salmon – attracting the hefty price of four or five shillings each. A fresh turbot can cost even more, up to seven shillings.

Next we come to an area set aside for corn: sacks of wheat, barley, oats and rye are piled up, ready for sale to the townsmen. Then the space given over to livestock: goats, sheep, pigs and cows. A corner is devoted to garden produce – apples, pears, vegetables, garlic and herbs – yet the emphasis of a medieval diet is on meat, cheese and cereal crops. In a large town you will find spicerers selling such exotic commodities as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, liquorice, and many different types of sugar.

These are only for the wealthy. When your average skilled workman earns only two shillings (2s) in a week, he can hardly afford to spend four shillings (4s) on a pound of cloves or 20 pence (20d) on a pound of ginger.

The rest of the marketplace performs two functions. Producers come to sell fleeces, sacks of wool, tanned hides, furs, iron, steel and tin for resale further afield. The other function is to sell manufactured commodities to local people: brass and bronze cooking vessels, candlesticks and spurs, pewterware, woollen cloth, silk, linen, canvas, carts, rushes (for hall floors), glass, faggots, coal, nails, horse shoes and planks of wood.

Planks, you ask? Consider the difficulties of transporting a tree trunk to a saw pit, and then getting two men to saw it into planks with only a handsaw between them.

Everyone in medieval society is heavily dependent on each other for such supplies, and the marketplace is where all these interdependencies meet.


Essential items such as ale and bread have their prices fixed by law. Yet for almost everything that’s been manufactured you will have to negotiate. Caxton’s 15th-century dialogue book is based on a 14th-century language guide, and gives the following lesson in how to haggle with a cloth vendor:

“Dame, what hold ye the ell (45 inches) of this
cloth? Or what is worth the cloth whole?
In short, so to speak, how much the ell?”
“Sire, reason ye shall have it good and cheap.”
“Yea, truly, for cattle. Dame, ye must me win.
Take heed what I shall pay.”
“Four shillings for the ell, if it please you.”
“For so much would I have good scarlet.”
“But I have some which is not of the best
which I would not give for seven shillings.”
“But this is no such cloth, of so much money,
that know ye well!”
“Sire, what is it worth?”
“Dame, it were worth to me well three shillings.”
“That is evil-boden.”
“But say certainly how shall I have it without
a part to leave?”
“I shall give it ye at one word: ye shall pay five
shillings, certainly if ye have them for so many
ells, for I will abate nothing.”

And so you open your purse, which hangs from the cords attached to your belt and find five shillings. Except that there is no shilling coin in the late 14th century. The smallest gold coins are the half-noble (3s 4d) and the quarter-noble (1s 8d), so if you have one each of these, you can make up the sum. Alternatively you will have to make it up from the silver coins: groats (4d), half-groats, pennies, halfpence and farthings (¼d).

How much did medieval shopping items cost?

Prices in the 1390s*

Ale, ordinary: ¾d–1d per gallon

Wine from Bordeaux: 3d–4d per gallon

* Prices from the account books of Henry of Lancaster, Earl of Derby.

Wages/salaries in the 1390s

The king’s physician: £40 per year

Officers in the royal household: £20 per year

Mason: £8 per year (6d per day)

Valets in a lord’s household: £1 10s per year

Manservant in a yeoman’s household: £1 per year

Maidservant in a yeoman’s household: 10s per year

In old money, there were 12 pence (d) to the shilling (s) and 20 shillings to the pound (£).


A well-run market is crucial to the standing of a town. Thus it is heavily regulated. The actual policing tends to be undertaken by the town’s bedels or bailiffs, who enforce regulations like “no horses may be left standing in the marketplace on market days” and “every man is to keep the street in front of his tenement clean”. Most towns have between 40 and 70 regulations, and those breaking them are taken to the borough court and fined.

There are reasons to be grateful for the supervision of trade. Short measures are a notorious problem, and turners normally have to swear to make wooden measures of the appropriate size. Clerks in borough courts will tell you of cooking pots being made out of soft metal and coated with brass, and loaves of bread baked with stones in them to make them up to the legally required weight.

Wool is stretched before it is woven, to make it go further (but then it shrinks). Pepper is sold damp, making it swell, weigh more, and rot sooner. Meat is sometimes sold even though it is putrid, wine even though it has turned sour, and bread when it has gone green.

If you are the victim of malpractice, go straight to the authorities. The perpetrator will be pilloried – literally. The pillory is the wooden board which clasps the guilty man’s head and hands, and shamefully exposes him to the insults of the crowd.

A butcher selling bad meat can expect to be dragged through the streets of the town on a hurdle and then placed in the pillory with the rotten meat burnt under him. A vintner caught selling foul wine is dragged to the pillory on a hurdle, forced to drink a draught of the offending liquor, and then set in the pillory where the remainder is poured over his head. The sweetness of the revenge makes up for the sourness of the wine.

Shopping in the 14th century will often remind you of how much we have in common with our medieval forebears. It will likewise alert you to the huge differences between us. We are not the same as our ancestors. Look at how young they are – the median age is just 21 – and look at the meagre diet of the poor, their rotten teeth as they smile, their resilience in the face of death.

Consider how rough and smelly the streets are, and how small the sheep and cattle are in the marketplace. When a fight breaks out over some stolen goods, and the bedels rush to intervene, you may see how the spirit of the people is so similar to our own and yet how much the process of managing that spirit has changed. For if the stolen goods are of sufficient value, the thieves will be summarily tried and hanged the same day. This is what makes history so interesting – the differences between us across the centuries, as well as the similarities.

At dusk – just before the great gates of the city are closed for the night, and you see everyone leaving the adjacent taverns – you may begin to think that Auden was on to something. To understand ourselves, we must first see society differently – and to remember that history is the study of the living, not the dead.

Dr Ian Mortimer is best known as the author of The Time Traveller’s Guides, namely Medieval England (2008), Elizabethan England (2012) and Restoration Britain (2017).

Controlling the butchers in late medieval English towns.

CONTRARY TO POPULAR belief, medieval municipal populations and governments took pains to improve their urban environments. Their efforts frequently focused on controlling the impact of butchers. In an era without refrigeration, the "meat" was most conveniently and healthfully brought to market on four legs and slaughtered within the confines of town. This left a smelly, slippery mess in the city streets, assaulting the noses and threatening the step of passersby.

In response, urban governments throughout England enacted ordinances designed to improve town environments by regulating, among many other things, the practices of the butchers: where and when cattle were to be brought into the town, the location of their markets, the disposal of offal--all came under scrutiny. Should butchers not conform to the demand of these regulations, other townsmen proved quick to complain about the nuisances.

This study examines the ordinances and examples of their enforcement drawn from a broad sample of cities and towns from throughout England. Topics will include the location of cattle markets and butchers' stalls, the disposal and transport of offal, municipal provisions such as slaughter and scalding houses, and efforts to ensure clean streets. The language used to describe the olfactory assaults reveals concern not only for improving the municipal physical environment, but also the identification of foul smells with disease and with spiritual corruption.

Governments regulated and citizens complained for a variety of reasons. Some towns had been prompted by the sensibilities of kings or nobles. Others found their own sense of decorum and propriety sufficient to prompt action. The common belief that noxious air--miasma--caused diseases underpinned the demand for regulation. While modern notions of the germ theory of disease dismiss this medieval "science," stinking piles of offal did attract everything from rodents to bacteria. While mistaken about the cause of diseases, they had made a correct decision. Their desire to improve the respectability of the town also loomed large among their motives.

This topic forms a portion of a larger study of environmental regulations in late medieval English towns. Within that study, butchers repeatedly, and seemingly more than any other tradesmen, found themselves the object of frequent complaints and multiple regulations. Of course, a number of other scholars have examined environmental issues and have discussed butchers and the attempts to control them. In the 1930s, Ernest Sabine provided three early and thorough studies of environmental topics, one of which focused on London butchers. (2) Interest in environmental topics waned after this, and those interested in such arcane topics more likely found brief mentions in the histories of various towns and archaeological reports than in studies devoted to environmental history. Other perspectives however also could provide much information. In the 1970s, Philip Jones' study of London butchers devoted a good deal of his text to the environmental issues. (3) As interest in environmental history increased, perspectives broadened geographically to look beyond London and to include social history and archaeology. David Palliser examined "Civic Mentality and the Environment in Tudor York" and gave substantial attention to the problems caused by butchers.(4) P. V. Addyman used the archaeological evidence unearthed in York from the 1970s onward to discuss public health and, by extension, urban environmental matters. (5) Derek Keene adopted a broader perspective in the early 1980s by using both documentary and archaeological evidence, and by discussing several towns. (6) In 1976, Colin Platt, drawing upon his own fine research as well as that of numerous other scholars, devoted a substantial portion of his book to municipal environmental matters. (7) However, despite the general interest in global, regional and local environmental history, both general and specific English urban histories devote only brief space to such a basic theme. At present, early modern and modern historians have proven more active. For instance, Emily Cockayne's recently published book, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 16001770, deals with a postmedieval era. (8)

This study seeks to provide some balance by assessing one facet of medieval environmental history: the regulation of butchers. Nearly all the historians of English towns devote some attention to butchers. Despite their relatively high economic standing, butchers seldom escaped the scrutiny and criticism of municipal and even royal officials. Their marketing practices, their markets, their dogs, their cattle, pigs, and sheep, their slaughter and scalding houses, and their refuse loom large in judicial and governmental records of medieval English cities. For now, the slaughtering of animals and the disposal of remnants of that process will receive the greatest attention.

In an age long before mechanical refrigeration and transport, the most convenient method of delivering unspoiled meat to urban dwellers involved herding animals into the town and slaughtering them in or near the designated meat market. In both large and small towns, this frequently occurred in front of the butcher's stall or shop. Vivid imaginations are unnecessary to picture the effects of these procedures on the street. Even with the presence of slaughterhouses--more likely in larger towns--purposely built for the activity, problems emerged. While this centralization improved the state of the shambles, it also gave rise to an even greater concentration of waste products that demanded disposal. In turn, complaints and regulations increased.

While complaints about and regulations directed against butchers existed in numerous other English towns and cities, the most profuse records stem from England's most populous city, London. And none of the London butchers received more attention than those of St. Nicholas shambles. Their activities had prompted London's husting court to respond to a number of complaints about the "noisomeness arising from the butchers . throwing entrails on the pavement . " (9) In 1342/43, the mayor and council granted the butchers a parcel on the Fleet where they should repair a pier extending into that stream and use it to dispose of the entrails. (10) Waste dumped there, they thought, would flow to the Thames and be removed by the ebb and flow of that river.

In 1354, however, the complaint of the prior of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem prompted a royal writ directed to the mayor and the sheriffs of London. The prior argued that the wharf was the rightful property of the hospital and that the "depositing of 'entrails, etc., of cattle . by . the said butchers' caused a 'stench arising therefrom . so bad as to be injurious to the health'" of the prisoners. The prior claimed that previous complaints had been ignored, and the writ ordered the mayor and sheriffs "to do speedy justice touching the said wharf." (11) The prior won his case.

In the following year, another writ ordered the mayor, sheriffs, aldermen, and commonalty to provide a suitable place for these wastes, now that the butchers had been dislodged from the Fleet location. A response revealed that the butchers had bought land directly on the Thames for this purpose and that anyone disturbing the butchers was to be arrested and imprisoned. (12)

Now, a new problem emerged. Transporting the offal from the shambles near Newgate to the new "Bochersbrigge" spawned complaints from individuals along the route. In 1369, Parliament ordered the demolition of the new pier as a "nuisance." The butchers, however, continued to carry the waste to the Thames, prompting prohibition of the practice in 1370. Also in that year, the guardian of the Friars Minor complained by his attorney in the assize of nuisance that Richard Bayser, butcher, and his wife had built a scaldinghouse in their tenement and slaughtered pigs and other animals there. Animal blood and hair from rinsing the carcasses then flowed into the ditch in the street and from there into the friars' garden "causing a stench." (13) In the following year, the slaughter of animals by the St. Nicholas butchers within the city was forbidden. This prohibition was reaffirmed in 1387 and 1391. (14)

Richard II's writ of 1387 cited that of Edward III in 1361 and its confirmation by Parliament in 1380 that "great beasts" should be slaughtered outside the city at Stratford or Knightsbridge. (15) Problems, however, persisted. In 1391, yet another royal writ arrived, prompted by complaints about "the nuisance caused by the slaughter of animals near Holbournbrigge" delivered in Parliament by a remarkable group: the duke of Lancaster, the bishops of Lincoln and Ely, the earl of Northumberland, the prior of St. John of Jerusalem, the abbot of Leicester, the prior of St. Bartholomew, the prior of Sempringham, the nuns of Clerkenwell, Lords Cherleton, Straunge, Scrope, Gray, and Burnell, and tenants in Holborn, Smithfeld, St. "Johanestrete," "Clerkenwellestrete," and the bailey near Neugate and Fletestreet. The butchers were ordered to deposit no "filth" within one mile of the city and its suburbs. (16) Even this went undone, and on 28 May 1392, yet another writ reminded the city of the previous writ forbidding the slaughter of "cows, oxen, pig[s] and other animals" within the city. (17)

While these measures may have removed the actual slaughter of animals from within the confines of the city, they did nothing about the disposal of the offal. In February 1393, a royal writ ordered the mayor and sheriff to remove a latrine on the bank of the Thames and there build a structure where the butchers were to cut up their waste, then put it in a boat and dump it in the middle of the river. This was to be done by 25 May, after which date "no one cast rubbish or filth into the water under penalty of paying 40 [pounds sterling] to the King's use. " (18) This remarkably large fine should have given anyone pause. In June, the aldermen in their wardmoots were to report any problems, specifically asking the butchers about the disposal of offal in the Thames. (19)

These regulations, however, had the unintended consequence of raising the price of meat. Early in 1393, the "Commonalty" of the city petitioned Parliament, stating that forbidding the slaughtering within the city had "unduly enhanced" the cost and asked that the mayor and aldermen be allowed to prescribe certain places within their franchise where beasts might be slaughtered.: (20) Clearly, complaints about the cost of environmental regulations are not peculiar to the modern era.

Many of the measures adopted by London's municipal government resulted from complaints submitted to the king, often in Parliament. And many of those complainants had come from the "elite"--both clerics and laymen--residing in the city. As is readily apparent, the implementation of the commands contained in the resulting royal writs came slowly. Several instances of subsequent directives to enforce or implement those commands exist.

Does this reveal a reluctance on the part of the mayor and citizens to disturb the significant commerce in meat, or perhaps a disregard for the authority of the monarchs? The latter seems unlikely because the crown had demonstrated its authority by depriving the city of its privileges on a number of occasions over the centuries. The kings had always been able ultimately to bring London to heel. More likely, the city simply moved slowly because of its limited number of enforcement officials and the cumbersome character of its courts. Only very gradually did paid officials begin to emerge--and that chiefly in the course of the fifteenth century. Within London, the assize of nuisance offered the most efficient venue for citizens to lodge their complaints. Even here, entering a complaint merely began a long process, which might take months or even years to resolve the issue and remove the nuisance. The court would select a committee of viewers. Aldermen would be notified. Investigations made. Findings issued. Directives given. The last, while communicated to the offending party, often went ignored, prompting renewed pleas to correct the nuisance. And time was always provided to remove or correct the nuisance.

The not-yet Monster City was not alone in facing the offal consequences of butchering. York butchers also faced regulations. In 1371, apparently after a complaint from the Friars Minor, butchers were ordered to deposit their offal downstream of the friary or be fined half a mark. The brothers used the water between the bridge over the Ouse and the friary for both brewing and baking. (21) York also felt the criticism of kings. Richard II, who appears to have had a better sense of smell than of politics, issued a statute in 1388 that stipulated fines for "those who corrupted and infected the air by throwing out so much dung and filth of garbage and entrails as well of beasts killed as of other corruption into ditches, rivers and other waters. " (22) The statute merely added weight to York's own, earlier restrictions. One of those stipulated that butchers transport offal to the river only in covered conveyances or be fined 6d. and forfeit the cart. (23) In 1421, the mayor and commonalty leased land on the banks of the Ouse with the provision that "[the] said John Preston was not to lease the land, under penalty of expulsion, to any butcher for the disposal of the entrails of animals but was to keep it free from entrails and other filth causing foul smells during the said term." (24) By 1428, it became clear that the butchers still had not complied with the regulations because letters patent reminded them of Richard II's statute. (25) By 1498, the city government prohibited butchers and others from keeping pigs in the city or its suburbs because of ". the foule corrupcion that cometh of theym. " (26)

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Southampton ordained "That no butcher or cook throw into the street any filth or other matter under pain. And that no butcher or cook throw into the street any filth or other matter whereby the town or the street become more dirty, filthy, or corrupt and if any one do this, and be attainted, he shall pay a fine of twelve pence, as often as he shall offend in the manner aforesaid." (27) Beverley in 1365 forbade "a butcher or any of his men [to] put offal, blood or any tainted thing in the high streets or Walkerbeck, or any other place except where they have been appointed by the community" on pain of 40d. (28) At Bristol, animals were to be slaughtered in the ordained places above the King's Shambles. (29)

The mayor of Coventry issued a number of proclamations in 1421. At this time, a scaldinghouse was in the midst of construction. Once completed, all were to scald their pigs only there or be fined 20s. Meat was to be sold only on Saturdays "upon pain of 40d. at every default." (30) By 1447, butchers evidently had taken to scalding carcasses elsewhere than at the scalding house and were threatened with a fine of 6s. 8d. (31) A continued lack of compliance by the butchers raised the fine to 20s. in 1452. At the same time, four men from the butcher's guild became responsible for the enforcement of this. The same leet court also ruled that entrails were to be deposited only in the assigned place, which was not specified. (32)

Coventry in 1442 had ordained that butchers must slay animals only outside the walls of the city, but allowed cows, calves, and sheep to be slain in the butchers' houses and pigs at the "common slaughter houses" for a year. Anyone slaughtering a beast in the street forfeited the animal. All offal was to be carried to a pit outside the walls. Butchers were to keep their "door[s] clean from blood and other filths, upon the pain of 12d." (33) In 1443, the butchers were forbidden to keep their pigs in the city either in sties "or within their houses . upon pain of 3s. 4d. and also forfeiture of the same swine." (34)

Dumping the entrails at "Popyngpit," the designated place, also created problems. In 1474, Coventry's leet court ruled against butchers who had taken to feeding their hogs "with entrails of beasts or such filthy thing like, upon pain of 40s." At the same time, the driver of the cart carrying the entrails was ordered to throw them into the middle of the pit rather than at the side or be fined 6s. 8d. (35)

Significantly, few towns found pits suitable for the disposal of offal. A pit merely removed the stench of the decomposing offal to another location close by the town where it likely had prompted the complaints of its neighbors. Towns situated on streams and rivers instead took advantage of the flow and dumped animal refuse (and so much more) into those waters. Coventry, well served by its river, curiously continued to insist on burying entrails. Certainly, both London and Winchester had done this, attempting to reduce the impact of this dumping by chopping up the entrails into small pieces. (36) Curiously, no thought appears to have been given to downstream communities, and I have found no instances of complaints registered by those communities about their upstream neighbors. Coventry authorities, however, repeatedly forbade the slaughter of animals within the walls. (37)

Bishop's Lynn actively sought to improve the town's environment with a series of measures. In 1424, butchers slaughtering animals in the street ["highway"] were fined 4d. In 1439, animal entrails were to be carried to "Le Balle" and placed in the River Nar at low tide. Lynn's substantial tidal activity would then flush it into the Ouse. Another dump site for the Lynn butchers, located on the River Gay, similarly flowed into the Ouse. Covered barrows or carts transported the offal to those sites. Failure to use such brought a fine of 20s. (38)

Salisbury's ordinances regarding butchers emerged at the beginning of the fifteenth century and, at first, focused on the location of the butchers' stalls as well as separating the denizens from the foreign butchers. (39) In 1423, the convocation of the city prohibited the slaughter of animals in the street at Butcher Row because of "the abominable, disturbing, and vile putrefying remains." At the same time, butchers were ordered to render or transport the intestines only by night. (40) The same provisions were reiterated in 1448, although then the description shifted to "because of the foulness, putrefaction, and nastiness of [the offal from] said animals." (41)

The regulations also reveal a universal concern about butchers selling unsuitable or spoiled meat. A few examples will suffice. Bristol stated that no butcher was to sell "meselle" pork. (42) In 1421, Coventry authorities went into more detail: "Also we command that no butcher sell no beasts of murrain, nor no rotten sheep, nor 'Sussemy' flesh, nor no swine of 'brym' up[on] the pain of 20s. at every trespass and that they put no flesh to sale on the Sunday that is left on the Thursday, but if it be salted, and able for man's meat, up[on] the same pain." (43) In 1460, Northampton officials also provided specifics: "No butcher or other to sell 'Suffemy' flesh fresh or flesh of a dead goat or 'calidiouns' [sheep trotters] of sheep, or 'Nete' [bovine cattle] or heads of 'Calueren' [calves] or 'Nete' or such manner of foul things except under the pillory. And if such things are found for sale in other places, they are lost to the bailiffs' profit and the 'susmy' given to the sick men of St. Leonards." (44) While the authorities evidently recognized the unsuitability of these several meats, the proviso that such things may be sold "under the pillory" seems inconsistent. That they donated the confiscated spoiled meat to the sick (likely lepers) ranks as a dubious act of charity to the modern reader.

Not only did the condition of the butchers' wares come under scrutiny their animals did as well. Butchers' dogs also presented problems to the community, if not to the environment. In 1367, the Beverly "keepers" had received complaints about these beasts and ordered that if "any butcher's dog be found in the road without a keeper, or if he bite a stranger's pig or dog, he whose dog commits the offence pay to the community 40d." (45) Nearly a century later, Coventry reaffirmed an "old ordinance" requiring butchers' dogs to be tied up overnight. The fine was "of old time set," but it may have been as punitive as the substantial one imposed by Beverley. (46)

Dogs were not the only animals of the butchers that the municipalities sought to control. In 1467, Leicester ordered butchers to keep their packhorses out of the shambles. Infractions were quite severely punished and might include imprisonment at the discretion of the mayor. (47) At Salisbury in 1416, after unloading, packhorses were not permitted to stand in the markets and impede traffic or be near the butchers of the city. (48) Nor were butchers or anyone else permitted to keep pigs or pigsties in either the city or suburbs of York in 1498. The rationale for this was fully explained: swine and their sties were undesirable ". for the foule corrupcion that cometh of theym. " Severe penalties enforce the measure: forfeiture and a fine of 40d for each pig on the first infraction. At the second instance, this rose to 6s 8d for every pig and forfeiture. The fines went to the "comon well" of the city. (49)

The reason given by the York officials illustrates much. The vocabulary describing the smells resulting from butchers, their animals, and the byproducts of the trade gives a sense of their sensibilities. "Foulness, putrefaction, and nastiness" provide a good start, but to these may be added "corrupt," "unclean," "abominable," "vile," "rotting," "filth," "filthy," "horribility," "noxious," "obnoxious," "nuisance," "noisome," "stench," "injurious to health," "corrupt exhalations and other abominable and infectious smells."

What in the mentality of these late medieval people prompted such negative words? The answer has several facets. The first, I think, was the simple desire to have a more pleasant, more "respectable" urban environment. The dwellers in cities had sensibilities seldom attributed to medieval people. I do not claim here that they were able to realize their aspirations through the ordinances, writs, and courts, but they did aspire. Contrary to the assumptions of some modern scholars, their nasal receptors had not stopped functioning. They wished to walk through their streets without slipping on blood and entrails. The notion that cleanliness was a byproduct of Protestantism cannot be supported. We need only look to nineteenth-century, industrial, Protestant England to witness environmental filth and degradation. (50)

Concerns over health also played a role. The vocabulary repeatedly reveals their assumption that noxious smells caused disease. The culprit was "miasma," the term for corrupt air. Fears about the presence of miasma increased during outbreaks of bubonic plague. (51) However, complaints and their resolution often occurred at moments without identifiable outbreaks of disease. The prior of St. John of Jerusalem certainly thought that the health of those in the Fleet prison was threatened by the butchers. Nonetheless, the language employed indicates a broad acceptance of the myth. Richard II's orders certainly did. That idea died a very slow death--even in the face of the acceptance of the germ theory of disease by the medical community. (52)

Derek Keene rightly asserts: "The forces which motivated public action on cleansing were the aesthetic objection to the appearance and smell of rubbish, the association between putrefaction and disease, and a sense of pride in the dignified appearance of a town." Echoing the much earlier assessment of Ernest Sabine, Keene thinks ". London expressions of civic concern over street cleaning and the regulation of butchers coincide with outbreaks of plague and murrain among the human and animal populations respectively." Cities such as York and Westminster hurriedly cleansed their streets before the arrival of kings and parliaments. Edward III and Richard II both levied scathing assessments of York's filth and ordered the improvement of conditions there as well as in other towns. (53)

While concerns for cleanliness were undoubtedly exacerbated by fear of the bubonic plague and the connection between noxious smells and outbreaks of disease, many towns had enacted environmental regulations before the Black Death. The theory of miasma certainly existed prior to the mid-fourteenth century and may have motivated municipal authorities. However, other motives also existed. The desire of citizens and officials to have a "respectable" town existed in England as well as in Italy. Any smelly, rotting, putrefying substance--whether from butchers, fishmongers, privies, or crafts--reduced respectability and needed to be controlled or eliminated. However, the effort to combat evil smells also had moral or spiritual motives. After all, Satan was a stinking goat. Spiritual purification ceremonies of both persons and places usually involve cleaning. The diseased, particularly lepers, were segregated often because of the smells: (54)

In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, municipal ordinances restricting the activities of butchers multiplied. Kings, parliaments, nobles, clerics, and urban governments and inhabitants clearly desired cleaner, better smelling, and healthier towns and cities. They feared filth for the dangers it posed to health, safety, and the good reputations of towns and cities. (55) Just as clearly, administrative inefficiencies existed, and these produced undesirable urban environments. Try as the towns might and did, butchers were a tough group to deodorize.

(1.) A version of this study was previously presented to the "Society, Culture & Belief, 1500-1800" seminar (the "Smell Seminar") at the Institute of Historical Research, London, 31 May 2007.

(2.) Ernest L. Sabine, "Butchering in Mediaeval London," Speculum 8.3 (July 1933): 335-53.

(3.) Philip E. Jones, The Butchers of London: A History of the Worshipful Company of the Butchers of the City of London (London: Secker & Warburg, 1976), passim.

(4.) D. M. Palliser, "Civic Mentality and the Environment in Tudor York," Northern History 18 (1982): 78-115.

(5.) P. V. Addyman, "The archaeology of public health at York, England," World Archaeology 21 (1989): 244-63.

(6.) Derek Keene, "Rubbish in Medieval Towns," in Environmental Archaeology in the Urban Context, ed. A. R. Hall and H. K. Kenward, Council for British Archaeology Research Report, 43 (1982): 26-30 idem, "The medieval urban environment in documentary records," Archives 16 (1983): 137-44.

(7.) Colin Platt, The English Mediaeval Town (London: Secker & Warburg, 1976 reprinted 1979). See especially chapter two.

(8.) Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

(9.) Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: G: 1352-1374 (1905), f. xxviii, 25-35. [Hereinafter CLB]

(10.) CLB: F: 1337-1352 (1904) f. lxvii, 75-88.

(11.) CLB: G: 1352-1374 (1905) f. xxviii, 25-35.

(13.) The Assize of Nuisance, 142.

(14.) CLB: H: 1375-1399 (1907), f. ccxiii b, 296-315 f. cclxv, 366-79.

(15.) Ibid. f. ccxiii b, 296-315.

(18.) Ibid. f. cclxxviii b, 380-96.

(19.) Ibid. f. cclxxx, pp. 380-96

(21.) York Memoranda Book, Part I, Surtees Society, 120, lxvii. See also Cooper, "Medieval

(22.) Statutes of the Realm, 12 Ric. II [1388], cap. xiii.

(23.) York Memoranda Book, Part I, lxix.

(24.) York Memorandum Book, Part II, 58.

(27.) The Oak Book of Southampton of c. 1300, vol. I, ed. P. Studer, Southampton Record Society (Southampton, UK: Cox & Sharland, 1910), 53.

(28.) Beverley Town Documents, ed. A. E Leach, Selden Society, 14 (London: Quaritch, 1900), 29.

(29.) The Great Red Book of Bristol, Text (Part 1), ed. E. W. W. Veale, Bristol Record Society, 4 (Bristol, UK: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1933), 144.

(30.) The Coventry Leet Book: or Mayor's Register . A.D. 1420-1555, ed. Mary Dormer Harris, Early English Text Society (London: Kegan Paul Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1907-1913), 32-33. In 1426, another proclamation prohibited the transportation of entrails on Friday, subject to a 40d. fine. Ibid, 108. This might have been because of Friday dietary prohibitions, but could also be a health measure against the early butchering of beasts.

(32.) Ibid., 271-72. The scalding house regulation was repeated in 1454. Ibid., 279.

(36.) Keene, "The medieval urban environment," 138.

(37.) Coventry Leet Book, 32-33, 42-43.

(38.) See Stephen Alsford, "Lynn," Florilegium urbanum at (

(39.) The First General Entry Book of the City of Salisbury 1387-1452, ed. David R. Carr, Wiltshire Record Society, 54 (Trowbridge, UK: Salisbury Publishing Company, 2001), 22, 66.

(42.) The Great Red Book of Bristol, Text (Part 1), ed. E. W. W. Veale, Bristol Record Society, 4 (Bristol, UK: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1933), 144. "Meselle" means spotted and is associated with disease.

(43.) The Coventry Leet Book, pp. 25-26. "Sussemy" means corrupted with blood or matter.

(44.) The Records of the Borough of Northampton, 1:230

(45.) Beverley Town Documents, ed. A. F. Leach, Selden Society, 14 (London: Quaritch, 1900), 29.

(46.) The Coventry Leet Book, 361.

(47.) Records of the Borough of Leicester, 2: 292.

(48.) The First General Entry Book . Salisbury, 75.

(49.) York Memorandum Book, ed. Joyce W. Percy. Surtees Society Publications, 186 (Gateshead, UK: Northumberland Press, 1973), 216-18.

(50.) See, e.g., C. M. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), especially chap. 7, "Smell."

(51.) See David M. Palliser, "Civic Mentality and the Environment in Tudor York," Northern History 18 (1982): 78-115.

(53.) Derek J. Keene, "Rubbish in Medieval Towns," in Environmental Archaeology in the Urban Context, ed. A. R. Hall and H. K. Kenward, Council for British Archaeology Research Report, 43 (1982): 28.

(54.) Woolgar, particularly chapter two. See also Alexander Cowan and Jill Steward, The City and the Senses: Urban Culture Since 1500 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), Introduction.

(55.) Certainly, the descriptions of towns and cities by travelers frequently mention the sweetness or smelliness of these locations. Thomas Aquinas advised the king of Cyprus to situate a properly planned town so that the breezes might refresh the air. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship: to the King of Cyprus (Toronto, Ont.: Pontifical Institute, 1949), 71-74, 78-80.

Dr. David Carr is a Professor of History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and will bare served as editor of The Historian from 2005 through 2008.


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