A tour of medieval London

Melody Moberg

“We’re going to London!” exclaimed Professor Emeritus of History William Chaney to a Main Hall classroom crowded with students and faculty. “… Medieval London.”
The lecture, which took place Tuesday, Feb. 17, was a London Week event, part of an effort to raise awareness of the opportunities at Lawrence’s London Centre.
London Week is marked by a Union Jack flying above the cupola, dining center tabling offering information about the Centre and events celebrating English and London culture, such as Chaney’s lecture and the Wednesday night showing of “Sweeny Todd.”
Chaney has done similar lectures for London Week in the past, focusing on Roman London and Anglo-Saxon London. The focus of this year’s lecture was medieval London.
Chaney used postcards, photographs and a large map of London taped to the blackboard as visual aids in his lecture.
He began with the 1066 Battle of Hastings resulting in the Norman conquest of England. Chaney pulled out some large, green-tinged glossy photographs of the battle, explaining that he was “the only person to have survived the Battle of Hastings” with photographic evidence. Holding a picture he snapped of King Harold, he blamed its discoloration on age – 943 years, to be exact.
Chaney laughed and explained that he had actually attended a reenactment of the battle in 1966.
Chaney offered an overview of the medieval period. Broadly, London experienced an influx of French, German and Jewish immigrants. London’s trade revolved around cloth, furs, spices and wine. London sustained damage from fires and storms.
London was also plagued by vicious packs of dogs. Allegedly, this was such a problem that the people of London set a date to slaughter all of the dogs. The night before the date, all of the dogs left the city. “Dogs are sensitive creatures,” Chaney explained, “they must have felt something.”
One impression we would have gotten upon entering medieval London is that “it stinks” – public sanitation has certainly improved in 900 years. However, it was probably just as noisy and congested as it is today. Popularly, London was known as a den of vice, where prostitution was rampant and morals were loose.
Chaney also examined some of the uglier aspects of London history – specifically, the rampant and violent anti-Semitism.
Key landmarks which remain from Norman London are the White Tower part of the Tower of London, the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, St. John’s Priory, the Church of St. Mary le Bow, the Temple Church and Westminster Abbey.
Chaney’s lecture was informative and at times hilarious. His enthusiasm was infectious, whether illuminating the stories behind what could easily be dull strings of names and dates, mocking English winemaking or sharing personal anecdotes.
“London is full of treasures,” Chaney explained, “I encourage everyone to go there, whether as a student or a tourist.” He also encourages all London visitors to understand the city’s history because the “past is our heritage, too, after all.