NORTH STREET: HAVERFORDWEST

The Oxford historian Barry Cunliffe said recently that he writes books in order to find things out. This blog is written to discover what I would find were I to be whisked back to medieval Castleton.  I am a Haverfordwest native, with curiosity but zero historical training, if you would like to read a scholarly history of Haverfordwest, buy Dillwyn Miles' book (see notes).  So I would welcome correction and additions. History, though, does seem to be a subject of opinions and interpretations, unless you have access to a life that was completely medieval in character (see notes).

North Street seems not to have changed much since I lived there in the 1960's. It was quiet then, and, if anything, it appears to be even quieter now.

This discreet and genteel little street was once the showcase boulevard of Castleton, or old Haverfordwest.  Important visitors would have gained an impression of Castleton from a scrutiny of this approach to their grand destination.  Two Kings and a Queen, Earls and other nobles, and a godly host of churchmen, from bishops down to simple monks would have passed this way.  The more elevated your status, the further out along the road would you have been met.  Kings, and probably other members of the aristocracy travelled with a baggage train of essential such as one's own bed, and the whole procession would have made an awesome sight.

So this street at least would have been kept clean.  This orderly state of affairs may not have held true quite as well in the less favoured meanders that formed the layout of medieval towns.  Even great cities were not neat and tidy. When he moved to Paris in the 1240's, the Franciscan monk Roger Bacon found that on wet days, even the streets around Notre Dame became quagmires of mud, and open sewers ran down the middle.  Historical descriptions of the details of ordinary lives differ, but sometimes local clues and common sense might just help in forming a picture.

The Time Travellers guide by Ian Mortimer is quite a stark portrayal of medieval life, at least in cities, but it counters the romantic fantasies of some TV series. Terry Jones’ book on the same theme is a more bearable account, based on village excavations.  Both books give the impression that a great deal of research was done in the writing.      

The banks of the little stream that runs parallel to Thomas Parry Way were, if typical, piled with waste, as it was conveniently situated just outside the town boundary, and could be treated as a common resource.  I have known of this sort of waste dumping in my time, so the occurence is not improbable.  This was not the only problematic waste in a time without services.  As it seems likely there was no other option, men would sometimes appear with a barrel of excrement to tip into the waters, though disposal in the main river may have been better, if the unfortunate labourers were diligent enough to go that little bit further.  The Middle Ages Unlocked by Dr. Gillian Polock and Dr. Katrin Kania gives other options, but tip and forget solution provided by the river seem the least labour intensive.  I know the little stream as Dirty Brook, and Castleton lay between it and Schytebroek, a fact which is sadly absent from tourist information brochures today.  It is, though, one of those little local clues that may help in finding out what was going on. 

Archeological evidence from South East Wales, according to Jones shows that a mix of animal and  human manure,  was use to fertilise crops, but if my authentic local  source is right, it was not the custom round these parts.

This unsavoury situation was not a fair representation of the mentality of our ancestors.  They kept themselves and their habitations as clean as possible, and the rushes that were sometimes used as floor covering,  if either time or servant help was available, was laced with lavender.  The miasma of heavily used public spaces was due to the lack of an institution, like a council who would clean up, but was also caused by a failure of the rationality of pure self interest described by scientist Garrett Harding (see notes). I think the self organising society that eventually emerged was the first sign of a broadening world view.    

Where the books highlight differences is over housing for the poorer citizens.  Mortimer tells of the most poverty stricken inhabitants of medieval cities spending almost all of their waking hours outside.  The meanest space that a person or family could call their own was a subdivided room in a house up a grotty back alley.  It could hardly be called home.  The poor ate on the go, buying their food from street vendors, who sold pies etc.  Perhaps they were very good pies, and packed with top quality ingredients in hygienic conditions. Before we get too cynical, it is worth remembering that purveyors of bad food risked the stocks that were supposed to be ready and waiting near St. Mary's Church.  Terry Jones gives evidence from archeological village sites in England of two room cottages as the smallest habitations, so if you were poor, then even under fiefdom, you were much better off in a village.  

From 1220 to 1315 there were only localised famines in England due to climate improvements, so the same can be assumed for Wales.  The dreadful famines and starvation that had preceded the times of abundance had eased gradually, and Dillwyn Miles' history of Haverfordwest, says that the town grew rapidly from the end of the 12th century. This muay have been due to the movements of Flemings, but possibly also due to humane Welsh law, the movement of those dispossessed by English inheritance,  an the draw of St. David' as a place to visit.  English law just after the Norman invasion was horrendous, and an unpopular person could be framed and subject to torture, ordeal, combat or even hanging.  No wonder there were so many English outlaws.   

So Castleton in the 13th century could quietly have been thriving, and a decent standard of housing may have been the norm.

Other discoveries from the Welsh excavation at Cosmiston show that in the house of the reeve at least, there were games such as nine men's morris, chess, and cards.  My local source scoffs at the idea of there being enough time, amongst country people anyway, to play games.  Chess was other worldly, and as for cards, well, that was a devilish passtime.

Thirteenth century North Street was busier than it is today,  and the contrast is due to lots of factors, most of them associated with technology.

Our need to get out and talk to somebody is lessened by TV and computers or mobile phone.  The streets are empty and e-space is buzzing.  Gadgets have become the commons which we are at liberty to exploit.  So teens, safe warm and isolated from their pals, can get into the most horrendous cyber misdeeds.

Technological advances are overwhelmingly good,  and people want things that improve their lives.   But it also changes the way we think and behave, at least in the short term. Educational consultant Marc Spensky goes much further, claiming that people born since 1980 or thereabouts, think and process information differently.  The idea is subject to debate, but has been taken seriously enough for research to be taking place in Harvard, Switzerland, India, the Netherlands, and the UK.

As far back as records stretch, North Street was well supplied with taverns.  Soldiers like taverns, so I can imagine quite a jolly scene.  My own imagination of the town is like a Brueghel painting in appearance, but the harsh realities of toothache or other painful condition would certainly put a crimp on things.

Maybe the street could be closed, and a 13th century celebration held.  Keep me informed.                         

 

Notes

A Short History of haverfordwest by Dilwyn Miles available in a Haverfordwest bookstore.      

The misuse of public spaces was described in The Tragedy of  the Commons by economist Garrett Harding.  I would think that it is one of the most famous articles published by Scientific American. 

My Mine of useful Medievalism was born in 1923 and raised on a small farm near Camrose.  The farmhouse was a two roomed cottage with a lean to kitchen.  The upstairs ceiling was simply the slates of the roof.  There was a sister and two brothers, and the six of them lived in a way which cannot have differed greatly from that lived by people in medieval times.  There was no electricity and water was carried from the nearest well - over 150 yards away and which was also the habitat of eels.  Even I can remember suppers in the house by the light of an oil lamp, furniture consisted of the chairs they used to eat at the table and sofas were unknown.  The family grew all their own crops, made butter, brewed beer and kept pigs and chickens.  Visits to Haverfordwest might happen once a week and Tenby trips were taken once a year as organised by the chapel. Their neighbours included an old woman who lived in a two room cottage with an earth floor, which she generously shared with chickens. Her situation was not considered exceptional, and if that sounds like a comedy sketch, I don't care, it is also local history which really should be recorded.     

The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. Kindle full edition.  Reccommended by Dr. Diane Williams, FSA Cadw.  Although the aspects of local life were affected by Welsh law, similar cultural conditions and customs apply.

MEDIEVAL Lives by Terry JONES Kindle edition .

The Middle Ages Unlocked by Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania. Kindle edition.

Roger Bacon: The First Scientist by Brian Clegg.

Welsh Law https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_law

Marc Prensky coined the term digital natives for the gadget adapting generation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_native

 

CARW

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