Because I am an historian and can do stuff like this and call it work, I spent several hours yesterday playing with this incredible zoomable version of the Agas map of Early Modern London. If you just went over there and played with that and didn’t read the rest of this post I would make peace with it eventually. But why not do both?
Now that you are aware that this map exist, if you are still here first – thanks! Second, there are hundreds of reasons why this map is so amazing, but today we are going to talk about how it offers us a rare glimpse into everyday life in Early Modern London.
For those not in the incredibly cool kid club who already know, the Agas map is a woodblock print map of the city of London dating to 1561. It’s called the Agas map because for a while people thought it was made by Ralph Agas (c.1540 – 1621), a land surveyor and cartographer. (He did make a really cool large scape map of Oxford, but the London map not so much.) The Agas map that we know actually dates to 1633, and is a modified version of the original, print versions of which no longer exist.
Anyway this is incredibly cool because of the level of detail and throwbacks to the London that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. We get to see the original gothic St Paul’s (Who is dreamy. Hey girl!), the largely non-extant London Wall (which I have talked about before!), as well as the houses along the original London Bridge, for instance. There are also whole streets that have since been swallowed or become much smaller (Knyght Ryder Street, for example, still exists but is just tiny now.), or the London rivers which have been covered and sent underground like the Fleet.
The whole thing is an unmitigated delight, is what I am saying.
While I could wank about old maps in and of themselves for days, what I think is of special note here are the little hints at how Londoners lived that we see in various places.
One that I was immediately struck by is over at what is now Moorfield, near Moorgate. Here you can see the a body of water – the Mooreditch in what was essentially a former swamp lands. While just knowing it was there is cool, you can also here see a great example of how Londoners used this space, namely for washing.
What you see here is people laying out their washing to dry, presumably after having washed it in the Mooreditch. See their little shirts?
You can also find some drying their washing just north of the Charring Cross at St Martin’s Field in the west of town.
I have a slight obsession with pre-modern laundry for a number of reasons, the first being that people washed their clothes just like they also bathed, Christ please shut up. But the second reason is that is was one of the few jobs open to single women in cities. There was, of course, sex work, but laundering services were also something that women were allowed to do and stay in town if they weren’t attached to a household.
Laundering services were in high demand, because as you can see from the ladies hanging out in this field, you had to have room to do washing. This is a world without plumbed water so either you had to go and fetch (very heavy!) water and take it into a dedicated big space in order to do washing, or you had to go to the water to do the laundry. This was slightly easier. Then you had to soak it, soap it, rinse it, wring it, and allow it to dry before taking it back to wherever it came from. It was heavy difficult work as you can see from this image of two people carrying a heavy load between them. Waterlogged clothes are heavy, man.
A lot of people didn’t want to do this sort of repetitive heavy labour themselves, so they had washerwomen do it for them. There’s no way for us to tell whether these women are meant to be read as professionals or washing in a private capacity, but it is a great reminder of the work involved in getting clean before washing machines, and who was responsible for it, and how space was used in order to make room for everyday activities like this.
Meanwhile over on Smith Field, we have a reminder of how it was that people used open spaces. Smith Field is an interesting place, as it is where people would drive animals and have them overnight before they were slaughtered and sold at the famous butcher’s market. It was also a place massively important for the purposes of display, violence, and recreation. Smithfield is where Watt Tyler’s peasant rebellion suffered its first major setback in the fourteenth century. (Please do not try to use it as an example of the Black Death doing something positive. Thanks.)
This was also where two of the town’s major gallows were, the other being the Tyburn Tree over by what is now Marble Arch (not pictured, sorry lads). This is because you can fit a big crowd in and when you are executing someone you want to be damn sure that everyone knows and why. Public executions were a form of crime deterrent in a world without police, and were especially used for crimes against the Crown. If the king wanted to send a message about something he did it big.
But it was also a place where people went for fun, and tournaments were regularly held here, which is indicated by the prancing horse. All of which brings me to the other signs of pleasure to be had in the city, and its overlap with violence generally. Part of why you wanted to hold executions in large fields was the purposes of display, for sure, but also seeing an execution is what passed for a nice day out in both Early Modern and Medieval London. It was a spectacle, and in a world that was much more familiar with death it was one that people weren’t necessarily uncomfortable with.
Jousting and tournaments are obviously something that we still associate with pleasure, but we often forget that tournaments regularly lead to death. When guys on horses are going for each other with lances, it is really easy to injure and kill your partner and there weren’t health and safety ordinances to mitigate that. It was so dangerous as a pastime that the Church actually took the position that if one died in a tournament it was a sin because you were wasting your life for sport.
Over on the South Bank of the river in Southwark we have two more examples of what counted as entertainment in Early Modern London, but which is deeply gross to us now – separate arenas for bull and bear baiting. This was some hella gross stuff where basically people would set a bunch of dogs on a bear or a bull and bet on how fast which animals would be killed. There you can see the arenas themselves as well as the kennels that held the dogs in question.
To the best of my knowledge this was more of an Early Modern phenomenon than a medieval one, and gives us a chance to underscore the thing I will never tire of saying – that modern people are actually the ones that do a lot of the stuff that we accuse medieval people of doing. A lot of (wrong) people like to talk about how violent medieval society was as though that stopped completely upon entering the modern world. Well, the good people at the bearbaiting pit have an answer to that. Modern people were like “Yeah let’s go watch some animals rip each other apart. Nice day out.”
The Medieval/Early Modern differences in London are perhaps on best display when we consider the Southbank. Medieval people had just been using the Southbank for the perfectly wholesome pass time of sex work prior to this. This area had been known as “the Bankside Stews” and was home to a number of commercial bathhouses and brothels alike. This was made possible because of its proximity to the river. Again, water is heavy, so in a pre-plumbing world many people would go out for their (regular!) baths to somewhere that was constantly hauling in clean warm water. The bathhouses were frequent sites for sex generally, as mixed populations were hanging out being hot, wet, and naked, but if you didn’t want to leave bath-based sexy times to chance, you could go to one of the several brothels that acted as both. These existed south of the river not just for access to water, but also because it was outside of the London walls and therefore not technically in London so sex work was permissible. The Bankside thus became a sort of pleasure quarter, where it was also legal to have playhouses (because actors and acrobats and such were considered to be on par with sex workers).
This all changed under Henry VIII (1491-1547), noted douchebag, hypocrite, and destroyer of nice things, who abolished the Bank Side Stews in 1506. This had the effect of largely driving brothels either underground, or to other sections of the city – like Cock Lane near Smithfield, or Maiden Street near Cheapside (yes, those are the names of those streets for a reason.)
But lost in this transition were a number of great street names on the Bankside including Codpiece Lane and Sluts Hole. (Sigh, the culture we have lost.) It also had a knock on effect in that the many washerwomen who has also worked in the area were kicked out as well. Washerwomen were often associated with sex workers because they were independent women workers who spent a good deal of time wet. Not under control of a man and in water? Oh you better believe that stuff was suspect. So, they were driven from the Bankside. You will note that despite the presence of plenty of water you see zero washing being dried down here. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t still happening. We know, for example that despite the closure of the stews that sex workers continued to work in the area, albeit clandestinely. However they are now written out of the story. This is probably true of washerwomen as well, and a sad reminder of who we think is worth memorialising.
This is a useful reminder of how changing sensibilities from medieval to modern isn’t always an upgrade. Bankside remained a pleasure quarter, but the licit pleasure available was mostly violent, and was noticeably now controlled by men rather than women. Meanwhile, workers just trying to make it in the big city were driven out. History isn’t always a moral arc towards justice.
Not all the things that people did for pleasure depended on sex and violence, however, and some are intensely recognisable. Maybe my favourite vignette of people comes over on the west of Bankside, just near the legend. Here we see a couple taking their greyhound for a walk. It has zipped away from them, its lead streaming as it enjoys a nice little frisk over the bridge.
This is a wonderful reminder of the similarities that we have with the people of the past. Sure, I don’t necessarily approve of what they might call entertainment, but it’s not like they would approve of my lifestyle either. What we can certainly come together and agree on though, is that someone here is a very good dog indeed and deserves some time to zoom. There’s enough horror in the world. Let’s take a wholesome pleasure where we can get it.
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For more on medieval cities, see:
On Prague, preaching, and brothels
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On city walls, symbolism, and being behind the residents’ gates at the Barbican
For more on sex workers in the medieval period, see:
On Prague, preaching, and brothels
On St Nicholas
On sex work and the concept of rescue
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
4 thoughts on “On the Agas map of London, medieval and early modern cities, and life”
Came for the demon sex. Stayed for the ancient maps. You do lovely work. Somewhat nonplussed that it doesn’t chart the concentrations of upmarket retro cookstoves, however.
Thank you for pointing out this wonderful map to us!
On one thing I beg to differ: Acshually, the women depicted on Moorfield don’t wash and dry clothes, as you don’t see any of the necessary laundering equipment, and drying is and was done much more time and space-efficiently on the washing-line (and moreover, the laundry gets much softer, and you save yourself a lot of the ironing and flattening labour if you let the wind do his thing).
What the women are doing is, they are bleaching linen by laying it out on the grass in the sun and watering it continuously by spraying or dipping, making use of some chemical reactions involving the peroxides stemming from the influence of sunlight on the water and the oxygen in the air as well as the reactive oxygen species produced by the photosynthesis of the grass.
Linen would be spun and woven unbleached and then either dyed or spread in the sunlight like this to bleach for several weeks, sometimes even the whole summer, and that’s why bleaching was much more visually dominant in public in mediaeval and early modern times than drying laundry, as drying is normally done in a couple of hours, especially in the summer, and personal, used laundry would not be dried in public for modesty reasons, but hung out at home in the garden or the courtyard. The laundry you can see being bleached on the map consists, accordingly, of whole sheets of cloth as well as newly sewn shirts intended to be sold after having been made all white and shiny.
By the way, this is where Sunlight soap got its brand name from, which wasn’t a washing-up liquid until 1971, but a powdered laundry soap containing bluing agents to make white laundry optically whiter.
That is really interesting! We have a lot of records that explicitly mention lying out laundry in fields and on bushes to dry, but I think this could certainly be linen bleach as well!