Sunday, December 18, 2011

WINTER WONDERLAND: Icy fun in Norman London

by Elizabeth Chadwick

Some time in  the mid-twelfth century before the year 1183, a cleric called William FitzStephen wrote a document titled  "Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae" or 'A Description of the Noble City of London.' It was written as a preface to FitzStephen's biography of Thomas Becket and is an insider's view of the city of London, its topography, monuments, trades, industries of population.  The author describes the daily life of the inhabitants and many of their past times.  It's a very positive, rosy view, but none the worse for that and a wonderful snapshot. There's a particularly interesting description of what the residents do to have fun when winter comes, and given that it's that time of year again in the UK, and close to Christmas, I thought I would quote from William FitzStephen's history. 
Historical fiction is all about telling tales of times that have gone, but it is also about bringing those times to life. After all, it is us as we were then.

Here is a midwinter 12th century English city scene
In winter on almost every feast day before dinner either foaming boars and hogs, armed with tusks lightning swift themselves soon-to-be bacon, fight for their lives, or fat bulls with butting horns, or huge bears, do combat to the death against hounds let loose upon them.
When the great marsh that washes the northern walls of the city is frozen, dense throngs of youths go forth to disport themselves upon the ice. Some gathering speed by runs, glide sidelong, with feet set well apart, over a vast space of ice. Others make themselves seats of ice like millstones and are dragged along by a number who run before them holding hands. Sometimes they slip owing to the greatness of their speed and fall, everyone of them, upon their faces. Others there are, with more skill to sport in a public place, who fit to their feet shinbones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles. With iron shod poles in their hands they strike ever and anon against the ice and are borne along swifter than a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a mangonel. But sometimes by agreement they run one against the other from a great distance and, raising their poles strike one another. One or both fall, not without bodily hurt, since falling  they are borne a long way in opposite directions by the force of their own motion; and wherever the ice touches the head, it scrapes away the skin entirely. Often he that falls breaks shin or arm, if he fall upon it. But  youth is an age greedy for renown, yearning for victory, and exercises itself in mimic battles that it may bear itself more boldly in true combat.

You can still see a pair of these shin bone skates from the Medieval period  in the Museum of London! 

Shin bone Ice Skates from the Norman and Angevin period 


  1. Thanks so much for this. Though I know it's a later period and different country too, you've completely conjured up for me that wonderful scene by Breughal of the bundled up children and adults skating...I love the thought of Norman children skating. How cool is that!

  2. That was an exhilarating read. I love the wry description of what can happens when they fall on these ice and then the mental shrug that its the fault of their youth that they would pursue it.

    Fascinating picture of the skate!

    Thanks for posting!

  3. Oh, my! Shades of prep-school hockey matches! LOL
    I love the pictures of the "skates" and the historical references. Thank you for the wintry laughter, and cringes!

  4. Elisabeth, I do love the way you skilfully dispel the myth of the dark Dark Ages. That was a wonderful piece of history. Thank you.

  5. This is wonderful and very evocative, Sherry! And I love how he notes - long before Newton - the equal and opposite reaction effect of the skaters running into each other!


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