‘Sharper than swords, sturdier than stones’: space, language, and gender in fifteenth-century London
By Alexandra Logue
Master’s Thesis, University of Guelph, 2011
Abstract: Through an examination of neighbourhood conflicts over property boundaries, marriage contracts and defamation, this thesis argues that the dichotomy of public and private is an anachronistic and untenable division in fifteenth-century London. Instead, Londoners were concerned with degrees of visibility and control over space, rather than the maintenance of a strict separation of public and private. The tensions that resulted from shared, often subdivided space could culminate in a legal battle before the assize of nuisance, a secular court where individuals complained that their neighbour’s property encroached upon their own and that, through those encroachments, a neighbour exposed the plaintiff’s household to public scrutiny. Marriage conflicts and defamation suits brought before the ecclesiastical Consistory court were similarly concerned with public knowledge, as both relied on a certain degree of publicity in order to be effective. Witnesses were required to see and hear both the exchange of consent and the exchange of insults. Using these two London courts, this thesis explores how the house and household lives were open to others and how Londoners lived their lives in varying degrees of publicity, rather than in public or private.
William and Isabel argued, quarreled, and fought most of the time, to the great weariness and nuisance of their neighbours…Isabel acted very obstinately and basely with her husband and such were the quarrels between them that this witness and other neighbours living around were very worried and disturbed about what they did and said to one another […] that there would be murder between them. This witness saw them [arguing] sometimes in the doorway of their dwelling house, sometimes in the street … and [Isabel] called [William] thief and robber, and he called her whore.
John Smyth’s testimony in a 1492 marital dispute between Isabel and William Newport echoed other neighbours’ and friends’ exasperation with the couple’s bickering. That they were a “nuisance of their neighbours” is not exceptional: conflicts frequently arose as a result of close living quarters and even closer watch from neighbours. The cramped, tightly packed buildings of a city that, from the fifteenth century onward, saw its population expand rapidly, combined with cheap and ineffective construction, forced Londoners, especially lower- and middling-class Londoners, into each other’s spaces. As Georges Duby argues in A History of Private Life, “people crowded together cheek by jowl, living in promiscuity, sometimes in the midst of a mob.” The tensions that resulted from shared, often subdivided, space could culminate in a legal battle before the assize of nuisance, a secular court where individuals complained that their neighbour’s property encroached upon their own. Like the squabbling between Isabel and William, unauthorized sound and smells, invasive building, and lack of proper maintenance of buildings were constant nuisances to neighbours.