Huntington Library Quarterly, 71 (1) 77-96 (2008)
The broad street of Cheapside, Vanessa Harding shows, was a central location in the lives and minds of early modern Londoners. In a crowded city it was a significant open space where public events could be staged and important issues communicated to a wide audience. The everyday reality of shop and market trading — where qualities and values were scrutinized and false dealing punished – enhanced its association with truth and patency. Normally dominated by the authorities, it was on occasion captured by oppositional groups, though their activities tended to reinforce Cheapside’s identity as a place of publicity and validation.
Cheapside, “the most chief place of the city,” had a wide range of meanings for early modern Londoners. As a physical place it was densely packed with stimulation—visual, aural, sensory, material—but its first and widest connotation was openness, literal and metaphorical, and this underlies or inflects almost all its other meanings. In early modern London, open space made it possible for things to happen that a congregation of people could witness or participate in. Crowds could gather or be summoned; actions begun elsewhere might be transferred to Cheapside for greater effect, or the street might be chosen as a stage. Cheapside was the locus for proclamations, demonstrations, and exemplary punishments—enactments that had to be both seen and heard in public to have their intended effect. Symbolism and actuality were sometimes parallel, sometimes indistinguishable. When something was done in Cheapside, it was done for effect, and with an eye to its audience. Some things were but mimed or pictured there, as in the heavy allegory of royal and civic pageants, but oth- ers were performed in the sense of “caused to be.” The performance of proclamation made a monarch; the performance of justice annihilated traitors and criminals or destroyed offending objects. Describing an event as “in Cheapside” did more than locate it geographically: this worked to fix it in the public sphere and marked it with significance.