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  • Some Poets' Tours of Medieval London:Varieties of Literary Urban Experience
  • C. David Benson

The great thing about a big city, especially for a small town boy like me, is that so much is packed into such a little space. So many different buildings, people, and stories. There was a gritty television show in the late 1950's and early 1960's set in New York City called The Naked City that ended each episode with the announcer intoning, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Medieval London was a lot smaller in size than even Manhattan, as we can see in a sixteenth-century view of the City and Westminster (Figure 1) and a modern map (Figure 2), and its population was only some 40 to 80 thousand in the late fourteenth century. But it too had many good stories.

Much as we try to recapture it, the reality of medieval London will always elude us. An important source of information for historians has been the records of court cases in the surviving municipal Letter Books, but we should not ignore the images of the lost city in contemporary poets, even if urban description is not their primary purpose.1 Unwittingly perhaps, they can be contemporary guides to the metropolis. In this paper I shall use four major poets as guides to London: two from the late fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, and two from the early fifteenth century, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate. I shall introduce them with a twelfth-century Latin celebration of the city and conclude with a fifteenth-century satire on its avarice whose title is almost as good as The Naked City—London Lickpenny.

I chose these writers not with any predetermined thesis, but, like anyone signing up for a tour, out of curiosity about where they would take me and what I would see. I am not sure that even now I could offer many sweeping conclusions (exploring cities is all about the details) except to marvel that these four poets, all connected to Chaucer as either friends or disciples, and all writing in roughly the same period produce such radically different Londons. This accords with a central insight of one of the most influential recent urban theorists, Michel de Certeau, [End Page 1] who, in his famous essay "Walking in the City," shows, among other things, how individuals create their own special texts of a city from the particular paths they take through it.2 His argument is that city walkers engage in practices that resist central authority and discipline. Similarly, my examples resist historicist determinism. The striking individuality of each of the poets' tours discussed here suggests that neither time and place nor class and self-interest are sure predictors of literary result. Instead each of these tours offers the surprise and serendipitous delight of great cities (and great poetry). An additional surprise is that London often seemed to have provoked most of my four poets into writing about new and unusual subjects in uncharacteristic styles.

Preface: William FitzStephen's Description of London

The prologue to my poets' tours of London is a brief Latin prose account of the city, though one adorned with quotations from several Roman poets. William FitzStephen wrote it about 1174 as a preface to his life of St. Thomas Becket, whose clerk he was.3 Although FitzStephen clearly draws on his own personal knowledge of London (both he and Becket were natives), the Description, as John Scattergood has shown, is not meant to be either complete or objective (there is no mention of crime or the poor, for example), but is part of an ancient genre, the encomium urbis, the praise of a particular city.4 FitzStephen begins with the notable topographical features of London: its churches, the Tower, the city walls, the Thames, the royal palace at Westminster, and the suburbs (Figure 3). Unlike other medieval urban encomia, which, as Ernst Curtius has noted, find that "the greatest glory of a city now lies in its martyrs (and their relics), its saints, princes of the church, and theologians,"5 FitzStephen's Description stresses the secular...


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