Historical memory is a fickle thing. Look at London. The Roman city has always loomed large, but Anglo-Saxon London – or rather Lundenwic (c. 600-886) – was forgotten. For centuries, scholars scoffed at Bede’s description of a thriving trading centre. It has only been in the past two decades that archaeologists have found what he described, a large, rich settlement in the area that is now Soho and Charing Cross.
It is thus apt that the Museum of London should decide to revamp its medieval gallery now, when some sense has been made of the glorious finds. The new display – which contrary to its name covers more than a thousand years, nearly half the city’s history – was opened last week, and was worth the wait.
The Museum is well known for its accessible presentations, and the new gallery fits the mould, although with fewer reconstructions than its justly celebrated Roman displays. In presenting the newly rediscovered Ludenwic in particular, for which there is so little other information, the history has to be “read” from the objects found. These might have been what were once called the “Dark Ages”, but beautiful things were still celebrated and sought after.
Some would have belonged to the aristocrats of the age, such as the still stunning brooch of gold and gold wire, set with garnets, that was buried in a woman’s grave in what is now Covent Garden in the mid-600s.
Others are the humble signs of industry. The reason why London was a desirable destination for the merchants of the mainland comes out clearly in the many loom weights, spindle whorls and bone beaters (used to push the threads on a loom home).
But Ludenwic’s days were numbered. The very aspect of the site that had made it attractive for settlement – the gently sloping riverbank on which it was easy to draw up boats – left it hopelessly open to the Viking raids of the 9th century. War, somehow always seems to leave more physical evidence than peace, and there are on display many long spearheads and vicious fighting knives that show so clearly why these invaders were so feared.
And one small coin hoard tells a fascinating snippet of the history of this time. From the mid 800s, it consists of 22 small coins (stycas) that were issued in Northumbria, in northern England, buried, perhaps, the text suggests, by a traveller caught up in a Viking attack.
So Ludenwic disappeared, but London itself forged on, now known as Lundenberg. Evidence of the recovery comes in the gallery from silver coins of King Alfred, issued in 880 to celebrate the driving out of the Vikings. Yet it could be a rough world. Much has been made of a small but vicious-looking whip. The text says: “In late Saxon times most servants and farm workers were slaves and could be punished by being flogged with a whip like this. There were rumours that King Cnut’s sister-in-law bought pretty English slave-girls to sell in Denmark.” Is this selling the story a little hard I wonder? (I would be interested in other views on this.)
One aspect of these years that I find hard to get my head around is that the glorious past of Rome was still visible in ruined buildings and walls, and known, no doubt, through history turned to legend. The citizens of London knew they were living in much reduced circumstances – that they could have no hope of matching the glories of the past. So when a 30cm-high glass beaker was placed in a grave in Mitcham, south London, it must have been a treasured possession, but its manufacture only possible through the melting down of old Roman glass. It is roughly, unevenly decorated with strands of glass – wobbly and uncertain. The Romans could have done better, and its makers knew it.
Yet slowly, technology was recovering. A simple, rough horseshoe is a landmark. The caption reports that it was in the 900s that the English began to shoe their horses with iron. By about 1300, the display reports, horseshoes were made by craftspeople called “marshalls” – men and women whose job also involved treating equine sickness. “Juliana ‘la Mareschale’ was arrested for assaulting another woman in 1243,” the label reports, illustrating another attractive aspect of the display – the inclusion of anecdotes such as this that help to humanise, explain, and attract the visitor.
And as the second millennia progresses there’s much more information, and the Museum’s traditional accessibility comes to the fore.
Some might scoff, but I was taken by an interactive computer game, The Medieval Game of Life. You start by choosing from among half a dozen boys and girls from different social strata, then make choices that helps to decide their fate. (But you can only made sensible choices – a poor girl has no chance of going to school, for example.) They can turn out to be very bad choices – I managed to kill off an Isabella by having her pee out the window in her room, at which point she slipped and fell to her death. It is the sort of humour that should perhaps be employed more often in museums. It looks to be primarily directed at children – and would be a great way for getting ideas about past lives across – but I wasn’t the only adult chuckling over it.
About half of the characters die of the Black Death – the tragedy illustrated by a slightly over-the-top, but effective audio-visual. What grabbed me more were humble bowls from the Spital (hospital) that gave Spitalfields its name, some carved with the names of their owners. Beside them are displayed a large numbers of small keys from, it is suggested, lockers in which patients’ belongings were kept – a curious little aspect of what we might consider modernity.
Throughout the display, the considerable interaction between London and the rest of Europe is obvious. From about 1400 is a pewter badge of St Zita (or Sitha), the patron saint of housework, likely to have been brought by Italian merchants. And trade could be complex. By the 1540s, Londoners’ old leather shoes were being collected for export to France – some being sold to to the secondhand trade, others refurbished and exported back.
The display continues until the accession of Elizabeth to the English throne. It is a curious cutting-off point – the end of the reign of Henry VII being more often seen as the “end of the Middle Ages”. And the complexity and sophistication of some of the items here sit ill with the earlier simplicity. But perhaps too much should not be made of this, since the open-plan design of the Museum’s chronological account of London’s history doesn’t draw too sharp a line.
Much thought and effort has been put into the arrangement of the gallery, explained by an introductory video at its start. Yet I wonder how many will stay to watch its slow progress, and few visitors seem to be following the suggested trail. But perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Every visitor will find their way to objects reflecting their interests, and the captions are sufficiently explanatory that any path will make some sort of sense. And there is so much here that even a couple of hours in just this section of the museum won’t be able to take it all in. The Museum of London really demands regular repeat visits to take in all of its glories.
One of the few items in the display that comes with a name: the slab that covered the burial of the heart of Joan, wife of Fulke de St Edmond (sheriff of London 1289-90) from St Swithin’s Church in Cannon St.
Elsewhere: the BBC has a collection of images and also reports a popular angle, the evidence of binge drinking; the Guardian got excited about the Saxon whip.