When I’m not writing, or editing, or teaching, or going out for coffee, or planning a trip away or sitting in one of York’s many bars, all of which takes up a disproportionate amount of my time, I am working my way (very slowly) through a scholarly edition of a manuscript in York City Archives known as E31. This is the Wardmote Court Book, and it contains records of wardmote courts held in York between 1575 and 1586, together with some fragments from the 1590s and an insert of some earlier records from the end of the 15th century.
Here the book is open at the records of the Walmgate wardmote court held in April 1577.* I’ll concede that at first glance this might not look that fascinating. The wardmote courts didn’t deal with dramatic crimes or salacious sins. They weren’t concerned with kings and queens or powerful lords. I can’t imagine anyone making a glossy costume drama about them. But for me, this is precisely what makes these records so interesting. These entries are typical of the 16th-century courts’ concerns: they’re about roads that need repair, ditches that need cleaning, about dirty streets and dilapidated buildings and antisocial behaviour.
They’re about ordinary people living ordinary lives, worried about potholes, irritated by noisy neighbours, bothered by pigs in the street and smelly dung heaps … and dogs. There is so much that is alien about the past, but I’m always intrigued by how many concerns we share with those who lived before us.
Dogs seem to have been just as popular in Elizabethan York as they are today. Hawise, in Time’s Echo, has a small dog called Hap, and she wouldn’t have been alone. So many dogs were there that in 1585 it was ordered that the owners of all curs and other dogs were to get rid of them, with the exception of ‘houndes, grewans [greyhounds?], spanyells and mastyces [mastiffs]’. Knowing how people feel about their dogs, I would be very surprised if anyone obeyed this order, and indeed, no more is heard about it in the records.
As today, some dogs could be dangerous. There have been distressing reports in the media recently about people mauled or even killed by dogs, and savage dogs were clearly a problem in the past too. Big dogs wore collars that look remarkably similar to collars available to day. Archaeological excavations in Coppergate here in York found a leather collar studded with pewter, shown top right in the image below.**
Powerful dogs like ‘baudoges’ or ‘baundogs’[bulldogs?] and mastiffs could be dangerous and then, as now, they were supposed to be muzzled in public, although not everyone seems to have complied. Even Lord Mayors were presented for not muzzling their dogs on occasion. It’s easy to imagine the complaints that led to George Stele being ordered to muzzle his dog so that his neighbours could ‘passe quietly withoute any harm’ in 1576, while Lady Wilstrop’s dog apparently bit ‘divers pore men’ in 1582.
Miles Fell, a miller who was frequently presented in the wardmote courts, had a mastiff bitch who seems to have been as surly as her master. In 1577, she bit Nicholas Ellis on the leg, and Fell was fined 3s.4d. It’s rare for an individual affected to be named in the wardmote court records, which are really concerned with problems that affect the community as a whole, and the first time I came across this entry, it felt very vivid to me. I pictured Nicholas Ellis hopping around in pain, the sullen miller holding onto his snarling dog … and then I wondered where they were and who was watching, and what they thought. This, in fact, was the starting point for Time’s Echo, and it became a key scene where Hawise meets Francis Bewley for the first time, but I could have taken almost any of the entries in the Wardmote Court Book and built a story around them. From brief entries in a document do 130,000 word books grow …
* YCA E31, fol. 46v-47. Excerpts reproduced by kind permission of City of York Council Archives and Local History. www.york.gov.uk/archives
** From Medieval Craft and Mystery: Discovering the People behind York’s Mystery Plays by Nicola Rogers (York Archaeological Trust, 2012), p.51.