Thursday, 15 October 2015

Every obnoxious item that can be imagined

For some reason, although I like to think I have a wide range of interests, most of the articles on Wikipedia that really get me are historical. Maybe history is particularly suited to in-depth but not over-complex summaries in encyclopaedic style, relative to other subjects. I remember loving my history teacher at primary school because he literally just treated every class as a storytelling session. It was amazing.

The best bits of historical stories - like all stories - are the bits that you can relate to. When you manage to understand at some deep level that the people who went through the things being described weren't a special breed of cultural alien but basically normal humans like you and me. My very favourite example of this is the utterly brilliant and remarkably moving Michael Wood documentary bluntly titled the Story of England. All of history told through the archaeological and other records of a single town in Leicestershire.

The above is a preamble to today's Wikipedia article: Smithfield, London. I don't know about you, but I hardly ever go to Smithfield. It's a bit too close to the City to be something I'm ever likely to stumble across. And I have all my (non-existent) meat requirements met by Tesco Express. So in the spirit of inquiry, I ventured down there after reading the Wikipedia article and had a look. It was weird but strangely thrilling to find myself a tourist in my own city. I felt suddenly furtive, like I was trespassing and someone was sure to unmask me.

The first thing it says in the Smithfield article is that the name is derived from "Smooth Field". Given that this naming ostensibly occurred over a thousand years ago, many centuries before modern English existed, I find such a derivation somewhat suspect, and there is a pleasing lack of citations. The article itself even uses an image from the 16th century where the site is clearly marked "Schmyt Fyeld".

In any event, it is clear that fields were involved and that London was once incredibly - hilariously - tiny. I take an immense amount of pleasure in the mindblowing-ness of this idea: that a locality which today might as well mark the epicentre of one of the planet's largest and densest urban sprawls was once a grassy field populated by a few intermittent cows.

Basically, in the old days, Britain's capital was about the size of a shopping mall, surrounded on all sides by featureless pastures.

Because Smithfield happened to be the pasture that was closest to the city walls, that's where everyone brought their animals when it was time for them to be eaten. In Wikipedia's blasé phrasing: "Smithfield established itself as London's livestock market, remaining so for almost 1,000 years." Yeah. That's the next mindblowing thing about Smithfield. This place has been a slaughterhouse for a full goddamn millennium.

Empires have risen and fallen. Kings have come and gone. God himself has been killed. Humanity has progressed in countless ways. And a great big bloody metropolis has slowly grown around it, but in all that time - every single day, more or less - Smithfield has facilitated the purchase of freshly culled animal flesh.

The Market itself is the subject of the latter half of the (fairly long) Wikipedia article, such is its fascination. There is this enigmatic quote from 1178, describing Smithfield as, once again:
"a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be traded, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk."
Now, is that a typo for "pheasant"? If not, surely it should be followed by a colon, not a comma, unless the aristocracy of the time really was as joyously evil/cannibalistic as we like to think.

The maintenance of a meat market for a thousand years despite epic changes in urban development and culture was, as you might imagine, no easy task. By the Victorian era, 220 thousand cows and 1.5 million sheep per year were "violently forced into an area of five acres, in the very heart of London, through its narrowest and most crowded thoroughfares". Wikipedia rates the "hygienic conditions" as "extremely poor", and notes that they "started to raise major concerns".

Despite our authors' mild tone, these concerns were not taken lightly by people at the time, as well can be believed for those living in a city through which vast numbers of filthy beasts daily trudged towards a grisly fate. There's a delightfully Brooker-esque quote from a contemporary book that appears to have been titled by a Wikipedia editor, Suggestions for the Improvement of Our Towns and Houses:
"Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world."
I always like a good use of "horrid".

By the second half of the 19th century, Parliament finally got involved, putting the city out of its misery and banishing the cattle market to distant, rural Islington. Smithfield was rebuilt as a new market where animals were typically deceased before arrival. Hence the overly grandiose, wrought iron affair you see today. The construction of the new Smithfield coincided with that of one of London's earliest underground railway lines, allowing faster transit of meats to the cold stores.

One such subterranean store was used for the experiments of a real life mad scientist during WWII (an attempt to create a brand new material for floating oceanic airstrips), in another snapshot of Smithfield's interaction with major events in British history.

Considering its primary commercial purpose in life, Smithfield as a London landmark has had an extraordinary number of these interactions. Wikipedia divides its more general history into "Religious" and "Civil" subsections.

Turns out, something about the stench of dying animals is attractive to God after all, as Smithfield appears to be the centre of London's religious life - at least from a casual reading of Wikipedia. The most famous institution here is of course St Bartholomew's, now better known as a hospital*, but still also at least two Smithfield churches.

The oldest of them was founded in the gloriously Fibonaccian year of 1123, as a favour from Henry I to a priest who had apparently saved his life. It must have been a lovely proposition: a nice little priory in a great big field right on the edge of town. Now you can barely see it as it's sandwiched between a wall built by a later King Henry and a massive modern hospital, but if you walk purposefully past the security guards, as I found the other night, it's still there and still being used at 8pm on a weekday. Although not everything about the church has survived: you ever heard of the Bartholomew Fair? Me neither. It was just a major London event for SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS until it was deemed indecent by the bloody Victorians.

Other religious institutions at Smithfield include the Carthusian Charterhouse - founded in 1371, although the infamous boarding school part moved to Surrey in 1872. In the 1500s, it was monks from Charterhouse who attempted to reason with the famously phlegmatic Thomas Cromwell when he first persuaded Henry VIII to enact sweeping religious renovations that decimated most of the Smithfield churches. Wikipedia tells it straight as ever:
This resulted in their being flung into the Tower of London, and on 4 May 1535, they were taken to Tyburn and hanged — becoming the first Catholic martyrs of the Reformation.
Such fun. Speaking of which, my favourite part of the whole Wikipedia article is the section on civil history. Again, its open position on outskirts of town made Smithfield an ideal site for all kinds of amazing public spectacles. But mostly, it "has borne witness to many bloody executions of heretics and political rebels over the centuries" as the article states at the outset. I like to think of it as the place you'd go, as a bored peasant, for something like the opening scene of the John Landis film Burke and Hare:

Smithfield "bore witness" to some of the real greats: William Wallace's fictional cry of "FREEDOM!" would have been heard there, far from his bonnie home, while the leader of the momentous 14th century Peasant's Revolt, Wat Tyler, also met his demise on the field at the hands of the Lord Mayor, in the spirit of Boris-like mucking-in. Tyler hadn't in fact come for an execution but a parlay, which went badly south when he started saying rude things about King Richard.

It wasn't just gruesome capital punishment that you could find at Smithfield back in the day (if William Wallace's intestines weren't bed enough, Queen Mary also hosted some of her well-known bonfires at Smithfield, while "swindlers and coin forgers" were apparently boiled to death in oil. It all went downhill when we started getting soft on petty crime, I'm telling you.) There were also proper chivalric tournaments. One particularly extravagant joust in 1390 was commanded by Richard II, not long after dealing with the revolting peasants, and was supervised by one Geoffrey Chaucer in his lesser known day job as an event organiser (actually he was a clerk to the King, which I also didn't know).

So Smithfield has seen it all. But think of all those who've seen Smithfield. All those ordinary Londoners over all those centuries, who've trod those cobbles/open grassland, smelled the blood and shit and religious incense, heard the dying cries of man and beast alike, and witnessed almost every major event to have befallen this magnificent, godforsaken city.

The article ends by noting the Museum of London's planned move to the part of the market that is currently unoccupied. It's a strange idea, but if any London landmark deserves recognition for its historical adventures, surely this is it.

*The hospital is in fact equally ancient - although in the 14th century a large part of it was used, even more hygienically than the livestock slaughter, as a mass grave for plague victims.

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