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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Looking for Medieval Bath

No, I didn’t say ‘looking for a medieval bath’. Popular wisdom has it that such a thing is a raging anachronism, but that’s a story for another time. The subject of this post is almost as peculiar – this is about my search for the medieval bones of the overwhelmingly 18th-century English city of Bath.

even the YHA in Bath is a Georgian mansion

Bath was subject to a massive makeover in the 1700s. The hot mineral springs that give the city its name were re-discovered by those with money to spend and ailments to cure. Bath became a spa town, a newly booming tourist attraction, and its beautiful pale-gold Oolitic limestone was mined for the elegant Georgian architecture that makes the city a World Heritage Site today. (By contrast, most medieval houses in Bath were likely built of timber and thatch.) A side-effect of this stylistic coherence was that almost all that had gone before was erased. As I discovered, one must look very hard to discover medieval Bath.

I started, as most people do, with the famous bath.

the King's Bath, complete with medieval recesses

(Actually, at least three hot springs were exploited within the medieval city, but the most important was the King’s Bath.) The bathing facilities the Romans built were disused and crumbling when William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, granted the medically-minded John of Tours the bishopric of Wells and with it control of the city of Bath. The new bishop immediately set about building a fine priory complex to encompass the ‘King’s Bath’, now named in honour of Henry I. One monk at least approved of bathing. The lower level of the King’s Bath with its arched recesses still appears much the same as it did after Norman rebuilding on Roman foundations, although the water level then was much higher due to masonry debris left in the pool. (The old water level can still be discerned by the staining on the walls.)

Medieval Bath was surrounded, as many towns and cities were, by defensive walls. Nothing remains of them now except the east gate, out of sight behind a modern building.

William Smith's 1568 map of Bath,
showing the medieval walls

To the east of these walls, two mills harnessed the power of the Avon. One at least became a fulling mill, used for processing the woollen cloth that was the mainstay of the later medieval city’s economy. Here, newly-woven fabric was pounded underwater to matt the fibres together before stretching and drying.

the river Avon to the east of Bath,
location of two medieval water mills

Nothing remains of the Priory that once dominated the city-scape of Bath. Even the priory church is gone, replaced by the exquisite early-Tudor Bath Abbey, although a fragment of a Norman arch remains in embedded in the south aisle choir. All five medieval parish churches too are long removed. 

It seemed to me that, beyond the well-stocked local-history shelves in Bath Library, the medieval city had irretrievably vanished. Downcast, I took refuge in Sally Lunn’s Eating House and drowned my sorrows in a cup of tea.


Sally Lunn's Eating House

Here at last, down the tiny, winding stairs that led to the basement of one of the oldest remaining houses in Bath (originally built c.1482), I caught a sniff of the medieval past. Damp stones. Layers of the medieval past set down in rock far below street level. A few shards of pottery and glass. 

excavations in the basement museum, 
Sally Lunn's

Sally Lunn’s has preserved its (16th-century?) kitchen, although preservation occurred more by accident than design. (The cellar became a rubbish dump for the premises above.) Although now at basement level, this centuries-old kitchen once used to open onto the street. 

the early modern kitchen, 
recreated in the basement

So all that remains of medieval Bath lies buried beneath the Georgian street-scape, or recycled in Georgian architecture, or find sad echoes in street-names like ‘Southgate’ or ‘Upper Borough Walls’.

But the bones remain. The beautiful green rolling hills with their store of golden stone. The river that curls around the town. The King’s Bath. Further, I am in the process of bringing medieval Bath back to life. One of medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famous characters came from this town. I am currently rewriting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale of the Wife of Bath and, through her, her home town will breathe again.

10 comments:

Michelle Diener said...

Venetia, I love Bath, it's one of my favorite cities, and I LOVE Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Your WIP sounds wonderful!

Peter Alan Orchard said...

Chaucer certainly created a character full of possibilities, and medieval Bath is a wonderful setting for your WIP. Lindsay Townsend's recent Widow of Bath mystery, 'An Older Evil', also takes place there.

Suzi Love said...

Venetia, Bath is one of my favorite places. Love it.
Thanks for sharing your medieval search.

Alison Stuart said...

I am amazed that there is ANY medieval Bath left. Really interesting article. I must admit I looked at Royal Crescent slightly differently after Time Team dug up those immaculate lawns to reveal the Roman road and city. Just love archaeology.

Cheryl Leigh said...

Loved this post on medieval Bath, Venetia. One tends to forget Bath existed not only in the Regency period. :)

Your book sounds fascinating!

Venetia Green said...

They allowed Time Team to make a mess in the Royal Crescent?!
Yes, Bath is a truly beautiful city. But all those Georgian buildings make it exceedingly difficult to imagine what came before!
Thank you so much for all your good wishes for my WIP.
An especial thanks to you, Peter, for mentioning Lindsay's book. I wasn't aware it existed. I will acquire it as soon as humanly possible.

Christina Phillips said...

I loved this post, Venetia. It makes me so homesick :-) And I agree with Michelle, your WIP sounds fascinating!

Maryde said...

I just want to go back :)

Venetia Green said...

Thanks for dropping by, Christina. And Maryde, when you go back can you take me with you?

Cassandra Samuels said...

Great Post. Thank you Venetia.