Street cries of the world

Street cries were once a popular subject of songs and literature in Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Each month from 2018 onwards I'll be scanning and transcribing publications to build this collection.


Gentleman's Magazine


Oct. 1.

AS many of your readers are, like myself, fond of investigating the habits and usages of former times, not only those which more particularly partake of a public and general nature, but also those which relate to the private economy, the food, the clothing, and the every-day mode of life of our ancestors – to such I may be allowed to hope, the following notice of some of the principal “Cries” in the streets of Paris, in the 13th century, will not prove uninteresting. Had they been of London instead of its rival capital, they would have possessed for us a far greater degree of value, and would long ago have received a full illustration from some one of the eminent antiquaries, whose names are so thickly scattered over the volumes of your well-known Miscellany. Still they have many claims to our attention as Englishmen; for no one acquainted with our early domestic history can be ignorant of the great similarity between the customs of the two nations, &ndfash; examples demonstrative of which are continually recurring in the phrases and words of our more ancient writers. This piece, containing the above “Cries,” is published in Meon’s Edition of Barbazan Fabliaux, and consists of near two hundred lines, composed in the latter half of the 13th century, by one Guillaume de la Villeneuve. The subject, as is immediately perceived, is not one propitious to the graces of poetry, but the curious details, however, afford far more satisfaction than many of the more polished by exceptionable compositions in the same collection. Add to this, the author, from his own confession, is weighed down by that night-mare of genius, poverty, which forces him to compose this “Dit.” So oppressed is he, that he knows not where to turn, or what to do; the fickle goddess Fortune, of whom Chaucer observes almost in the very words of Guillaume,[1]

When that a wight is from her whele ythrowe,
Than laugheth she, and maketh him the mowe,

has deserted only to deride him.

As the articles enumerated in the poem are in no particular order, I will first collect together those of a similar nature, and then notice the more miscellaneous ones.

Of fish, white meats, and condiments, he specifies, fresh and powdered, or salted herrings; whitings; Champaigne and Brie cheeses, still, I believe, celebrated in France; fresh butter; eggs; milk; nut-oil; different vinegars; vinegar mixed with mustard; verjuice; pepper; anise, used for seasoning cake or bread.

Of vegetables – turnips, leeks; water cresses; fresh lettuce, garlic, onions, peas in the husk; new beans;; chervell; mushrooms; chives; hot mashed peas and hot beans; pounded wheat; gruel; and furmenty (forment).

The last of these was not exactly what we understand by furmenty, which in former days (and I believe in some parts of the country is still) was a portion of wheat grains, softened and boiled with milk, spices, sugar, raisins, &c.; but the wheat dried, cleansed, and broken into coarse grits, was used for thickening soups or porridge. The Gruel was barley, pilled, and in the state we now use it for culinary purposes. Grudum in Low Latin, and gru in Romane French, is the appellation for barley, and hence is derived the name given to the prepared grain as above. The same term was also sometimes applied to a like preparation of oats, and is familiar to our language in “gruel,” a sort of thin porridge made of oatmeal.

Of fruits – peaches, apples, cherries; pears of Hastiveau and Chaillou, the latter a fdamous species, noticed in the Roman de la Rose, and doubtless is the fruit intended by Chaucer, although the corrupted expression Caleweis is in the text of his translation; lote berries, the fruit of the lotus rhamnus; sloes, still gathered by our country people, and stewed with sugar; hips of the wild rose, which I have often, when a school-boy, devoured with no little gusto; medlars; sorb-apples, in France, considered not inferior, when properly ripe, to the medlar; nuts; chestnuts of Lombardy; figs from Malta’ foreign raisins; and jorroises, which Cotgrave explains a horse plum, and the writer of the short notes appended to the poem, a long red fruit, very sour, and no more known in Paris. Du Cange has jarrossia, which however, is only a sort of vetch.

In confectionery, or rather what the French call patisseries; pasties, tarts, cakes, wafers, galettes, all hot; roinssoles; wafers called gastiaus rastis; hot flauns; wafers named renforcies; simnels, and cakes with the bean.

Of these the galette was a sort of “wreathed cake,” or crumpet; the roinssole, in modern French rissole, a small delicate patty of minced meat, and semicircular in form; it appears to have been a favourite dish, and Le Grand d’Aussy mentions several old statutes, ordaining the various kinds of meat to be used. The gastiaus rastis were perhaps the same as described by Cotgrave under rastou, as a round and high tart, made of butter, cheese, and eggs. The flaun, frequently met with in our writers of the 16th and 17th century, was a sort of delicate custard, or mixture of cream with bottom and sides of paste. The wafer, by far the greatest favourite of the French, and common over Europe, was probably of Grecian or Roman origin, and was early known in the middle ages by the name oblatae, the name given to the holy cakes used in the Eucharist. Hence the French oublie, which in that language, as well as wafer in our own, denotes both the consecrated and the common cake. In form it was round and thin, and baked, as the eucharistal one, between two flat hot irons, shutting together by a pivot, and ornamented inside, so as to leave the impression on the cake. The sellers of oublies, or waferers, were early formed into a society, for the regulation of which statutes were repeatedly made. Their business was most extensive. In 1406 it was decreed that no one should exercise the trade who could not make 500 daily, besides as many smaller cakes. They perambulated the streets in the evening, and were frequently the victims of the pranks and brutality of the rakes of the day. Guillaume notices this, and says you may hear them cry out, “I am undone,” “help for God’s sake,” “I am murdered.” From their numbers, however, and other causes, they gradually became a nuisance. Designing persons, thieves, and villains, took up the occupation as a cloak for dishonest practices, robbery, intrigue, &c. They were accordingly abolished by law in 1725. The suspicious character of the venders of wafers, both male and female, is often alluded to by our early poets. Thus in Chaucer, “Singers with harpes, baudes, wafereres,” and by the author of Piers Plowman, a “wafrestre” is placed in company with a “kittepors,” and an “apewarde.”

Beaumont and Fletcher notice their turn for intrigue, for which the universal fondness for the cake afforded them ample opportunity.

’Twas no set meeting
Certainly, for there was no wager-woman with her,
These three days, on my knowledge.
  Woman Hater, ii. 1.

The oublies renforcies are supposed to have been the same as the gauffre, a delicacy baked in irons like the wafer, but partaking more of the consistency of a thick pancake. I know not whether it is common in this country, but in America I believe it is, where it goes by the name of waffle, from the Dutch waefel, a wafer, flat cake, &c.

The simnels were either rolls or small loaves of the finest flour; or else cakes of the same flour, but seasoned and sweetened. Of the first kind were those probably mentioned by Holinshed, as forming part of the livery to the King of Scots, when on a visit to Richard I. in 1194. “Twelve manchet wastels, twelve manchet simnels.” This is the Panis de Simenel of Du Cange. Of the second was the cake, in Herrick’s allusion to the custom of going “a mothering.”

I’le to thee a simnell bring,
’gainst thou go’st a mothering.

The gustel à fdève, or cake with the bean, was, as is well known, the indispensible accompaniment of Twelfth Night: he, in whose piece the bean, which had previously been inserted in the dough, was found, being chosen king over the festivities and mirth of the evening. With us it was frequently the custom to add a pea, which falling to a lady, gave her the rights of queen. Thus in Nichols’s Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, one of the characters, in an entertainment given to her Majesty, is made to say, “Cut the cake: who hath the beane shall be King; and where the peaze is, she shall be Queene.” According to Le Grand d’Aussy (Vie Privée des Français, vii. 277), the bean cake in France was not exclusively the attendant of twelfth night, but was also introduced at other times, for the purpose of increasing the gaiety of the party.

Fresh rushes; rushes of the Iris; straw, grass. These were all for strewing over the floors of the houses and churches, and long continued to be the substitute for carpets or matting. In some part of Lancashire they still keep up the custom, on certain days in the year, of scattering rushes in the Church.

Surcoats, hats, copes; buyers of old hose and shoes, old pots, shovels, old iron in exchange for needles; renovators of mantles, furred cloaks, coats, and surcoats; menders of tubs, cups, benches, hutches (chests used as safes, or for keeping corn, &c. in); scourers of tin pots; criers at different stations of the proclamations of the King, Louis IX.; criers of the dead.

Of these last singular personages, the poet observes, “Whenver a man or woman has died, you will hear them with a bell along the streets cry out, Pray for his soul.” In a note on this passage, in la Vie privée des Français, v. ii. 411, M. de Roquefdort gives the following illustration of the custom: “These criers had moreover a particular costume, a white Dalmatic, covered with death’s heads, bones, and black coloured tear-drops. In some of our northern provinces they made use of a basin or small kettle, which they beat with a stick. The custom was still kept up in several cities, towns, and villages, before the events of 1789. As soon as a person died, a man in the official character of crier perambulated all night the streets, ringing a bell, and stopped at the corners, where he cried out in a mournful tone, ‘Awake, awake, good people who sleep, awake, and pray God for the departed.’ At the funeral of Louis XII. who died the first of January, 1515, the criers ringing their bells exclaimed, ‘The good king Louis XII. the Father of his people, is dead, pray God for him.’ A custom somewhat similar once existed in Scotland, and is mentioned in the “Popular Antiquities,” vol. II, 127, from Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Survey.

For firing – a sort of turf made of the old bark peelings, &c. of the tannery; fire logs; charcoal, a penny the sack. For light, candles with cotton wicks; prepared rushes for lamps.

Amongst the remaining miscellaneous articles, are pigeons, birch-brooms, mats, wooden hoops, hot baths, Noels or Christmas Carols, various wines.

The cry of the “Bath” was probably merely a person who held forth the merits of some particular establishment, as it is difficult to imagine a machine large enough for the purpose would have been suffered in the streets. The Noels, M. Barbazan supposes to have been books, containing a collection of carols; but it appears to me more probable, that men or women are only meant, who gained their living by singing them. The Noel was not confined to the season of Christmas, but the burden, Noel, Noel, as an exclamation of joy, was used in songs on any great subject of rejoicing.

Ifd to these various “Cries,” we add those of the different orders of begging friars, who endeavoured to outvie each other in their vociferations for bread, we may form some idea of the discordant sounds, and busy appearance, of the thoroughfares of Paris in the 13th century; a noise and throng which the poet says lasted from day-break to midnight, and which served to draw the attention of the passenger to such a multiplicity of objects, that were one only to purchase a portion of each man’s merchandise, a large fortune would soon be dissipated. H.

1. Fortune m’a mis en sa roë, Chacun me gabe et fet la moë.