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The Shambles: the oldest medieval street in the world

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The Shambles is an old street in York, England, and one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe.
With its cobbled streets and overhanging timber-framed buildings, It was even mentioned in the Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror in 1086, and many of the buildings on the street today date back to the late fourteenth and fifteenth century (around 1350-1475).

As recently as 1885, thirty-one butchers’ shops were located along the street, but now none remain.
Originally it was in fact a street of butchers’ shops and houses, many complete with a slaughterhouse at the back of the premises, ensuring a ready supply of fresh meat.
The meat was hung up outside the shops and laid out for sale on what are now the shop window-bottoms.
Lacking modern-day sanitation facilities, there was a constant problem of how to dispose of the waste produced by the slaughter of animals in the city.
The pavements are raised either side of the cobbled street to form a channel where the butchers would wash away their offal and blood twice a week.
Although the butchers have now vanished, a number of the shops on the street still have meat-hooks hanging outside and, below them, shelves on which meat was displayed.
The architecture which now appears so quaint had a very practical purpose: thet street was in fact made narrow by design to keep the meat out of direct sunlight, but they also helped keep the rain off goods laid out for sale in the merchants’ stalls below.

And why ‘Shambles’?
The name is thought to derive from ‘Shammel’, an anglo-saxon word for the shelves which were a prominent feature of the open shop-fronts.
The origin of ‘shamble’ was the Old English word ‘sceamel’, which meant a bench or stool.
However, over time, the meaning of the term evolved and was used for the market stall or table where meat and fish were displayed for sale.
And then the plural term “shambles” simply became a place where butchers sold their meat.
But it seems that Shambles is not the original name.
Records show that the name Haymongergate was used in 1240, and Marketshire was in use during the 14th century to apply to the entire area.
A document in 1394 refers to “Nedlergate”, perhaps a reference to needles made from animal bones.
It was around 1426 when the term Great Flesh Shambles was used, and over time this was simply shortened to Shambles.

One building of note is No. 35, the shrine of Margaret Clitherow, who at the age of 15 was married to a wealthy butcher with premises on the Shambles.
The Clitherows actually lived at Nos. 10-11, on the opposite side of the street and further west.
Margaret converted to Catholicism in 1574, though her husband remained a Protestant and turned a blind eye to his wife’s activities, who was arrested in 1586 on the charge of harbouring Catholic priests.
To make matters worse, she had regular Masses said in her house, and hid clergy vestments there.
She might have avoided punishment but she refused to enter a plea, rejecting the authority of the court.
As a result, the authorities condemned her to death by pressing, more precisely crushing her beneath a heavy weight.
Margaret Clitherow was canonized in 1970, and her home is now a shrine.

The picturesque street is also thought to have inspired author JK Rowling’s “Diagon Alley” in the popular Harry Potter series of books and films.
The link has made York a popular destination for Harry Potter fans from around the world and, not by chance, several Harry Potter themed shops have sprung up (we can say magically?) after the films, including the wonderfully-named “The Shop That Must Not Be Named”.

Originally there were also churches at each end of the Shambles. Holy Trinity, King’s Square stood at the western end and St Crux, Pavement at the eastern end, but both were pulled down, St Crux on 1887 and Holy Trinity in 1936.

In any case today the beautiful old buildings have been restored and now house cheerful cafés, quirky boutiques, a coin & stamp dealer, and the smells are rather more pleasant with aromas from the chocolate, fudge and sweet shops, as well as clothes and accessories and gift shops.

Images from web – Google Research

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