Sounds of Early Modern London

If you have ever been to London, or you are from there, you probably know that the city today is awash with noise, from passing buses, construction overhead, the occasional train, cars, and the crush of people from all over the world speaking every different language under the sun.

London in the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare was rather different. Well, obviously, no cars. But in the Jacobethan period, London was the largest urban centre in England by far and was to continue its massive growth throughout most of the next century. In Europe, only Paris and Naples had greater populations by 1600, though even these cities were dwarfed by the cultural and military powerhouse that was Istanbul. So, fewer people, less noise.

Also, around 1600, the very loudest noises that someone might encounter in a tour around the city were far quieter than the loudest noises that we might encounter today. No jackhammers and automobiles here. Rather, the sounds of unamplified voices, animals, and industry filled the air. Barry Truax, speaking about pre-modern societies generally, notes that “more ‘smaller’ sounds can be heard, more detail can be discerned in those that are heard, and sounds coming from a greater distance form a significant part of the soundscape. In terms of acoustic ecology, one might say that more ‘populations’ of sound exist, and fewer ‘species’ are threatened with extinction” (70-1).

So what were the species of sound that you might hear if you were transported back to Jacobethan London?

As Bruce R. Smith notes in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, we actually know a bit about this from the diary of Philip Julius, Duke of Stettin-Pomerania, who rode into London on 12 September 1602 and described:

On arriving in London we heard a great ringing of bells in almost all the churches going on very late in the evening, also on the following days until 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening. We were informed that the young people do that for the sake of exercise and amusement, and sometimes they lay considerable sums of money as a wager, who will pull a bell the longest or ring it in the most approved fashion. Parishes spend much money in harmoniously-sounding bells, that one being preferred which has the best bells. The old Queen is said to have been pleased very much by this exercise, considering it a sign of the health of the people.

Loudest of all the bells was that of St Mary-le-Bow, and it was that bell that signalled the rhythms of the workday. Shopkeepers, artisans, and apprentices rose and worked to the sound of that bell tolling out the days of their life. In fact, there was a proverbial association between the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow and the true Londoner. By 1617, Fynes Moryson wrote “Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow-bell, are in reproach called Cockneys, and eaters of buttered toast.”

The sound of the bells was only one form of music that would have pervaded early modern London. Music was present in the pre-modern city in ways that are alien today. It wasn’t just entertainment. It accompanied daily chores and work (working songs); it served as a way for shoesellers, oystersellers, and rag-and-bone men to advertise; it could be heard emerging from barber shops and brothels and public houses alike. Women at spinning and carding wool would sing, as evidenced by John Case who asked in The Praise of Musick in 1586 “Who does not straightways imagine upon music when he hears his maids either at the woodhurdle or the milking pail?”  Sailors and waterboatmen would sing at their work as they went up and down the Thames. Songs emerged from the schools of the day, where school songs were a mainstay of the educational culture until well into the twentieth century. Even though, as Christopher Marsh points out, professional minstrels had been largely eliminated over the course of the 1500s by statutes that saw them as nothing more than beggars and vagabonds, songs still emerged everywhere.

The sounds of the workplace would also fill the ears of a visitor. Thomas Dekker in his pamphlet The Seven Deadly Sins of London from 1606 invokes the sounds of a London street.

Hammers are beating in one place, tubs hooping in another, pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth: here are porters sweating under burdens, there merchantmen bearing bags of money, chapmen (as if they were at leapfrog) skip out of one shop into another.

The sounds of each industry, from the hammering of blacksmiths and farriers, to the turning and scraping of plates and candlesticks, to the anguished cries of the slaughtered cattle, sheep and chickens permeated the city as it was no longer the case, as it had once been in the early 1500s, that each industry was relegated to a particular part of London. No matter where you went, you’d hear the sound of industry and manufacture – the hammering and scraping, tapping and making of every object of the early modern world.

Let’s not forget voices though. A huge portion of the population of London were immigrants who came from the rural counties beyond the city and their voices would have been trained by years of living outdoors without the sound reflective walls of the city. They would have used their voices differently than an urban dweller would, as urban residents tend to restrict our voices, pulling them back to fit in the small flat rooms of our daily lives. Indeed, this distinction between indoor and outdoor sound was puzzled over by Helkiah Crooke in his 1616 Microcosmographia, where he argued that voices from within a house can’t be heard outside, while voices outside a house can be heard within because “the sound entering the house is contracted, gathered, or united, and therefore it must needs move the sense more fully” (700).

The cry of unrestricted voices would resonate off of the architecture of the city and carry in ways that we can’t really understand today. The sound of the city would depend on where the listener stood and where the speaker stood. Some streets were cobbled, to be sure, reflecting the sound back and forth along the road and the walls of the houses, but most streets were merely sound absorbing mud and dirt (Smith 59-60). Thus the soundscape of an individual street would be totally different from its neighbour. The penetration of certain species of sound into the houses of even side streets could be wholly unpredictable.

Given all this, it is easy to sympathize with characters like Jonson’s Morose in Epicœne. Apart from the sounds of industry, there was also the sound of entertainment, which Morose seems most upset at. In fact, Morose’s description of what he’d gladly listen to rather than be married to a talkative woman is a kind of thumbnail sketch of the soundscape of early modern London itself. He’d happily sit “in a belfry, at Westminster Hall, i’ the Cockpit, at the fall of a stage, the Tower wharf (what place is there else?) London Bridge, Paris Garden, Billingsgate, when the noises are at their height and loudest. Nay, I would sit out a play that were nothing but fights at sea, drum, trumpet and target!”

If we could get in a time machine and listen to the sounds of early modern London, the speciation of sound, rather than the wall of noise that greets us in contemporary London, is what would probably surprise us most. From the choir of schoolboys carried on the wind to the incessant tapping of the neighbouring goldsmith, every London street would be different and every one would have its own unique character and voice.


For more on this topic, please read

  • Bruce R Smith. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor
  • David Lindley. Shakespeare and Music
  • Christopher Marsh. Music and Society in Early Modern England
  • Ross Duffin. Shakespeare’s Songbook
  • Wes Folkerth. The Sound of Shakespeare

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s