History books often try to describe what a medieval street would have looked like, and tour guides try to paint pictures in your mind, often in vain. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to imagine what used to be there but isn’t anymore. Many cities in Europe still maintain their medieval layout, such as Edinburgh, Rome, or Kraków, but it’s still difficult to image just how tight a medieval city was.
There is, however, one place you can go to get a pretty good idea of what it was like.
York is one of those cities which still follows the layout that it had back in the day – in fact, much of the organization of the old city of York dates back to the Roman occupation. In addition to their ancient street plan and medieval buildings, there’s a real-life, excellently-preserved medieval street for you to see.
The Shambles, as the street is known, is a quaint little street in the old town, not very far from York Minster. It’s delightfully crooked in every way: the street doesn’t run in a straight line, the cobbles are uneven, and the buildings themselves lean in and create a little extra coverage for pedestrians on the street below.
While it may be crooked, it is not, in fact, in shambles. The name comes from the Old English word sceamel, meaning bench, as in a butcher’s bench. Back when the buildings on this street were constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries, the storefronts were largely occupied by butchers. They would have had low, large windowsills in their front windows, so that they could display that day’s offerings. It was the medieval version of a deli counter. People would walk up to the window, tell the butcher how much of that side of beef they wanted, and he’d cleave it off for them.
Since the street is incredibly well-preserved, you can still see those display benches if you meander your way down the street today. If you’re really attentive, you’ll see that some of the meat hooks that were used to display sides of meat by hanging it from the overhang of the building are still there also.
The buildings do have an odd shape, and the upper floors jut out over the street, creating a little an awning-like covering for the storefronts below. Contrary to what some internet sites say, this is not because the buildings have warped over time. They surely have, given that they’re 500 years old and made of wood in a rather damp climate, but they haven’t warped so much that upper stories hang three to four feet out over the street. Were the buildings in that bad of shape, they would have been torn down long ago. The buildings were actually designed that way. To alleviate some of the space issues that were common in medieval cities, the buildings were built to make use of the empty space over the street and expand the floor space of upper stories.
The butchers have all moved out of the Shambles, but the city of York was reluctant to redevelop the street, which is one of the best (many people argue that it’s the best) preserved medieval street in Europe. Instead of demolishing it, the buildings were restored – if you peek through some of the upper windows along the street, you can see that every effort was made to use era-appropriate materials, down to the wood beam ceilings – and shops moved in.
Most of them are independent shops, because the floor space offered in each storefront is incredibly small. Having gone into several of the shops along the street, I can attest to distinct lack of open display space. That being said, there are some cool shops down there which are worth a visit, such as The Shop That Must Not Be Named, which quickly became a favorite with this reluctant muggle who’s still waiting on her Hogwarts letter.
If you’re at all curious about what a medieval city would have looked like on a building-to-building basis, rather than just a street map view, the Shambles is the place to go. With the quaint shops and atmosphere, you just might forget about modern amenities, like the car you left parked halfway across town.
Visiting the Shambles in York:
Getting there: Honestly, just walk. I’ve been stressing the medieval-ness of this street – in medieval times, there were no cars. As such, there is neither room for parking nor for bus stops. Fortunately, the Shambles is near York Minster, so if you take public transport to the church, you can walk the rest of the way in roughly 5 minutes.
Admission: Contrary to some things I’ve seen online, there is no admission to the Shambles. It’s simply a pedestrianized street, so while you might spend quite a bit of money in the boutiques, you won’t be charged to enter the street.
Hours: Also contrary to some things I’ve seen online, the Shambles does not have opening hours. It’s just a street, and you can walk down it at any hour. The shops, on the other hand, do have opening hours, but you’ll have to consult the individual shops for that information.