A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

*

Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

What people really want to know about Britain, part twenty-something

What search engine questions has Lord Google sent my way lately? Why, how convenient that you should ask. We have, right here before us, the best of them, along with my answers, since I can explain everything.

That’s not to say I can explain it all correctly, but an explanation’s an explanation, as any politician who’s faced an interviewer can tell you. And everything is everything. And circular answers are useful, as Theresa May discovered when she so helpfully explained, as prime minister, that Brexit means Brexit.

It meant nothing and explained nothing, but we can all admit it was an answer.

No egos were bruised–I hope–in the making of this post. Let’s not kid ourselves that the people who drifted here in the wake of these questions fell in love with Notes and stuck around. They came, they saw, they drifted on, and they washed up on some other internet shore.

 

Irrelevant photo: A flower. One I don’t know the name of.

British History

who is berwick at war with

It’s at war with rumor and commonly held belief, which formed an  alliance years ago, leaving  poor old Berwick fighting on two poorly defined fronts. 

Or maybe I have that back to front and rumor and commonly held belief are Berwick’s allies. That would mean reality’s the enemy. It’s hard to tell in this post-truth era.

Either way, Berwick isn’t (at least in the reality I inhabit) at war with anyone, but judging from the flow of search engine questions about who it is at war with, we’ll never convince the world of that. 

why couldnt the normans hunt in the forest

They could. 

But of course it’s not that simple.

After the Normans invaded England, they seized about a third of the country, announced that it was theirs, and restricted hunting on it. Poaching (which is hunting where you’re not supposed to–in other words, on someone else’s land) became, for a long time, the kind of crime that could get you mutilated or killed. Since it was overwhelmingly the Normans and their descendants who owned the land or could pay for the privilege of hunting on it, let’s keep things simple and say that the Normans could hunt in the forest.

list the efects of the enclosure movement 

I got two copies of this question. I didn’t notice whether they both had the same typo, but my best guess is that someone was doing their homework on the enclosure movement. Sorry, kid, go write your own paper. It’s a complicated process, but basically you find a source of information, you make a few notes, you–

No, I shouldn’t take anything for granted. You find that source of information–preferably a reliable one, because there’s a lot of nut stuff out there. Then you read it. All by yourself. And you write down a few things that belong on the list you were asked to create. 

See? That wasn’t too hard, was it?

I despair.

why is england called britain

For the same reason that a salad is called lettuce, even if it has tomatoes, red cabbage, and one lonely black olive. In other words, because people focus on one of the ingredients and snub the others. 

Olives have feelings too, you know.

In fairness, England has always been the dominant bit of the salad–and that might [sorry, we’re stepping outside of the metaphor for a second here] come back to bite it soon. Scotland shows all the signs of feeling like an olive lately. Which would make Wales and Northern Ireland the tomato and red cabbage, and I understand that I haven’t given them their due in my answer. That’s an ongoing historical problem with the British salad. I also understand that the metaphor’s breaking down and that it’s time for me to get out while I can.

why was suffragists not a turning point in the ‘votes for women’ campaign.

Who says it weren’t?

 

So what’s Britain really like?

has england incorporated the metric system

You had to ask, didn’t you? If the whole let’s-not-go-metric campaign starts up again, I’ll know who to  blame. But yes, it has, mostly. With some exceptions, the most noticeable of which involve highway miles and the pint glasses used in pubs.

pre metric measurements

Pre-metric measurements are the bests argument for no country ever abandoning the metric system. 

informal judge wig

When my partner and I went to court to convince the British government not to toss us out of the country, we were told that the hearing was informal. The definition of informal–or at least the part of it that I understood–was that the judge didn’t wear a wig.

Hope that helps.

why did they used to make a guy at guyfawkes and sit in the street

To get money for fireworks.

I know, that only makes sense if you already understand the answer, so I’ll explain. Guy Fawkes and some friends tried to blow up Parliament. It was over religious issues, which were also political issues, and it must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time. They got caught before anything went ka-blooey, and every year on November 5 the country marks the occasion with bonfires and by burning a pretend version of Guy, now demoted to simply “the guy”–an effigy, sometimes of a very generic human being and sometimes an elaborate one of whatever political figure seems to need burning in effigy at the moment.  

Back in the day, kids hung out on the streets and asked passers-by to give them a penny for the guy. Then–or so my friend tells me–they’d buy fireworks with however much they had.

Parliament also marks the occasion by a thorough and ceremonious search of the cellars where Guy and his fireworks were hiding. Even though the cellars don’t exist anymore. Because it’s not right to let reality get in the way of a good tradition. 

 

Food and drink

what they call a can of beer in england

An American import? I don’t think they sell much canned beer here. It’s bottled or it’s on tap. I trust someone will correct me if I’m wrong here.

But where auxiliary verb go?

why do we eat red cabbage at xmas

Oooh, do we? I thought we (a category that excludes me, but never mind that) ate brussels sprouts at Christmas. 

when did brussel sprouts first come to the uk

Before the Home Office was created. The Home Office’s task is to defend Britain’s borders and deport people who (oops) often have every right to remain, destroying both their lives and Britain’s reputation. The Home Office would’ve taken one look at sprouts and sent back to their point of origin as undesirables. And what tradition would we be baffled by if we didn’t have them?

what do britiah call brownies

Brownies.

What do Britiah call themselves?

British.

What do Britiah call definite article?

Missing.

pandemic takeaway food success stories

for the most part, and we should grab our success stories where we can. I expect there are some of these, but I can’t say I know any. 

Stick with me, kids. I know how to do depressing. 

 

Inexplicable questions

however, _______________, i am going to spend most of the time today talking about why britain _____

I spent a fair bit of time filling in the blanks, convinced I could do something wondrous with this. I didn’t manage to make myself smile, never mind laugh. Gold stars to whoever can.

I have no idea why anyone would type this into a search engine, but if you’ve got nothing better to do I guess it would be interesting.