In the medieval and early modern periods, living in a town or city was the exception to the rule of living in rural agricultural surroundings. Urban public spaces comprised an unusual concentration of relatively high numbers of people in a relatively small yet built-up space (or in larger capital cities, in smaller spaces within the larger cityscape). This meant that here you would find activities that only had purpose because of this combination of sufficient audience within a concentrated space. Some were connected to the sound produced by the human mouth – not just talking, laughing or arguing but used deliberately to attract attention in itself and through woodwind musical instruments.
In Exeter, sets of silver chains were worn by the four city council waits, or musicians. Mostly woodwind players, they provided official musical accompaniment for important occasions. They played when the new Mayor was elected and processed with him into the Cathedral. They played on Christmas morning throughout the city and outside the houses of all the councillors. Their most challenging duty, however, must have been playing between 1st November (All Hallows) until Feb 2nd (Candlemas) from 3 o’clock in the morning until they had gone through the whole city – except on Fridays, Sundays and holidays.
In Valencia the Vera Creu or brotherhood of blind reciters of prayers was founded in 1329 and its members used their voices to receit prayers, sing and tell stories in the streets and squares to earn alms on which to live. One such character is captured by George de la Tour (1593-1652) in his portrait of A Blind Hurdy-Gurdy Player, now in the Prado Museum, Madrid.
In 1545, just before the opening of the Council of Trent, when a proclamation was issued in Trento, promising anonymity and a reward to anyone who denounced the person who had recently slandered the civic consuls. Proclamations were announced by a civic official in Piazza Duomo, then in several places across the city. We know what proclamations say, but what does a proclamation sound like? Evidence from Exeter reveals that all the city councillors there gathered outside the Guildhall with the Mayor. The Sergeant then made three loud oyes! and commanded every man to keep silence. He then pronounced the proclamation in a low voice before the clerk read it out in full. It was then pinned to the city gates.
In Hamburg it was the New Marketplace that was the place to hear all the latest news. Not only were newspapers available to buy and read from news hawkers, but evidence suggests that, in 1686, some news stalls offered a special service: for half the price, one could listen to newspapers being read aloud. If you really wanted a headline though, at the Brink, a public space in the centre of Deventer, you could hear the screams of counterfeiters being executed. So seriously was this crime taken because of its impact on trade, the punishment was to be boiled alive in water or oil in a large copper cauldron – which survives to this day.
Kate Osborne (University of Exeter)
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