Life in Medieval York

Petergate, York. C.Monkhouse, 1849

In the Middle Ages, York was home to great wealth and great squalor.  It was noisy and crowded: the city was filled with narrow lanes crammed with houses.  Some had yards where they kept pigs and other animals.  But there were also gardens and orchards within the city, and the open country and farmland was never far away.

Documents suggest that the wealthy invested in property.  The earliest, accurately dated house to survive is a two-storey terrace called Our Lady’s Row in Goodramgate, which dates back to 1316.  As the 14th century progressed building techniques improved and thatched roofs were replaced by tiles.

Daily routines probably included a main meal in the afternoon – fish on a Friday – and a visit to church.  The annual festivals and feast days all had a religious basis too.  The St Peter’s or Lammas Fair was held on July 31 and was first recorded in the mid-12th century.

York was a smelly place.  Butchers’ offal rotted in the ditches and streets.  Privies were built on the city moat and Ouse Bridge.  One 15th century account describes the city’s ‘great corruptions and horrible and pernicious air’.

The lane of Patrick Pool in 1249 was so deep in mire that it was unpassable.  About the same time, the street paving in Bootham was in utter disrepair.

But York was also splendid and beautiful, particularly with the completion of the glorious Minster, imposing guild halls and other fine buildings.

At leisure

For some medieval citizens there was enough leisure time to play: archaeologists have found simple board games with discs made from jet, or more commonly, bone.  Dice were also used.

Simple musical instruments were discovered, including whistles made from the leg bones of geese, as well as bone pegs, for tightening the strings of a harp.


By today’s standards, hygiene in medieval England was appalling, with debris and waste building up in and out of houses and on the streets.  Families had to get rid of their own rubbish and often dumped it in their own back yards.

Cess-pits were dug near properties and usually back-filled with normal rubbish and soil.  Deeper pits were dug to act as wells.  The water in the wells had passed through foul conditions, however, and was unfit for drinking unless it was heated in the process of brewing.

Remains at York’s medieval cemeteries have shown that people looked much as we do today, although they were a little shorter.  Their poor diet led to much illness, including rickets and joint disease.

Conditions seem to have improved over the centuries.  Excavations on later medieval sites discovered insects which favoured cleaner habitats, suggesting the city had cleaned up its act somewhat since Norman times.


By the end of the Middle Ages York had no fewer than 31 hospitals.

The much-feared and contagious disease of leprosy increased in the years after the Norman Conquest.  To contain it, York built a leper house – St Nicholas’s Hospital, just outside the walls.

Other hospitals included St Leonard’s which became the largest in the north of England.  In 1399, 232 people were housed there. The hospital, run by Augustine canons, was more than a place for the sick to be healed. The elderly were cared for and it was also an orphanage.

Parts of St Leonard’s can still be seen – the vaulted undercroft and ruined chapel above are next to York Central Library.  An idea of how large the hospital was can be gained from knowing that other remains are found under the Theatre Royal in St Leonards Place.

Buying and selling

Various markets were held at different times in the week including a meat market, probably on Shambles, the market on Pavement and the Thursday market – all running in the 12th and 13th centuries.  Sunday markets were finally prohibited after a lengthy church campaign in 1322. 

A large range of goods was sold elsewhere in the city.  Most craftsmen sold their wares from workshops which were also their homes.

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