A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Medieval Day

I take my inspiration for this title from the wonderful children’s book by Judith Viorst, to which I was first introduced by a good friend over two years ago. In the book, the world-weary eponymous hero suffers a series of minor catastrophes ranging from embarrassing kissing parents to lima beans for dinner (Alexander hates them).

On the way downstairs the elevator door closed on my foot and while we were waiting for mom to go get the car Anthony made me fall where it was muddy and then when I started crying because of the mud Nick said I was a crybaby and while I was punching Nick for saying crybaby my mom came back with the car and scolded me for being muddy and fighting.

I am having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, I told everybody. No one even answered.

The complaints are answered with the refrain: ‘I think I’ll move to Australia’. But, as Alexander concludes, ‘some days are just like that, even in Australia’.

ALEXANDER_TERRIBLE_HORRIBLE      Yesterday, I was finishing up a long day in The National Archives at Kew, which was by no means a terrible, no good, day. However, I was suffering from a mild case of what I like to call ‘manuscript brain’. Any scholar who works with old documents will know it: you spend too much time staring at the script, do not take enough breaks, and forget how to communicate with other people. The clock had turned to 6.20pm, and I’d almost reached my saturation point. I’d started to become even more clumsy than usual and made a couple of awful transcription mistakes. I decided to make letter that I was transcribing the final one, and head off for a well-deserved dinner. As I began to decipher this letter – from a fifteenth-century man called Richard Cely – I began to feel my minor discomforts dissipate:

‘Sir, I have been very sick in Essex before Halloween. I thank God, and a good diet, that I am cured now. In that season, Meg developed a sickness, which she died of in London. And, when I came to London the best of all of my gowns had been gnawed by rats around the bottom edge. Plus, the next installment of money from our father came, which was 30 pounds, of which, I lost 20 shillings in gold – by my soul, I don’t know where! Thus, I write to you of my pain and grief…. I pray that you come home this Christmas, and by the grace of Jesus, we shall be well after all this tribulation and vexation with sickness!’

‘Syr, I haue beyn ryught seyke in Essex afor Halontyd I thanke God and good dyet I [am] qwyte therof now; and in that sesun Meyge tooke a seykenes qwherof sche dyed at London; and when I come to London amonge aull my gownys my beste blake gown whos gnawyn wyth rattons abowte the skyrttys; and i the nexte mony that I ressauyd for owyr father whos xxx li. qwherof I loste xx s. in gowlde, a my sowll I whot not qwheyr. Thys I wryte to you of my payne and grefe… I pray yow to come hoom at thys Kyrstemas, and be the grays of Jhesu whe schaull be myry after all thys trebelassyon and whexsasyon of sekenes’ (ed. Alison Hanham, Letter 74, ll. 5 -13, from Richard Cely the younger to George Cely in November 1479)’

What a terrible, no good, awful week, never mind just a day. First Richard suffered an awful sickness, which had been mercifully relieved by a combination of healthy food and persistent prayer, but then ‘Meg’ also sickened and died. But who was Meg? It seemed strange that Richard glossed over her death relatively quickly, in this list of otherwise financial misfortunes. Also, when medieval people wrote of death, they usually followed with a nod to God Almighty… something along the lines of ‘God preserve her soul’.

Well, as Alison Hanham has pointed out…. ‘Meg’ was a hawk.

British Library, Egerton 2347 f. 4, an Italian depiction of a man and a hawk

British Library, Egerton 2347 f. 4, an Italian depiction of a man and a hawk

        A hawk – usually a sparrowhawk of goshawk –  was an expensive possession for a medieval person. So, Meg would have been precious to an ambitious, but not overly-wealthy, man like Richard. These great hunting birds were cared for meticulously. There are numerous surviving books in which the training and upkeep of the birds were explained in great detail. Upon capture, the bird had its eyes sewn up so that it was not scared or distracted, and it would be carried around on the arm for days to make it comfortable with human contact before the stitches were gradually eased open. Meg would have been Richard’s ticket to an exhilarating leisure activity. Letters between the Cely family are full of little updates about the wellbeing and activities of their hawks. I cannot think of a modern equivalent that would convey, with accuracy, the implications of the death of Meg for Richard’s pocket and social life. Suffice to say, the hawk’s demise, along with the damage to Richard’s favourite outfit at the teeth of rats, would have made this a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, day indeed!

However, with a new day comes new possibilities. As Hanham shows in her book on the Cely family, we find out that George Cely allowed Richard to hunt with his own hawk, sending her all the way from Dover to Calais. And she was named Meg, too! However, soon after arrival, Richard judged her a disappointment and sold her without asking George’s permission…

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 42r

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 42r

Read more:

Alison Hanham, The Celys and Their World (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Robin Oggins, The Kings and Their Hawks (Yale University Press, 2004)

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One comment

  1. Jeanne de Montbaston · · Reply

    This is lovely. I’ve known about Cely’s hawk since I was little, because she comes up in a children’s book I had, and it is *awesome* to know her name! 😀

    Sorry you had a rotten day, though …

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