“The history of York is the history of England.” –King George VI.
Historians have long told us that we need to understand the past in order to understand the present and predict the future. I found this to be true on my trip to York, England in late May of 2009.
York was first settled by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago (AD 71). York still retains more intact walls than any other city in England, and some sections of the wall date back to Roman times. The area was originally occupied by a Celtic tribe called the Brigantes. The city was successively conquered and occupied by the Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans, the Christians, the Protestants, the Parliamentarians, the aristocracy, the lunatics, the debtors, and eventually the capitalists.
On the beautiful spring day in 2009 that I visited York, the city was overrun not by Roman or Viking conquerors, but by English tourists swarming the many high toned shops, looking for designer clothing, antiques, fine china, or fat rascals. The term “fat rascals” refers not to us American tourists, but to a huge, decadent scone made of lard, margarine, sugar, flour, and currants. This rascal can only be found at Betty’s Tearoom, legendary in York for its 1920s elegant ambiance, its freshly made food, its high prices, and its long lines.
Below is a picture of a family of Fat Rascals captured in their native habitat.
After sipping our tea and gobbling down our Fat Rascals at Betty’s, my companions and I walked over to a street called the Shambles. One of the main attractions of York, the Shambles is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval streets. More generally, the Shambles refers to the area of narrow twisting lanes surrounding this street. We know that the Shambles dates back at least to 1086 because it was mentioned in The Domesday Book. “Domesday” (a.k.a. Doomsday) means “a day of reckoning,” “the last judgment,” “a day of doom.” This name makes sense, given that the purpose of the Domesday book was for King William I to figure out how much money his subjects had so that he could sock them with taxes on it. The name also makes sense, because after spending a few days in York, tourists must face their day of reckoning when they step on the scales and open their credit card statements.
Back in the medieval period, the Shambles was dominated by butchers plying their trade. In fact, the name of the street comes from Saxon “Fleshammels”, which means “the street of the butchers.” The butchers displayed their raw meat on the wide window sills, while the blood dripped into the street. This blood mingled with the garbage and “domestic waste” that housewives dumped out of their second floor windows. Cats, dogs, and pigs roamed the streets freely, adding their own drippings to this colorful scene of medieval commerce at its most productive. Below you can see a reproduction of a medieval painting depicting a typical Shambles scene:
Visitors to Medieval York were so impressed by the vibrant, productive, aromatic mix of blood, commerce, shrill screams, and excrement—human and otherwise–that they were inspired to invent a new concept—an innovation which is now called “Parliament.”
What many people do not know is that the term “Parliament” stems from the French root “parler,” which means “to talk” and the Latin root “excrement” which means “Waste matter expelled from the body.” Taken together, these roots form the word “Parliament,” which means “a bunch of politicians talking B.S.”
And indeed, in late May of 2009 Parliament was in a shambles, a bloody mess. At this time, the housing expense scandal was in full swing. Members of Parliament are legally allowed to write off the expenses involved in maintaining a second home in London. However, as the press revealed, the MPs were writing off expenses for expensive renovations, chandeliers, pornography, moat upkeep on country estates and endless other “necessities.” The British public was not amused, particularly since the scandal erupted during a period of severe economic hardship for many people.
As one esteemed journalist described the affair, “It was a shitstorm”. Numerous MPs either resigned, were suspended or announced they would not seek re-election.
Visiting York helped me to understand the present political Domesday for these political fat rascals. Just as, for example, livestock in medieval York streets were slaughtered on site, so too were present-day MPs being slaughtered by the media. Compare, for example, the medieval rendition of the pig shown above with a portrait of a contemporary English MP. You’ll see the similarities are uncanny.
They say that travel expands our understanding of the world. My companions and I felt our political consciousness enlightened by the Shambles the Brits have made of the world, so enlightened that we were tempted to pig out on a second serving of fat rascals.
For your own Fat Rascal, check out Betty’s: http://www.bettys.co.uk/bettys_york.aspx