Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion

By Garrett A. Sullivan Jr.; Patrick Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

21
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and London

Karen Newman

In the extended title of his Londinopolis, the seventeenth-century traveler James Howell dubs London the "chief Emporium of Great Britain." "London," he writes in his dedication, is "a most renowned Mart for multitude of Merchants, and Commerce."1 Antiquarians like the chronicler of London, John Stow, to whom Howell himself was much indebted; travelers like Thomas Plater and Howell himself; city comedy dramatists like Middleton; and everyday inhabitants of the city all recognized London as a center of commerce and trade. The seat of monarchy, of government and of the courts, the principal manufacturing and financial center of England, and the country's major port, London was by far the largest and most important city in England. The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw remarkable urbanization in western Europe,2 but London grew prodigiously and may have quadrupled its population in the period 1550–1650, from 80,000 to some 400,000; by 1700 its population was well over half a million and it had become the largest city in Europe.3

Middleton sets A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, as its title indicates, in Cheapside, the commercial center of London. Cheapside was the old market street that extended from St. Paul's to the Poultry and that derived its name, as the editor of the New Mermaids edition of the play points out, from the Anglo-Saxon word "ceap," which meant barter.4 Its side streets and lanes were named for the various commodities made and sold in them: Bread, Milk, and Wood Streets; Honey Lane; Friday Street (the fishmongers); and Ironmongers Lane (where, in fact, Middleton's father, a bricklayer and builder, owned a house in which the playwright spent his early years). In his study of medieval Cheap as Cheapside was called before 1600, Derek Keene estimates that the area had some four hundred shops and four thousand trading plots that employed enough people "to populate a market town of considerable size."5 By 1600, Cheapside housed not only the provisions merchants but also a variety of trades, including the goldsmiths, who, as John Stow put it, "as they have found their best advantage," moved from Gutheron's Lane to Cheap. According to Stow,

the most beautiful of houses and shops that be within the walls of London, or elsewhere in
England, commonly called Goldsmith's Row, betwixt Bread street end and the cross in
Cheape, "… are" within this Bread street ward; the same was built by Thomas Wood, one of
the sheriffs of London, in the year 1491. It containeth in number ten fair dwelling-houses and
fourteen shops, all in one frame, uniformly built four stories high, beautiful towards the
street with the Goldsmiths arms and the likeness of woodmen, in memory of his name, riding
on monstrous beasts, all which is cast in lead, richly painted over and gilt. "…"6

-237-

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