Jonathan Swift's A Description of a City Shower

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"Sweepings From Butchers Stalls:" Mapping the Filth of London

Joel E. Salt


Smithfield had been a meat market from the 11th century to the mid 19th century and even today parts of it are used as markets, one of the only places not to have moved to cheaper land in suburbia. Historically it was an open space, at the edge of town, used for jousting tournaments. Possibly the most famous tournament in medieval Smithfield was the one ordered in 1390 by Richard II. Jean Froissart, in the 4th book of his Chronicles, reports that sixty knights would come to London to tilt for two days, "accompanied by sixty noble ladies, richly ornamented and dressed". The tournament was proclaimed by heralds in England, Scotland, Hainault, Germany, Flanders, and France, to rival the jousts given by Charles of France into Paris a few years earlier, on the entry of his consort Isabeau de Bavière. Geoffrey Chaucer supervised the preparation of the tournament's works as clerk of the king. [Think: A Knight's Tale, where Sir Ulrich fights and Chaucer watches on].

It is in this same place where peasants gathered during the revolt of 1381, and was a common execution site, where heretics were executed: 50 protestants during Mary I’s reign, and in 1305 William Wallace was executed there. Coin forgers were boiled there in the 1500s.

St. Sepulchre Church

The church was badly damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, the church was rebuilt by Wren's masons in 1670-71 (in 1666 the Smithfield area was left mostly untouched by the Great Fire of London, that stopped near the Fortune of War tavern, at the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, where the statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner is located).

The sight of St. Sepulchre's must have chilled the souls of passers-by for several centuries, for it stood opposite the infamous Newgate prison and its bell marked the time of impending executions. High on the wall of the modern office block which now occupies the site at Pye Corner is the golden figure of a fat boy. The boy is supposed to personify gluttony, the deadly sin that was said to have brought God's vengeance on the city and his statue's inscription reads:

The Boy at Pye Corner was erected to commemorate the staying of the Great Fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the sin of gluttony when not attributed to the Papists as on the Monument, and the Boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral.

It is easy to see, immediately, that Smithfield has a politically charged background. This history informs the reader of Swift of years of oppression and political revolt (and, as always, tension with the French). The meat butchoring informs a literal massacre (of Kine), but the Church's connexion with death, criminals, and even gluttony inform the reader of the of the massacre's alternate meaning. The filth runs from where the condemned prisoners would walk, starting at Newgate Prison (across the street from the church) and travelling through snow hill street to where cock and cow lanes meet. The prisoneres would keep walking down Holburn, but Swift has the filth run into fleet ditch: another shot at the Londoners: they are shitty. This shows the “waste” of the London life here – the “butchers stalls, dung, cuts and blood.” These blood and guts are also the criminals, the dissidents, spilling into the Thames. It is a political space that, through its change over time, imbues the contemporary time (of Swift) with an allegorical meaning to overlay his literal track of filth.

Circle: Smithfield Park; Square: St. Pulchre Church
The black is the path of the prisoners from Old Bailey to Tyburn. They keep walkign along Holbern; The grey is where Swift's filth flows into the Thames (and diverts from the deathrow path).
The circled tags are "St. Paul in the Background"
The Path of the Filth
(to Thames)
St. Paul's in the Background
St. Pauls in the Background

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