By Wade Svec
History of the Town Crier
Throughout most of Europe and beyond, the town cry was an omnipresent part of daily life in the Middle Ages. However, almost nothing exists today to show a record of the millions of announcements that were published and proclaimed over the centuries.
What is a Town Crier?
I use Town crier as a fairly generic term to encompass all of the various and sundry positions that would make public announcements. They were known by a multitude of terms including: Heralds, Bellmen, Bedells, Hawkers, Public Criers, Common Criers and of course simply Town Criers, just to name the most common.
Origins of the Town Crier
In the age before literacy was common, when news of local or national importance needed to be disseminated, it was the job of the town crier to pass those messages along. One of the most famous early examples was after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, we have evidence of the Greek soldier Pheidippides being sent 26.2 miles to spread the news of the victory to Athens[Sekunda, N. 2002]. In Ancient Rome a praeco (public crier) would be called upon to make many different types of announcements, from announcing election results and trial verdicts or announcing the time and place of forthcoming public auctions and notifying the public of lost & found items to summoning mourners to a funeral and more[Mitchell, D. 2010]. In England circa 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry shows bellmen in the funeral procession of Edward the Confessor[Rex, P. 2008] and 10 months later, after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror is known to have sent messages to every town to announce his victory[Huscroft, R. 2009]. These French-Norman heralds are believed to be the first to bring to England the, “Oyez, oyez, oyez!” traditionally used to begin an official announcement. “Oyez,” is French-Norman for, “hear ye.”
Bayeux Tapestry: The Funeral of Edward the Confessor(1)
Role of the Town Crier
Little remains to document the exact duties of a town crier during the SCA period. We do know a typical small town would employ multiple criers. While slightly out of our period, in 1649 this order for bellmen in Newbury, Berkshire shows a general job description for the day and night bellmen that would have been similar to what was seen prior to 1600:
For the better preserving of the Town from danger of fire and many other great inconveniences that are likely to happen, and for the apprehension of all pilfering rogues and suspicious persons, there should be a Bellman that walk the streets from 9 o’clock in the evening until 5 in the morning, and from 9 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the evening, and shout a distinct and audible noise to give notice as well of the present condition of the weather, as of the time of the night, which Bellman is to have 5s. A week duly and truly paid by the inhabitants[Money, W. 1972].
Before popup ads and television commercials, merchants still needed to advertise their wares. When it comes to the content of this type of town cry, very few examples remain from our period. The most complete record of day to day town cries is a register of marketplace cries from the Town of Clare, in Suffolk, which covers 1612-1711 and would, for the most part, be similar to what town criers throughout England proclaimed before 1600. Here are a couple colorful examples.
9 October 1692. Cryed one broune blacke horse Aboute 14 hands high, with a starr on his foorehed and whight slips on one of his nostrills, with one whight foot behinde, and a walle eye on the oft side, and the same other eye is in his heade, but he is allmost blinde of both, and two saddle spots on etch side of this back, taken or strayed oute of the pastur of Mr John Brooke, minister of greate yeldom in Essex[Mitchell, D. 2010].
11 September 1701. Cryed in Clare markett, one Thomas Sparrow, apprentice to one John Barnard of Sudbury, who did Runn Away from his master on the 23rd day of last August: he hath a Ruddy Complection and broune hair, with A scarr upon his forehead, with a sad Cullered fuschon frock, and payer of Callimankoo britches, and sad cullered stockens[Mitchell, D. 2010].
A Night Bellman aka Watchman(2)
Sometimes a Common Cryer would serve as the mouthpiece for the Mayor of a city and its Common Council. London has had a Common Cryer since at least 1338, responsible for making proclamations and carrying the Great Mace of Government before the Lord Mayor. In 1419 the position had a salary of sixty shillings a year, robes, fees from the Aldermen and Sheriffs and a ‘sufficient horse’ for the honour of the City[cityoflondon.gov.uk Retrieved 2016].
Publish and Proclaim
When we think of publishing today, we probably think of books or the internet. However the word publish comes from the latin word publicare, which simply means to make public[OED Online, Retrieved 2016]. While proclaim comes from the latin pro (forth) + clamare (to shout) = proclamare (to cry out)[OED Online Retrieved 2016]. This method of disseminating information is a practice that can be traced back through biblical times.
And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth to the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written[Nehemiah KJV].
Town Criers Today
Little remains of the vibrant tradition or town criers besides a few archaic terms and traditions. The term, “Posting A Notice” comes from the fact that once a notice had been read to the public it would be attached to the doorpost of a local inn. Bellmen would proclaim the time and any weather alerts pertinent at that time. This is why there are so many newspapers around the world that still include the words, “Herald,” “Times,” or, “Post,” in their titles. The tradition of opening a court session with, “Oyez oyez oyez,” is still used to this day when opening a court of law in the U.S..
• Ceremonial Offices of the City of London. https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/about-the-city/the-lord-mayor/Pages/ceremonial.aspx
• Richard Huscroft. The Norman Conquest: A New Introduction. Longman, 2009.
• David Mitchell. For Crying Out Loud! The Story of the Town Crier and Bellman, Past and Present. Avenue Books, 2010.
• Nehemiah 8:15. King James version.
• Oxford English Dictionary Online. Definition of Proclaim. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/proclaim
• Oxford English Dictionary Online. Definition of Publish. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/publish
• Peter Rex. King and Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor, The History Press, 2008.
• Nick Sekunda. Marathon 490 Bc:The First Persian Invasion of Greece. Osprey Publishing, 2002.
• Walter Money. A History of Newbury. Thames Valley Press, 1972.
1. Bayeux Tapestry: The Funeral of Edward the Confessor
2. A Night Bellman aka Watchman