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What a Shambles

Shambles is a term for an open air slaughterhouse and meat market. Streets of that name were so called from having been the sites on which butchers killed and dressed animals for consumption.

As far as I can ascertain there are only about ten streets or areas left in the UK that are known as “The Shambles”. Manchester has one as do Sevenoaks, Salisbury and Tunbridge Wells, the most famous being the one in York. The one that interested me most is no longer in existence and if you didn’t know the history of the street, you wouldn’t have any idea it was ever there.

The street in the City of London known as Cheapside today runs through the area once known as West Cheap, roughly translated to the West Market. At the west end of the street close to St Paul’s Cathedral was the area known as the Shambles where the Butchers killed and jointed the animals before transferring them to their stalls within the market.

The definition of the word other than the one used in terms of butchery conveys chaos, muddle and confusion. Having read texts describing the area back in the 12th and 13th centuries these terms seem apt as blood, entrails and offal lay in the street and were only sporadically cleared away, however I could find no derivation of the name. It also struck me as strange that the name should be used throughout the country as you might assume that somewhere there might have been a town or city with a very tidy and well kept butchery area.

I was resigned to the fact that this was one detail I wasn’t going to find the answer to until last week while on holiday. I’d always wanted to visit the Shambles in York some of which date from around 1400 as it would help me visualise what parts of West Cheap might have looked like, and it was here that I found the answer to the name.

It is believed that term derives from “Shammel“, an Anglo-Saxon word for shelves used to display goods. Around the 11th century it seems to have been corrupted to “shamble” which meant a bench for the sale of goods and by 1305, a stall for the sale of meat.

Wandering around the York Shambles gave a great insight into how these medieval streets would have looked and if you’re ever in the vicinity then it is well worth visiting. On the downside, I thought that London had it’s fair share of shops selling tourist tatt, but I think York probably takes the crown. If I’d been invited to see one more thing that was Harry Potter related I think the cobbled streets may have once more run with blood.

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