An area in the centre of Bristol now called College Green, a triangle of land bounded on one side by the cathedral, on another by the council house, and on the third by a row of buildings including the former hospital of St Mark (now Lord Mayor’s Chapel), has in recent days been in the news, as the site of Bristol’s local version of the ‘Occupy (WallSt/Stock Exchange/financial district)’ movement. Besides the wider issue of current protest, which it is not the aim or intent of this blog to delve into, the admittedly comparatively very small but strangely pertinent question of public, or open, spaces and their use has caused a medieval/modern intersection.

The debate over public space and how to use it is not new. Back in 1259 William, the abbot of St Augustine’s (now the cathedral, and Henry de Gaunt, master of St Mark’s hospital (now remnants in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel), fell out over the use of and rights to the open space (now College Green) separating the two establishments. In the 13th century, when the afterlife was of more concern than it is today, the space was primarily recognised as a burial ground for St Augustine’s, but the master and ‘staff’ of St Mark’s surreptitiously encroached on it to also dig graves.

Besides use as a cemetery, the open space or ‘the green’ (planicie) was also used for more worldly, and more public, activities such as grazing the animals owned by both St Augustine’s and St Mark’s, as well as being a point of access for people, horses and (goods)vehicles for both abbey and hospital – in other words it was a ‘public space’ in the modern sense of the word. As with current debates surrounding the public realm with regard to environmental quality, the question of the ‘amenity value’ (to give its modern term) cropped up in 1259: The master and his staff at the hospital of St Mark were ordered to level off the mounds of earth covering graves which they had dug before the gates of their establishment (i.e. on the green) in order that the pleasantness (literally: amenities) of the place should be preserved (propter amenitatem loci conseruandam) – again, in modern terms, so that people using the space no longer faced the trip hazard of uneven surfaces (stumbling over the graves) –  and the grazing of animals was prohibited. The document goes on to state that in future, the bodies of the dead should only be buried in that part of the cemetery used before 1259 “because of the pleasantness of the place”. And the public nature of the space, in that although technically owned by the abbey but ‘necessary’ for the hospital, is emphasised in the following:

“Those dwelling in the house of St. Mark may have access and egress in and out of the green, for the sake of walking, going, or wandering where they please, or of driving drays, carriages and carts (dreyes, carectas, bigas) along the ways useful and necessary to them, and accustomed.” (Cartulary of St. Mark’s Hospital, Bristol, ed. C. D. Ross, Bristol Record Society, 21, 1959, charter no. 35, dated 13 Sept. 1259, p. 38)

Which just goes to show that history can be contemporarily relevant in the tiniest of things, and the most innocuous of books (the publications of the Bristol Record Society are not exactly noted for their revolutionary appeal) hold undiscovered dissident potential.

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