If someone from the 21st century were to travel back to late medieval Dublin they would find a very strange and different city. 14th century Dublin looked very different; the skyline was dominated by Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral, while the houses looked something more like the houses in this photo than modern day apartment blocks.
In terms of smells Dublin had a pungent aroma reminiscent of sewer than anything else, although sometimes you have to wonder has much changed in this regard! While we cant recreate sights or smells easily, the sounds from medieval Dublin are a little easier to experience. Medieval life sounded completely different to our 21st century world.
Firstly there were no cars, buses, mobile phones or kango hammers. However the medieval city was by no means quiet. In modern Dublin wide streets allow noise to escape. Medieval towns were very different. Streets were narrow and the buildings on either side leaned over these thoroughfares acting as a sound trap. Below are just some of the sounds you must have echoed through the streets of medieval Dublin.
If transported back to 13th or 14th century Dublin the most immediate sound you would be aware of is the sound of your footsteps. Through much of the medieval period Dublin’s streets weren’t paved so you squelched through muddy streets on wintery days.
Car engines obviously did not exist but the medieval equivalent of the car – the horse made their own distinctive sound.
The 14th century ‘laws and usages’ of Dublin indicate there was quite a lot of commercial activity in the streets and lanes so it must have sounded something like this London market.
A common sound emanating from open doors of houses lining the streets must have been the crackling of fires – the only source of heat.
As I said at the outset some of the sounds would probably be quite disconcerting and make a modern visitor uncomfortable. In the medieval world people had very different notions of public and private space. Medieval housing was by no means soundproof so for example domestic arguments would have been easily heard in the street.
However what we would regard as a lot more intimate sounds would also have be heard. While most women give birth in hospitals today, in the medieval period children were born in the home. With no epidurals, the sounds of women going through labour must have been commonplace. In a city like medieval Dublin, birth if not a daily occurance was certainly a weekly occurance. Certainly it was far more regular occurance than public executions or murders which history tends to focus on. Medieval people presumably accepted it as very much part of life! This is not the thing people tend to put online so you’ll have to use your imagination.
An even more frequent sound must have been people having sex. Since there are millions of websites dedicated if you really need an audio clip you can go find it elsewhere!
Medieval Dublin was a far less sanitised space than modern cities. Dogs and cats were not the only animals to roam the streets. Laws were frequently enacted punishing the owners of pigs who roamed city streets. (Pigs could be vicious, in 1295 one pig allegedly ate a child.)
Children (when not being eaten by pigs) would have been more visible than they are today. With no schools or kindergartens they would have played in the city streets.
In general sounds must have varied greatly from street to street. For example on Winetavern street in Dublin you would find several taverns. However there was no clink of glasses, I couldn’t find any audio clips that I thought would recreate this environment.
At the bottom of Winetavern street lay the city docks. At certain times the river liffey would have been crammed with boats for example in 1303 when the Earl of Ulster was preparing to lead a vast host to Scotland there over one hundred ships in Dublin. At the docks you would have heard the creaking of the ships timbers and the lapping of water.
In other parts of the city the din of blacksmiths forges would have echoed through the streets.
Perhaps the only sound that has lasted through the seven or so centuries in Dublin is that of church bells. Medieval Dublin had several parish churches and two cathedrals. The bells from these churches would have transcended most other sounds in the city.
Finally if you put it all together it must have sounded something like this.
If you enjoyed this article check out my book on medieval life Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome – Life in Medieval Ireland