Reading through various documents regarding the period in Oxford after the Black Death, it’s clear there were many vacant buildings and plots around the city.
“In the later Middle Ages the town’s suburbs contracted, and within the walls there was structural decay and an abundance of vacant plots. Very little church building or restoration may be dated to the century following the Black Death. The gloomiest picture was that drawn by a jury in 1378 of a thirteen-acre site in the north-east corner of the town: the land, neither built-up nor enclosed, was a dump for filth and corpses, a resort of criminals and prostitutes…”
Although this does not refer to the area of Broken Hayes (but rather land now occupied by New College) it does paint a picture of what some parts of the town must have looked like.
By the 16th century the area (Broken Hayes) was surrounded by trees and for a few years from 1631 it served as a public bowling green. Throughout the 17th century it was used as a recreation area but one which Anthony Wood described in his journal as a ‘rude, broken and undigested place.” It might be an exaggeration to say so, but it would seem that the legacy of the Black Death lingered in this area centuries after the event.
It is the sense of emptiness in the years immediately proceeding the Black Death which interest me most at this point. Recently, I’ve been researching Memory, and have in this pursuit been reading Frances A. Yates’ book, ‘The Art of Memory,’ in which she discusses the use in Ancient Greece of Memory Places, buildings fixed in the mind which one could ‘walk through’ and by placement of certain objects in locations throughout that place recall whatever it was that was to be remembered – a speech for example. In a contemporary textbook ‘Ad Herennium‘ the anonymous author gives a description of what these Memory Places should be like:
“It is better to form one’s memory loci in a deserted and solitary place, for crowds of passing people tend to weaken the impression. Therefore the student intent on acquiring a sharp and well defined set of loci will choose one unfrequented building in which to memorise places…”
As with my linking impressions made on the soul’s block of wax (see Broken Hayes below) with the craters of Hill 62, here it’s easy to see the student’s mind as being the place itself. I can imagine the memory of a place (in this case Gloucester Green) as being sharper and more ‘accessible’ when that place is, as the Ad Herennium states, a ‘deserted and solitary’ one. One can imagine that deserted patch of ground, abandoned in the wake of the Black Death, as sharp with the memories of what had gone before. Today, this contrast between these two periods of [14th century] time might best be articulated in the contrast between night and day. In the day the area is full of people (particularly on market days) and at night, is empty, and some might say a place not so far removed from Anthony Wood’s ‘rude… and undigested place.’