The form and alignment of this narrow and often crowded street date from the 13th or 14th century, when York's open meat market area was replaced by a more formalised street lined with buildings on fixed plots. The buildings visible today were constructed during the 14th century or later and the palette of building materials is limited to timber, lime render, brick and tile. Stone has been used, but only for post-pads, detailing and covering the ground. Jettied buildings overhang the street to make full use of the available space (see Image 1) and the roof heights and wall-lines vary from building to building (see Image 2).
The street had several names during the medieval period, including:
- Haymongergate: this name was first recorded in 1240 and it means the street of hay sellers. This name is probably linked to the meat trade as the animals would have needed hay to eat, both after their journey to market ‘on the hoof’ and while awaiting slaughter, so there would have been plenty of business in the area for hay sellers.
- Nedlergate: this name was first recorded in 1394 and it means the street of needle makers. There is also a probable link to the meat trade here as needles used to be manufactured from animal bones.
- The Great Flesh Shambles: this name was recorded in 1426, but it was later abbreviated to Shambles. The word Shambles is derived from both:
- the Old English word 'sceamol' (meaning a table or counter upon which items for sale are placed) and
- the Middle English word 'shamel' (meaning a place where meat is butchered and sold).