William Fitzstephen wrote a biography of Thomas Becket in the 1170s, which included a description of London:

The citizens of London are everywhere noted above all others, for the polish of their manners, their genteel dress, and well ordered table. The inhabitants of other cities are called citizens, but those of London are called nobles. An oath with them decides every dispute. The matrons of the city are very Sabines.

(Translated from Latin by John Allen Giles, 1846.)

What is meant by Sabines here? Attractive? Brave? I know about the story of the Rape (capture?) of the Sabine women: it mentions how they gave up their freedom to save their people.

  • 1
    As an aside, 'very' is the adjective here, = 'veritable'. Very unusual with a plural noun. May 7, 2020 at 15:26
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth The translator is following Fitzstephen's original Latin, which was "urbis matronæ ipsæ Sabinæ sunt" with "ipsæ" in the plural. May 7, 2020 at 16:32

3 Answers 3


Sabine women were a byword for married virtue and chastity. Here are two examples from classical Latin writers with whom Fitzstephen was likely familiar:

But if a chaste wife, assisting on her part [in the management] of the house, and beloved children (such as is the Sabine, or the sun-burned spouse of the industrious Apulian), piles up the sacred hearth with old wood, just at the approach of her weary husband […]

Horace (c. 10 BCE). Epodes, Ode II. Translated by Christopher Smart (1856). The Works Of Horace, p. 115. London: Henry G. Bohn.

Do you say no worthy wife is to be found among all these crowds? Well, let her be handsome, charming, rich and fertile; let her have ancient ancestors ranged about her halls; let her be more chaste than the dishevelled Sabine maidens who stopped the war—a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan! yet who could endure a wife that possessed all perfections?

Juvenal (early C2nd). Satire 6, ‘The Ways of Women’. Translated by George Gilbert Ramsay (1918).

Petrarch, writing a couple of centuries after Fitzstephen, included Hersilia and the other Sabine women in his ‘Triumph of Chastity’:

Next came Hersilia, the Roman dame
(Or Sabine rather), with her valorous train,
Who prove all slanders on that sex are vain.

Petrarch (c. 1351). ‘The Triumph of Chastity’. Translated by Thomas Campbell (1859). The Sonnets, Triumphs, and Other Poems of Petrarch, p. 364. London: Henry G. Bohn.

According to Pliny, the Sabines had a reputation for religious piety, and perhaps this is how the idea originated.

The Sabini (called, according to some writers, from their attention to religious observances and the worship of the gods, Sevini) dwell on the dew-clad hills in the vicinity of the Lakes of the Velinus.

Pliny the Elder (c. 79). Natural History, book III, chapter 17. Translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley (1855). London: Henry G. Bohn.


Since this is a translation, it's worth looking at the original sentence first, which can be found on British History Online:

Vrbis matronæ ipsæ Sabinæ sunt.

There may be more than one way to translate this ("The matrons / wives of the city are themselves / real Sabines") but the comparison shows at least that "Sabines" comes from the Latin text and not the translator's poetic licence.

Leo T. Gourde's 1943 Master's Thesis An Annotated Translation of the Life of St. Thomas Becket by William Fitzstephen contains the following footnote for "Sabines":

The Sabines were an Italic tribe of central Italy and contemporaneous with early Rome. Known for their simple lives and physical courage, they had a reputation for severe discipline and sturdy character.

If this doesn't rhyme well with the preceding sentences in John Allen Giles's translation, we need to look at the Latin original again (emphasis added):

Ciues Londoniæ, vbicumque locorum, præ omnibus aliis ciuibus ornatu morum, vestium, et mensæ, locutione spectabiles et noti habentur.

Giles translated "ornatu" as "genteel", in which the meanings "refined" and "stylish" are perhaps a bit stronger than in the Latin adjective "ornatus", which can also mean distinguished, honored. In addition, "mores" (plural of "mos") means much more than "manners" in the sense of etiquette, it also refers to character and moral rectitude (both combined into a single concept).

With this in mind, the step from being "ornatu morum" to being a "Sabine" in the sense of "exhibiting severe discipline and sturdy character". It is as if Fitzstephen was trying to describe Londoners in a way that would have pleased the moralists of the Roman Republic.


The Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) has this

transferred in allusion to the proverb Sabini quod volunt somniant, ‘the Sabines dream what they will’ (Festus).

together with this quote from 1610

Grimsby, which our Sabins or conceited persons dreaming what they list, and following their owne fansies, will have to be so called of one Grime a merchant.

  • Is this an answer to the question? If yes, could you please expand it to show it this is relevant to Fitzstephen's description of London?
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 13, 2021 at 13:32

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