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Ian Stone, historian | The Yeomen Curriers of Fleet Street
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The Yeomen Curriers of Fleet Street

In this blog I discuss a document which was drawn up by some curriers in London in 1388-9. Curriers work with leather. They clean, scrape and stretch tanned leather to make it waterproof, strong and flexible. As part of this process they use oil, wax and a special knife, called a shave. The skill is ancient and curriers first appear as a trade organisation in London as early as 1272. In common with other crafts in London they subsequently formed themselves into a guild. Over the fullness of time this guild became a livery company. The Company thrives and is ranked twenty-ninth in order of precedence among the modern livery companies. In 2000, Donald Adamson printed his The Curriers Company: A Modern History (Bath, 2000). This book comprises three parts. The first part, which takes the history of the Company down to the 1950s, where we find the Company’s fortunes in a ‘grievous plight’, was actually a reprint of Edward Mayer’s The Curriers and the City of London, which he had first published in 1968. Mayer knew of the document drawn up in 1388-9, but only vicariously, and he was, therefore, unable to understand its true meaning and importance.

Before turning to the document in question, we must first set it into its proper context. In 1348 the Black Death reached England. Mortality rates were horrific. At least one third, if not one half of the population was wiped out within the space of two to three years. The effects in towns like London, where people lived cheek-by-jowl in especially unsanitary conditions may have been even worse. In real terms, England’s population could have been cut from five million to two-and-a-half million people; that of London could conceivably have fallen from 100,000 souls to perhaps 40,000.

One immediate result of this mortality was that wages shot up as the supply of labour in the economy was so dramatically reduced. King Edward III (1327-77), his council and the municipal authorities in London responded to the increase in wages by issuing various wage ordinances which sought to cap the amount of pay that workers could earn. The first of the national ordinances was issued in 1349 and confirmed by statute in 1351. It is known as the Statute of Labourers.

Over the next three decades royal letters and proclamations against ‘excessive wages’ were repeatedly issued, and wage control ordinances and statutes reissued. All to no avail. Society in England could never have been the same again after the Black Death. Something we see, indeed, in 1381, when peasants led by Wat Tyler revolted, marched on London, seized control of the city and the Tower of London, and summarily executed the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, and the royal treasurer, Robert Hales, among others. While the young King Richard II (1377-1399) quickly regained control of the city and his realm in 1381, there was a great deal of nervousness among the great and the good in the 1380s. particularly against the backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War with France which was not progressing well.

In autumn 1388 (9 September to 17 October) Parliament met at Cambridge. In this Parliament, the Commons presented a list of petitions to the king. The worries of the Commons were clear enough: they proposed measures to maintain law and order, to strengthen the 1351 Statute of Labourers and to control foreign trade. First and second among the twenty-five proposals made by the Commons to these ends were that badges and liveries which were issued by kings and other lords should be done away with, and that ‘all gilds, fraternities and their common chests shall be abolished’. Why were the guilds of England the first target of the Commons? In the first place, the Commons believed that there were too many guilds and that these guilds controlled too much money, money which could be put to better use in the war with France. More than that, however, the Commons suspected that some guilds were subversive, and that they wanted to overturn the social and economic status quo. After all, had not the Peasants’ Revolt recently threatened to turn the world upside down?

The king did not agree to the abolition of the guilds but he did announce an inquiry into them. On 1 November 1388, it was proclaimed that all masters and wardens of the guilds were to come into Chancery by 1 February 1389, and there they were to provide information about the foundation of their guilds, how they were organised and governed, details of their meetings and oaths, and the value of their land and chattels. Any charters or royal letters in the possession of the guild or the officials were to be brought in with them.

It has recently been suggested that there may have been as many as 30,000 guilds in existence in England between 1350 and 1500. These guilds included social, religious, economic and political associations. Most numerous among the guilds were religious fraternities. At least 200 fraternities have been traced in London between 1350 and 1500; there must have been many more. A typical fraternity might be centred on the parish, on the cult of a saint, or on a feast or festival such as Corpus Christi. They offered the laity a chance to express their piety in their own idiom, through communal, participatory worship and devotion. Fraternities were open to almost all members of society, from top to bottom – membership fees were typically low – and women were free to join the fraternity in the majority of cases. In some cases, although by no means all, the fraternity might be linked to, or dominated by, a certain craft. The money, which the members paid in, would have been spent on candles, religious services, and sick pay for fellow members.Usually members of a fraternity would come together on the feast day of their patron saint to worship collectively, feast communally and, perhaps, to elect their officers. Vivid and convivial associations, to their members, fraternities were equally important in death as they were in life. Members of a fraternity were expected to attend the funerals of their colleagues and to sing annual masses for the souls of deceased members. Indeed, a clear purpose of medieval fraternities was to function as ‘communal chantries.’ It is no surprise, then, that so many appear to have been founded in the decades after the Black Death.

Either there was widespread evasion of the summons to Chancery, or many of the returns have been lost (or perhaps both?), for only 500 returns made by the guilds in England survive. A paltry number. The returns made by the London guilds have survived better, even so, just forty-two returns are known from the Londoners, a number which can only represent a minority of the guilds in existence in contemporary London. The vast majority of the returns nationally (75%) were composed in Latin. The rest were copied in French (9%), English (12%) or a combination of languages (4%). In London, however, things were slightly different. Ten (24%) of the London returns were entered in English, that is to say, twice as many returns were made in English in London as elsewhere in the country. In fact, all of the English returns were made by guilds from either London or Norfolk.

Fourteen of the forty-two surviving London returns could be described as having been made by craft organisations. It may or may not be of some significance that of this fourteen, six were made by representatives from leather-working crafts (curriers, pouchmakers, glovers, whitetawyers, cordwainers and saddlers). The return made by ‘on litel companye … of the yomanrie of curreiours’ who paid for a taper in the choir of the Carmelite church (Whitefriars) in Fleet Street, was one of the ten London returns which was made in English.

The return from the yeoman curriers of Fleet Street tells us that the fraternity was founded in 1367-8 in honour of the Trinity and Our Lady. Men and women could join. New members were expected to take an oath in English upon admission, and members paid a farthing a week by way of dues. The oath enjoined certain religious and economic obligations upon members of the fraternity. Members had to come when summoned by the masters, attend the funerals of dead members, and make offerings in the church. Any disputes which might arise between members were to be arbitrated by four masters of the fraternity. Servants were not to work with someone not of the curriers’ craft nor in another man’s house, they were also forbidden from working with another man’s ‘things’ (probably ‘tools’) in a way which might bring the craft into disrepute. Furthermore, no member of the craft was to employ anyone unskilled in the craft and apprentices could only transferred to other members of the craft. One of the most interesting provisions concerned payment for employees for time spent not working. Should an employee be ‘idle’ and it be the fault of his employer, that is to say that the employer did not have enough work for him, then the employee was to receive 2d. a day. This would have been enough for the currier to feed himself and his family for one day. Should, however, the employee have been at ‘pleye’ and have missed a day’s work, then he was to recompense his master 4d, According to the return, by 1388-9 the fraternity was in a weakened condition with only ten or twelve members; it possessed 23s 2½ chattels and £4 in debts which ‘the maystres ne mow nouyght gete’.

This return was known to the historian, biographer and editor John Strype (1643-1737). In 1720, Strype published an updated edition of John Stow’s (1525-1605) Survey of London. In his edition, Strype set out quite clearly that he had inspected the returns made by the London guilds in 1388-89. At that time, they were kept at the Tower of London, which then served as a repository for government records. In his description of the Carmelite church in Fleet Street, Strype quoted from a section of the curriers’ 1388-89 return. William Maitland (c.1693-1757) used Strype’s Surveyin his The History of London which went through several editions between 1739 and 1775. Via Maitland’s History of London, Mayer knew of the curriers’ return and he launched an ‘exhaustive search’ for the original document. However, this search was unsuccessful so he settled for printing a section from Maitland’s work in his history of the Company (now appendix II, pp. 176-77 of The Curriers’ Company: A Modern History), and speculated on the nature of the fraternity.

It is not surprising that Mayer was unable to locate the curriers’ return. By some happenstance – perhaps even via Strype – four returns made by the London guilds in 1388-89 disappeared from the Tower and passed into the hands of the famous collector of manuscripts Richard Rawlinson (1690-1755). Rawlinson bequeathed his collection to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where the returns sat unnoticed and unappreciated, until they were transcribed, printed and analysed by Caroline Barron and Laura Wright in 1995 (‘The London Middle English Guild Certificates of 1388-9’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. XXXIX, 1995, pp. 108-42 – this blog owes a huge debt to this remarkable article). The curriers’ return is, then, to be found at Oxford, where it is catalogued as Bodleian Library MS London Rolls 3. It was copied by two different scribes and comprises one sheet of parchment, measuring 25cm x 32cm.

Mayer believed that the fourteenth-century curriers responsible for the return ‘pretended that their Fraternity was a dying institution and penniless’ in an ‘obviously false’ declaration (The Curriers’ Company: A Modern History, p. 21). He came to this conclusion after comparing it to contemporary bequests made by wealthy members of the craft. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that prosperous members of the craft had bequeathed money to this fraternity. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the yeomen curriers of Fleet Street were members of a humble and poor fraternity. In the second half of the fourteenth century, yeomen groupings had emerged in several crafts in London. They almost always comprised junior members of crafts, and they usually existed to press for higher wages and, perhaps, recognition, from the masters who controlled the craft. It was a commonplace for yeomen to form their own fraternity within a craft, sometimes even electing their own officers. The return made by the yeomen curriers gives the names of those who founded the fraternity in 1367-8 (Richard Levered, John Heerde and Robert Sharp), along with the two masters in 1388 (Geoffrey Tolyndon and Robert Stor); nowhere else in the printed records of London’s history are these names to be found, suggesting that these were indeed modest men. Likewise, the curriers whom we dofind mentioned in the official records, for example Richard Serne and Thomas Willingham, who served as representatives of the craft on London’s common council in 1376 and 1381-2, do not appear in these ordinances. In all likelihood this was a small grouping of young curriers. The devotion showed by this group to the Whitefriars church in Fleet Street would suggest that they lived close by each other alongside the river Fleet in London – curriers need access to a good supply of running water to carry out their trade.

Without sight of the original document, Mayer also seems to have believed that it had been translated into English at some point before Maitland published his History. As we have seen, however, the curriers of 1388-89 made their original return in English. This is not insignificant. True, in fourteenth-century England, English was by far the most commonly spoken language. True, too, at the time of the return, Geoffrey Chaucer was writing his Canterbury Tales and the status of English as a language, both written and spoken, was rising rapidly. However, it was still very much a minority language when it came to use as a language of record. After all, just 12% of the returns made by guilds in 1388-9 were made in English. We might think that the curriers’ employment of English in 1388-89 is more evidence of their humble status. We perhaps expect that wealthier, older and more exclusive guilds would have made their returns in Latin. In fact, as Barron and Wright showed, the opposite is more likely to have been true. The poorer, rural and informal guilds were those least likely to have written ordinances and records. When they came to Chancery in London in 1388-89, they would almost certainly have answered questions put to them orally by the Chancery clerks. The clerks would then have drawn up returns on their behalf in their own preferred language, namely Latin. In this way, the use of Latin in a return is perhaps indicative of a more modest association reliant on government employees to draft their replies. Moreover, these Latin returns are likely to have been, at least to an extent, formulaic, and the texts that we have probably do not capture the individuality of each guild. Whereas, in their English return, we perhaps hear a more authentic voice of the yeomen curriers.

We have already seen that proportionally twice as many English guild returns survive from London as do nationally. One factor which explains that, then, is that urban guilds were more likely to be better-organised and well-established. They were more likely to have existing ordinances, oaths and records in English. They did not need to rely on the clerks at Chancery to draw up their replies. This is certainly true of the yeomen curriers. They may well have been a relatively humble fraternity in London, nevertheless, they still had the wherewithal to employ scribes to copy out their oath and rudimentary ordinances in the language which new members were required to use. Indeed, not only did the guild of yeomen curriers require all new members to take an oath in English, but by 1388-89 this oath was already more than twenty years’ old.

More than that, the curriers’ return reminds us that English was more widely used in in formal settings in London in the second half of the fourteenth century than we might think. We often lose sight of this because so many contemporary records were drawn up in Latin and French. The yeomen curriers of 1388-89, along with their fellows who used English to answer before the king’s inquiry, therefore, played a small but important role in the advancement of English as a language of government record.

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