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  • 1924
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As of Grisildis pacient and kynde, Lest Chichivache[E] yow swelwe in hire entraille!…

[Footnote E: Chichevache, the lean cow who fed on patient wives, while her mate Bicorne grew fat on humble husbands (A.W. Pollard).]

His creation of the Wife of Bath was an even more pointed commentary. Here is what the Menagier has to say to his young wife on the same subject:

And I, who have put [the tale of Griselda] here only to teach you, have not put it here to apply it to you, for I am not worthy thereof, and I am not a marquis and I have not taken you as a beggar, nor am I so foolish, so conceited or so lacking in sense that I know not that ’tis not for me to assault nor to assay you thus, nor in like manner. God keep me from trying you thus under colour of false simulations…. And forgive me that the story speaks (in my opinion) of too great cruelty and beyond reason. And know that it never befel so, but thus the tale runs and I may nor correct nor alter it, for a wiser than I hath made it. And it is my desire that since others have read it you also may know and be able to talk about everything even as other folk do.[9]

Moreover, in spite of the ideal of submission which he sets before his wife, the Menagier has some charming words to say about love–with a sigh, perhaps, for his own advanced though not crabbed age, and a glance at that younger husband of the future who shall one day enjoy his little bride.

In God’s name (he says) I believe that when two good and honourable people are wed, all other loves are put far off, destroyed and forgotten, save only the love of each for the other. And meseems that when they are in each other’s presence, they look upon each other more than upon the others, they clasp and hold each other and they do not willingly speak or make sign save to each other. And when they are separated, they think of each other and say in their hearts, ‘When I see him I shall do thus and thus to him, or say this to him, I shall beseech him concerning this or that.’ And all their special pleasure, their chief desire and their perfect joy is to do pleasure and obedience one to the other, if they love one another.[10]

The greater part of the Menagier’s book is concerned, however, not with the theoretical niceties of wifely submission, but with his creature comforts. His instructions as to how to make a husband comfortable positively palpitate with life; and at the same time there is something indescribably homely and touching about them; they tell more about the real life of a burgess’s wife than a hundred tales of Patient Griselda or of Jehanne la Quentine. Consider this picture (how typical a product of the masculine imagination!) of the stout bread-winner, buffeted about in all weathers and amid all discomforts, nobly pursuing the task of earning his living, and fortified by the recollection of a domesticated little wife, darning his stockings at home by the fire, and prepared to lavish her attentions on the weary hero in the evening. The passage is an excellent example of the Menagier’s vivid and simple style, and of the use of incidents drawn from everyday life to illustrate his thesis, which is one of the chief charms of the book.

Fair sister, if you have another husband after me, know that you should think much of his comfort, for after a woman has lost her first husband she commonly finds it difficult to find another according to her estate, and she remains lonely and disconsolate for a long time[F]; and more so still, if she lose the second. Wherefore cherish the person of your husband carefully, and, I pray you, keep him in clean linen, for ’tis your business. And because the care of outside affairs lieth with men, so must a husband take heed, and go and come and journey hither and thither, in rain and wind, in snow and hail, now drenched, now dry, now sweating, now shivering, ill-fed, ill-lodged, ill-warmed and ill-bedded; and nothing harms him, because he is upheld by the hope that he has of his wife’s care of him on his return, and of the ease, the joys and the pleasures which she will do to him, or cause to be done to him in her presence; to have his shoes removed before a good fire, his feet washed and to have fresh shoes and stockings, to be given good food and drink, to be well served and well looked after, well bedded in white sheets and night-caps, well covered with good furs, and assuaged with other joys and amusements, privities, loves, and secrets, concerning which I am silent; and on the next day fresh shirts and garments. Certes, fair sister, such service maketh a man love and desire to return to his home and to see his goodwife and to be distant with other women.

[Footnote F: This seems to be contrary to experience.]

And therefore I counsel you to make such cheer to your husband at all his comings and goings and to persevere therein; and also to be peaceable with him and remember the rustic proverb, which saith that there be three things which drive the goodman from home, to wit, a dripping roof, a smoking chimney and a scolding woman.[11] Wherefore, fair sister, I pray you that in order to keep yourself in love and good favour with your husband you be unto him gentle, amiable and debonair. Do unto him what the good simple women of our country say has been done unto their sons, when the lads have set their love elsewhere and their mothers cannot wean them from it. It is certain that when fathers and mothers be dead, and stepfathers and stepmothers argue with their stepsons, and scold them and repulse them, and take not thought for their sleeping, nor for their food and drink, their hose and their shirts and all their other needs and affairs, and the same children find elsewhere a good home and good counsel from some other woman, who receives them and takes thought to warm them with some poor gruel with her and to give them a bed and keep them tidy, mending their hosen, breeches, shirts, and other garments, then those lads cleave to her and desire to be with her, and to sleep warm between her breasts, and are altogether estranged from their mothers and fathers, who before took no heed of them, and now want to get them back and have them again. But it may not be, for these children hold more dear the company of strangers, who think and care for them, than that of their kinsfolk, who have no care of them. Then the parents lament and weep and say that these same women have bewitched their children and that they are spellbound and cannot leave, but are never easy save when they are with their enchantresses. But whatever may be said of it, it is no witchcraft, but it by reason of the love, the care, the intimacies, joys and pleasures, which these women do in all ways unto the lads, and on my soul there is no other enchantment…. Wherefore, dear sister, I pray you thus to bewitch and bewitch again your husband, and beware of dripping roof and smoking fire, and scold him not, but be unto him gentle and amiable and peaceable. Be careful that in winter he has good fire without smoke, and let him rest well and be well covered between your breasts and thus bewitch him…. And thus you shall preserve and guard him from all discomforts and give him all the ease that you can, and serve him and cause him to be well served in your house; and you shall look to him for outside things, for if he be a good man he will take even more care and trouble over them than you wish, and by doing as I have said, you will make him always miss you and have his heart with you and with your loving service, and he will shun all other houses, all other women, all other services and households; all will be naught to him save you alone, if you think of him as aforesaid…. And so on the road, husbands will think of their wives, and no trouble will be a burden to them for the hope and love they will have of their wives, whom they will long to see, even as poor hermits, penitents and fasting monks long to see the face of Christ Jesus; and husbands served thus will never desire to abide elsewhere or in other company but will withhold, withdraw and abstain themselves there-from; all the rest will seem to them but a bed of stones compared with their home.[12]

Enough has perhaps been quoted to show the Menagier’s idea of a perfect wife; his idea of the perfect housewife is contained in a mass of instructions which make excellently entertaining reading. So modern in tone is his section on the management of servants, both in his account of their ways and in his advice upon dealing with them, that one often rubs one’s eyes to be sure that what one is reading is really a book written over five centuries ago by an old burgess of Paris. The Menagier evidently had a fairly large household, and he probably owned a country as well as a town house, for he speaks several times of overseeing the farm-hands ‘when you are in the village’. To assist his wife in superintending this large staff he has a _maitre d’hotel_, called Master John the Steward (_le despensier_) and a duenna, half housekeeper and half chaperon, for her young mistress, called Dame Agnes _la beguine_[G] and a bailiff or foreman to look after the farm. The Menagier divides his servants and workmen into three classes–first, those engaged by the day or by the season for special work, such as porters and carriers, reapers, winnowers, coopers, and so on; secondly, those engaged on piecework, such as tailors, furriers, bakers, and shoemakers, hired by medieval households of some wealth to make what was needed from raw material purchased at fairs or in the shops of the city; and thirdly, the ordinary domestic servants, who were hired by the year and lived in their master’s house; ‘and of all these,’ he says, ‘there is none who does not gladly seek work and a master’.

[Footnote G: The Beguines were a sort of religious order, or, more correctly, a lay sisterhood, standing half-way between the lay and the monastic life, and somewhat analogous to the Franciscan Tertiaries, or Third Order.]

He gives an amusing account, evidently based upon bitter experience, of the wiles of the hired workman. He says that they are commonly lazy, rough, quick at ‘answering back’, arrogant (except on payday) and ready to break into insults if unsatisfied with their pay. He warns his wife to bid Master John always to take the peaceable ones and always to bargain with them beforehand as to the pay for which they will do the work.

For know that most often they do not want to bargain, but they want to get to work without any bargain having been made and they say gently, ‘Milord, it is nothing–there is no need–you will pay me well and I shall be content with what you think fit.’ And if Master John take them thus, when the work is finished they will say, ‘Sir, there was more to do than I thought, there was this and that to do, and here and there,’ and they will not take what is given them and will break out into shouting and angry words … and will spread abroad evil report concerning you, which is worst of all.[13]

We know from the various ordinances fixing wages from the time of the Black Death onwards, that labour troubles were acute in France as well as in England at the end of the fourteenth century; and the Menagier’s advice throws an interesting sidelight on the situation.

It is, however, in his observations upon the engagement and management of maidservants that the wisdom of the serpent is most apparent. Incidentally he gives an account of how servants were hired in fourteenth-century Paris, which shows that the registry office and the character are by no means modern phenomena. There were _recommanderesses_–women holding what we should call registry offices–in Paris at this time, and an ordinance of 1351 (fixing wages after the Black Death) allows them to take _1s. 6d_. for placing a chambermaid and _2s_. for a nurse. A servant maid’s wage at this time was 30s. a year and her shoes. The Menagier counsels his wife thus on the delicate subject of interviewing and engaging her domestic chambermaids and serving men:

Know, dear sister (he says), that in order that they may obey you better and fear the more to anger you, I leave you the rule and authority to have them chosen by Dame Agnes the beguine, or by whichever other of your women you please, to receive them into our service, to hire them at your pleasure, to pay and keep them in our service as you please, and to dismiss them when you will. Nathless you should privily speak to me about it and act according to my advice, because you are too young and might be deceived by your own people. And know that of those chambermaids who are out of a place, many there be who offer themselves and clamour and seek urgently for masters and mistresses; and of these take none until you first know where their last place was, and send some of your people to get their character, to wit whether they talked or drank too much, how long they were in the place, what work they have been accustomed to doing and can do, whether they have homes or friends in the town, from what sort of people and what part of the country they come, how long they were there and why they left; and by their work in the past you shall find out what hope or expectation you may have of their work in the future. And know that oft-times such women from distant parts of the country have been blamed for some fault in their own part of the world and that is what brings them into service at a distance….

And if you find from the report of her master and mistress, neighbours and others that a girl is what you need, find out from her, and cause Master John to register in his account book, the day on which you engage her, her name and those of her father, mother and any of her kinsfolk, the place where they live and her birthplace and her references. For servants will be more afraid to do wrong if they know that you are recording all these things and that if they leave you without permission, or are guilty of any offence, you will write and complain to the justice of their country or to their friends. And not withstanding bear in mind the saying of the philosopher called Bertrand the Old, who says that if you engage a maid or man of high and proud answers, you shall know that when she leaves she will miscall you if she can; and if, on the contrary, she be flattering and ¸full of blandishments, trust her not, for she is in league with someone else to trick you; but if she blushes and is silent and shamefast when you correct her, love her as your daughter.[14]

The Menagier’s instructions as to how to look after servants when they have been engaged are equally practical. Good order is to be maintained, quarrels and bad language[15] prevented, and morals guarded. Each is to have his or her work assigned and to do it promptly. ‘If you order them to do something now and these your servants answer “There is plenty of time, it shall be done,” or “It shall be done tomorrow,” hold it as forgotten, it must all be begun again, it is as nought. And also when you give a general order to every one, each will wait for the other to do it, and it is the same.’ Not only is the work of the servants to be carefully superintended by the mistress and by Dame Agnes, ‘who is with you’, the Menagier tells his wife, ‘in order to teach you wise and ripe behaviour and to serve and instruct you and to whom in particular I give the charge of this matter’, but she is to show herself careful and benevolent in looking after their health and happiness. At the proper hour she is to cause them to sit down before a hearty meal of one sort of meat, avoiding rich viands, and one kind of drink, which must be nourishing but not intoxicating–‘the cup that cheers but not inebriates’; probably in this case the light ale which was the habitual drink of the Middle Ages. She is to admonish them to eat and drink their fill, but

as soon as they begin to tell stories, or to argue, or to lean on their elbows, order the beguine to make them rise and take away their table, for the common folk have a saying ‘when a varlet holds forth at table and a horse grazes in the ditch, it is time to take them away, for they have had their fill.’

In the evening, after their afternoon’s work, they are to have another hearty meal, and then in winter time they may warm themselves at the fire and take their ease. Then she is to lock up the house and pack them all off to bed.

And arrange first that each have beside his bed a candlestick in which to put his candle, and have them wisely taught to extinguish it with the mouth or hand before getting into bed and by no means with their shirts. And also have them admonished and taught each and all, that they must begin again the next day and that they must rise in the morning and each set to upon his own work.

The Menagier further advises his wife that chambermaids of fifteen to twenty years of age are foolish girls who do not know the world, and that she should always cause them to sleep near her in an antechamber, or a room without a skylight or a low window looking on to the street, and should make them get up and go to bed at the same time as herself. ‘And you yourself,’ he adds, ‘who, if God please, will be wise by this time, must keep them near to you.’ Moreover, if any of her servants fall ill, ‘do you yourself, laying aside all other cares, very lovingly and charitably care for him or her, and visit him and study diligently how to bring about his cure’.[16]

But it is perhaps in his capacity as Mrs Beeton that the Menagier is most amusing. His infinite variety of household knowledge is shown in the incidental recipes which he gives when he is describing the measures which a wife must take for her lord’s comfort, and the work of the servants. There are elaborate instructions concerning the costly medieval garments, worn year after year for a lifetime and often bequeathed in their owner’s will, instructions for cleaning dresses and furs and for preserving them from moths, and instructions for removing stains and grease spots. The Menagier gives seven recipes for taking out grease spots, but he is rather sceptical about one or two of them, which he has evidently copied from a book without trying them for himself. ‘To get rid of stains on a dress of silk, satin, camlet, damask cloth or another,’ runs one of these, ‘dip and wash the stain in verjuice and the stain will go; even if the dress be faded, it will regain its colour. _This I do not believe’_. The chief impression left, however, is that the medieval housewife was engaged in a constant warfare against fleas. One of the Menagier’s infallible rules for keeping a husband happy at home is to give him a good fire in the winter and keep his bed free from fleas in the summer. He gives six recipes for getting rid of such small livestock, which must indeed have been a very common trial to our forefathers:

In summer take heed that there be no fleas in your chamber nor in your bed, which you may do in six ways, as I have heard tell. For I have heard from several persons that if the room be scattered with alder leaves the fleas will get caught therein. Item, I have heard tell that if you have at night one or two trenchers of bread covered with birdlime or turpentine and put about the room with a lighted candle set in the midst of each trencher, they will come and get stuck thereto. Another way which I have found and which is true: take a rough cloth and spread it about your room and over your bed and all the fleas who may hop on to it will be caught, so that you can carry them out with the cloth wheresoever you will. Item, sheepskins. Item, I have seen blankets placed on the straw and on the bed and when the black fleas jumped upon them they were the sooner found and killed upon the white. But the best way is to guard oneself against those which are within the coverlets and furs and the stuff of the dresses wherewith one is covered. For know that I have tried this, and when the coverlets, furs or dresses in which there be fleas are folded and shut tightly up, in a chest straitly bound with straps or in a bag well tied up and pressed, or otherwise compressed so that the said fleas are without light and air and kept imprisoned, then they will perish and die at once.[17]

A similar war had also to be waged against flies and mosquitoes, which rendered summer miserable. “I have sometimes,” says the Menagier, “seen in several chambers that when one has gone to bed in them, they were full of mosquitoes, which at the smoke of the breath came to sit on the faces of those who slept and sting them so that they were fain to get up and light a fire of hay to smoke them off.” Against such pests he has also six infallible recipes–to wit, a mosquito net over the bed; sprigs of fern hung up for the flies to settle on; a bowl filled with a mixture of milk and hare’s gall, or with the juice of raw onions, which will kill them; a bottle containing a rag dipped in honey, or else a string dipped in honey to hang up; fly whisks to drive them away; and closing up windows with oiled cloth or parchment.[18]

The section on cookery, which contains the Menagier’s injunctions for “feeding the brute”, is the longest in the book, and gives an extraordinarily interesting picture of the domestic economy of our ancestors.[19] The Menagier must have been brother to Chaucer’s Franklin, ‘Epicurus owene sone’:

An housholdere, and that a greet, was he: Seint Julian he was in his contree;
His breed, his ale, was alwey after oon; A bettre envyned man was nowher noon.
Withoute bake mete was never his hous, Of fissh and flessh, and that so plenteuous It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke. Of alle deyntees that men koude thynke.
After the sondry sesons of the yeer, So chaunged he his mete and his soper.
Ful many a fat partrich had he in muwe And many a breem and many a luce in stuwe. Wo was his cook but if his sauce were
Poynaunt and sharpe and redy al his geere. His table dormant in his hal alway
Stood redy covered al the longe day.

In this, as in all other medieval cookery books, what strikes the modern reader is the length and elaboration of the huge feasts, with their many courses and dishes, and the richness of the highly spiced viands. There are black puddings and sausages, venison and beef, eels and herrings, fresh water fish, round sea fish and flat sea fish, common pottages unspiced, spiced pottages, meat pottages and meatless pottages, roasts and pastries and entremets, divers sauces boiled and unboiled, pottages and ‘slops’ for invalids. Some of them sound delicious, others would be ruin to our degenerate digestions today. Pungent sauces of vinegar, verjuice, and wine were very much favoured, and cloves, cinnamon, galingale, pepper, and ginger appear unexpectedly in meat dishes. Almonds were a favourite ingredient in all sorts of dishes, as they still are in China and other parts of the East, and they might well be used more lavishly than they are in modern European cookery. True to his race, the Menagier includes recipes for cooking frogs and snails.[20] To the modern cook some of his directions may appear somewhat vague, as when he bids his cook to boil something for as long as it takes to say a paternoster or a _miserere_; yet for clockless kitchens in a pious age what clearer indication could a man give? And, after all, it is no worse than ‘cook in a hot oven’, which still finds a place in many modern cookery books which should know better. Other instructions are detailed enough. In one valuable passage he gives a list of all the meat markets of Paris, together with the number of butchers to be found in each and the number of sheep, oxen, pigs, and calves sold there every week, adding also for interest the amount of meat and poultry consumed weekly in the households of the King, the Queen and the royal children, the Dukes of Orleans, Berry, Burgundy, and Bourbon. Elsewhere also he speaks of other markets–the Pierre-au-Lait, or milk market; the Place de Greve, where they sell coal and firewood; and the Porte-de-Paris which is not only a meat market, but the best place in which to buy fish and salt and green herbs and branches to adorn your rooms.

For his wife’s further guidance the Menagier sets out a careful specification of the catering arrangements for several great feasts–to wit, a dinner given by the Abbot of Lagny to the Bishop of Paris and the members of the King’s Council, the feast, comprising dinner and supper, which one Master Elias (evidently a grave and reverend _maitre d’hotel,_ like Master John _le despensier_ himself) made for the wedding of Jean du Chesne, upon a Tuesday in May, and the arrangements for another wedding, “les nopces Hautecourt”, in the month of September, as to which the Menagier observes “that because they were widower and widow they were wed very early, in their black robes and then put on others”; he was anxious that his widow should do the correct thing at that second wedding of hers. The description of the wedding feast arranged by Master Elias is particularly detailed and valuable.[21] The careful Menagier, perhaps because he foresaw some big entertainment which he must give to the burgesses and gentlemen of Paris, perhaps because of his delightful interest in all the details of material life, has set down at length not only the menu of the dinner and supper, but a long account of the ingredients needed, their quantities and prices, and the shops or markets where they must be bought, so that the reader can see with his eyes the _maitre d’hotel_ and the cooks going round from stall to stall, visiting butcher and baker, poulterer, saucemaker, vintner, wafer maker, who sold the wafers and pastries dear to medieval ladies, and spicer whose shop was heavy with the scents of the East.

The Menagier sets down also all the esquires and varlets and waiters who will be needed to serve such a feast as this. There was the master cook, comfortably stout and walking ‘high and disposedly’, as Queen Elizabeth danced, brain pan stuffed full of delectable recipes, hand of ravishing lightness with pastries, eye and nose skilled to say when a capon was done to a turn, warranted without a rival

To boille the chiknes with the marybones, And poudre-marchant tart and galyngale … He koude rooste and seethe and boille and frye, Maken martreux and wel bake a pye …
For blankmanger, that made he with the beste.

He brought his varlets with him, and in Paris he took two francs for his hire ‘and perquisites’ (a pregnant addition). Then there were ushers, ‘stout and strong’, to keep the doors, and a clerk to add up the account; bread-cutters and water-carriers, two squires to serve at the dresser in the kitchen where the plates and dishes were handed out, two others at the hall dresser to give out spoons and drinking cups and pour wine for the guests, and two others in the pantry to give out the wine which their varlet kept drawing for them. There were the two _maitres d’hotel_ to set out the silver salt-cellars for the high table, the four great gilded goblets, the four dozen hanaps, the four dozen silver spoons, the ewers and alms mugs and sweetmeat dishes, and to usher the guests to their places; a head waiter and two servitors for each table, a flower girl to make chaplets of flowers for the guests, women to see to the linen and deck the bridal bed,[22] and a washerwoman. The floors were strewn with violets and green herbs and the rooms decked with branches of May (all bought in the market in early morning), and there was a good stock of torches and candles, small candles to stand on the supper tables, and great torches to be set in sconces on the walls, or to be carried in procession by the guests, for the supper ended with ‘dancing, singing, wine and spices and lighted torches’. On this occasion eight francs were given to the minstrels, over and above the spoons and other presents made to them during the meal, and there were also acrobats and mimes to amuse the guests. If they had to prepare a great feast Master John and his little mistress could not go far wrong after this, or fail to please the genial epicure who set it down for them. The Menagier copied many of his recipes from other cookery books, but he must have got the details of this entertainment from Master Elias himself, and one can see their grey heads wagging with enjoyment, as one talked and the other wrote.

The cookery book ends with a section containing recipes for making what the Menagier calls ‘small things which are not necessities’. There are various sorts of jams, mostly made with honey; in the Middle Ages vegetables were evidently much prepared in this way, for the Menagier speaks of turnip, carrot, and pumpkin jam. There is a delicious syrup of mixed spices (at least the palate of faith must believe it to have been delicious) and a powder of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and sugar, to be sifted over food, as sugar is sifted today; there is a recipe for hippocras, and for ‘gauffres’ or wafers, and for candied oranges. There are various sage pieces of advice as to the seasons for certain foods and the best ways of cooking and serving them. Most amusing of all these are a number of recipes not of a culinary nature–to wit, for making glue and marking ink, for bringing up small birds in aviaries and cages, preparing sand for hour-glasses, making rose-water, drying roses to lay among dresses (as we lay lavender today), for curing tooth-ache, and for curing the bite of a mad dog. The latter is a charm, of the same type as the Menagier’s horse charms: ‘Take a crust of bread and write what follows: _Bestera bestie nay brigonay dictera sagragan es domina siat siat siat_.’ Let us remember, however, that the nation which produced it, some four centuries later, produced Pasteur.


Enough has been said about this entrancing book to show how vividly it brings not only the Menagier, but the Menagier’s young wife before our eyes after these many years. In the morning she rises, much earlier than ladies rise nowadays, though not so early as nuns, who must say matins, for that, her husband tells her, is not a fitting hour for married women to leave their beds. Then she washes, much less than ladies nowadays, hands and face only perchance, and says her orisons, and dresses very neatly, for she knows whose eye is upon her, and so goes with Dame Agnes the beguine to Mass, with eyes on the ground and hands folded over her painted primer. After Mass, and perhaps confession, back again to see if the servants are doing their work, and have swept and dusted the hall and the rooms, beaten the cushions and coverlets on the forms and tidied everything, and afterwards to interview Master John the steward and order dinner and supper. Then she sends Dame Agnes to see to the pet dogs and birds, “for they cannot speak and so you must speak and think for them if you have any”. Then, if she be in her country house, she must take thought for the farm animals and Dame Agnes must superintend those who have charge of them, Robin the shepherd, Josson the oxherd, Arnoul the cowherd, Jehanneton the milkmaid, and Eudeline the farmer’s wife who looks after the poultry yard. If she be in her town house she and her maids take out her dresses and furs from their great chests and spread them in the sun in the garden or courtyard to air, beating them with little rods, shaking them in the breeze, taking out spots and stains with one or other of the master’s tried recipes, pouncing with lynx eyes upon the moth or sprightly flea.


After this comes dinner, the serious meal of the day, eaten by our ancestors about 10 a.m. What the Menagier’s wife gives to her lord and master will depend upon the time of year and upon whether it be a meat or a fast day; but we know that she has no lack of menus from which to choose. After dinner she sees that the servants are set to dine, and then the busy housewife may become the lady of leisure and amuse herself. If in the country she may ride out hawking with a gay party of neighbours; if in town, on a winter’s day, she may romp and play with other married ladies of her tender years, exchange riddles or tell stories round the fire. But what she most loves is to wander in her garden, weaving herself garlands of flowers, violets, gilly flowers, roses, thyme, or rosemary, gathering fruit in season (she likes raspberries and cherries), and passing on to the gardeners weighty advice about the planting of pumpkins (“in April water them courteously and transplant them”), to which the gardeners give as much attention as gardeners always have given, give still, and ever shall give, world without end, to the wishes of their employers. When she tires of this, the busy one gathers together Dame Agnes and her maids, and they sit under the carved beams of the hall mending his mastership’s doublet, embroidering a vestment for the priest at his family chantry, or a tapestry hanging for the bedchamber. Or perhaps they simply spin (since, in the words of the Wife of Bath, God has given women three talents–deceit, weeping, and spinning!); and all the while she awes them with that tale of Griselda, her voice rising and falling to the steady hum of the wheels.

At last it is evening, and back comes the lord and master. What a bustle and a pother this home-coming meant we know well, since we know what he expected. Such a running and fetching of bowls of warm water to wash his feet, and comfortable shoes to ease him; such a hanging on his words and admiring of his labours. Then comes supper, with a bevy of guests, or themselves all alone in the westering sunlight, while he smacks connoisseur’s lips over the roast crane and the blankmanger, and she nibbles her sweet wafers. Afterwards an hour of twilight, when she tells him how she has passed the day, and asks him what she shall do with the silly young housemaid, whom she caught talking to the tailor’s ‘prentice through that low window which looks upon the road. There is warm affection in the look she turns up to him, her round little face puckered with anxiety over the housemaid, dimpling into a smile when he commends her; and there is warm affection and pride too in the look the old man turns down upon her. So the night falls, and they go round the house together, locking all the doors and seeing that the servants are safe abed, for our ancestors were more sparing of candlelight than we. And so to bed.

We may take our leave of the couple here. The Menagier’s wife evidently had a full life.

Some respit to husbands the weather may send, But huswiues affaires haue neuer an end.

There was no room in it for the idleness of those lovely ladies, with their long fingers, whom Langland admonished to sew for the poor. Moreover, exaggerated as some of her husband’s ideas upon wifely submission appear today, the book leaves a strong impression of good sense and of respect as well as love for her. The Menagier does not want his wife to be on a pedestal, like the troubadour’s lady, nor licking his shoes like Griselda; he wants a helpmeet, for, as Chaucer said, ‘If that wommen were nat goode and hir conseils goode and profitable, oure Lord God of hevene wolde never han wroght hem, ne called hem “help” of man, but rather confusioun of man.'[23] Ecclesiastical Jeremiahs were often wont to use the characteristically medieval argument that if God had meant woman for a position of superiority He would have taken her from Adam’s head rather than his side; but the Menagier would have agreed with the more logical Peter Lombard, who observed that she was not taken from Adam’s head, because she was not intended to be his ruler, nor from his feet either, because she was not intended to be his slave, but from his side, precisely, because she was intended to be his companion. There is something of this spirit in the Menagier’s attitude towards his little wife, and it is this which makes his book so charming and causes it to stand head and shoulders above most other medieval books of behaviour for women. But, above all, its social and historical value lies in the fact that it gives us, in hues undimmed by time, a full length portrait of a medieval housewife, who has her place (and it is a large one) in history, but concerning whom historians have almost invariably been silent.


_Thomas Betson_


Some men of noble stock were made, some glory in the murder blade: Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honourable Trade!


_The Golden Journey to Samarcand_

The visitor to the House of Lords, looking respectfully upon that august assembly, cannot fail to be struck by a stout and ungainly object facing the throne–an ungainly object upon which in full session of Parliament, he will observe seated the Lord Chancellor of England. The object is a woolsack, and it is stuffed as full of pure history as the office of Lord Chancellor itself. For it reminds a cotton-spinning, iron-working generation that the greatness of England was built up, not upon the flimsy plant which comes to her to be manufactured from the Far East and West of the world, nor upon the harsh metal delved from her bowels, but upon the wool which generation after generation has grown on the backs of her black-faced sheep. First in the form of a raw material sought after eagerly by all the cloth-makers of Europe, then in the form of a manufacture carried on in her own towns and villages, and sent out far and wide in ships, wool was the foundation of England’s greatness right up to the time of the Industrial Revolution, when cotton and iron took its place. So if you look at old pictures of the House of Lords, in Henry VIII’s reign, or in Elizabeth’s, you will see the woolsack before the throne,[1] as you will see it if you visit the House today. The Lord Chancellor of England is seated upon a woolsack because it was upon a woolsack that this fair land rose to prosperity.

The most remarkable body of traders in England during the Middle Ages were the Merchants of the Staple, who traded in wool. The wool trade had for long been the largest and most lucrative body of trade in the country, and it was one in which the Kings of England were particularly interested, for their customs revenue was drawn largely from wool and wool fells; and, moreover, when they desired to borrow money in anticipation of revenue it was to the wool merchants that they turned, because the wool merchants were the wealthiest traders in the country. For these and other reasons the Government adopted the custom of fixing staple towns, which acted as centres of distribution through which the export trade was forced to go. The location of the Staple was altered from time to time; sometimes it was at Bruges, sometimes at Antwerp, sometimes in England; but usually it was at Calais, where it was first fixed in 1363 and finally established in 1423. Through the Staple all wool and wool fells, hides, leather, and tin had to pass, and the organization of the system was complete when the body of wool merchants, in whose hands lay the bulk of the Staple trade, were finally incorporated in 1354, under the governance of a mayor. The system was a convenient one for Crown and merchants alike. The Crown could concentrate its customs officers in one place and collect its customs the more easily, particularly as a method was gradually developed by which the custom and subsidy on wool was paid to the Royal officials by the Fellowship of the Staple, who then collected it from the individual members. The merchants, on the other hand, benefited by the concentration in trade: they were able to travel in groups and to organize convoys to protect the wool fleets from pirates who swarmed in the narrow seas between England and France; as members of a powerful corporation they could secure both privileges and protection in Flanders. Moreover, the wool buyers also benefited by the arrangement, which rendered possible a careful surveillance by the Crown and the Company of the Staple of the quality of the wool offered for sale, and a series of regulations against fraud. It must be remembered that in days when trade stood in need of a protection which the Government was not yet able to give it, there was nothing unpopular in the idea of giving the monopoly of the staple trade to the members of a single company. ‘Trade in companies is natural to Englishmen,’ wrote Bacon; and for four centuries it was the great trading companies which nurtured English trade and made this country the commercial leader of the world.

The wool trade throve in England until the close of the Middle Ages, but throughout the fifteenth century the staplers were beginning to feel the competition of another company–that of the famous Merchant Adventurers, who, taking advantage of the growth in the native cloth manufacture during the previous century, had begun to do a great trade in the export of cloth. This was obnoxious to the staplers, who desired the continuance of the old system, by which they exported English wool to the Continent, where at Ypres and Ghent, Bruges and Mechlin, and the other famous cloth-working cities of the Netherlands, it was woven into fine cloth. This cloth manufacture gave to the Netherlands a sort of industrial pre-eminence in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and it was dependent entirely upon a good supply of English wool, for the next best wool in Europe–that of Spain–was not satisfactory unless mixed with wool of English growth. Hence the close political tie between England and Flanders, the one needing a customer, the other an essential raw material; for, as a fifteenth century poet said,

the lytelle londe of Flaundres is But a staple to other londes, iwys,
And alle that groweth in Flaundres, greyn and sede, May not a moneth fynde hem mete and brede. What hath thenne Flaundres, be Flemmyngis leffe or lothe But a lytelle madere and Flemmyshe cloothe? By drapynge of our wolle in substaunce Lyvene here comons, this is here governaunce; Wythought whyche they may not leve at ease, Thus moste hem sterve, or wyth us most have peasse.[2]

In those days the coat on the Englishman’s back was made out of English wool, indeed, but it had been manufactured in Flanders, and the staplers saw no reason why it should ever be otherwise. As to the Flemings, the political alliances which commercial necessities constantly entailed between the two countries gave rise among them to a proverb that they bought the fox-skin from the English for a groat and sold them back the tail for a guelder;[3] but it was the sheepskin which they bought, and they were not destined to go on buying it for ever. The great cloth-making cities of the Netherlands were finally ruined by the growth of the English cloth manufacture, which absorbed the English wool. However, in spite of the growing prosperity of this trade, which had by the beginning of the sixteenth century ousted that of wool as the chief English export trade, the Company of the Merchants of the Staple was still great and famous throughout the fifteenth century.

Many were the wealthy and respected staplers who were in those days to be found directing the destinies of English towns, mayors of London and provincial ports, contractors and moneylenders to an impecunious king, so rich and so powerful that they became a constitutional menace, almost, it has been said, a fourth estate of the realm, with which His Majesty was wont to treat for grants apart from Parliament. Many are the staplers’ wills preserved in registries up and down England and bearing witness to their prosperity and public spirit. Many are the magnificent brasses which preserve their memory in the parish churches of the Cotswolds and other wool-growing districts of England. At Chipping Campden lies William Grevel with his wife, ‘late citizen of London and flower of the wool merchants of all England’, who died in 1401, and his beautiful house still stands in the village street. At Northleach lies John Fortey, who rebuilt the nave before he died in 1458; his brass shows him with one foot on a sheep and the other on a woolpack, and the brasses of Thomas Fortey, ‘woolman’, and of another unknown merchant, with a woolpack, lie near by. At Linwood, at Cirencester, at Chipping Norton, at Lechlade, and at All Hallows, Barking, you may see others of the great fraternity.[4] They rest in peace now, but when they lived they were the shrewdest traders of their day. Of wool, cries the poet Gower,

O leine, dame de noblesce
Tu est des marchantz la duesse,
Pour toy servir tout sont enclin–

‘O wool, noble dame, thou art the goddess of merchants, to serve thee they are all ready; by thy good fortune and thy wealth thou makest some mount high, and others thou bringest to ruin. The staple where thou dwellest is never free of fraud and trickery, wherewith man wounds his conscience. O wool, Christians no less than pagans and Saracens seek to have thee and confess thee. O wool, we should not be silent about thy doings in strange lands; for the merchants of all countries, in time of peace, in time of war, come to seek thee by reason of their great love, for whoever else hath enemies thou art never without good friends, who have given themselves to thy profitable service. Thou art cherished throughout the world, and the land where thou art born may do great things by reason of thee. Thou art carried throughout the world by land and sea, but thou goest to the wealthiest men; in England art thou born, but it is said that thou art but ill governed, for Trick, who hath much money, is made regent of thy staple; at his will he taketh it to foreign lands, where he purchaseth his own gain to our harm. O fair, O white, O delightful one, the love of thee stings and binds, so that the hearts of those who make merchandise of thee cannot escape. So they compass much trickery and many schemes how they may gather thee, and then they make thee pass the sea, queen and lady of their navy, and in order to have thee envy and covetousness hie them to bargain for thee.'[5]

The daily life of a Merchant of the Staple is not a difficult one to reconstruct, partly because the Golden Fleece has left so many marks upon our national life, partly because the statute book is full of regulations concerning the wool trade, but chiefly because there have come down to us many private letters from persons engaged in shipping wool from England to Calais. Of all the different sorts of raw material out of which the history of ordinary people in the Middle Ages has to be made, their letters are perhaps the most enthralling, because in their letters people live and explain themselves in all their individuality. In the fifteenth century most men and women of the upper and middle classes could read and write, although their spelling was sometimes marvellous to behold, and St Olave’s Church is apt to become ‘Sent Tolowys scryssche’ beneath their painfully labouring goose quills, and punctuation is almost entirely to seek. But what matter? their meaning is clear enough. Good fortune has preserved in various English archives several great collections of family letters written in the fifteenth century. Finest of all are the famous Paston Letters, written by and to a family of Norfolk gentlefolk, and crammed with information about high politics and daily life.[6] Less interesting, but valuable all the same, are the letters of the Plumptons, who were lords in Yorkshire.[7] But for our purposes the most interesting are two other collections, to wit, the correspondence of the Stonors, whose estates lay chiefly in Oxfordshire and the neighbouring counties; and the Cely papers, kept by a family of Merchants of the Staple.

These two collections give us a vivid picture of wool staplers in their public and private lives. The Cely papers cover the years 1475 to 1488, and it so happens that during that period William Stonor (he became Sir William in 1478) also became interested in the wool trade, for in 1475 he married Elizabeth Riche, the daughter and widow of wealthy city merchants. The Stonors had great sheep runs on their estates in the Chilterns and Cotswolds, and William readily perceived the advantage of his alliance with Elizabeth’s family, who were interested in the wool trade. Consequently he entered into a partnership with a friend of his wife’s, a Merchant of the Staple in Calais, named Thomas Betson, who is the subject of this study, and until Elizabeth’s death in 1479, he took an active part in the export trade. Thomas Betson died in 1486, and was thus an exact contemporary of those other Merchants of the Staple, George and Richard Cely, whom he must have known; indeed, William Cely, their cousin and agent, writes from London to George in Calais in 1481, advising him that he has dispatched 464 fells to him in the _Thomas_ of Newhithe, ‘and the sayd felles lyeth nexte be afte the maste lowest under the felles of Thomas Bettson’.[8] By the aid of the ‘Stonor Letters and Papers’, which contain many letters from and concerning him during the years of his partnership with Sir William, and of the ‘Cely Papers’, which are full of information about the life of a Merchant of the Staple at Calais, Thomas Betson may be summoned before us by a kindly magic until he almost lives again. So he deserves to do, for he is one of the most delightful people revealed to us in any of the fifteenth-century letters; for honest charm he has no rival save the attractive Margery Brews, who married John Paston the younger, and shows up so pleasantly beside the hard Paston women.

Perhaps the reason why our hearts warm immediately towards Thomas Betson is that our first meeting with him plunges us immediately into a love affair. His first letter to William Stonor is dated April 12, 1476, and informs William that their wool has come in to Calais. ‘Right worshipfful Syr,’ it begins, ‘I recomaund me unto your good maystershipe, and to my right worshipffulle maystresse your wiffe, and yf it plese your maystershipe, to my maystresse Kateryn.'[9] Ten days later he writes again from London, on the eve of sailing for Calais, thanking Stonor for his ‘gentle cheer and faithful love, the which alway ye bear and owe unto me, and of my behalf nothing deserved[H],’ announcing that he has sent a present of powdered[I] lampreys from himself and a pipe of red wine from his brother, and adding this postscript: ‘Sir, I beseech your mastership that this poor writing may have me lowly recommended to my right worshipful mistress, your wife, and in like wise to my gentle cousin and kind mistress Katherine Riche, to whom I beseech your mastership ever to be favourable and loving.'[10] Who was this Katherine Riche to whom he so carefully commends himself? Katherine Riche was William Stonor’s stepdaughter, one of his wife’s children by her first husband; she was Thomas Betson’s affianced bride, and at this time she was about thirteen years old.

[Footnote H: Henceforth I shall modernize spelling, for the reader’s convenience.]

[Footnote I: I.e. pickled.]

Modern opinion, which is happily in favour of falling in love, and of adult marriages, is often shocked by the air of business which pervades matchmaking in the days of chivalry, and by the many cases of grown men married to little girls not yet out of their teens. In those days it was held that a boy came of age at fourteen and a girl at twelve (a discrepancy which the great canon lawyer, Lyndwood, the son of a stapler,[11] attributed to the fact that ill weeds grow apace!). For reasons of property, or to settle family feuds, or simply to assure their own future, babies in cradles were sometimes betrothed and even married; all that the Church required was that children should be free when they came of age (at the ages of fourteen and twelve!) to repudiate the contract if they so desired. Nothing seems to separate modern England from the good old days so plainly as the case of little Grace de Saleby, aged four, who for the sake of her broad acres was married to a great noble, and on his death two years later to another, and yet again, when she was eleven, to a third, who paid three hundred marks down for her.[12] There is an odd mixture of humour and pathos in the story of some of these marriages. John Rigmarden, aged three, was carried to church in the arms of a priest, who coaxed him to repeat the words of matrimony, but half-way through the service the child declared that he would learn no more that day, and the priest answered, ‘You must speak a little more, and then go play you.’ James Ballard, aged ten, was married to Jane his wife ‘at x of the clocke in the night without the consent of any of his frendes, bie one Sir Roger Blakey, then curate of Colne, and the morowe after, the same James declarid vnto his Vnckle that the said Jane [beyinge a bigge damsell and mariageable at the same tyme] had intised him with two Apples, to go with her to Colne and to marry her.’ Elizabeth Bridge _nee_ Ramsbotham, says that after her marriage to John Bridge, when he was eleven and she thirteen, he never used her ‘lovinglie, insomoche that the first night they were maried, the said John wold Eate no meate at supper, and whan hit was bed tyme, the said John did wepe to go home with his father, he beynge at that tyme at her brother’s house.'[13]

Sometimes, however, medieval records throw a pleasanter light on these child marriages. Such was the light thrown by the Menagier de Paris’s book for his young wife, so kindly, so affectionate, so full of indulgence for her youth; and such also is the light thrown by the charming letter which Thomas Betson wrote to little Katherine Riche on the first day of June in 1476. It is a veritable gem, and it is strange that it has not attracted more notice, for certainly no anthology of English letters should be without it. I set it down here at length, for it brings to warm life again both Thomas Betson and Katherine Riche:

Mine own heartily beloved Cousin Katherine, I recommend me unto you with all the inwardness of my heart. And now lately ye shall understand that I received a token from you, the which was and is to me right heartily welcome, and with glad will I received it; and over that I had a letter from Holake, your gentle squire, by the which I understand right well that ye be in good health of body, and merry at heart. And I pray God heartily in his pleasure to continue the same: for it is to me very great comfort that he so be, so help me Jesu. And if ye would be a good eater of your meat alway, that ye might wax and grow fast to be a woman ye should make me the gladdest man of the world, by my troth; for when I remember your favour and your sad loving dealing to me wards, for sooth ye make me even very glad and joyous in my heart; and on the tother side again, when I remember your young youth, and see well that ye be none eater of your meat, the which should help you greatly in waxing, for sooth then ye make me very heavy again. And therefore I pray you, mine own sweet Cousin, even as you love me, to be merry and eat your meat like a woman. And if ye will so do for my love, look what ye will desire of me, whatsoever it be, and by my troth, I promise you by the help of our Lord to perform it to my power. I can no more say now, but on my coming home I will tell you much more between you and me and God before. And whereas ye, full womanly and like a lover, remember me with manifold recommendation in divers manners, remitting the same to my discretion to depart them there as I love best, for sooth, mine own sweet Cousin, ye shall understand that with good heart and good will I receive and take to myself the one half of them and them will I keep by me; and the tother half with hearty love and favour I send them to you, mine own sweet Cousin, again, for to keep by you; and over that I send you the blessing that our Lady gave her dear son, and ever well to fare. I pray you greet well my horse and pray him to give you four of his years to help you withal; and I will at my coming home give him four of my years and four horse loaves till amends. Tell him that I prayed him so. And Cousin Katherine, I thank you for him, and my wife shall thank you for him hereafter; for ye do great cost upon him, as is told me. Mine own sweet Cousin, it was told me but late that ye were at Calais[J] to seek me, but could not see me nor find me; forsooth ye might have comen to my counter, and there ye should both find me and see me, and not have faulted of me; but ye sought me in a wrong Calais, and that ye should well know if ye were here and saw this Calais, as would God ye were and some of them with you that were with you at your gentle Calais. I pray you, gentle Cousin, commend me to the clock, and pray him to amend his unthrifty manners; for he strikes ever in undue time, and he will be ever afore, and that is a shrewd condition. Tell him without he amend his condition that he will cause strangers to avoid and come no more there. I trust to you that he shall amend against mine coming, the which shall be shortly, with all hands and all feet, with God’s grace. My very faithful Cousin, I trust to you that though all I have not remembered my right worshipful mistress your mother afore in this letter, that ye will of your gentleness recommend me to her mistresship as many times as it shall please you: and ye may say, if it please you, that in Whitsun week next I intend to the mart ward. And I trust you will pray for me; for I shall pray for you and, so it may be, none so well. And Almighty Jesu make you a good woman and send you many good years and long to live in health and virtue to his pleasure. At great Calais, on this side on the sea, the first day of June, when every man was gone to his dinner, and the clock smote nine, and all your household cried after me and bade me ‘Come down, come down to dinner at once!’–and what answer I gave them, ye know it of old.

[Footnote J: Possibly an inn with that name (?).]

By your faithful Cousin and lover Thomas Betson. I send you this ring for a token.

So ending, Thomas Betson smiled, dropped a kiss on the seal and inscribed his letter, ‘To my faithful and heartily beloved cousin Katherine Riche at Stonor, this letter be delivered in haste.'[14]

Henceforth there begins a charming triangular correspondence between Betson and Stonor and Dame Elizabeth Stonor, in which family news and business negotiations are pleasantly mingled. Dame Elizabeth and Betson were on the best of terms, for they had been old friends before her second marriage. A special chamber was kept for him at Stonor, and by an affectionate anticipation she often refers to him as ‘My son Stonor’. Almost all her letters to her husband contain news of him–how he took his barge at 8 a.m. in the morning and God speed him, how no writing has come from him these eight days, how he has now written about the price to be paid for forty sacks of Cotswold wool, how he recommends him to Sir William and came home last Monday. Sometimes he is entrusted with the delicate business of interviewing Dame Elizabeth’s mother, a difficult old lady with a tongue; ‘God send her,’ says Thomas, mopping his brow, after one of these interviews, ‘once a merry countenance or shortly to the Minories[K]!’ After another he writes to Dame Elizabeth: ‘Sith I came home to London I met with my lady your mother and God wot she made me right sullen cheer with her countenance whiles I was with her; methought it long till I was departed. She break out to me of her old “ffernyeres” and specially she brake to me of the tale I told her between the vicar that was and her; she said the vicar never fared well sith, he took it so much to heart. I told her a light answer again and so I departed from her. I had no joy to tarry with her. She is a fine merry woman, but ye shall not know it nor yet find it, nor none of yours by that I see in her[15].’ It was the faithful Betson, too, who was chosen to look after his Katherine’s little sister Anne when she was ill in London, and he writes home asking for her clothes–‘She hath need unto them and that knoweth our Lord’–and complaining of the old grandmother’s behaviour: ‘If my lady your mother meet my cousin Anne she will say no more but “God’s blessing have ye and mine’, and so go her way forth, as though she had no joy of her[16].” It was Betson, too, who escorted Dame Elizabeth, when need was, from Windsor to London and wrote to her husband: ‘By the way we were right merry, thanked be God, and so with his mercy we mean here to be merry for the season that my lady is here, and when your mastership is ready to come hitherwards, we here shall so welcome you that the season of your abiding shall not be noisome, with God’s grace[17].’ Whereupon Sir William sends a present of capons by the carrier to assist the merriment, and Betson reports, ‘Sir, I took two capons, but they were not the best, as ye counselled me by your letter to take, and indeed to say the truth I could not be suffered. My lady your wife is reasonably strong waxed, the Lord be thanked, and she took her will in that matter like as she doth in all other.'[18]

[Footnote K: The convent of Minoresses, or Franciscan nuns, outside Aldgate.]

There are, indeed, a hundred evidences of the warmth of Betson’s affection for the Stonors and of the simple piety of his character. Sometimes he ventures to give them good advice. Dame Elizabeth was somewhat uplifted by her elevation from the ranks of the mercantile bourgeoisie to a place among the country gentry, and was apt to be extravagant, nor was her husband entirely guiltless of running up bills. We hear of the ale brewer and the bread baker calling daily upon his agent for money, and on one occasion the Stonors owed over L12 to Betson’s own brother, a vintner, for various pipes of red and white wine and a butt of Rumney[L][19]. So Thomas writes to Dame Elizabeth, on his way to the mart: ‘Our blessed lord Jesus Christ preserve you both in honour and worship virtuously to continue in God’s pleasure and also to send you good and profitable counsel and grace to do hereafter. This is and shall be my prayer forsooth every day; your honour and worship of countenance hereafter sticketh as nigh mine heart as doth any friend, man or other about you, by my troth, our blessed Lord so help me. I will avise you, Madame, to remember large expenses and beware of them, and in likewise my master your husband; it is well done ye remember him of them, for divers considerations, as ye know both right well. And our blessed Lord be your comforter and help in all your good work. Amen.'[20] A month later he hears that William Stonor has been ill and writes to sympathize with Dame Elizabeth: ‘And if I could do anything here that might be to his pleasure and yours, I would I knew it and it should be done withouten fail. Truly your discomfort is not my comfort, God knoweth it. Nevertheless your ladyship must cause him to be merry and of glad cheer, and to put away all fantasies and unthrifty thoughts, that comes no good of, but only hurtful. A man may hurt himself by riotous means; it is good to beware.'[21]

[Footnote L: Greek wine.]

Meanwhile what of little Katherine Riche? She recurs over and over in Thomas Betson’s letters. Occasionally she is in disgrace, for she was not handy with her pen. ‘I am wroth with Katherine,’ writes he to her mother, ‘because she sendeth me no writing. I have to her divers times and for lack of answer I wax weary; she might get a secretary if she would and if she will not, it shall put me to less labour to answer her letters again.'[22] But the important thing is that she grows steadily older, though not quickly enough to please our lover. On Trinity Sunday in 1478 he writes to Dame Elizabeth: ‘I remember her full oft, God know[eth] it. I dreamed once she was thirty winters of age and when I woke I wished she had been but twenty and so by likelihood I am sooner like to have my wish than my dream, the which I beseech Almighty Jesu heartily when it shall please Him'[23]; and to the lady’s stepfather he writes a month later: ‘I beseech you to remember my cousin Katherine. I would she did well, God knoweth it, and ye deme, as I trow, if I had found her at home here my comfort should have been the more; but I thank God of all. My pain is the more; I must needs suffer as I have done in times past, and so will I do for God’s sake and hers.'[24] However, Katherine was now fifteen years of age and was sufficiently grown up to wed, and the next letter, written a week later to Dame Elizabeth, shows us Thomas Betson beginning to set his house in order and getting exceedingly bothered about laying in her trousseau, a business with which Dame Elizabeth had, it seems, entrusted the future bridegroom.

Madam, and it like you, I understand by your writing that it will be the latter end of August or your ladyship can come here to London; and if it should be so I would be sorry, for I have much to do and I can little skill to do anything that longeth to the matter ye wot of [evidently the preparations for Katherine] … I must beseech your ladyship to send me [your advice] how I shall be demeaned in such things as shall belong unto my cousin Katherine, and how I shall provide for them. She must have girdles, three at the least, and how they shall be made I know not, and many other things she must have, ye know well what they be, in faith I know not; by my troth, I would it were done, liever than more than it shall cost…. And as for the sending hither of my Cousin Katherine, your ladyship may do therein as it shall please you. I would she knew as much as you know, forsooth, and then she should do some good and help me in many things when she come…. Also, madam, as ye write me the courteous dealing of my master with my Cousin Katherine, etc., truly I am very glad thereof and I pray God heartily thank him therefore, for he hath ever been lovingly disposed [unto] her, and so I beseech God ever continue him and also my Cousin Katherine to deserve it unto him by her goodly demeanour and womanly disposition, as she can do right well if her list, and so saith every body that praiseth her.[25]

The note of pride in the last words is as engaging as the impatience of the harassed male faced with the choosing of girdles. Even more charming is the letter which he wrote the same day to Sir William Stonor. He is a little incoherent with joy and gratitude, full of regrets that business keeps him from Stonor and good wishes for the health of the family. ‘I fare like a sorry piper,’ he says. ‘When I begin I cannot leave, but yet once again our blessed Lord be your speed and your help,’ Of Katherine he writes thus:

I understand by the worshipful report of your mastership the [be]haviours of my cousin Katherine unto you, to my lady your wife and to all other, etc.; and truly it is to me right joyful and comfortable gladness to hear of her and I beseech our blessed Lord ever to preserve her in all virtue and good living to his pleasure, and to reward your mastership with heaven at your ending, for your good disposition to herwards in good exhortations giving. And that I wot well of old, or else truly she could not be of that disposition, virtuous and goodly, her youth remembered and excused…. Sir, remember your mastership well what ye have written of my Cousin Katherine; truly I shall when I speak with her, tell her every word, and if I find the contrary. Our vicar here, so God help me, shall cry out upon her[M] within this ten weeks and less, and by that time I shall be ready in every point, by God’s grace, and so I would she were, forsooth ye may believe me of it.[26]

[Footnote M: I.e. call the banns.]

This letter was written on June 24, 1478, and Thomas probably married his little Katherine in August or September, for when Dame Elizabeth writes to her husband on October 5, she says, ‘My son Betson and his wife recommend them to you'[27] The poor child was to learn soon enough some of the sorrows of a wife, for a year later Thomas Betson fell dangerously ill, and she was nursing him and looking after his business for all the world as though she were a grave matron and not a bride of sixteen. Moreover, she must already have been expecting the birth of her eldest son. William Stonor’s attitude towards his partner’s illness is not without humour. He was torn between anxiety for the life of a friend and an even greater anxiety that Betson should not die without setting straight the business obligations between them. We hear of the illness and of Katherine’s labours in a letter from one of Stonor’s agents to his master:

Sir, according to the commandment of your mastership, we were at Stepney by nine of the clock; at such time as we came thither we saw the gentleman forthwith, and in good faith he made us good cheer as a sick man might by countenance notwithstanding, for in good faith we saw by his demeanour that he might not prosper in this world, for Mistress Bevice and other gentlewomen and his uncle were of the same opinion. And we desired and prayed him to be of good comfort and so comforted him as heartily as we could in your name and in my lady’s, and so we departed from the chamber down into the hall, and he fell into a great slumbering and was busily moved in his spirits. And at eleven of the clock I called his uncle out of his bed into the gentleman’s chamber, and I asked his advice and my mistress his wife, of the stock and of the demeanour thereof for the year and the half that is last past. And touching the stock he confessed that it was L1,160, wherein at the sight of your acquittance in discharging of him and all his doers that shall be behind him, the said stock shall be ready. And as for the occupation of it, as he will answer between God and devil, the book that he bought it by ye shall be privy thereto; and the book that he sold by ye shall be also privy to, which two books shall be his judges, which remain in the keeping of my mistress his wife’s hands under lock and key and other bills and obligations according, concerning the surety for divers payments to be made to divers merchants, as the said lord saith…. And as for the plate my mistress Jane [probably Jane Riche, the younger sister of Katherine] and I have caused it to be taken up and set in surety, save that that must needs by occupied.

He sends to Sir William for information about two sums of L80 each owed by Betson to his master and mistress, and adds:

I trust to Jesu he shall endure till the messenger come again; longer the physicians have not determined. The executors be three persons, my mistress his wife, Humphrey Starkey, Recorder of London, Robert Tate, merchant of Calais; notwithstanding I moved him, between him and me and mistress Jane, that he should break this testament and make my mistress his wife sole executrix. What will be done therein as yet I cannot speak, but I shall do as I can, with God’s grace.[28]

There is something unexpected and a little vulture-like about this gathering of creditors and seizing of plate about the death-bed of a man who had always, after all, shown himself exceedingly affectionate towards the Stonors and devoted to their interests, and who was now my lady’s son-in-law. The attempt to make the young wife of sixteen sole executrix, so that she might be completely in her family’s hands and without the counsel of two experienced and disinterested merchants, has a somewhat sinister air. The intrigues went on, and three days later the agent writes again. It is pleasant to observe that bad-tempered old Mistress Croke, Dame Elizabeth’s mother, was not unmindful of Betson’s forbearance during those visits when she had railed upon him with her sharp tongue:

As for the tidings that is here, I trust to God it shall be very good. On Thursday my lady Croke came to Stepney and brought with her Master Brinkley to see Betson, and in faith he was a very sick man; and ere he departed he gave him plasters to his head, to his stomach and to his belly, [so] that he all that night was in a quiet rest. And he came to him again on Friday … and he was well amended and so said all the people that were about him. Notwithstanding he will not determine him whether he shall live or die as yet, but he may keep him alive till Tuesday noon, he will undertake him. The cause that I write to you now rather was because I had no certainty. Sir, there hath been many special labours and secret i-made, sithen mistress Jane and I were come, to the contrary disposition that we come for. I cannot write the plain[nes]s of them as yet, for my mistress Betson attendeth, all things and counsels laid apart, to abide and trust in your good fatherhood and in my lady, and furthermore if he depart the world, ye shall hear tidings of her in as goodly haste as we may purvey for her. And whether he die or live, it is necessary and behoveful that mistress Jane depart not from her into [i.e. until] such time as the certainty be knowen, for in truth divers folks, which ye shall know hereafter and my lady, both thus hath and would exhort her to a contrarier disposition, had not we been here by time. And mistress Jane is worthy of much thank.[29]

However, all the schemings were premature, for Betson happily recovered. On October 10 the ‘prentice’ Henham writes: ‘My master Betson is right well amended, blessed be Jesus, and he is past all doubts of sickness and he takes the sustenance right well, and as for physicians, there come none unto him, for he hath no need of them.'[30] But another death was at hand to break the close association between Thomas Betson and the Stonors, for at the end of the year the kind, extravagant, affectionate Dame Elizabeth died. It is a surprising fact that her death seems to have brought to a close the business partnership between her husband and her son-in-law. Henceforth the only references to Thomas Betson in the Stonor papers are occasional notes of his debts to Stonor: doubtless he had bought Sir William’s share in their joint business. On March 10, 1480, he acknowledged obligations of L2,835 9s. 0d. to Stonor, and in 1482 he still owed L1,200.[31] It is impossible to guess why the relationship, which was an affectionate personal friendship as well as a business tie, should have come to such a sudden end. As the editor of the _Stonor Letters_ remarks, ‘The sincerity and honesty of Betson’s character as revealed in his letters, forbids one to suppose that he was to blame.’

Such was the more private and domestic side of Thomas Betson’s life; but it tells us little (save in occasional references to the Fellowship of the Staple or the price of Cotswold wool) about that great company with which this chapter began; and since he stands here as a type as well as an individual, we must needs turn now to his public and business life, and try to find out from more indirect evidence how a Merchant of the Staple went about his business. The stapler, who would make a good livelihood, must do two things, and give his best attention to both of them: first, he must buy his wool from the English grower, then he must sell it to the foreign buyer. Some of the best wool in England came from the Cotswolds, and when you are a Merchant of the Staple you enjoy bargaining for it, whether you want the proceeds of the great summer clip or of the fells after the autumn sheep-killing. So Thomas Betson rides off to Gloucestershire in the soft spring weather, his good sorrel between his knees, and the scent of the hawthorn blowing round him as he goes. Other wool merchants ride farther afield–into the long dales of Yorkshire to bargain with Cistercian abbots for the wool from their huge flocks, but he and the Celys swear by Cotswold fells (he shipped 2,348 of them to London one July ‘in the names of Sir William Stonor knight and Thomas Betson, in the _Jesu_ of London, John Lolyngton master under God’). May is the great month for purchases, and Northleach the great meeting-place of staplers and wool dealers. It is no wonder that Northleach Church is so full of woolmen’s brasses, for often they knelt there, and often the village hummed with the buyers and sellers, exchanging orders and examining samples. The Celys bought chiefly from two Northleach wool dealers, William Midwinter and John Busshe. The relations between dealers and sellers were often enough close and pleasant: Midwinter even occasionally tried to provide a customer with a bride as well as with a cargo, and marriageable young ladies were not unwilling to be examined over a gallon of wine and much good cheer at the inn.[32] It is true that Midwinter was apt to be restive when his bills remained for too long unpaid, but he may be forgiven for that. Thomas Betson favoured the wool fells of Robert Turbot of Lamberton,[33] and dealt also with one John Tate, with Whyte of Broadway (another famous wool village),[34] and with John Elmes, a Henley merchant well known to the Stonors. Midwinter, Busshe, and Elmes were all wool dealers, or ‘broggers’–middlemen, that is to say, between the farmers who grew and the staplers who bought wool, but often the staplers dealt directly with individual farmers, buying the small man’s clip as well as the great man’s, and warm friendships sprang from the annual visits, looked forward to in Yorkshire dale and Cotswold valley. It strikes a pleasant note when Richard Russell, citizen and merchant of York, leaves in his will, ‘for distribution among the farmers of Yorkes Walde, from whom I bought wool 20 l., and in the same way among the farmers of Lyndeshay 10 l.’ (1435).[35]

The ‘Cely Letters’ give a mass of information about the wool buying at Northleach. In the May of the same year in which Betson’s partnership with Stonor would seem to have ended, old Richard Cely was up there doing business and reporting it to his son, ‘Jorge Cely at Caleys’.

I greet you well and I have received a letter from you writ at Calais the 13th day of May (1480), the which letter I have well understood of your being at the marts and of the sale of my middle wool, desired by John Destermer and John Underbay. Wherefore by the grace of God I am abusied for to ship this foresaid 29 sarplers, the which I bought of William Midwinter of Northleach, 26 sarplers, the which is fair wool, as the wool packer Will Breten saith to me, and also the 3 sarplers of the rector’s is fair wool, much finer wool nor was the year before, the which I shipped afore Easter last past. The shipping is begun at London, but I have none shipped as yet, but I will after these holy days, for the which I will ye order for the freight and other costs. This same day your brother Richard Cely is rid to Northleach for to see and cast a sort of fell for me and another sort of fell for you.[36]

On another occasion he writes: ‘By your letter you avise me for to buy wool in Cotswold, for which I shall have of John Cely his gathering 30 sack, and of Will Midwinter of Northleach 40 sack. And I am avised to buy no more; wool in Cotswold is at great price, 13s. 4d. a tod, and great riding for wool in Cotswold as was any year this seven year.'[37] What a picture it calls up of merchants trotting along the roads and looking as Chaucer often saw them look:

A Marchant was ther with a forked berd, In motteleye and hye on horse he sat,
Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat, His boots clasped faire and fetisly;
His resons he spak ful solempnely,
Sounynge alway thencrees of his wynnyng.

Often at Northleach Betson must have encountered his brethren of the Staple, the staid old merchant Richard Cely among the rest, and son George who rides with ‘Meg’, his hawk, on his wrist, and has a horse called ‘Bayard’ and another called ‘Py’; and perhaps also John Barton of Holme beside Newark, the proud stapler who set as a ‘posy’ in the stained glass windows of his house this motto:

I thank God and ever shall
It is the sheepe hath payed for all;[38]

though indeed it is unlikely that he came as far south as the Cotswolds for his wool. Sometimes also Betson meets upon the road his rivals, stout, self-possessed Flemings and thin sleek Lombards with black eyes and gesticulating hands, who have no business in the Cotswolds at all, but ought to be buying wool in the mart at Calais. But they come, and all good Englishmen are angry at their tricks and angrier still perhaps at their successful trade. ‘I have not as yet packed my wool in London,’ writes old Richard Cely on October 29, 1480; ‘nor have I not bought this year a lock of wool, for the wool of Cotswold is bought by Lombards, wherefore I have the less haste for to pack my wool at London’;[39] and his son writes to him on November 16 from Calais: ‘There is but little Cotswold wool at Calais and I understand Lombards has bought it up in England.'[40] It is true that the Celys, other English merchants too, are not unwilling to conclude private bargains from time to time with foreign buyers in England. Two years later their agent, William Cely, writes to advise them that two Flemish merchants are now trying to buy in England contrary to the ordinance, and that those in authority at Calais have got wind of it, and therefore his masters must take care and make Wyllykyn and Peter Bale pay at Calais, ‘but as for your dealings knoweth no man, without they search Peter Bale’s books.'[41] The upright Betson no doubt eschewed such tricks and resented particularly the clever usurious Lombards, so full of financial dodges to trick the English merchant, for did they not buy the wool in England on credit, riding about as they list in the Cotswolds?

In Cotteswolde also they ryde aboute
And al Englonde, and bien wythouten doute, What them liste, wythe fredome and fraunchise More then we Englisshe may getyn in any wyse.

And then did they not carry the wool to Flanders and sell it for ready money at a loss of five per cent, thereafter lending out this money at heavy usury, mostly to the English merchants themselves, so that by the time pay day came in England, they had realized a heavy profit?

And thus they wold, if we will beleve Wypen our nose with our owne sleve,
Thow this proverbe be homly and undew, Yet be liklynesse it is forsoth fulle trew.[42]

The next serious piece of business Thomas Betson must take in hand is the packing and shipping of his wool to Calais. Here he found himself enmeshed in the regulations of the company and the Crown, ever on the look-out for fraud in the packing or description of the staple product. The wool had to be packed in the county from which it came, and there were strict regulations against mixing hair and earth or rubbish with it. The collectors appointed by the company for the different wool-growing districts, and sworn in before the Exchequer, rode round and sealed each package, so that it could not be opened without breaking the seal. Then the great bales were carried on the backs of pack-horses ‘by the ancient trackways over the Wiltshire and Hampshire Downs, which had been used before the Roman conquest, and thence through Surrey and Kent to the Medway ports by the Pilgrims’ Way.’ At the different ports the collectors of customs were ready to enter on their rolls the names of the merchants shipping wool, together with the quantity and description of wool shipped by each.[43] Some of the wool came to London itself, where many of the staplers had offices in Mark Lane (which is a corruption of Mart Lane) and was weighed for the assessment of the customs and subsidy at the Leadenhall.[44] In this business Thomas Betson was helped by Stonor’s three assistants or ‘prentices’, as they call themselves, Thomas Henham, Goddard Oxbridge, and Thomas Howlake, for the last of whom he had a warm corner in his heart, because the young man was gentle to little Katherine Riche. These men were sometimes at the Stonors’ London warehouse and sometimes at their house in Calais, and they saved Betson a good deal of trouble, being experienced enough to oversee both the packing of wool in London and its sale in Calais.

To Calais the wool thus packed, and weighed and marked and assessed by the customs officer, was carried in the ships of Calais itself, or of the little ports on the east or south-eastern coast of England, many of which are mere villages today. For ships put out not only from Hull and Colchester, but from Brightlingsea, Rotherhithe, Walberswick in Suffolk, Rainham in Essex, Bradwell, Maidstone, Milton, Newhithe, and Milhall. In August 1478, the Celys were paying the masters of twenty-one different ships for the freight of their sarplers of wool after the summer clip.[45] All through the summer the shipping went on, and right up to Christmas; but during the winter months the merchants were mostly sending over fells or sheepskins, after the great slaughter of sheep and cattle which took place at Martinmas, when housewives salted down their meat for the winter and farmers made delivery of the fells and hides, for which the staplers had long ago bargained. Very often merchants’ letters and customs accounts give us the names of these doughty little ships and their cargoes. In the October of 1481, for instance, the Celys were shipping a consignment of fells:

Right worshipful sir, after due recommendation I lowly recommend unto you, letting you understand that my master hath shipped his fells at the port of London now at this shipping in October …, which fells ye must receive and pay the freight first by the grace of God, in the ‘Mary’ of London, William Sordyvale master, 7 packs, sum 2800, lying be aft the mast, one pack lieth up rest and some of that pack is summer fells marked with an O, and then lieth 3 packs fells of William Daltons and under them lieth the other 6 packs of my masters. Item in the ‘Christopher’ of Rainham, Harry Wylkyns master, 7 packs and a half Cots[wold] fell, sum 3000 pelt, lying be aft the mast, and under them lieth a 200 fells of Welther Fyldes, William Lyndys man of Northampton, and the partition is made with small cords. Item, in the ‘Thomas’ of Maidstone, Harry Lawson master, 6 pokes, sum 2400 pelt, whereof lieth 5 packs next before the mast under hatches, no man above them, and one pack lieth in the stern sheet; of the six packs fells be some summer fells marked with an O likewise. Item, in the ‘Mary Grace’ of London, John Lokyngton master 6 packs, sum 2400 pelt, lying be aft under the fells of Thomas Graunger, the partition between them is made with red; sum of the fells my master hath shipped at this time 26 packs and a half whereof be winter fells of the country 561 fells and they be marked with an C, and of summer fells there should be 600 and more, but part of them be left behind, for we have two packs we could have no appointment for them, and all the summer fells be marked with an O. Item, sir, ye shall receive of the ‘Mary’ of Rainham, John Danyell master, your _male_ [trunk] with your gear and a Essex cheese marked with my master’s mark.

And so on, with details of the number of fells shipped in like manner by the _Michael_ of Hull and the _Thomas_ of Newhithe, where they lay ‘next the mast aftward under the fells of Thomas Betson’s’, over 11,000 fells in all.[46]

How invigorating is such a list of ships. Cargoes are the most romantic of topics, whether they be apes and ivory and peacocks, or ‘cheap tin trays’; and since the day that Jason sailed to Colchis fleeces have ever been among the most romantic of cargoes. How they smack of the salt too, those old master mariners, Henry Wilkins, master of the _Christopher_ of Rainham, John Lollington, master of the _Jesu_ of London, Robert Ewen, master of the _Thomas_ of Newhithe, and all the rest of them, waving their hands to their wives and sweethearts as they sail out of the sparkling little bays, with the good woolsacks abaft or under hatches–shipmen, all of them, after Chaucer’s heart:

But of his craft, to rekene wel his tydes His stremes and his daungers hym besides, His herberwe and his moone, his lodemenage, Ther was noon swich from Hulle to Cartage. Hardy he was, and wys to undertake:
With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake; He knew wel alle the havenes, as they were, From Gootland to the Cape of Fynystere,
And every cryke in Britaigne and in Spayne. His barge y-cleped was the Maudelayne.

Their ships were doubtless like the _Margaret Cely_, which the two Cely brothers bought and called after their mother, for the not excessive sum of L28, exclusive of rigging and fittings. She carried a master, boatswain, cook, and sixteen jolly sailor-men, and she kept a good look out for pirates and was armed with cannon and bows, bills, five dozen darts, and twelve pounds of gunpowder! She was victualled with salt fish, bread, wheat and beer, and she plied with the Celys’ trade to Zealand, Flanders, and Bordeaux.[47] She must have been about two hundred tons, but some of the other little ships were much smaller, for, as the learned editor of the _Cely Papers_ tells us, ‘The ships of the little Medway ports could scarcely have been of thirty tons to navigate the river safely; the “Thomas” of Maidstone can have been only a barge, if she had to pass Aylesford Bridge.'[48] But they navigated the channel and dodged the pirates blithely enough, though often Thomas Betson at Calais was nervous about the safe arrival of the wool fleet. Like Chaucer’s merchant,

He wolde the see were kept for any thing Betwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle.

Side by side with George or Richard Cely he must often have strained his eyes from the quay, with the salt wind blowing out the feather in his cap, and breathed a thanksgiving to God when the ships hove in sight. ‘And, Sir,’ he writes once to Stonor from London, ‘thanked be the good Lord, I understand for certain that our wool shipped be comen in … to Calais. I would have kept the tidings till I had comen myself, because it is good, but I durst not be so bold, for your mastership now against this good time may be glad and joyful of these tidings, for in truth I am glad and heartily thank God of it.'[49] The ‘prentice’ Thomas Henham writes likewise three weeks later: ‘I departed from Sandwich the 11th day of April and so came unto Calais upon Sher Thursday[N] last with the wool ships, and so blessed be Jesu I have received your wools in safety. Furthermore, Sir, if it please your mastership for to understand this, I have received your wools as fair and as whole as any man’s in the fleet. Moreover, Sir, if it please your mastership for to understand how your wool was housed ever deal by Easter even. Furthermore, Sir, if it please your mastership for to understand that the shipman be content and paid of their freight.'[50] The Celys write in the same strain too: ‘This day the 16th of August the wool fleet came to Calais both of London and Ipswich in safety, thanked be God, and this same day was part landed and it riseth fair yet, thanked be God.'[51] Their letters tell us too what danger it was that they feared. ‘I pray Jesu send you safe hither and soon,’ writes Richard to his ‘right well beloved brother George’, on June 6, 1482. ‘Robert Eryke was chased with Scots between Calais and Dover. They scaped narrow.'[52] There are many such chases recorded, and we hear too of wool burnt under hatches or cast overboard in a storm.[53]

[Footnote N: I.e. Shrove Thursday.]

Thomas Betson and the Celys travelled very often across the Channel in these ships, which carried passengers and letters, and they were almost as much at home in Calais as in London. When in Calais English merchants were not allowed to live anywhere they liked, all over the town. The Company of the Staple had a list of regular licensed ‘hosts’, in whose houses they might stay. Usually a number of merchants lived with each host, the most potent, grave, and reverend seniors dining at a high table, and smaller fry at side tables in the hall. Sometimes they quarrelled over terms, as when William Cely writes home one day to Richard and George in London:

Item. Sir, please it you to understand that here is a variance betwixt our host Thomas Graunger and the fellowship, of our lodging, for Thomas Graunger promised us at his coming in to our lodging that we should pay no more for our board but 3s. 4d. a week at the high table, and 2s. 6d. at the side table, and now he saith he will have no less than 4s. a week at the high table and 40d. at the side table, wherefore the fellowship here will depart into other lodgings, some to one place and some to another, William Dalton will be at Robert Torneys and Ralph Temyngton and master Brown’s man of Stamford shall be at Thomas Clarke’s and so all the fellowship departs save I, wherefore I let your masterships have knowledge, that ye may do as it shall like you best.[54]

But Thomas Betson never fell out with his hosts, whose only complaint of him must have been that he sat long over his love letters and came down late to dinner.

There was business enough for him to do at Calais. First of all, when the wool was landed, it had to be inspected by the Royal officers, to see that it had been properly labelled, and their skilled packers examined, repacked, and resealed the bales. This was an anxious moment for merchants who were conscious of inferior wool among their bulging sarplers. The honest Betson, we may be certain, never cheated, but the Celys knew more than a little about the tricks of the trade, and one year, when the Lieutenant of Calais took out sarpler No. 24, which their agent, William Cely, knew to be poor wool, in order to make a test, he privily substitutes No. 8, which was ‘fair wool’ and changed the labels, so that he was soon able to write home, ‘Your wool is awarded by the sarpler that I cast out last.'[55] No wonder Gower said that Trick was regent of the Staple,

Siq’en le laines maintenir
Je voi plusours descontenir
Du loyalte la viele usance.[56]

Then there was the custom and subsidy to be paid to the Mayor and Fellowship of the Staple, who collected it for the King. And then came the main business of every merchant, the selling of the wool. Thomas Betson preferred, of course, to sell it as quickly as possible, as the ships came in, but sometimes the market was slow and wool remained for some months on his hands. Such wool from the summer sheep shearing, shipped in or before the month of February following, and remaining unsold by April 6th, was classed as old wool, and the Fellowship of the Staple ordained that foreign buyers must take one sarpler of old wool with every three of new; and although the Flemings grumbled and wanted to take one of old to five of new, they had to put up with the regulation.[57] A great deal of Betson’s business would be done at the mart of Calais itself, where he met with the dignified Flemish merchants, scions of old families with estates of their own, and the more plebeian merchants of Delft and Leyden, and the wool dealers from sunny Florence and Genoa and Venice. Among the best customers both of the Stonors and the Celys (for they are mentioned in the letters of both) were Peter and Daniel van de Rade of Bruges. Thomas Howlake on one occasion reports a sale of four sarplers of fine Cotswold wool to them at 19 marks the sack, with a rebate of 4-1/2 cloves on the sack of 52, and adds: ‘Sir, an it please you, as for the foresaid merchants that have bought your wool, [they] be as good as any that came out of Flanders and for that I have showed them the more favour and given them the more respite of that.'[58]

The staplers, however, did not do business at Calais alone, but rode also to the great fairs at Antwerp, Bruges, and the country round. ‘Thomas Betson,’ writes Henham to his master, ‘came unto Calais the last day of April and so he departed in good health unto Bruges mart the first day of May.'[59]

But so bifel this marchant on a day
Shoop hym to make redy his array
Toward the toun of Brugges for to fare, To byen there a porcioun of ware–[60]

only it was to ‘sellen’ a portion that Betson went. He himself writes Sir William: ‘Liketh it you to wit that on Trinity even I came to Calais and, thanked be the good Lord, I had a full fair passage, and, Sir, with God’s might I intend on Friday next to depart to the mart-wards. I beseech the good Lord be my speed and help me in all my works. And, Sir, I trust to God’s mercy, if the world be merry here, to do somewhat that shall be both to your profit and mine. As yet there cometh but few merchants here; hereafter with God’s grace there will come more. I shall lose no time when the season shall come, I promise you…. And, Sir, when I come from the mart I shall send you word of all matters by the mercy of our Lord.'[61] At the fairs Betson would meet with a great crowd of merchants from all over Europe, though often enough political disturbances made the roads dangerous and merchants ran some risk of being robbed. The English traders were commonly reputed to be the best sellers and customers at the fairs of Flanders and Brabant, though the Flemings sometimes complained of them, and said that the staplers made regulations forbidding their merchants to buy except on the last day, when the Flemish sellers, anxious to pack and be off, let their goods go at insufficient prices.[62] The author of the _Libelle of Englyshe Polycye_ boasts proudly of the custom brought by the English to these marts:

But they of Holonde at Calyse byene oure felles, And oure wolles, that Englyshe men hem selles… And wee to martis of Braban charged bene Wyth Englysshe clothe, fulle gode and feyre to seyne, Wee bene ageyne charged wyth mercerye
Haburdasshere ware and wyth grocerye, To whyche martis, that Englisshe men call feyres Iche nacion ofte makethe here repayeres, Englysshe and Frensh, Lumbards, Januayes [Genoese], Cathalones, theder take here wayes,
Scottes, Spaynardes, Iresshmen there abydes, Wythe grete plente bringing of salt hydes, And I here saye that we in Braban lye,
Flaunders and Seland, we bye more marchaundy In common use, then done all other nacions; This have I herde of marchaundes relacions, And yff the Englysshe be not in the martis, They bene febelle and as nought bene here partes; For they bye more and fro purse put owte More marchaundy than alle other rowte.[63]

Fairs were held at different times in different places, but there were during the year four great fair seasons corresponding to the four seasons in the year.[64] There was the Cold mart in the winter, to which Thomas Betson rode muffled in fur, with his horse’s hoofs ringing on the frosty roads; there was the Pask (_Pasques,_ Easter) mart in the spring, when he whistled blithely and stuck a violet in his cap; there was the Synxon (St John) mart in the summer, round about St John the Baptist’s Day, when he was hot and mopped his brow, and bought a roll of tawny satin or Lucca silk for Katherine from a Genoese in a booth at Antwerp; and there was the Balms, or Bammys mart in the autumn, round about the day of St Remy, whom the Flemings call St Bamis (October 28), when he would buy her a fur of budge or mink, or a mantle of fine black shanks from the Hansards at their mart in Bruges. It was at these marts that the Merchants of the Staple, jaunting about from place to place to meet buyers for their wool, did a hundred little commissions for their friends; for folk at home were apt to think that staplers existed to do their errands for them abroad and to send them presents. One wanted a pair of Louvain gloves, the other a sugar loaf, the other a pipe of Gascon wine (‘You can get it cheaper over there, my dear’), the other a yard or two of Holland cloth; while ginger and saffron were always welcome, and could be bought from the Venetians, whom the Celys spell ‘Whenysyans’. Then, of course, there were purchases to be made in the way of business, such as Calais packthread and canvas from Arras or Brittany or Normandy to pack the bales of wool.[65] As to the Celys, Thomas Betson was wont to say that their talk was of nothing but sport and buying hawks, save on one gloomy occasion, when George Cely rode for ten miles in silence and then confided to him that over in England his grey bitch had whelped and had fourteen pups, and then died and the pups with her.[66]

Between the counting-house in Calais and the fairs and marts of the country Thomas Betson would dispose of his wool and fells. But his labour did not end here, for he would now have to embark upon the complicated business of collecting money from his customers, the Flemish merchants, and with it paying his creditors in England, the Cotswold wool dealers. It was customary for the staplers to pay for their wool by bills due, as a rule, at six months, and Thomas Betson would be hard put to meet them if the foreign buyers delayed to pay him. Moreover, his difficulties were inconceivably complicated by the exchanges. We think we know something about the difficulty of divers and fluctuating exchanges today, but we can hardly imagine the elaborate calculations and the constant disputes which racked the brain of a Merchant of the Staple in the fifteenth century. Not only did the rates between England and the Continent constantly vary, but, as the editor of the _Cely Papers_ points out, ‘the number of potentates of all kinds who claimed the privilege of issuing their own coinage and the frequently suspicious character of what they uttered as gold and silver, made the matter of adjustment of values difficult for the Celys, who were evidently obliged to take what they could get.'[67] Only imagine the difficulties of poor Thomas Betson, when into his counting-house there wandered in turn the Andrew guilder of Scotland, the Arnoldus gulden of Gueldres (very much debased), the Carolus groat of Charles of Burgundy, new crowns and old crowns of France, the David and the Falewe of the Bishopric of Utrecht, the Hettinus groat of the Counts of Westphalia, the Lewe or French Louis d’or, the Limburg groat, the Milan groat, the Nimueguen groat, the Phelippus or Philippe d’or of Brabant, the Plaques of Utrecht, the Postlates of various bishops, the English Ryall (worth ten shillings), the Scots Rider or the Rider of Burgundy (so called because they bore the figure of a man on horseback), the Florin Rhenau of the Bishopric of Cologne and the Setillers.[68] He had to know the value in English money of them all, as it was fixed for the time being by the Fellowship, and most of them were debased past all reason. Indeed, English money enjoyed an enviable good fame in this respect until Henry VIII began debasing the coinage for his own nefarious ends. The letters of the Celys are full of worried references to the exchange, and much we should pity Thomas Betson. But doubtless he was like Chaucer’s bearded merchant: ‘Wel koude he in exchaunge sheeldes [French crowns] selle.’


To effect their payments between England and the Netherlands the staplers used to make use of the excellent banking facilities and instruments of credit (bills of exchange and so forth), which were placed at their disposal by Italian and Spanish merchants and by the English mercers, all of whom combined trading with financial operations. Thus we find William Cely writing to his masters:


Please your masterships to understand that I have received of John Delowppys upon payment of the bill, the which is sent me by Adlington but L300 fleming, whereof I have paid to Gynott Strabant L84 _6s. 6d_. fleming. Item, I have made you over by exchange with Benynge Decasonn, Lombard, 180 nobles sterling, payable at usance. I delivered it at _11s. 2-1/2d_. fleming the noble, it amounteth L100 _17s. 6d_. fleming. Item, I have made you over by exchange in like wise with Jacob van de Base 89 nobles and _6s_. sterling, payable at London at usuance in like wise; I delivered it at _11s. 2d_. fleming for every noble sterling; it amounteth fl.–L50 fleming and the rest of your L300 remains still by me, for I can make you over no more at this season, for here is no more that will take any money as yet. And money goeth now upon the bourse at _11s. 3-1/2d_. the noble and none other money but Nimueguen groats, crowns, Andrew guilders and Rhenish guilders, and the exchange goeth ever the longer worse and worse. Item, sir, I send you enclosed in this said letter, the two first letters of the payment of the exchange above written. Benynge Decasonn’s letter is directed to Gabriel Defuye and Peter Sanly, Genoese, and Jacob van de Base’s is directed to Anthony Carsy and Marcy Strossy, Spaniards; in Lombard Street ye shall hear of them.[69]

A week later he writes:

I understand your masterships hath taken up by exchange of John Raynold, mercer, L60 sterling, payable the 25th day of the month and of Deago Decastron [Diego da Castro, a Spaniard] other L60 sterling, payable the 26th day of the same month, the which shall be both content at the day; and as for master Lewis More, Lombard, [he] is paid and I have the bill; his attorney is a wrangling fellow–he would none other money but Nimueguen groats.[70]

Many a letter such as this must Thomas Betson have written at his lodgings, sitting so late over his work that he must needs write to his friends when he ought to be sleeping and date his letters: ‘At London, on our Lady day in the night, when I deem ye were in your bed, for mine eyne smarted, so God help me.'[71] And when he came to make up his annual accounts he had the hardest work of all to do. Here is a portrait of him at his labours:

The thridde day this marchant up ariseth, And on his nedes sadly hym avyseth,
And up into his countour-hous gooth he, To rekene with hymself, as wel may be,
Of thilke yeer, how that it with hymn stood, And how that he despended hadde his good, And if that he encressed were or noon.
His bookes and his bagges, many oon, He leith biform hymn on his countyng-bord. Ful riche was his tresor and his hord,
For which ful faste his countour dore he shette; And eek he nolde that no man sholde hymn lette Of his accountes, for the meene tyme;
And thus he sit til it was passed pry me.[72]

Thus was passed the life of a Merchant of the Staple: in riding to the Cotswold farms for wool; in business at the counting-houses in Marks Lane; in sailing from London to Calais and from Calais to London again; in dealing with merchant strangers at the mart in Calais, or riding to the marts of Flanders in fair time. The great company sheltered him, arranged his lodging, kept a sharp eye on the quality of his wool, made rules for his buying and selling, and saw that he had justice in its court. It was in this setting of hard and withal of interesting work that Thomas Betson’s love story flowered into a happy marriage. He was not destined to live long after his recovery from the serious illness of 1479; perhaps it left him permanently delicate, for he died some six years later, in 1486. During her seven years of married life (beginning, be it remembered, at the age of fifteen), the diligent Katherine had borne him five children, two sons, Thomas and John, and three daughters, Elizabeth, Agnes, and Alice. Fortunately Thomas died very comfortably off, as his will (still preserved in Somerset House) informs us. He had become a member of the Fishmongers’ Company as well as a Merchant of the Staple, for by his time the great city companies were no longer confined to persons actually engaged in the trade which each represented. In his will[73] Thomas Betson leaves money for the repair of the roof loft in his parish church of All Hallows, Barking, where he was buried, and ‘thirty pounds to the garnishing of the Staple Chapel in Our Lady Church at Calais, to buy some jewel’, and twenty pounds to the ‘Stockfishmongers’ to buy plate. He makes the latter company the guardian of his children, leaves his house to his wife, and a legacy of 40_s_. to Thomas Henham, his colleague in Stonor’s service, and characteristically gives directions ‘for the costs of my burying to be done not outrageously, but soberly and discreetly and in a mean [moderate, medium] manner, that it may be unto the worship and laud of Almighty God.’ Katherine, a widow with five children at the age of twenty-two, married as her second husband William Welbech, haberdasher (the Haberdashers were a wealthy company), by whom she had another son. But her heart stayed with the husband who wrote her her first playful love-letter when she was a child, and on her death in 1510 she directed that she should be laid by the side of Thomas Betson at All Hallows, Barking, where three staplers still lie beneath their brasses, although no trace of him remains.[74] There let them lie, long forgotten, and yet worthier of memory than many of the armoured knights who sleep under carved sepulchres in our beautiful medieval churches.

The garlands wither on your brow;
Then boast no more your mighty deeds! Upon Death’s purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds. Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.


_Thomas Paycocke of Coggeshall_


This was a gallant cloathier sure
Whose fame for ever shall endure. –THOMAS DELONEY

The great and noble trade of cloth-making has left many traces upon the life of England, architectural, literary, and social. It has filled our countryside with magnificent Perpendicular churches and gracious oak-beamed houses. It has filled our popular literature with old wives’ tales of the worthies of England, in which the clothiers Thomas of Reading and Jack of Newbury rub elbows with Friar Bacon and Robin Hood. It has filled our shires with gentlemen; for, as Defoe observed, in the early eighteenth century ‘many of the great families who now pass for gentry in the western counties have been originally raised from and built up by this truly noble manufacture’. It has filled our census lists with surnames–Weaver, Webber, Webb, Sherman, Fuller, Walker, Dyer–and given to every unmarried woman the designation of a spinster. And from the time when the cloth trade ousted that of wool as the chief export trade of England down to the time when it was in its turn ousted by iron and cotton, it was the foundation of England’s commercial greatness. ‘Among all Crafts,’ says old Deloney, ‘this was the only chief, for that it was the greatest merchandize, by the which our Country became famous thorowout all Nations.'[1]

Already by the end of the fourteenth century the English clothiers were beginning to rival those of the Netherlands in the making of fine cloth, as witness Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:

Of clooth-making she hadde swiche an haunt She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt,

and by the end of the sixteenth century all real rivalry was at an end, for the English manufacture was so clearly victorious. With the development of the manufacture a change too took place in its organization. It had never been an easy industry to organize on a gild basis, because the making of a piece of cloth entailed so many distinct processes. The preliminary processes of spinning and carding were always by-industries, performed by women and children in their cottages; but the weavers, who bought the spun yarn, had their gild; and so had the fullers, who fulled it; and the shearmen, who finished it; and the dyers who dyed it. All could not sell the finished piece of cloth, and in the group of inter-dependent crafts, each with its gild, we sometimes find the weavers employing the fullers and sometimes the fullers the weavers. Moreover, since weaving is a much quicker process than spinning, the weaver often wasted much time and found it hard to collect enough yarn to keep his loom busy; and, as the market for cloth grew wider and was no longer confined to the town of the weaver, the need was felt for some middleman to specialize in the selling of the finished cloth. So by degrees there grew up a class of men who bought wool in large quantities and sold it to the weavers, and then by a natural transition began, not to sell the wool outright, but to deliver it to the weavers to weave, to the fullers to full, and to the shearmen to finish at a wage, receiving it back again when the work was done. These men grew rich; they amassed capital; they could set many folk at work. Soon they began to set to work all the different workers who combined to make a piece of cloth; their servants carried wool to the cottages for the women to card and spin; carried the spun yarn in turn to dyers, weavers, fullers, shearers; and carried the finished piece of cloth back to the industrial middleman–the clothier, as he was called–who in his turn disposed of it to the mercantile middleman, who was called a draper. The clothiers grew rapidly in wealth and importance, and in certain parts of the country became the backbone of the middle class. They pursued their activities in country villages, rather than in the old corporate towns, for they wished to avoid the restrictions of the gilds, and gradually the cloth industry migrated almost entirely to the country. In the west of England and in East Anglia (though not in Yorkshire) it was carried out by clothiers on this ‘putting out’ system, right up to the moment when the Industrial Revolution swept it out of the cottages into the factories and out of the south into the north. Then the thriving villages emptied themselves, so that today we must needs re-create again from scattered traces and old buildings, and still older names, the once familiar figures of the East Anglian clothier and his swarm of busy workmen.

Such a familiar figure was once old Thomas Paycocke, clothier, of Coggeshall in Essex, who died full of years and honour in 1518. His family originally came from Clare, in Suffolk, but about the middle of the fifteenth century a branch settled at Coggeshall, a village not far distant. His grandfather and father would seem to have been grazing butchers, but he and his brother and their descendants after them followed ‘the truly noble manufacture’ of cloth-making, and set an indelible mark upon the village where they dwelt. Coggeshall lies in the great cloth-making district of Essex, of which Fuller wrote: ‘This county is charactered like Bethsheba, “She layeth her hand to the spindle and her hands hold the distaffe.”… It will not be amiss to pray that the plough may go along and the wheel around, that so (being fed by the one and clothed by the other) there may be, by God’s blessing, no danger of starving in our nation[2] All over Essex there lay villages famous for cloth-making, Coggeshall and Braintree, Bocking and Halstead, Shalford and Dedham, and above all Colchester, the great centre and mart of the trade. The villages throve on the industry and there was hardly a cottage which did not hum with the spinning wheel, and hardly a street where you might not have counted weavers’ workshops, kitchens where the rough loom stood by the wall to occupy the goodman’s working hours. Hardly a week but the clatter of the pack-horse would be heard in the straggling streets, bringing in new stores of wool to be worked and taking away the pieces of cloth to the clothiers of Colchester and the surrounding villages. Throughout the fifteenth century Coggeshall was an important centre, second only to the great towns of Norwich, Colchester, and Sudbury, and to this day its two inns are called the ‘Woolpack’ and the ‘Fleece.’ We must, as I said, build up the portrait of Thomas Paycocke and his compeers from scattered traces; but happily such traces are common enough in many and many an English village, and in Coggeshall itself they lie ready to our hand. Out of three things he can be brought to life again–to wit, his house in the village street, his family brasses in the aisle of the village church, and his will, which is preserved at Somerset House. A house, a brass, a will–they seem little enough, but they hold all his history. It is the greatest error to suppose that history must needs be something written down; for it may just as well be something built up, and churches, houses, bridges, or amphitheatres can tell their story as plainly as print for those who have eyes to read. The Roman villa, excavated after lying lost for centuries beneath the heel of the unwitting ploughboy–that villa with its spacious ground-plan, its floors rich with mosaic patterns, its elaborate heating apparatus, and its shattered vases–brings home more clearly than any textbook the real meaning of the Roman Empire, whose citizens lived like this in a foggy island at the uttermost edge of its world. The Norman castle, with moat and drawbridge, gatehouse and bailey and keep, arrow slits instead of windows, is more eloquent than a hundred chronicles of the perils of life in the twelfth century; not thus dwelt the private gentleman in the days of Rome. The country manor-house of the fourteenth century, with courtyard and chapel and hall and dovecote, speaks of an age of peace once more, when life on a thousand little manors revolved round the lord, and the great mass of Englishmen went unscathed by the Hundred Years’ War which seamed the fair face of France. Then begin the merchants’ elaborate Perpendicular houses in the towns and villages of the fifteenth century, standing on the road, with gardens behind them, and carved beams, great fire-places, and a general air of comfort; they mark the advent of a new class in English history–the middle class, thrust between lord and peasant and coming to its own. How the spacious days of great Elizabeth are mirrored in the beautiful Elizabethan houses, with their wide wings and large rooms, their chimneys, their glass windows, looking outwards on to open parks and spreading trees, instead of inwards on to the closed courtyard. Or go into a house built or redecorated in the eighteenth century, where you will see Chippendale chairs and lacquer tables and Chinese wall-papers covered with pagodas and mandarins; and surely there will come to your mind the age of the nabobs, the age which John Company had familiarized with the products of the Far East, the age in which tea ousted coffee as the drink for a gentleman of fashion, in which Horace Walpole collected porcelain, Oliver Goldsmith idealized China in ‘The Citizen of the World’, and Dr Johnson was called the Great Cham of Literature. Look here upon this picture and on this: look at that row of jerry-built houses, a hundred in a row and all exactly alike, of that new-art villa, all roof and hardly any window, with false bottle glass in its panes; here is the twentieth century for you. Indeed all the social and very much of the political history of England may be reconstructed from her architecture alone; and so I make no apology for calling Thomas Paycocke’s house first-rate historical evidence.

Of much the same type, though less interesting, is the evidence of monumental brasses, which are to be found in most parts of England and which abound in East Anglia, the Home Counties, and the Thames Valley.[3] Their variety is magnificent; brasses of ecclesiastics in vestments, of doctors of law and divinity and masters of arts in academic dress and of a few abbots and abbesses; brasses of knights in Armour; brasses of ladies, with their little dogs at their feet and dresses which show the changes in fashion from century to century and make clear all the mysteries of kirtles and cotte-hardies, wimples and partlets and farthingales and the head-dresses appropriate to each successive mode. The brasses also, like the houses, bear witness to the prosperity of the middle class, for in the fourteenth century when merchants began to build themselves fine houses they began also to bury themselves under splendid brasses. Finest of all, perhaps, are the brasses of the wool staplers, with feet resting on woolpack or sheep; but there are many other merchants too. Mayors and aldermen abound; they set their merchants’ marks upon their tombs as proudly as gentlemen set their coats of arms, and indeed they had as great cause for pride. You may see them at their proudest in the famous brass at Lynn, where Robert Braunch lies between his two wives, and at his feet is incised a scene representing the feast at which he entertained Edward III royally and feasted him on peacocks. There is a tailor with his shears, as glorious as the Crusader’s sword, at Northleach, and a wine merchant with his feet upon a wine cask at Cirencester. There are smaller folk, too, less dowered with wealth but proud enough of the implements of their craft; two or three public notaries with penhorn and pencase complete, a