Tag Archives: Trade and commerce

MEDIEVAL LONDON contd.

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Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History contd.

Trade and Commerce

Trade prospered alongside religiosity in the Medieval City of  London, as it always  had, always would and no doubt always will – although the relationship between the two was at times strained, like that between an errant child and its parents.  Throughout the Medieval and post-Medieval periods, only Freemen of the City were entitled to trade here (note also that from the early fourteenth century onwards, Freemen had to be members of one or other of the Livery Companies).  Freedom of the City was acquired by one of three means: servitude (apprenticeship); patrimony (inheritance); or redemption (purchase).

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The City had become an important port and trading centre, through which a significant proportion of the entire country’s imports and exports were channelled,  by Medieval times.    The waterfront, the Port of London, much of it then recently reclaimed, bristled with bustling wharves (some trade flowing to the downstream side of London Bridge after the drawbridge that allowed large vessels  to pass upstream became unusable in the fifteenth or sixteenth century).

A prodigious range of comestible and manufactured goods was imported in, from all over the known Old World, that is to say, closest to home, from the the lands bordering the English Channel, North Sea and Baltic; and further afield, from those  bordering the Mediterranean, or linked to the latter by the Silk or Spice Routes.    These included  fresh fish  from the Thames, imported to Queenhithe and Billingsgate, and shell-fish, to Oystergate (oysters were an important source of protein, especially for the poor, and discarded oyster shells are still common finds on the foreshore of the Thames); wine from Gascony, to Vintry; and “Baltic goods”, including timber, amber, “Stockholm Tar” and, as FitzStephen put it “sable, vair and miniver from the far lands where Russ and Norseman dwell”,  to Dowgate.  And, again as FitzStephen put it:  “Gold from Arabia; from Sabaea spice and incense; from the Scythians arms of steel well-tempered; oil from the rich groves of palm that spring from the fat lands of Babylon; fine gems from Nile; [and] from China crimson silks … ”.  Note also that significant numbers of fritware  containers for exotic goods,  known as albarelli (sing. albarello), likely to have been imported from  the Islamic World, have been found  in archaeological excavations at Plantation Place, off Fenchurch Street).    Fresh fish and shell-fish was traded at Billingsgate; “stock-fish” at the Stocks Market; meat at the “shambles” on Newgate Street; poultry on Poultry; grain at Cornhill; bread, milk and honey and a range of general and exotic goods in the shops and selds on Cheapside and Eastcheap; and general and exotic goods also  at the covered market on  Leadenhall Street, and at open-air fairs.

Wool and, later, finished woollen cloth were  the most important exports, chiefly to the Low Countries,  and the trade was enormously  lucrative.  Sheepskins and other animal hides,  food-stuffs, and Cornish tin were also exported.

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The trade with the ports on the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic came to be controlled by an alliance called the Hanseatic League, which was formally founded in 1241, and which had its London headquarters at the so-called Steelyard, which was essentially a semi-autonomous enclave of Germany.   The relationship between the Hanse and local merchants was sometimes strained.  In 1388, the following writ was issued in Westminster: “Whereas the merchants of … London … complained that the men of … Germany … arrested their servants and goods in … Stralsund, … the King commands the mayor and sheriffs of London to arrest all the men … of … Germany … in …   London  … , and to detain them until they … answer to such charges as may be made against them on behalf of the King …  ”.

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The Custom House was originally built at least as long ago as 1377, in Billingsgate, close to the centre of activity on the water-front, its purpose being to collect the duties payable on exports of wool, and subsequently rebuilt, following a fire, in 1559.   It was burned down in the Great Fire in 1666, and rebuilt yet again, by Christopher Wren, in 1668-71.  Wren’s building was destroyed in an explosion in 1714, and rebuilt by Thomas Ripley; and Ripley’s building in turn  burned down in another fire in 1814.   The present Custom House was built by David Laing in 1814-7; and rebuilt, following a partial collapse caused by the rotting of the beech-wood  foundation piles, by Robert Smirke in 1825.  Perhaps surprisingly, given its previous history, it survived the Blitz of the Second World War unscathed.  It is designed to be, and is, best viewed from the river than from the road. 

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Trades guilds, or Livery Companies,  began to be founded from the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries onwards,  possibly essentially as part of an attempt to control the freedom to trade at a time of comparative over-population and shortage of work.  The Livery Companies established working practices and standards.  In 1671, the Mayor’s Court in the  Guildhall ordered that defective spectacles discovered  in the possession of one Elizabeth Bagnall be “with a hammber broken all in pieces” by the Master of the Company of Spectacle-Makers “on the remaining parte of London Stone” (damaged  during the Great Fire five years earlier).  The Livery Companies also provided apprenticeships for members at the beginning of their working lives, and alms for those at the end of theirs.  The  twelve “Great” Livery Companies, whose coats-of-arms adorn the walls of the Great Hall of the Guildhall, are, in order of precedence, the Mercers’; Grocers’; Drapers’; Fishmongers’; Goldsmiths’; Skinners’; Merchant Taylors’; Haberdashers’; Salters’; Ironmongers’; Vintners’; and Clothworkers’.  The Skinners’ and Merchant Taylors’ each alternate between sixth and seventh in the order of precedence, in accordance with the “Billesdon Award”, a ruling made by the then-mayor, Robert Billesdon, in 1484,  to end their long-running dispute.  To this day, any such state of confusion is referred to as “sixes and sevens”.

Wealth and Poverty

As time went by, City traders grew rich, in some cases fabulously so.  In contrast, although some unskilled “working-class” people made money by supplying the demands of the burgeoning bourgeoisie for fancy goods and services, most remained steadfastly poor, and deprived of any real opportunity of social mobility.   There was never an equitable distribution or redistribution of wealth, although there was at least an informal  system of  charitable patronage and donation from the churches,  from other rich institutions such as the Livery Companies,  and from rich individuals, to the poor.  The rich burned wax candles; the poor, tallow (that is, rendered animal fat).  All would appear to have lived rather uneasily together.  Note, though, that there is a certain amount of evidence from tax records of concentrations of wealth in the wards in the centre of the  City, and of poverty in those around its margins, and without the walls, in both the Medieval and post-Medieval periods.

 

 

DARK AGE LONDON contd.

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History

Everyday life would have continued to revolve around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.

Saxon  women were granted some not inconsiderable freedoms in law, and although their principal responsibilities were household, they also held the rights to own land.

Religion

The early Saxons were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries onwards.

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In 597, Pope Gregory I sent a mission from Rome to attempt their wholesale conversion, one of the members of which was Augustine, and another Mellitus, which latter went on to become the first Bishop of London in 604, and the third Archbishop of Canterbury in 615.  In 616, the previously converted East Saxons temporarily  reverted to paganism, after the death of their King. As the Venerable Bede put it in 731, in his “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”): “In the year of our Lord 616 … the death of Sabert [Sebert], King of the East Saxons … left three sons, still pagans, to inherit his … crown.  They immediately began openly to give themselves up to idolatry, … and … granted free licence to their subjects to serve idols.  And when they saw the bishop [Mellitus] … celebrating Mass … , filled, as they were, with folly and ignorance, they said unto him … ‘We will not enter into that font, because we … do not stand in need of it, and yet we will be refreshed by that bread’.  And being … earnestly admonished by him, that this could by no means be done, nor would any one be admitted to partake of the sacred Oblation without the holy cleansing, …  they said, filled with rage, ‘If you will not comply with us in so small a matter as that which we require, you shall not stay in our province’.  And they drove him out … and his company … from their Kingdom [Essex] … ”.

The early Vikings were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from the ninth century onwards.

Food and Drink

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Evidence from finds from Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 25 kilometre  (16 mile) radius of the City,  indicates that the  agricultural economy centred on the production of cereal crops, including  wheat, barley, oats and rye, and of cattle, presumably for milk as well as meat. Pulses, nuts, fruit and berries were also produced and consumed.

Note in this context that plant- and animal- based remedies featured prominently in early Medieval medicine.  The Old English text in the mid tenth-century “Bald’s Leechbook” describes, among other things, how  salves  and potions were used to treat not only injuries and infections, but also, rather wonderfully, visitations from elves (aelfcynne), night goblins (nihtgehgan) and devils (deofol).   And the Old English and Latin text and accompanying illustrations in an anonymous early eleventh-century herbal indicate that both parsley (peterslilie) and sweet basil or “snake plant” (naedderwyrt) were used to treat snake bites.

Population

The population of Saxon London is estimated to have been at the most several thousand (that is, significantly less than that of Roman London).

Administration and Governance

Saxon London was for the most part only a  regional rather than a national administrative centre, as the “Seven Kingdoms” only finally  united to become England under Alfred’s grandson Athelstan in 924 (the “Seven Kingdoms”, also known as the  “Heptarchy”,  comprised East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex; of these, Essex, Mercia and Wessex in turn held  sway over London).  Nonetheless, it was the site of both the folkmoot, or outdoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval (St) Paul’s Cross;  and the husting or indoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval Guildhall.  Saxon society was comparatively democratic, and any free man  was entitled to voice his opinion at the folkmoot (and, as noted above, Saxon women were also granted some freedoms in law).  However, only a noble  ealdorman, or earl, appointed by the King could attend the husting,  and only Kings, greater nobles and bishops the peripatetic Witanagemot or Witan.    Saxon Society was also comparatively meritocratic,  and permissive of a measure of mobility, albeit within an overall  hierarchy (note that although Kings were elected, they  were elected from  within the ranks  of the nobility).  The highest among the free men were the thanes, or knights, the lowest the various classes of ceorls, or peasants (whence Cerle-ton or Charlton in south-east London).  Below them were the theows, or slaves.

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Perhaps the most famous law-giver of Saxon times was Alfred, who in the late 880s or early 890s established a new code of law, based on Christian principles, and enshrined in the so-called  “Domboc”.  The code established  folk-rights and privileges.  Judicial  courts ruled  on cases of alleged breaches, and meted  out such fines or corporal or capital punishments as were deemed appropriate.  Some of the punishments appear barbaric by modern standards, such as the possible judicial  drowning of a  Saxon woman whose skeleton has recently been excavated  at Queenhithe (by the mid-tenth century, a woman could be punished by drowning either for  theft, according to laws laid down between 924-39, or for witchcraft, as mentioned in a charter of 963-75).  That is not to mention the supposedly “oath-helping” Ordeals by Fire, Iron or Water!  Athelstan passed laws relating specifically to the governance of London in the succeeding early tenth century (he reigned from 924-39).  His “Judicia Civitatis Londoniae” makes explicit reference to a governance structure comprising a single governor, or in effect a mayor (in place of a bishop and port-reeve), “eorlish” aldermen, and “ceorlish” commons.

Trade and Commerce

Foodstuffs continued to be brought into Saxon  London from the immediate hinterland.  Other goods continued to be  brought in    by boat from all around northern Europe, including the Low Countries and Scandinavia, and also, in the case of precious stones, gold, silk and other luxuries, even further afield.

ROMAN LONDON contd.

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History

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Everyday life in London in Roman – as indeed in all other – times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.

Religion

The predominant religion during the early part of the Roman occupation was pantheistic paganism, which perceived deities in all things, abstract as well as tangible; and during the later part, Christianity.  The principal funerary rite was cremation, although this later gave way to inhumation.  Remains were typically buried outside the city limits, for example, just outside Aldgate, Bishopsgate, or Newgate, or beside the Walbrook in Moorfields, or on the south side of the Thames in Southwark.  One particular fourth-century Roman woman was buried in Spitalfields, just outside Bishopsgate, in a decorated lead coffin inside a plain stone sarcophagus, resting on a bed of laurel leaves, shrouded in damask silk interwoven with gold thread, covered in an Imperial Purple robe, and accompanied by  further high-status grave goods, including delicately wrought  glass vials that once contained oil, perfume, and possibly wine,  and a carved jet box and hair-pins.  Isotopic evidence  from her teeth indicates that she may actually have come from the imperial capital of Rome itself.  A facial reconstruction of her can be seen in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London.  Interestingly, at least one woman buried in the southern cemetery in Southwark has been determined on morphometric and isotopic evidence to have been  of Black African origin.  And a further two individuals  buried in  Southwark have been determined to have  come from  the Han Empire in what is now China.

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Mithraism, the practice and mystery cult of worship of the god Mithras, was one of the many forms of paganism evidently  in existence  in Roman London, where there was  a  dedicated Temple of Mithras, or Mithraeum.   It originated in Persia, where Mithras was one of many gods in the Zoroastrian pantheon, arrived in Rome in the first century BC/BCE, and spread throughout much of the Roman Empire by the first century AD/CE, becoming most widespread in the third.  According to the Roman version of the MIthraean creation-myth, Mithras was ordered by the god of the Sun, Apollo, to slay the bull of the Moon, to release its vital-force, in order to bring life to the Earth (carved reliefs of the bull-slaying – or “tauroctony” – are  characteristic  features of Mithraean iconography).  He   eventually came to be identified with the Sol Invictus, or Unconquered Sun, and to epitomise the moral virtues of fidelity, loyalty and obedience (whence, presumably, his supposed popularity with Roman soldiers).  As intimated above, Mithraism was practised in dedicated Mithraea,  each representing the heavens, with stars and zodiacal symbols painted on the ceilings.  Many Mithraea, including that in London, were at least partly underground, because Mithras slew the  bull underground (in a cave).

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Christianity arrived in the late Roman period, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312, and the passage of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of Christianity,  in 313 (at least one representative from Londinium, named Restitutus, attended the Christian Council of Arles in 314).    There is little surviving evidence of Christian worship in Roman London, and less of the existence of Christian places of worship.  However, a metal bowl inscribed with the Christian “Chi-Rho” symbol has been found in Copthall Close in the City, and in the River Walbrook; and a number of ingots also inscribed with the “Chi-Rho” symbol,  together with the words “Spes in Deo” (Hope in God), in the River Thames near Battersea Bridge.

Food and Drink

The diet of the average citizen of Roman London would appear to have been a surprisingly healthy one.  There were evidently numerous shops both within the Forum and lining the roads leading to and from it, where all manner of imported as well as locally produced foodstuffs could be bought, including olives, olive oil, wine, grape juice, dates, figs, salted fish and fish sauce, from all around the Empire.  The remains of a   bakery and hot food shop  have been unearthed on Poultry; those of further bakeries on Pudding Lane and Fenchurch Street; and those of a    mill on Princes Street.   The remains of two  “water-lifting machines”, one of 63 and the other of 110, have been unearthed on Gresham Street; and those of a system of water pipes on Poultry.

Sanitary conditions were also conducive to good public health.  There were numerous bath-houses intended for daily use, for example, public  ones on Cheapside and Huggin Hill, dating to the late first or early second century; and a private one in Billingsgate, dating to the late second to third.  There was even a rudimentary drainage and sewerage system.

Population

The population of Roman London is estimated to have been at most a few tens of thousands, essentially the same as that of Pompeii, a provincial town in Italy.  In contrast, that of the coeval imperial capital, Rome itself, was of the order of one million.

Administration and Governance

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The province of Britannia was governed centrally  from Rome, and neither it nor its provincial capitals, including London, had much in the way of locally devolved power.  Nonetheless, Londinium  had become a comparatively important administrative centre by the turn of the first and second centuries.  Its principal public building, possibly the largest north of the Alps, was the Basilica.  Also here was the “Governor’s Palace”.

Trade and Commerce

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Roman London  was more important as a  commercial and trading centre, with the port at its heart.  Tiles stamped CLBR have been found in London, suggesting at least some link between the port and the  Classis Britannica or “British fleet”, which was the part of the  Roman imperial navy  responsible for  supplying the Province of Britannia with personnel and materiel.  Foodstuffs  were brought into the port-city  by boat from all around the Empire, in pottery “amphorae”.  Pottery, notably “Samian Ware” was also brought in from what is now France (and was then Gaul); brooches from Belgium; amber from the Baltic; millstones from the Rhineland; decorative marble, bronze table-ware and lamps from Italy; marble also from Greece  and Turkey; glassware from Syria; and emeralds from Egypt.  Slaves were also brought into London, to be sold at markets like those known to have existed on the water-front, and then put  to work (in the worst cases, either effectively as draught-animals, for example, turning water-wheels; or else as concubines or prostitutes).  A recently-discovered writing tablet of c. 80 records the sale of a Gaulish slave-girl called Fortunata – “warranted healthy and not liable too run away” – to a senior imperial slave called Vegetus  for 600 denarii.  This was a substantial sum, approximately equivalent to two year’s wages for a skilled labourer.