Many thanks to Chris Pickvance for this guest post on the furniture of the middling sort. You can hear Chris talk the team through a “middling” style chair in the video at the end of this post…You can also read more about furniture of this and other periods at the Regional Furniture Society.
In an ideal world (for researchers) there would be a close correspondence between household social status and domestic furniture. Higher status households would have greater incomes or wealth and be living in larger houses with more specialized rooms. They would thus have furniture of higher quality and of more varied types. In practice, life styles are not only influenced by means. Large houses can mean more ‘old’ furniture is preserved, for example because inherited ‘family’ furniture is valued, or because old pieces are relegated to servants’ quarters or outbuildings. Moreover, norms can differ among households in the same economic position.
In the 1560-1660 period, furniture was mainly made of solid oak; veneer arrived later. Imported and exotic woods became available in small quantities or through chance purchases as trade routes extended to Asia and the Americas. Cypress and juniper chests were also imported and survive in considerable numbers. Decoration took the form of work on the surface: primarily various forms of carving, to a small extent stain or paint, and the introduction of inlay.
Applying this approach to the ‘middling sort’ is not straightforward. As Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson write in A Day at Home in Early Modern England, this group is defined more by its social status (they ‘held social positions that bestowed a certain superiority within their local contexts’) than by a shared economic position (‘they might be moderately to exceptionally wealthy’) (p.9). It follows that their furniture preferences were shaped by local as well as national influences rather than being invariant across localities.
This is consistent with the evidence of diversity. On the one hand, the furniture that survives from the 1560-1660 period is likely to over-represent the furniture of the middling sort and upper classes; lower quality and less durable furniture is intrinsically less likely to survive, and in so far as furniture enters the market, pieces that are less appealing to later users, including collectors, are less likely to survive. One can thus conclude that the furniture of the middling sort constitutes a major part of what survives today from this period.
Motifs, Techniques and Region
On the other hand, while renaissance motifs such as fluting, guilloche, scrolling and gadrooning were taken up nationally, in most regions they were combined with local favorites, e.g. the ‘worm’ and Celtic interlace in the Lake District, dragons in Cheshire, Wales and the Borders, the ‘domino’ in Wiltshire and the ‘eye’ in Wiltshire and Dorset. Dates, initials and, occasionally, couples’ names were popular features on carved press cupboards, chests and armchairs in Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Cumbria. East Anglia was particularly open to Flemish renaissance influence, and Scotland and the South West to French renaissance influence.
Carved work covered a range of techniques. The simplest was incising produced by a V-tool, which led to ‘outline’ designs which left most of the surface intact, as in Dorset and Devon, where it was combined with paint or stain on boarded pieces. The most common type of carving dug deeper into the surface of the oak to produce recurrent patterns such as guilloche, and needed greater skill. Indeed, combinations of these stock patterns were the main feature of English carved furniture. Relief carving was rare and limited to adornments such as sculptural terminal figures, whereas on the Continent furniture with sculpted scenes could be found.
As well as carving, fine rectilinear inlay using contrasting woods arrived in the middle to late Elizabethan period, brought by German and Flemish migrant craftsmen, initially in the most costly furniture. Floral inlay followed soon after and remained popular in Yorkshire armchairs, press cupboards and chests till late in the 17th century.
On the other hand, punched work was used as a background to a main design, as a decorative element in it, or to fill secondary spaces.
Other techniques included the use of mastic to add contrast to incised designs, as on this armchair.
It cannot, however, be concluded that those frame and panelled chests and panel back armchairs which lack carving on their panels were therefore made for lower status social groups. Such groups sat on stools, not panel back armchairs of any type, and their chests are most likely to have been of the simple ‘six plank’ boarded type which could also serve as benches. Rather, plain panels indicate the range of variation within the furniture of the middling sort. Finally, the century in question saw a great expansion in furniture ownership and all aspects of domestic comfort, so statements about furniture need to be qualified by reference to time and place as well as social status.
A common misconception when thinking about those below the level of the elite is that the majority were completely illiterate, with no reading or writing ability whatsoever. Many of those at the centre of Middling Culture were indeed literate, though the extent and nature of their literacy varied. It’s a complex issue, as people learnt to read before writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so just because someone leaves no trace of writing (e.g. a signature) does not mean that they could not read. Equally, “illiteracy” would not preclude a person from reciting a well-known story, recognising an image including Biblical figures, or understanding a street sign or coat of arms (Tara Hamling is going to address visual literacy in a future post). Literacy mattered to people: for instance, an abused apprentice in Bristol was ordered in 1621 to be sent to school ‘for the space of five yeeres together to learne to write & read Englishe’–demonstrating that not giving a middling child apprenticed to a trade a chance at schooling could be considered a form of mistreatment.
It is, however, very difficult to know exactly how many people had some form of literacy, with David Cressy’s signature-counting study being the most extensive exploration of ability to write in early modern England. Cressy found a clear upward trajectory in terms of the number of people able to sign their name in witness statements. It is very hard to understand the scale of literacy during the period and to properly assess where people fell on it: someone who could read the Lord’s Prayer and recognise the letters of an alphabet would have a very different kind of literacy to someone who could draw up a simple account, note, or basic will, and they, in turn, possess a different kind of literacy to someone like Shakespeare. Yet all of these people might be of a similar social status. Access to some means of learning to read and write from a parent, school, acquaintance, or at church, would be essential to a person’s literacy, and during the late sixteenth century new free schools and grammar schools were set up to facilitate a growing drive for reading and writing. Many of the boys which came through these schools would go on to occupy trades, hold positions of office, and maybe even become clerks or other kinds of administrators for corporations or parish churches and then create the records we use for our research.
When we think of Shakespeare, therefore, his literacy has to be seen in the context of his family – his father, John, who rose through the ranks of the Stratford Corporation and became wealthy, but who left no trace of an ability to write, and his mother, who was from a wealthy farming family. John Shakespeare clearly reaped the benefits of legal knowledge thanks to his positions of office, and the family had the wealth to allow William the time to go to school and learn to read and write to a high level. In fact, for many tradespeople an ability to read and write was beneficial to their business, from accounting to buying books that inspired aesthetic choices in performances of craft. As such, it is unsurprising that many people of Shakespeare’s status display a range of literate practices in their work or in the documents they leave behind. An example from one of our case study areas, Bristol, is the inventory of William Gethen, composed on the 7th June 1597. He self-authors an inventory of his belongings kept in two chests within the widow’s house he is lodging in, declaring that it is ‘p[er] me William Gethen his in[c]ke’ before leaving Bristol to go on an adventure with one Thomas Vaure. Although he does not state his occupation, he is probably a middling merchant, and many of his belongings are items he has gathered from various places, including a Flemish chest full of ‘writings’. In writing his own inventory in preparation for sailing, Gethen demonstrates the means to which an individual might put their literacy. Contemporary culture, particularly in looking to the past, often engenders a Two Cultures mind set between those engaged in reading and writing and those who occupying practical pursuits. In reality, these divisions do not play out in practice, and they can prevent our appreciation of the ways skill, knowledge, craft, and literacy interact across many fields.
The Beckhams of Salisbury
To give an example of a family who display various kinds of literacy and who are of middling status, making their money through the craft of joinery-work, let’s take a trip to seventeenth-century Salisbury to meet the Beckhams.
John and Humphrey are the two eldest brothers in the Beckham family and those who appear most frequently in the records. They grew up on the east side of Catherine Street in the parish of St. Thomas in a large house complete with warehouses with their joiner father Raynold, mother Mary, five brothers and three sisters (ten children in all). In the decades and centuries after his death, Humphrey became quite a famous joiner, with chairs attributed to his workshop by their carved crests. Accounts of his life, however, often describe him as illiterate:
Beckham’s learning reached no further than being able to read the Testament or Psalms, so that want of money added to other circumstances precluded him from all improvement [instead he spent his youth] gazing at the Statue of Henry III in a niche over the Arch of the close gate. ‘Tis very extraordinary what an impression this statue made on Beckham’s mind, he contemplated it from his infancy, and formed his works to that model as nearly as possible.
This 1777 antiquarian account gives the sense that Beckham had no time for reading and writing because he was needed to aid his family’s financial situation and, anyway, he was too busy becoming an extraordinary joiner. But it is worth pausing to ask just how illiterate was Humphrey? After all, he is most famous for a spectacular carved panel in St Thomas’ church which displays Old Testament narratives in great detail.
The written record of the family clearly contests the antiquarian sources about the Beckhams’ literacy level and, as a family, they really were not very poor (though also not very rich), with Humphrey’s inventoried wealth equalling almost £190 at the time of his death (at the good age of 83). There was also a free school right round the corner from the Beckham household situated in The George Inn. It operated from 1590-1624, perfectly timed for Humphrey and his brothers’ schooling. Furthermore, Humphrey and his youngest brother Benjamin were literate enough to appraise John’s inventory in 1645, and Humphrey also witnessed the will of John Young, another Salisbury joiner, in 1618, and on both documents he was able to fully sign his name. Humphrey’s inventory also mentions that he owned ‘books’ to the value of 5s, a desk, and a coffer: a clear indication that he read and also conducted some writing at home.
Humphrey’s writing practices might also be hinted at in a note made in St Thomas’ Church vestry minutes, which record how, on 14th January 1660:
Although it is not clear here whether Humphrey is the author of this note, from his clear signatures and presence of a desk in his home, it seems he would have likely been capable of writing it. As such, Humphrey’s literacy allows him to use writing for practical means – in this case to create a memoranda so that the church vestry pay him for work completed.
John Beckham’s Will
John Beckham’s will of 1645 offers a powerful case study to conclude this exploration of seventeenth-century Salisbury’s middling artisans and literacy. John was the eldest Beckham brother, and his original will is signed by his brothers William and Benjamin as well as himself. It is idiosyncratically written, with minimal preamble (‘I John Beckham dooe make my laste will and testament I bequeath my soule in to the handes of the allmightie ^god my maker^ and my body to the earth’) followed by a list of bequests, complete with lots of crossings out and additions.  The ink is unevenly distributed across the page and content gets closer together the less space there is to write, suggesting someone not all that practised at writing a will. Although the scribe might not have been John, Benjamin or William, from their signatures it seems they all would have had the literacy to write this kind of will. The inventory, taken by Humphrey and Benjamin, is in the same hand as the will, perhaps narrowing the scribe down to Benjamin, who appears on both documents, but it does not necessarily mean that Humphrey could not have written it too. If one of the Beckham brothers did write this will, however, it gives us an insight into the uses literacy could be put to at a middling level – to create legal records and a written legacy of the goods and chattels of an individual.
The Beckhams’ Cultural Awareness
Beyond Humphrey Beckham’s panel, which demonstrates acute awareness of Biblical narratives and printed iconography, Benjamin, the youngest brother, also seems to show an interest in a wider textual world. Benjamin bequeaths to his tenant, one William Spencer: ‘one picture of Mary Magdalen one picture of King James one picture of King Charles and one booke which he shall make choise’. These bequests give an insight into the historical interests of Benjamin, with his portraits of past Kings and devotional imagery in the form of an image of Mary Magdalen within his house. Perhaps these interests were shared by his family, to whom he remained close to throughout his life, as illustrated by the brothers’ bequests to one another, witnessing of legal documents and provision of sureties for each others’ debts.
When assessing what it means to be “literate” among early modern England’s middling sort, it is easy to be swayed by arguments about artisans not learning to read and write, being so dedicated to their craft. But, from the example of the Beckhams, and indeed Shakespeare, it is clear that this was not always the case. With the number of schools rising in urban areas, it boys in towns would have likely been able to access education if their parents could spare children from the family’s means of financial production. Equally, not being literate, in the sense of being unable to read and write, did not mean that people would not have been deeply engaged in pervasive networks of literacy, able to recite stories, recognise images from popular texts, or sing ballads or rhymes.
 David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1 (1977) and Literacy and the Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
 A particularly well-documented school is Shakespeare’s school in Stratford-Upon-Avon. See: Ian Green, “More Polite Learning”: Humanism and the New Grammar School’, in The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford (Ashgate, 2012), pp.73-97.
David Fallow, ‘His Father John Shakespeare’, The Shakespeare Circle (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), p.37.
 Bristol Records Office, EP J/4/18, Bundle 1542-1601, William Gethen.
 Edward Ledwich and Walter Pope, Sarisburienses: Or, The History and Antiquaries of Old and New Sarum (1777), p.211.
In Rubbish Theory, Michael Thompson argues that there are three kinds of value categories: ‘transient’ or ‘here today, gone tomorrow’; ‘durable’ or ‘a joy forever’; and rubbish. Things can move between categories, with a bottle thrown away at its time of use becoming a collectable or a ring that slipped from the finger five hundred years ago ending up on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and revalued. Mudlarking, when the term was first in use, was used to describe those who scavenged for valuable goods in rivers and sewers, sifting through rubbish for a lump of coal or dropped coin. Since our trip with the Thames Discovery Programme, I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments and waste – what do we do with them? What do they tell us about middling culture?
Mudlarking finds that make the news are those, we realised, that are both hard to find for the untrained eye and rare compared to the vast quantities of glass, pottery shards, single-use plastic and bones that litter the foreshore. What we found was an abundance of fragments. Little pieces of clay pipe, bottle necks, terracotta pipe pieces and cow teeth. The waste of London: building debris and stuff that had washed down to the river from layers of construction work. These pieces were very had to judge: how old were they? What object did they form part of? Where are they from? All of these questions we largely saved until the end, going by our individual eye for colour and shape, with most of us ending up with a homogeneous selection of fragments we judged to be old or pretty.
These fragments are, in many ways, a useful way of thinking about evidence in archives as well as in archaeology, museums and collections, and the way in which it is coming together in this project to narrate hidden histories. Often, we might only have a small quantity of information about a person or object: a record of a parish clerk and his activities in the churchwardens’ accounts, but no will, inventory, baptism or marriage record; houses destroyed in war, renovation or fire; objects without a clear idea of where they come from. It’s the threading of a multitude of material and textual fragments together, which build a sense of cultural lives. So this trip taught us to look more closely at the broken things, those pieces of objects that might have formed part of a middling person’s tableware, like the olive-green glazed borderware pieces we found in abundance.
These small pottery fragments, when found in such plenty, also point to a hidden archive of things that were not necessarily treasured for long, and which had a lifetime dictated by their fragility or style. These ceramic and glass fragments reveal an archive of broken things that are not often recorded and are part of the everyday, non-expensive but also indispensable, objects that appear in-use in recipes or literature. The items we uncovered are those we most frequently overlook. Some things, as Michael Thompson argues, are ‘transient’; they are bought for a particular purpose, then disposed of, break or decay. Yet, when we pick up these pieces of pottery, we start to revalue them as important to understanding past activities.
Another aspect of material culture the Thames foreshore confronted us with was dispossessed objects. What do you do with something that cannot be traced to a specific place, person or even an object? There were so many layers of broken things that had been washed up, and a great swathe were still being washed down river. Where did they come from? Did they come from a dump, from a commercial context like a potter or butcher, or from someone’s home? Does this change how we might read them as deposits? One of the beautiful things about mudlarking is that the river dictates the travel of fragments downstream, depositing by the weight of the materials, so doing its own sorting. As such, it was difficult to read the journeys of the things we picked up, with fragments of pipes seeming as alien as bits of delftware. In many ways, a lot of research is an exercise in re-homing the displaced: thinking about the original composition of a rebound manuscript in an archive, placing a letter alongside a portrait, or imagining a silver spoon in someone’s hand. The foreshore presents a challenge in judgment when thinking about provenance because there is just so much, and every piece could be read as a valuable fragment of evidence for craft practices, industry, tools and use, aesthetic taste, or leisure activities.
The river’s waste is fascinatingly revalued through mudlarking, and some items are lifted out of obscurity and carefully recorded. But another thing about these fragments is their geographical particularity. All of the rivers’ deposits have arrived into, been consumed or dumped within the Thames. Although this is a very large area, it struck me how mudlarking often seems to be a London-focused activity. It would be fascinating to know of people doing similar activities elsewhere in the UK, and to know how deposits in the Thames compare to other rivers. This experience has been an invaluable exercise in thinking about fragments and their implications, methodologically and practically, and also how they relate to middling lives, where individuals and objects might appear dispersed across documents, spaces and things.
This blog introduces a new series of posts related to Middling Culture research: Media Moments. These posts will provide short “glimpses” into topics that relate to ordinary, everyday lives in early modern England under the scope of this project, from keywords to documentation to objects and images. This post begins the series by considering early modern Bristol’s civic accounts, which are presented in the surviving yearly audits made by the Chamberlain (now held at Bristol Archives).
In that sense, auditors’ scrutiny of today’s businesses shares an affinity with historians’ interrogation of the past—its successes and its failures; the lessons to be learned and the stories that are sometimes obscured, eclipsed, or simply hidden from sight. One central source for anyone approaching such “big theme” issues is to look at the finances behind both individuals and communities—and to consider the different stories they might tell. Such work is unsurprisingly at the centre of a range of historiographic traditions, not least economic history. The growth of early modern material culture studies over the past thirty years or so has also led to focus on sources such as personal account books, wills, and inventories. Each of these sources is built from descriptions, quantities, and prices and they offer insight not only into the development of local and national economies but into issues as various as individual wealth, domestic interiors, personal networks, and the circulation of the paper on which such details are written—the life of the material text itself. In Hugh Oldcastle’s words, from 1588, such sources are “used and compiled of many things.”[i]
It is with these several strands in mind that I approached the financial statements of early modern Bristol from the 1550s to 1620.
Each year, the city’s Mayor commissioned an audit of its accounts by its Chamberlain. They begin with the yearly rents of property owned by the Corporation, which include a range of houses, tenements, and shops across the centre of the city. They go on to detail the fees and dues paid by the Council for various obligations and debts and then list the individuals made “free” of the city (i.e. those given the licence to practice their trade there) either by apprenticeship of usually 7 years, or otherwise by marriage to a freeman’s widow or daughter, by having a prominent father, or by “redemption”—permission granted at a fee by the Council. All of those made free here are men, but a number of those training apprentices are women. Perhaps the richest vein in these yearly audits is the general payments: these include expenditure per week and range from substantial building work at the quayside or marsh or reparations on Council-owned buildings to money for horse hire and travel, gifts for visiting noblemen, or cleaning and gilding done on the swords and guns belonging to the Council and its members or officeholders.
These documents can help create and shape historical narrative and they offer some insight into “ordinary” business and the men and women involved—often otherwise obscured. It is here where many of those in the middle sections of society—and those “below” (i.e. unnamed labourers, “a poore woman [paid] for keeping clean the house of office and the watering place at the Guildhall door” (F/AU/1/15, p. 216 )—lie recorded in acts that range from the mundane (cleaning the sewers) to the sensational (piratical escape and capture). In part, these sources provide a useful chance to understand more about what might define “ordinary” or “middling” identity: not only do a number of figures here receive regular, substantial income from their work (therefore providing economic indicators of status), they also occupy positions of distinction within the community—as officeholders, as people shaping the material life of the city, as key suppliers of materials (including stationery, furniture, or arms) for civic administration and display; or as senior employers in the building, painting, stationery, or leisure industries. The remainder of this blog offers some glimpses into how entries in these audits can bring questions of middling culture, and the writing of history more broadly, to the surface.
Accounting for the Past: Bristol’s Audits, 1550-1620
A number of “ordinary” individuals are preserved in the record only thanks to their civic contract work as recorded here. Some of these were clearly substantial business people in Bristol society, regularly contracted for major infrastructure works by the Council across decades—but a number of these cannot (as yet) be found in other record sources (including marriage, birth or death records), outside these audits.
Others in the labouring class also play significant roles in Council business. In 1578, the Council paid “William Savage a labourer for going on foot to the Court to Greenwich to deliver a letter sent from Mr Mayor to the body of the Council touching a letter which was received from my Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sydney touching the intent of Stewckley” (F/AU/1/11, p. 225)—a reference to the notorious English mercenary, Thomas Stukeley, killed later that year during The Battle of Alcazar in Morocco (who proved valuable fodder for stage plays across the following decades). Savage’s postal duties show an interesting breadth of opportunities available to the “labourer” and indicate a civic “honour” or office that may have conferred status or distinction upon a non-elite worker. Other such offices were occupied by the likes of prolific mason Thomas Barwell, a regular payee for a range of “subcontracted” work for the city, who was also one of Bristol’s “surveyors”: those responsible for assessing building work and the safety and integrity of existing or proposed structures.
In 1600, the Council paid one Widow Phippes “for painting the City’s Arms upon the new Conduit at the quay and for gold and other Colours” (F/AU/1/15, p. 84). The entry testifies to the significant role that women played not only in the local economy but in inscribing civic identity into the city—here via her craft as a painter. Presumably, Phippes must have been highly adept at her profession to gain this commission, and her family were also painters: in 1608, Morgan Phippes was made free thanks to his apprenticeship with one John Phippes in this trade; according to the Early Modern British Painters Database, (another) John Phippes (d. 1583, and perhaps Widow Phippes’s late husband) was also commissioned for work on Bristol’s gates. This tiny glimpse into the Phippes’ suggests a small family dynasty of creatives, working in a period in England when “painting” was largely considered practical manual labour, but during which its status as a noble artistic pursuit was slowly gaining traction.
The bittiness of historical accounting documents means that, by their nature, they offer partial records of acts and exchanges and not discrete or rounded wholes. As I have explored elsewhere with regard to theatre history, this scrappiness can be embraced as an inherent part of early modern bureaucracy and honoured in our analysis of the past. Entries such as
Item paid for a book of large paper of 4 quires for the Tolsey covered with calfskin vellum, bought it of John Pacie and delivered to Mr Pacie — 4 shillings (F/AU/1/11, )
Item paid for taking down the stained cloths at the Tolsey — 4 pence (F/AU/1/18, p. 172 )
represent the fullness of a particular type of record. The challenge, especially for a project such as ours, is how to preserve that spirit of story-less “scrap” while building around it a broader picture of social networks, material objects (in particular extant ones), and other markers of social and cultural status. Part of the aim of this project is to gain a more holistic sense of the lives of “middling” individuals by looking at the fullness of their lived experience, in order to do as much justice as possible to those lives for whom we do have various “scrappy” surviving records but who are not always popularly at the centre of the stories we tell about the Tudor or Stuart period.
Among the more surprising features of these accounts are the instances where the Chamberlain bursts into fine storytelling form. Take this series of “pirate” entries from 1577:
Item paid for the charges of a man sent to London at the appointment of Mr Mayor and of the Aldermen to obtain a special Commission for to arraign the Pirates, wherein a gentleman of the new Inn of Chancery took pains therein, wherein also William winter gave his good will, but my Lord Admiral would not agree to it, the charges of the said journey cost: 16 shillings…
[…] Item paid to Henry Robertes for a charge of Pursuing the pirates by the Flyboat whereby the said Pirates were forced to the shore, near Steart in the County of Somerset, whereby 4 of them were apprehended, whereof three were executed and one was saved by his book, and were arraigned by the Commission of Oyer and determiner for that the fact is felony by statute law, the which charges were examined by Mr Mayor and the Aldermen and amount to 12£
[…] Item paid to John Baton carpenter for 2 days’ work to frame timber for a pair of Gallows to be set up in Canning marsh, for the executing of 3 Pirates, which were condemned, who were of that company that stole a bark of Dongarvan out of the 6 rock and Pill of 30 Ton and went away with her, which being pursued by my Lord of Leicester’s flyboat, furnished with 60 persons well-armed, was forced to come a land near Steart, where the pirates fled, at 12 pence per day… (F/AU/1/11, pp. 164-65)
Not only do these entries preserve details about the pirates’ theft of a boat and their sensational capture by the Lord of Leicester’s man, who gave chase and ran them aground in Somerset, but they also record the mundane, the banal. In the stories of these anonymous pirates, the quotidian and the sensational come together, and the picture of John Baton engaged in 2 days’ work constructing a gallows that will kill 3 men provides a sobering reminder that all of these payments—some more significantly (and irreversibly) than others—have material consequences for the men and women involved.
The payments in these audits witness Bristolians carrying out major acts of cultural construction. They build inexpensive gallows to execute pirates but they also rebuild and repair leisure infrastructure or “new build” the legal and administrative hubs of the city in the Tolzey and the Guildhall. They paint the City arms on its new water fountains. Each of these acts—and a surprising number of their actors—would have been entirely lost to posterity but for the survival of these meticulous audits. As such, they testify to both the possibilities and limits of historical narrative; they present self-contained scraps of banal, brilliant, or tantalising detail, snapshots of action and activity across early modern Bristol.
On the broadest level, then, “auditing” the historical city by taking into account the fullest scope of records such as these is a fruitful and important way of recovering what we might mean by the loaded term “ordinariness” in the archives, identifying and exploring the lives of people whose names would be otherwise forgotten yet whose labours are inscribed into the fabric of the city.
In the second chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, the novel’s elusive journalist imagines what would be discovered when Istanbul’s Bosphorus dries up: “Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic liners that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As [a] new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud. […]” (17).
Today, London’s Thames affords the mudlarkers on its banks a similar, less apocalyptic, vision. Down on the foreshore countless shards and specks of ceramic and clay pipes roll back and forth in the wash, bearing witness to last meals and first smokes.
A licence is required in order to “mudlark” (in short, to search for items), and we were covered by the TDP’s licence; they do guided Thames walks like these, if anybody is interested in joining in. We combed the foreshore between here and the eerie, prehistoric place of Queenhithe: home to Tudor ships lading and unlading, Anglo Saxon burial mounds, and the crumbling ruins of the Roman city. It’s a registered ancient monument (and so searching is not permitted in this stretch of shore), and it’s intriguing to think of this stretch of inclining shore as one of the most enduring structural features of London, visible and valuable across millennia.
Most astonishing about this experience was the immediacy and quantity of finds, in particular clay pipes. We’d found four of these within minutes of descending the stairs underneath the Millennium Bridge: the expanse is littered chiefly with the stems of the pipes, ranging from bone thin to more solid, rudimentary constructions. Among the rocks and detritus are also a number of the bowls that form the end of the pipes.
Also widely scattered about are fragments of pottery from various centuries—small shards in the shadow of the Shard. Most of what we discovered dated from between the medieval and twentieth century (with the layers of packed riverbed no doubt containing older treasures). It included delftware from the seventeenth century, glazed border ware—that distinctive English pottery from medieval and early modern London—and varieties of transfer ceramics and mass-produced items from the nineteenth century.
As exciting as the tangible objects themselves was seeing the river swell in and out and bring with each wave of a passing Thames Clipper an eddy of floating clay pipes and flecks of ceramic. It was a surprising vision of a river teeming with layers of history, and it prompted a reminder of the serendipity of historical investigation and the accidental gifts of an archive like the Thames. Like an archive, the river and its holdings are curated and preserved and contain centuries of labour. We were directed to the narrative of the river wall, for instance, which marks the different layers of flood defence built one on top of the other, concrete on brick on stone on sand; some 150 metres further back—up towards St Paul’s Cathedral—begins the Roman foreshore. All the ground beneath the tube station and the river’s edge is an expanse of ancient and ongoing embankment work, encroaching on and trying to contain the city’s principal feature.
To the untrained eye, the experience also tests value judgements and aesthetic principles. What assumptions underlay my guesswork about whether this shard was “old enough” or that decoration handmade or mass-produced? Some of the more striking ceramic artefacts were the common borderware from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, whose vivid green sheen caught the eye more than equally functional Victorian pottery or twentieth century China (or plastic margerine lids). We were rightly warned to be careful of modern sewage items—things flushed down the toilet; but the early modern privy and, for instance, the sewer infrastructure of sixteenth-century Southwark are areas of historical fascination (hopefully not just for me!). How might we think about the layers of “ordinary” objects swilling around right now in the Thames, the dress hooks or trade tokens or drinking vessels used and exchanged by the individuals who are the focus of this project?
When the Thames dries up, amid the doomsday chaos, alongside bottle caps and seaweed what diverse debris from the early modern everyday will we recover—and what should we be looking for in the meantime?
This exploration of early modern skill in handwriting comes from Hannah Lilley, who joins the project as a Postdoctoral Research Associate this month and is based at the University of Birmingham.
first post for this blog approaches one of the project’s keywords: skill. This
term, and how to interpret it, is something I’ve been thinking about over the
course of my PhD on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scribes writing for a
living and their material, spatial and social practices. Although skill can be
read into any number of activities, I’m going to focus on writing, specifically
handwriting. Literacy ‘as learned and embodied skill, and as a site of cultural
connection’ has already been established in a previous post as a ‘mark of middling
status’, alongside other activities. Knowing how to write could lead to gaining
office and entry into administrative roles, and many of those middling sorts
emerging for this project are those with the literacy to participate in record
creation (though this could be artisanal, in the form of craft and the material
record, as well as textually…).
What is it?
OED defines skill in multiple ways,
including: ‘to have discrimination or knowledge […] in a specified matter’ (5a)
and to possess ‘capability of accomplishing something with precision and
certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness,
expertness. Also an ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with
These definitions establish skill as a term that can be applied to any number
of activities: from baking to walking to storytelling to shopping. What is
clear is that skill is usually applied positively to denote someone who has
spent time learning, honing and practising an activity to develop the
‘discrimination’ or ‘knowledge’ to be perceived as holding expertise. Outside
perception and judgement is essential to an understanding of a person as
skilled, and this could take place in a commercial transaction – when
commissioning work or buying a product, for example – or through sharing space
with a person performing a task.
are, however, multiple methodological issues when it comes to discussing skill.
is expressed through action and so it might be difficult for the actor to
verbalise how they do a task/ it does not need to be passed on in writing or
definition rests on those perceiving the result of an action as practised and,
as such, is subjective and dependent on multiple factors such as: age, gender,
geographical location, education, and purpose. Skill is also entwined with
moral, political and economic value judgements.
factors could play a role in its development/ expression: access to materials,
spaces, and social networks.
thinking about these issues and handwriting, then, here are a few questions (of
many) that come up, and I’m going to think about a couple of them later in this
How is skill individual and how is it
How might it be local or national?
What role does gender or social status
have on perception of handwriting skill?/ Can we describe a skill as being
How does it develop within different
spaces (workshops, homes, classrooms etc.)?
How might perceptions of practical skill
be entwined with abstract concepts?
How can practice be interpreted?
Interpreting Practice Using Image
One of the methods I’ve been using to explore questions around individual and social skill in handwriting is a digital approach called Image Processing, alongside a digital forensic handwriting analysis expert Dr Richard Guest. Although this is preliminary research with regards to using Image Processing to analyse sixteenth- and seventeenth-century handwriting practices, it does show promise as a means of exploring similarities and differences between demographic groups of scribes as well as between individuals. I used letterforms as a means of comparison (imperfect, but a good way of seeing whether the method works before moving onto full words) and some interesting interpretations of handwriting practice came out of the data.
give a brief example, one of the experiments was on clerks working in the
Kentish town of Lydd 1560-1640. I looked at how their handwriting practices
changed over the period and thought about how this relates to changing
perceptions of what constitutes handwriting skill in the town at this time. The
examples below are from some of the simpler measurements applied to the
letterforms – area and perimeter – and the charts show both the median and mean
One to Four are brief examples showing a clear change in handwriting practices
in Lydd across the period, with the majuscules for the earliest three clerks
having mean and median values that far exceed the measurements for the later
three clerks, meaning that the three earlier clerks are using much larger
letterforms. This demonstrates a change in attitude towards letterform size
over the late sixteenth into the early seventeenth century and is one example
of how we might think about practical skill as being social. Collectively, the clerks in Lydd show a trend towards
smaller letterforms. Furthermore, these clerks are all of middling status,
literate and play an important role in their corporation. Skill at writing has
enabled them to become part of their community’s record creation. There is more
to be done here, and more in my recently completed thesis – but this is just a
glimpse into how a digital method can be used to approach non-verbalised
Moralising Handwriting Skill
aesthetic expectations for handwriting during this period included: script
style appropriate to document type, purpose, or context, and this is one of the
ways in which we might understand what scribes thought constituted skill at
writing during this period. For example, mastery of chancery hand was essential
for clerks working at the chancery court. Beyond this, there were plenty of
printed prescriptive texts circulating during the late sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, extolling the importance of fair handwriting and good
practice. Although these present problems with regards to gaining insight into
actual scribal practices because they are prescriptive texts, they do give
information about how handwriting skill was connected to positive individual
there are many examples of this in printed handwriting texts, the example in
Image 1 is from John De Beauchasne’s and John Baildon’s A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands. Here, the handwriting
exemplar for the starting-out scribe carries a moral message about revering and
respecting elders and being governed by their experience. Due to the audience
for this text likely being students at home or in the grammar school, the
message for the ‘yonge man’ is pertinent. Furthermore, there is an example of a
young middling scribe using this text to learn to write in Ann Bowyer, Elias
Ashmole’s mother, whose commonplace book (Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 51)
includes exercises drawn from this text. Consequently, good handwriting
practice would also likely involve close attention to moral sentiments,
connecting skill at writing to good character (something which instructional texts
– such as Peter Bales’, The Writing
Scholemaster – do very explicitly).
such, for literate middling sorts of scribes, who would have likely gained
their initial education in literacy at grammar school, at home, and at church,
mastering scripts would have been important not only to their future employment
but also to the way in which they may have been perceived by their social
network. An example of this is can be seen in the chamberlain’s accounts for
Lydd, where the town clerk until 1574, John Heblethwaite, scribes the accounts
because the chamberlains are ‘unlearned’. He goes on to state in his will that
he has written it ‘with my owne hand welleknowne’ demonstrating how important
his handwriting becomes to his social standing – it leaves a recognisable mark.
not only rested on forming words in a legible and aesthetically appropriate
manner and learning standard formats for documents, but also involved the
mastery of the tools and materials of writing including cutting a quill fit for
the hand, making ink or sourcing some of good quality to buy, and choosing
paper. All of these processes generated a certain perception of both the
document and its scribe. The material knowledge
displayed by scribes is also artisanal expertise; it rests upon a relationship
between the equipment used in writing and the scribes’ repeated practice with
it in order to gain writing skill.
way of concluding this post, then, skill might be thought of as involving the
dialogue between a person, materials and their social world. As these brief
examples show, practice was entwined with the social world in which it was
embedded, where it was entwined with the collective activities of proximate
scribes and their moral, as well as practical, education.
 “skill, n.1.” OED
Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019,
<www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865>. Accessed 17 September 2019.
 For useful reflections on this
point/ further reading see: John Sutton and Nicholas Keene, ‘Cognitive History
and Material Culture’, The Routledge
Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Catherine
Richardson, Tara Hamling and David Gaimster (Oxford: Routledge, 2017), Michael
Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2009), Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2004), and Tim Ingold, Making:
Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013).
 Kent History and Library Centre,
LY/2/1/1/3 and PRC 31/95 S1.
 For letter writing, see James
Daybell, The Material Letter in Early
Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
We thank Susan Orlik for this guest post on the Bridgwater Corporation Pew:
If you had been sitting in the congregation on a Sunday in the early seventeenth century in St Mary’s church, in the centre of Bridgwater, Somerset, your line of sight facing east would have been radically changed by a new construction. Around 1620 the Corporation had built for itself a space between your seat as a parishioner and the communion table at the east end. In front of you, they had erected a highly-decorated wooden chancel screen, which stood before the chancel arch on a north-south axis. Behind that you would have seen the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses sitting in their seats. Behind them you would just about have been able to perceive the old fifteenth-century rood screen, which itself stood in front of the communion table. The Corporation had created a discrete enclosure for themselves, positioning the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses in primary position at the front of the church, visually dominant, and separated from the rest of the congregation. Together, today, the Corporation’s seats and the screen are known as the Corporation Pew.
The parish church was not only the place for religious worship in this period, but also a social space where status was expressed and negotiated. The surviving material evidence for investment in these buildings by parishioners is crucial for understanding ‘middling culture’.
Christopher Marsh and Amanda Flather have established some important principles on church seating: congregational seating was ordered by the Churchwardens hierarchically by gender, age, moral reputation, and by ‘degrees and estates’. Robert Tittler has suggested that in the context of public civic seating, in the face of discontinuity with the Reformation, patterns of symbolic usage became more important than ever. This view has resonance with the material evidence at Bridgwater, which provides an insight into how middling elites constructed and displayed their special status within their local community.
Since 1857 the line of sight from the nave has been changed as the Corporation Pew has been moved to the south aisle, where it stands on a west-east axis. Slightly reduced in size, now 9.3 metres long, its magnificence and decoration still stand as evidence of the Corporation’s pride, wealth and cultural investment. With rich material evidence, but thin extant archival sources, what does this rare construction tell of the middling elite in this prosperous West Country Borough?
While the original screen had a double central opening, as the early nineteenth-century lithograph by the amateur local artist, John Chubb, shows, the repositioned screen has two openings. There were, and now are, four parts to the screen. The front of the screen has an inscription, and two rows of superimposed arches with a frieze of grotesque masks and beasts with fish tails above the arches. The bays are separated by carved columns.
Second, above the bays is an arcade with pierced spandrels. The third part is a cornice which sits above the arcade with carvings of hybrid creatures on the front and stylised patterns on the back.
Fourthly, the screen is crested with strapwork and thin ornamental obelisks. These obelisks were common symbols on funeral monuments representing wisdom and eternity. On the front of the screen is the text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’.
Behind the screen, on either side of the openings, are three rows of seats for the Mayor, Aldermen and Corporation. Some of these are the original seventeenth-century while others date from the nineteenth-century; the Mayor’s seat is differentiated from the others by a higher back rest and arm rests.
Although expressions of civic identity in parish churches can be found in other boroughs, the specific discrete enclosure of the seating of Bridgwater’s elite public officials in the chancel appears rare, if not unique. At Axbridge in the same county the Corporation sat in the nave in their own pew. At St Saviour’s in Dartmouth, Devon, the town council in 1614 placed themselves along the east wall with a specially carved and cushioned seat for the Mayor. The screen and pews at Bridgwater took the placing of the Corporation to a new level of visual dominance in its display of power and wealth, by its size, its position, and by its decoration.
The fine carvings of the pierced spandrels and the crest with strapwork and thin obelisks would indicate that part, if not all of the screen was carved by skilled artisans from an urban centre with more sophisticated workshops than a town like Bridgwater could provide. Tantalisingly there are no Corporation minutes or church records to help us. We can only speculate that, as the premier port of Somerset, sitting on the River Parrett with easy access to the Bristol Channel, Bridgwater’s corporate investors identified that Bristol may have been where such skilled carvers and joiners were to be found. We know that the less wealthy town of Axbridge had dealings with Bristol when they were planning their decorated plaster ceiling in 1636: the churchwardens’ accounts noted, ‘Item spent at Bristoll when we went to take a pattern of the fret work 1s’. The entry is ambiguous: either they, the Churchwardens, or the craftsmen were purchasing a print from Bristol or they were taking a pattern to Bristol. At Bridgwater, we have no such archival guidance. What we do know is that the whole scheme, which included fish-tailed creatures and troll-like creatures on the screen, belonged to the grotesque tradition, a fashionable Renaissance import, of which wealthy merchants would have been aware of during their business travels to Bristol, London and other significant urban centres. The Corporation had decided to erect new, contemporary-styled woodwork, which would have appeared startling in its modernity to the viewing parishioners. The taste of an upper middling elite that was well networked to Bristol and London appears to have been influenced by continental fashions. Their import into England has been well documented; in particular, the effect of continental prints on all media has been explored by Anthony Well-Cole. He highlighted the principal contribution of Netherlandish prints to the ‘highly distinctive combination of grotesques and strapwork’, both manifest in the Bridgwater screen.
Bridgwater, described as ‘rich and sturdily independent’, the premier port of the county, was generally prosperous, despite the vicissitudes of trade. As an administratively strategic Borough, it shared the Quarter Sessions with Wells, Ilchester and Taunton, and enjoyed its own Justices of the Peace. Bridgwater’s elite, the leading townsmen, were mercers who led the wool manufacturing businesses of the town. Important for cloth production and its export, the town was well known for the ‘Bridgwater cloth’, a good quality serge. Among the middling elite would have been merchants who traded the agricultural produce and minerals from the hinterland particularly to and from Ireland and South Wales, as well as the coastal trade and the trade with France, Spain and Portugal. Among the goods that Bridgwater, ‘the busiest port in Somerset’, exported were peas, beans, coal, salt, iron and finished cloth, while it imported hides, wool, timber, and wine. The mercers and the merchants, the middling elite, drove the town’s prosperous economy, which had recovered from depression in the 1590s to improve significantly in the early seventeenth century. They also led the civic authorities. It is likely that the expensive investment in the Corporation Pew c.1620 is linked to this renewed prosperity in the Borough.
The Corporation drew its membership from the mercers and merchants; and it is the relationship between the Corporation and the Parish which is at the heart of the story of the Corporation Pew. The rectorial rights of the parish were granted to the Corporation by Elizabeth in 1571. Part of the terms of the 1571 grant charged the Corporation with stipends of £20 for a man ‘to preach and teach in town and neighbourhood’, £13 6s 8d for a curate and another sum for a schoolmaster. Exercising its rights as rector, the Corporation was taking one-tenth of the agricultural produce of the parish, which realised significant sums; for example the Rectory Accounts of 1579 show receipts of £124 13s 5d, payments £81 13s 3d and the balance of £43 0s 2d. The number of Burgesses allowed rose from 18 to 24 in 1628, an indication of the Corporation’s growing power and influence. The Corporation held the rectorial rights, paid the stipends of the clergy and was receiving substantial income, all of which enhanced its position of power in the town and in the parish.
On the front of the screen was a reminder of tripartite authority: the biblical text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’. The congregation were urged to fear God, and honour the King who took his royal and religious headship from God. By obvious implication authority was triangulated, as through the screen the local civic authority was on view to the congregation throughout the service, who should also be obeyed in this hierarchy of authority. Found in other churches, the inscription was also common in domestic contexts. Not only had the Burgesses of Bridgwater built an expensive screen, highly decorated in a modern, fashionable manner, to sit behind, and to be seen differentiated from the rest of the worshippers, they had also boldly displayed their authority, linked to the King and to God. The metaphorical and the literal display conjoined.
The evidence suggests that this parish in the first decades of the seventeenth century was committed to a stricter form of Protestantism (often referred to as ‘godly’), which rejected what it perceived as unnecessary religious ceremony. While such rich adornment of this seating may seem inconsistent with such ‘godly’ attitudes, the Corporation Pew reflects a much wider wave of material investment in parish churches in the earlier decades of the seventeenth century which gave the wealthier and more influential middling sort opportunity to express their status and taste.
The dominant position of the seating for the wealthy Corporation at Bridgwater appears rare. The Corporation’s power and status were displayed through their investment in decorated woodwork, located in an unusual, exclusive, primary position at the east end of the nave, which emphasised their leadership of this godly community. At present, no other configuration has been found of a Mayor and Corporation sitting in what was essentially an enclosed pew either with their backs to the chancel, facing west to the congregation in the nave, or facing inwards towards each other. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest which way they faced.
In any case, as you sat in the congregation you could not have failed to have been impressed by the burgesses’ investment. The sheer size and magnificence made the screen visually dominant. The exclusive nature of the space for the burgesses was clearly demarcated. The modernity of the fashionable imagery, combined with the skill of the workmanship, demonstrated the wealth, power and networked connections of the town’s leading figures. They had enhanced through decorated wood their civic status and also their church, over which they held the rectorial rights. You could not have ignored the elegant linking of the authority of God and the King to their own, materialised through the magnificence of the woodwork, the fashionable imagery and the inscription. This was investment driven by civic pride and aldermanic status on a bold scale.
Susan Orlik is an associate member of the department of History, University of Birmingham. This case study draws on research for her PhD thesis, ‘The ‘beauty of holiness’ revisited: an analysis of investment in parish church interiors in Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire, 1560-1640’ (University of Birmingham, 2018).
We can be confident in dating the construction through three pieces of evidence: a mayoral will; a brass plate to a deceased Mayor; and a pew dispute which locates and dates the ‘new ile’. SHC: D\D\cd/71; SHC: DD\X\SR/5/c403.
See especially Christopher Marsh, ‘Order and Place in England, 1580-1640: The View from the Pew’, The Journal of British Studies vol. 44, no. 1 (January 2005): 3-26; and Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007).
Robert Tittler, ‘Seats of Power: The Symbolism of Public Seating in the English Urban Community, c. 1560-1620’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 205-223, 214.
KJB I Peter 2: 17, ‘Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King’.
We are grateful to Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, for this guest post on “dress hooks.”
Identifying the ‘middling sort’ through their material culture is fraught with difficulties, not least as there is potential to interpret these items within our own, modern (21st century), perceptions of status, and any supporting evidence is largely lacking from contemporary written or art-historical sources. Indeed, often the best evidence for most material culture is the archaeological record.
A case in point are ‘dress hooks’, commonly found through metal-detecting and reported in substantial numbers to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) – a project to record archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales. In contrast to some other ‘detector finds’, dress-fastenings are mentioned in the written record, notably wills and inventories, and they also appear in art. That said their role and function, though studied (notably by David Gaimster et al in 2002, Antiquities Journal 82), remains somewhat enigmatic – indeed Gaimster described ‘dress-fastenings’ as ‘a crucial yet unsung element of Tudor dress’ (174). In general, it is believed that they were used to draw up garments, to keep them out of the muck of the street or display the rich fabric of the garment beneath, and may also have been used to fasten garments, or simply as decoration. Indeed, a multifunctional role, a bit like modern dress fastenings (buttons, ties etc) seems likely, and this might be reflected in the fact that they vary considerably in form and decoration.
To date (August 2019) the PAS has recorded some 4,600 dress hooks; also – incorrectly – logged as ‘hooked tags’, which is a term for similar items of the early medieval period. If the material composition of dress hooks is any indication of the status of their owners, then it is of interest that almost 4,000 of them (so the vast majority) are constructed of copper-alloy. Thereafter, some 470 are silver, followed by 100 or so lead-alloy examples.
It must surely be the case that the lead-alloy dress hooks are under representative of what once existed, and indeed it is of interest that their forms often mimic those found in the other metals – take for example a cast leaden example from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire (BH-C23A16) which has a similar lozenge form to a copper-alloy example from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846).
An assumption might be that dress hooks were being produced in lead (and maybe other ‘lesser’ materials, like bone, antler and wood) to cater for a less affluent market, though the numbers suggest otherwise. That said, there is a general recovery bias in the PAS data against lead, not least because intricately made leaden objects appear to survive less well in agricultural plough-soil (where most detected finds are recovered) than those of copper-alloy; on the Thames foreshore in London, thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the river mud, the survival of lead-alloy items is much better, though still copper-alloy dress hooks are most common.
It must be that dress hooks made of precious metals, notably silver, were for those above middling culture, although Gaimster et al said that ‘detailed study of the iconographic and documentary record suggests that dress-hooks, as functional dress-fastenings, were not a significant part of male or female elite dress, particularly that of the royal court, in the early Tudor period’ (190). There are some fabulous examples of dress hooks within the PAS dataset. From Boxford, Berkshire (BERK-93DC8A), for example, is a silver-gilt dress hook made of several parts to form a flower-like head.
The central boss serves as a rivet, with its shank passing through a hole in the front plate and a silver back plate, before forking in two. Attached to the reverse is the hook. Also of composite form, is a silver-gilt dress hook of lozenge form, from Langham, Norfolk (NMS-116943). Again, the central boss serves as a rivet joining the elements of the object together, though the use of solder is noticeable. Besides these elaborate precious metal dress hooks are some humbler items, which because of their simple construction might have been more within the reach of the middling sort. Take for example a dress hook from Bletsoe, Bedfordshire (BH-B4EDCA) which is made of singly cast plate, with its hook added on after.
This type of dress hook – a cast plate with hook – is common amongst the copper-alloy PAS finds. It would seem from the quantity that these are the stock of dress hooks being used in Tudor and Stuart times, but by whom? It is interesting to posit whether this data is representative of all society, or just part of it. An inkling, given that their ornate designs suggest more than just a practical function, is that these would have been bought by those with some disposable income – maybe indicative of middling sort? Gaimster et al. seem to agree, suggesting that ‘pairs of decorative dress-hooks were mainly the preserve of women of the middle ranks’ (190). Some examples serve to illustrate the point. One from Asselby, East Yorkshire (YORYM-5281A5), though incomplete, is formed of an attractive openwork design, perhaps featuring a pine cone.
Of note is its integrally cast rectangular attachment loop and the hook, though broken. An important example from Arreton, Isle of Wight (IOW-A203D3), very much mimics a form of composite dress hook usually found in precious metal. It is formed of three bosses decorated with rope-work, likely to replicate applied filigree decoration found on some precious metal examples (including HAMP-B7066E).
Simplest in form amongst the copper-alloy dress hooks are those made of a single piece of wire, such as one from Watlington, Oxfordshire (SUR-3488DA).
It appears that this form had a long life, and (although relatively few are recorded on the PAS database), they must have been relatively common. Surely these are below the middling sort, though we must not dismiss the use of simple, yet practical hooks, by all in society, especially if they were out of view.
Returning to dress hooks of lead and lead-alloys. There is no doubt that these would be easier and quicker to make, so therefore (presumably) cheaper to buy. In general terms the examples recorded with the PAS are similar in form and designs to those of copper-alloy, though are normally cast in one piece; in the case of the copper-alloy examples the hook is usually soldered to the plate. For example, from Twyford, Hampshire (HAMP-48DED2) is a rectangular leaden dress hook decorated with a lattice of lozenges, within each lozenge a quatrefoil. Also, and much like examples seen in silver and copper-alloy (see above), is a dress hook from Stockton-on-the-Forest, North Yorkshire (YORYM-0D11C9). It does seem, therefore, that these dress hooks are imitating (or akin) to those of copper-alloy, with those in lead looking silver when new, and those of copper-alloy appearing golden (for gilding). Whether these lead-alloy dress hooks were popular amongst the middling sort is unclear, but it is a possibility…
We will be producing a series of posts and guest posts over the course of the project, including “Long Reads” (longer form (but still brief) explorations of a subject) and “Short Reads” (digestible in a brief survey). This opening Long Read explores what it was like to be a goldsmith in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bristol, looking at provincial craftspeople’s relationship with the London company, the trendy craft hotspot of Bristol’s Wine Street, and the surprisingly varied uses of goldsmiths’ wares.
In late sixteenth-century England, a young man could do worse than become an apprentice with a goldsmith. The trade offered reasonable financial rewards and put its best craftspeople into contact with well-off and well-connected customers. That didn’t always, unsurprisingly, guarantee financial success. One of the most famous goldsmiths of the period was the esteemed miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard; despite reaching acclaim in courts across Europe for his artwork and running a thriving goldsmiths’ trade from his London shop for decades, he spent much of his life in financial precarity. Yet he accrued other forms of capital, not least through his intimate access to English and French courts. Moreover, Pamela H. Smith has shown how artisans, in particular goldsmiths, were at the centre of a shift in the way cultural and scientific knowledge was represented in and produced through art: “early modern artisans were experts on natural processes” (7); Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin has similarly shown how individuals connected to the trade, such as assayers, “belied any purported boundaries between artisanal, mercantile and experimental worlds” (2). It is therefore perhaps no surprise that some of the leading innovators in representing the physical world during the Northern Renaissance—such as Albrecht Dürer—were goldsmiths by trade.
As such, the craft brings together a range of cultural, social, and financial opportunities, and the objects goldsmiths produced found their way into circulation in a variety of surprising ways. Those familiar with early modern drama know how something as simple as a ring can take on epic significance from the forensic to the metaphorical—as in the final scene of All’s Well that Ends Well, for instance, which hinges on the evidentiary value of such an item of jewellery. Tradespeople in a host of livery companies might also recognise the business uses of rings, which could be “deposited” to bind people to oaths and price regulations, and rings hold a widespread memorial function, too, often left by bequest in wills and given at funerals. Goldsmiths therefore represent a major “middling” trade, with practitioners coming from a variety of backgrounds, with their wares reaching key middling sections of society, and with objects such as rings and spoons representing the combination of aesthetic, emotional, and business value at the heart of “middling” men and women’s existence.
But what was it like to be a goldsmith away from the trade’s national centre among the shops and selds (a structure of several stalls set back from the street, like a small market or mall) of London’s Cheapside? This post assays life for provincial goldsmiths in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the network operating in the growing port city of Bristol: here, goldsmiths find themselves everywhere from the prison to the fair; they also demonstrate the successes of family trade dynasties and early forms of “banking” and financial management, while rubbing shoulders with playhouse entrepreneurs and prosperous merchants.
The Goldsmiths’ Company
One of the prime concerns for any goldsmith is the weighing of precious metal and the attendant quality of their work or wares, and anybody looking to work in Bristol, as elsewhere, would have to be comfortable having their work assessed, deemed unworthy, and publicly destroyed by senior figures from London. This is because the royal charter possessed by London’s Goldsmiths’ Company granted them authority over the trade nationwide, making Bristolian goldsmiths subject to scrutiny and summons to their hall on Fetter Lane by London’s Guildhall. More intrusively, the Company could search their shops and stalls, or attend commercially-orientated fairs—notably often at Marlborough, the Bristol fairs, and Sturbridge—where they tested goods by hand and sometimes further by more detailed assay or melting (sometimes taking goods into their possession to return to the Goldsmiths’ Hall for further consideration or, when clear they’re substandard, destroying or breaking them there and then).
While you’re in the presence of one of these searches, you may learn a little more about the range and quality of your fellow craftspeople’s work, and the court books duly list the types of goods being sold by Bristolian goldsmiths and their advertised vs their actual worth. For instance, in 1633, Thomas Northall’s wares include:
23 Thimbles half made 24 gold rings 25 bodkins half made 12 gold ^beadrings 9 knot rings 15 enamel rings 6 deaths heads 51 gilt rings
We can imagine the presence of these goods laid out in Northall’s Bristol shop and consider, as below, the ways in which these items would have circulated amongst his local community. These searches provide a rare occasion in which the breadth of provincial goldsmiths’ goods can be recovered and studied, and they help to build a picture of metalwork in the early modern South West.
These obligations and the searches of the regions ask questions about the relationship between regional goldsmiths and the Company. If you worked as a goldsmith in Bristol, how much identification with the livery company might you feel—and how does being governed remotely by a London company and structure affect one’s sense of civic and craft pride?
If this seems an important question, you might turn to your colleague from Salisbury, “stubborn” George Batter, for an answer (if you can pin him down…). Batter demonstrates what resistance to such London-centric measures might look like, given the disregard for the authority of the Company he displayed on one of its searches in 1631. He lied about being of the trade, refused to allow his items to be searched or tested, declined to show up in person when summoned, and is eventually imprisoned after the two wardens of the Company convince the Mayor of Salisbury to assist them in apprehending him and forcing him to cooperate. They had over the course of these events tested “one spoon … made by the said Batter with his mark thereupon, which being tried by the touch appeared not to be so good silver as that of 9oz fine” (Book R 1: 128).
Beyond your conversation with George Batter, you might turn to individuals in your parish to see how other trades resent intrusions from London authorities—particularly if you’re friends with any members of Bristol’s prominent Soapmakers’ Company. They demonstrate a comparable resentment towards London intrusions into their local craft dealings a few years after Batter in 1633—just a short time after Charles I’s grant to the London Soapmakers’ of a nationwide monopoly similar to that long held by the Goldsmiths’. The Bristolian soapmakers, perhaps taking umbrage at being “governed,” compare Bristol soap (also known as “Black Soap”) with its competitors’ through a napkin-based “whites challenge” in the presence of the London assayer:
[…] Certain Linen Napkins washed by Several Women with the same several sorts of soap […] And although the said napkins washed with Bristol Soap were altogether as white washed and as sweet, or rather sweeter, than the other, yet in the washing of the said Napkins There was not Altogether so much Soap expended of the said Bristol Soap as there was of the other Soap.
(BRS 10; 195)
The civic pride implicit in the Soapmakers’ Guild is undercut in George Batter’s unfortunate experience, as he has no recourse even to local protection, with Salisbury’s mayor assisting the wardens’ enquiries. They ultimately proved lenient towards him in levying a revised fine that took into account his “poverty” and eventual acquiescence and repentance (17 August 1631, R 1:127-9). Perhaps tellingly, two years later in 1633, Batter appears again in a Salisbury search, where he proved more compliant (Book R: 2:370).
Perhaps you are weighing up where to set up shop as a newcomer to Bristol—something that Giles and Edward Evenet would have done in October 1571, after they are recorded as “living, resident, and abiding [in] the country” in Bristol having left London without return “by a year and a day”–a move to the provinces that the Goldsmiths’ Company seem to regard as important and in need of regulation.
In your new home of Bristol, the prime place to continue your trade would have been the thriving neighbourhood of Wine Street in the parish of Christchurch (also known as Holy Trinity). The street was home to a series of substantial tenements and properties, many of which were owned by the City Corporation and rented by prominent figures in the city (including aldermen and past and future mayors). It was also home to at least two major South West goldsmiths, Humphrey Clovell and Edward Harsell. In the mid-1570s, a new “meal market” (or corn market) was built at the end of Wine Street, which was rented out to 10-12 goldsmiths from London and other places during the most important commercial feature in any Bristolian’s calendar, the St James’ Fair, which attracted buyers and sellers from across the country (and beyond the seas). The street therefore represents a significant destination for anybody looking to buy jewellery and other metalwork.
If you’re interested in doing some market research or understanding the tastes and styles particular to Bristol goldsmiths and their customers, it would be wise to head to No. 8 Wine Street to speak with Humphrey Clovell. From this property, Clovell would have sold items such as the 2 bowls, 6 gilt rings, and 3 spoons with heads for which he was assessed in 1599 (Book N 181). He was a major figure in Bristol’s metalwork industry; he did his apprenticeship under Paul Freling, and the apprentices Clovell trained include Thomas Wall and John Corsley, the latter of whom went on to marry Clovell’s daughter Elizabeth in 1592 and was the first of a long line of prolific Corsley goldsmiths working out of the south west (Kent 80).
When you arrive to speak with Clovell, you may find him slightly preoccupied with his son-in-law, who drifts in and out of Bristol. In 1606, nearly 15 years after his marriage with Clovell’s daughter, Corsley finds himself “lying in Prison in Newgate in London upon sundry accounts of debt.” According to the defendant (William Walton) in a Chancery case concerning unpaid debts, Corsley was freed thanks to significant loans by Walton and others that he neglected to repay. Walton claims to have spent years chasing Corsley, only for him to “go and lay in the North parts of this land where [the] defendant should not touch him”. When he did return to Bristol, “it was under his father in law mr Clovell, goldsmith in Bristol.” If you visit in the 1600s, 1610s, or 1620s in the years preceding Walton’s lawsuit, you may well find both goldsmiths in Wine Street.
If you find Clovell unhelpful, you could always look for some financing from Corsley. According to Walton, by the 1620s, the erstwhile debtor has returned more permanently to Bristol and “dealeth in great sums in the trade of a goldsmith” (TNA C3/341/56). The defendant’s phrasing suggests that Corsley uses his trade to function as a financier or money trader, perhaps indicating an early example of the form of “goldsmith-banking” that formed the foundations of England’s banking sector in the late seventeenth century. But you may wish to take into account Walton’s less-than-glowing consumer report…
You could speak instead with Edward Harsell, who lived two doors down from Clovell and who clearly knew him—well enough, at least, to witness the probate inventory after Clovell’s death in 1627 that records some of Clovell’s interior design choices, including “the wainscot, stained cloths, & pictures about the hall” (BRS Vol. 54;62-4). Harsell is also a significant figure among Bristol’s early modern metalworkers. Work from Harsell’s shop survives, marked with his name and a small symbol (for more details on surviving marks see Timothy Kent):
The marking of this spoon with Harsell’s name suggests the advertising value tied to the craft, as this form of signature or branding seems to be unique to metalwork. Might these goldsmith-specific marks enhance or alter one’s reputation in the wider community and make one’s name more widely visible than those in other trades?
Have Connections in London
Appealing as Bristol might sound by now, it’s certainly worth fostering good connections with London and particularly the hierarchy of the Goldsmiths’ Company—perhaps, if you’re well-backed enough, by looking to serve your apprenticeship in the capital. Timothy Kent observes how unusual it is for the Company to say anything nice about the work of provincial goldsmiths (95). But in their search of Bristol in 1633, they made comment “upon the wares of Thomas Griffyn and Edward Griffin,” which “were found agreeable to the standards of gold and silver and redelivered them again” (Book R 2: 381). It is no coincidence that Edward Griffin (also Griffith) started his apprenticeship under John Wollaston of London—one of the wardens of the Company carrying out the search… (Kent 95).
Lost and found
Lastly, it’s important to keep your wares and your belongings safe, so that these valuable items can be kept in either personal possession or sanctioned circulation. An entry on the 24 January 1573 in the Goldsmiths’ Company court books describes how an apprentice found in a chamber a “ring of gold with a cross and a heart in a pansy, with a “d” the one side of the cross and “M” on the other side of the same, with a G & H above it, & this date “1569” under it.” The ring was found in “The Temple wherein” Mr Fleetwood and Mr Sands have their lodging. The wardens of the Company order that the ring be delivered to those two men “to the intent that they shall deliver it to the right owner if it be possible” (L 1:179).
This minor incident represents a curious textual recording of this piece of jewellery and its accidents and circulation, but it also points to the formal structures surrounding lost jewellery in such a heavily-regulated gold market. At the same time, it preserves the personal value of the item, delivering an ekphrastic lost and found record that announces the ring’s personalised inscription and perhaps indicates that its safe return is ordered with a nod to its likely emotional significance. If it were central to a betrothal, it also has an added legal charge, testifying to a contract or binding. Its discovery in a chamber leaves to the imagination why the apprentice considered it lost (might it have been put aside for safe keeping?) and why it was not being worn (was it purposely discarded?).
The entry thereby combines the financial and personal significance of jewellery, something that accords with other uses of rings in company records. If you’re curious about how your wares might be used once you’ve established your freedom to trade in Bristol, you could start up your conversation with the Soapmakers of Bristol again. In the seventeenth century, they begin to put rings down as deposits or forfeits for their observance of pricing agreements. In 1612, members agreed on a price to which they “set … hands and Possites [deposits],” including (to pick a selection) Humphrey Reade’s signet ring and Thomas Burrows’ ring of gold; in 1614, Mrs Slye deposited 1 ring with a diamond and Leonard Hancock’s deposit was six silver spoons (BRS 10 95, 103-4). The symbolic qualities of these objects indicate how the deposits act as an extension of individual identity.
Tracking the varied circulation of rings in this way for middling members of livery companies suggests a broader cultural network for material objects such as jewels and in turn indicates the imbrication of commercial, personal, and domestic material culture. The Bristol soapmakers’ rings may have had or once have had romantic or other significance for their owners, but they are (also) being put into a business network as promissory pawns. Such rings (or silver spoons) may well have come from one of the prominent goldsmiths producing such items in Bristol across this period, perhaps from the Wine Street shops of Edward Harsell or Humphrey Clovell. If you join the local collective of goldsmiths in Bristol, you would likewise release your work into a community where jewellery’s practical and decorative uses combine to furnish men and women of the town with status symbols—ones that represent a combination of social, cultural, and economic currency. And, like Clovell, you may develop a deep familiarity with other cultural artefacts, from stained cloths and pictures to the plays that entertained audiences at Bristol’s Wine Street playhouse for nearly 30 years.
Bristol Archives (Bristol). Diocesan Court, Cause Books. EP/J/1/11. Bristol Record Society. 10 (Proceedings, Minutes and Enrolments of the Company of Soapmakers, 1562-1642, H.E. Matthews) (1940) —. 48 (The Topography of Medieval and Early Modern Bristol: Part One, Roger Leech). (1997) —. 54 (Probate Inventories, Part I, Edwin and Stella George, assisted by Peter Fleming). (2002) The Goldsmiths’ Company Hall, Library and Archives (London). Court Minutes. Books L, N, and R1 and R2. Elizabeth Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (2019) Timothy Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and their Makers, 1550-1750 (1992) Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin. “A Place of Great Trust to be Supplied by Men of Skill and Integrity”: Assayers and Knowledge Cultures in Late Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century London.” BJHS (2019): 1-27. Roger Leech. The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol (2014). The National Archives (Kew). C3/341/56. The National Archives (Kew). C2/JasI/W4/59. Pamela H. Smith. The Body of the Artisan (2004)
The growth of a sector of society that was more educated and prosperous than the ‘plebs’ or ‘meaner sort’ but which lacked the established wealth and pedigree of the gentlemen or exalted members of the aristocracy was one of the distinguishing features of early modern English society. The ‘middling sort’ encompassed a diverse range of people, including ‘yeoman and husbandmen farmers and artisans’ and those who worked in business or the professions.