Agility in the face of adversity

glassmakers, glaziers and the middling sort

Dr Louise Hampson from the University of York traces the fascinating, not-to-mention agile, lives of glaziers and glassmakers in early modern Northern England.


In 1503, Robert Preston, master glazier of York, a prosperous and contented man who headed a significant workshop, died. In his will, he left generous charitable bequests, gave his tools and stock of glass to his partner Thomas Ynglyshe, and bequeathed ‘suitable’ books from his library to his apprentice.1 His biggest legacy was, however, the glass he had painted and installed across the north of England in churches, abbeys, and cathedrals. They had been his workshop’s absolute bread and butter and York was a regional hub for this specialist craft. Window glass itself was not made in England at this date, it was imported from various places on the Continent, but it was here that it was painted, grozed (cut to shape), and leaded up into enormous windows of breath-taking beauty by workshops like Preston’s. In this period the biggest clients for most glass workshops like Preston’s were the thousands of churches, cathedrals and religious houses which had been such a feature of every city, town and village for over five hundred years.2

Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey York © Creative Commons

Fast forward one hundred years to 1603 and the landscape, literal and metaphorical, looked very different. The religious houses had gone, stripped of their lead, windows, and timber. The number of parish churches had been drastically reduced (in York’s case by a third) as income from the laity for prayers, masses and the accoutrements of pre-Reformation worship had stopped, and religious imagery had become a minefield of what was acceptable.3 Although windows had not been a particular target for Reformers (that would come later in the Civil War), the appetite for new figurative religious imagery in church windows had largely dried up and church patronage now took other forms.  

For Robert Thompson, master glazier and glass painter, the head of a glass workshop in York, survival depended on finding new clients, creating new designs and opening up new markets. Fortunately for him, the appetite for conspicuous display had not gone away, but simply shifted in emphasis from the public realm to the private and from the religious to the secular. Where once the wealthy would have paid for windows of saints and angels in churches with donor figures and imprecations to pray for the soul of the donor, they now paid for richly detailed coats of arms demonstrating their social credentials and generosity to the upkeep of the church fabric.4 They also took a fancy to having elaborate painted glass in their houses as windows became bigger. For those newly ennobled or enriched by the dissolution of the monasteries, coats of arms played a key role in establishing or acquiring social status and what better way to show the world your ‘aristocratic’ lineage than in shining glass?5

York Guild of Glaziers register, 1598 © Author’s own

For those lower down the social scale, the ‘middling sort’, the fashion for glazed windows (as opposed to shutters or windows covered with linen or filled in with pieces of flattened horn) began to be an achievable ambition and one which marked out your social status. Glass was still expensive but becoming cheaper as production shifted to home turf and the thicker edge and ‘crown’ (or bullseye) pieces became available, which allowed humbler domestic windows to be constructed from many small pieces leaded into a square or diamond net. The glaziers who would previously have been occupied glazing churches now moved to glazing houses for merchants, craftsmen and the rising professional classes.

Sixteenth century domestic window
© Creative Commons

At the same time as the world of the master glazier had been turned upside down, the Crown had been taking steps to break the Continental monopoly on window glass manufacture and establish glass furnaces on English soil. In 1567, Elizabeth I had brought two Continental glassmakers (Jean Carré of Antwerp and Giacomo Verzelini of Venice) to London to teach the English how to make the fine-quality glass necessary for window glazing.6 The industry took off, initially predominantly in the south of England, with furnaces fired by wood. However, there is early evidence of furnaces being set up in the north with the burial of the ‘uxor Amabie Glassman’ being recorded in Lastingham parish register on 2nd March 1593 and evidence for furnaces being discovered in excavations in Rosedale and Hutton-le-Hole.7

Woodcut of a glass furnace from Vannoccio Biringuccio ‘De la pirotechnica’ published in Venice by Venturino Roffinello, 1540.
© The Corning Museum of Glass, 2002 http://www.CMoG.org

The granting of patents, to allow taxation of the glass furnaces, was a privilege distributed to favoured courtiers: Sir Edward Zouche vied for this ‘business’ with Sir Robert Mansell and this led to the glassmakers of London being charged different rates whilst still facing the challenge of imports which were becoming cheaper in order to compete! However, by 1615, concerns were growing about the depletion of woodlands (and the potential loss of timber for the navy) which led to the ‘Proclamation touching glass’ of 1615 which prohibited the use of wood in furnaces and required the use of coal instead.8 This favoured the furnaces of the Midlands and the north where coal was easily available and encouraged the establishment of furnaces on estates such as Wentworth Woodhouse in south Yorkshire. Mansell petitioned the Earl of Stratford, Thomas Wentworth, to allow a furnace for window glass to be built on his estate because coal was so accessible, and the proximity of nearby rivers allowed easy transport of the finished product.9

1947 newspaper showing how close the open cast mining came to Wentworth Woodhouse! © Creative Commons

Sir Robert Mansell bought out Zouche’s patent rights in 1615 giving him a complete monopoly on glass production, but it appears that the glassmen were an agile bunch who could set up and dismantle furnaces in remote places, like Rosedale, allowing them to evade the taxation system and increase their profits. The whole patent taxation system became so unwieldy and created such a disadvantage for native producers that it was abandoned in 1642.10 Small, family-run furnaces then sprang up around the south Yorkshire coal field which persisted into the nineteenth century: the Bolsterstone glasshouse ran a furnace near Sheffield producing both vessel and window glass (including coloured glasses) from the mid-seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century when glass manufacture became industrialised and the new ‘float’ process replaced traditional methods.11 

So, what did all this mean for those of the middling sort? The Thompson family were both members of this social stratum and those who serviced its needs and desires. The Thompsons were master glaziers and glass-painters who had been at the forefront of their craft from 1568-1620 and who rode the wave of change as the appetite for new religious imagery gave way to other work and new designs. The first of the family were recorded as glaziers in 1492, but the complex structure of the craft meant the Thompson sons also trained in other workshops (like the Petty’s) to learn specialist and new skills.12 The eldest Robert Thompson had trained in the workshop of the Petty family who had produced the last of the great glass for York Minster before the Reformation, making the coats of the arms for the windows of the great lantern tower in the late fifteenth century.13 The master glazier John Petty had, uniquely, been memorialised in the glass of the south front, above the civic entrance to the Minster after his death in 1510 possibly because he was mayor of York as well as a master craftsman. This record of the depiction of a master craftsmen in stained glass (now sadly lost) is exceptionally rare and a measure of the status enjoyed by the Pettys in York.14 

Petty glass from the lantern tower of York Minster Cross keys emblem from the glazing of the lantern of the central tower (LTN1-4, LTS1-4).  Painted by the Petty family c.1471, the same device is repeated against varied coloured backgrounds.
© Photo York Glaziers’ Trust, reproduced with kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of York

The Petty family were succeeded as master glaziers to the Minster by another Robert Thompson who had trained in the Petty workshop. His workshop had specific skills in ‘stayning’ or painting, a skill which continued to be in high demand. This was a skill his workshop passed on to one Marmaduke Crosby who took over as master glazier at the Minster in 1620.15 He had been an apprentice in the Thompson workshop and used his skills to design and make glass armorials for the York mansion of Sir Thomas Ingram, a self-made man who had risen to prominence on the back of the misfortune of others – he bought his country house, Temple Newsam near Leeds, from the bankrupt and disgraced Earl of Lennox for £12,000.16 Crosby made glass for his York house, Ingram’s Mansion, which was built on the north side of the Minster and installed armorials in the nave aisle which faced his house.17

The Ingram arms in the north nave aisle (n28). The date ‘1623’ ties these to the period when Marmaduke Crosby was working in this area of the Minster and on Ingram’s York mansion, so these arms are identified as his work.
© David O’Connor

With the onset of the Civil War, one might have expected the joyless and miserly Parliamentarian Ingram to dispense with Crosby’s services, not least as the Crosby family may well have been Catholics, but on the contrary, he transferred their contract to work on transforming Temple Newsam into a statement of his status and to design and install elaborate armorials to demonstrate his landed gentry credentials.18 Crosby had trained in a workshop which had been devoted to religious imagery whose skills were honed for the prestigious ecclesiastical clients which had been the backbone of the craft, but times had changed and the Crosbys nimbly switched their focus, adapted and remarketed their skills to appeal to a new and emerging domestic market, a market which continued to grow throughout the rest of the seventeenth century. 

Supported by the growth of local furnaces producing window glass of fine quality – possibly even producing some glass themselves, although the evidence is ambiguous – the Crosbys were well-placed to capitalise on these new opportunities and to reinvent themselves as suppliers to the gentry and to the middling sort who wanted a little bit of what had previously been the preserve of the church and the aristocracy.19 Agile and quick to pick up on new trends as old markets disappeared and new ones emerged (or could be built), the glaziers and glassmen – and women – of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries didn’t merely survive, they thrived!

Dr Louise Hampson

University of York


1 Testamenta Eboracensis: A Selection of Wills from the Registry at York. Vol IV ed. James Raine, Surtees Society 53 (Durham , 1869), 216-217.

2 John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, English Mediaeval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products (London, Hambledon Press, 1991), 275.

3 https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp365-404

4 See, for example, the depictions of the Roos family in the St William window (York Minster, nVII) c.1425

5 See for example Brereton Hall, Cheshire

6 Geoffrey Lane, “A World Turned Upside Down: London Glass Painters 1600-1660in Journal of Stained Glass 29, (2005), 45-75.

7 ‘Sixteenth-Century Glass-making in Yorkshire: Excavations at Furnaces at Hutton and Rosedale, North Riding, 1968-1971’ in Post-Medieval Archaeology, 1972/01, Vol.6; Issue 1.

8 Eleanor Smith Godfrey, The Development of English Glassmaking 1560-1640 (Oxford, Clarendon, 1975), 16-28.

9 Denis Ashurst, The History of South Yorkshire Glass (Sheffield: J.R. Collins, 1992), 19-20.

10 Ibid, 9-10.

11 Ian Bailiff, “Bolsterstone Glass House, Stocksbridge, Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Luminescence Dating Report” Research Dept Report Series No.98-2010 (London: English Heritage, 2010).

12 John A. Knowles, “The Glass-Painters of York VIII: The Thompson family”, Notes and Queries S IX, no.12 (1921):163-165.

13 Knowles, “The Glass-Painters of York VII: The Petty family”, Notes and Queries S IX, no.12 (1921): 21-22.

14 David O’Connor, “John Petty, Glazier and Mayor of York: an early sixteenth-century memorial window formerly in the south transept of York Minster”, in Glas. Malerei. Forschung: Internationale Studien Zu Ehren Von Rüdiger Becksmann  ed. Ivo Rauch and Daniel Hess (Germany: Deutsche Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 2004), 254.

15 York Minster Archives E3/62/2

16 Anthony F. Upton, Sir Arthur Ingram, c.1565-1642: a study of the origins of and English landed family” (Oxford: OUP, 1961), 161-171.

 17 York Minster Archives E362/3

18 Upton, Sir Arthur Ingram Chapter 6.

19 Entries in the York Minster Fabric Rolls of the 1630s for purchases of turves for the glazier’s ‘furnace’ may refer to glass manufacture, but equally may be for the firing of painted glass and staining.

WFH 2: Tradesmen and Tools for Working from Home, Chapter 1

Chisel, 17th Century. Item ID: LON-4261F3

For this second instalment of ‘Working from Home’ in early modern England, I’m going to take a look at some of the tools and materials urban individuals used as part of their trade in two posts. The first looks at the wider uses of tools and the second studies joiners.

The chisel in the image above might seem fairly ordinary, but for the 17th century tradesman it would have held a specific function and purpose for the performance of their craft. In early modern towns, individuals were set up and equipped to work from home, or in the home of their employers, and would often share tools, moulds and materials with their peers. Home set-ups are also a recurring concern from our own period of social distancing where many people have difficulty accessing the necessary equipment for performing their job – e.g. an adequate internet connection, working laptop or a comfortable seat.

From 1560 onwards there was a shift in how these tradespeople’s’ working spaces developed, with open hall houses giving way to an increase in rooms with specific purposes. Jane Whittle has noted that in Kent from 1600 to 1629 there was an increase in the number of specialist service room[s] within houses (like brew houses, mills and warehouses).[1] Two of this project’s team leaders, Catherine Richardson and Tara Hamling, have shown how people in urban settings invested in locks and doors to separate ‘working space from other spaces’.[2] Artisans would craft these areas to mark their trade identities to passers-by through the tools, materials and wares on display—and they often displayed shop boards at their openings, so they were not dissimilar from our own understanding of high street retail. But these shops were spaces of production, too, and could double as the site in which a trade was performed.

Tools and Identification of Trades


A Drawing of Tools seen in Chester Shops by Randle Holme in one of his manuscripts for The Academy of Armoury (1649), Harley MS 2026. Left = butchers, Middle = bakers, coopers = Right.

Randle Holmes III’s, The Academy of Armoury, or a Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry, published in 1688, helps explain the importance of shop tools to urban identities. In it, he describes the trades he encounters through his home town of Chester, the tools artisans use and the ‘terms of the art’ as well as providing illustrations. The above image Holmes’ workings in a manuscript compiled in 1649, and on this folio he depicts tools used in three professions (butchers, bakers and coopers) in careful detail.

Tools are considered part of symbolic identities. Individual tradesmen are tied to their craft through the material culture that surrounds it in the form of the assemblages of tools used for their work. Tools were kept with and deployed by a person. As such, they could be viewed like clothing, which conveyed signals about a person’s status, residence, societal roles, gender, wealth and occupation. [3]  A tradesman formed a close association with the equipment they shaped, repeatedly employed, and held.


Randle Holmes, Academy of Armoury, pp.364-65.

This facsimile, taken from the printed edition of Academy of Armoury, illustrates tools used in woodworking crafts like carpentry, joinery, and carving. The accompanying text is distinctly heraldic in its language with, for example, the mallet in the fourth image on the top row is elaborated with:

IV. He beareth Sanguine, a joyners mallet, Argent. By the name of Mallet. There is much difference between the masons, and the Joyners or Carpenters Mallets, the first being round and heavy, the others square both in the face and sides.

Randle Holme, The Academy of Armoury, or Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry (1688), p.365

Holmes both describes what a woodworking mallet looks like and specifies how it should be used in a coat of arms. ‘Argent’ is the heraldic term for silver, and ‘Sanguine’ is blood red, so he also prescribes the correct colours for the mallet’s proper rendering. Holmes also uses the phrase ‘he beareth’ and ‘to bear’ has the meaning to be ‘the wearer of a garment, ornament, badge, etc.’ (3a, oed). A tool often borne in a joiner’s hand is here used as a suggestion for his coat of arms, linking his identity to the equipment he uses for his trade. Within the Academy of Armoury, Holmes paints the visual world of trade identity through tools.

Tools at Home

Inventories—lists of goods made at (relatively wealthy people’s) death—sometimes record the tools belonging to an individual, and occasionally in great detail. They are therefore a means through which we might ground the tools deployed in Holmes’ volume in specific locales.

For example, Thomas Bonner, an Ipswich blacksmith inventoried in 1583 had a variety of tools in his shop.

The shoop stuff

Item one stythe [blacksmith’s anvil] and blocke ______4 0 0

Item a paier of bellowes and appurtenances _______  0 12 0

Item a beake horne [the pike of a blacksmith’s anvil] and carnayle toole and the blockes 0 2 6

Item one vyce ___________ 0 5 0

Item nyne hammers  __________ 0 6 0

Item thre payer of tonges ________0 1 6

Item the smalle tooles _________0 1 8

Item tenn Punchins [small pointed tool which could pierce materials] ___0 1 6

Item a nayle stocke __________0 0 8

Item fyve fyles two buttres a paier of pynsons and other tooles_____0 1 4

Item a carte strake wrought _____ 1 7 6

Item fyftie six pound Iron  ________0 4 8

Item LVIIIli leaden waights________0 4 10

Item two beames and skooles_______ 0 5 0

Item one smythes troughe___________0 0 6

Item a gryndston and cranke and the troughe _____ 0 5 0

From: The Ipswich Probate Inventories 1583-1631, ed. by Michael Reed (Boydell Press, 1981). Hereafter, IPI.)

Some of these tools are specialised to the blacksmith’s craft with a ‘stythe’ being a blacksmith’s anvil:


Modern blacksmith at work using 17th century style tools at Little Woodham Museum. By David Brightmore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Other tools, like hammers, files, weights and grindstones, are used across trades.

Archaeological examples of hammers show similar features to what we might expect today, with its flat head and prongs.

Iron Hammer, circa 1650. ID: LON-B0bD16

Bonner also has tenn ‘punchins’ which are small, sharp tools used to pierce metal. In his possession of ten of these punchins, Bonner would be able to produce piercings of various aesthetic effects, creating decorative touches to his work in ways which might make his work easily attributable to him.

Alongside his tools, Bonner has fire attending equipment, essential for the heat needed in the manipulation of metal, but also for light and warmth within the shop. Passers-by would be able to observe Bonner at work from the street, could judge his work, and make requests for wares to be made for them. The shop, in this sense, was a permeable boundary between the home and the outside world, where production and purchase happened in the same space.

The value of tools can be seen in the way they became heritable items. For example, Gilbert Mayerte, Millwright of Ipwich’s will details that:

‘I give and bequeathe unto the sayd Richard my sonne all my Tymber plancke bourd toles and all other tinges necessary belonging and Apperteyning to my science’

Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch, IC/AA1/7/67.

As such, craft identity as it is expressed through tools, permeates workspaces in multi-layered ways: tools used to create items for consumption in the present may have been inherited from a family member or employer which gave them significance as memory prompts of past craftsmen in their continued use through generations. Patterns of craft could then be established in locales where these tools and techniques were passed between people through inheritance. We can see this with the distinct style of armchair that emerged from Salisbury joiners’ workshops in the seventeenth century, as seen in a past blog post.

Apart from the shop, there were many other rooms used for manufacture or for the storage of tools and materials. On a small scale, these rooms might be listed as chambers. For example, houses in Ipswich and Bristol occasionally have ‘shop chambers’, which were linked spatially and in purpose with the shop.

These chambers frequently contained tools, materials and shop wares. Stephen Grenewich, dyer of Ipswich, had a room next to his shop that held weights and scales and a skraier (a frame for layering cloth upon) for clothworking (IPI, p.55). On a larger scale, someone might have workhouses or warehouses. For example, Henry Piper of Ipswich, poldavisweaver (poldavis is a particular type of cloth common in Brittany, which was bought over to England in 1547, and Ipswich became the centre of its production in England), inventoried in 1615, has two workhouses with nine looms and various cloths ‘in makinge’ and this demonstrates a larger scale of production taking place domestically, with multiple employees—an “SME” or small “factory.”[4]

In non-inventoried houses low down the social scale, in precariously middling or poor households, tools would also have appeared. There are plenty of examples in churchwardens accounts of wool cards, timber and other tools and materials handed out in charity to enable those less fortunate to generate income.

These practices extend to women’s work.  Widows often inherited shops and responsibility for its trade and production, alongside household labour. For example, Ann Barnarde, widow of Ipswich whose inventory was taken in 1606 possesses tools for embroidery – a ‘reell and a little yarne’ – things she may have used to generate some income (IPI, p.65).  A request for a women’s service in needlework appears in an Ipswich deposition too, where Margaret Morgon remembers that one Dorothy, a servant to Mr Barker,

bought unto the house of this deponent [Margaret] one shirte wrought w[i]th blacke worke of sylke & requested her this deponent to breake the same & to make the said dorothie a neckercher thereof w[hi]ch she […] so did.

Petty Court Depositions, Suffolk Archives, Ipswich, C/2/3/8/1, 140

Margaret recognises this shirt as stolen, but does the work anyway, with this case later going to court. The fact that the material garment recycled for the neckercher was stolen, is the only reason this example of Margaret’s work (and indeed Dorothy’s time as a servant before her marriage) is recorded. Work like this, completed with small tools like needles relies on archaeological examples like this needle to understand craft practices:

Post Medieval Needle, Portable Antiquities Scheme

There are many gaps in our understanding of practice generated by tools and materials which were ephemeral, used then thrown away, or too insignificant to be frequently recorded.  But records, archaeological finds and images demonstrate how essential tools were to a trades-person’s identity within an urban setting. Next time I’ll be looking more closely at a particular kind of making setting and the tools used within it: the joiner’s workshop.

By Hannah Lilley


[1] Jane Whittle, ‘The House as a Place of Work in Early Modern Rural England’, Home Cultures, 8:2 (2011), 133-150, pp.134-136.                                                                

[2] Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), p.144.

[3] For more on  clothing, tools in civic ceremonies, and identity this see, Catherine Richardson, ‘Dugdale and the Material Culture of Warwickshire,’ in C. Dyer and C. Richardson eds., William Dugdale, Historian, 1605-86: His Life, His Writings and His County (Boydell and Brewer, 2009).

[4]Eric Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p.123.

Mudlarking on the Thames, Part 2: What can we do with Fragments and Waste?

Image One: The group standing on shards under the Shard.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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?

Image Two: Items lost and found.

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.[3] 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.

Hannah Lilley


[1] Search the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database here for all sorts of things lost and found: <https://finds.org.uk/>, Bottle dumps: < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-22336710>.

[2] ‘Mudlark’, OED. See also: Evans, F. (2017, 09). The river’s debris is my pleasure and my obsession. Apollo, 186, 29. Retrieved from: <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1935786815?accountid=8630&gt; and Sanderling, T. (2016, Oct 12). Just mudlarking about. Country Life,94-95. Retrieved from <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1828172610?accountid=8630&gt;.

[3] <https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jun/09/tales-of-the-thames-joining-the-new-mudlarkers> and <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/21/-sp-thames-mudlarking-foreshore-3d-pictures-audio-nick-stevens>

Skill and Handwriting

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.

My 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?

The 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 practice’ (6a).[1] 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.

Speaking Skill

There are, however, multiple methodological issues when it comes to discussing skill. For example:

  1. 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 through speech.[2]
  2. Skill’s 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.
  3. Environmental factors could play a role in its development/ expression: access to materials, spaces, and social networks.

Handwriting

When 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 post:

  • How is skill individual and how is it social?
  • 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 ‘middling’?
  • 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 Processing

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.

To 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 results.

Chart 1 showing mean area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 2 showing median area (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 3 showing mean perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.
Chart 4 showing median perimeter (in pixels) of samples of letterforms for Lydd clerks (earliest to latest) [sample for letter y doesn’t cover full period]. More information in my thesis: Interpreting Practice: Scribes, Materials and Occupational Identities 1560-1640.

Charts 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 practical skill.

Moralising Handwriting Skill

The 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 qualities.

Image 1. John De Beauchasne and John Baildon, A Booke Containing Diverse Sorts of Hands (1571). Italic hand example. Text: It is the part of a yonge man to reuerence his elders, and of suche/ to choose out the beste and moste commended whose counsayle/ and auctoritie hee maye leane vnto: For the vnskilfulnesse of/ tender yeares myst by old mens experience be ordered & gouern.

Although 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).

As 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.[3]

Writing 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.[4] 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. 

By 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.   


[1] “skill, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, <www.oed.com/view/Entry/180865>. Accessed 17 September 2019.

[2] 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).

[3] Kent History and Library Centre, LY/2/1/1/3 and PRC 31/95 S1.

[4] For letter writing, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).