The Dutch Hatmakers of Late Medieval and Tudor London

Thank you for contributing to the Medieval Herald! Please can you begin by providing an overview of your book?

Our book is about a community of immigrant craftsmen from the Low Countries who left their homeland to make a living in London in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Remarkably, they set up their own craft guild, which they called the Fraternity of St. James. They drew up the ordinances of their guild in a scrappy manuscript that was begun in 1501 and was written in the two languages, Dutch and English. The guild was eventually swallowed up by the Haberdashers. Our book tells the story of these people. We have been able to piece together their lives and their language from wills, from court records, and from their unique bilingual guild book, which we have edited here for the first time.

What makes this Guild of Immigrant Craftsmen so special?

London, of course, had lots of guilds, but one of the purposes of medieval guilds was to keep out immigrants from abroad (‘aliens’ in medieval parlance). To practise a craft and to sell craft goods you had to be belong to a guild, and to be a guild member you needed to be a native. The Dutch Hatmakers broke this vicious cycle of exclusion by forming their own craft guild under the guise of corporation that ‘aliens’ were allowed to form, a religious confraternity. The ordinances therefore have a lot to say about acceptable and unacceptable social and religious behaviour, but this is mixed in with regulations governing the hatmaking process and personnel. The Fraternity of St James is exceptional in being an ‘alien’ craft association. It is also exceptional because it composed the first ever bilingual Dutch-English document.

Why was hatmaking in London such an attractive proposition for these Dutchmen? 

There is a combination of factors. Changes in fashion are part of the answer. The English liked caps and close-fitting headgear, but from the later fourteenth century hats with wide brims became all the rage. Chaucer, always alert to social and sartorial developments, is one of the earliest English writers to register the change: the Merchant in the Canterbury Tales wears a ‘Flaundrissh bever hat’. To fabricate felt fur hats hatmakers in the Low Countries had developed new technologies and tools, including the feltmaker’s bow. Until c. 1450, England imported hats from abroad; after that it also imported Dutch hatmakers who began making felt hats in English cities including London. The waves of the Black Death drove up wages in England, so London became an attractive place to work.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book and did you like least? 

What we liked least was finishing the book. Researching and writing the book was such a joy, and we learned so much from each other. Shannon McSheffrey is a historian and Ad Putter is a medieval language and literature expert, and we would not have been able to discover half as much if we had not collaborated. For instance, the guild book names the masters of the guild and Shannon was able to discover various other contemporary records about them. Ad was able to localise the language of the two scribes (both perfectly bilingual) who hailed from completely different regions (Flanders and Gelderland).

What do you hope your readers will learn from this book?

The book packs a huge amount of original research and new data, but above all we hope to have communicated the joys of historical discovery, and to have shown how research into a small craft fraternity and its manuscript leads out into all kinds of areas: the history of urban migration, the iconography of St James, linguistic interference, medieval criminal law, Middle Dutch dialects, traditional hatmaking techniques, the extinction of beavers, differences between Dutch and English handwriting, and so on. It’s all there in our book.

Part of the series
Medieval and Renaissance Clothing and Textiles
Boydell Press

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SHANNON MCSHEFFREY is Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

AD PUTTER is Professor of Medieval English at the University of Bristol, UK.