Dr John S. Lee’s The Medieval Clothier is remarkable in at least two ways: it gives us wonderful insight into the industry that formed the backbone of medieval England’s economy, and it introduces our brand new series, Working in the Middle Ages. Yes, most of us have felt – or feel – like we’re working in the Middle Ages but what was work really like then? The series will tackle different trades, professions and industries and add greatly to our knowledge of the economy, society and the day-to-day life of ordinary people.
Since cloth-making powered England’s economy in the later Middle Ages, Dr Lee’s book is an ideal choice to open the series. He demonstrates the huge impact that the industry had on society and, in a very real way, on the landscape of the country. But he also introduces us to individuals, explaining their business methods and showing us how the riches accumulated by some were used to shape the community around them.
We usually think of casual wage-earners depending on work offered by wealthy entrepreneurs as a very modern phenomenon. Yet six centuries ago, many people in medieval England earned a living in a similar way, as numerous cloth-workers relied on work organised by wealthy clothiers. Clothiers put out raw materials for spinners, weavers, fullers and other cloth-workers to process, often in their own homes, who were paid by the clothiers for their labour.
Cloth-making became England’s leading industry in the late Middle Ages – no other industry created as much employment or generated as much wealth. Clothiers co-ordinated the different stages of production and found markets for their finished cloth.
Like the modern ‘gig’ economy, the benefits of this system were hotly contested. One group of cloth-workers protested that clothiers ‘give us so little wages for our workmanship that scarcely we be able to live’. Another, a band of weavers, accused ‘the rich men, the clothiers’ of setting a single price for their work. Clothiers like Thomas Paycocke, who died in 1518, left bequests in their wills to ‘my weavers, fullers and shearmen’. He gave additional sums for those ‘that have wrought me very much work’.
A few clothiers were able to amass great wealth from this industry, constructing lavish mansions and elaborate church memorials, which can still be seen today. Thomas Paycocke’s house at Coggeshall, Essex, built to impress in 1509-10 with its stunning woodcarving and elaborate panelling, is now a National Trust property. The carvings still display Thomas’ initials and the merchant’s mark with which he branded his cloth as a sign of its quality. The wealth of Thomas Spring ‘the rich clothier’ of Lavenham, Suffolk, caught the attention of the royal court’s poet, John Skelton, in 1522. The screen constructed to surround Spring’s tomb in Lavenham church in Suffolk engaged craftsmen familiar with commissions for the royal court.
Some clothiers were even celebrated as pioneers of factory production. William Stumpe bought the former abbey at Malmesbury in Wiltshire and by 1542 had filled the monastic buildings with weaving looms. John Winchcombe (c.1489-1557) was remembered as an innovator who put his workers together in a single workshop in Newbury. He was praised in the popular story ‘Jack of Newbury’, written two generations after his death.
This book offers the first recent survey of this hugely important and significant trade and its practitioners across England. It provides a step-by-step explanation of the cloth-making processes. The markets where clothiers sold their cloth are explored, as are the places in which they lived and worked. Clothiers interacted with local and national governments, lobbying to influence legislation as well as being the subject of regulation. Also included are extracts from clothiers’ wills and a gazetteer of places to visit. From the Compton family’s memorial brass in Beckington church to Thomas Wild’s residence in the Commandery at Worcester, you can use this book to explore the houses that the clothiers built and the churches that they endowed, which still shape so much of the English landscape today.