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Mediaeval Commerce (article)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Mediaeval Commerce is an article published in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on 2 march 1889.

Report of a lecture Mediaeval Commerce of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society held at the Portsmouth Guildhall on 29 february 1889, attended and supported by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mediaeval Commerce


On Tuesday evening the Dean of Winchester (Dr. Kitchen) read a paper on "Mediaeval Commerce" at the fortnightly meeting of the Portsmouth Literary and scientific Society, in the Guildhall, Portsmouth. Dr. Axford (President) occupied the chair. — Dr. WARD COUSINS announced at the outset that the Meteorological Department of the British Association were anxious to have the assistance of gentlemen in taking the temperatures of the sea water on the various coasts, and would provide apparatus. — The Dean of Winchester was elected an honorary member, on the motion of the CHAIRMAN, seconded by Mr. JERRARD. — The REV. LECTURER proceeded with his notes on the commerce of the period of Edward III., the father of English Commerce. Legislation was scant then, although in that respect the authorities made exactly the same blunders and paid very much the same penalties as now. The system of competition was little understood, and the caveat emptor principle little understood, so that the State had to step in, very different to now, when the sweating exposures would seem to require the protection of the producer against the buyer.


The lecturer proceeded to show the great difference between and the meals of our ancestors, who had their first meal at eleven in the morning, a supper at five or six, and a final supper at nine. The difference was apparent, too, in the clothing of our time. But the meals of our ancestors were of a very rude and rudimentary kind compared to ours. They had to make great use of their teeth to get through the rough pulse and rough foods on which they fed, and he had seen skulls of monks taken up in Winchester Cathedral where the upper and lower teeth were worn quite level. He drew a picture of Edward III. living among the Guilds of London merchants because he loved them so much. The introduction of Flemish artificers to teach the great towns the arts and manufactures commenced a new epoch in the commerce of the country. They were great meat eaters, so much so that a mediaeval visitor said they ate so much meat that they grew fat and sleepy, and were only saved from apoplexy by the inroads of fleas. (Laughter.)


The whole commerce of the towns was centred in certain guilds. These were a kind of Anglo-Saxon family reunion, then a sworn fraternity, in which each was responsible for his brother's misdeeds. At first no one with blue hands was admitted into the guild because the blue-handed one was a producer. Eventually the producers formed the craft guilds, and between these guilds there was a regular war and even bloodshed. The craft guilds got the better of it in London, where the guilds remaining were the craft guilds. These were the originators of the Trades Unions, and were like the workmen's clubs of nowadays, where the craftsmen assembled after their work was over for convivial purposes. There was one terrible row between the Bootmakers and Cobblers, who clashed to a tremendous extent. The bootmakers were the great aristocracy, and would not be at the same bench as the cobblers, and appeal was made to Queen Elizabeth to settle their differences.


There was great jealousy of outsiders who attempted to come into the great fairs and undersell the guild tradesmen, and the bootmakers sent up a petition from Winchester. "Would the King be so good as to knock these fellows on the head, and get rid of them altogether." (Laughter.) The buyer was protected by the Assizes of beer, bread, and wine against the seller, and if a cask of wine was not up to the standard the head was knocked in, the wine poured in the street, and the seller fired.


The difficulties of transport were very great. All the stone for the building of Winchester Cathedral was brought by water from the Isle of Wight to within a stone's throw of the Cathedral, where they could not reach by water now. But these difficulties were increased by the numerous bands of robbers which infested the highways. Henry the Third came down in a towering rage to Winchester, and was met at the doors of his Palace by two Brabencon merchants, who complained that they had been robbed of two hundred marks of gold by two of his courtiers. This seemed a trifle to the news which reached the King a little later, that two casks of wine intended for his table had been stolen and drunk by robbers on its progress from Southampton to Winchester. Juries of Winchester citizens and outsiders were summoned with orders to find the robbers, and not wishing to disclose the names of the culprits, who they well knew were of themselves and the King's household, were ordered to be hung, and a second jury disclosed the names, with the sentence of their fellows before them, and some fifty people, courtiers and others, were ordered to execution. Indeed, a well-known writer had stated that in all the robbery, murder, and disorder which pervaded the country, Hampshire was the best-known county. (Laughter.)


The lecturer described in interesting detail the great St. Giles Fair at Winchester, at which the great Bishop of Winchester kept his own booth, for it was stated that at a great fire every stall was burnt but that of the Bishop. The fair was held for sixteen days, during which time the Bishop took the keys of the city, and the Mayor and Corporation were sent about their business, all other trade being, by order, suspended within a circuit of seven leagues, that circuit being enlarged so as to include Southampton. All Courts were suspended, and offenders tried at the "Courts of Dusty-foot," and placed in the Bishop's prison. On the whole, the lecturer did not think they had much to complain, as compared with their ancestors, and had a good many things to be thankful for. — After some remarks from the CHAIRMAN, Mr. JOHN HAY moved a vote of thanks to the lecturer, and Dr. GUILLEMARD seconded. — Dr. CONAN DOYLE supported, and expressed his surprise that the information was never given in the histories placed in the hands of the school-boy, as it would form so much more interesting information than dry lists of names and dates, which were little use to anyone. — Dr. WARD COUSINS also spoke, and the vote was carried. — The DEAN replied, and the proceedings terminated.