The Medieval Review 10.03.02

Jefferson, Lisa (ed. and trans.). The Medieval Account Books of the Mercers of London:An Edition and Translation. Vols. 1 and 2. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. 1159. $375.00 ISBN 978-0-7546-6404-8. .

Reviewed by:

Maryanne Kowaleski
Fordham University

This lavish two-volume edition of the accounts of the mistery of the Mercers, often acknowledged as London's premier livery company, provides a transcription and facing-page English translation of the accounts of the wardens of the guild from 1390/1 to 1463/4, which were written largely in the French of England until 1458/9. Also included in the edition are later copies of earlier accounts in 1344 (a fragment) and 1347/8, ordinances and miscellaneous memoranda incorporated into the accounts, accounts from the Renter Wardens' Accounts (from 1442 to 1464 and interleaved in the appropriate year following the main Wardens' Account), and several rentals of the Mercers' extensive properties. The Latin rentals that appear at the beginning of the wardens' accounts are printed without English translation in Appendix 1; Appendix 2 contains the Middle English oaths scribbled at the bottom of the beginning pages of the account book. A select Bibliography, a very extensive name index, and a thorough subject index close the volume.

The Mercers grew wealthy from exporting woolen cloth and importing such luxury fabrics as silk, velvet, and linen, along with other valuable cargoes. They took a leading role in the Merchant Adventurers, a regulated company whose royal charter gave them a virtual monopoly on the export of English cloth to the Low Countries. Among their famous members are Richard Whittington, who left the bulk of his estate to the Mercers to found an almshouse and college of priests; William Caxton, the printer; and Sir John Gresham, the courtier and financier. The Mercers' prominence was reflected in how often they served as aldermen and mayor of London, while their regular business with customers at the royal court bolstered their status and political profile. The definitive history of the Mercers (Anne F. Sutton, The Mercery of London: Trade, Goods and People, 1130- 1578 (Ashgate, 2005)) tracks their economic, political, and charitable activities in considerable detail, drawing in part on these accounts, as well as the Acts of the Court of the Mercers (minutes extant from 1453 to the present), and their other registers and memoranda.

The accounts are edited to the highest standard by an experienced linguist (Jefferson worked for the Anglo-Norman Dictionary for several years) and editor (she has also edited Wardens' Accounts and Court Minute Books of the Goldsmiths' Mistery of London, 1334-1446 [Boydell and Brewer, 2003]). The transcription fully extends all of the highly abbreviated language in the accounts, the layout of the accounts is quite faithful to the original, and the medieval foliation is noted throughout. Questionable translations are always signaled and running heads indicate the year of the account or other document. Given how long the volumes are and the inclusion of other material (such as ordinances, memoranda, and rental accounts) which sometimes come from an altogether different manuscript, it would have been helpful to have a chronological master list of each document type, but this is a minor quibble considering how user-friendly the editor has tried to make the edition.

The editor's forty-one page introduction briefly surveys the extant documentation for the Mercers' guild and discusses various dating problems before offering a more extensive discussion of the manuscripts and when different sections were written. Her detailed inventory of the hands and scribes in the Wardens' Accounts--many of whom were scriveners that she can firmly identify--will be of interest to those working on scribal issues in medieval London, especially since Adam Pinkhurst, who wrote the Hengwrt and Ellesmere Chaucer manuscripts, penned the accounts for 1391/2 and perhaps other parts of the manuscript. In addition to the manuscript book containing the Wardens' Accounts, Jefferson describes the Renter Wardens' Account Book, which covers the period from 1442 to 1500, although she only transcribes the accounts up to 1464 in this edition, since that was the date of the last extant Wardens' Account. Unlike the Wardens' Accounts, the Renter Book was written in English except for Latin used in the initial pages and the occasional phrase in French. This particular source has been little studied by scholars, so printing even a few of the accounts is a boon. The introduction ends with a useful description of the accounting system employed by the Mercers and others at this time; a discussion of the languages used in the accounts, particularly the vocabulary of accounting; a sketch of the editorial method followed; and an explanation of how she addressed particular problems which cropped up in doing the translation. This useful background is supplemented by very full footnotes to both the transcription and translation that explain the meaning of many obscure terms, offer further background on individuals or properties which appear in the accounts, and signal particular scribal features in the manuscripts. They do not, however, explain all the obscure passages in the text; for further context, readers will need to consult Anne Sutton's work.

The accounts provide tremendous details about the members of the guild since they list the fees that each paid upon entering the guild and livery, as well as the name of masters and their particular apprentices. The exhaustive name index is particularly helpful in specifying the nature of an individual's appearance in the accounts as, for example, an apprentice, warden, beadle, rent-collector, tenant, donor, or payer of fees or fines. The guild's control over members' economic activities is on full display in the accounts, which frequently record fines assessed on those who broke the mistery's ordinances or exhibited other types of bad behavior, such as "discourteous language" used by one mercer against another in court. The accounts also show where the Mercers spent money to pursue lawsuits or curry favor from judges, officials, and others in positions of power. Regular expenses on the vestments and furnishings of the guild's chapel and salaries for their chaplains show the Mercers' religious concerns, while their expenditure on alms for less well-off members or the tenants of their almshouse reflect their charitable enterprises.

The Mercers' income came from a variety of fees, fines, bequests, gifts, special levies (particularly for protecting convoys of their ships overseas during wartime), and rents, which grew significantly over the course of this period as their property holdings expanded. The accounts offer useful details about particular properties: their rents, tenants, allowances made for vacancies, specific repairs, and the cost of labor and materials. These details are especially full from 1442 on, when the Renter Wardens' Accounts survive. Scholars seeking to understand the vagaries of the London property market or the level of investment maintained by corporate landowners when the economy was depressed, as it was in much of the mid-fifteenth century, will benefit tremendously from the data offered in these accounts, although they will need to go to the manuscript originals for the period after 1464, when this edition stops.

The disbursements made by the Mercers were far more varied than their receipts, and take up the major portion of each annual account. There are the usual entries for salaries, alms, quit-rents, property repairs, legal expenses, furnishings for the chapel and Hall, and the guild's celebratory activities. The latter offers insights into the various rituals that displayed and augmented the status of the Mercers, including payments for their annual feast, rose garlands for the four newly-elected wardens, a mummers' play performed for the king, obit celebrations funded by bequests, special livery of violet gowns and scarlet hoods for the bachelors (young freemen of the guild who had not yet attained the livery) who accompanied the mayor's procession, and barges to Westminster to witness London sheriffs and mayors being sworn in or to attend special royal occasions, such as a coronation or the birth of a new prince. Failure to attend (or arrive late at) civic or royal events deemed important or to wear the guild livery when required could result in significant fines. The Mercers also invested heavily in musicians (mainly trumpeters) who played in various processions and were given yearly payments as well as drink subsidies and hoods; in 1444 the accounts record 17 yards of crimson cloth purchased for the hoods of seventeen musicians. Along the way the accounts name the prices of many different types of goods, as well as a whole host of other occupations that did business with the Mercers, including the silkwoman admitted to the Silkwomen's craft (over which the Mercers had some supervisory control according to Anne Sutton), scriveners writing up guild documents, the chapman accused of illegally hawking goods in London, a glazier for making a glass with a maiden's head (the symbol of the Mercers' fraternity), shippers taking goods or messages across the sea, goldsmiths for pearls to decorate vestments, embroiderers for needle-work on vestments (one depicting the Resurrection), painters for images for the chapel, an illuminator who happened to be a tenant, priests who said obits and presided over guild ceremonies, and a whole host of carpenters, masons, pavers, and others hired for building projects. These tantalizing references are what make medieval accounts such as these so useful and fascinating to read.