13.09.18, Tearle, ed., The Accounts of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, Luton

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Joel T. Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 13.09.18

Tearle, Barbara. The Accounts of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, Luton, 1526/7-1546/7. The Publications of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, 91. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. lxxvi, 295. ISBN: 9780851550787.

Reviewed by:
Joel T. Rosenthal
SUNY Stony Brook (emeritus)

The guild of the Holy Trinity at Luton, Bedfordshire, was but one of hundreds of such guilds that could be found in late medieval England--all of them brought to a swift and draconic end by the second Chantries Act of Edward VI, 1548. In this volume we have the annual accounts for the last twenty years of the guild, transcribed in full with voluminous notes and other user-friendly aids for reader and student. As an urban guild, Holy Trinity--established in 1474--served both a spiritual purpose, as a nexus of prayers for its members and others whom they named, and a social or political one in the life of the town, with a mixed-sex membership that ran into the hundreds (Tables I and II, pp. xxi and xxiii); it was never an elite affair nor was it a cursus honorum to high civic office. The annual accounts all follow a standardized book-keeping practice: the amount of cash carried over from the previous year, the sources of the guild's income, the amounts expended to subsidize prayers services, the amount spent on a feast of rather lavish proportions held each year on "brotherhood day," the amount spent on repairs of guild property, and an inventory of some treasured possessions and of various documents of privilege that legitimized the guild's existence and activities. In a series of useful tables in a long and comprehensive introduction Tearle summarizes the yearly ups and downs of the guild's health and fortunes, each account running from each Michaelmas (29 September) to the following one at which time a new set of officials took charge and received their paper from their outgoing counterparts. In addition to the accounts the volume gives us nine colored plates depicting key documents and buildings, old and new, plus an extremely helpful glossary (in part to cover the peculiarities of 16th century orthography). Despite some gaps and confusion about chronology and the identity of the guild's masters and wardens, the accounts indicate that in its final decades it always was "in the black" and without any indication of scandal or internal strife.

Tearle points out that much of the interest of these bread-and-butter accounts is in their details, the minutia of comfortable urban life as conducted in a minor market town of some 1000-1500 people located about twenty miles north of London. That each year's business was taking place and being recorded in the very years in which Henry VIII was breaking with Rome, in which More and Fisher were going to the block, in which Carthusian priors were being hung for rejecting the Act of Supremacy, and in which the English bible was becoming a staple of home and church--and all without any notice or reference or effect, as far as the accounts go--is a powerful reminder of how life rolls along, at least until it comes to a stop. The only sign of impending doom is the omission, in the last annual inventory of such prized possessions as the "sylver maser...[and] vj sylver sponys...[and] ij other sylver sponys...[and] a sylver salt parcel gyltt," items listed for earlier years when they were passed on along with the accounts. Presumably these treasures had been hidden away in the hope of a return to the good old days.

The details of the accounts offer glimpses of and insights into this tableau of life as it rolled along what would have seemed a fairly even road. The fiscal or accounting year usually begin with about £75-80 on hand, the various sources of income bringing in about £120 (as in 1533-1534), the two categories of dirges eating up about £10-15, the big feast running to some £10-20, and repairs to the guild's property, depending on what was needed, could be anywhere between a pound or two and £10. The sources of income were fairly standard and fairly steady: bequests, gifts, rents, etc: "a pece of land" or "a tube of ale" or 2s.4d. "for xvjth lame skins" and a great deal more of this sort. Details about each year's dirges, whether "standing dyrges" (sort of standing orders for prayers for a regular list of the deceased) or "dryges of casweltes" (for those who had died in the year) give a grim idea of the year's tally of death and dying. For 1534-1535 no fewer than 121 people are named in the long list of dyrges of cassweltes, being roughly divided equally between the sexes. This sort of information from such a large data base prompts a look at such matters as the popularity of pre-reformation baptismal names. Among the men we have fifteen who had been named Thomas, twelve John, ten Richard, six Edward, and five William, while for the women the leaders were Jane ("Jone") with fourteen instances, eleven for Elisabeth, nine for Anne, seven for Alys, and eight for Margaret or Margery. A few other names pass through quickly: Randall, Roger, Perceval, Oliver for a man or two, Cecil or Matilda or Bridget or Emma among the women.

The annual feast was a lavish affair and must have been one of the high points of the civic year. It certainly commands a good deal of attention in the yearly accounting and its details tell us much about communal culture and the expenditure of communal funds. Terle suggests that the grand style of catering and serving was actually intended for only about 100-150 people at table, with substantial "left overs" planned and arranged, from the start, for subsequent distribution as almsgiving in deference to the "good works" of feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. And lavish the feast surely was, with money being spent on impressive quantities of geese, pigs, beef, rabbits, lamb, fish, and wildfowl, as well as for considerable quantities of eggs, milk, butter, wheat, malt, and the like. For the feast of 1529-1530 we can tally 14 different suppliers paid to deliver 136 chickens (at the cost of 4s. 6d); for capons to go with the chickens, seventeen people delivered sixty-two birds (and were paid 3s. 10 1/2 d.). The spice and exotic food list bespeaks both affluence and access, as for the feast of 1532-1533 there was the purchase of pepper, saffron, cloves, cinnamon ("Senemond"), anise seed, licorice, dates, raisins, mace, sugar, almonds, and ginger. Nor do the expenses end with the food, for servants, cooks, carters, butlers, hastelars, and others, along with minstrels and harpers, all had a role to play and a bill to present. As well as "the mynstrelles that came from London" (for which they received 10s.) there were those, presumably locals, who received lesser amounts "for Watchyng of the mete all nyght" or for "kepyng of the upper buttre."

One larger conclusion we can draw from a survey of these accounts is how "normal" life was, in many respects, until the Reformation fell from above. Another is that communal (fraternal) life was a large and regular part of the public sphere--and of how, in a world of prayers for the dead and the anticipated distribution of left overs--of how the public and the private spheres were not readily separable. This Luton guild of the Holy Trinity was too small an affair for us to say that it was "big business." But it was regular business, enrolling hundreds among its members, praying for thousands in the decades we can see here, and--admittedly at a level of small amounts of money and occasional or seasonal employment--a regular part of the economic as well as the civic life of the town. If we look at the feast of 1526-1527, we find five butlers (including "John Stevyn & hys wyff"), some minstrels (including "Seybrook & his feloo"), five cooks, six hastlers (who were general kitchen help), and twenty-five men hired as "turners." Mostly the men and the many women in these categories worked for a day or two, usually for a few pence; no one made a living from helping at the Guild's feast, but--like chaplains always on the lookout to pick up a prayer service or two--the annual opportunity to get a few days' work was a regular part of the civic year. Some who served the guild did a bit better: 3s. 4d. for "beryng of the mace," or a very substantial 6s. 8d. for "making of the accompte booke & hys attendaunce." When the accounts were turned over to the in-coming officials the breakfast at which this was done could also be a costly affair: 11.s. in 1526-1527, 10s. 11d. in 1534. The guild was a fair sized player in the cash economy of a prosperous market town.

The local record societies of the English counties have been enriching our stock of accessible primary sources for well over a century and a half. For 100 years--since 1913--editors have been publishing their efforts under the imprint of the Bedfordshire Record Society, presenting us with wills, cartularies, court rolls, and biographical material on the knights of the shire, among the Society's offerings. The guild accounts from Luton contain no surprises except, perhaps, in what we can think of as their normality, their routinized style, and their outreach to so many men and women. If the officers were always men, their wives and sisters and daughters certainly figured in the dirges, though perhaps not at the feasting table. But at least when it came to spreading the pennies and recruiting those who would serve at the Guild's many functions, we find women to be involved; those many who supplied the milk, butter, and cheese, those who worked with their husbands ("payd to John Stevyns & his Wyef for fettyng in of closse & beryng Whome of them"), or who delivered "vij gees" for 2s. If the Guild of the Holy Trinity was hardly a world of gender equity or equality, its accounts--thanks to their diligent editor (who is general editor for the Society)--at least show the wide circles of civic involvement and of a participatory society, whatever levels of hierarchy and patriarchy and exploitation lie behind these annual accounts.

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Author Biography

Joel T. Rosenthal

SUNY Stony Brook (emeritus)