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22.08.29 The Latin Project (ed.), Before the Merchant Adventurers

22.08.29 The Latin Project (ed.), Before the Merchant Adventurers

In the fourteenth century, York was very distinctly the second city of the kingdom. Today, among the glories that still testify to this long-ago prominence, the hall of the Merchant Adventurers stands proudly on Fossgate, near where it ends at Foss Bridge and just down the street from the great castle. But the Merchant Adventurers Hall, as it now is, actually began life in 1357 as the home of the Fraternity of Jesus and Mary. The fraternity’s accounts for the years of construction and funding and prayers and ceremonies therein have been preserved, though often on tattered and torn paper manuscripts, and are offered here (with useful scholarly aids and appendices). The accounts tell a tale of urban life as it would have been observed on a daily basis by the men and women of the city as they walked past and/or participated in the customary rituals of late medieval spiritual and urban life.

The accounts given here are the earliest ones for York, by a matter of some four decades, and a number of their features or characteristics stand out. One is the amazing level of detail that was recorded and that has subsequently been preserved. Another, fitting neatly into that mountain of detail, is that many of the sums involved, touching amounts both coming in and going out, were often very small, though nevertheless, well worth recording. The entries in this volume of accounts fall basically into two categories, though they were entered in serial fashion as we go through the decade of recorded activity, rather than being separated by categories. There are the many paragraphs or groupings devoted to the accounts of money coming in--money (or land) given to the fraternity--and the paragraphs of accounts of money going out--expenses (of various sorts). Money received came from the fraternity’s members; mostly as annual or regular donations, often supplemented by the entry fees paid by new members. Money disbursed was largely to cover the costs of construction--wages and building materials--but also for in-house expenses such as beer and wine at social occasions

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the 77 pages of accounts is how ordinary they are. There was no great windfall in the tale of construction--no rival to Bishop Wykham devoting much of Sir John Fastolf’s estate towards founding and building an Oxford college. But neither were there any of the catastrophes that would have meant a setback or disaster--no peasant rebels at the walls or a nativist attack on “foreign” workmen. Thanks to a steady flow of what were mostly smallish sums, the Hall was built and the fraternity took its place among the institutions of the city.

The currents or themes mentioned here can be amplified by looking at some of the receipts--records of money coming in. Many were lumped together in a short paragraph (as printed). A typical report: between the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15 and the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist on August 29 (1359), there were six donations. They ranged from 20 pence to one of a full mark (13s. 6d.), giving a total for these two weeks of not quite £2 (fo. 3). But entrance fees were a healthy supplement, and the original grant gave the fraternity what we can think of as a running start: “the whole of that plot of land with all its buildings and appurtenances lying in the street of breadth between the lane which is called Tychour...and the river Foss...” (80: 16 December, 1356).

As the world runs, money always went out as well as coming in. The introduction (v) says there are about 2000 separate items of expenditure in the years under review. Much of it went for the construction, with carpenters figuring prominently in the accounts. There was the 6s. paid to a mason for work on the building’s foundations (fo. 4v.), or the 6d. paid for 2000 nails needed for the roof tiles, or the 3s. paid to John de Colwik, a carpenter (fo. 5). These expenses or disbursements were much in line with the 18d. paid for carrying clay from Heyworth Moor to Petergate in York (fo. 9), or the 5s. 4d. for lead and for the wages of those who worked with it (fo. 25). As the Introduction tells us, there are thousands of these disbursements, and as was the case with most of the in-coming sources of revenue, individually they were mostly small beer. What we have is an elaborate picture of a process or a project, unfolded in many hundreds of small transactions over the course of 12 years. This was probably typical of so many medium-sized medieval construction projects--far removed from the glamor of Henry III’s subsidization of Westminster Abbey but actually bespeaking a broad popular interest and a small but regular dip into many pockets.

As well as the accounts of construction, these documents offer other glimpses of urban life. Some expenditures were for internal use: the porpoise that was brought from Whitby cost £1 (fo. 11), as a special treat, and the more ordinary pleasure of wine or beer the expenditure of 4d. might suffice (fo. 27). And as a regular feature of accounting, every transaction--whether it was money received or spent--was dated and always by the ecclesiastical calendar. The editors have tallied some 60 saints’ days and festivals. These are mostly “the usual suspects”: the various feasts of the Virgin or of John the Baptist and of some of the apostles. But a few calendar markings point to a northern interest or to someone’s personal hagiographic hero, perhaps stemming from a birth date or the anniversary of a memorable occasion. We have “Edmund the Holy King,” the domestic St. Thomas and he who carried the faith to India, the feast of Tiburt and Valerian (14 April), and the translations of both St. Wilfrid and William of York.

This small book is a careful piece of scholarly work. The publications of the Latin Project seem to be collaborative ones; 12 names are given here, for the Project’s fourth volume, and there is a handsome tribute to the late Ann Rycraft who founded and supervised the enterprise. The pictures of pages of the manuscripts (recorded by 20 different scribal hands) are testimony to the perseverance and paleographic skills of the team who put it all together. If the details in the accounts are overwhelming and largely repetitive, this edition nevertheless is powerful testimony to the strength of popular or lay religion, to urban pride in the great city of the North, and to such mundane but useful information as the price of building materials and the cost of labor in the decades after the Black Plague. Notes and appendices enhance the edition’s usefulness, though classroom and student access to this sort of day-in, day-out medieval record would be enhanced were this interesting volume from The Latin Project followed up by an “English Project.”