|COMMERCE AND ITS REGULATION|
|Subject:||Bargaining for cloth and wool|
|Original source:||Original edition of William Caxton's Dialogues in French and English, Ripon Cathedral Library|
|Transcription in:||Henry Bradley, ed. Dialogues in French and English by William Caxton. London: Early English Text Society, 1900, 14-19.|
|Original language:||Middle English|
I will explain and teach you
First go to the hall
So you may begin
[To which the reply is]
"I hope so, ma'am,
"Six shillings the ell,
"That doesn't make sense to me.
"You'd have a good deal
"I believe you well enough.
"What is its value to you, sir?"
"Ma'am, to me it's worth ...
"That's not a serious offer
"Lady, you'd lose nothing on the deal,
"Let me consider for a moment.
"Well then, there's not much point
"What length shall I cut for you?"
"As much as you think
"Sir, you'd require
"Cut me that, for Heaven's sake.
"Two and a half ells."
"That's a good width.
"Upon my soul, it's all the same fabric.
"Measure it carefully, ma'am."
"Sir, my conscience wouldn't permit me
"I'm confident of that, ma'am;
"Well if you want, sir,
"No indeed, ma'am,
"I shan't, if you don't mind.
"No ma'am, since I am
"Sir, if you give me
"Here you are lady, count it."
"This here is all good money."
"Very well; and I can give it out?"
"Yes, you can use it throughout the town
"My dear sir, I am quite content with this.
"Thank you very much.
Of London, of York,
Also, I hope to go,
There I shall buy wool:
"What weight do you sell by?
To which the response is
Yet I cannot finish
Now you have heard
Cloth and wool were the most important commodities of commerce in Bruges, where the original of this text is believed to have been composed around the middle section of the fourteenth century. By that period Flemish cities dominated the cloth-making industry thanks to high quality products made from good quality English wool, and Bruges' market hall was the pre-eminent permanent facility that is, beyond the temporary great fairs to buy a wide range of these cloths. As a focus for the cloth trade, Bruges also drew other imported goods, such as English ale and herring, which were then redistributed by Flemish middlemen; similarly, English and other merchants used Bruges as a node through which to import into England goods from Germany and the Mediterranean. It was a relatively short voyage between England and Flanders, and so natural that the merchants from each country would travel back and forth with some regularity; a small colony of English merchants and their factors and dependents, with fluctuating membership, was established in Bruges. The count of Flanders gave this colony official recognition through a charter in 1359: the colony was permitted its own weigh-house; it had the right to regulate all affairs in which only its members were implicated (except those serious enough to call for capital punishment), and to participate with Brugeois in arbitrating disputes between members and non-members; the civic authorities would enforce payment of debts owed to members; and members' property would not be subject to seizure in reprisal for offences (e.g. piracy) committed by Englishmen elsewhere.
The Bruges authorities tried to protect their merchants' dominance by prohibiting visiting English traders from selling wool there to anyone other than a Flemish subject, or from selling English broadcloth at all (though worsteds, newer and less fine, were permitted). Merchants, both English and Flemish, responded by smuggling in small quantities of English cloth, while the English government responded by trying to push up the price of Flemish product through high export taxes on wool, and later by transferring away from Bruges the role of wool staple, through which almost all exported wool was supposed to pass; after experiments with the staple elswhere, including in English towns, Calais was designated to that role for most of the period 1363-1588. However, although that change, the growth of the English textile industry, and increasing restrictions on wool exports, impacted the Flemish cloth trade, internal political conflict and conquest by the House of Burgundy probably did as much damage to the Flemish economy. Nonetheless, Bruges retained a prominent role in both industry and commerce.
Cloth was the manufactured good most heavily traded during the Late Middle Ages across Europe, for everyone needed clothing, and the upper echelons of society used it to display their wealth and status; but few places were as heavily reliant, economically, on cloth production and the cloth trade as was Flanders. Not surprising then, that the above text was written originally as a bilingual manual, in French and in Flemish, perhaps initially for language instruction, but later found useful as a phrase-book for self-instruction. In the latter capacity a copy is supposed to have come into the hands of cloth-trader William Caxton, during the time he was active as a merchant and as administrator of the English colony in Bruges; later in his career he printed an adaptation that substituted English for Flemish.
By, if not before, the point Caxton produced his version, the text appears to have had merchants as its target market. Indeed, according to Lisa Cooper "The Dialogues, however, is not simply 'permeated' by mercantilism: commerce in all its guises, from production to consumption, is its explicit subject, while the means to successful exchange is its explicit lesson." [Artisans and Narrative Craft in Late Medieval England, Cambridge: University Press, 2011, p.36]
Central to Caxton's version, and arguably to other adaptations, are the sections dealing with trades, commerce, and the names of commodities of various types, while others provided assistance of the kind one finds in modern travel guides, related to accommodations, dining, money, etiquette, greetings and other key elements of polite conversation. One of the most detailed dialogues given in the book is a model for a bargaining session that takes place inside the market hall at Bruges between a buyer and a seller of cloth; the conversation is accompanied by a list of towns and fairs where cloth could be bought and sold, and appended to it is advice about buying raw wool. This component of the manual further emphasizes that commercial travellers were envisaged as a key audience. Caxton had presumably either found the book a useful learning and/or reference tool during his time in Bruges, or a fellow-mercer had recommended it to him; he may have shown a copy to other mercers after his return to England and so started to generate a demand for copies.
Caxton's English translation of the exchange between a woman selling textiles and a male shopper presents idiomatic expressions current in his time, he having made some minor adaptations from the older Flemish that was his source; the text is complicated slightly by the occasional insertion of optional alternatives for one or other of the parties to the conversation. I have had to be freer than usual in rendering it intelligible in modern English, in an effort to capture the turn-of-phrase that might be heard in a twentieth-century marketplace (itself a declining institution); in this I have aimed to reflect the sentiment and the apparent bargaining tactics as they first negotiate the price, then the amount to be purchased rather than give a verbatim version that would not ring true to modern ears. Either Caxton or his source has made the shopper an English merchant, but no stranger to Bruges it seems, for he is well aware that if he has any concerns about the honesty of the vendor he can call on the services of a civic official to check the accuracy of the vendor's measuring tools and to enforce official standards if necessary. But this is not necessary; the haggling is fairly routine and reasonably amicable (although the vendor seems, or pretends herself, offended by even the implication she would sell by bad measure), beginning with politenesses and ending with mutual expression of interest in doing business in the future. It would have been counterproductive for the manual to present a more complex or heated negotiation; the purpose was to show the etiquette of a civilized and fruitful bargaining session.
From a time when commercial activity was looked on with suspicion from some quarters, we reach with Caxton's Dialogues a point where such activity (allowing for caveat emptor) is considered both part of the everyday experience within the mainstream of society, and also worthwhile as a route to socio-economic advancement. There exists a distinctive mercantile culture whose participants are well-dressed, well-fed, live in comfortable houses, have good manners, and whose natural sphere of operations is the marketplace, as opposed to the tournaments of the aristocratic class. While no longer subservient to the landed nobility, they are differentiated somewhat from the artisanal class, which serves their needs both in terms of furnishing the products for commerce and of providing the comforts necessary for their improved lifestyle.
"St. Bartholomew's fair"
|Created: October 28, 2014. Last update: January 6, 2019||© Stephen Alsford, 2014-2019|