Keywords: medieval Winchester Leicester business transactions commerce fraud jury trial law merchant guild investigations wool trade quality control weighing standards cloth industry exports middlemen clothiers
Subject: Fraudulent commercial practices
Original source: 1. Public Record Office, Assize Roll Just. Itin. 1/1240, m. 6d; 2. Leicestershire Record Office, Leicester archives, Merchant gild roll
Transcription in: 1. Hubert Hall, ed. Select Cases Concerning the Law Merchant A.D. A.D. 1239-1633, vol. 2, Selden Society, vol.46 (1930), 28-30; 2. Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1899), vol.1, 86-88;
Original language: Latin
Location: Winchester, Leicester
Date: 13th century


[1. A wool deal ca. 1278]

The king has commanded his well-beloved and trustworthy Salomon de Roffa and master Thomas de Sudynton, that whereas he understands from a serious complaint made by William de Dunstapele, his citizen of Winchester, that William purchased from Robert le Bal of Winchester one hundred and three sacks of good saleable wool packaged in eighty-six sarplers; that is, eight marks for each of fifty three of the sacks, and six marks for each of the remaining fifty sacks. Of which sarplers Robert had eight sarplers opened up in William's presence – that is, four of the higher and four of the lower price – so that William should be satisfied [as to quality] and he faithfully promised that the rest of the wool in the sewn-up sarplers was like that in the sarplers opened. William, taking Robert at his word in that regard, transported the whole of the wool (with the exception of two and a half sacks, which were stolen out of Robert's safe-keeping) to St. Omer. When he had them opened there, and displayed for sale, he found the wool sewn up in sixty-eight of the sarplers, which he had not inspected, to be of such poor quality as to be unusable, not at all as had been agreed upon; as a result of which William, through Robert's default in that regard, incurred a loss of one hundred pounds in goods and merchandize.

Because the king does not wish to let such a malicious act, if such has been perpetrated, go unpunished, he has appointed Salomon and Thomas to hold an enquiry, in the presence of law-abiding and judicious merchants and citizens of Winchester, by the oath of reputable and judicious men of the same city, through whom the truth of the matter, as regards the stated facts, can best be ascertained; and to provide prompt and appropriate compensation for the same according to the law merchant. To which end the said Salomon and master Thomas ordered the sheriff of Hampshire to have appear before them at Winchester on 22 January 1278 the required number of qualified men of the city, of whom enquiry could be made and the truth best and most fully ascertained as to the true facts of the matter.

[On that date] William and Robert came before them. William complains against Robert, saying that he ought to have obtained by purchase from Robert one hundred and three sacks of good, saleable wool sewn up in eighty-six sarplers – that is, each of fifty-three sacks for eight marks and each of the remaining sacks for six marks – Robert having eight of the sarplers (that is, four of the higher and four of the lower price) opened up, so that he should be satisfied, and he promised faithfully that the rest of the wool in the sewn-up sarplers was like that in those opened. So that William, taking Robert at his word, transported the whole of the wool (with the exception of two and a half sacks, which were stolen out of Robert's safe-keeping) to St. Omer; of which, when he had them opened there, and displayed for sale, he found the wool sewn up in sixty-eight of the sarplers, which he had not inspected, to be of such poor quality as to be unusable, not at all as had been agreed upon. Because of which William and his employees were placed at risk of being killed in those foreign parts. Furthermore, he complains that whereas he purchased those one hundred and three sacks of wool from Robert in good faith and, according to the customary usage of merchants, left them in his custody until he should send for them, two and a half sacks, priced at twenty marks, were removed from them by Robert or his familiars. As a result of which he suffered a loss and damages to the value of one hundred pounds, wherof he produces suit.

Then Robert comes and says that he was not summoned, nor attached; on the contrary, he has (he says) been brought this very moment from his house by force, to come before the justices to answer William. And in that regard he is told that everyone is, and ought to be, free from all force or coercion in coming to the king's court, or in withdrawing from it at his own free will. Then the sheriff testifies that he [i.e. Robert] had sufficient warning in advance – that is, three days prior to the hearing – and that he applied no force nor coercion in bringing him now before the justices. The citizens and other merchants of Winchester present testify that such advance notice is sufficient for answering a merchant by law merchant. Consequently Robert is informed that he must answer. But he says that he does not wish to answer, and leaves, in contempt of the court. Therefore an inquisition is to be taken on the trespass [of William's accusation].

The jurors say under oath that Robert le Bal sold William de Dunstapele one hundred and three sacks of wool – that is, fifty-three sacks at eight marks each and fifty sacks at six marks each – and that Robert had eight sacks (that is, four of the higher price and four of the lower) opened in William's presence, asserting in good faith, according to the law merchant and the customary usage of merchants, [all] to be of the same quality and from the same clip. On the basis of good faith and Robert's word, William was satisfied to accept the rest of the wool, sight unseen. Afterwards, he deposited the hundred and three sacks in the custody of Robert, who accepted having custody until William should send for them. And they say that while in the custody of Robert, one and a half sacks, worth12 marks, were removed. And they say that William received the rest of the wool from Robert, on the strength of his word, as mentioned. But when he exposed the wool for sale in parts overseas (that is, at St. Omer) the merchants who bought it on his assurance, because he understood it to be true to sample, found it to be false and unusable; as a result of which William has incurred a loss of ten shillings on each of fifty-three sacks, except on four sacks of that [higher] price. As for the remainder of the 83 sacks, excepting four sacks of the lower price, he lost half a mark [each].

Consequently it is decided that William may recover the price [...] from Robert, as well as damages assessed by good and law-abiding citizens and merchants at twenty marks. And Robert is to be arrested and held securely etc.

[2. A cloth deal ca. 1264]

In the 48th year of the reign of Henry III, Roger Aldith had at Lynn two vermilion cloths, of which he sold the better one to Robert de Lincoln, burgess of Lynn. Robert took a sample from one end of that cloth and, going away, left the cloth in Roger's custody. Roger took his second cloth and, placing the end of that cloth over the end of the cloth from which Robert had taken the sample, he cut from that inferior cloth a sample of the same size as the sample taken from the other cloth. Robert came to measure the cloth from which he had taken the sample; but Roger had removed that cloth and substituted in its place the other cloth which he had wickedly marked to be identical to the first. Consequently, Robert measured and accepted that cloth. Afterwards, Robert invited Roger to [come and] dine with him. Roger, so coming, said to Robert: "Wouldn't you like to buy a good cloth from me?" and Robert replied: "I have a better cloth than you had." Then Roger said: "I have a cloth worth 3d. a yard more than the cloth you have."

Robert de Lincoln, suspecting he had been deceived by Roger Aldith in regard to the vermilion cloth he had bought from Roger, went to Robert de Landa and Simon Brokur of Lynn, who had been with him when he bought the cloth, and told them that they knew how he had bought the better of the cloths Roger had, and what Roger had said to him after dinner, and how he suspected he had been cheated. Simon replied: "I'm certain you don't have that cloth which you bought." Together they went straight off to Roger's lodgings, [where] Robert de Lincoln said to Roger: "Show us that good cloth which you told me about late yesterday after dinner," and Roger replied: "I've sold that cloth." But Simon, knowing where the cloth lay under a bed in Roger's lodgings, went there, took out the cloth, and brought it before them. Robert de Landa, having with him in the pleat of his shirt the sample that had been taken from that cloth, placed the sample against the cloth and the deceit was revealed. And so Roger, at the earnest and persistent entreaty of good men made on his behalf, with some difficulty reached a settlement in the amount of 10s. for his offence against Robert de Lincoln.


The above two cases illustrate some of the deceitful practices that might be tried in commercial transactions. Even though there provisions might be made to prevent fraud – such as conduct of transactions in public, inspection of goods, third-party weighing facilities – a measure of trust and good faith was inherent in bargains, especially at a period before detailed record-keeping provided, if not a protection against fraud then at least more support for legal action. Both these cases suggest more than opportunistic fraud; they suggest experienced con-men knowledgeable in manipulating trusting and unwary clients.

Indeed, Roger Aldith had already, on more than one occasion, run afoul of the Leicester authorities for fraudulent practices in his cloth business, as well as for insulting the mayor and the provost of Leicester. So incorrigible was he that he had been expelled from the merchant gild, only to repurchase admission upon a solemn promise not to offend again, upon perpetual loss of membership and a hefty fine. It must have been galling for his fellow Leicester merchants then in Lynn – if such are implied by the "good men" – to have to help him out of a difficulty clearly of his own making. That he survived this further disgrace is indicated by the fact he was a contributor towards community tallages in 1269 and 1270.

Raw wool was the most important commodity exported from medieval England, and might be seen as the oil of the Middle Ages, for it fuelled the cloth-making industries of continental Europe – particularly Flanders (first and foremost), northern France, and northern Italy – though we can only take this analogy so far. Most cloth, apart from the silks that were a luxury product, was made from wool, though some from hemp or flax (canvas, linen). Top-grade English wool was the best in Europe, with Spanish wool unable to match it until the sixteenth century. Its trade was probably already a foundation stone of the English economy by the eleventh century, and by the late Middle Ages almost every large town in England, and across Europe, had a local textile industry, so that English wool could almost always be sold for a good profit, particularly abroad (notwithstanding the overhead of taxes, packing, and shipping).

Many English merchants therefore dealt in wool to some extent. Some, who had developed connections with small producers or had built up knowledge of when and where farmers would market their wool, and having assembled funding (sometimes by partnering with one or more investors), would make periodic circuits of rural markets and sheep-farms, aiming to snap up wool supplies before their competitors could. This strategic knowledge needed to be protected. In February 1260 Leicester's merchant gild enacted various rules regarding their members' participation in the wool trade, including that "no-one who belongs to the gild is to travel through the countryside in the company of outsider merchants, instructing or helping them in the purchase of merchandize, to the detriment of the gild." [Bateson, vol.1, p.92, my translation.]. Offenders would lose their gild membership, while non-gildsmen convicted of the offence were to be exiled from town for a year.

The story of the wool trade in the medieval period is often portrayed as one of gradual but growing monopolization by English middlemen and merchants – thanks in part to royal taxation of foreign exporters and the development of the staple system to favour English exporters – and of increasing channelling of English wool into domestic cloth-making. By the fifteenth century wool had been exceeded by English-made cloth as the major export, although the two together made up more than 90% of England's total earnings from the export business.

Wool was produced from flocks raised on the vast estates of lay and ecclesiastical land-owners, as well as on large numbers of smaller farms generating much smaller quantities. The great estate owners, particularly monastic houses, tended to contract out in advance the sale of annual wool crops to some mercantile exporter, or his agent – an arrangement that was (at least on the surface) less troublesome to the houses, even though they might make less than market price, and more profitable to the agents – who could sell wholesale at fairs or ports, or export and still make a good profit – or at a later period to merchants coordinating industrial cloth production. The crops of the numerous small farms had to be collected by the landlords of the farmers, agents of exporters, or other middlemen, some of whom were professional enough to be described as woolmongers or woolmen. These middlemen tended to be based in the regions where they collected, although some might come from as far afield as London. Some were drawn into exporting in their own right.

Wool was generally bought and sold wholesale by the sack, although smaller quantities such as the nail, or clove (52 to the sack), or the stone were also used. A 'sack' was a weight, however, rather than the container of the wool; the container in which wool was baled was the sarpler, a cloth usually of sturdy hemp or canvas; containers smaller than a sarpler were known as pokes and pockets. These terms were applied both to the cloth packaging and the entire container when filled with wool. The middlemen who bought wool from its producers (i.e. owners of flocks of sheep) would put it into storage until it was time to take it to a fair or until their own premises were visited by merchants who would export the wool. The wool was usually stored loose, with packaging into bales taking place after a sale, but being the responsibility of the middleman prior to exporting it; by the fifteenth century it was required that wool be packed in the county in which sold, and the packaging was an important part of the mercantile process, undertaken by officials or with official supervision, and with the middleman or his agent present. By that period it required about 12 ells of cloth (usually canvas), sewed up, to form a sarpler into which wool would be compressed; the cost of this cloth, which was mostly imported, had to be factored into the sale price of the wool. The amount of wool put into a sarpler varied between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, ranging from half a sack in the earlier period to two sacks or more in the later.

Purchasers would of course want to inspect the wool, to assure themselves of its quality, before placing an order for a certain weight (in sacks) or number of sarplers. The quality of wool varied depending on the region where the sheep were raised, and the age of the wool, and how fine or coarse it was; some of it was considered too poor to use for cloth-making, and contracts sometimes specified that sellers should remove such refuse wool. This variation in quality is reflected in the document above in the two different prices William de Dunstapele was to pay for two different grades of wool he was buying.

By Late Middle Ages it was becoming common for exporters to supervise the packing, in person or by agent, and have each bale marked as to the quality of wool therein and its source region; one fraudulent practice was for merchants to alter the markings to make it appear the wool was higher quality than was the case. The purchaser's merchant-mark would also be applied to bales acquired, and customs collectors came to be expected to record the names of the merchants whose wool was exported. Another fraud was to try to pad wool of one quality with wool of a lesser, as the document above exemplifies, or even to adulterate it with other materials to increase the weight of a sarpler. Weighing, by officials stationed at ports, would take place before sarplers were shipped, and again before being sold at their destination.

With the weight thus determined through a third party, much of the bargaining involved the sale and purchase of wool revolved around its quality; A letter of 1480 from George Cely, acting as the family agent at Calais to receive at the staple there, and to sell at the fairs of the region, family wool, reports back to his father Richard on aspects of the bargaining by one of the family's regular customers:

"He swears to me largely that he has had of yours in time past better middle young Cots. than this wool was. They lay unto me great unkindness that I deal with them under this manner. They say unto me that ye might 'an taken out of this 6 sarplers and the poke, 2 sarplers middle young.... I had much work at Calais ever I could have awarded it for Cots,, and much sticking was against it amongst the Fellowship [of the Staple]. In the reverence of God, see better to the packing of your wool that shall come, or else your wool is like to lose that name that it has had ever affore in time past. I never wist you send coarser wool to Calais for the country than this last was."
[Quoted in Alison Hanham, The Celys and their world: An English merchant family of the fifteenth century, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p.117]

Cloth was a product needed by everyone, rich or poor, and so its manufacture was the driving industry of medieval Europe – particularly in the pre-plague centuries when the population was expanding – with constant effort to improve quality and reduce costs, such as by making lighter, yet still durable, materials that were cheaper to transport, or alternatively to produce cloth such as worsted affordable by the lower-classes for daily wear, if not as long-lasting. Because cloth-making, on a scale other than for household use, was an industry that involved numerous specialized workers in different stages of production, it was natural for it to develop in an urban setting, where the size of population made occupational diversity practicable. During the first half of the twelfth century we see weavers organizing themselves to some degree in a number of the larger towns, such as Lincoln, Winchester, and London; by the close of the century cloth production was an established industry in many towns. Expansion of English involvement in international trade – even though England's raw materials were for some time more important than its manufactured goods – was a boost to the industry, even though English cloth was of a lower quality than that produced in Flanders or Italy (despite workers there relying partly on English wool); whereas, by contrast, the great cities of northern Italy imported quantities of raw materials (for industry and for feeding workers) in order to support its larger-scale industrial productivity.

The growth of the network of fairs in England made it easier for Flemish cloth, imported and distributed by Fleming merchants, to penetrate the English market. But gradually cheaper access to high-quality English wool enabled the domestic cloth industry to become a major source of decent quality woollen textiles, although the export of this was initially dominated by Hanse merchants and other foreigners. Increasing royal taxation of foreigners' exports helped bring more English merchants into a competitive status in this trade. But factors such as urban over-regulation, cheaper rural labour costs, use of country watercourses to power fulling-mills, and the rise of entrepreneurs who could, with very little capital investment, coordinate the various decentralized phases of production, encouraged migration of the English cloth-making industry into the countryside or to smaller market towns (most famously, Lavenham), though these producers did not predominate until the close of the fifteenth century. Prior to that the established urban industry might, in some towns, be weakened by developments, but was not entirely displaced, while in other towns it was not even seriously threatened. In the fourteenth century the cloth industry in Flanders itself suffered from political disturbances, providing greater opportunities for English merchants in both domestic and foreign markets. It has been said that "The most striking characteristic of England's overseas trade in the fourteenth century is the decline of raw wool exports and the steady climb of the export trade in cloth." [Colin Platt, The English Medieval Town, London: Secker & Warburg, 1976. p.88] The competitive production cost of English cloth was, however, offset by rising costs related to distribution (e.g. transportation, and measures to try to exclude English cloth from some European markets), and by continued preference among wealthier customers for the luxury and high-quality textiles of continental producers.



"Salomon de Roffa, Thomas de Sudynton"
Royal justices of assize holding court at Romsey (a market town in Hampshire, lying between Winchester and Southampton). Their commission to try this case by merchant law was entered on the Patent Rolls in January 1278.

"according to the law merchant"
Since both plaintiff and defendant were locals, it was not strictly necessary to proceed by law merchant, but it may have been the king's distaste for the offence, involving a large sum of money (even allowing for plaintiff exaggeration) that prompted him to order this; Edward I had a strong interest in establishing a legal framework that fostered fair commercial activity and was not a patient man. The process enabled the case to be brought to trial more promptly and for compensation to be awarded the plaintiff according to an assessment of men knowledgeable about commercial values.

"22 January"
There is an error in the date; the original has it as Saturday, the feast of St. Vincent, in the sixth year of the reign; that year St. Vincent's day fell on a Friday.

"he is told that"
It is unclear whether this is a statement by the court, or (more probably) Robert declaring, in protest, what he understands to be the case.

"the price"
A blank space has been left in the manuscript for an estimation of the amount. Hall calculated it as £39 16s.8d., assuming that the court accepted the jury's statement reducing the number of sacks William had claimed were stolen.

"Robert de Lincoln, Robert de Landa"
Robert de Lincoln had a residence in the Tuesday Market at Lynn. Robert de la Launde had property in Enguald's Lane (later Ratton Row/Spinner Lane).

"a sample"
The sample taken by Robert was presumably of a particular size intended as a check against fraud, much as a chirograph was divided along an irregular cut, so that a precise fit of the separate portions would prove them genuine parts of the original whole. Robert had evidently inspected both of Roger's cloths before deciding which to buy.

Despite the ordinance, several cases are recorded, over the next half-century, of gildsmen accused of guiding outsiders around the region to buy up wool supplies.

"the family"
The Celys, Stapler merchants, were based in Essex, though they had a residence/office in London. They were nothing exceptional, but for the fact that a collection of the family's letters and other documents were fortuitously preserved in the Public Record Office, thanks to a lawsuit between family members, and give us a window into a late fifteenth century family business, based on the wool trade, that is otherwise lacking in surviving medieval English archives.

A port established on what was then Flemish soil in the eleventh century, it was an important point of import and export for the trade between England and Flanders, and for part of the fourteenth and most of the fifteenth centuries the staple port through which all English goods had to pass before being distributed further afield. Fortified in 1228 it became a base for pirates in the Channel and this provided an excuse for Edward III to capture it, insert English colonists, and make it the English gateway into Flanders and northern France, not only for commerce but also for forces invading France via Normandy.

The family acquired most of its wool from the Cotswolds, sending members into the region at various times of the year on buying missions; they bought mainly from the middlemen dealers, rather than the wool growers.

Made from a cheaper, coarser kind of woollen fibre than broadcloth, worsteds did not require as elaborate processing and was produced, using slightly different techniques and tools, faster and with less labour cost. The natural oils were not washed off so no re-greasing was needed to protect the fibres during combing and spinning. The woven cloth required little or no fulling, napping, or shearing, and its weavers often sold it to others for dyeing and finishing. It proved a versatile textile, suitable for luxury products (such as bed hangings and altar cloths) as well as inexpensive clothing. Worsted yarns were strong so that a lighter-weight cloth could be produced, using worsted yarn for the warp and a regular woollen yarn for the weft. Woollen-worsted hybrids were also produced to improve quality while keeping prices moderate. This type of cloth is generally thought to have been named after a Norfolk village, possibly consequent to the settlement there in the early fourteenth century of numbers of Flemish cloth-workers; however, both the place and date of origin of the cloth are matters of debate. The influx of Fleming immigrants certainly provided a new impetus to the development of the English cloth-making industry, and especially that based in East Anglia (where it became the leading industry – as instanced by Colchester and by Norwich's Worsted Seld), but it was not limited to the period when Edward III was actively encouraging that immigration, nor was the industry dependent on Flemings. Worsted was the principal export of Norwich merchants during the Late Middle Ages; although it had to be shipped via Yarmouth, Norwich's grip on the trade, strengthened by its Worsted Seld, had by the close of the fourteenth century significantly limited Yarmouth merchants' share.

Up to the thirteenth century, fulling was done manually – or rather, bipedally, treading cloth immersed in troughs containing a liquid solution. The introduction of fulling-mills began in that century, though the speed with which this technological advance took hold varied from region to region. Yet the growth of the cloth-making industry in the Late Middle Ages was not driven primarily by technological developments. Apart from the water-powered mills, the only other significant technological change was the gradual migration from distaff to the more productive spinning-wheel.

"rise of entrepreneurs"
Such men – merchants or drapers – were operating in towns from the late thirteenth century, but not on so large a scale as in the fifteenth. In the earlier period, many purchasers of cloth still bought it direct from weavers, unfinished, then took it to fullers, then dyers, and finally tailors, to get a product suitable for making into garments. From the late fourteenth century we find clothiers – perhaps particularly in East Anglia – engaging in the coordination of the various processes involved in cloth production, using artisans rather like semi-independent employees, to generate a steady volume of finished products for them to sell; they might, for example, own flocks of sheep, contract with spinsters, weavers, and cloth-finishers on a cottage industry basis, or even invest capital in their own primitive 'factories' for spinning, dyeing, or fulling. Such clothiers represent an exception to other medieval merchants who tended to specialize less in any single commodity, whose businesses were more self-contained (in terms of relying primarily on the buying and selling acumen of themselves and/or their agents), and who were less interested in developing the industrial side of things.

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Created: October 28, 2014. © Stephen Alsford, 2014