Keywords: medieval urban commerce transactions education drapers prices market cloth trade Bruges fairs wool skins Caxton
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
Location: generalized
Date: 1483


I will explain and teach you
How you can negotiate to buy
Woollen cloth or other merchandize.

First go to the hall
Which is in the marketplace.
Go up the stairs;
There you will find the cloths:
Motleyed cloths,
Red or green cloth,
Azure blue,
Yellow, vermilion,
Deep blue, murrey,
Rayed, checkered,
White and blue say,
The scarlet of grain.

So you may begin
With some greeting
Such as shown in the first chapter.

[Then continue by asking]
"Ma'am, what do you want for an ell of this cloth?
That is, what is the wholesale price of cloth?
Or, in briefer speech, how much the ell?"

[To which the reply is]
"Sir, it is reasonable;
I shall give you a reasonable price,
You shall have it good and cheap."

"I hope so, ma'am,
For I have to earn
The things I want to buy.
Let me know what I must pay."

"Six shillings the ell,
If you please."

"That doesn't make sense to me.
For that much I would expect to have
A good scarlet."

"You'd have a good deal
If you did.
For I have some –
Not of the best quality –
Which I wouldn't let go
For seven shillings."

"I believe you well enough.
But this is no such cloth,
Worth that much money,
As you well know!
If you reduce the price of this,
You'll make a sale."

"What is its value to you, sir?"

"Ma'am, to me it's worth ...
Well, three shillings."

"That's not a serious offer
(Or, too much to ask off).
I'd rather you keep
The money in your chest."

"Lady, you'd lose nothing on the deal,
Not a farthing;
But tell me plainly
Why you think I would buy it
Without anything being knocked off."

"Let me consider for a moment.
If you are buying,
You may certainly have it for five shillings
For as many ells
As you want.
I can't go any lower than that."

"Well then, there's not much point
In me trying to persuade you.
So cut me enough for a pair of gowns."

"What length shall I cut for you?"

"As much as you think
I would need
For an overcoat
(Or, for a coat,
For a cloak,
For a pair of hose)."

"Sir, you'd require
A good fifteen ells."

"Cut me that, for Heaven's sake.
How wide is the cloth?"

"Two and a half ells."

"That's a good width.
Cut from the other end."

"Upon my soul, it's all the same fabric.
But I'm happy to do so."

"Measure it carefully, ma'am."

"Sir, my conscience wouldn't permit me
To give you short measure."

"I'm confident of that, ma'am;
If I didn't trust you,
I'd have called for the measurer."

"Well if you want, sir,
Feel free to summon him."

"No indeed, ma'am,
I'm content with you doing it.
For it seems to me
You've dealt with me honestly.
Go ahead and fold it up, won't you."

"I shan't, if you don't mind.
I'd like you to measure it for yourself."

"No ma'am, since I am
Perfectly satisfied
And since my needs have been met
There is no cause to measure it again.
You, boy! If you pick it up and carry it
I'll give you a halfpenny.
Now, ma'am, how much is the total
For what I have purchased from you?"

"Sir, if you give me
19 shillings,
I'll be well paid;
That's how much you owe me."

"Here you are lady, count it."

"What money
Is this you're giving me?"

"Good money;
These are English groats.
Flanders has such a coin;
Placks and half-placks.
The old groats of England
Are worth fivepence,
The new worth fourpence.
You ought to know them –
Plenty of coins pass through your hands."

"You're right, sir.
But we prefer
Rhenish guilders,
Crowns of the [French] king,
Noble ryals of England,
Well-received gold lions,
Or old esterling pence.

"This here is all good money."

"Very well; and I can give it out?"

"Yes, you can use it throughout the town
And all over the region,
For all pennyworths
Of all kinds of merchandize."

"My dear sir, I am quite content with this.
Your money is good here, so
Should you run short of
Any wares
Of the type I sell,
Or that I have in stock,
You may take it
Without a penny or a halfpenny [in down-payment?]."

"Thank you very much.
Rest assured that my money
Will be spent here, rather than elsewhere.
That's only right,
Because of the kindness
And courtesy
You have shown me.
This may be the first,
But it won't be the last
Business you have from me.
At other times I may have need
(Or my close acquaintances)
Of cloths of various kinds,
Of many towns:"

Of London, of York,
Of Bristol, of Bath,
Of Paris, of Rouen,
Of Bruges, of Ghent,
Of Ypres, of Tournai,
Of Lille, of Duiksmuide,
Of Menin, of Commines,
Of Bailleul, of Poperinghe,
Of Oudenaarde, of Hulst,
Of St.-Omer, of Valenciennes,
Of Brussels, of Mechelen
Of Leuven, of Antwerp.

Also, I hope to go,
God willing,
To the fair at Bruges,
To the fair at Antwerp,
To the fair at Bury,
To the fair at Stourbridge,
To the fair at Salisbury,
To St. Bartholomew's fair,
Which is held at London,
To the church holy day at Châlons,
To the fair at Cambridge,
To the procession of Westminster,
To the procession general.

There I shall buy wool:

"What weight do you sell by?
What do you ask for the nail?
How much must I pay for a stone?
What is the cost of a pound
Of this lamb's wool?"

To which the response is
As indicated elsewhere.

Yet I cannot finish
Without buying
Cow hides
From which leather is made,
Or skins of goat or deer
For making good cordwain;
From sheep skins
Can be made basan
Used also for making parchment
On which men write.

Now you have heard
Of cloths, of wool,
Of pells, and of leather
All in one chapter.


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.



"the hall"
The two-storey cloth hall built in 1240 on one side of the marketplace in Bruges still stands, now used as an exhibition centre / art market. With the great belfry (once used as an archive for important civic documents) towering over it, the structure is a symbol of the city's importance in the cloth trade. Comprising four wings around a central courtyard, the interior was spacious enough to accommodate 384 dealers' stalls in 1399. Of the various bells installed in the belfry, one was used to tell time, sounding hours of the beginning of the working day, the opening and closing of market trading, etc., while others produced their own distinctive rings to alert citizens to dangers such as fire, and to alert them to public announcements to be made.

Cloth containing a mixture of colours (which made them more expensive). In a hall hosting multiple vendors, it is hardly surprising that a wide range of colours was available. Yet even a single clothier of moderate means could be expected to stock a selection of cloths. For example, in 1395, when Thomas Humbilton, a London tailor, was pardoned for having recruited a couple of highwaymen to help him break into the Candlewick Street shop of another London tailor by night, their haul included 27 yards of cloth of a tawny brown colour, 18.5 yards of violet cloth, 18.5 yards of one shade of red, 12 yards of another shade of red, and 3 yards of blue.

Dyes producing red colours, the most-used being madder (a plant found in France and Mediterranean countries), were mostly imported into England; but a red could also be extracted from the native plant sorrel.

Different shades of green could be obtained by using plants native to England as dyes.

Blue dyes could be sourced from some native berries, and imports of woad or indigo; they could be lightened or darkened by applying a second dye of different colour.

Dyes came from both home-grown and imported sources, such as saffron, weld, and ladies-bedstraw.

Came from ground cinnabar, imported from the Red Sea by Italian merchants.

Rays (like motleys and checkers), were a specialized fabric, being striped; this effect was obtained by using different coloured yarns for weft and warp.

A rich and well-fixed scarlet colour, produced by a very expensive dye sourced (since Neolithic times) from the dried eggs – which had a grainy appearance – of an oak-eating lice found along the Mediterranean coast, belonging to the genus Kermes, a name (from which derives 'crimson') also applied to the dye. The higher cost of what was in essence a luxury cloth, available in England only by import, made with this dye was part of the reason scarlet tended to be worn by wealthy merchants and members of the urban ruling class, as it provided a visual differentiator from poorer members of society. However, it has been observed that in Flanders, from the fifteenth century, there was a shift away from this regal crimson towards black as the preferred colour of dress for civic leaders [John Munro, "The Anti-Red Shift—To the Dark Side: Colour Changes in Flemish Luxury Woollens, 13001550" in Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol 3 (Boydell Press, 2007) pp.55-56]. Less expensive cloth could be produced by first dyeing blue (with woad), then using a smaller quantity of kermes to give browns, purples, blacks and other colours.

"first chapter"
Here the advice given is to doff your hat (if the person being greeted is of high social status), then to say "Sir, God keep you!" or "Sir, God give you good day", to which the salutee should respond with a welcome.

It is interesting that the author chooses to make the stall operator a woman. It may be that many wives assisted mercantile husbands (who spent much time on the road) in such a role. David Nicholas, ["The English trade in Bruges in the last years of Edward III," Journal of Medieval History, vol.5 (1979), p.28] recounts a case in which an English trader trying to smuggle English cloth into Flanders allegedly used the wife of a Fleming as his receiver and sales agent – presumably a woman with whom he'd had business dealings in the past.

The standard measure of size for cloths, roughly equivalent to a yard or metre.

"Six shillings"
Caxton's text says four shillings, but it appears an error, since the seller's next offer is five shillings, when she should be coming down in price.

"good width"
This would indeed appear to be one of the wider types of cloth on the market. English cloths produced in the late fourteenth century tended to range between roughly twenty and seventy inches in width. The widest was referred to as a broadcloth, a heavy, durable woollen cloth suitable for outer wear.

That is, a market supervisor who ensured fair trading and would have at his disposal official measures of length and weight. In England this task likely fell to whatever official was responsible for mensurage, although we know little of the administration of that toll.

"19 shillings"
No, the total doesn't come close to corresponding with the agreed price multiplied by the number of ells cut. But the book isn't teaching math.

Hadley correctly identifies a plack as a coin of Scotland worth four Scottish pennies; but here the reference is surely to the plaquette, a Flemish coin from which the Scottish took its name.

"The new"
The English groat was reduced in weight in 1464, but left at fourpence, so that the value of older groats increased to fivepence.

"But we"
I differ here from Hadley's division of the conversation between the two parties, after consulting the Michelant version, it seems to me that at some indeterminate point "vous" has been incorrectly transcribed for "nous", and Caxton or his source has chopped and changed this section of text in a way that confuses the issue. I believe the exchange makes more sense the way I have divided it up, even though it does not correspond quite to the flow of conversation in Michelant.

"ryals, lions"
The English ryal, a gold coin, was first struck in March 1465. The Flemish lion, issued by the Duke of Burgundy, was produced between 1454 and May 1466. These are the basis of the argument Philip Grierson ["The Dates of the 'Livre des mestiers' and its Derivatives," Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire, vol.35 (1957)] makes for Caxton's source dating to 1465-66. However, it is possible, though perhaps less likely (if his source was only for personal reference), that Caxton made these updates himself. The version of the text edited by Michelant refers to quite a different set of coins.

"esterling pence"
Coinage of the (Germanic) Easterlings, from which derives the English usage 'sterling'

That is, groats (unlike gold coins) could be used to buy small amounts of goods without the seller refusing them on the grounds he couldn't make change.

"many towns"
Various towns were well-known for particular types, sizes, or colours of cloth. For example, Bruges and Ypres were producers of scarlet, and Mechelen known for its blue broadcloth. The list in Michelant restricts itself to towns in Flanders and Brabant, while Caxton's adds some places further afield, reduces the number of Flemish places, and reorganizes the order of the names somewhat. I have modernized the names where able. Similarly, the list of fairs is limited in Michelant to Bruges, whereas Caxton adds selected English locations; this handful does not represent all major English fairs, but rather fairs closest to London and likeliest to have been known to and visited by Caxton.

Henry I granted a fair to the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds; it was probably held just beyond the main entrance to the abbey, atop the rise that also served as the moot-stow and location of the mint. The presence of the abbey (a relatively wealthy consumer community) and its important shrine to St. Edmunds, attractor of pilgrims, helped make the fair, and the townsmen (who included a number of craftsmen specializing in luxury goods, such as bell-founders and booksellers) prosperous – although the town was already flourishing before the fair was granted, thanks to a controlling abbey that suppressed competitive markets in the vicinity. By mid-thirteenth century the fair was drawing Fleming cloth merchants and French wool-buyers, in addition to those of England; much of its business seems to have revolved around cloth. Bury also developed a modest but lively local cloth-making industry. However, the fair suffered repercussions from the struggle of the burgesses to break free from the overlordship of the abbey.

This fair was granted by King John, to be held at in a suburb of Cambridge to support the leper hospital of St. Mary Magdalen; it was held on riverside fields already in possession of the hospital, known as Stourbridge Common. By the close of the Middle Ages it was on its way to becoming the largest fair in the country, having grown from a two-day event to one lasting over a month; by then it had already been taken over by the town, after the leper colony was closed.

Several fairs were held at Salisbury, at different times in the year, all under the control of bishop and chapter. That referred to here was probably a fair that held in March, granted by Edward II, and taking place in the city itself.

"St. Bartholomew's fair"
Operated by the priory church of that dedication. It was in existence by the time of Henry II. London had few fairs; it hardly needed them.

A cloth-making centre in Champagne, famous for its blankets. Although the town was not part of the Champagne fair circuit, it must have attracted commercial traffic from visitors to those fairs.

Besides the Stourbridge fair, two others are known to have existed in the town itself. That referred to here is probably that which came from 1279 to be known as the Midsummer Fair; it was granted by Henry III, or perhaps his father, to the priory church of St. Giles, Barnwell. This was not without challenge from the burgesses, whose rights to freedom from paying toll there were recognized by a settlement in 1232, by which the prior also agreed to pay the borough 6s.8d per year for licence to hold the fair. From 1496 the town leased the fair from the priory and ten years later acquired complete control of it.

At various points in the Middle Ages several fairs are associated with Westminster, where settlement around the abbey and the royal palace developed an urban character from the thirteenth century, even though it lacked the legal status of a borough and remained under the control of the abbey until the sixteenth. The best-known of these fairs is one supposedly granted the abbey by Edward the Confessor, according to a document issued by Henry III who chartered a fair to take place around a festival dedicated to St. Edward. The reference to procession is unclear; it may perhaps mean the circuit of fairs; although in England there was no formal circuit, certain fairs tended to be on a general itinerary of merchants, though Westminster was not always one of them. Henry III made efforts to have it become a must-visit fair: he exempted from royal prises merchants who frequented it, and had announcements made at other fairs advertising the Westminster event. Matthew Paris claimed Henry also required that while the Westminster fair was active other English fairs should suspend operations and all London shops should close (presumably to force its traders to use the fair); but we may suspect some exaggeration. The king may have briefly experimented with such measures, but they are unlikely to have succeeded or proven popular; indeed, the fair's proximity to active London markets would have provided an inducement for visitors. Matthew seems to have been motivated by complaints on the part of the Bishop of Ely that Westminster's fair was competitive with his own. Henry's efforts managed to draw English and Flemish cloth-dealers to the fair for a while. By Caxton's time it was failing.

Another name for a clove. The narrator here appears to be interested in buying small quantities of wool. Wholesale transactions of wool were generally priced by the sack (a weight rather than a volume), and quantities purchased were packaged into linen-wrapped bales called sarplers, which typically comprised two to three sacks each, or sometimes smaller bales roughly half that size called pokes. It took about 18 ells of linen to wrap a sarpler, and the linen was stamped with a merchant's mark to designate the owner or wholesale purchaser. Depending on where you were trading, a sack might be considered to comprise 52 cloves, each of 7 lb. in weight, or (at the Calais staple) 90 cloves each of 4 lb. in weight. This information is extracted from Alison Hanham, The Celys and Their World: An English Merchant Family of the fifteenth century, Cambridge: University Press, 1985, pt.II, and Alison Hanham, "Profits on English Wool Exports,14721544", Historical Research, vol. 55 (1982).

"one chapter"
Hadley designates it as chapter 5. The Michelant version makes no such clear cut-off, but goes on to the purchase of dyes before proceeding, as does Caxton, to list various other commodities.

"almost all"
English towns who had direct trade connections with Flanders resisted efforts to funnel all exported goods through Calais, and even in the case of wool Berwick and Newcastle-upon-Tyne were permitted to ship northern and Scottish wools directly to Flanders, while Italian merchants were often issued special licences to export to the Mediterranean.

"civic official"
Just to give one English example, Sandwich by-laws of the fourteenth century required that the town's common sergeant be in the marketplace every Saturday with an ell to measure cloths and yarn and ensure they complied with the required dimensions.

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Created: October 28, 2014. Last update: January 6, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2014-2019