Preface to the Second Edition

Pages vii-ix

The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2003.

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Numbers refer to the Select Supplementary Bibliography, below. FT (Fur Trade) indicates page references in the following text.

Since Sylvia Thrupp led the way with her work on London merchants and the Grocers in particular, the study of the history of medieval London has been transformed. Much interesting work has been done on a wide variety of subjects. In particular, the history of guilds and fraternities, in London and elsewhere, has attracted much attention. I have followed up this study of 1966 on the fur trade – in essence a study of the London skinners and the Skinners' Company – in two articles: one suggesting the limitations of the study of guilds as an approach to understanding the complex and lively economy of fourteenth-century London (39); another concentrating on the different pressures which drew together members of the leading trades in the thirteenth century (40). I have also considered further the role of women in the industry (41). Important contributions have been made by Gervase Rosser, who followed up his work on Westminster with studies of guilds in general, illuminating his work on English guilds by studies of those in European towns (34, 35).

Skinners and tailors had many interests in common despite sharp contrasts in the history of their associations. Matthew Davies' work therefore on tailors and the Merchant Taylors' Company, helped by the existence of wardens' accounts from 1398, virtually a century before the surviving accounts of the Skinners' Company, indirectly supplements the history of the skinners and their company (4, 16). His articles are particularly helpful in shedding light on the activities of London guilds in general, the exercise of their powers, and relations with the City authorities (17, 18). Another glimpse of skinners' activities has been revealed by Caroline Barron's study of the London radicals of the 1440s, since a group of skinners was associated with the tailors in the disputes of those years (10). The commercial and political background to the struggles of the Grocers' Company, and therefore of the major livery companies, is analysed in considerable detail by Pamela Nightingale (32).

A major recent study of the medieval fur trade is that by Robert Delort. He makes an important contribution to the history of clothing, essential to mankind and yet only relatively recently the object of serious study by scholars. His book is a very substantial work, a doctoral thesis presented to the University of Paris in 1975 (20). In a shorter and more accessible article on the trade of Andrea Barbarigo, Delort deals more comprehensively with the subject than his title suggests (19). His survey of the wearing of furs, the vocabulary of the fur trade, and the exchange of skins and furs throughout western Europe is based on an extensive range of sources. He supplies not only the context within which the English trade may be studied, but also essential further investigations. Working independently we have reached similar conclusions about the main developments in the trade.

Delort was very interested in wardrobes in the great households and others where records have survived, and particularly in evidence for the styles of clothing worn. He noted the change of fashion from c. 1360 to fuller sleeves and more voluminous robes, often pleated and fitted at the waist, which required both more material and more fur. Following complex calculations, he found that the fur lining for a man's houppelande c. 1390 required 600 bellies of minever, but fifteen years later for a man of similar rank regardless of his size, 2,150 bellies or 300 marten skins were required (20, p. 312; cf. pp. 280, 377–89). He was thus able to demonstrate conclusively the impact of these changes on the fur trade. Presumably plenty of work was then available for London skinners, and this may go far to explaining the prosperity of the small masters and their fraternity in the first half of the fifteenth century (FT, pp. 83, 112–14).

Paintings from that period vividly illustrate this change, particularly for women's clothing. The finest representation of a robe fully lined with minever is that of 'The Virgin and Child in front of a fire', one leaf of a diptych now in the Hermitage, painted c. 1430–40 by a member of Robert Campin's circle, and possibly based on a lost original by Campin. Here the Virgin, in a very full blue robe, has thrown back part of her skirt to reveal the lining, so that she may rest her baby on a towel on the soft fur. (fn. 1) Another painting which shows a full fur lining as well as a brocade underskirt is that of 'The Magdalen reading', painted c. 1435 by Rogier van der Weyden, in the National Gallery, London. This is the robe described in FT, p. 141, as 'a bright clear green lined with grey squirrel', but wrongly assigned there to Jan van Eyck's painting of the wife of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini. The latter's robe is a much duller green edged and fully lined with a fur which is difficult to identify. Van Eyck clearly did not mean tc indicate the finest white ermine – or such alternatives as white lettice or pured minever – since he contrasted the creamy buff fur with the white head-dress. Variations do however occur naturally in ermine skins from some areas and in the off-season. But it is also possible, as current research suggests, that whereas the painter of 'The Virgin and Child in front of a fire' made the pattern of minever an essential part of his design, van Eyck may have preferred not even to distinguish the separate skins for the lining of the robe, but rather to paint a simple edging of plain fur to suit his artistic design for this imagined room (12).

Delort's account of the chief trading routes, the major ports and fairs, and distribution of furs throughout western Europe (20, pp. 1002–1153) is far fuller and in some directions more balanced than mine. Concentration on the Novgorod-Bruges-London trade has obscured the continuation of the trade from France and the Mediterranean to English ports, as well as English exports of lamb and rabbit skins. One aspect which is of particular interest is his detailed investigation of costs of transport: he estimated that the costs of transport from Novgorod via the Baltic and North Sea might average 1 per cent, whereas the overland journey from the North to Venice faced costs which might be as much as 10 per cent. Small wonder that Italians gave up wearing furs earlier than northerners.

Two terms used in the fur trade and noted in the Glossary (FT, p. 215) are discussed by Delort, and my earlier definitions should be corrected. Roserella (rositen, rosereuil), he considered to be summer ermine, 'l'ermine roussâtre' (20, pp. 29–30). Konynghe, found in Hanseatic cargoes and as rois or rais in markets in France, Delort considers to be a white fur probably related to cuniculus (20, pp. 35–8). Continental European sources distinguish between skins of agneaux de romenie or lombardie and skins of agnelets (avortons, albertoni), skins of very young or new-born lambs. English sources after the thirteenth century use one term only, budge, a name largely restricted to England, for both types, and this disguises the use of these curled furs, later to be associated with Astrakhan. Although widely used, they were rarely represented by contemporary artists.

Janet Martin in her study of the medieval fur trade (29) was particularly concerned to estimate its significance for the history of Russia. Her expertise in the Russian language, and access to archival collections and libraries in Moscow and St Petersburg, have given her a particular advantage. She provides, for instance, material essential to understanding the development of the export trade from Novgorod in squirrel skins. She has used the work of M.P. Lesnikov and A.L. Khoroschevich, two Russian scholars interested in the trade in furs with western Europe, and lists their work in her very full bibliography.

I should like to thank the London Record Society for proposing this re-issue and Vanessa Harding for editing and organising it. I am happy, too, to be able to thank here the many people with whom I have enjoyed discussing medieval London, guilds, and furs over so many years and whose help it would have been a pleasure – if not totally impracticable – to acknowledge individually. But I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Caroline Barron, and to Heather Creaton for invaluable help.


March 2003


  • 1. Reproduced in black-and-white in Campbell, L., The Fifteenth-century Netherlandish Schools (London, National Gallery, 1998), p. 87; in colour in Piotrovsky, B., Treasures of the Hermitage Leningrad, 1987; London, 1990), plate 149.