The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2003.
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VIII THE TRADE IN SKINS IN THE FIFTEENTH AND SIXTEENTH CENTURIES
Changes in fashion, first the preference for a wide variety of more valuable furs in place of northern squirrel skins, and secondly the declining popularity of furs of any sort, were certainly of decisive importance in the history of the manufacture of furs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But it is not possible to assume that these changes were alone responsible for the virtual collapse of what had been a prosperous and flourishing industry. Such changes are in themselves a response not only to social factors but also to various factors of an economic character. The relative importance, however, of the different elements involved we cannot now hope to assess.
The skinners themselves, attempting in 1592 to explain why 'men were driven to leave off the wearing of such furs', complained that 'the prices of such skins and furs as came to their hands were greatly increased', and that 'they could not have choice of the best sort for Her Majesty's service and her subjects' '. (fn. 1) As the bulk of their supplies had always come from abroad, their explanation suggests that significant changes in the import trade in skins had taken place since the fourteenth century, and that these were at least partly responsible for the changes in fashion.
We are fortunate in that customs accounts make possible some assessment of changes in London's imports. In spite, however, of their great value for the student of London's export trade, the customs accounts raise peculiar difficulties for the study of a relatively insignificant import trade like that in furs. (fn. 2) Such items were not distinguished in the enrolled accounts, and therefore only the original accounts compiled for the collector or controller of customs, in which cargoes were listed individually, are of any value. Such 'particular' accounts are relatively few, especially for the fourteenth century, and some cover only a few months. Nor is the information to be drawn from them always as complete as desired. Totals of skins imported may be upset by the occasional barrel of peltry, the contents of which were not stated. Only a single account gives individual valuations for each item in a cargo, (fn. 3) sufficient to show the range in quality of skins of the same kind, and therefore to reveal the hazards of any attempt to estimate values from the occasional figure to be found in other accounts. A further difficulty springs from the fact that there are two different groups of accounts. Under the terms of the Carta Mercatoria of 1303 all aliens paid the duty known as the petty custom, and after brief suspensions in 1309, and from 1311 to 1322, this became a permanent tax. (fn. 4) Tunnage and poundage, however, was granted to the King by parliament at irregular intervals in the second half of the fourteenth century, and was first granted to a sovereign for life in 1415. (fn. 5) All importers, whether alien or native, paid this duty, but the Hansards' claim to be exempt was finally recognized in 1437. (fn. 6) Thus poundage accounts, while invaluable in providing the only information available about the size of the trade in native hands, are of more limited interest after 1437, when they exclude the trade in the hands of Hansards, the chief carriers of skins. For only one short period, 1390 to 1392, are we comparatively well served by surviving accounts, but as, unfortunately, that was a time when relations between Novgorod and the Hanse were particularly strained, it is probable that the three accounts involved do not give a very representative picture of the trade. (fn. 7)
Nevertheless, while the individual figures and valuations given in the following table on pp. 158–9, drawn from a few comprehensive accounts, include, perforce, some estimated figures and only rarely indicate the volume of the trade in both alien and denizen hands, the general trend they show throughout a century and a half is unmistakable. Imports for the three months from July to Michaelmas 1384 suggest a trade far larger and more valuable than in any subsequent year, and it seems possible that imports for the mid and late fourteenth century were on this scale. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the figures is the over-all decline in the volume of the trade. This was particularly marked in the early and mid fifteenth century; even after the improvement of relations between England and the Hanseatic League, following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474, the rise in imports was only temporary, and by the middle years of the sixteenth century imports of skins were so few that they were rarely listed separately. Within this general pattern changes in the types of skins imported may be seen. On the one hand, the numbers of squirrel skins imported, whether from the Baltic or elsewhere, fell steadily; on the other hand, particularly in the early sixteenth century, there was a small increase in imports of more valuable skins like beaver, ermine, lettice, sable, and marten, but the quantity varied considerably from year to year and such increase as there was did not compensate in value for the reduced quantities of squirrel.
|Skins Imported into London [table continued]|
|Source K.R. Customs Accounts||73/10||194/24||80/2|
|Date||1438–9 Mich.–Mich.||1480–1 Mich.–Mich.||1502–3 Mich.–Mich.|
|Numbers||Value in pounds||Numbers||Value in pounds||Numbers||Value in pounds|
|Squirrel||175,620||..||65,780||420||35,080||146 to 200|
|Marten||700 (fn. 8)||21||..||..||..||..|
The decline in London's imports of skins might perhaps be taken as a symptom of a general recession such as is sometimes thought to have characterized the English economy in the first three-quarters of the fifteenth century. (fn. 9) But the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were certainly a period of remarkable expansion, and yet the fur trade showed few signs of recovery during those years. The changes in the import trade in skins correspond more closely to the changes in fashion already discussed, and other evidence supports this view that squirrel skins, the mainstay of the import trade in the fourteenth century, became less profitable items of exchange during the fifteenth. Hanseatic merchants were themselves commenting on the small profits to be made in the trade in squirrel skins in the early fifteenth century. As early as July 1410 the low prices obtained in Bruges for squirrel skins were noted, and Hildebrand Veckinchusen had already commented on the little profit made on sales of werk in Venice in 1409. His agent pointed out that only good-quality skins were fetching reasonable prices and that it was not worth sending others. (fn. 10) A Riga merchant, some of whose letters written in 1458 are extant, had difficulty in disposing of his cloth in Russia, and found both that the Russians were holding back their skins and that werk could not be sold in Flanders. (fn. 11)
Such comments, however, do not stand alone in the history of Hanseatic trade in the fifteenth century. Under the pressure of economic and political forces the commercial system, apparently securely based on a virtual monopoly of the great trading route between East and West in the fourteenth century, slowly disintegrated during the fifteenth. As the greater part of the furs brought to London in the late fourteenth century was brought by Hansards, it is evident that there was at least some connexion between the declining fortunes of the Hanse and reduced imports of furs. It is, for instance, possible to relate fluctuations in imports with the years of acute tension which marked Anglo-Hanseatic relations in the early and middle years of the fifteenth century. (fn. 12) Rivalry between the two powers sprang from English resentment of Hanseatic privileges in England, and their determination to secure for themselves a place in Baltic trade, protected by similar privileges. This resulted in several serious interruptions of the trade early in the century: from 1405 to 1408 and from 1434 to 1437. Thus from Michaelmas 1436 to Michaelmas 1437 no skins at all of Baltic origin were brought to London by alien merchants. (fn. 13) The political confusion in England in the middle years of the century and the partisan policy of the ruling party, which did not hesitate to antagonize both English and Hanse merchants, had immediate repercussions on the trade, and the piracy and naval war which followed the English capture of the Hanse Bay fleet in 1449 was not checked until the Yorkist return to power with Hanseatic support. The treaty which was signed at Utrecht in 1474 signalized the complete victory of the Hanse, the restoration of its privileges, and the revival of Anglo-Hanseatic trade. (fn. 14) While some furs of Baltic origin had reached England in the period of interrupted trade, presumably via the neutral markets of Zealand and Brabant, they were many fewer in number: during the year 1472 to 1473, for instance, only 34 timbers of valuable skins and 25,500 squirrel skins were imported. (fn. 15) During 1480 to 1481 the improved trade is shown by the 564 timbers of ermine, beaver, lettice, and mink, and the 66,000 squirrel skins imported. (fn. 16)
England was not, however, the League's only enemy in the fifteenth century, nor were her merchants the only ones to challenge Hanseatic monopoly of Baltic trade. Strained relations with the Duke of Burgundy, ruler of all the Netherlands after 1433, weakened the position of the Hanse in Bruges, their chief base in Western Europe, and the Hansards' privileges there were not finally secured until 1457. But their attempt to reestablish the position of Bruges as a staple town in the sixties merely served to confirm the decline of the city, then being steadily outpaced as a commercial centre by Antwerp. At the same time the most easterly kontor of the Hanse, Novgorod, was in an increasingly unhappy position. In 1440 the priest there was put on half pay, for 'few merchants are visiting Novgorod and the factory is decaying from year to year'. (fn. 17) Disputes between Russians and the Hanse grew more and more acrimonious. Russians complained of German attempts to check their freedom of trade and of robbery of their goods; the Germans were roused to frequent closing of the Novgorodfahrt and bitterly resented the wholesale arrest of their merchants, especially when, as in 1425, thirty-six German merchants died in prison. (fn. 18) The final blow came in 1494, when Ivan III of Moscow, acting from both economic and religious motives, closed the kontor in Novgorod and ended for ever the Hanseatic monopoly there. (fn. 19)
During this same period the trade routes leading to the chief bases of the Hanse were seriously endangered by piracy and war. War between England and France threatened shipping in the English Channel and the North Sea; the Baltic was infested by pirates who were encouraged by the intermittent warfare between the League and the Scandinavian countries. The struggles between the East European powers which began in 1410 with war between Poland and the Knights of the Teutonic Order meant that there were few years during the first half of the fifteenth century when the trade along the routes to the east Baltic ports was not disrupted by warfare. (fn. 20) Possibly this helps to explain why the Königsberg Grossschäffer of the Teutonic Order, judging from the accounts printed by Sattler, appears to have sent no furs at all to Bruges for sale from 1419 to 1434, which is in marked contrast to his trade from 1391 to 1399, in which furs played a most important part. (fn. 21)
Hanseatic merchants then attempted to enforce the monopoly of Baltic commerce of which they had been assured in the fourteenth century. But fundamental clashes of interest between different groups of merchants meant that the attempt was doomed to failure. Merchants of Cologne and the Prussian towns, for instance, could not agree on the embargo on trade with England in the fifties, nor were the interests of merchants from Lübeck and the Livonian towns identical. Lübeck merchants, while anxious to maintain the unity of the Hanse, were equally anxious to maintain the supremacy of their port as the indispensable link between East and West, an aim which did not attract the wholehearted co-operation of the merchants of other towns. Then, too, merchants of many German towns, facing their own internal problems, still further harmed their trade by the restrictive regulations by which they sought to protect it, even sometimes at the expense of fellow Hansards. (fn. 22)
However serious the problems faced by Hansards, the Baltic continued to be an important commercial highway. The vigorous attempt made by the Dutch to break the Hanse monopoly there, successful in 1441 after a period of intermittent warfare, is sufficient to indicate the attractions of the trade. (fn. 23) By 1450 not only Dutch and English but French, Walloon, Lombard, Scots, Spanish, and Flemish merchants were to be found on the Livonian coast, and by the end of the century nearly three-quarters of the ships coming through the Sound were Dutch. (fn. 24)
The Hansards were the chief carriers of good-quality peltry and the problems they faced during the fifteenth century must partly explain the declining volume of London's imports. But not all the changes in the trade can be so explained. In England, after 1474, Hansards were in a strong position and their trade flourished ; the naval stores they brought were highly valued and indeed almost indispensable. Yet by the time the attack on their privileges began in 1552 they had almost ceased to bring furs to England. It is even more significant that there was no marked increase in the quantities of furs brought to England by the Dutch and other traders who were then regularly frequenting the Baltic. (fn. 25)
It would appear then that other factors than those so far discussed influenced the trade in furs between Russia and England. That trade, for instance, was also vitally affected by the decisive struggle between Moscow and Novgorod which, ending in the victory of Moscow, marks one of the great turning-points of Russian history. The growth during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of a principality with Moscow as its centre was ultimately to threaten not only Novgorod but all the other powers, Tatars, Lithuanians, and Poles, which hemmed it in. In the able hands of ambitious rulers a policy of expansion was being successfully carried out, even in the fourteenth century, which took settlers from Moscow north of the river Volga. But these moves, following a line of river routes which would bring Moscow to the Baltic and White Sea, quickly brought her into contact with Novgorod traders sent out foraging along the banks of the Volga, one of their key river routes, and, further north in the region of Vologda, cut across the vital route to the north-east. (fn. 26) This threat to Novgorod's main lines of communication was one she could not afford to ignore. While her own internal trade was important, the key position she held as the entrepôt through which valuable Russian goods reached the West depended on uninterrupted access to the more remote provinces of her great empire. Thus far more than political domination was at stake in the conflict between Moscow and Novgorod. The real struggle was fought out in North Dvina Land, and the prize was control of the river routes which led north to the sea and east to the Ural mountains and beyond. (fn. 27)
Novgorod's control over her outlying provinces was never very secure. She demanded little but the recognition of her commercial monopoly and the occasional payment of tribute. (fn. 28) In view, therefore, of the policy of the wealthy merchant oligarchy which dominated the apparently democratic government of Novgorod, it was only a matter of time before the struggle ended in favour of Moscow. (fn. 29) Novgorod had to fight hard to retain North Dvina Land after a revolt in 1397 and another in 1445, but by 1459 Moscow was in control of Vyatka and by 1465 Moscow raiders were disorganizing the trade of Novgorod's most valued province, Yugria. (fn. 30) Novgorod's complete failure to realize the danger of her position or the implications of her dependence on greater Russia for grain supplies led to the dramatic battle of Shelon' in 1471, after which Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow, was master of Novgorod. Although it was not until 1478 that he robbed the city of its possessions, and not until the decade following that he uprooted the boyars and ecclesiastical landowners, the loss of North Dvina Land in 1471 was a real blow to Novgorod as a trading centre. (fn. 31)
Moscow was thenceforward to be the hub of the Russian fur trade. Governed by a ruler who was himself to become, with the opening up of Siberia, one of the greatest merchants of them all, fur traders developed other routes and catered for other markets than had the Novgorod boyars. (fn. 32) Novgorod's traders had turned almost entirely towards the West: Moscow's traditional trade routes, on the contrary, ran south and east. It is evident, for instance, from the comments of Italian visitors like Giosofat Barbaro and Ambrogio Contarini that furs played an important part in the thriving trade between Muscovites and Tatars in the fifteenth century. (fn. 33) Nor was direct contact with the West as easy for Moscow as it had been for Novgorod. Skins undoubtedly continued to reach Baltic traders through Novgorod and the Livonian towns Viborg and Narva, two towns of growing commercial importance in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. (fn. 34) Ships heavily laden with skins were leaving Reval and Riga for Lübeck and Flanders even in the closing years of the century, although there is little evidence from which the volume of the trade passing through Novgorod in the early sixteenth century may be assessed. (fn. 35) But although Moscow had consolidated her position in Western Russia by the establishment of Ivan-gorod in 1492, and by the conquest of Pskov in 1510 and Smolensk in 1513, the hostility of the Livonian towns, Poland, and Lithuania, which culminated in war in 1551, prevented her from developing the Baltic route. Her only direct outlet to the Baltic was through the city of Narva, held only during the Livonian war, from 1558 until its conquest by Sweden in 1581. Moscow preferred, and, in any event, was obliged to develop instead the overland route through Poland and Silesia. Barbaro found on the journeys he began in 1436 that furs from Moscow were being taken to Poland, Prussia, and Flanders, and Contarini noted in 1476 that German and Polish merchants visited Moscow during the winter 'for the sole purpose of buying peltries'. (fn. 36) Skins were regularly carried along this overland route, for which Leipzig was later to become the distributing centre. (fn. 37)
While political difficulties hampered the Baltic trade in skins, similar troubles eventually brought almost to a standstill the trade in Spanish budge. These lambskins of Mediterranean origin had for half a century or so provided London skinners with a fashionable and moderately priced alternative to the more costly Russian skins. Budge skins were available both in black and white, in different qualities, and at a fair range of prices. The finest black skins were considered worthy to grace a royal gown; the flatter skins from the legs, known as 'shanks', made useful linings. Although some, described as Rommenie budge, was coming from North Italy, and lambskins from other parts of the Mediterranean may still have been included under the name budge, it is probable that the bulk of these skins came from Spain during the later fifteenth century; sometimes they were specifically described as bogy de Spayne. (fn. 38)
It was a combination of circumstances which made possible the increased use of budge in the late fifteenth century. Spain's pastoral industry expanded greatly at that time, deliberately encouraged by Ferdinand and Isabella, and efficiently organized by the Mesta, the privileged association of sheep farmers. (fn. 39) Wool, hides, and skins were sent by the Spanish wool merchants to the northern ports, there to be dealt with by the new trading houses set up at Burgos in 1492 and Bilbao in 1511. The goods were then loaded on to Spanish ships and taken to the factories in France, Flanders, and England, for sale. (fn. 40) Many of the lambskins may have reached London via the Low Countries ; others were picked up in Spanish ports by Italian merchants, to be unloaded in Southampton, Sandwich, or London by the galleys and carracks on their way to Bruges. (fn. 41) In the first half of the fifteenth century quantities of budge brought to London were small and in value formed an almost negligible part of Italian cargoes. But the customs accounts for London and the south coast ports indicate an appreciable—though comparatively short-lived—increase in English imports of budge skins towards the end of the century.
Improved political relations between England and Spain largely account for this expanding trade. (fn. 42) The conclusion of the Hundred Years War ended the hostility England had felt for many years towards Castile, so long an ally of France, and checked the piracy which had accompanied the war and constantly imperilled Anglo-Spanish trade. Closer relations followed a treaty of alliance in 1466 which gave Spanish merchants in England important privileges, and although these were modified in 1489 by the Treaty of Medina del Campo, the friendship between the two countries was cemented by a marriage alliance. After Charles V succeeded to the Spanish throne English friendship was important to him during the frequent periods when he was at war with Francis I. Improved political relations thus provided a period of more than thirty years during which English and Spanish merchants could trade in each other's realms in reasonable security. But a trade which had been very prosperous at times in the early sixteenth century faced increasing difficulties in the thirties and forties, when the stage was set for the troubles of the second half of the century. It is scarcely surprising to find that the import of budge was much reduced by the middle years of the century, and that much of the budge imported in 1546–7 and 1550–1 came from Lombardy. (fn. 43)
London skinners, thus hindered in their search for adequate supplies of skins, began to use greater quantities of other skins imported from the western Mediterranean countries, whose value, like that of budge, had been temporarily obscured in the fourteenth century by the preference for skins reaching England from the Baltic. Skins of stone marten, or foynes, and of polecat, or fitch, imported on Italian ships throughout the period, then came also from France, Orleans producing both foynes and fox pelts at this time. (fn. 44) Both grey and black genette and other cat skins were imported in larger quantities, as well as fox skins. Beaver and wolf skins came in very small numbers from Spain, arriving sometimes in Bristol on ships from Bayonne, Bordeaux, and from the small ports on the north Spanish coast, or at other times arriving in Southampton or London on Italian or Spanish ships. (fn. 45) Occasionally small shipments of marten and coneyskins were sent from Spain, and leopard skins that presumably derived from the Portuguese interest in the Guinea coast. (fn. 46) Thus the variety of furs worn that may be traced in lists of clothes belonging to wealthy men and women in the early years of the sixteenth century is reflected in many of the shipments of the same period. The cargo of a ship which arrived in London on 27 August 1535, probably from Flanders, contained £50 worth of furs and skins: 26 mantles or linings of fox, 9 of fox bellies, 28 doz. of foyne backs, 12 linings of catt poughtes or paws, 1 timber of white hare skins, 3 linings of white kid skins, 40 grey genette skins, 18 doz. raw grey genette skins, and 12 small lynx skins. (fn. 47) No sharper contrast could be offered than that between such cargoes and those of the late fourteenth century.
Irish skins, in particular lamb, fox, marten, and otter, were also easy to secure at this time, and were therefore more widely used. Although some came by sea to London, some even on alien ships, (fn. 48) probably most came overland via Bristol and Chester. Thus a marked rise in Bristol's imports of skins from Ireland characterizes this period, although this development, too, was short-lived. (fn. 49) Irish fox and lambskins, particularly black ones, were often used at this time both for trimming the King's own gowns and lining the liveries of those at court. (fn. 50) Their value to London skinners may be inferred from the efforts they made to acquire them, even those which had been tawed in Coventry, the sale of which was severely discouraged in London. (fn. 51) Thomas Myrfyn, skinner, alderman, and soon to be Mayor, risked a heavy fine when some Irish lambskins tawed in Coventry, which had been confiscated, were found in his possession. (fn. 52)
In view of the many difficulties which fur traders experienced towards the close of the Middle Ages, complaints of scarcity and high prices were only to be expected. As early as 1467 the London leathersellers complained that inadequate supplies of wildware were coming from Norway, Spain, Guienne, and Scotland. (fn. 53) The kings of Scotland had forbidden the export of marten skins in 1424 and of hides in 1485; an act of 1592 further prohibiting their export, confirmed in 1593, commented on the 'exorbitant dearth' which prevailed. (fn. 54) Then, too, it is obvious that Englishmen were not, by the second half of the century, willing to pay what seemed to them unreasonable prices for Russian furs. The revival of English trade in the Baltic and the establishment of direct contact with Moscow itself by English merchants in 1555 gave London skinners their chance to import skins for themselves. And yet wherever the cargoes of ships coming from Russia can be traced the quantities of furs in them were comparatively small. (fn. 55)
The London merchants who founded the Muscovy Company, among whom were only a few skinners, (fn. 56) seem to have been far more interested in timber, wax, tallow, flax, train oil, and cordage, which were all essential naval supplies, than in furs, (fn. 57) or in the possibility of trade with Persia or Central Asia, then facilitated by the eastward expansion of Muscovy. 'Of furs we desire no great plenty because they be dead wares', they wrote to their agent in Moscow in 1557. (fn. 58) Those sent back in early shipments were of poor quality and instructions were sent out in 1560 that 'the Ermines they cost more there with you, than we can sell them for here'. Therefore, 'buy no more of them, nor of squirrels, for we lost the one half in the other', and not more than four or five timbers of fine sables and lynx skins as these 'be not every man's money'. (fn. 59) Whereas most craftsmen sent out to the base were regularly employed, the skinner sent out in 1557 to help with the buying of furs was withdrawn after three years. (fn. 60) Finally, in 1567, the agents were told not to buy any more skins 'seeing they be so excessive dear'. (fn. 61)
Other comments also suggest that while the price of the lessfashionable squirrel skins may have fallen during the first half of the fifteenth century, the prices both of them and of the more costly and fashionable furs rose at the end of the century. Customs valuations of average-quality squirrel skins, like calabre, for instance, ranging between £2 and £3 per thousand skins in the 1420's and 1430's, rose to £4. 3s. 4d. in 1480 and 1502, and the best squirrel had reached £8. 6s. 8d. per thousand skins in 1480. (fn. 62) Jacob Ziegler, the German geographer, who died in 1549, noted in his description of the 'North Regions' that the price of sable skins had 'growne to great excess, next unto gold and precious stones'. (fn. 63) Prices of all commodities rose steadily in England from the 1520's onwards, and mere complaints of high prices are therefore too frequent later in the century to be of much significance. It is unfortunately impossible to show conclusively that the prices of skins and furs rose more than those of other goods. It is unusual to find a sufficient number of prices of skins to provide a satisfactory basis for comparison, as it is essential to know not only whether the figures available are wholesale or retail prices, and prices of raw or dressed skins, but also whether they relate to skins taken in or out of season, to backs or bellies, to good or poor-quality skins, or to a rare or common colour. Such information is hard to come by.
But complaints of scarcity and high prices serve to remind us that the sources of the supplies on which skinners depended were not inexhaustible. While political difficulties may have played their part in undermining the trade in furs, it seems probable that the constant hunting of fur-bearing animals, which led to a steady depletion of the available resources, was a far more significant factor in its decline.
In the early Middle Ages Europe was still largely covered by great stretches of forest and woodland which sheltered innumerable fur-bearing animals and made possible the wealth and variety of the trade in peltry in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But very little appreciation was shown by medieval man of the need to conserve the forest, one of his most valuable natural resources. To many a German settler colonizing the lands east of the Elbe, forest clearance was one of his first tasks. (fn. 64) Only the Cistercians showed an interest in the properties of timber and soil and never completely denuded the forests. (fn. 65) By the middle years of the fourteenth century not only had much of West Germany been cleared, but serious inroads had been made on the frontier forests of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, and those between the river Vistula and Narva were broken up by clearings and settlements, particularly in those territories which came under the sway of the Teutonic Order.
In the more settled areas of Western Europe the forest played a most important part in rural economy : peasants depended on nearby woodland for supplies of timber for fuel and building, and on hunting for an additional food supply. Young shoots, seedlings, acorns, and beechnuts were essential animal feedingstuffs, cattle-raising without them being almost an impossibility. Thus a country like Castile, where the sheep were given the freedom of the forests, was almost denuded of her trees by the middle of the sixteenth century. (fn. 66) Both iron and shipbuilding industries drew heavily on the forests, and other areas were cleared by conquerors to end the protection they gave to their victims. (fn. 67)
It was not until the fifteenth century that the importance of forest land was more generally recognized and serious attempts made to protect the trees. Poland was attempting to do so by about 1450. (fn. 68) The Venetians, whose interest in the Dalmatian coast sprang from their concern for the great Balkan forests on which their shipbuilders depended, early recognized the danger to their timber supplies. In 1453 the forests were declared state property and pasturing in them was closely regulated. (fn. 69) Smaller landowners were often hampered in their attempts to do likewise by the difficulty of depriving the peasant of an essential means of livelihood. (fn. 70) Plantation was rarely contemplated, although the first plantation on record was carried out near Nuremberg in 1368. (fn. 71) By the sixteenth century many governments in Western Europe were facing the problem of a timber shortage and were making desperate attempts to preserve what forest land they had.
Attempts at conservation must in many areas have come too late to save the wild animals. The food supplies of any stretch of unenclosed woodland were limited; the more domestic animals fed there, the fewer wild animals could hope to make it their home. Some of them were mercilessly attacked as dangerous to nearby villages and their livestock: 'a wolf and fox and various others which only do mischief it is free for everybody to kill' ran an old Welsh law. (fn. 72) Some were hunted down for pleasure. Others, like the pine marten, fled at the very sight of man. And there were those like the squirrel which diminished rapidly as the trees which were their homes disappeared. The rabbit was the only fur-bearing wild animal to benefit from these changes: the spread of tillage increased its food supplies, and forest clearance reduced the number of beasts of prey which were its natural enemies.
Inevitably fur-trapping aggravated this change in wild life. (fn. 73) The great Russian forests were successively drained of their resources of fur-bearing animals. The forests in the Dnepr basin were seriously impoverished by the time the Kiev state came to an end, when the Tatars sacked its capital in 1240. (fn. 74) The Novgorod boyars, faced with peasant settlements in the forest hinterland from which relatively small quantities of skins reached the markets, had to send their hunters hundreds of miles to the north and east in their search for furs. (fn. 75) Even in the eleventh century their men were crossing the river Dvina ; by the twelfth century they were in the Pechora basin and across the Ural mountains, over one thousand miles, as the crow flies, from Novgorod itself. (fn. 76) The vigour of the attempt made to subdue Siberia in 1445, although unsuccessful at the time, is some measure of the importance of this new hunting-ground to the survival of Novgorod as a centre of the fur trade. (fn. 77) Sigismund von Herberstein, writing early in the sixteenth century, noted that, apart from foxes, North Dvina Land and the province of Ustiug no longer produced the more valuable skins; these, particularly sable and squirrel, could only be found in Yugria and Siberia, reaching the markets only 'after many days' journey', or 'from a thousand miles away'. (fn. 78) The closing years of the sixteenth century were to see the systematic colonization and development of the fur trade in Siberia by the Stroganov family. (fn. 79)
Animals whose home was not in the forest were similarly affected. By the sixteenth century the beaver was virtually extinct in Southern Europe, presumably because of the value of its pelt. Few beaver skins were reaching England in the late fifteenth century from Spain, their usual source, and the Swiss naturalist, Conrad Gesner, writing in the middle years of the sixteenth century, discovered that, apart from Germany and Eastern Europe, beavers were only to be found in the rivers of Spain, the river Marne in France, the river Padus in Italy, and Savoy. (fn. 80) It is probable that it was not long before the animal became rare in most parts of Western Europe. (fn. 81)
The harm done to Europe's wild life in the Middle Ages by fur-trappers was certainly serious. The enthusiasm with which traders exploited the resources of the American continent in the seventeenth century, particularly in beaver, is some measure of Europe's loss. (fn. 82) Inevitably, as good-quality furs became more difficult to acquire and more expensive, lamb and rabbit skins, both far easier to secure in quantity, assumed a greater importance in the eyes of European furriers. It is not surprising, therefore, that an adequate supply of lamb and rabbit skins seemed a vital necessity to English skinners in the sixteenth century. While the Tudor gallant could never have contemplated wearing grey rabbit skins, such furs being considered in 1532 suitable wear for 'serving men and yeomen taking wages', he could be tempted into wearing skins of the rarer varieties of rabbit. (fn. 83) Black rabbit skins, costing about 10d. each in the mid sixteenth century, were about twelve times as expensive as the grey ones, and the rarest of all, described as 'black sprinkled with white hairs' and known to naturalists as silver greys, cost about 6s. a skin. (fn. 84) Such skins were considered fine enough to be worn at court, Henry VIII wearing them with a gown of russet velvet. (fn. 85) Lamb and the cheaper rabbit skins served a humbler market and were presumably more often used for warmth than for outward show.
Yet even in their search for lamb and rabbit skins English skinners did not find their path smooth in the sixteenth century. It was the difficulties they experienced in this direction that they were to hold responsible for the decay of the industry in the closing years of the century. In several English provincial towns there were serious disputes over the sale of lamb and sheepskins; in Southampton, whit-tawyers or glovers were ordered not to buy or taw the 'lamb skins killed within the town' as the skinners depended for their livelihood on their dressing and manufacture. (fn. 86) Butchers were expected instead to sell their sheepskins to the glovers, and in Norwich in 1568 they were ordered to sell them to craftsmen and not to strangers. (fn. 87)
Skinners found, however, a more serious competitor in the merchant who profited from the export of rabbit skins. These skins had been regularly exported to the Low Countries since the fourteenth century, and were then taken chiefly by Flemish merchants and later by some Englishmen, of whom only a very few were fellmongers or skinners. (fn. 88) Numbers exported from London seem to have increased about the middle of the fifteenth century; in 1431 a London cheesemonger was permitted to export 40,000 coneyskins to Flanders, a quantity nearly twice as great as the entire exports by aliens in 1390–1 and 1420–1. (fn. 89) In 1480–1 a small group of Hanseatic merchants began to interest themselves in this trade, exporting between them 138,000 skins in that year, (fn. 90) a rather interesting reversal of trade, which may be compared with the emergence of Russia as a market for the English colonial trade in beaver in the late seventeenth century. (fn. 91) This is a significant comment on the changes taking place in the Baltic trade in skins at this time, where English coneyskins may to some extent have taken the place of Russian squirrel, even in the Baltic lands. Although the London exports fell in the early sixteenth century from the 286,000 skins exported by aliens in 1490–1, after the English trade with Danzig had revived in the later years of Henry VIII's reign English rabbit skins made a useful sideline for those exporting cloth to the Baltic. (fn. 92)
So long as merchants bought rabbit skins, whether raw or dressed, from them, the skinners reluctantly accepted this trade. But direct contact between local collectors of skins and exporters cut out their very livelihood. Their function, as they saw it c. 1592, was to buy up raw skins from those who were accustomed to bring them into London, and then grade them according to the purpose for which they were suitable. Those suitable for clothing, chiefly black rabbit skins it seems, were sent to the tawyers to be dressed and then were made up by the skinners. Others were sold to different craftsmen according to their trade, and those which were 'fit to be sent beyond the sea' went to the merchants. (fn. 93) Thus both tawyers and their employers, as well as the customer whose choice of skins was restricted, suffered when the merchant traded in skins without any intermediary. Skinners in their search for supplies were forced to follow the example of the exporters and send agents far and wide to buy 'furs of the breed of the land'. This, others maintained, not only utterly ruined the poor craftsmen and the 'country gatherers', but doubled the price of English skins. (fn. 94) One remedy they proposed was that pedlars and petty chapmen should only collect skins under licence from two J.P.s, but the Eastland merchants, who had since their foundation charter of 1579 virtually monopolized exports of skins to the Baltic, insisted on their freedom to buy, sell, and export as they wished. (fn. 95)
The export trade in skins seems to have been of sufficient importance to various groups of merchants to lead them to resist successfully any move by skinners or tawyers to protect their own interests. The Eastland merchants maintained that Baltic traders would not accept skins tawed in England, but preferred to dress them themselves. But rabbit skins, particularly black ones, were also being exported, by both English and aliens, to France and Italy, there to feed another industry, the manufacture of fine-quality felt hats. For these only the fur fibre was used and skins were therefore bought raw. (fn. 96)
Skinners, faced by such a serious threat to their livelihood, turned to the Crown for help. After petitioning the Queen in 1591 they secured Letters Patent which forbade the export of any skins which had not first passed through the hands of a 'freeman of that company that hath exercised the ordinary trade and handicraft of a skinner'. (fn. 97) The City protested against this grant, (fn. 98) and it was not until 1606, after a two-year struggle in Parliament, that an act for the 'Relief of such as lawfully use the trade and handicraft of Skinners' was passed. (fn. 99) This forbade others to dress skins, to sell them retail, or to export them raw. Nor were merchants to employ men to dress skins unless they had been apprenticed for seven years in the craft, at the cost of forfeiting double the value of the skins. Although the skinners joined the merchants in resisting the attempt of the tawyers to secure the protection of a monopoly in 1616, (fn. 100) they were again petitioning the Crown on their own behalf in 1618 and 1636. (fn. 101)
Thus was a characteristic feature of the medieval scene slowly to disappear from English life, never to return. Critically important changes of taste, combined with the various factors which had undermined the trade in skins, seriously affected the manufacture of furs and forced skinners to look elsewhere for their living. No longer was the industry led by powerful merchants who prospered primarily from the sale of furs in wealthy and aristocratic circles. Judging from their activities in the closing years of the sixteenth century, London skinners were chiefly concerned to protect their interests in the handling, dressing, and packing of rabbit and lambskins, many of which were destined for foreign markets. By the late seventeenth century they had also been drawn into another expanding industry, the manufacture of felt hats. (fn. 102) Presumably these were to become their chief occupations, even though they continued to make up furs for the diminishing number of customers who wanted them.