The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2003.
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VII FASHIONS IN FUR
Throughout its history the fur trade has been particularly susceptible to changing fashions. Today dress designers and feminine caprice can combine to make or break a profitable fur-farming business; sable, once the most prized of all furs, now yields pride of place to mink, available in strange and rare colours as a result of scientific breeding. The pace of change was more leisurely in the Middle Ages, and some country skinners may have remained relatively untouched by changing fashions throughout the period. For much of their time they were working on lambskins and there were few households, whether rich or poor, which did not own some article lined or trimmed with lambskin. But this was merely a matter of utility; men and women of gentle birth or great wealth turned utility into fashion and bought the finest and most sumptuous furs they could afford. The fashions they set, their social inferiors copied, and so long as their favour was directed towards particular skins, the trade in those skins flourished.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, those with any pretensions to elegance wore minever and gris, the fine squirrel skins from the North. Wills, inventories, and accounts of the period reflect the popularity of these delicate furs, and it was usual for nearly all the fur-lined robes belonging to a wealthy man or woman to be lined with them. (fn. 1) Such robes were so generally considered suitable wear for those of gentle birth that when one of Richard II's squires was given the task of turning four Irish kings into English knights, he had, so Froissart tells us, to try to persuade them to wear gowns of silk furred with minever and gris. (fn. 2) Similarly, the illuminator of the De Lisle Psalter gave the Virgin a blue robe lined with minever, and the robes shown in scenes from her life, depicted in opus anglicanum on a red velvet band in the early fourteenth century, are all lined with minever. (fn. 3)
The great demand for northern squirrel skins in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which we may infer from a study of the wardrobes of the fashionable minority is reflected in sources which indicate the response of the industry to that demand. When a Bristol skinner ordered his supplies between 1317 and 1319 he bought 'grisi operis, luskwerk, popil, strandl', roskyn, minutii varii, grosso varii'—all varieties of northern squirrel, and his only other purchases were of English and foreign lambskins. (fn. 4) Ordinances of skinners' gilds in many European cities included regulations prescribing the numbers of squirrel skins to be worked in linings of a certain size, and it is obvious that these were their main preoccupation. (fn. 5) Cargoes of ships leaving the Baltic tell the same story. In 1406, on three ships leaving Riga, of 313,348 skins, 299,534 were squirrel. (fn. 6) Of skins unloaded in London by far the greater proportion were squirrel, whether from the Baltic or further south: between July and Michaelmas 1384, 377,000 of the 396,087 skins imported were squirrel, and between March and November 1390, 307,000 out of 324,984. (fn. 7)
The picture suggested by similar sources in the fifteenth century is strikingly different. The place that minever and gris once occupied in fourteenth-century wardrobes is then taken by the more valuable northern variety of marten known as sable, skins of pine marten, and by the black lambskins from South-west Europe known as budge. A hint of the change that was to come may be found in the lists of furs bought for Richard II, a monarch known as a connoisseur of the arts and fashion. Between 1392 and 1394 large quantities of squirrel were still being bought for the King and his court, averaging for each year approximately 108,680 skins. Yet far more than was usual in his grandfather's day was spent on other furs; 1,634 skins of ermine and 308 marten were bought, as well as 652 budge, 2,520 lamb, and 18 beaver skins. (fn. 8) Between 1413 and 1418 Henry V indulged himself by buying 625 pelts of sable, two sable fur linings, over 20,000 marten skins, and 113 linings of marten. (fn. 9) By 1440 furs for Henry VI's own use were largely of marten; furs of squirrel still being bought by the Great Wardrobe were used no longer for the royal family but for liveries, for which purpose they were bought in decreasing quantities during the rest of the century. (fn. 10)
Men of high social standing were quick to follow the example set at court, even though it involved them in considerable additional expense. Marten and sable skins are twice the size of squirrel skins, but their price, in 1407 for instance, was such that whereas a lining of the best quality gris might have cost about £4. 3s. 4d., a lining of marten of comparable size would have cost from £8 to £10 and one of sable probably at least £13. (fn. 11) However, costly as it was, most of the gentry, whether prominent or not, were soon wearing marten. Sir John Fastolfe, who on occasion wore a rich collar set with a superb diamond which had cost him as much as his nine Suffolk manors, wore marten on his blue velvet gown; (fn. 12) one knight's lady owned three gowns furred with marten in 1433; (fn. 13) winter robes to be given every year after 1448 to Thomas Tudenham, knight, were to be lined with 360 marten skins. (fn. 14)
The English ruling classes were not alone in preferring marten to squirrel in the fifteenth century. The complete reversal of the fourteenth-century tradition may be very clearly seen in the details of skins and furs bought for the Dukes of Burgundy from 1412 to 1455. (fn. 15) The Burgundian court was renowned for its elegance and extravagance, and Burgundian dukes led the fashions in Northern Europe at this time. Lavish expenditure on clothes helped to produce the scenes of great splendour and magnificence for which the court was famed. (fn. 16) Furs bought were then almost entirely marten and black lamb, although some gris was still worn. (fn. 17) The robes in the trousseau of Marie, daughter of Amédée VIII, Duke of Savoy, on her marriage to the Duke of Milan in 1426 were richly furred with ermine and marten. (fn. 18) Louis XI of France, so Philippe de Commynes tells us, 'se vestoit richement . . . et ne portoit que robbes de satin cramoisy, fourrées de bonnes martres'. (fn. 19)
In England by the late fifteenth century squirrel was rarely to be found in fashionable wardrobes. Henry VII and his son both spent extravagantly on furs, particularly on sables. In 1543–4 Henry VIII spent £166 on eighty sables for a gown of damask with panels of velvet embroidered in gold. (fn. 20) How much he paid in 1537 for the 350 sables used for a gown of black satin we do not know, but it is not likely to have been less than £200 and was probably far more. (fn. 21) But a much greater variety of furs was then worn at court. Gowns of white or black velvet were furred with ermine, yellow velvet with leopard skin, russet velvet with black rabbit, black damask or crimson tissue with black budge or marten. Less familiar furs such as lynx, mink, black genette, and fox were the height of fashion, setting off gowns of black damask, velvet, and crimson cloth of gold. (fn. 22)
It required great wealth to follow the fashions set at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Sumptuary legislation, particularly a statute of 1532, gave expression to what was thought desirable in limiting the wearing of sables to the royal family and the wearing of lynx and black genette to dukes, earls, and barons. (fn. 23) But, as at other times, those of lower social standing did their best to acquire the more fashionable furs: Edmund Dudley wore a jacket of crimson satin furred with heads of sable; a London merchant on his death in 1532 bequeathed two gowns furred with sable, as well as others furred with marten and black budge. (fn. 24) But even if sable were beyond their reach many could enjoy the greater variety of furs then considered fashionable. A Norwich alderman in 1516 owned gowns furred with fitch, black lamb, white budge, calabre, and mink; a merchant stapler in the following year possessed gowns furred with budge, fox, and rabbit. (fn. 25) Fox furs, too, were evidently popular in the early sixteenth century, as is shown, for instance, by the mention of gowns furred with fox in the wills of a draper and fishmonger from Lincoln and a Boston mercer. (fn. 26)
Squirrel skins were still being worn, but more often by humbler folk. A merchant's maidservant, for instance, preparing her trousseau, bought minever for her wedding garments; a gown belonging to a London tailor summoned for debt in 1446 was furred with gris. (fn. 27) Minever was then also being worn for mourning, in itself a suggestion that it was outmoded for normal wear, and in the Sumptuary Law of 1532 it was mentioned only in connexion with the robes of certain clerics and doctors of divinity, law, and other sciences. (fn. 28) Its wear was to become restricted to ceremonial garments, for some of which it is still, in name at least, used today.
Squirrel skins from Russia and the Baltic lands had lain at the very heart of the fur trade in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. From their exchange hundreds of merchants profited and the pattern for a whole industry was set up by a common practice in their manufacture. But gradually the technical vocabulary connected with the working of squirrel skins built up during three centuries fell into disuse, and a royal clerk could in 1526 confuse two words of completely different meaning: timber and tiers. (fn. 29) Charles Perrault, writing down a French version of the story of Cinderella in 1697, preferred to describe her slipper lined with vair as one of verre, and Cinderella still wears today her slippers of glass. (fn. 30) Hence, too, the sad lament of the vair:
I who weep and lament am a vair, who once in every realm was the ornament of ladies and knights—nor did any ass wear me on his head. But now I am treated like dirt by the spinner and the weaver and perchance, owing to hunger, am put in pawn, so that I come back hairless from the usurer's. Therefore have mercy on me, my lord, that I should not be as vilely slandered as I am, I tell you, in my opinion. Let it please you now to change my estate, else you deprive me of existing, seeing that I shall never again be found in the world. That I should be shamed where once I was thought the finest; now I am held cheaper than a mouse. (fn. 31)
The search for reasons for changes in fashion is seldom rewarding. Several factors, however, may help to explain the failure of Baltic squirrel skins to maintain their popularity in fashionable circles. To be exclusive is the hallmark of fashion. But squirrel skins were available in a variety of different qualities, and while a rich man might buy the finest skins, the poorer man could buy less valuable ones or even second-hand ones and emerge apparently the social equal of his wealthier neighbour. As Hanseatic trade expanded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, bringing squirrel skins in vast quantities to Western Europe, the circle of those for whom they were available grew steadily wider. From the late fourteenth century there was a marked fall in the price of squirrel skins. This may have been the result of the increased supplies available, which thus contributed to the declining popularity of squirrel furs among wealthy men and women, or in itself the response to a falling demand.
Prices paid by the Great Wardrobe
Figures can no longer be safely compared after 1440, as cheaper qualities of gris only were then being used, both gris and minever being chiefly used for liveries. By 1494–5 a timber of minever pured cost only 1s. 4d., i.e. 2/5d. a skin.
Early fifteenth-century accounts are few and not in good condition, and sometimes only one or two figures are available, which may not therefore be representative. But the trend reflected by the above figures is undeniable. After 1432 individual valuations are rarely given and the reduction in the import of good-quality skins is then very marked.
Possibly of more significance were changes in the fabrics and styles which became fashionable, so that the fuller and darker furs of marten and sable were preferred to the soft, silken squirrel skins with their subtle colours. The brilliantly coloured fine woollen cloths worn in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were superbly set off by linings of squirrel. While dark brown and reddish-grey squirrel skins were of course worn, the skins used on the most expensive gowns were the more valuable ones, which, as they were winter skins from the furthest north, were the palest grey and white. White belly skins, with all the grey trimmed off, were widely used, providing a flat fur particularly suitable for linings and one with which ermine or lettice, both white furs, could be successfully matched. Often the fur, like the subtlety of the weave of some Persian silks, would only show in movement, but we can be certain that its texture and colour were of great importance.
During the later years of the fourteenth century those with extravagant tastes were no longer content to be clothed only in wool. An upper garment of velvet, damask, brocaded silk, or satin, materials hitherto used almost exclusively for royal or ecclesiastical ceremonial or for bed-hangings, (fn. 32) became a most desirable acquisition. (fn. 33) Richard II, splendidly arrayed in his 'daunsyng doublet' of white satin, elaborately embroidered in a design of whelks and mussels, or a doublet of red cloth of gold with sleeves of red velvet, must have been a striking figure. (fn. 34) These materials, velvet in particular, were increasingly used for clothes during the fifteenth century. (fn. 35) Such patterned velvets, often brocaded with gold thread, with designs in warm and rich colours, and other materials with the bold and extravagant designs then fashionable, needed a heavy and full fur to set them off.
The style of the garments themselves, while varying greatly from time to time, tended in the fifteenth century to be stiffer and more formal and the fuller furs played an essential part in contributing to this effect. (fn. 36) Darker colours, too, became popular: Philip, Duke of Burgundy, for instance, wore mourning for sixteen years, and the fashion for wearing black gowns was slowly to spread throughout Europe. (fn. 37) The most costly sable skins, the finest of the marten family, are very dark brown, almost black in colour, and they, with other brown marten skins, black lamb, black genette, and black rabbit, gave a most elegant finish to gowns of purple and crimson velvet, cloths of gold, and goldembroidered velvets. Jan van Eyck's portrait of the Arnolfini, showing typically Flemish costume of the 1430's, effectively illustrates contrasting colours and furs, where the man wears a robe of very dark purple lined with marten, and his wife wears one of a clear bright green lined with grey squirrel. (fn. 38) In the early sixteenth century Holbein delighted in painting the rich sable and lynx furs then popular with his sitters, and we are left in no doubt as to the important part played by them in the design of their robes of sombre velvets, set off with embroidered cloths of gold.
By the mid sixteenth century the wearing of furs was much more seriously affected by a further change in fashion. Furs slowly lost their standing as the status symbol of the day. They were still worn; Nicholas Hillyard, for instance, painted his father in 1577 wearing the fur-lined gown typical of the earlier part of the century and still popular with elderly men. (fn. 39) Many, too, were no doubt wearing furred outer garments in wintry weather. A familiar complaint was echoed in 1604 by a Venetian observer of the London scene: 'The weather is bitterly cold and everyone is in furs although we are almost in July.' (fn. 40) But the custom, which we may consider characteristically medieval, whereby the rich and nobly born demonstrated their wealth and social superiority by the lavish use of furs, died slowly during the middle decades of the sixteenth century.
The declining use of furs was a general development over Western Europe. In France, according to Quicherat, it dated from as early as the reign of Charles VII, 1422–61, and Rodocanachi attributed it to the early years of the sixteenth century in his portrait of Italian women of the Renaissance period. (fn. 41) In England a few hints of the change to come may be found in the fifteenth century. Bachelors of the University of Oxford, for instance, were in 1489 ordered to have their hoods lined with fur according to ancient custom, and not merely trimmed with it as was becoming increasingly general. (fn. 42) It may be that there were many others who found it convenient simply to have their gowns faced, rather than fully lined, with fur. In view of the cost of the more fashionable furs and the padded and stiffened garments then worn this seems a very probable development.
But it is not until towards the middle years of the sixteenth century that the numbers of gowns with furs, whether lined or only trimmed, to be found in a fashionable English wardrobe show a really marked decrease. On his death in 1536 Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, had only one of the five elaborate gowns he possessed trimmed with fur: a gown of 'crymsen damask embrodered alle over with gold and furred with luzards with vij grete buttons of gold and iiij pair aglettes'. Although he had two separate furs, none of the remaining garments in his wardrobe, a mantle, robe, kirtle, nine cotes, and six doublets, was furred. (fn. 43) Similarly in 1523 only one of the ten gowns and kirtles owned by Dame Agnes Hungerford was furred. (fn. 44) Some of the most ornate robes worn by Henry VIII in the later years of his reign were no longer furred. When he married Anne of Cleves his purple velvet gown was 'all over embrodered with flatte golde of Dammaske with small lace mixed betweene of the same golde and other laces of the same so goying traverse wyse, that the ground lytle appered'. (fn. 45) When an inventory was taken of the goods in his various wardrobes after his death only a small proportion of the gowns were furred—29 of the 196 cloaks and gowns, and 23 of the 67 cotes and doublets. (fn. 46) Sir John Gage, who had been Henry VIII's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, died in 1556, aged 77; no doubt as a very old man he liked the warmth and comfort of furs, and he bequeathed a pair of sables to his daughter-in-law; but of his ten gowns and cassocks, all of black velvet, satin, taffeta, or damask, only three were furred, with sable, marten, and budge, although he also possessed two cotes, one 'furred thorowgh with lynx' and the other lined with white lamb, faced with lynx. (fn. 47) The much reduced wearing of furs shows very clearly in the wardrobe accounts of Philip and Mary. Mary had the reputation of being elegantly dressed, yet in 1557 expensive furs were added to only two of the gowns made for her; these, of black satin and black velvet, were lavishly lined with lynx and leopard skins. (fn. 48) Despite the number of different robes in which Queen Elizabeth I chose to have her portrait painted it is rare to find any trace of fur on them. (fn. 49)
Wealthy men and women were spending extravagantly not on furs but on fabrics of an almost unbelievable richness. They delighted in patterned velvets, jewelled brocades, and shimmering cloths of gold and damasks, as well as satins, silks, and taffetas. Their splendour is unmatched, even today: 'purple gold tissue, the grounde silver and raised with golde and silver tissue', 'carnaciaun vellat upon vellat pirled with gold'. (fn. 50) For a single gown made for the Lady Princess in 1531 eleven and a half yards of silver tissue at £7. 10s. a yard and three yards of cheaper quality at £3. 6s. 8d. a yard for the lining were bought, the total cost, including making, being £97. 1s. 4d. (fn. 51) Such ostentation contrasts sharply with the simpler tastes of the thirteenth century, when royal robes were made from fourteen or fifteen yards of woollen cloth. (fn. 52) In 1531 even purple velvet with panels of cloth of gold cost £2. 6s. 8d. a yard, and damasks and velvets suitable for royal liveries cost about 10s. a yard. (fn. 53) Money went into jewelled trinkets, chains, clasps, and girdles; and ruffs might be 'clogged with gold, silver or silver lace of stately price, wrought all over with needlework, speckled and sparkled here and there with the sun, the moon and the stars and other antiques strange to behold'. (fn. 54)
Those who could afford it and wished to do so did now and again add costly furs to these superb garments. But even a lining of black budge for a dressing-gown of black damask cost £42 in 1543–4, and sables made their cost prohibitive. (fn. 55) In that same year Henry VIII paid £177 for the furs only for a gown of Capha damask, welted with velvet and embroidered with gold. Of this sum, £166. 13s. 4d. was spent on 100 sables, £9. 6s. 8d. on 560 squirrel skins for the lining, and £1 for the workmanship. (fn. 56) It is difficult to estimate the total cost of the gown, but it must have been well over £200, at a time when the plasterer working for him at Eltham Palace was being paid 8d. a day. (fn. 57) Thus when sables cost 33s. 4d. each and lynx skins £4 each no doubt many preferred to have the skins mounted separately so that, if desired, they could be worn with several gowns. (fn. 58) Henry VIII, for instance, had an elaborate muflyer made of black velvet, embroidered with jewels and lined with sable. Several portraits exist showing women wearing separate skins, worn over the shoulder or fastened at the girdle, but Henry VIII's must have outshone them all:
One Sable skynne wt a hedd of golde conteyning in yt a clocke wt a roller of gold enameled blacke sett wt iiij diamountes and foure rubies and wt twoo perles hanging at the eares and twoo rubies in the yees, the same skynne having allso feete of golde, the clawes thereof being saphyres . . . wt a dyamount uppon the clocke. (fn. 59)
Not only the preference for luxurious fabrics but changes in style, linked with the popular Spanish fashions, made facings and linings of fur of less importance in the sixteenth century. (fn. 60) The quilted doublet, the full padded sleeves, often worn with an undersleeve, the bombasted trunk hose, and the farthingale, stiffened or worn over a frame, were all warm and most restricting to wear. (fn. 61) Linings were therefore of lighter materials; chamois leather, for instance, made a most acceptable substitute, being both light and warm and yet sufficiently strong to back embroidered velvets. (fn. 62) Often a lining of some fabric in a contrasting colour was preferred, so that it could be revealed by slashes in the garments; or a fine taffeta lining shown off, as we learn from Dekker's advice to a young gallant, by the skilful tossing of a short cloak. (fn. 63)
In any case warm clothes may not have been as essential for indoor wear as they had once been. Harrison, whose Description of England appeared in 1577, commented on the increased comfort which then prevailed. (fn. 64) Glass windows were in more general use and more efficient heating methods had been developed with the growing output of coal and the more frequent provision of chimneys. (fn. 65) Harrison himself advised that walls should be panelled with oak or wainscot, 'whereby the rooms are not a little commended, made warm and much more close than otherwise they would be'. (fn. 66) The more widespread use of featherbeds certainly made the prospect of going to bed a little less forbidding. Instead of his father's ermine coverlet, Henry VIII preferred to use quilts of linen cloth filled with wool covered with a counterpane of, for instance, 'panels of purple and carnation quilted changeable taffeta, embroidered and fringed with gold and silver'. (fn. 67)
It is possible, too, that the sumptuary legislation of the sixteenth century, while powerless to check the favoured extravagances of a luxury-loving and acquisitive society, played some part in killing a fashion which was in any case slowly dying. These Acts were in the sixteenth century very detailed and more deliberately protectionist in their aims than before. (fn. 68) A significant change may be noted in the Act of 1509, which for the first time stated that none under the degree of gentleman, with only a few exceptions, was to 'use or wear any Furs whereof there is no like kind growing in this land of England, Ireland or Wales'. (fn. 69) The statute of 1532, made more moderate in the hope of its being observed, permitted those who could spend over £100 a year to wear foynes, grey genette, and budge as well as skins of 'English, Welsh and Irish growing'. (fn. 70) Elizabeth seems to have been determined to ensure the observance of the statutes of her predecessors, and she issued repeated proclamations which defined methods for their enforcement. (fn. 71) Letters went out from the Privy Council to mayors, and in London these instructions were passed on to the livery companies, who were supposed to supervise their members. (fn. 72) Later, four men were appointed in each ward to be responsible for observance of the statutes; officers were appointed to inspect those who came to court. (fn. 73) Hosiers and tailors were bound over for sums of £40 to make hose and garments according to the regulations, and later, watchmen were stationed at the gates of the City. (fn. 74) There is little evidence, however, that the laws were enforced with any real success. Probably London was the only city directly affected. (fn. 75) The elaborate confections against which Puritan writers raged towards the end of the century were quite opposed to the regulations. But a letter written in 1560 draws for the first time a connexion between this legislation and the fur trade, and thus suggests that its influence should not be disregarded. In that year the Muscovy Company sent instructions to its agents in Russia. They were ordered 'from henceforth not to make any great provision of any rich furs except principal Sables or Lettes: for now there is a proclamation made that no furs shall be worn here but such as the like is growing here within this our Realm'. Later, advising the purchase of only a few of the best sable or lynx skins, they comment: 'for they will not be so commonly worn here as they have been with noblemen'. (fn. 76) The Muscovy merchants were indeed to prove right in their surmise.
This change of fashion, which led so many to prefer extravagant materials and jewels to fine furs, did not pass unnoticed by contemporaries. Catherine de Medici's comment: 'Leave furs to those old foxes, the men', perhaps sums up the feminine viewpoint in the later sixteenth century. (fn. 77) Louis Guyon, a French doctor writing at the turn of the century, mentioned with surprise what seemed to him a strange custom: 'I have heard it said by elderly ladies of good family who lived at that time that they had seen people almost smothered in these fulllength gowns with their trains. And, moreover, whether winter or summer it was a matter of honour to wear them furred with ermine or marten.' (fn. 78) But the comments of Henry Lane, a London merchant, serve most fittingly to close a chapter in the history of the English fur trade. He was writing in 1589 to Richard Hakluyt about the sable and lynx skins presented to Elizabeth by a Russian embassy in 1567:
At that time that princely ancient ornament of furs was yet in use. And great pity but that it might be renewed especially in Court and among magistrates not only for the restoring of an old worshipful Art and Company, but also because they be for our climate wholesome, delicate, grave and comely; expressing dignity, comforting age and of longer continuance and better with small cost to be preserved than those new silks, shagges and rags wherein a great part of the wealth of the land is hastily consumed. (fn. 79)
The skinners, faced with changes of fashion which affected their industry so profoundly, did their best to adapt themselves to altered circumstances. The London skinners, by amending their regulations in 1438, showed that they had already grasped the fact that the making of linings of prescribed numbers of squirrel skins, as specified in their ordinances of 1288 and 1327, was no longer their chief occupation. (fn. 80) Instead the length to which the various skins were to be worked was stated, so that the customer would not be cheated by the inclusion of the poorer parts of the skin. Ermine was to be worked to a length of 8 inches, sable, marten, and foynes 12 inches, beaver 14 inches, different varieties of squirrel 5½ 6, and 7 inches, budge and otter according to the skin. These were then made up according to the needs of a particular gown. Then, too, the contrast between facing and lining became more marked. Skins like ermine, sable, and marten were thought to be too valuable to be used for linings, for which in any case they were not particularly suitable, and were used for facings. Flatter and less valuable skins, usually of the same colour, were used for the rest of the lining. Thus linings were made of belly skins of marten, finished with the best quality back skins; or linings made from leopard belly skins were combined with lynx, or those from the legs of lambs, known as shanks, combined with the best budge. Squirrel skins, presumably brown ones, might still be used in this way with sable.
But a more serious result of these changes in the types of skins used in the fifteenth century, as far as the craftsmen themselves were concerned, sprang from the fact that the skins then most in demand, sable, marten, stone marten, beaver, and budge, were at least twice the size of squirrel skins. Fewer skins were therefore needed and there was thus less work available for those whose chief occupation had been the painstaking stitching together of tiny pieces of squirrel skins for the big merchants who catered for the court and nobility. Hence many small skinners must have felt the cold winds of unemployment as the fifteenth century drew to a close.
Their position was to become even more unhappy in the sixteenth century. One of the great social problems of that century sprang from the desperate poverty in which many industrial workers lived, owing largely to the pressure of a rising population and the failure of wages to keep pace with the fall in the value of money. Recent studies by Professor Phelps Brown of wage-rates in the building trades and the prices of a single 'basketful of consumable goods' suggest that the quantity of goods which the English workman could buy with a day's pay began to contract about 1510, and that by 1630 it had shrunk to perhaps as little as two-fifths of what it had been through much of the fifteenth century. (fn. 81) Even if, as is suggested, the change in real wages was not as catastrophic as these figures imply the position of the small craftsman was serious enough. A majority of the urban population may have lived below or very near the poverty line. (fn. 82) For the skinners such difficulties were intensified when, in the second half of the sixteenth century, furs ceased altogether to be the favourite vehicle for the display of great wealth, so that the demand for their labour was sharply reduced.
Unfortunately evidence of changes in wage-rates in the fur trade has not survived. In London, sums to be paid by the skinners to the tawyers for dressing skins were a matter of dispute in 1300 and 1365 and details of the agreements were therefore recorded. (fn. 83) But no later figures are available for comparison, nor have we any information for London as to rates paid for making up the furs.
The only comprehensive list of piece-work rates to survive is that drawn up for the York skinners in 1500. (fn. 84) The cost of tawing a timber of the more valuable skins ranged from 3d. for small lettice skins to 3s. 4d. for fox and otter skins; for 1,000 greywerk, 5s.; for 100 lambskins, 16d. The cost of making up the drcssed skins is difficult to discover owing to the technical terms used, but certain payments can be identified. On squirrel skins further preparatory work cost 4s. per 1,000 skins, 1d. for sewing 50 seams, and 6d. for casing a fur. Cutting, beating, and sewing 100 rabbit skins cost 10d. Unfortunately when further ordinances and rates of pay were agreed in 1582 the schedule of payments attached was an almost exact copy of that agreed in 1500, a surprising fact which can no longer be explained. (fn. 85)
We are left, therefore, with rates for York for one period only, 1500. Taken, however, with other evidence, the ordinances of that year shed an illuminating light on the York industry at that time. (fn. 86) That industry was certainly a flourishing one in the fourteenth century. Not only had the city a long-standing tradition of trade with Scandinavia, but its position made it a regional entrepôt of premier importance. Probably about 30 per cent. of its craftsmen were involved in the leather trades in Edward I's reign. (fn. 87) Early in the fourteenth century the skinners there were sufficiently well organized to petition against those who mixed new and second-hand skins, or worked together different sorts of lambskins, but their numbers no doubt remained small. (fn. 88) In 1381 only 20 skinners may be traced among the 70 per cent. of York's population whose craft is known. (fn. 89) During the decade 1411–20, 29 skinners were admitted to the freedom. (fn. 90) From that time onwards, however, the numbers of skilled craftsmen who took up the freedom of the city declined steadily. Between 1451 and 1460 only six skinners became freemen; between 1521 and 1530 only three. (fn. 91) Thus the ordinances of 1500 were formulated at a time when presumably fewer of the craftsmen were prospering and they may indicate a move on the part of the poor craftsmen, probably not themselves freemen, to force up the payments made to them by the masters.
Other hints that workers in the trade were in some difficulties may be found in other clauses in the ordinances: tailors were not to fur gowns, skinners were not to make up skins tawed by glovers, nor to do tawing or furring in their chambers, a crime for which the fine was to be 20s., and upholders who sold furs were to help skinners with their pageant. This help was not adequate, as in 1517 the skinners maintained that they were unable to produce their pageant without further assistance. (fn. 92)
How far these developments in York were the result of changes in the fur trade and how far they were only characteristic of the difficulties which many manufacturing craftsmen in York were experiencing in the fifteenth century, when the city was no longer as prosperous as it had been, is not known. (fn. 93) But in other provincial cities similar developments appear to have taken place. The Oxford skinners, a prosperous group organized in a gild in the late fifteenth century, disappeared completely from the records in the following century. (fn. 94) In Lincoln, in 1563, the skinners were linked with the glovers, girdlers, pinners, pointmakers, scriveners, and parchment makers. (fn. 95) Few alien skinners seem to have settled in England, or at least to have prospered there, for few sought letters of denization. Of the many hundreds who sought such letters between 1509 and 1603, only five were skinners, and four of these had arrived before 1520. (fn. 96)
Where the London industry is concerned there is less conclusive evidence than in York to suggest that there was serious unemployment. But the particularly determined moves against outside competitors for which the London skinners were responsible in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries point certainly in that direction. There were, for instance, bitter outbursts against aliens, so often made the scapegoat by London craftsmen at times of economic depression.
In several industries, such as tailoring and the leather trades, alien workers settled in Southwark—and were therefore less firmly within the control of the City companies—in large enough numbers to compete successfully with the London worker. (fn. 97) Feeling ran high against other aliens, too, in London. (fn. 98) But the number of alien skinners settling in and about London never seems to have been great enough to explain the violence of the attacks on them and the fact that in 1493 they were held directly responsible for the unemployment in the industry. (fn. 99) In 1468 working skinners took the initiative in a plot against Flemings in Southwark: two skinners planned to rouse the tailors and cordwainers, another arranged to have boats in readiness, and William Shaw admitted that:
he, with others, that is to say 56 persons, intended between five and six of the clock in the morning, at Limehouse by boat to have passed over Thames unto Rotherhithe, and from thence, with the support of men of Southwark to go thither; and for that Flemings there took away the living of English people proposed to have cut off their thumbs or hands so that they should never after that have helped themselves by means of craft. (fn. 100)
A statute of 1484 which forbade aliens from taking any but their children as apprentices gave the skinners other opportunities, and litigation on this and related matters suggests not only the lengths to which individuals were prepared to go, but indicates that some of them were prosecuting as agents of the Skinners' Company. (fn. 101) One alien skinner was able to prove his innocence of the charge that he had taken aliens as his apprentices, (fn. 102) but another petitioning the Chancellor, complained that his accuser
by the unlawful favour and maintenance of one John Barbour and other skinners of London, hath caused such a jury to be enpanelled to try the issue in the said action which, for promise of gifts to be made unto them, not serving God nor perjury, will hear no evidence for the part of your said suppliant but utterly have determined to pass against him in the said action. (fn. 103)
The civic authorities themselves were aware of the violent antipathy felt by skinners towards aliens. Fearing the trouble which was, in spite of their efforts, to break out on 1 May 1517—later known as Evil May Day—on the previous day they ordered William Danyell, one of the more prominent skinners, and known for his dislike of aliens, to see that none of his servants went forth 'may roaming'. (fn. 104)
The skinners turned for help against their competitors to the Court of Aldermen in 1493 and to Parliament in 1495–6, 1503–4, and 1509–10, but apparently had to be content with municipal decrees that non-freemen taking up the craft were to be fined and that freemen of the City were only to take their garments to other freemen to be made and furred. (fn. 105) The tawyers also took action to protect themselves: in 1495 the Common Council decreed that skinners were not to give their wares to be tawed to any but freemen tawyers. (fn. 106)
The London skinners did not restrict their attacks at this time to aliens. They singled out another group of competitors, the skinners of Coventry and Bristol who earned their living by buying lambskins, often of Irish origin, tawing and working them, and selling them to the London skinners. This trade had no doubt grown up during more prosperous times. But after 1505 such skins, if sold to a non-freeman, were forfeited as 'foreyn bought and sold'. (fn. 107) From 1508 onwards the Company tried to stop their sale to London skinners as well as to nonfreemen, but when a decree forbidding it was issued in 1522 the Coventry skinners, seeing their livelihood threatened, took immediate and apparently successful action to counteract its effect. (fn. 108)
The skinners also tried to deal with the problem presented by the import of manufactured furs. Many of these came from the Low Countries where the craftsmen may have proved more skilled in handling the more fashionable skins. Others, especially from the late fifteenth century onwards, came from Normandy, whose trade with England developed rapidly after the close of the wars between England and France. (fn. 109) In 1433 the skinners claimed, unsuccessfully, the right to search all furs brought in by aliens, and in 1444 they objected to some furs as being below standard. (fn. 110) Although in 1463 they and other craftsmen were successful in securing the passage of a statute which forbade the import of many types of manufactured goods, this only checked imports of furs temporarily. (fn. 111) In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries imports began to rise sharply again, only to fall off in the middle years of the sixteenth century. (fn. 112)
During the last decade of Elizabeth's reign the London skinners openly recognized difficulties which had undermined their craft for a century or more. Describing themselves as 'the poor, miserable, decayed people, handicraftsmen of the Mystery of the Skinners of London', they petitioned the Queen in February 1591. (fn. 113) They pointed out that they were not only asking for help for themselves, but that the grievances were general among all who exercised the trade throughout the realm. In former times, they stated, 'those exercising the trade were many, kept and maintained great and many families, were able in competent manner to live and contribute to the services of the realm, did set on work great numbers of tawyers and other the poor sort of the people of this realm'. They attributed their 'lamentable decay' to the fact that 'the usual wearing of furs, (especially of the breed of this realm) is utterly neglected and eaten out by the too ordinary lavish and unnecessary use of velvets and silks'.
Note 6 to opposite page. (fn. 114)
The glass slipper, however, is one of Perrault's original contributions to a story of which the earliest known version is a Chinese one of the ninth century A.D. We know that a similar story was current in Europe when Basile wrote his Pentamerone between 1634 and 1636, in which Cinderella's slippers were high-heeled overshoes, and it seems more probable to me that in an early French version, presumably of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, Cinderella was given what were then the most expensive and fashionable shoes, those lined with vair. We do not know how familiar Perrault was with this use of vair, but such slippers had been out of date a couple of centuries before he wrote down his version of the story, and he may easily have been mistaken or may quite deliberately have preferred the alternative of verre.