The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2003.
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II ARS PELLIPARII
A Fur-bearing animal's skin is designed to keep its body at an even temperature and ensure its survival whatever the climate in which it lives. (fn. 1) The length and number of its hairs, the proportion of the long, glossy guard hairs which protect it from moisture to the shorter fur fibres which keep out the cold air, the arrangement of scales, and the quantity of colour pigment, vary not only between the different species of animals, but within the same species, and are closely influenced by seasonal climatic changes. Thus the fur fibre is thicker, fuller, and more lustrous at the coldest time of the year. In the mating season, when animals are shedding some of their hair, skins are much poorer in quality, and the fur is often marked; it is scantier still in the summer. The colour, too, varies according to the time of the year, some animals producing paler or darker markings in the autumn or turning white in the winter. Sometimes it also varies according to the age of the animal. Sometimes it varies with the colouring of the countryside in which the animal lives, or according to the vegetation on which it feeds.
The finest skins are therefore those of animals caught in the depths of winter in the coldest climates. They are paler in colour and usually bigger than those of animals of the same species living in warmer climates, as only the strongest survive the struggle for food, and the strongest are often the largest. Such skins cannot satisfactorily be worked with skins taken from animals caught at different times of the year or in different places. Not only will they differ in size and colour, but full furred skins will not match the flatter furs, nor the more lustrous ones with a fine silken texture those of coarser texture.
These elementary facts were well known to medieval skinners. The basic assumption made in the trade, embodied in gild regulations from the thirteenth century onwards, was that skins of different qualities were not to be worked together. But it is the precision of their classification of skins, which is in some ways as detailed as the classification used today, that shows us how thoroughly they knew their job. A complicated technical vocabulary grew up, which, since the trade was international, led to the growth of a common body of knowledge among the men who worked on furs. Thus names of Russian origin can sometimes be traced in the London customs accounts or in the decrees of French skinners. Some of the medieval names for furs are still in use today. (fn. 2)
The skins of most fur-bearing animals native to Europe were used by fur traders in the Middle Ages. Of the weasel family the sable—the variety of marten which is found in the Far North— was the most admired ; its colour ranged from a rich dark brown to black, the colour which sable represented when used in a nobleman's coat of arms. The pine marten, which frequents the forests a little further south, is brown, as is the stone marten, which is distinguished by its white throat and breast and is found in all but the north of Europe. The fur of the stone marten was known by its French name, foynes. Other common members of the weasel family are the stoats. The coat of those found in the north turns white in the winter and the skin is called ermine. Others are polecats, the fur of which was called fitch or fichew; minks; and the weasels themselves, the smallest members of the family to which they give their name. The fur of the weasel also turns white in cold climates, and these white skins were frequently used under the name of lettice.
The red fox was to be found in all parts of Europe, and occasionally highly prized black foxes were found in the north, where even red foxes have a coat of finer lustre and silky texture. The white fox is found only in the Far North. Of the cat family, the lynx was the largest, and, like the wild cat, was to be found throughout Europe. The civet cat, whose range is in the more southerly parts of Europe, bears, like all members of the cat family, a beautifully marked skin, often a dark grey or black. Its fur is still known by its medieval name of genette. Most streams were haunted by otter and beaver; the pelts of both were very popular in the Middle Ages. (fn. 3)
But among the most common of the animals which roamed the European forests was the red squirrel, a smaller and less destructive animal than its American cousin, the grey squirrel. In Russia it was found in such numbers that popular legend had it that the young squirrels were brought with the clouds and fell from the heavens. (fn. 4) The squirrel skins most valued by traders came from Russia and Scandinavia. They were often briefly described as werk by Baltic merchants, but were generally most carefully distinguished from each other by names which indicated either the time of year when taken, or the place of origin, both of which affected the colour of the fur. (fn. 5) Thus the finest were those taken in the Far North in the winter, of the palest bluegrey with a white belly; these were often called greywerk or known by a place name, and it is probable that differences in quality lay behind the different valuations which may be traced in the records. The most valuable were known as schonwerk, the less valuable as lucewerk. The very much darker grey or black skins from the Central European forests were grouped as blackwerk. When made up these furs of squirrel skins from the north were known as vair, or varium opus from the alternating bands of grey and white. If only the grey backs of the skins were used the fur was called gris; if only the bellies, a white fur with an edging of grey, it was called minever; (fn. 6) if all the grey were trimmed off the fur was a white one described as pured minever. The poorer skins —those not taken in the winter and therefore often streaked with red, or those of young squirrels—were usually known as redwerk, early summer skins being called popel, full summer skins ruskyn, and early autumn skins strandling. Squirrel skins from other parts of Europe, sometimes dark grey, sometimes a rich reddish brown, were often known by a place name such as calabre, denoting skins which came originally from the chestnut forests of Calabria in southern Italy. Others, of less value than those of northern origin, were known simply as écureuils, eichhörnchen, or scurell.
The more open country all over Europe sheltered hares; and rabbits had by the thirteenth century spread from their original home in Spain over most of Southern Europe to France and the British Isles. (fn. 7) The dormouse was also sometimes caught for its skin, the fur being known by its French name loirre or léron. Of domestic animals goat and kid skins were sometimes used, but lambskins were the best value from the skinner's point of view. (fn. 8) These, too, were usually classified according to place of origin as the species varied considerably. Those coming from North Africa, and later Spain, for instance, were differentiated from others by reference to their original association with the Moorish kingdom of Bougie, as a result of which they were called budge.
In addition to those needed for classification by name, certain other technical terms were used in the trade. Skins from all animals taken in the winter were known as seson, those taken in the summer as stage. Skins were usually packed in timbers, that is parcels of 40 skins, 25 timbers making 1,000 skins.
The preparation of fur skins, known as tawing, involves several distinct processes, affecting both the leather and the fur or hair. These, akin to the tanning of leather skins, are intended to preserve and soften the skin itself, and the quality of the fur is greatly dependent on the skill with which these processes are carried out. The skin must first be scraped to remove any layers of fat still clinging to it, and then soaked to allow water to penetrate the fibres. This need for water no doubt explains why skinners often settled near rivers; the London skinners, for example, were to be found by the banks of the river Walbrook. (fn. 9) When clean, the skins were stretched out to dry, tied to stakes, and set out in yards and open spaces, much as cloth was stretched on tenters. As only part of an animal's skin, the two outer layers, can be successfully turned into leather, the thin remaining membrane of flesh protecting them had then to be removed, so that the tanning agent could be absorbed. Even today this is cut away by hand with a very sharp knife, a process known as fleshing. These primary processes were usually performed by the same craftsmen; at York the skinners were authorized in 1500 to charge no more than 4d. for washing and fleshing one hundred lambskins. (fn. 10)
We know how the next process in tawing was carried out in London in the fourteenth century because of a murderous attack made on a skinner, Thomas Prentys, while he was busy tawing some skins one day in 1318. (fn. 11) When attacked, he was treading skins in a barrel five-and-a-half feet deep, which proved big enough for him to crouch into so as to avoid the hammer aimed at him. Even in the early years of the twentieth century fur skins were being treated in this way in a factory in Bermondsey, long the home of leatherdressers, so it is possible to be sure of what this process involved. (fn. 12) Certain fats or other materials were rubbed into the leather side of the skin, the skin was rolled up, and the grease was then kneaded into the skin by the bare feet of the workman, heat producing the necessary chemical reaction. It was no doubt due to nimbleness acquired in this part of his work that Richard Steris, skinner of London, owed his brilliant reputation at tennis, 'ffor he was so delyvyr', reported the chronicler, 'that he would stand in a Tubb that shuld be nere brest hye, and lepe owth of the same, bothe standing at the hows and at Rechace, and wyn of a good player'. (fn. 13)
It seems probable that this was the method of tawing in general use during the Middle Ages, a process sufficiently disagreeable to explain the 'unsweete and unwholesome ayre' which was connected with the trade. (fn. 14) Little evidence, however, has survived of the nature of the tawing materials used, despite the frequency with which the mixtures for the preparation of leather were specified in the Middle Ages. (fn. 15) They are described as oint in some French records, and as graith, 'that is to say, alum, eggis and other things' in a Scots one. (fn. 16) In England, at the end of the sixteenth century and presumably earlier, butter and meal were being used. (fn. 17) The Rouen skinners were in 1462 forbidden to use olive oil or other liquid, and certainly oils were being used in London in the late sixteenth century when 'shamoys' were defined as 'goteskynnes dressed in oyle'. (fn. 18)
Additional greasing after the skins had been tawed may or may not have been necessary, but they would then have been stretched, suppled with a knife, and hung to dry. This may have been the knife belonging to his craft, which hung, as was customary, on the inside of the barrel, and with which the Thomas Prentys mentioned earlier killed his assailant in 1318.
There followed the treatment of the fur, still greasy and matted. The grease was removed by beating chalk, or a similar substance such as fuller's earth, into the fur. (fn. 19) As it cleansed the fur this process also brought up its lustre. Some skins needed shearing: a sixteenth-century woodcut of a skinner's workroom shows large shears hanging on the wall. (fn. 20) Rabbit skins, which have long but fine guard hairs standing out from the fur fibres, are still sheared today. Other skins, like beaver, which have long and very stiff guard hairs, are now dehaired as well as sheared, the removal of guard hairs giving beaver furs their unusual lustre and particular beauty. In the Middle Ages, however, these skins were probably only sheared and hence were much less attractive. The dressed skins, with no grease or chalk left in them, were then ready to be made up into furs.
It is not merely time but technological experience that separates the luxurious mink coats of the mid twentieth century from the simple furs of vair which lined the splendid garments of the Middle Ages. Developments in animal breeding, the application of scientific knowledge to dressing and dyeing processes, refinements of cutting, and the use of fashionable designs have made the modern industry infinitely more complex than its medieval predecessor, and its products, doubtless, far more beautiful. (fn. 21) Yet the primary skills involved in the actual making-up of furs have not been materially altered; this part of the furrier's art is still essentially a handicraft demanding a high degree of skill from the individual workman. Only the least skilled of the processes—the sewing together of the separate skins—is now done by machinery. The first test of a good furrier today, as in the Middle Ages, is his ability to match skins for quality, size, and colour, and to cut them economically. The medieval skinner had, in fact, to rely even more on his skill to achieve his effects, as he was denied the assistance of modern dyeing and cutting processes.
The skinner's scope was, naturally, greatly limited by the articles he was making. For the fur linings of squirrel which were his chief interest in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries he used whole skins, or bellies, or backs, simply cutting them to a rectangular shape and using such scraps as heads, paws or feet, and tails for cheaper furs. The London Skinners' charter of 1438 stated the length to which squirrel and other varieties of skins were to be worked. (fn. 22) Most of the bigger skins like lamb and budge were used whole. (fn. 23)
The squirrel skins were sewn together in strips or rows, called tiers or fessi, and several of these were joined to make a rectangular-shaped piece of material. This was called a fur, the name appearing in various forms: furrura, penula, penne, pane, or mantle. These furs seem to have been of standard size all over Europe, varying only according to the number of tiers of which they were made. (fn. 24) The proud shopkeeper of Chartres depicted in the superb windows given to the Cathedral by the skinners may still be seen holding up one of these furs for sale; and the skinner who reached civic office in Nuremburg in 1388 is shown in a Porträtbuch sitting with a rectangular fur of gris hanging beside him. (fn. 25) Hood linings were of three or four tiers, furs were rarely of less than six, more frequently of seven or eight tiers, but sometimes of ten or eleven, and bed coverlets of from sixteen to twenty tiers. (fn. 26) They were presumably sold ready-made in the shops, sometimes only half a fur at a time, sometimes as many as five at once for the lining of a single gown. (fn. 27) Certain furs, having been made for a particular gown, varied more considerably in size: Edward III in 1342 bought furs of squirrel made of anything from 80 to 760 skins, whereas the standard fur of eight tiers used only 120. (fn. 28)
Except for the pilche or cloak actually made of skins, furs were primarily used as linings. (fn. 29) Often, however, the lining was revealed by being turned back at the neck or wrist. It thus became customary for the lining that showed, known as the purfell of a gown, to be made of more expensive skins than those used for the rest, although of the same colour. Gowns might be lined with pured minever but trimmed with ermine, which meant that some four or five ermine skins were used, with perhaps 800 squirrel. (fn. 30) Gowns lined with cristigrey might be edged with fyn gris, a better quality of the same fur. Other combinations were calabre and mink, or leopard bellies and lynx. (fn. 31)
Working within this very narrow framework, and upon skins in their natural colours and shapes, the medieval craftsman was entirely dependent for the design and beauty of the linings he made on his skill in matching and cutting skins.
The significance of the colour of medieval furs may easily be underestimated, perhaps because the medieval illuminator found it difficult to capture the elusive beauty of squirrel skins in the way that Holbein captured the heavier splendour of the sable and lynx skins then more popular with his subjects. Yet there seems little reason to doubt that matching skins for colour was a major preoccupation of the most skilled medieval craftsmen, as it is of the modern furrier working on expensive skins which are not to be dyed. The use of a white fur lining or trimming added greatly to the beauty of costly gowns, whatever their colour. This may partly account for the high esteem in which ermine was held and for the custom of adorning it here and there with black tails, a technique known as powdering. The most familiar colouring, however, was the mixture of grey and white known as vair or minever, where the natural colours of the Baltic squirrel were used to form a design. Here, the grey back of the squirrel and the white belly with the white running up into the forepaws and throat provided the basis for a pattern frequently reproduced by medieval artists, and used to indicate the colour vair on the coats of arms of the nobility. (fn. 32) The selection of matching skins to make a really beautiful fur of vair can have been no simple task.
Whether highly skilled or not, skinners patiently made use of every available scrap of skin. Sometimes this had a particular advantage, as when the creamy-coloured fur from the stone marten's throat set off the green gowns with which it was used, or tails sometimes trimmed the bottom or border of a fur. Such scraps as heads, paws or feet, tails, or even ears, discarded when skins were cut, were made up into separate furs, such as the furs of 'martres croppes', 'focche polles', or 'focche fete' sold by the king's furriers. (fn. 33) Mantles of fox cars, throats, bellies, paws, and backs were imported to London in 1519–20. (fn. 34) In Paris no toll had to be paid on furs of bellies, legs, heads, throats, or scraps in the thirteenth century, and these were generally the furs worn by poorer people. (fn. 35) Those most commonly used in London were of squirrel paws, known as poots or potes, sewn together into strips and then sold in timbers, or sewn into linings or trimmings. (fn. 36) These processes were defined more fully in the list of payments to be made to the York skinners in 1500: 6d. for shaping and sewing 100 paws, 3s. 4d. for making up a timber of heads, presumably strips of heads, 4d. for cutting, sewing, and casing a fur of heads and a fur of paws. (fn. 37) These scraps, like the more expensive skins, were all to be worked separately, the most rigid distinction being that drawn by the Ypres skinners, who in 1308 were forbidden to work skins from front legs with those from back legs. (fn. 38)
Fur linings for which several hundred squirrel skins were used demanded many hours of tedious and painstaking work. In addition to the tawing, seams by the thousand had to be stitched. Skins of pured minever were about 5½ inches long and 1½ or 2 inches wide, and even to sew together the 120 skins usually put into a fur of minever of eight tiers involved the sewing of over 400 seams. It is unfortunately very rare to find figures from which labour costs, and the proportion of labour costs to total costs, may be estimated. We know that in 1406 the King's Skinner was being paid at the rate of 20s. for the dressing and working of a thousand squirrel skins. These skins might have cost anything from £8 to £12. (fn. 39) One skinner, however, from Bury St. Edmunds, has left us a more detailed bill. (fn. 40) In 1466 he charged Sir John Howard, later to be Duke of Norfolk and Richard III's Earl Marshal, £3. 8s. 9d. for 1,360 skins of minever and 82 skins of lettice and gris. These skins were dressed. Raw, they had probably cost about £3. He himself worked for nine days, at 4d. a day, on this fur, and his man for six days at 2d. a day, a total cost of 4s. Omitting the shilling tip added to the bill, labour costs accounted for about 17 per cent. of the cost of the fur. But although we cannot generalize from one bill—in the fourteenth century, for instance, the price of squirrel skins was far higher—we are left with a clear picture of the work involved in the making of furs. (fn. 41) It is interesting to notice, although the figures are not strictly comparable, that twice as much had to be spent on wages of skinners as on those of tailors during the preparation of robes for the coronation of Richard III. (fn. 42) It is little wonder that such close work throughout the long medieval working day—from dawn to dusk—led the Paris workers in vair to complain in 1319 that because 'of the heavy work of their mistery, they succumb frequently to serious and long illnesses, so that they cannot work'. Thus they agreed to provide for the sick 3 sous a week, 3 sous for the week of their convalescence, and another 3 sous 'to strengthen them'. (fn. 43)
Another very laborious task was the powdering of ermine skins. The white skins were pynked or slit, and little pieces of fur from the legs of black lambs, usually used instead of ermine tails, were stitched into the fur. This practice was particularly popular in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. (fn. 44) Some idea of the labour involved is revealed by details of a gown made in 1531 at a total cost of £66. 16s. 4d. The eleven yards of black Lucca velvet cost £10. 7s., and 12s. was charged for the making of the gown; the 1,046 ermine skins cost £34. 17s. 4d., the 18,000 'powderings' £9 and the sum of £12 had to be paid for the work on the skins. (fn. 45)
Little expensive equipment was required in the manufacture of furs. The dressing processes demanded primarily space in which skins could be worked and left to dry; the cost of the barrels and tubs was small. A tubbe kept by one workman was valued at only 1d. and the barrels owned by a more prosperous trader, possibly for treading skins, were worth 6d. each. (fn. 46) The craftsman who made up the furs carried his skill in his hands. His workroom or shop needed no more furniture than the two chests, long trestle table, and three-legged seat with which the pelletria or skynnery at the King's Great Wardrobe was provided. (fn. 47) Skins and furs could be stored in the chests or barrels, and the matching, cutting out, and sewing could be done at the table. In addition the skinner had to have a pair of scissors, a knife, and needles and thread. Little is known of the tools in use; knives are shown in a sixteenth-century woodcut of a skinner's workroom, and the import of skinners' needles in 1536–7 suggests that special needles were required. (fn. 48) Different coloured threads were used, and they had to be sufficiently thick to give reasonable wear. Very frequently silk thread, bought in ounces, was used, its greater flexibility being a considerable advantage. (fn. 49) Often skins were backed with canvas or other lining and, when stitched into a gown, their edges were bound with fine leather. (fn. 50)
Although the tailor himself might sew the fur linings to the robes, this was also an important occupation of the skinner, who was often paid for 'casting the fur upon the gown', and for the furring of articles such as mantles and boots. (fn. 51) Regulations for the York skinners show that they were paid according to the length of material to be trimmed. (fn. 52) This process of furring seems often to have given rise to disputes. Not only were poorer quality skins substituted for those purchased, but also, as the owner of one gown bitterly complained, the skinner had ruined his gown by cutting an inch into the collar and cuffs on both sides in order to save himself time and money. (fn. 53)
In addition, however, to making and setting in new furs, the medieval skinner had much to do with the care of furs. While their repair occupied some of his time, the cleaning of skins and furs absorbed more. Not only had new skins to be cleaned or beaten at every stage from tawing to the sale of the finished article, but worn and dirty furs, 'doubed with filth', needed very thorough treatment. (fn. 54) In some quarters at least it was customary to rafreschir them, a process known in England as chalkyng. (fn. 55) All skins were cleaned by having chalk, or some other greaseabsorbent, beaten into them with rods. Occasionally more drastic treatment was applied, the leather being re-dressed. The furs which King John of France kept when he was in London awaiting the payment of his ransom were well cared for: a tier of one was cleaned and the leather re-dressed; others were treated with grease and fuller's earth, and still others with grease, chalk, and bran. (fn. 56) Furs were often beaten out at the shop door or in the street, a process sufficiently unpleasant for those passing by to drive municipal authorities to action. (fn. 57) In London, in 1310, it was decided that this beating might only be done at night or just before daybreak; otherwise, it was to be done behind St. Martin-le-Grand or near London Wall, 'where no great lords are passing'. (fn. 58) The Florentine skinners later issued a decree in almost identical language. (fn. 59)
Many furs would have been improved by 'fumigaciouns' but it is not certain that this was often done. In the household of Edward IV sweet flowers, herbs, and roots were laid among the king's robes 'to make them breathe most wholesomely and delectable'. (fn. 60) The possession of gloves of goatskin perfumed with ambergris, recommended by the physician Andrew Borde, suggests the more sophisticated tastes of the sixteenth century. (fn. 61)
The skinner, like the ladies of the great households, had other enemies than dirt with which to contend. John Russell in his Boke of Nurture gave sound advice:
Let never woollen cloth nor fur pass a sevenight
to be unbrushed and shaken; tend thereto aright,
for moths be ready ever in them to gender and alight;
therefore to drapery and peltry ever have ye a sight. (fn. 62)
One of Katherine of Aragon's counterpanes was described as being 'sore perished with moths', (fn. 63) and even the Ménagier de Paris has no other remedy to suggest in the little handbook he wrote for his young wife than hanging garments out regularly in the wind on a sunny day. He did, however, provide his bride with a recipe for dealing with furs which had become hardened through getting wet: 'Sprinkle the hardened fur with wine, sprinkling it from the mouth as a tailor sprinkles water over that part of a gown which he wishes to shrink, and then scatter the best flour upon it and let it dry for a day; then rub the fur very hard . . . until restored to its previous condition.' (fn. 64)