IV. The Trade in Skins in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century

Pages 57-77

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

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In the Europe of the early Middle Ages wild animal life abounded. The great primeval forests in Northern and Central Europe, virtually intact until the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the forests, woodlands, and open scrubland, which cut off the more settled areas in Western and Southern Europe from each other, sheltered innumerable animals. Wherever colonization took settlers into hitherto uninhabited territory they were surrounded by animals. We can picture the Irish missionary, St. Columbanus, one of many such pioneers, sitting quietly in the clearing in Burgundy where he founded his monastery in the late sixth century, with the squirrels and wild animals playing happily around him. Only to the wolves did he speak harshly, so we are told, ordering them to stop eating the deer as the monks needed the skins for shoes. (fn. 1) In the late eleventh century Adam of Bremen commented on the plentiful skins of beaver, black fox, hares, and martens to be found in Norway and Sweden. (fn. 2) John de Garlande, writing of thirteenth-century France, described the many wild animals such as boars, bears, lynxes, and wolves to be found there, and a century later a French writer called the lynx an 'assez commune beste' which few people had not seen. The Parisians were startled in 1419 to find a huge wolf roaming their streets in daylight. (fn. 3) Even Londoners went hunting in the woods which covered the Highgate hills. (fn. 4)

The acquisition, therefore, of skins of fur-bearing animals, whether wild or domestic, was a comparatively simple matter in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But of the means by which the English skinner secured the skins of native origin which he used, or of the quantities he handled, we know relatively little. In a country of sheep, lambskins were probably the easiest for him to acquire. Rabbit skins, after the introduction of the animal to the English mainland in the early thirteenth century, (fn. 5) quickly became popular, and hare, fox, wild cat, and otter skins were plentiful.

Skins reached the local market from a variety of sources. Manorial stewards accounted regularly for the sale there of lambfells, and of the skins of rabbits and hares taken from their lord's warren or coneygarth. (fn. 6) The Bishop of Winchester's steward sold 71 fox skins from the manor of Waltham to a Winchester burgess in 1208, and presumably the rabbit skins, which were later almost the sole products of the warren, went similarly to Winchester. (fn. 7) One owner of a Suffolk manor, Lady Alice de Bryene, kept rabbit skins for her own use but sold her woolfells in 1419 to Adam Skynnere of Lavenham, and the Lestrange family, living at Hunstanton, sold skins to glovers in Walsingham and Lynn in 1520 and 1525. (fn. 8) Often skins were regarded as the perquisites of manorial officials. The forester, for instance, sometimes had the right to hunt the hare and fox in his lord's forest, and it was understood that both he and the huntsman kept a share of the animals taken. (fn. 9)

Villagers contributed their quota of skins to the market. Although the deer in the royal forests and fox and hare in the warren were reserved for their respective owners, villagers were free to hunt elsewhere. (fn. 10) Thus they might send into their local centre fox, cat, or otter skins after a hunting expedition, or rabbit skins after a successful night's poaching, and lambskins from their own flocks were regularly dispatched there for sale. (fn. 11) The small pedlar was often a useful intermediary between village and town, and the pedlar of whom Langland wrote was even ready to kill cats, if he could catch them, for the sake of their skins. (fn. 12)

How readily the more highly prized skins of marten and beaver were to be found in England is not known. It seems probable that the numbers of both animals were greatly reduced in the early Middle Ages as the area of settlement spread, and that by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they were to be found only in the more remote parts of England and in the rest of the British Isles. Even in Wales marten and beaver were sufficiently rare for their prices to be fixed, at some time in or before the thirteenth century, at respectively 24 and 120 times the price of sheepskin. (fn. 13) Chester's payment of part of her royal dues in marten skins is noted in Domesday Book, and this may reflect the trade at that time in both Welsh and Irish marten skins. (fn. 14) But in a twelfth-century charter the citizens of Swansea were forbidden to hunt the marten, and it would appear unlikely, judging from the scarcity of later references, that during the later Middle Ages marten could have been hunted in England in any great quantities. (fn. 15) Giraldus Cambrensis, writing at the end of the twelfth century, believed that the beaver was then restricted to one Welsh river. (fn. 16)

The wilder countryside of Ireland and Scotland supported a wide variety of fur-bearing animals in the later Middle Ages. The Scottish forests still sheltered wolves in the late fifteenth century, (fn. 17) although they had been cleared from England by then, and both Ireland and Scotland were famous for their exports of skins during the Middle Ages. The anonymous author of the political poem, The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, writing between 1436 and 1438, commented on Ireland's great wealth in skins, referring to the good martens, deer, otter, squirrel, hare, sheep, lamb, fox, kid, and rabbit skins with which she traded. (fn. 18) Most of these skins were frequently mentioned in grants of murage and it is obvious that there was a brisk internal and external trade in them. (fn. 19) Lists of tolls for Scotland reveal a flourishing trade in fox, squirrel, marten, cat, beaver, and otter skins. (fn. 20) Inverness was renowned at one time as a centre for the trade in marten and beaver skins, which were of a sufficiently fine quality to attract even German merchants. (fn. 21)

Scottish and Irish skins reached London in various ways. The coastal trade between Scotland and the English east coast ports meant that shipments went sometimes direct by sea to London, at other times to ports like Berwick, Newcastle, and Lynn. A Dundee ship in 1391 unloaded lamb, otter, and fox skins in Newcastle; in 1389 a Londoner bought Scottish otter skins in Berwick. (fn. 22) London skinners not only visited Newcastle but had friends among the Scottish merchants, and John Tovill, having finished his business in Newcastle, sent his apprentice back to London with goods and then on to Scotland. (fn. 23)

Irish skins often reached the bigger centres through the English west coast ports of Bristol and Chester. (fn. 24) Some skins were dressed either there or at Coventry before being sent on to London, and the frequent contacts between citizens of Bristol, Chester, and Coventry and London skinners probably sprang from this trade in Irish skins. (fn. 25) Other London skinners held land themselves in Bristol: one family, skinners for four generations, had property in Bristol and another held a manor in Gloucestershire. (fn. 26) Some preferred to trade directly in Ireland, occasionally appointing their own attorneys there. Thus a prominent London skinner like William Pountfreyt, one of the few men importing skins from the Continent in the late fourteenth century, also had representatives in Ireland in 1400 and 1401. (fn. 27) Richard II seems to have appreciated the quality of Irish skins, as he appointed an agent, possibly a London fellmonger, to purvey skins and furs for him in Ireland. (fn. 28)

Some glimpses of the trade in English skins are provided by the activities of a group of London merchants who described themselves as fellmongers. They were a small group, not more than half a dozen in the later fourteenth century, and they appear in the records primarily because they were interested in exporting to Flanders English sheep and lambfells, coney, cat, hare, and fox skins, for which purpose they required licences in the closing years of Edward III's reign. (fn. 29) There they bought skins of squirrel, beaver, otter, fitch, and foynes for sale in London and elsewhere. (fn. 30) This export trade in skins and hides was an ancient one—hare skins, for instance, were exported in the early thirteenth century and probably much earlier—and it seems certain that skins had long been regularly collected for dispatch to the bigger centres, partly for local consumption, partly to supply those who exported them. (fn. 31) Thus money owed by William Ashburn of London, fellmonger, to two York merchants in 1385 may indicate purchases of skins in York. (fn. 32) William Knight of London, fellmonger, guaranteed that a Lynn skinner, having bought fells in Boston, which may have been of either English or foreign origin, was not shipping them overseas but to London, probably on his behalf. (fn. 33) But such glimpses of this internal trade are very rare, and we must be content to assume that quantities of English skins reached local skinners by a variety of means which it is no longer possible to trace. In London the connexion between the fellmongers and the skinners was inevitably very close. Some found it convenient to concentrate on their dealings in raw skins, while others combined their mercantile interests with a retail trade in furs in the City. (fn. 34)

Some provincial skinners may have been content to work only on skins which came from within the British Isles. English lamb and rabbit skins were of good quality; so were many Irish and Scottish skins, and these may have satisfied their customers. Skinners in a town like Newcastle, who could draw on the Scottish and Northumbrian sources that made Newcastle an important centre of the trade in woolfells and hides in the reign of Edward I, had little difficulty in securing their supplies. (fn. 35) But skinners who catered for the luxury trade were in a very different position. The finest furs came from the colder lands further north. The full, dark sable and marten skins, the delicate grey-blue squirrel skins, and soft, white ermine skins were only to be found in the far north of Russia and the great Scandinavian forests, or in the more remote high forested areas of Southern and Central Europe. The popularity of these beautiful and valuable furs with their wealthiest customers forced many English skinners to look abroad for their supplies.

The trade in fine furs from the northern forests was ancient and well established. These furs were well known even in Roman times, when the Swedish traders found a market within the empire for their black fox skins. (fn. 36) Viking traders may have collected sable, beaver, and squirrel as tribute from the Finns, loaded them into ships to be exchanged in England and other West European ports for wheat, honey, wine, and cloth, as we are later told Thorolf did in Egil's Saga. (fn. 37) Others carried Russian furs south-eastwards by ancient river routes from the Baltic to the Mediterranean; by 911 they had secured important privileges in Byzantium, and many of the skins collected as tribute by Scandinavian princes found their way thither as part of a well-organized trade down the river routes via Smolensk and Kiev. (fn. 38) In the tenth century Arab merchants, too, travelled the Dnepr and Volga routes, as well as buying skins in Byzantium, and the overland route from Kiev to the west had also been opened up, largely by Jewish merchants, who travelled regularly from Mainz, via Regensburg, Prague, Cracow, and Przemysl to Kiev and Byzantium. (fn. 39)

The real contribution of the Vikings, however, lay in their stimulation of activity along the Baltic trade routes. Not only did they follow the old routes south-eastwards, but they linked those routes with Western Europe, so that the skins which were brought into such centres as the city of Novgorod and the island of Gotland could be carried either east or west. Their work was followed up by that of German traders, whose interest in the Baltic route, beginning during the late eleventh century, grew until by 1199 German merchants, pioneers of later Hanseatic power, were well established in Novgorod with a house or kontor there of their own. (fn. 40) From the early thirteenth century this western route was to grow increasingly important as the Kiev state collapsed beneath the weight of the Tatar invasions.

German merchants and colonists worked in close co-operation along the shores of the Baltic Sea during the thirteenth century. Lübeck, founded in 1143, became the spearhead of the drive to the east. By about 1270 German settlements extended the length of the Baltic coast as far as Reval. Rivers led other merchants into the interior, and trading agreements were made with Russian cities such as Polotsk in 1210 and 1212, and with Smolensk in 1229. (fn. 41) There can be little doubt that one of the most valuable aspects of this rapidly expanding trade during the thirteenth century was the trade in luxury furs.

The Baltic Sea and Russia in the later Middle Ages

Sable, ermine, and squirrel skins from Scandinavia and Russia, reaching Western Europe from the Baltic, were not the only foreign skins to attract English men and women. There grew up during the early Middle Ages an important trade in peltry from Southern and Central Europe. For Englishmen succumbed, as they still do, to the lure of possessing things of foreign rather than native origin, a custom which Peter the Venerable noted among his own compatriots, who preferred Spanish or Italian cat skins to French ones. (fn. 42) And in addition colder winters meant that skins from some parts of Central or Southern Europe were of finer quality than English ones of the same species. This trade cannot be compared in value with that in such commodities as wool, cloth, or wine, and it is very often difficult to disentangle from that in leather skins, probably of much greater importance, with which it was in the thirteenth century closely linked, but that it was widespread there can be no doubt.

Such casual evidence as survives of this trade, often in the form of lists of tolls to be paid, shows what a great variety of skins were considered profitable articles of exchange. One of the oldest surviving lists of tolls, levied for the benefit of the monastery of St. Vaast d'Arras in 1036, includes lamb, cat, and rabbit skins as well as gris and vair. (fn. 43) Merchants of Aurillac, renowned apparently for the fine dressing of skins, and of Toulouse and Limoges, sold at the Champagne fairs skins of rabbit, hare, lamb, fox, stone marten, wild cat, squirrel, and otter, and pilches made of rabbit and lambskin. (fn. 44) Sardinia, Majorca, Sicily, Provence, and the Barbary coast each produced specific varieties of lambskins, as did the Moorish kingdom of Bougie. (fn. 45) Norwegian, German, and Burgundian hare skins were considered by the Parisians to be of far better quality than those from other sources, judging from tolls fixed in 1296. (fn. 46) Spanish rabbit skins, classified into ottes, galigres, and meligres, were frequently mentioned in the records, and those from Provence and Auvergne were singled out in lists of tolls. (fn. 47)

Pegolotti, the Florentine trader whose guide to tolls, trade routes, and varieties of goods is as much a mine of information to us today as to those for whom it was designed in the early fourteenth century, listed squirrel skins from these central and southern regions separately from the vairs, noting, for instance, dues to be paid on those coming from Apulia and Calabria. (fn. 48) Squirrel skins from Spain, fox skins from Provence, cat skins from Normandy, skins of otter, lynx, stone marten or foynes, civet cat or genette, and wolf were all then considered useful items of trade, as well as manufactured furs, chiefly mantles and pilches of lamb, cat, and rabbit skins. (fn. 49)

Clearly there was a highly organized trade both in peltry and in manufactured furs in thirteenth-century Europe. In Paris, early renowned for her sales of skins and furs, the skins which entered the city were graded into 26 different categories, and second-hand furs into a further eight. (fn. 50) Merchants of Marseilles had a well-developed system for the collection of skins and other goods from Spain, Sicily, and North Africa, and for their transport to the fairs of Champagne, as, for example, to their agents at Provins or Bar-sur-Aube. (fn. 51) At Provins there were halls exclusively for the sale of vair and gris, others for sables. (fn. 52) By the late thirteenth century, however, the fairs of Champagne were declining in importance, and Bruges was emerging as the great entrepôt for western Europe, a position she was to hold in the fur trade for the two succeeding centuries. At that time, so we are told, skins were reaching her markets from Sweden, Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Navarre, Castile, Andalusia, Galicia, Portugal, Fez, Bougie, Tunis, Sardinia, and Tatary, beyond the shores of the Black Sea. (fn. 53)

The thirteenth century was throughout Europe a period of expanding trade and prosperity. Traders were increasingly active in the Baltic and Mediterranean, making easily available the furs, textiles, wines, and spices which fashionable taste required, and local industries responded quickly to the demand for luxuries. The century which saw a secure and powerful cloth industry in Florence, able to compete with that in the Flemish towns, saw also the increased production of the finest silks in Lucca, of delicate Venetian glass, and exquisite Parisian jewellery. Similarly most of the great cities of the Continent, enjoying easy access to supplies of skins and a sufficient number of wealthy and discriminating customers, became flourishing centres for the manufacture of furs. In 1226 the skinners of Basle were already numerous enough to have banded together in a gild, and Paris must early have achieved its reputation as a centre of fashion when in 1292 as many as 482 tailors and 214 skinners were at work there. (fn. 54)

England, where the manufacture of furs was less fully developed, nevertheless shared in this expansion of trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. More and more foreign merchants, attracted by English wool, visited her shores. London, the greater provincial ports, and the principal fairs, in particular those of Boston, St. Ives, Winchester, and Stamford, welcomed traders from nearly every part of Europe. They brought with them, among other things, a great variety of skins. Fitzstephen wrote in the late twelfth century of the 'sable, vair and minever from the far lands where Russ and Norsemen dwell' available in the London of his day, as well as of the fine horses, gems from Egypt, and crimson silks from China. (fn. 55) Among the luxuries set out for the pleasure of King John by merchants from the Rhineland was greywerk from Regensburg. (fn. 56) German traders from the Baltic were busy in England in Henry III's reign, and the King alone was paying them large sums of money: £425 in 1241, £200 in 1242, and £856. 10s. 9d. in 1248 for greywerk and one other sylvan product, wax. (fn. 57) Scandinavian merchants, too, then visited England regularly; Henry III's agents bought greywerk from Paulinus Bret of Norway and his friends at Boston fair as they did from Rosekin of Lübeck. (fn. 58) While merchants from Southern Europe brought chiefly wine, spices, and fine materials with them, occasional references suggest that skins were an item they did not neglect. Thus a Lisbon merchant sold rabbit skins worth £27. 12s. 6d. to the royal tailor at Winchester fair in 1244; in 1228 a shipment seized off Sandwich and taken to Hull contained, in addition to wine and cordwain, 500 kid, 300 cat, 300 hare, 89 fox, 1,016 lamb, and 2,174 rabbit skins, as well as 5 furs of genette; and in 1237 6,000 rabbit skins were seized from Spanish and French merchants. (fn. 59)

The fourteenth century was to see significant developments in the English import trade in skins and manufactured furs. The remarkable variety of skins imported, characteristic of the trade in peltry in Europe during the thirteenth century, gave way to a greater predominance of imports of skins from the Baltic, chiefly squirrel, and the larger part of this trade came into the hands of Hanseatic merchants. At the same time the import trade tended increasingly to concentrate on London rather than the provincial ports.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the pattern of trade showed little change from that of the thirteenth century. Quantities of Baltic squirrel skins reached England's east coast ports, in particular Hull, Lynn, and Boston; they were brought by both German and Scandinavian merchants, and many of them were sent on to the fairs for distribution. (fn. 60) Other varieties of skins from Southern Europe were brought into various ports: the Rose of Portugal brought rabbit skins from Lisbon into Bristol in 1309, and Bayonne merchants brought furs with their figs and raisins. (fn. 61) Santander merchants, caught in 1338 in a storm off Dartmouth, had on board rabbit skins and budge destined for Southampton and Sandwich, and a Lynn merchant loaded budge in Poitou as well as salt and lampreys. (fn. 62) Thomas Humfrey of Paris brought a consignment of budge and peltry worth £25 to Sandwich in 1305 and another worth £150 to London in 1307. (fn. 63) But during the century imports of skins from Mediterranean lands seem to have dropped off considerably, until by the reign of Richard II there was a marked preponderance of Baltic skins among the furs imported. For two short periods during this reign details of imports to London by all merchants, English and alien, are available. These show that from 1 July to Michaelmas 1384 a total of 382,982 skins of Baltic origin was imported, of which 377,200 were squirrel, and the rest mostly ermine and beaver; while from elsewhere there came only 11,305 skins, chiefly foynes and budge. (fn. 64) For the period 1 March to 30 November 1390 the figures are similar: of 310,035 skins of Baltic origin imported, 306,900 were squirrel skins, the rest beaver, ermine, and snow-weasel; from elsewhere only 13,589 skins were imported. (fn. 65)

Since quantitative evidence of this import trade is lacking before the reign of Richard II, these developments cannot be more precisely analysed, and the reasons for them can only be tentatively suggested. As far as demand was concerned, importers no doubt responded to the very general preference for northern squirrel skins, then the most fashionable furs. As for supply, imports from France and Spain were undoubtedly affected by the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. But the most significant factor may well have been the great power built up by merchants of the Hanse, which dominated the key routes between east and west. These privileged merchants, at the height of their power and prosperity in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, had established a virtual monopoly in the transport of eastern goods required in the west; and, working from their bases in Novgorod, Bergen, Bruges, and London, had gradually been able to squeeze out weaker competitors such as the Norwegians. It is not surprising to find, therefore, that, although by the later years of the fourteenth century the League was forced to assert its political and military power in defence of its monopoly, furs brought to London were then carried almost entirely by Hanseatic merchants. For two periods, Michaelmas 1390 to Michaelmas 1391, and during July 1392, we know the quantities of furs imported by all aliens, though not those of imports by Englishmen; on these occasions Hanseatic traders were responsible for 95.9 per cent. and 92 per cent. respectively of the value of these imports. (fn. 66) For another two periods, July to Michaelmas 1384, and March to November 1390, we know the total quantities imported, both by Englishmen and aliens; again the Hanseatic share was very high, being 82.9 per cent. and 91.6 per cent. respectively by value of all imports of skins. (fn. 67) Virtually, therefore, the trade was by this time entirely in Hanseatic hands, and the bulk of imported skins came from North-West Europe via the Baltic.

The English skinners showed little interest in themselves arranging for the import of furs. With only rare exceptions few English merchants, whether skinners or general traders, dabbled in the trade in skins. Out of thirty-nine ships with Englishmen's goods on board arrested in Bruges in 1371, twelve included skins in their cargoes, but only half of these were destined for England and the skins in them were of comparatively little value. (fn. 68) Most of them were the property, not of skinners or of the bigger merchants, but of fellmongers. Served by a most efficient supply system, discouraged by the strength of the Hanseatic monopoly, and not stimulated by any urgent need to find markets abroad for their manufactures, the skinners stayed firmly at home. The relations of the London skinners with Hanseatic merchants were close and friendly: Germans several times used skinners as their attorneys, and when Christian Kelmer was driven out of the London Hanse by his fellows it was to skinners that he turned for help. (fn. 69) Presumably the records of the financial arrangements between them relate to the purchase of skins by the skinners from their Hanseatic suppliers. Thus when John Sely, citizen and skinner of London, agreed in May 1396 to pay £132. 13s. 4d. to Tydemann Wanschede and Henry Smytman, merchants of Almain, in quarterly instalments of 50s., we may suppose that the bond recorded a transaction in skins. (fn. 70)

The growth of London as a commercial centre at the expense of the provincial fairs was the result of many factors, which cannot appropriately be investigated here. But it is a development which the history of the import of furs during the century, in so far as it can be pieced together, illustrates very vividly. During the last decades of the century occasional small shipments of furs came into east coast ports like Hull, Boston, Lynn, and Yarmouth, as they had done at the beginning of the century, but these were negligible in comparison with the quantities reaching London. (fn. 71) From 13 November 1390 to 23 September 1391 skins worth only £15. 5s. 6d. reached Boston in the hands of alien merchants, compared with those valued at £2,404. 6s. 9½d. brought into London by aliens between Michaelmas 1390 and 1391. (fn. 72) London had by then become the chief market in England for skins of foreign origin.

London skinners played an active part in the distribution throughout England of these skins. Most of the details of England's internal trade at this time are unknown, but there can be little doubt that behind the contacts many Londoners maintained in different parts of the country lay their interest in the wholesale distribution of the more expensive imported skins. Enough debts owed by country skinners to the London merchants were recorded to indicate the extent of the country trade of the Londoners: the Londoners had sold goods, presumably skins, to skinners from as far afield as Oxford, Norwich, Lynn, Nottingham, York, Wells, Exeter, and Bristol. (fn. 73) One Londoner, John Manyngton, took a particular interest in this trade, to judge from the £142 owed to him by an Exeter skinner. (fn. 74) Two other Exeter skinners, who also owed money to London skinners, combined business and social contacts by taking up membership of the yeomanry fraternity of the London skinners. (fn. 75) As skinners from elsewhere—Boston, Newark, Northampton, Coventry, Leicester, and Salisbury—also joined the Londoners' fraternity it seems certain that it was primarily their interest in securing supplies of the valuable imported skins which drew them to the capital. (fn. 76)

While their trading techniques seem primitive compared with those of the more highly developed states in the Mediterranean, (fn. 77) Hanseatic merchants had worked out by this time an efficient if complex organization for the speedy and cheap transport of skins and other primary products from the north to the western centres where they were in great demand. (fn. 78) They purchased most of their skins in Novgorod, whither they had been brought from the hunting grounds in the north and east of the city's vast empire. In the woodcuts which illustrate the pages of the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, written by Olavus Magnus, Archbishop of Uppsala, and published in 1555, we see the trappers at work. (fn. 79) Some of them, wearing short tunics of skins, cross the snow on skis, shooting at their prey with bows and arrows, and accompanied by hunting dogs; some set nets to catch beavers, or help to drive bigger animals into temporary enclosures. At encampments by a river work men who are responsible for dispatching the packed skins by river routes to the market, and for dragging the boats overland from one river route to the next. Some trappers were peasants doing business on their own account; others worked on behalf of the wealthy Novgorod boyars on whose estates they hunted; while others again were members of armed bands sent out from Novgorod to plunder the northern provinces. (fn. 80)

Hunting in the far north

In Novgorod the sale of skins was almost entirely controlled by Novgorod and Hanseatic merchants and regulated by agreements between them which had been formulated at various times during the thirteenth century and revised in 1392. (fn. 81) The chief depot was the Hof of St. Peter, the headquarters of the League, where the German merchants lived together under the rule of their aldermen and priest. There the skins were brought and left overnight so that they could be thoroughly inspected before purchase, a privilege cherished by the Germans and resented by the Russians. (fn. 82)

Relations between Russians and Germans in the fourteenth century were marked by constant and bitter disputes: the Russians accused the Germans of plundering their merchants, and the Germans complained that their convoys were attacked and robbed on the difficult journey from Novgorod to the sea. Both sides complained frequently of poor quality goods, and the Germans compelled the Russians to pay a sum of money proportionate to the value of the deal to serve as a sort of insurance premium against Russian trickery. (fn. 83) Yet the trade in skins was valuable enough to both sides for it to continue, in spite of serious interruptions, for well over three hundred years.

Novgorod, although the most important, was not the only mart for furs. Skins from central Russia reached Reval and Riga, on the coast of Livonia, through Smolensk and through the trading stations at Polotsk and Pskov. (fn. 84) Finland and Estonia were, for a while at least, famed for their weasel and ermine skins, (fn. 85) and Sweden produced very fine martens. (fn. 86) Squirrel skins from the Central European forests of Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary, familiar in the records as lettowerk, polanewerk, and hungerisches werk, were collected in the interior, and, passing through Cracow and Thorn, reached the Baltic at Danzig and other Prussian ports. (fn. 87) According to the writer of the Noumbre of Weyghtes Prussia was well known in England as a source of sables, ermines, snow weasels, beaver, marten, and otter skins. (fn. 88)

Cargoes of furs, dispatched from Livonian or Prussian ports with a hopeful prayer for their safe arrival, were mostly destined for Lübeck. They might be sold there or, more often, sent on to Hamburg, there to be reloaded for the journey to Bruges, whence they were transhipped for London.

The Baltic trade was not so highly evolved that Hanseatic merchants specialized in any one commodity. The trade in furs and hides probably played a comparatively small part in Hanseatic trade as a whole but was of considerable importance to a particular group. At the heart of the trade in skins were Lübeck merchants, in particular those with family and business connexions in Reval, Riga, Dorpat, and Novgorod. (fn. 89) In the Veckinchusen family, for example, Hildebrand, its head, himself travelled frequently to Riga, Lübeck, and Bruges, had friends or relations in most north German towns, some of whom did occasional jobs for him, others of whom were his regular agents, and he even had a factor as far away as Venice. He traded in a variety of goods: butter, cloth, salt, figs, almonds, silver, copper, fish, wax, corn, and amber. Skins were thus only one item among many, although in 1416 they made up as much as 60 per cent. of the purchases of his Danzig agent. Most of the skins which he received from his man in Danzig, from his brother-in-law in Dorpat or Reval, or from two other friends in Reval, were consigned either to Lübeck or to Flanders. (fn. 90) A bigger organization like that of the Knights of the Teutonic Order, which traded in skins on a large scale, kept agents in Novgorod, Danzig, and Thorn who were responsible for the purchase of skins, made use of a Hanseatic merchant to assist in negotiations in Lübeck, and had a factor kept permanently in Bruges who was responsible for supervising the unloading of cargoes and the sale of skins. (fn. 91)

There were about twenty merchants based at the Steelyard, the London headquarters of the Hanse, in the late fourteenth century. They were chiefly drawn from Dortmund or Cologne families and, like Veckinchusen, had connexions elsewhere, although these are not now easy to trace. (fn. 92) The majority of them regularly imported furs along with timber, wax, ashes, iron, and fish. There was Christian Kelmer and his brother Andrew, for example, Dortmund merchants with particular interests in the trade in skins—Christian imported into London skins worth £1,019. 2s. between July and Michaelmas 1384. (fn. 93) There was Bernard Mechynghous, a Cologne merchant, presumably with contacts in the Livonian ports, as he had Russian furs on board a Riga ship plundered on its way to Bruges in 1406; (fn. 94) and there was John Wanschede, who came from a Westphalian family connected with Dortmund and Thorn, and who himself later visited Riga. (fn. 95) Frowin Stepyng, an alderman of the London Hanse in 1390, came from a Lübeck family and was related to Hartman Stepyng, alderman of the Hanse in Novgorod. (fn. 96) It is not therefore surprising to find him importing in 1391, as well as timber and osmund, russewerk, swethewerk, lucewerk, and ocharpnorthwerk, all probably the finest Russian and Swedish squirrel skins. (fn. 97) Nicholas Paternostermaker from Hungary was in London in 1385, as was John Hatfeld from Thorn. (fn. 98)

It is possible that England was regarded by Hanseatic merchants as one of their less important markets for furs. Of the 350,960 squirrel skins brought to London between Michaelmas 1390 and Michaelmas 1391, 158,580 at the most might be considered fine-quality skins. (fn. 99) Yet in April 1409 Veckinchusen's agent in Venice confirmed receipt of the 265,969 skins, nearly all of the finest quality, which he had received from his master. (fn. 100) While no period of time is specified in his letter, the quantities of the finest squirrel skins being handled by a single merchant suggest a trade on a far greater scale than that to London. Certainly only a small proportion of the thousands of bestquality squirrel skins noted in Baltic sources seems to have reached London, whereas cheaper qualities such as troynes and popel arrived in plenty. During the early years of the fifteenth century the poorest-quality skins, ruskyn, were unloaded in the City in increasing quantities. (fn. 101) Perhaps the English had been found a little less critical than the luxury-loving Italians, or perhaps squirrel skins were then satisfying a demand from poorer customers.


  • 1. Jonas, S. Columbani Vita, cc. 30, 12, 15, 27: Migne, Patrologia Latina, lxxxvii.
  • 2. A. of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae pontificum, 'Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis', cc. 21, 31: Migne, Patrologia Latina, cxlvi.
  • 3. Wright, Vocabularies, p. 136; Gaston Phoebus, quoted by C. Matheson, 'The History of the Lynx', Journal of the Society for the Preservation of Fauna of the Empire, part lviii, p. 20; J. W. Thompson, Economic and Social History of the Middle Ages, 300–1300, p. 759.
  • 4. Fitzstephen, 'Description of London', in Stenton, Norman London (1934), pp. 27, 32.
  • 5. Infra, Appendix B.
  • 6. E. Lamond (ed.), Walter of Henley's Husbandry, London, 1890, p. 65; L. M. Midgley (ed.), Ministers' Accounts of the Earldom of Cornwall, 1296–7, Camden Third Series, lxvi, p. 56.
  • 7. Hall, H. (ed.), Pipe Roll of the Bishopric of Winchester, 1208–9, London, 1903, p. 5.
  • 8. V. B. Redstone, M. K. Dale (eds.), The Household Book of Dame Alice de Bryene, 1412–13, pp. 117, 139; D. Gurney, 'Extracts from the Household and Privy Purse Accounts of the Lestranges of Hunstanton', Archaeologia, xxv (1834), pp. 442, 469.
  • 9. Register of the Black Prince, iii, p. 430; Furnivall, Early English Meals and Manners, p. 198.
  • 10. G. J. Turner (ed.), Select Pleas of the Forest, Selden Society, xiii (1899), pp. xiii, cxxii, cxxiii, cxxvii; A. Ballard and J. Tait, British Borough Charters, 1042–1216, Cambridge, 1913, pp. 83–84.
  • 11. e.g. C.P.R., 1327–30, pp. 150, 157, 208, 209.
  • 12. Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. Skeat, Text Bv, lines 257–8.
  • 13. From the laws attributed to the tenth-century Welsh king, Hywel Dda, known only in the thirteenth-century manuscript of the lawbook of Iorwerth Ap Madog. See Llyfr Iorwerth, ed. A. R. Wiliam, Board of Celtic Studies, University of Wales History and Law Series, xviii, Cardiff, 1960, p. 90, c. 137.
  • 14. Tait, J. (ed.), The Domesday Survey of Cheshire, Chetham Soc., New Series, lxxv (1916), p. 85.
  • 15. Ballard and Tait, op. cit., p. 83.
  • 16. 'Topographia Hibernica', ed. J. F. Dimock, Opera, v, p. 59.
  • 17. Sneyd (ed.), The Relation of the Island of England, pp. 10, 60–61.
  • 18. G. Warner (ed.), The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, Oxford, 1926, L. 660–4, cf. Giraldus Cambrensis, 'Topographia Hibernica', in Opera, ed. Dimock, v, pp. 57–58, 60.
  • 19. Cal. Docs. Ireland, 1293–1301, nos. 250, 311, 752.
  • 20. Acts Scotland, i, p. 667.
  • 21. H. Boece, The Chronicles of Scotland, trans. J. Bellenden, 1531, ed. Chambers and Batho, Scottish Text Society, Third Series, x (1936), p. 88; J. W. Dilley, 'German Merchants in Scotland, 1297–1327', Scottish Historical Review, xxvii (1948), pp. 142–55.
  • 22. K.R.C.A. 106/21; 3/12.
  • 23. C.C.R., 1377–81, p. 500; C.P.R., 1370–4, p. 194; Cal. of Letters, p. 159.
  • 24. Carus-Wilson, 'The Overseas Trade of Bristol', E.T.F.C., pp. 192–9.
  • 25. Ibid., p. 198; L. & P. Hen. VIII, Addenda, 1, pt. i, no. 385; S.C. Roll of O.L.A., 1426–9; Cal. Letter Bk. B, p. 17.
  • 26. The Selys: Thrupp, Merchants, p. 365; C.C.R., 1454–61, pp. 355–7; 1288– 96, p. 454; see also 1441–7, p. 115; 1405–9, p. 147; 1413–19, p. 507. John de Cotun: C.C.R., 1318–23, p. 456.
  • 27. C.P.R., 1399–1401, pp. 234, 467; cf. 1367–70, pp. 254, 280; 1370–4, pp. 90, 336; 1364–7, p. 104.
  • 28. Ibid., 1391–6, pp. 729: John Scot.
  • 29. e.g. C.C.R., 1369–74, p. 45; C.P.R., 1367–70, p. 252.
  • 30. Gilliodts-van Severen, Inventaire des archives de Bruges, Chartes, ii, no. 616 (original).
  • 31. Rot. Litt. Pat., i, p. 158a.
  • 32. C.C.R., 1385–9, p. 111.
  • 33. Ibid., 1405–9, p. 411.
  • 34. e.g. W. Ashburn, fined for faulty furs: Letter Book G, f. clxix.
  • 35. J. C. Davies, 'Wool Customs Accounts for Newcastle for the reign of Edward I', Arch. Aeliana, 4th Series, xxxii (1954), pp. 238–9.
  • 36. T. D. Kendrick, History of the Vikings, p. 72, quoting from Jordanes, Getica.
  • 37. Egill Skallagrimsson, trans. and ed. E. R. Eddison, Cambridge, 1930, pp. 24, 25, 30–31. It is believed that the basis for this saga was a poem by Egil, a tenth-century visitor to York.
  • 38. Vernadsky and Karpovich, History of Russia: Kievan Russia, p. 29. Constantine Porphyrogenitus' famous description of the trade is here translated. See also S. H. Cross, 'Scandinavian Infiltration into Early Russia', Speculum, xxi (1946), pp. 507, 513–14.
  • 39. Lyaschenko, National Economy of Russia, pp. 76–79; J. Brutzkus, 'Trade with Eastern Europe, 800–1200', Ec. H.R., xiii (1943), p. 34.
  • 40. H.U.B. i, no. 50. See also S. H. Cross, 'Medieval Russian Contacts with the West', Speculum, x (1935), pp. 142–3.
  • 41. Cross, op. cit., p. 143; Goetz, Deutsch-Russische Handelsgeschichte, pp. 445–6, 449.
  • 42. Quoted from the Customs of Cluny by Du Cange, under cattinae pelles.
  • 43. Fagniez, Documents, i, no. 98.
  • 44. F. Bourquelot, Histoire de Provins, Paris, 1839, i, p. 412, note; P. Wolff, Commerces et marchands de Toulouse, Plon, 1954, p. 277; E. Chapin, Les Villes de foires de Champagne, Paris, 1937, p. 322.
  • 45. Pegolotti, La Pratica della Mercatura, ed. A. Evans, pp. 124, 181, 208; I. Origo, The Merchant of Prato, pp. 86, 96, 268.
  • 46. Douët d'Arcq, 'Tarif des marchandises', Revue archéologique, ix (1852), pt. i, p. 222.
  • 47. Close Rolls, 1234–7, p. 479; Fagniez, Documents, ii, no. 16; Cal. Letter Bk. A, pp. 21–22; Douët d'Arcq, op. cit., p. 222.
  • 48. Pegolotti, op. cit., pp. 38, 208.
  • 49. e.g. Lib. Albus, p. 225; Pegolotti, op. cit., pp. 124, 215, 222, 298; R. S. Lopez and I. W. Raymond (eds.), Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World, pp. 95–98, 131, 135, 379; L. Blancard (ed.), Documents inédits sur le commerce de Marseille au Moyen Age, Marseilles, 1884, i, p. 337.
  • 50. Douët d'Arcq, op. cit., pp. 221–3.
  • 51. Blancard, op. cit., i, p. 317; ii, pp. 11, 112, 197–9.
  • 52. F. Bourquelot, Études sur les foires de Champagne, Paris, 1865, i, pp. 199, 200, 273.
  • 53. H.U.B. iii, no. 624, note.
  • 54. See P. Kölner, Die Kürschner Zunft zu Basel, 1226–1926, Basle, 1926; H. Géraud, Paris sous Philippe le Bel, Paris, 1837, pp. 529–31: returns for the Taille of 1292.
  • 55. Fitzstephen, 'Description of London', F. M. Stenton, Norman London, p. 29.
  • 56. M. Bateson, 'A London Municipal Collection of the Reign of John', E.H.R. xvii (1902), p. 496.
  • 57. Cal. Lib. R., ii, pp. 69, 106; iii, p. 166. See also C.P.R., 1232–47, pp. 287, 432.
  • 58. Cal. Lib. R., iii, pp. 273, 315.
  • 59. Cal. Lib. R., ii, p. 278; Close Rolls, 1227–31, p. 89; 1234–7, p. 479.
  • 60. e.g. K. R.C.A. 55/17, 56/7 passim; Gras, Customs, pp. 162, 166–7, 290–301 passim, 374–92 passim. There was a Skinners' Row at St. Ives' fair: M. W. Beresford and J. K. S. St. Joseph, Medieval England, Cambridge, 1958, p. 163.
  • 61. Gras, pp. 351, 357.
  • 62. Cal. Inquis. Misc., 1307–49, no. 1679; Gross (ed.), Select Cases on the Law Merchant, ii, p. xci.
  • 63. Gras, pp. 327, 331; K.R.C.A. 69/1.
  • 64. K.R.C.A. 71/8. Both accounts show payment of poundage. For discussion of the customs accounts see infra, pp. 156–7.
  • 65. Ibid. 71/13.
  • 66. K.R.C.A. 71/16, 71/17. These show payments of the Petty Custom.
  • 67. Ibid. 71/8, 71/13—payments of poundage.
  • 68. Gilliodts-van Severen, Inventaire des archives de Bruges, Chartes, ii, no. 616. I owe access to the original of this document to Professor Carus-Wilson, and help with the translation to Dr. N. Kerling.
  • 69. Cal. Letter Bk. G, p. 228; C.P.R., 1354–8, p. 304; C.C.R., 1392–6, p. 413; Cal. P.M.R. iii, p. 90.
  • 70. Cal. P.M.R. iii, p. 236. Cf. ibid., p. 91, and other records of debts in Mayor's Court, Original Bills, 2, mm. 126, 180, 233, 234; 3, mm. 26, 52, 55, 56, 65, 69.
  • 71. K.R.C.A. passim., in particular, 59/23, 7/23, 7/27, 94/2, 149/27.
  • 72. Ibid. 7/23, 71/16.
  • 73. C.P.R., 1452–61, p. 519; 1467–77, p. 382; 1436–41, p. 11; 1422–9, p. 242; 1374–7, p. 281; 1408–13, p. 134; 1422–9, p. 31; 1446–52, p. 9; C.C.R., 1343–6, p. 446; 1381–5, p. 307; Chancery, Extents on Debts, 6/7.
  • 74. Chancery, Extents on Debts, 38/21.
  • 75. Roger Grey: C.P.R., 1422–9, p. 31; S.C. Roll of O.L.A., 1412; Walter Pope: C.P.R., 1446–52, p. 9; S.C. Roll of O.L.A. 1428. Little is known of the trade in Exeter: the 3 skinners involved were Exeter freemen: Exeter, Mayor's Court Rolls, 41–42 Edward III, m. 6: Walter Thomas; 2–3 Henry V, m. 19 (Grey), 8–9 Henry V, m. 5 (Pope).
  • 76. S.C. Roll of O.L.A. 1426, 1427, 1446, 1469.
  • 77. e.g. R. de Roover suggests that their unsystematic bookkeeping was a serious handicap: 'Development of accounting prior to Luca Pacioli according to account books of medieval merchants', Studies in the History of Accounting, ed. A. C. Littleton, B. S. Yamey, London, 1956, pp. 165–70.
  • 78. Postan, 'The Economic and Political Relations of England and the Hanse', E.T.F.C., pp. 145–9.
  • 79. pp. 14, 369, 604, 611, 638.
  • 80. Many peasants paid their rents, taxes, and tribute in skins, and thus the bulk of the supplies came through the hands of landowners, but when, in the late fifteenth century, money rents were more often paid, skins were also supplied directly to the Novgorod markets by peasant households: A. L. Khoroshkevich, Torgovlya Velikogo Novgoroda s Pribaltikoi i zapadnoi Evropoi b XIV—XV vekakh (The Trade of Great Novgorod with the Baltic and Western Europe in the XIVth and XVth centuries), pp. 47–52, 68–72.
  • 81. The most important were signed in 1199, 1259, 1268–9, and 1292: H.U.B., i, nos. 50, 532, 663, 665. Goetz, Deutsch-Russische Handelsgeschichte, pp. 47–50, 59–61, 85–92.
  • 82. Ibid., pp. 48–49, 252.
  • 83. Goetz, op. cit., pp. 67–68, 83, 253–4; H.U.B. ii, nos. 187, 505, 569.
  • 84. Goetz, op. cit., pp. 512–14.
  • 85. Liv. U.B. ii, no. 1000; iii, no. 1044b, par. 157.
  • 86. Laborde, Les Ducs de Burgoyne, 11. i, pp. 136, 138, 139.
  • 87. Renken, Der Handel der Königsberger Grossschäfferei des Deutschen Ordens, p. 86.
  • 88. H. Hall and F. J. Nicholas, 'Select Tracts and Table Books relating to English Weights and Measures', Camden Miscellany, xv, p. 19.
  • 89. Of 35 merchants paying Pfundzoll on furs at Hamburg in 1369, 25 were Lübeck merchants, 2 from Reval, a German from Novgorod, and 3 were possibly from Riga: H. Nirrnheim, Das hamburgische Pfundzollbuch von 1369, nos. 30, 49, 50, 75, 96, 112, 127, 166, 221, 285, 389, 463. For the part played by the trade in furs in Hanse trade generally, see G. Lechner, Die hansischen Pfundzollisten des Jahres 1368, in particular diagrams ii, iii, pp. 59–60.
  • 90. W. Stieda, Hildebrand Veckinchusen: Briefwechsel eines deutschen Kaufmanns im 15. Jahrhundert, passim. The letters cover the years 1398–1426. His trade is analysed by M. Lesnikov, 'Lübeck als Handelsplatz für osteuropäische Waren im 15. Jahrhundert', Hansische Geschichtsblätter, lxxviii (1960), pp. 67–86. For a brief comment see Camb. Ec. Hist. iii, p. 109.
  • 91. Handelsrechnungen des Deutschen Ordens, ed. C. Sattler, includes the purchases of the Königsberg Grossschäffer, from 1400 to 1423, and the reports to him of his Lieger in Bruges from 1391–9 and 1419–34. This trade is fully analysed by F. Renken, Der Handel der Königsberger Grossschäfferei des Deutschen Ordens mit Flandern um 1400, in particular, pp. 86–95.
  • 92. Cal. P.M.R. iii, pp. 149–50; cf. ibid., pp. 90, 100–1, 143–4, 183.
  • 93. K.R.C.A. 71/7; Kunze, Hanseakten aus England, p. 185, n. 3. Andrew died in London: C.C.L. Courtney, 245.
  • 94. Kunze, op. cit., no. 326, cc. 9 and 30.
  • 95. Ibid., p. 139, note 2.
  • 96. A.C.L. i, f. 23; Kunze, op. cit., p. 163, note 4.
  • 97. K.R.C.A. 71/16, 28 Apr., 8 May, 1 July.
  • 98. Cal. P.M.R. iii, pp. 144, 150; Hatfeld was connected with England for many years: C.P.R., 1367–70, p. 131. Other names drawn from K.R.C.A. passim, were probably those of Lübeck men: e.g. Henry Wessele or Guesson: K.R.C.A.71/3, 71/16; Urkundenbuch der Stadt Lübeck, iv, no. 388.
  • 99. K.R.C.A. 71/16.
  • 100. Stieda, Veckinchusen, no. 20.
  • 101. These figures provide a rough guide:
    Date Source—K.R.C.A. Quantities of Ruskyn
    Mich. 1390–Mich. 1391 71/16 18,400
    July 1392 71/17 53,140
    Mich. 1420–Mar. 1421 72/17 45,000
    Mich. 1428–Mich. 1429 74/11 52,300
    Mich. 1437–Mich. 1438 77/3 37,500
    Mich. 1438–Mich. 1439 73/10 86,840