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Archaeology and History

Blog discussions 2021/22

Each blog (1000-2000 words) is pre-circulated at least 24 hours before the discussion. The online discussion session lasts for one hour, with time at the start to read (or reread) the blog. The presenter of the previous blog acts as discussant, starting the discussion with some pre-prepared questions (no more than three questions please!). This is followed by an open discussion: PhD students are given priority in asking questions, but everyone is encouraged to take part.

  • After the discussion the blog is edited by its author and then sent to Vivienne at to be uploaded here.
  • The blog group is organised by Jane Whittle and administered by Vivienne Bates If you would like to present a blog in the second half of the academic year please contact Jane with a title.
  • If you would like to be added to the group mailing list in order to take part in the discussions please email and Vivienne will send you a link.

The farming and household accounts of John and Marie Coke, Herefordshire, 1607-22

From the perspective of the household economy, economic development over many centuries can be understood as a long, slow transition from self-sufficiency to complete dependence on the market. As such, we tend to think of self-sufficient households as characteristic of the peasantry, and symptomatic of poverty and economic backwardness. Yet in the medieval England peasant households often confound our expectations. Rather than just selling the minimum crop needed to pay rents and taxes, and buy salt and iron tools, they tend to be rather more enmeshed in the market – for instance growing one crop for sale and then buying another cheaper grain to consume. The poorest households are perhaps the least self-sufficient: lacking enough land to grow their own produce and relying on food purchased with an income drawn from wage work or the profits of producing craft goods for the market. Yet, even when we look at later periods – in this case the early seventeenth century - there were many rural households in England that were partially self-sufficient, producing the bulk of their own foodstuffs. These households did not belong to the poor but to wealthy, prosperous farmers. They were not economically backward, but often used the latest farming techniques on well-capitalised farms. Such households adopted partial self-sufficiency as a consumption choice and as a strategy for saving money (thrift).

Wealthy households left written accounts of receipts, payments and production that allow us to see the economy of the partially self-sufficient household in motion. This blog focuses a particularly revealing (and therefore a-typical) set of accounts kept by John and Marie Coke for their household and farm at Hall Court near Preston in Herefordshire between 1607 and 1622. These accounts are interesting for a number of reasons. First, John and Marie Coke were both well-educated and able to keep careful, systematic accounts. Sir John Coke, formerly deputy treasurer of the English navy from 1599-1604, until he and his benefactor Sir Fulke Greville were removed from office by James I. As a professional administrator who had lost his role for largely political reasons, he seems to have taken out his frustrations in applying his accounting skills to his household and farm. His wife, Marie, was not just literate and numerate, but also capable of teaching their sons Greek and Latin. Second, the accounts consist of three types of complementary record, creating a particularly full picture. There are normal accounts which record payments and receipts – some kept by John and some by Marie. There are also weekly consumption accounts kept by Marie which record a running total of food and other consumables produced, sold and used (figure 1). And finally there are annual summaries listing receipts and expenditure, debts owing and owed, crops grown and how they were used, and a list of livestock (figure 2): these are particularly unusual, and remove some of the hard work normally needed to analyse accounts of this type. The third reason the accounts are interesting is the way in which they indicate the roles of husband and wife. The accounts of John and Marie can be distinguished by their handwriting and the two are interspersed, presumably as they each recorded their own activities – in other words they are ‘his and hers’ accounts, as described by Amanda Vickery for the eighteenth century. The final reason they are interesting is that, by gentry standards, the couple were not actually very wealthy, with an annual money income was between £140 and £215. This was ten times more than the income of a labourer, but ten times less than the income of leading county gentry. Sir John Coke was a younger son who made his living as an office holder and administrator, and during this period he had no significant post. Thus, he was reduced to the same income as a wealthy yeoman (i.e. non-gentry) farmer, but had the account-keeping skills of a professional auditor.

For this blog I have analysed a single year of the accounts: 1612. During that year the household consisted of John and Marie Coke and their three young children, and nine servants (five men and four women) most of whom provided farm labour. They also employed two male day labourers for most of the year. Graph 1 displays their sources of income. It shows that the value of home-produced goods consumed plus the value of farm produce sold made up more than half the household’s income in this period. Relatively little of their income came from rents, although they did receive a number of annuities and gifts which reflect their gentry status1. Their cash income came to £177. Graph 2 shows expenditure which in 1612 came to just over £2512. Under ‘diet and housekeeping’ expenditure included both purchased foodstuffs and the value of crops and livestock from the farm consumed at home. As they did not borrow any money and were not in debt, the difference between income and expenditure was the value of home-produced goods that they consumed themselves3: these were worth £74, or 78% of diet and housekeeping and 29% of total expenditure and income. The core elements of diet in this period were bread, beer, cheese, butter and meat. This household grew almost all the wheat, rye and barley used to produce bread and beer. Their bread was mainly made from ‘muncorn’, a mixture of wheat and rye which was also their main crop. They produced most of their own meat: pigs, poultry and cattle. A herd of milk cows supplied them with milk, butter and cheese. Home-produced grain and pulses were also fed to their livestock. Because this is Herefordshire, they grew large quantities of apples, some of which was made into cider, which supplemented the beer. In addition to this they also grew hemp and flax, which was used to produce 66 yards of cloth for use in the household4. As such the farm provided the necessary food and other supplies for household of fourteen people.

Nonetheless, it was also true that the Coke household was thoroughly enmeshed in the market, as evidenced by the multiplicity of commercial transactions described in the accounts: both selling and buying goods. Descriptions of the medieval peasant economy emphasise how the need to pay rent and taxes draw peasants into the market. In the Coke’s household, only a very small proportion of their expenditure related to such charges: almost £6 on rent and tithes, and a little less than £1 on taxes, making up 2.3% of their total expenditure. Much more significant was the amount they spent on labour for the household and farm: £14 on money wages and liveries for servants, and £13 13s 4d on money wages for day labour5. As they provided servants with board and lodging, and paid labourers partly with food and drink, these workers also consumed a significant proportion of the household’s foodstuffs as part of their wage payment, in addition to these cash wages. The household was not unaffected by global trade, consuming spices such as nutmeg, ginger and pepper from the far east, and selling an Indian quilt and roll of Indian taffeta (perhaps gifts received by Coke when he was in office?) to raise extra cash. While most of their purchases were made locally, John Coke visited London twice that year, and took the opportunity to buy cloth and clothing for himself and his wife each time he went.

The sale of farm produce provided a significant proportion of their income (23% of the total, or 33% of their cash income). While grain and apples were sold at market in local towns, many products were sold even more locally to neighbouring households in the locality, most of which were less wealthy, and included the families of the labourers they employed. Marie Coke’s accounts name at least 36 different people who bought apples, milk, butter, cheese, pulses, onions, goose-grease, lard and pumpkins from them. Both their general accounts and Marie Coke’s weekly accounts mix together records of receipts and expenditure, distinguishing them by using Arabic numerals for expenses, and Roman numerals from receipts (see figure 1). Many production processes were distinguished by a mixture of home-grown products and household labour with purchased services which provided particular skills. Thus they used their own barley to make beer, but paid a local woman, Goodwife Jenkins, for malting it ready for brewing. They also purchased hops to flavour it. They raised their own livestock but paid local butchers to slaughter their animals, and often purchased fresh meat from butchers (especially in the summer). They grew hemp and flax, and processed the plants into yarn, but sent it to a local weaver for weaving. Higher quality linen for clothing was purchased.

Aside from their extensive employment of servants, the Cokes’ partial self-sufficiency bears many similarities to that described in modern guides for people seeking to live a self-sufficient lifestyle. An example of these are the books of John and Sally Seymour, published in the 1970s and 1980s, and still being re-issued (a 2019 edition comes with an introduction by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall). Such guides do not strive for absolute self-sufficiency, but rather to home-produce and preserve basic foodstuffs, and to make the most of resources that were to hand on a small farm. Like those in modern England who buy smallholdings and seek to live ‘off grid’, the Cokes chose a self-sufficient strategy in an economy and society that offered them other options. Yet while the quality of the records left by the Coke household are exceptional, I do not think their lifestyle choice was. There is a great deal of evidence that many prosperous, rural households continued to produce their own food and engage in multiple forms of production and food (and textile) processing up until at least the mid eighteenth century. Such households were clearly not adverse to change, adopting new types of crops and household goods, and engaged in many market transactions. Instead self-sufficiency was a consumption choice and an actively chosen strategy that requires more acknowledgement and attention from historians.

‘Gifts’ always came from Fulke Greville, and are probably better understood as wages for administrative work John Coke did for his benefactor.
It was particularly high that year because they undertook some building work (costing £31.5) and were still decorating and furnishing parts of their newly built house (£51.5 spent on ‘household stuff’).
John Coke added a note explaining this in a later account.
This production was undertaken and managed on gendered lines – I don’t have space to describe this here, but am happy to discuss it.
In addition much of the costs of building and repairing consisted of wages.


Primary sources:

  • British Library: Add 69874: Accounts of John and Marie Coke 1607-1616 (summary of finances 1603-1610, receipt accounts 1610-1622, payment accounts 1607-1616 including annual summaries.
  • British Library: Add 69975: Accounts of John and Marie Coke 1616-23 (payment accounts 1617-22, payment accounts including annual summaries, whole book damaged at top with parts missing and illegible.)
  • British Library: Add 69876: Accounts of Marie Coke 1610-21 (weekly consumption and sales account, towards end list of utensils sold and final few pages written by John Coke)
  • Historical Manuscript Commission, The manuscripts of the Earl Cowper, K.G., preserved at Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire, twelfth report, appendix vols 1-3 (London, 1888-9). [These are John Coke’s papers. Vol 1. Contains transcriptions of letters for the period 1604-1622, including his letters to and from Marie Coke: pp.46-130]

Secondary Reading:

  • Peter Bowden, ‘Expenditure and income’ in Joan Thirsk ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales vol.IV (CUP, 1967), pp.649-95.
  • Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (CUP, 1989)
  • John and Sally Seymour, Self-Sufficiency: The Science and Art of Producing and Preserving your own Food (London, 1973)
  • Amanda Vickery, ‘His and hers: Gender, Consumption and Household Accounting in Eighteenth-Century England’ Past and Present Supplement (2006), pp.12-38
  • Michael B. Young, Servility and Service: The Life and Work of Sir John Coke (The Boydell Press, 1986), see also John Coke’s entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, also written by Michael Young.

Advertising trustworthiness through 17th century trade tokens

Like many of the blogs in this series, mine takes, as its starting point, a particular document. It is a very, very short document, of a standard, formulaic style, and yet it conveys a lot of information. It is an unusual document as, rather than being written on paper or parchment and kept in an archive or library where it might be studied by a historian, it is stamped on a small piece of metal, kept in a museum, and is usually the purview of the numismatist or archaeologist.

The piece of metal is a 17th century trade token of a type issued in England, Wales, and Ireland between 1648 and 1672 (1679 in Ireland). These centrally manufactured tokens are a short lived but mass phenomenon, with around 10,000 issuers and upward of 20,000 types. Denominated in the state currency as farthings, halfpennies, and pennies they are explicitly tied into and reliant on the existing monetary system while being a direct challenge to the established state monopoly on coinage issue. They are a novel solution to a long-established problem, the shortage of state issued small change. They become a model for repeated instances of similar token issues in the 18th and 19th centuries but need to be understood in the context of the particular political and economic situation of the mid-17th century.

My current PhD study aims to integrate archaeological and historical evidence and techniques to understand how these tokens were used and considered by people at the time. In doing so it aims to contribute to wider questions about how privately issued currencies can be established and operate, the development of shopping and commerce in Britain, and national and regional trade patterns. While my study is still only part way through it has become clear how much this phenomenon of token issuing changes over the 25 years within which they were issued, a change perhaps driven by issuers’ own changing understanding of trade tokens’ potential as advertising and credit medium, as well as monetary function. It is this advertising potential, this communicative potential, that I want to explore in this blog - what was being advertised, to whom, and, in this case, how.

The token this blog focuses on is a square piece of copper alloy about 17mm across, an example of which is shown below. Square tokens are very unusual in the series, despite being easy to produce technically. Over 97% of issues are circular, reflecting in broad form and layout, if not detail of design, the main state coinages of the time. From 1666 new shapes are introduced, but remain rare, with 18 different types of square tokens known, issued in towns from Kent to Cheshire. These new shapes, coming towards the end of the series, at a time where the greatest number of tokens are being issued, by type, geographical extent and probably volume, appear to be part of a deliberate attempt by issuers to distinguish their tokens from others.

Token of Francis Swindell. Copyright Baldwins of St James.

The token reads: FRANCIS / SWINDELL / OF . MACKEL/S . FIELD . HIS /HALFE /PENNY on one face and SQVARE / DEALINGE / IS . BEST / 1669. Within this short document of 12 words the issuer is identifying his name, location, gender, the token’s ultimate ownership and denomination, and the date of issue. They are also making a moral statement and a public commitment. The period after 1666 sees an increased fashion for tokens with lines of text written horizontally, in italic script as well as Roman capitals. This token is unusual, however, in simply having text on both sides with decorative stops filling vacant areas but no image; this focus on words to convey the message, as well as rhetorical flourish, is why I started this blog by referring to it as a document. 

A Francis Swindell of Macclesfield’s will, and probate inventory, are in the National Archives, dating to 1678/1679. The inventory is not online but the will identifies Francis as a Haberdasher. On many tokens the inclusion of an occupation or wife’s initial can support the linking of issuers to other documents, along with the name, place, and date. On this token such details are missing and so the link is not conclusive, especially as Francis was part of an extended Swindell family living in Macclesfield. Tokens have potential to provide an interesting insight into occupations, both as a national data source for the mid-17th century and allowing comparison of the occupations people chose to claim for themselves versus those they allude to or others record for them. The occupations of token issuers are also an important broad guide to considering their potential functions, as change in retail transactions, truck coinages or restricted use coupons, whether in retail or alms.

Another way in which we can look at these tokens, as well as a mechanism of payment, is as a novelty form of good in their own right. As part of the expansion in novelty consumer goods in the ‘consumer revolution’ questions of how acquirers became aware of them, why they decided to acquire them and then practically how this mechanism of acquisition worked are of interest not just for these tokens but as a model for other such goods. The mechanism of novelty good acquisition by merchants, rather than customers, is not widely discussed in the existing literature on consumer changes in the Early Modern period, perhaps because of the early focus on probate and household accounts, but work is starting in this direction such as Alun Withey’s work on patent medicines.

While the central production of such tokens has been clarified by Robert Thompson, he, along with others, suggested these novelty goods were marketed to issuers by travelling agents, based on agents’ employment for later periods of token production. The presence or absence of such agents has implications in relation to the marketing of other novelty goods. Close consideration of unusual groups of tokens provides a way to ‘test’ this mechanism. Three other square tokens, outside London and Ireland, refer to ‘Square dealing’. They were issued in Bewdley (Worcestershire), Bishop’s Castle (Shropshire), Kington (Herefordshire). The three are similar enough to the Macclesfield example that they could be inspired by each other, either by sight of the tokens or deliberate marketing of the style by one agent. The three form a group, around 50kms apart, see map below. While work on circulation will form a later part of my study, early indications are that such a distance would not be unusual for tokens to travel so the issuers may have seen, handled and accepted the other examples. Examination of the issuing dates of these tokens, over three separate years, and details of the lettering which suggest different die cutters, if not necessarily producers, makes direct marketing by an agent appear a less likely. Another issuer in Kington chose a circular token and the similar moral message ‘Plaine dealing is best’, similarly suggesting local influence in individuals’ choice of token design rather than marketing of a set model. 

‘Square’ to mean fair or honest appears to be used since at least the 16th century. Its use on this token of course provides a visual pun, and such puns are popular on tokens, often as images providing rebuses of issuer’s names. There may seem to us also a slight humour in a token issuer called Swindell feeling the particular need to proclaim their honesty, but the word swindle seems to only be recorded as acquiring its modern meaning of a cheat or deception in the 18th century. In this case the use of the visual pun adds to the token’s impact as an advertising piece, focussing attention on the message of fair dealing and making it, and thus the token issuer, more memorable. 

Textual messages on tokens, beyond those which can be directly related to improving the token’s functionality, are rare, found just under 2% of tokens. Of these, the majority are statements about token’s purpose, expected users, or exchange, with another large group being statements of support for the Restoration monarchy. Very few directly praise the issuer’s goods, two in my study, and around ten make a moral statement about the issuer’s professional probity. These moral statements focus entirely on fairness, either in dealing or weighing. When thinking about whom these messages are for the focus on several of these in doing unto the issuer as you would be done by is perhaps telling.

So, who is this document, this token, designed to be read by? Who is the textual message for? Trade tokens have traditionally been seen as issued in response to a lack of small change. However, the extent to which retail in the 17th century relied on credit and bookkeeper barter is well established by historians such as Craig Muldrew. Contemporary commentators and issuers, in statements on their tokens, make clear who they consider this lack of small change to therefore be a problem for: not the customers to whom they extend credit, but the poor, as consumer and petty traders.

Tokens allow the issuer to maintain the relationship building aspect of credit to help drive future business their way while shifting the risk onto the token holder. However, a distinctive feature of these new types of trade tokens, is the quantity of written information they convey. This contrasts with lead tokens, that are proscribed several times in the early 17th century for serving a similar credit function. Unlike the simple lead token, such as that shown below, trade tokens design is sufficient to make their value and the issuer identifiable to a third party, and indeed the modern historian. That these tokens did circulate to third parties, did start to operate as a monetary medium, is suggested by this information content as well as circulation studies and the few texts we have that discuss their issue and use. Such texts are mainly discussions by town councils and others proposing their own issues as an alternative to merchant issues. They suggest tokens were widely accepted by other merchants in payment, re-circulated and then, eventually, were exchanged back for coin or objects or laid off against debts by the issuer or, in at least one recorded case, a specialist farthing changer.

Lead token with two of the most common Post Medieval designs.

The advertising potential of tokens is therefore not just to the expected initial user but to the wider merchant community. They advertise the issuer’s name, location, business and, more subtly that others have accepted them as responsible debtors while making clear they are avoiding a form of risking lending, to poorer customers, that could place strain on a credit network. The focus on written communication and the promise of equitable dealing of this particular token can be seen as a demonstration of the issuer’s awareness of this third-party audience. It is to them, his literate fellow merchants, that he is providing information and promoting the advantages to dealing with him. His business or trade is not even named for the potential purchaser. I would argue he has crafted a distinctive and memorable token to advertise himself to his community rather than primarily his business to a customer.

Suggested further reading

  • Burnett, Laura ‘For change and charitie: identifying the motivations and characteristics of issuers of tokens in the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century’, in Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities edited by Antonino Crisa, Mairi Gkikaki and Clare Rowan, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 57, 189-202. London: Royal Numismatic Society.
  • Dickinson, Michael. Seventeenth century tokens of the British Isles and their values, 2nd edn. London: Spink, 2004.
  • Dykes, David. Coinage and currency in eighteenth century Britain: The provincial coinage. London: Spink, 2011.
  • Muldrew, Craig ‘Wages and the Problem of Monetary Scarcity in Early Modern England,’ Wages and Currency: Global Comparisons from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century edited by Jan Lucassen, 391-410. Bern: Peter Lang, 2007.
  • Thompson, Robert ‘Central or local production of seventeenth century tokens’, British Numismatic Journal, 89 (1989): pp.198–211.
  • Withey, A. J. R. ‘”Persons that live remote from London": Apothecaries and the Medical Marketplace in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Wales’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2(85): pp.222-247.

State support for trade at an annual fair in 18th century western India

On the 24th of November 1778, Hindumal Singhvi, a career administrator for the kingdom of Marwar in western India, issued the following royal order to the officials of the magistracy (kotwali chauntara) in the city of Nagaur:

Since the watchman’s footmen are always sent to the Mundwa fair (mela), accordingly send [them] so that they shall protect [it]. At last year’s fair, three to four thefts occurred. On this account, take special care this time so that there shall be no theft. [This] is the order of the lord (Sri Hajur).

Marginal note: Instruct Nagaur’s merchants and traders: send shops to the fair immediately.1

This order, written in the local dialect of the Rajasthani language, was transcribed in an annual register of royal orders, judgements and instructions known as a sanad parwana bahi. Though most of the documents from this period are untraceable, these registers, which are extant for the kingdom of Marwar in a continuous series from 1764 to 1938, provide extensive insights into the functioning and policies of the state and, read against the grain, to Rajasthani society in this period. Each register runs to hundreds of folios, and most folios contain transcriptions of four or five documents each on the recto and verso. Among this flood of thousands of documents dispatched across the kingdom, the state issued approximately two to eight orders concerning arrangements for the fair in Mundwa to the regional officials in Nagaur each year throughout the 1770s – the decade of records I have recently been focused on. These orders, such as the one I’ve translated above, show a consistent pattern of state concern about the arrangements for the fair and support for trade.

To claim that early modern South Asian states supported trade in general, and annual fairs specifically, is not to make a particularly new claim, but it is a topic that deserves revisiting on several historiographical grounds. First, although fairs have been recognised as an important aspect of the South Asian economy, they have received surprisingly little detailed discussion, especially for the period prior to the nineteenth century. Second, and I believe related to the first point, much of what has been written on the history of annual fairs in Rajasthan and elsewhere in northern India has drawn primarily on colonial accounts. In contrast, in this blog I sketch out how the small number of orders I have read thus far regarding the Mundwa mela in the 1770s might help rethink the nature of such fairs and the specific aspects of state involvement in their organisation.

Historically, a mela, or fair, was an annual or biannual gathering that typically combined a religious festival or pilgrimage with trading. As distinct from the permanent daily and weekly markets (bazaars, mandis and haats) found in cities, towns, and villages, melas were an exceptional market in terms of size and scale, drawing merchants, customers and pilgrims from wider distances and in larger numbers, and lasting for long periods – often two to six weeks at a stretch. Although all sorts of goods were traded at melas, a key feature was often the livestock market, where horses, oxen and camels were bought and sold, including by state agents. The Mundwa mela was part of a larger ecosystem of annual fairs held across Rajasthan in the early modern period; some of these fairs, including the Pushkar Mela and the Balotra Mela, were attested to in early modern records and continue to be held annually, though there may be less serious live-stock trading nowadays, as mechanization has displaced draft animals. The annual mela in the village of Mundwa, located about 10 miles southwest of Nagaur, was a site of bustling commercial activity for about six weeks every winter in the second half of the eighteenth century. Merchants and traders hawked wares ranging from camels to sugarcane to vermillion powder (gulal). They brought their wares from around the wider region, travelling from places such as Jodhpur and Umarkot, though many came from the nearest city, Nagaur.

The document I open with addresses two overriding concerns of the state in regards to the Mundwa mela: reducing crime and increasing trade. As the order makes clear, the officials in the nearby city of Nagaur were responsible for the security arrangements of the fair. Unlike major pilgrimage festivals, such as the Kumbh Mela and Haridwar Mela, where the congregation of rival groups of warrior ascetics known as Gosains might spark fights and clashes, here theft was the main concern. This was a regular topic in official correspondence to urban officials anyway, and although we do not have statistics for the size of the crowd that gathered, even if we take the 1879 estimation of 30-40,000 people as a starting point, this suggests that the fair created a temporary urbanisation, greatly surpassing the usual size of the village. In order to tamp down crime, armed contingents of footmen were sent to the fair, including those of the watchmen, but also those from the armoury. What is surprising, however, in the order above is that sending a contingent of watchmen to the fair is framed as a response to only three to four thefts with a stated aim of eliminating all theft. This may have been a rhetorical move, in line with Maharaja Vijai Singh’s (r. 1752 – 1793) broader efforts to crack down on crime and vice in the 1770s. Or perhaps the mention of three to four thefts refers to stealing high-value items or large quantities, not petty crimes like pickpocketing. 

To promote the fair and encourage merchants and vendors to attend, the state also offered financial incentives such as customs discounts of up to 25 percent to merchants bringing their wares from neighbouring regions and sent invitations encouraging their participation during this period. In addition to tax discounts, state officials oversaw the setup of stalls or shops at the fair and were instructed to let the officials in Nagaur know if not enough merchants came so that they could respond – presumably by ordering or encouraging merchants to bring their wares to the fair. It is clear from the orders sent to Nagaur officials, including the one above, that there was considerable state pressure on local merchants to participate in the fair. 

A third strand of state involvement also emerges from the bahi records. State support of the fair went beyond the strictly commercial and also attended to the religious components of the fair. The documents copied in the state registers from the 1770s do not explicitly describe the religious aspect of the Mundwa mela, but various records read together indicate that this was an important part of the fair even though Mundwa was not a famous pilgrimage location. The Rajputana Gazetteer of 1879 states that the fair was instituted in the middle of the eighteenth century by Maharaja Bakht Singh (r.) in honour of the deity Krishna as Giridhar ji, the deity in his form as a youthful cowherd lifting a mountain to shelter the villagers and cattle from a rainstorm. Although I have yet to find any earlier texts referencing this origin account of the fair, a prominent Giridhar ji temple still stands in Mundwa on the banks of village tank and eighteenth-century records show that the temple received patronage from the royal court on various festivals dedicated to Krishna throughout the year.

State orders regarding arrangements of the fair specifically targeted the religious aspects, such as making sure there was water in the tank for ritual bathing. In 1776-7, after a poor monsoon, water levels in the village tank were low, as they were across the region. Prior to the fair, the inspector of Nagaur’s custom house raised concerns about the water level, which resulted in a decree that the people of Mundwa needed to use water from wells instead of from the tank in order to save the water in the tank for the fair, because the water was needed to support revenue (hasil), presumably in the context of ritual baths overseen by the pilgrimage priests (ghatiya) who attended the fair. This raises the possibility that Maharaja Vijai Singh was levying taxes on pilgrims, something which will need further investigation. After the fair, the state ordered the tank in Mundwa desilted and repaired at a cost of 1,000 to 1,200 rupees in order to improve its holding capacity when the rains returned, with the work to be partially paid for by revenue from the fair.

Returning to the question of why the state undertook such activities and interventions, if the fair did originate in the 1750s at the behest of Maharaja Bakht Singh, ongoing state support may have been needed to make it more established. The state certainly would have had a financial incentive to keep it going. In the 1770s, the mela provided an income of over 5,000 silver rupees, as shown by an order to investigate an accounting discrepancy. This made it a considerable source of revenue, though it is hard to fully contextualize this amount. Thus far, revenue statistics for fairs in Marwar in the eighteenth century are not available, but if we compare to the data compiled by B.L. Bhadani for three other fairs in Marwar the mid-seventeenth century, this amount is well in line with average returns from other fairs, though well below the high point of almost 26,000 rupees of revenue recorded for one fair in 1648. Perhaps more instructively, Bhadani also compares non-agrarian revenue to the total revenue in several districts of Marwar in the 1660s to 1690s, which suggests that such customs revenue, ranging from 2,000-25,000 rupees depending on the size and population of the district, made up on average between 6 and 16 percent of the total district revenue. By 1879, Lt. Col. Walter reported in the Rajputana Gazetteer that the fair was only bringing in 3,000 rupees of revenue but stated that in past years it had been as much as 10-15,000 rupees. However, given the century or more between each of these datapoints and the years of the fair under consideration and the fact that they have not taken fluctuations of the value of the rupee into account, these comparisons can provide only rough guides until further research is undertaken in the eighteenth-century revenue records of the region. An order indicates that in the 1770s, specific series of records of the income of the fair under the previous ruler, i.e. Bakht Singh, were available to consult, although such records may no longer be extant.

Beyond profit, the fair was also a way for the state to acquire needed supplies, including luxury goods like vermillion powder but also livestock, including cattle, camels, and horses. Although colonial accounts of the fair emphasize its importance as a cattle market, the state orders of the 1770s are far more focused on camels, which were used as draft animals in agrarian, transport, and military contexts. Such orders included instructing officials to replace an ill camel attached to the magistracy with one purchased from the Mundwa Mela, to purchase a camel for the head of guards, and excusing revenue duty (hasil) on the transport of two camels from the fair to Jodhpur. Not only was the fair a source of camels for Marwar’s officials, it also supplied other regional powers. When the representative of the Maratha Peshwa, Pandit Ayaram Mahapat Rao, purchased 500 camels at the fair, the state ordered the hasil taxation excused. During this period, the Marwar king was generally under treaty obligations to the Marathas. Thus, such an order might also be as much about diplomacy as about revenue. As the copies of state orders in the bahi records show, the state manner and reasons for involvement in the arrangements of local fairs like the Mundwa mela were both extensive and complex.

1 Jodhpur Sanad Parwana Bahi 21 f 53a, Magsir sud 5 VS 1835. Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner. Own translation.

Primary Sources

  • Jodhpur Sanad Parwana Bahis nos. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 21, Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner.

Further Reading

  • Bayly, C. A. Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Bhadani, B. L. Peasants, Artisans and Entrepreneurs: Economy of Marwar in the Seventeenth Century. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1999.
  • Maclean, Kama. Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Sahai, Nandita Prasad. Politics of Patronage and Protest: The State, Society, and Artisans in Early Modern Rajasthan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Sharma, G. D. “Vyaparis and Mahajans in Western Rajasthan during the Eighteenth Century.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 41 (1980): 377–85.
  • Yang, Anand A. Bazaar India: Markets, Society, and the Colonial State in Bihar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Commentaries on prostitution in eighteenth-century newspapers as insight into anxieties about extravagance and consumption

The discourse surrounding the eighteenth-century sex trade did not exist in a vacuum. When referring to prostitution, people rarely neatly and directly stated their opinions on the nature, legitimacy, and morality of the trade; more commonly, commentators would interweave their discussions of a variety of related topics, using the imagery and associated features of the prostitute to illustrate and reinforce a range of messages. The discourse surrounding prostitution, and its legitimacy and morality as a market activity, can best be understood when considered in relation to broader societal concerns about the growth of consumerism. The eighteenth century witnessed a transition in the direction of capitalism, as the reach of the market extended. Increasingly, consumerism became a central part of cultural life and the accessibility of luxuries grew. This blog post will discuss my thoughts and findings regarding the connection between this changing socio-economic context and discussion of sex work. It will consider a small selection of newspaper articles which directly evidence this connection. This selection is taken from a much larger sample of thousands of digitised eighteenth-century newspaper articles relating to various search terms connected to the sex trade.

The word ‘prostitution’ was in use at the beginning of the eighteenth century. However, more commonly, words such as ‘lewd woman’ and ‘whore’ were used, which had vague, flexible definitions embracing extra-marital, sexual acts. This post will employ a dual terminology approach, using terms such as ‘sex trade’ and ‘prostitution’ to specify its aim to examine transactional sex, whilst avoiding imposing these terms when contemporaries used different words which they may have intended to have more vague definitions relating to lewdness. Given the unclear boundaries between women having extra-marital sex and women charging for sex in eighteenth-century texts, it is difficult to create a clear distinction between the two when exploring them, and such a distinction will not be forced or falsely imposed. This is not particularly problematic, as when discussing the discourse surrounding the sex trade, it is also relevant to discuss the discourse surrounding sexual looseness broadly.

Eighteenth-century commentators made clear connections between luxury and sexual looseness. ‘Whores’, an anonymous contributor to The Flying Post in 1730 stated, ‘sin out of Laziness and Luxury’. Also in 1730, when writing to Applebee’s Weekly Journal about the grand enemies of mankind, ‘Intemperance, Luxury, and Voluptuousness’, a commentator ‘Sobrius’ declared that ‘Luxury is an Incentive to Venery, it stimulates and provokes Lust’. Both examples argue for a direct causal relationship between living a luxurious lifestyle, being moved to lust, and becoming ‘whores’. These evidence ties in the eighteenth-century imagination, which deserve further attention, between commerce, luxury goods, the power of the market, and sexual immorality.

Later in the century, an additional element was common in critiques of the connection between luxury and extramarital, often traded, sex. This was the accompanying bewailing of the degeneracy of the age, asserting that these connected concerns were increasingly present. The 1766 letter from ‘An Invisible Spy’ in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, commented on the ‘degenerate age’, in which ‘[i]t is from our extravagance of dress and false appearances, that we derive our present miseries’. Likewise, a 1759 commentator claimed in the London Chronicle that prostitution and extramarital sex were so widespread that ‘we shall soon be brought to think that lewdness is not lewdness’. This narrative of the increasing acceptability of depravation was echoed in a 1783 letter ‘For the Morning Herald Demireps’, published in the accused newspaper, which stated that ‘the conduct of the public prints, in their paragraphical panegyric of notorious prostitutes, puts modesty and honour much to blush… sometimes this wanton praise has so far exceeded the bounds of decency, as to point out a notorious demirep’s conduct as worthy of imitation’. Similarly, in a 1796 open letter to the Queen, published in the Morning Chronicle, the commentator wrote that ‘it is an undeniable fact … the chastity of females has lessened’. This focus on the degeneracy of the present distinguished discussion of luxury and licentiousness in the second half of the century from those in the earlier half.

Drawing on the connection established between the two throughout the century, commentators attributed growing lewdness to the increasing accessibility of luxury and the world of fashion and theatre. The aforementioned 1759 London Chronicle commentator argued that ‘national incontinence is look’d upon as a vice of little importance, and lewdness as a necessary piece of luxury’, adding that ‘playhouses are privileged places of public prostitution’. Similarly, a writer for the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser recommended that ‘every pimp, bawd, prostitute, pander, and gambler’, ‘be hissed out the theatre’, adding that this would leave the benches empty. This paints a view of culture in which a certain luxurious, fashionable lifestyle was inseparable from the world of transactional sex and the stereotypical image of the successful prostitute. Those who viewed consumer culture negatively, would therefore extend this judgement to transactional sex. Evidently, changing attitudes towards the market that occurred alongside the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century were intrinsic to developments in attitudes towards the sexual, commodified female body.

A prominent eighteenth-century concern connected to the rise of consumerism was the ‘aping’ of different social sorts. Dressing above one’s station was considered an indicator of sexual immorality. Attitudes towards those trading sex and anxieties about blurring lines between social groups were deeply intertwined. Sophie Carter has examined the intimate connection between the trope of the masquerade and prostitution, which centered on fears of dressing above one’s station and feigning gentility (Carter 2004: 129). In particular, the potential for deception and misjudging someone’s status concerned contemporaries. In 1793, Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer announced that the Queen was concerned ‘that there is at present, in public places, no proper distinction between the prostitute and the woman of virtue; and therefore she is determined to have one’. Here, we can see that concerns about deception or blurred social boundaries were closely connected to anxieties surrounding prostitution. Similarly in the Morning Post, a 1794 commentator decried cross-class dressing, declaring that ‘the indiscriminate use of ribbon sashes, among our women, is to become an object of Parliamentary discussion’. The tone of both extracts shows that this was considered a serious problem. This concern was also evident in the 1760s, when the 1766 ‘Invisible Spy’, writing to the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, decried the ‘degenerate age’ of extravagance and false appearances. To counter this, they argued in favour of a law to prevent lower status individuals such as prostitutes, kitchen wenches and apprentices from dressing in an ‘extravagant manner’. This shows that anxieties about the crossing or blurring of the distinctions between social sorts were connected to certain clothes and performative goods. Such dress provided market power to women soliciting sex. Further, the suggestion that parliamentary action should be taken against such perceived deception implies commentators saw such individuals as breaking not only social put potentially legal rules, and desired repercussions.

Anxieties about unclear or crossed boundaries between social sorts, and the association of this with prostitution, applied to education as well as dress. A London Chronicle commentator, C. S., argued in 1759 that schools for middling-sort girls, for the daughters of ‘low tradesmen and mechanicks … the Blacksmith, the Ale-house keeper, the Shoemaker, &c.’ were giving ‘improper Education’. The plans of these schools, he argued did not differ enough from schools for the children of nobility as they were taught ‘French and Dancing … neither of which can be of any use to young Ladies of this sort’ and ‘it would be of much more consequence should they be well instructed on how to wash the floor, than to dance upon it’. Such inappropriate education, C. S. claimed, was ‘much better calculated to qualify the scholars to become, in a few years, proper inhabitants of the Magdalen-House, than to make of them industrious frugal Wives to honest Tradesmen’. The Magdalen House was an institution for the reception of penitent prostitutes. Evidently, contemporaries feared that individuals were looking beyond their social groups, wearing clothes or receiving certain forms of education considered the privilege of the elite. In the eighteenth-century mind, such boundary-pushing, deception, and the rejection of industriousness were correlated with the character of the prostitute.

The discourse surrounding both consumer culture and prostitution regularly included references to French culture. John Moores has convincingly argued that eighteenth-century satirical depictions of France can ostensibly appear to be straightforward examples of Francophobia, however more considered analysis reveals evidence of familiarity, kinship, and intimacy with France (Moores 2011, 6-7). The French ‘Other’ was used to project domestic anxieties, exploring tensions existing surrounding the British onto the image of the French. This interpretation of depictions of France is relevant and helpful when approaching references to revolutionary France in newspaper articles from the 1790s. In 1795, the True Briton published an article titled ‘Picture of Paris’ which painted the city as the pinnacle of consumer culture:

Forestallers are to be seen everywhere; every man is a merchant … clerks and prostitutes are turned stock-jobbers; the latter purchase in the morning mercantile goods, with the infamous money, which, by their infamous trade they gained the preceding night … Pomps, dinners, debauchery, and a rage for gaming, have become the prevailing passions of every individual; and, in this universal phrenzy, the most sacred ties are broken without shame; the vilest and basest bonds are openly formed. Marriage becomes an object of speculation; divorce, a branch of forestalling; and women a mercantile property.

Bearing in mind the common anxieties of the eighteenth-century English commentator about the increasing popularity of luxury, consumption, and debauchery, as well as the expanding reach of the market, this image of Paris as the pinnacle of mercantilism and luxurious debauchery can be interpreted as a representation of anxieties about the direction in which England was heading. This direction, and France itself, were regularly associated with prostitution. The medium of imagery of France further connected the idea of the immoral direction of consumer culture to the image of the prostitute. In this sense, the prostitute came to represent the growth of the market and the negative associations attached to this consumerist direction.

Newspaper Articles Discussed

Further Reading

  • Carter, Sophie, ‘“This Female Proteus”: Representing Prostitution and Masquerade in Eighteenth-Century English Popular Print Culture’, Oxford Art Journal, 22.1 (1999), 57–79.
  • Carter, Sophie, Purchasing Power: Representing Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century English Popular Print Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).
  • Gurney, Peter, The Making of Consumer Culture in Modern Britain (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
  • Harvey, Karen, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture, Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories, 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • Houston-Goudge, Sydney, ‘Common Woman to Commodity: Changing Perceptions of Prostitution in Early Modern England, C. 1450-1750’, 2011.
  • Moores, John Richard, ‘Representations of France and the French in English Satirical Prints, c. 1740-1832’ (University of York, 2011).
  • Rosenthal, Laura J., Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2015).

The Great Elizabethan Bake Off! Baking in sixteenth century Exeter

The document highlighted in this blog is a 1570 ‘Order of the assiysse of breade’ (see the bottom of this paper for images and transcription, the original is in the Devon Heritage Centre, its provenance is unknown).   However, almost as much use is made of the Exeter ‘Presentments of Nuisances, 1554-1588’ (ECA Book 100) which contains the ‘prsentments & acusements aswell of the gret inquest att the lawe dayes holden wth in the said Citie as of the constables scavengers & other officers of the saide citie’.  These were presentments made of ‘common nuisances’ to the Court Leet at Exeter Guildhall, common in the sense of affecting everyone or at least groups of people. This document is also housed in the DHC.  Together they reveal something of the challenges of producing acceptable bread.

A high degree of external control was applied to commercial bread making. The legislation behind it was the thirteenth-century Assize of Bread which represents one of the earliest forms of consumer and producer protection.  It embodies the concept of a fair price and a fair profit for an essential commodity, especially important in urban settings where most people were not self-sufficient food producers.  It was part of maintaining social good order by protecting poorer members of society’s ability to access a basic foodstuff whilst enabling bakers to make a living.

The basic premise was that the price of a loaf of bread was fixed at a farthing, a half-penny or a penny.  So, if the price of wheat went up the weight of a loaf went down - but the price was always the same.  However, a maximum of 111 loaves could be sold from the dough a quarter of wheat would provide, so they never became untenably small. The idea was also that when corn was scarce and prices were high, one would eat less bread, not buy up more, smaller loaves. The Assize of Bread provided the ratio of grain price to bread weight as follows: 

When the Quarter of Wheat is sold for 12d, then the Farthing Wastel Loaf shall weigh six pounds and sixteen shillings; the Cocket Loaf of the same corn and the same fineness of sieving shall weigh two shillings more than the Wastel …And the Simnel Loaf shall weigh two shillings less than the Wastel because it has been baked twice.  The Farthing whole-loaf of wheat shall weigh a Cocket and a half.  And the Treet Loaf shall weigh two Wastels.  And the Loaf de omni blado shall weigh two Cockets.  When the Quarter of Wheat is sold for 18d, then the Farthing Wastel Loaf – white and well baked – shall weigh four pounds, ten shillings and eightpence.  When [the Quarter of Wheat is sold] for two shillings, then it shall weigh 68s…..  [and so on…..]

It was the law that ‘Everie baker sholde have the booke of the Assisse & the weightes’ and a  quick calculator would surely make a baker’s life easier.   An example is provided by the document discussed here which covers for all eventualities for wheat costing between 20d and 40s 6d a quarter.  The weight of bread is calculated in money – which was used as an alternative to pounds (lb) and ounces (oz), and, as this order explains, a devaluing coinage meant the coins used for weighing also had to change – from 20d to 5s for an ounce in this instance. So, a conversion chart from old to new money was provided too.

Some assizes of the time are printed but this one is painstakingly hand-written and carefully laid out.  Whether it was written for a printer to work from, or was a centrally held copy for official consultation somewhere like Exeter where there was no printing press but where there was a Baker’s Company, or was for the personal use of an individual baker is unknown, but it was clearly worth the trouble of writing it all out, as there was no getting away from the need for accurate calculation.  If bakers sold underweight bread they were fined and forfeited the bread to the poor. If they were caught more than three times, they were put in the pillory.  There was little chance of blaming someone else, they had by law to mark their bread with a unique stamp.

The enforcement of these rules was at a local level, both by the city and the Baker’s Company, although little is known about the latter. We learn from John Hooker, Exeter’s Elizabethan Chamberlain and first historian, that in Exeter, the prices of different kinds of wheat (eg top quality, middling quality and low quality) at the Wednesday corn market were presented at the Guildhall Court by the market men; householders chosen each week for the role. The middle price for the bushel or quarter of wheat was then used by the bakers, using a chart like this one, to work out what weight each different kind of loaf should be that week.  Weekly bread-weighing took place at the marketplace, supervised by the Sergeants who checked for compliance. The contemporary observer William Harrison hints that bakers could well judge the likely loss of weight that happened in baking; ‘manchet, of which every loaf weigheth eight ounces into the oven and six ounces out, as I have been informed’. Nevertheless, every week there was the risk of getting it wrong and being publicly named, shamed and fined if found guilty.   It was more likely bread would be too light if not weighed soon after baking when it was at its most moist.  It may be that being ‘well baked’ refers not to the taste but to being in the oven for a sufficiently long time so as to avoid an undercooked but heavier product.

The focus of the assize was clearly on quantitative control.  From a customer point of view, qualitative control was just as important.  After all, part of the Exeter Mayor’s inaugural proclamation included reference to bread which should be baked ‘good and wholesome for mannes body’ (although there were no ‘bread tasters’ to adjudicate as there were for ale). However, the ‘Presentments of Nuisances’ includes the following entry:

‘Itm they do prsent Mr Mayor and other officers for not punysshyng the bakers for maken of evell bred and that ytt ys often compayned upon & no amendment (July 1556).

The Mayor had something of a challenge on his hands. Within the ‘Presentments’ there are repeated lists of the names of ‘default pistors’ – defaulting bakers -  presumably defaulting on court appearances, though this is not stated. For example there are six such defaulting lists between October 1572 and Sept 1573.  Thomas Ward is listed six times, George Elliot and Peter Vilvayne five times, John Geane four times and another twelve bakers between three and once.  Peter Vilvayne had been a regular defaulter since at least 1568, the first listing in the book.  However, bakers could also be tried and fined by the Baker’s Company – who shared the fines with the Mayor and city council.  Perhaps regular defaulting at the city court was counteracted by appearances and fines via the Company, though no records survive to confirm or refute this.  Or perhaps regular accusation followed by defaulting with no apparent redress (that I can so far find) was simply an acknowledgement of the impossibility of achieving the standards of the Assisse on a day-to-day basis, even by bakers ‘abled’ by its Guild.

After all, the challenges to making ‘well baked bread’ were numerous. First, there was the matter of grain which required a timely trip to the Cornmarket. A bell was rung at the Mayor’s command at the start, middle and end of the market.  Freemen bakers had first choice of grain – but only for a limited time. Foreign, ie non-free bakers had to wait until the second bell, then it became a free for all.  But once the last market bell had rung – it was too late. Anyone caught offering to sell after the bell had rung would have the grain forfeited.  However, for those willing to take a risk, it was possible to seek out those who had illegally hidden grain away in their house to sell to you at an inflated price…After all, the challenges to making ‘well baked bread’ were numerous. First, there was the matter of grain which required a timely trip to the Cornmarket. A bell was rung at the Mayor’s command at the start, middle and end of the market.  Freemen bakers had first choice of grain – but only for a limited time. Foreign, ie non-free bakers had to wait until the second bell, then it became a free for all.  But once the last market bell had rung – it was too late. Anyone caught offering to sell after the bell had rung would have the grain forfeited.  However, for those willing to take a risk, it was possible to seek out those who had illegally hidden grain away in their house to sell to you at an inflated price…

That’s if there was any corn to sell.  Dearth could strike – as it did in 1560 and 1562 when Hooker notes in his Commonplace Book that ‘there was a great dearth and scarcity of corn and at 6s 6d the bushel’ which is off the scale of the 1570 assize chart. It struck again in the 1580s for 3 years in a row.  When it was available, there were those like Robert Rowe in 1556 who were presented for ‘byeng of corne uppon the heyhway before yt come to the markett’.

Grain was also variable in quality and performance.  Part of the role of the market men was to be at the corn market continually to make sure the grain was ‘good and wholesome and no deceipte used in the mingling of their corne’ ie bulking out wheat for quality bread with bean or peaflour, used for the worst kind of bread.  But the market men were ordinary householders, not specialists – would they have recognised mingling if it happened? Might they have been bribed if they did?  Not only that but the grains used then are genetically very different from modern grains, and lack the consistency and disease-resistance we have today – so their flavour and suitability for bread making would vary depending on soil and growing conditions.   A couple of Exeter bakers’ inventories reveal that their assets included ‘the Corne in the Grounde 30s’ – but it is impossible to tell whether this is for supply security/quality purposes or merely for feeding their chickens in the back yard.

Assuming it was possible to obtain quality grain of the right type (and the right grain for the different types of bread) it would need grinding into meal – but only a little at a time.  Whole grain keeps well with air circulating around it (though not without risk of mould and mice), but once ground, it becomes susceptible to damp and weevils.  This meant frequent encounters with the city’s mills at Duryard or Cricklepit which had to be used by law and on pain of a fine of 12d for, or forfeiture of, every sack ground elsewhere.  One reason bakers risked such fines and forfeitures may well have been the millers, who didn’t always produce the desired results and could be abusive as well, as seen in this presentment from the 1580s:

Itm, moreover at crisinas last Robert Horwood had ii sacks more of wheat ground at the new mills so evell that when the bred was baked and carried out amongst his customers they brought it home agayne and when the said Robert Horewoode dyd challenge the loders [millers] for the same they made hym this answere … ‘and if it be not well you may goe and grend where ye lyste’, to his grete hurt and hinderance.

As for yeast, in a city, with plenty of alehouses it seems likely that brewer’s yeast was purchased for bread rising.  Yeast capture is, however, a serendipitous process requiring skill and luck and with uncertain results, flavours and inconsistent performance.

Assuming all had gone well in actually mixing, kneading and rising the dough, what all bakers required was a proper oven.  Managing a wood-fired stone oven was another finely judged skill – as was fitting into it the maximum number of loaves without them touching each other or letting the over temperature drop.

After all this, as the ‘Presentments’ suggest, poor quality ingredients or misjudged oven-timings meant indigestible loaves.  Perhaps it was just as well (for the customer) that there was no monopoly on bread sales. There were retail bread shops in Exeter and customers beyond the city walls, but foreign bakers and hucksters were allowed to sell in the city, though only at prescribed times at the Great Conduit. Foreign bakers provided direct competition and could sell weightier (and maybe tastier!) loaves for your penny. In 1556, the Corporation of Bakers was presented for actions that meant the ‘forayn bakers come not to the cyty’. Hucksters though, could prove useful by buying up unsold shop bread and selling it in the street – their profit obtainable by purchase of the baker’s dozen.


The order of the assysse of breade what it ought to waye after the price


of the quarter of wheate. And you shall understand that you may


weigh yr breade either by the pownde & ounce or by money. The pownde


is of troye or goldsmiths wayght wch is of xii ounces to the pownde. The


moneye at the tyme of the making of the statute at Wynchester for the Assisse


of breade was at xxd the ounce. But now it is at vs the ounce: wherefore


if you will now weighe by the moneye of the standard yn these daies ano 1570


yo must yn steede of tholde penye whereof xx made an ounce use the pece of


iiid of wch xx also make an ounce. And so lykewyse yn steede of xx olde pence ys must now

take xx peces of iiid or xv pece of iiiid or v pece of xiid everie of wch make an ounce. And for

ye better understanding you may pruse & marke the differenc of the waight by ounce or by

the money as foloweth here yn the rule folowenge:



Everie baker sholde have the booke of the Assisse & the weightes. And must make his

proper mark upon all the breade of his owne bakynge upon payne of [forfeiture of] all his

breade so unmarked.




Also if he do make defaulte yn the peny white loff that it lacke three ouncs yn weight wch is

vs [sic] then shall the breade be broken and geven to the poore byside that he shalbe

amerced for the first tyme vis viid the second tyme xiiis iiiid and the thirde tyme xxs: And

the fourthe tyme to be sett on the pyllorie without redympcion and the bred [crease]


--- to be geven to the poore. And if the baker at any tyme make defaulte of xs yn his penye

loff he shalbe also sett yn pyllorie without redempcon. Also after viii dais baknge ye may not

weghe the breade onles ye do allow for everie daie after the breade baken the weight of

iiiid yn everie peny loff

One of the greatest causes of workplace stress is having responsibility without control.  I contend that this applies to medieval and early modern commercial bakers, who were responsible for producing a vital foodstuff in unpredictable circumstances.

Suggested further reading

  • Brears, Peter, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2008) and Cooking and Dining in Tudor & Early Stuart England (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2015)
  • Davis, James, ‘Baking for the Common Good: A reassessment of the Assize of Bread in medieval England’ in The Economic History Review, Aug 2004, Vol 57, no 3 pp. 465-502.
  • Devon Heritage Centre, Misc Roll 34b; 16th century bread assizes.
  • Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter City Archives, Presentment of Nuisances 1550-1588, C5/100, p.83.
  • Drummond J.C and Anne Wilbraham, The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet (London: Pimlico, 1991)
  • Edelen, Georges, The Description of England The Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life by William Harrison (New York: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1994)
  • Goodman, Ruth, How to be a Tudor a dawn-to-dusk guide to everyday life (London: Penguin, 2016).
  • Gray, Todd, The Chronicle of Exeter 1205-1722 (Exeter: The Mint Press, 2005) [Hooker’s Commonplace Book]
  • Harte, W.J., Schopp, J.W., and Tapley-Soper, H., (eds.) The Description of the Citie of Excester by John Vowell alias Hoker (Exeter: Devon & Cornwall Record Society, 1947).
  • Hartley, Dorothy, Food in England (London: MacDonald, 1954)
  • Kumin, Beat (ed) A Cultual History of Food in the Early Modern Age, vol 4 (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)
  • Markham, Gervase, The English Housewife (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986).
  • Ross, Alan S. C., ‘The Assize of Bread’ in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol 9, no 2 (1956) pp.332-342.
  • William, Paul., ‘The Trading Community of Exeter 1470-1570 with special reference to merchants and tailors’, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Exeter 2020
  • Woolgar, C.M., The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500, (London: Yale University Press, 2016).

Transporting Aylesbury Ducklings to Market, 1820-1920

[All prices shown in brackets are a calculation of the equivalent cost in 2020 using the labour value indexes at]

Mounted Specimen of Aylesbury Duck and Drake, Buckinghamshire County Museum

The enduring narrative available via any cursory Internet search is that Aylesbury ducklings were originally walked to market until the arrival of the railways introduced trains as the dominant mode of transport.  The website of Buckinghamshire Council contains a typical version of this story:

"Historically Aylesbury Ducks were walked from the Vale of Aylesbury to London, a distance of some 40 miles. The drovers would often stop for the night at inns along the way where the birds were kept in large, enclosed yards. Each morning, they would be driven through a cold tarry solution in a shallow ditch followed by a layer of sawdust, which provided the birds with a set of crude shoes to protect their feet on the road to London.

Throughout the 19th Century the main market for duck meat was provided by the wealthy people of London, and by 1839 the ducks could be transported by rail"

In this blog I would like to challenge this narrative on several points and question why, despite the lack of evidence, this version remains so ubiquitous, and why is this important?

Aylesbury ducklings were produced on a small-scale by individual “duckers’’ in the cottages of Aylesbury and Buckinghamshire to fill a gap in the game market during the early months of the year. Women did most of the work of “ducking’’ including feeding, killing, and plucking. An individual cottager or “ducker” purchased eggs for incubation from a farmer of stock ducks. Aylesbury ducklings had prodigious appetites and unlike chickens required no cramming to put on weight. This natural advantage meant they were often referred to as “feathered pigs” being fed on domestic food, scraps, and offal to reduce production costs. Through intensive rearing “duckers” could produce on average 400 ducklings per year even in the cramped and unsanitary slum cottages described in 1857 by Sarah Tomlinson:

"The interior of the cottages is fitted up with boxes, pens, &c., arranged round the walls, and presenting a very odd appearance to strangers.  In these places the ducklings are reared under the care of the good wife, whose chief attention is devoted to this profitable employment."

Timing of production and sale was vital to maximise profits and therefore transport to London approximately 40 miles away was a critical pinch-point. Since the eighteenth-century live ducklings had been sent by cart to London on a weekly basis utilising the same carts that were transporting the silk manufacture from Aylesbury and Tring. In 1751 it was noted that ‘four carts go with them every Satui'day to London’ It was likely that these ducks were destined for The Bell Inn at Newgate: a popular venue for the sale of butter, cheese and live ducks from Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Another poultry market was established at Paddington where the Grand Union Canal, which went through Aylesbury, terminated.

The value of Aylesbury ducklings lay in their size and weight rather than the taste of their flesh for these were luxury products destined for conspicuous consumption in the hotels of London. The attached table shows typical wholesale prices in the London poultry markets and their 2020 prices.

A 1923 menu from Gatti's Restaurant in The Strand gives an indication of retail cost compared to other meats.

For comparison a modern-day luxury product of a 125g tin of Beluga 000 caviar cost £850 at Fortnum and Mason in 2021‌

To be sold as ducklings they had to be killed before their first adult feathers appeared between eight and ten weeks old and weighing between four and six pounds. Their diet, combined with total confinement, promoted weight gain to the detriment of bone production; quite simply ducklings could hardly walk at all and even if they could a journey of 40 miles would result in a significant loss of weight and monetary value. Furthermore, “duckers” understood ducklings were timid and easily frightened birds that somewhat counter-intuitively could be severely weakened or killed by excessive rain and cold.

Perhaps Aylesbury ducks being large and white have been confused with geese which were transported in this way. The 1179 Manor of Otterers Fee in Aylesbury required the tenant to provide, amongst other things, two geese if the King visited the town. This requirement was reworked in later historical accounts to replace geese with Aylesbury ducks.

A more likely possibility is the contrasting stories of ducklings being sent by train and the fiction that they were previously walked served to emphasise a narrative of progress. By the second half of the nineteenth-century duckling production had mainly moved away from Aylesbury into the surrounding villages of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, and Oxfordshire. This transition coincided with what one local historian described as a move from the ‘primitive duckeries’ of Aylesbury to those run on more ‘scientific principles’ in the villages. In reality the production methods remained on the same small-scale but more ‘respectable’ men such as publicans, bootmakers, grocers, blacksmiths, and parish council clerks become “duckers” as a secondary occupation although their wives and children continued to supply the labour.

The production of ducklings provided a significant impetus for the railways in Buckinghamshire but ignored the need to limit supply to maintain the scarcity of a luxury product. At the inaugural meeting of the Aylesbury Railway Company (ARC) held on the 5 December 1835 it was proposed that Aylesbury should join the London and Birmingham railway (L&BR) through a branch line. Much of the discussion at the meeting centred on the potential profits to be made by the transportation of ducks to London; these were initially estimated at £8 per week (£7,097) for twenty weeks a year due to the seasonality of the industry, but this was doubled to £16 pounds per week (£14,190) at the second meeting two days later. However, by 1838 the ARC was being warned by Robert Stephenson that although they could expect a ‘fair profit for the first five years’ they should reign back their expectations of a greater return than five percent on their capital. These warnings were well founded when in September 1839 just three months after opening the branch line, the world’s first, the L&BR were writing to express their regret that ‘owing to the immense pressure of their own business’ they were unable to ‘carry cattle, butter and other agricultural produce and merchandize on this line’. By 1840, despite having built a temporary shed in the goods yard at Aylesbury for the ‘convenience of the carriers in loading and unloading’, the ARC half-yearly report noted that the carriage of goods had not been as ‘extensive as anticipated’. In 1846 the ARC and L&BR became part of the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR) but Aylesbury continued to be by-passed by mainline trains throughout the nineteenth-century, instead relying on slow connections by branch lines.

By 1895, a Parliamentary commission noted that that the production of Aylesbury ducklings had mitigated the worst effects of the agricultural depression in Buckinghamshire. This commission relied heavily on evidence from the L&NWR. Their accounts indicated that in 1894 over 38 tons of ducklings (nearly 19,000 individual birds) were transported from Aylesbury by train under their innovative and bespoke “Bucks Arrangement” in which the company supplied cloths to wrap the ducks in and hampers or “flats” for packing. These “flats” were manufactured from osier reeds in the workshop owned by the railway company and attached to Aylesbury station, with the osier beds supplying the reeds situated behind the workshop and alongside the canal. Edwin Pratt described this “Bucks Arrangement” in some detail, highlighting the added benefits the railway company offered:

"…[sent] a man to collect the produce, carrying it by rail, delivering it to the London salesmen, and even obtaining from them the amount due to the sender, and remitting it to that person. This arrangement was a most convenient one for the senders, who were mostly producers of the " small " type, and in 1880, when the business was in an especially prosperous condition, the accounts thus collected by the railway company for the senders amounted to over £3,000 (£1,530,000)."

From the “duckers” perspective the main advantage of this arrangement appears to have been the railway company acting as a financial intermediary. With the expansion of the local Post Office network and the introduction of Postal orders in 1881 duckers could receive their sales remittances direct from the poulterers at London. Consequently, the transport of ducklings by train declined dramatically after 1880 as the following figures from Aylesbury indicate.

Ducklings were expensive to produce, and although no accounts for ‘’duckers’’ survive it is possible to calculate some costs from newspaper reports and parliamentary commissions.

“Duckers” were deciding to use local road carriers on economic grounds but also because their use strengthened local networks.  Local carriers were known and trusted by the village communities; providing employment for village boys and willing to accept items such as chicken eggs as payment for their services; an important concession during the depression years. 

Further Reading

  • Robert Gibbs, Buckinghamshire: A history of Aylesbury with its borough and hundreds, the hamlet of Walton, and the electoral division (Aylesbury: Gibbs, 1885)
  • Edwin A Pratt, Agricultural Organisation: Its Rise, Principles and Practice Abroad and at Home (London: King and Son, 1914)
  • Walter Rose, Good Neighbours: Some Recollections of an English Village and its People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949).
  • Robert M Schwartz, ‘Rail Transport, Agrarian Crisis, and the Restructuring of Agriculture: France and Great Britain Confront Globalization, 1860–1900’, Social Science History, 34 (2010) 229-255
  • Robert M Schwartz and Thomas Thevenin, ‘Railways and Agriculture in France and Great Britain, 1850–1914’ in Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History, ed. by Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014) pp. 4-34.
  • Sarah Tomlinson, Sketches of Rural Affairs (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1857)

Retail trade in Exeter by the early sixteenth century was not the exclusive preserve of the freemen. For the years from 1512 to 1542 we have lists of persons paying shop fines in the city. (See above) There are also some later records dating from the years between 1560 and 1572. These were people who had not entered the freedom of Exeter but were permitted by the city council to conduct a business there.

‌Special licences were issued in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries allowing non-freemen to engage in retail and an identifiable system was operating by the mid fifteenth century as lists of ‘Open Shopholders’ exist from 1454 to 1460. Kowaleski has suggested that by then shop fines may reflect the wish of the city authorities to challenge the growth of shops in Exeter and the lessening of the use of markets, from which they stood to gain more financially. These developments in Exeter may all be part of the move identified by Britnell from more ‘open’ trading through markets and fairs to more ‘closed’ trading through shops and inns which city councils were trying to control. It may be that lists of shop fine payers were compiled between 1460 and 1512 and between the mid 1540s and 1561 which have not survived or been discovered. In 1545 there is reference to shop fines being imposed on ‘sundry Foreigners inhabiting within the City’.

Shop fine payments are recorded in the first of the surviving city Act Books with lists commencing in 1512 and continuing to 1528. Then a separate book was kept containing lists from 1529 to 1542.  The Tudor shop fines list the payers by city Quarter giving the name of the payer, sometimes the occupation, and more frequently the amount to be paid. These designated entries are in some cases the only reference we have to the occupation of a tradesman at the time. They help to establish the existence of minor occupations, or the multiple occupations of one man, especially in the metal trades. However, the number of entries with designated occupations varies. They are fuller for the earlier years. The shop fine payments are not recorded in the city receiver’s accounts. 

Some payments were made in kind and the commodity to be provided in lieu is stated such as the embroiderer Henry Brewyster in 1517 giving a pair of shears, which further reinforces his links with tailoring work. Occasionally payment was the performance of a service for the city such as ‘ye payntyng of ye arms in the hall’ by the stainer Nicholas Abell in 1512. In some cases there was a monetary payment and one in kind, the latter reducing the amount of money paid. They were working documents often containing acknowledgements that payments had been made and deletions. Sometimes, the reasons for these are given such as that the payer has been made a freeman. The lists do not make reference to the parish of residence of the payers, though there are a few references to men in the Bishop’s Fee who did not pay. A small number of locational comments exist, probably for men who were not well known to the compiler, suggesting that they were working near a particular city landmark, or in the property of a well known citizen. A few paid the fine on behalf of another craftsman.

The survival of these records is rare. Few English cities have similar documentation for the same period. The best records exist for Canterbury from 1392 to 1592, published by Cowper in 1904. These ‘Intrantes’, (shop fine) records, have been analysed more recently by Sweetinburgh in her study of immigrant artisans and trade in fifteenth century Canterbury.
She notes that there, the civic annual licensing system may have been mainly for migrants. However, this was not the case in Exeter as in the first extant list two payers had surnames held by Exeter freemen in the thirteenth century, eight in the fourteenth and 11 in the fifteenth and were therefore from well established families. No other extensive shop fine evidence is known for any other English towns though similar systems operated as widely as Winchester, Bodmin and Beverley. Little has been written about shop fines.

Exeter’s shop fine records give us greater insights into the economy of the city than for many other English towns at the time. Most studies of the occupational structure of towns have rested upon evidence from their freedom records. These give us a view of the urban economic elite. However, for Exeter, we are able to gain an understanding of the next economic layer, those men who aspired to the freedom and were just setting up in work there, or were maintaining a business without the expense of paying the entry fines to the freedom. Some may also have been less prosperous but established traders who did not join the freemen ranks. Others were probably migrants to Exeter who were testing the market.

The number of shop fine payers in Exeter has been calculated. Annual totals of payers, studied over four five year periods, suggest that the number was falling in any one year between 1518-22 and 1538-1542. Overall, a group of shop fine payers which reached at least 109 per year is indicated between 1512 and 1542.

The four principal occupations paying shop fines in Exeter were the cordwainers, tailors, cappers and smiths. Overall the greatest proportion was paid by men working in the clothing, leather and metal trades. This is comparable with fifteenth century Canterbury where shoemakers were the mast frequent payers followed by tailors and cappers.

The extent of the payments of shop fines in Exeter varied across occupations. They must have been linked to the need to work as retailers. Many businesses in Exeter would have been run by producer-retailers with workshops and retail combined, though the relative proportions are unknown. Involvement in the system would very much have depended on the nature of the occupation being followed.

In Exeter, shop fines were paid annually and ranged from as little as 2d to as much as 4s. Across the four main groups of payers very few men paid the minimum fine of 2d. There was a high level of accord in that 4d or 8d were the most common. Higher shop fine payments of 20d were also rarely levied on these craft. In Canterbury, payments ranged from 4d to 6s8d, and most increased over time, though it was not unusual for a drop also to occur. Shop fines paid across all crafts were often, but not always, a short term matter of a year or two, though a few paid for over 30 years. A key feature which emerges is the extent of similarity of the operation of the system over all the crafts in Exeter, which suggests close control by the city council.

The tailors were the major payers within the clothing trades. Linking these records with the extant records of the Tailors’ guild helps to establish a fuller picture than for any other occupation. Within the surviving lists of payers 36 men were designated specifically as tailors and in total, from a comparison of the names with information collected from the Tailors’ guild records and other sources, 51 tailors are known to have been paying shop fines at this time. Of these, 16 can be identified as taking up the city freedom and 33 can be traced as members of the guild. Paying shop fines was a first step on the road to a successful business for some tailors, as nine of the shop fine payers who were included in the 1520 Tailors’ guild membership list moved on to become guild officials, three of them eventually serving as guild Master. A further ten appeared as shopholders in the 1520 list and two others are known to have established themselves as tailors in the city. For eight tailors paying shop fines these are the only references that have been found to them in the city records, so some men may have been less successful and moved elsewhere, tried another trade or worked as labourers, or, in an era before we have any parish register evidence to examine this further, they may not have lived long. Allied to the tailors some hosiers and embroiderers also paid shop fines. The lists also give us a deeper insight into the Exeter hatmakers. The hatmakers were a particularly distinctive group as the occupation was led by aliens, some of whom attained prosperity. They were targeted by the city authorities to pay higher shop fines for a longer number of years.

Amongst the Exeter leather workers the main payers were cordwainers. They often paid low amounts invariably for just one year. Cobblers are also recorded paying low fines of 4d, where they are given. No designated cobbler entered the freedom between the 1450s and the 1560s so the shop fines give us a rare insight here. The Exeter leather workers paying shop fines also included a large group of skinners. Over half paid for just for one year. They paid the higher general amount of between 8d and 12d though there were some exceptions. Saddlers were well represented. Shop fines can be used to trace fortunes of a business. The saddler William Banyan paid for many years, at variable rates. First recorded in 1513 he was still paying in 1542. On occasion Banyan paid in kind with a pair of stirrups or stirrup leathers. He had a business in Holy Trinity for probably over thirty years but there is no reference to him entering the freedom. Tax assessments suggest that he was not a prosperous craftsman. Few saddlers paid for just one year but a number of them paid in kind including halters, stirrups and stirrup leathers. A small number of glovers, pouchmakers, curriers, horners and bottlemakers were also listed paying shop fines.

The metal trades were the other large group paying shop fines in Exeter. Some of them may have been paying primarily to maintain a workshop, though many would no doubt have sold some items as part of their businesses. They were headed by the smiths. The most common fine paid by them was 4d although a significant number paid 8d. By far the largest number paid for just one year. Items paid in kind included an anvil and a mattock. Some, smiths, like Edward William, resident in St Paul’s, built up successful businesses. He employed servants, who may have been wage workers, as well as apprentices and yet he paid shop fines for a number of years but there is no conclusive evidence of him entering the freedom. There were a number of smiths who took on other jobs, such as pewterers, braziers and tinkers. These included men like Michael Pepyn who provides the best example of multiple occupations included within the shop fines. He is listed in them with three occupations: as a smith, a glazier, and as an armourer, though these trades are clearly closely linked.

Goldsmiths had a more obvious need for a shop. They fall into two groups. The lesser group paid fines of between 4d and 20d. The more prosperous regularly paid between 2s and 4s and were no doubt serving a wealthier clientele. Although some only paid for a year or two years, the majority paid for longer. There were also a few payments made in kind by goldsmiths, such as a hammer and silver weths (weights.) Chanter and Flavin have provided detail on the Elizabethan goldsmiths so the shop fine evidence gives us an insight into the men working in this trade in the city in the early Tudor period. A diverse group of pewterers also paid. Here this evidence helps to us to consider the location of industry. Some pewterers were not working in Holy Trinity and St Mary Major, which Homer has identified as their main working area. A small number of armourers, plumbers, cutlers, spurriers, lockyers, furbishers, pinners, wire-drawers and buckle-makers, a bellfounder and a potter are also recorded as paying shop fines in Exeter at this time

There were a wide range of men from other occupations who also paid shop fines in Exeter Within the distributive trades there were a few merchants and mercers, a draper and a chandler. There were a wide range of wood trade occupations paying headed by fletchers, carvers, strainers and also a clockmaker, an organ-maker, bowyers and bowmakers, hoopers, and a sleymaker. Textile workers were essentially manufacturers so we would not expect them to be making payment of shop fines very much as the retail function would not be important for their work. However, there is some evidence of them paying the fines. By far the largest group paying were shearmen. There were also weavers, a few tuckers and a cardmaker.

People involved in the food and drinks trades were not paying shop fines so much though they were significant retailers. The largest group paying were cooks. Some bakers paid, nearly all for only one year. Butchers and brewers were rarely recorded paying shop fines. There were more fishers and fishmongers. Shop fines impinged less on the food and drink trades than many other areas of the city’s economy. This could be because they were more tightly regulated by the city council.

Shop fines were paid by a range of men who we can categorise as ‘professionals’, though this includes a wide range of occupations. By far the most represented group were the 14 barbers. Some medical men paid. The eminent apothecary Nicholas Lymet paid a shop fine in 1512 and 1513 of 8d and 3s 4d and entered the freedom then. This was at the time that he was establishing himself in Exeter and the higher fine was in line with other more potentially wealthy men who were charged a higher shop fine in their last year before taking up the city freedom, perhaps as part of council pressure on them to join the freeman ranks. Three surgeons were recorded but only one paid for more than one year. Also three bookbinders and booksellers, a schoolmaster and a scrivener paid.

The building trades were not well represented as shop fine payers. Within these the largest group by far were the glaziers. They would have needed a more fixed workshop. A few carpenters paid shop fines. In the transport trades only an innholder was a known payer.

There were a number of recorded occupations at this time where no one paid shop fines. Most notably carriers, dyers and tanners though from other records, we know that there were a number of men operating these businesses from the city. Dyers and tanners at this time were mainly working in Exe Island and St David’s and so were more outside city controls.

Aliens were a group heavily targeted to pay the fines. They were not just the relatively wealthy but were from a wide range of backgrounds. They ranged from the Norman Michael Pepyn, listed in 1522 as a glazier paying a shop fine of 2d to his fellow Norman Martin Queffyn paying 4s as a bookbinder.

It is possible to link recorded shop fines paid in 1522 to the wealth assessments of the payers in the extensive Military Survey for Exeter for that year in order to establish the relationship between the perceived wealth of the payer and the shop fine levied. The men assessed to pay a hefty fine of 4s or 3s 4d were those assessed more highly in the 1522 survey, such as the fishmonger John Thomas. Equally some of the lowest 2d payers can be linked with low assessments of wealth such as the embroiderer John Johnson, a struggling craftsman.

Twenty women payers have been identified in the period studied. Five are clearly noted as widows and it seems likely that most of the others were also. Half were recorded as paying for one year only. Many women paid 4d and some paid 8d or 12d. The highest payment was 16d. Only a few women paid in kind. Alicia Robynatt, the widow of a Norman tailor, paid for the longest being first recorded in 1526 and then between 1535 and 1540. Others widows were probably carrying on family businesses paying shop fines agreed by the city council. No evidence has emerged of independent women traders paying shop fines in Exeter. Women appeared only in small numbers as payers in Canterbury.

In conclusion, in Exeter the shop fine payers were mostly the middling city craftsmen, a substantial group. Shop fine evidence is important in studying these. Some suffered setbacks and continued struggling as payers for two or three decades. The fines also give us a view of those who have not been traced in any other records. Overall, the shop fine payers were more likely in the clothing occupations or as leather workers, though they differed little from the large number of men running workshops in the metal and wood trades, also functioning as producer- retailers and paying shop fines. There was a remarkable degree of similarity across the different occupations. The top payers were often wealthier migrants who were probably seen by the city council as well able to pay a larger amount and targeted by them. However, the Exeter shop fine payers were not all migrants to the city. Aliens were likely to be demanded to pay. Women paid as widows continuing their family businesses. Traders paid primarily for a year or for up to three years but some others preferred to stay as trading non- freemen for a decade and in some cases were paying for what could have been their whole working lives of thirty years. The Henrician period possibly marks a new and distinct imposition of authority by Exeter’s council. The town council was using this system of fines to regulate a significant group who, in return for more control, were enjoying some of the privileges of freedom whilst still aspiring to join the freemen ranks. The shop fines lists give us rare insights into a group who cannot be studied as fully within many early Tudor towns.

Further reading

  • Britnell R., ‘Markets, shops, inns, taverns and private houses in medieval English trade’, in B.Blonde ed., Buyers and Sellers: Retail circuits and practices in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Turnhout, Belgium, 2006, pp.109-124.
  • Cowper, J.M., ed. Intrantes: A List of Persons Admitted To Live and Trade Within the City of Canterbury, On Payment Of An Annual Fine, From 1392 To 1592, Canterbury, 1904
  • Kowaleski, M., Local Markets and Regional Trade in Medieval Exeter, Cambridge, 1995
  • Sweetinburgh,S., ‘Crossing the Channel: immigrant artisans and traders in 15th century Canterbury’, unpublished paper delivered at The Fifteenth Century Conference, University of Exeter, September,2019.
  • Williams,P., The Trading Community of Exeter 1470-1570 with special reference to Merchants and Tailors, University of Exeter, Ph.D. 2021.

The advertising of Dr William Salmon (1644-1712)

William Salmon (1644-1712) built his successful medical career in London from 1664 on a range of entrepreneurial activities, notably the publication of over 16,000 pages of medical texts and translations and an extensive medical practice, but the third leg of his activity was the production and sale of medicines. Many of these were his versions of medicines in general circulation, but he also published a range of medicines he branded as his own, such as Salmon’s Family Pills or his Gutta Vitae (or Cordial Drops). Unlike some other later Stuart medicines, such as Daffy’s Elixir, which were being sold widely into the nineteenth century, Salmon’s own-branded products were not extensively advertised after his death, probably ceasing production when his widow died in the 1740s. But he remained associated with the Family Pills and Gutta Vitae and the name (and, it was claimed, the recipe) for his Family Pills was revived in the nineteenth century, then transferred to some ‘Blood Pills’ and ‘Scorbutic Ointment’ in 1848.

To date most attention has been paid to the language used in product advertising, whether in the traditional literature on ‘quack’ salesmanship, or in recent scholarly studies of the rhetoric of retailing. Less attention has been paid to the medical content of the products, or to their commercial aspects, except in Wallis and Haycock’s study of Daffy’s Elixir, where we have financial records to complement the advertising material, or in Mackintosh’s work post-1750, where he can draw on a massive database of newspaper advertising to establish networks of production and sales. In the absence of any personal or financial archives for Salmon, we have to judge his medicines business, like his medical practice, from his publications. Here, given our HERB theme, I will focus on the commercial questions and leave the medical ones aside. What conclusions can we draw from Salmon’s publications about the character and evolution of his medicines as commercial products?

Salmon’s products have not been studied in the existing work on what are often called, rather misleadingly, ‘patent medicines’, as only a minority of them were actually officially patented (to claim a monopoly of their composition), and none of Salmon’s were. In fact, Salmon did not even consistently conceal the contents or methods of production of his branded medicines, sometimes revealing them in his publications from the start and always doing so after they had been retailed for a period (he revealed most of them, including the original Family Pills, in his Doron Medicum of 1683, but kept back a key ingredient of the Gutta Vitae). Nor did Salmon often claim that any of his medicines were ‘panaceas’ – that is capable of curing any illness – though he certainly claimed his medicines (and many other medicines) could cure a very wide range of conditions. Rather than focus on a single product (which encouraged claims to offering a cure-all) Salmon offered numerous medicines, each offering to treat a defined, if broad, set of conditions.

But he clearly valued his brand, engaging in disputes in the mid-1670 with two rival pill-producers, George Jones and William Sermon – the similarity of their names caused both Sermon and Salmon to warn the public not to mistakenly buy the other’s products. Then he engaged in a prolonged dispute with a chymist, John Hollier (youngest son of the surgeon who cut Pepys for the stone). Hollier had initially worked with Salmon in the early 1680s, but then, during Salmon’s 3-year trip to the Carolinas (1686-9), he began selling his own version of the Family Pills. Salmon responded, typically, by offering his pills cheaper (9d not 1 shilling per box) and then claiming he had changed the ingredients so people should buy his improved version (better results and less unpleasant side-effects). Similarly, after Salmon’s death, a dispute broke out between his widow, Anne, who claimed she had been involved in manufacturing Salmon’s medicines for twenty years (she was the daughter of a Bristol sugar manufacturer, so may have had prior chemical experience), and the young woman whom Salmon had made his legatee, who had control of his house and surviving stock: each advertised that they alone could sell the genuine product, but it looks as if it was the widow who managed to continue production for several decades, once the residual stock ran out. 

Typically, although Salmon sold his own medicines, and no doubt recommended them in his practice, he probably relied for their sale on a range of retailers, both in London and across the country, though we only have one list of outlets in one of his handbills: a second contained a name and address for another retailer added by hand, so presumably handbills were sent to such retailers for them to personalise and use locally. Many medicine retailers were booksellers, as books and medicines had much in common: largely produced in London, quite expensive to move and hence relatively costly, coming with paper instructions for their use, and heavily advertised to ensure product differentiation. But they were also sold by other retailers. These did not include London apothecaries, who produced their own medicines in house (though they also bought from druggists or from the Society of Apothecaries’ own chemical laboratory, which also supplied naval contracts), using the recipes in pharmacopeias such as the ones which Salmon published (with lots of additional/alternative recipes of his own) in English translation (the New London Dispensatory (his version of the official London pharmacopeia), and Bate’s Dispensatory), as well as his own Seplasium, or the Drug Store Opened. But Salmon did advertise in his earlier works that he would supply medicines ‘faithfully prepared, by the author thereof, at reasonable rates, without sophistication, adulteration or any other deceit as is usual’ to ‘country physicians, chyrurgians and apothecarys’, so perhaps they also vended his brand items – he certainly included in his books some testimonials from provincial medics who had used his Family Pills successfully. By the mid-eighteenth century, the newspapers, both London and provincial, were saturated with advertisements for both books and medicines. But although medicines, along with medical services, were certainly in the forefront of the development of advertising in the late Stuart press, during Salmon’s lifetime newspaper adverts seem less significant than the production of handbills to be plastered around the streets. Such ephemeral handbills have survived less well than newspapers, but examples for Salmon’s products are attached to this blog, drawn (like most on EEBO) from the British Library’s collection of medical advertisements. However, although satirists and medical critics claimed that such handbills were ubiquitous in late Stuart London and their use the hallmark of ‘quacks’ or empirics, it seems that Salmon made relatively little use of them, especially after the early 1680s (at least, none survive). Instead, he used his numerous medical publications to spread awareness of his medicines and their virtues, as well as making the ‘Salmon’ brand so well-known that customers doubtless recognised his name and associated it with medical knowledge. When he revived his almanac production in 1690 (having produced one earlier in 1684 full of astrological predictions), he adopted a new approach, filling his almanac with medical remedies, initially mostly general ones, but increasingly focusing on his own branded products, such that the second half of his almanacs for the years 1699-1702 are essentially catalogues of his medicine range. While other almanacs also contained medical advertisements, none were as medicalised as Salmon’s, though in the last few years (his final almanac was for 1706) he shifted back to discussing astronomical issues, so perhaps the public tired of buying a text so dedicated to selling his products. 

In several of his publications, Salmon included a ‘catalogus medicamentorum’ with names and prices. Initially, this list ran to hundreds of items, but he cut it back to about 60 entries, and the majority of these remained in his catalogues from 1683 to the end of his life, though a few items were dropped and replaced by new ones. Within this longer list, however, some items were designated as more particularly his, by being described as ‘our’ (or ‘noster’ as the catalogues were in Latin), which probably means that he regarded them as his own inventions: these were the ones on which he focused in his handbills and (to some extent) in his almanac entries. But there is great variation in what items are called ‘noster/ours’ – usually only about 10 items in any one list, but overall more than 25 items are given this designation, which he seems to have used more generously in some publications than in others. Generally this product range (and their prices, with some minor changes) did not alter from the early 1680s, although the Elixir Vitae of a handbill of c.1680 only features irregularly (described in one account as an alternative to the Family Pills for those with queasy stomachs or a problem swallowing pills). Then within ‘our’ products there were a smaller subset which were specifically labelled as ‘Salmon’s’, most notably the Family Pills and Family Powder but also, in 1700, Dr Salmon’s Pilulae Mirabiles or Wonderful Pills (though not, curiously, Gutta Vitae). One anomaly is his extensive advertising from 1684 of a ‘balsam de chili’, which he did not initially claim as his own composition, and was first sold by the bookseller Thomas Passenger (who published some Salmon books, but in rivalry with his main publishers, Thomas and then Ichabod Dawks). But by 1696 Salmon was claiming to sell the ‘true’ or best version, in rivalry with Passenger’s successor Eben Tracy on London Bridge. This long-lasting rivalry lay behind an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser 28 October 1742 ‘Whereas an Advertisement was lately publish’d in this paper that the original natural chili Balsam was sold only on London Bridge; this is to inform the publick, that it’s a mistake, for Dr Salmon used it in his practice above fifty years ago and it has been continued to be sold, with his other medicines, ever since, in Water-Lane in Black-Fryars, over-against Printing-House Lane; where his Family Pills, Gutta Vitae and all other medicines are by the doctor’s own receipts truly prepar’d and sold, with directions for their use.’ 

Looking at the ‘catalogus’, you will be struck by the exclusive use of Latin names, and by the prices per ounce. This does not reflect how Salmon actually sold his products, which was in boxes (of pills), glasses (for liquid items such as drops) or in packets/papers/seals (for powders). His Family Pills, for example, listed here as ‘Pilulae Familiares’ at 5s per ounce, were actually sold by box, normally at 1s for a box of 12 pills, with a suggested ‘dose’ of upto 4 pills depending on the age of the taker (1 for small children etc). In publications discussing his products, he would give the Latin name followed by an English equivalent – such as ‘Cordial Drops’ for the Gutta Vitae. This suggests to me that the ‘catalogus’ versions were aimed at retailers and perhaps particularly at the ‘country apothecaries’, to whom he advertised, as noted above, rather than at the general public. His prices are also substantial enough that one assumes most of his customers were at least of the middling sort. Given that, by purchasing his books, you could discover how to make almost all of his products yourself, one presumes that people were willing to pay his prices because they were either unable or unwilling to trust themselves to produce the medicines as well as Salmon could, and were prepared to pay whatever premium he was adding. As can be seen, prices varied hugely – the most expensive items appear to be those with expensive metals, exotic items such as bezoar stones, or with opium (his Laudanum Volatile Nostrum or Cordial Pills) – but whether the price variation actually reflected the cost of production or what Salmon judged what the market would bear I cannot judge without a much greater grasp of the cost of the ingredients and production process (and danger of product deterioration/damage). 

Further Reading

Primary: [only Salmon’s works with extensive references to his medicines included]

  • Dr. Salmon's pills, spirit, drops, and balsam Prepared and made at his house at the east-end of Pauls, next door to the Free-school, London. Published by authority [London : s.n., 1674]  ESTC R219877 4pp [ESTC suggests 1680, but identified by location date and in Salmon’s library sale catalogue as Virtues and Uses of Dr Salmon’s Pills, Drops and Balsam 1674 - item 1234 of octavos)
  • Published by authority. Salmon's Elixir Vitae, or, Elixir of Life, [London : c.1679-81] 2 pp  ESTC R232619 [ESTC suggests 1680-4 but location suggests 1679-81]
  • By publick authority. Doctor Salmon's pills, drops & balsam these so famously known throughout all England, fitted for the cure of most diseases in men, women & children. , [London : s.n., c.1682-3]  ESTC R219867 4pp [ESTC suggests 1680 but location only fits 1682-3]
  • Synopsis medicinæor, A compendium of astrological, Galenical, & chymical physick (3/4 edns, 1671-1699) (upto 1300 pp)
  • Pharmacopoeia Londinensis or, the new London dispensatory in six books: translated into English 8 edns c.1677-1716 (912 pp)
  • Iatrica seu, Praxis medendi, The practice of curing (In numbers 1681-4 then book 1684 expanded 1695) (upto 815pp)
  • Doron medicum, or, A supplement to the new London dispensatory in III books (two editions 1683-88) (850 pp)
  • Salmon's almanack for the year of our Lord 1684
  • Phylaxa medicinae/Collectanea medicina/Gazae Medicae/Country Physician/Dr Salmon’s Last Legacy. Created in 1684 as list of his chemical preparations, then expanded/revised in various editions/titles to 1714 (upto 247pp)
  • The London almanack for the year of our Lord…. [for 1691-1706 inclusive]
  • Seplasium the compleat English physician, or, the druggist's shop opened (1693) (1270 pp)
  • Pharmacopoeia Bateana, or, Bate's dispensatory translated from the second edition of the Latin copy, published by Mr. James Shipton (5 editions 1694-1720) (upto 1007 pp)
  • George Jones, Hell’s Cabal, or the Devilish Plots of Envy and Malice, against Dr Jones; and his Famous Friendly Pills Discovered [London : s.n., 1674?] 1 sheet ESTC R224346
  • William Sermon, An advertisement concerning the most famous, safe, cathartique and diurectique pills being an incomparable medicine in all chronical and dangerous diseases [London, 1675] 32 p ESTC R38228 and City Mercury May 11, 1676 advertisement by Sermon

Secondary Reading Salmon medicines

If you are interested, the other items listed below can be accessed via EEBO (to 1700) or ECCO (1701 onwards).

Salmon, William. Collectanea medica, the country physician: or, a choice collection of physick: fitted for vulgar use. Containing, I. A collection of choice medicaments of all kinds, Galenical and Chymical, Excerpted out of the most Approved Authors. II. Historical observations of famous cures, Gathered and Selected out of the Works of several Modern Physicians.

III. Phylaxæ medicinæ pars prima: Or, the most part of the Cabinet of Specifick, Select and Practical Chymical Preparations, made use of by the Author. IV. Phylaxæ medicinæ pars secunda: The Second part of the same Cabinet, long since promised to the World, now made Publick, for the General Good of Mankind. By William Salmon, M.D. Printed for John Taylor at the Ship in St. Paul's-Church-Yard, 1703.

Who ran the alehouse in early modern England?

In March of 1699, labourer and alehouse owner James Winsbury deposed against two would-be runaways. John Ferrill and Richard Ferrill, under the guise of disbanded soldiers, spent an evening eating, drinking, and sleeping in his alehouse (Devon Record Office, Quarter Sessions, Easter, 1700, Information of James Winsbury). They ran up a reasonable bill of five shillings and four pence, which was due before they continued on their journey. By 8 o’ clock the following morning, James was already at work in a nearby field, but his wife was up and about, wrapping up transactions with yesterday’s customers and preparing the alehouse for new visitors. While going about her business, she noticed the Ferrills escaping and, without evidence of hesitation, chased them through the parish of Muxbeare. Catching up to them, the men threatened to ‘beat out her brains if shee did follow them any further,’ causing the Winsbury hostess to ‘make a great Crye’.* Hearing the commotion, James and his fellow labourers hastily arrived, held the men, called the constable, and brought them before a Justice of the Peace. In fewer than 150 words, James Winsbury’s deposition can help us pursue important questions about the gendered nature of selling ale in early modern England. Further, his deposition might even cause us to challenge existing assumptions about who ran the alehouse in early modern England.

For anyone hoping to learn more about women’s role in the ale trade, Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 would make an informative first read. Her arguments contribute to the backbone of ‘alewife’ scholarship (though not without critique). One of her principal arguments is that women had once enjoyed a relatively high status in the ale trade due to their brewing occupations, but by 1700, we can see evidence of their ‘slow withdrawal’ from brewing. An important qualification to this argument is often missed, stemming from the fact that the word ‘alewife’ has not been clearly defined. Bennett, for instance, writes that ‘alewives’ is ‘a term I shall use to designate both female brewers and female tipplers’ (Bennett, 1991). In the same breath, she clearly notes that brewing and tippling were different occupations - and increasingly so.

"…the brewing trade began in many places to divide into the brewers who produced ale… and the tipplers and tapsters who only marketed ale they had purchased wholesale from brewers. Where this distinction between producers and retailers took hold, it often became also a distinction of sex, with men more often controlling the more lucrative production of ale and women more often working as retailers (Bennett, 1991)"

So, using ‘alewife’ to indicate both production and retail - two separate occupations - will inevitably cause confusion. In fact, it might go some way towards explaining the prevalence of assumptions that ‘female involvement in the drinks trade was limited to poor women who hawked drink on the streets, a few widows allowed to run small alehouses or taverns, and the women who worked as employees within the larger public houses,’ when there is plenty of depositional evidence of women, like the Winsbury hostess, who governed the alehouse (Mcintosh, 2005). Women’s involvement in the ale trade had certainly changed, and brewers were no longer typically female. But to suggest that women rarely worked in alehouses is not just wrong; it also underestimates women like the Winsbury hostess, who continued to dominate the selling of ale. James Winsbury’s name may have been on the license (assuming there was one), and it may have been he who deposed; but she was in the alehouse while he was ‘att Labour in a neighbouring field’. She was responsible for the transactions, and she chased the customers through the parish. Of course, she required him to ‘[come] to her Assistance’ when she was in physical danger, so perhaps her authority relied on the silent threat of James Winsbury returning home. That said, we hardly need a second reading of the deposition to deduce that the bulk of the indicated working activities were entrusted to the hostess.

If she had been widowed, the Winsbury hostess would have no husband to have his name on the license, and no husband to depose on her behalf. Officials would have no choice but to name her on both documents, and as such, she would become infinitely more visible in the sources. In a parallel case in January 1660, for instance, widowed alehouse keeper Joan Tanton (or Joane Taunton) is named directly and repeatedly throughout the surviving documents. As such, widows appear to be a fairly major demographic when considering alehouse keepers in early modern England - but a deeper look at the sources muddies this observation. Widows certainly did run alehouses, but it is highly likely that in many cases they were involved in the running of the alehouse before their husbands died. Married women whose husbands worked outside the alehouse might make up a larger portion of alehouse keepers than is currently acknowledged. Of course, we wouldn’t expect married women to have their names on a license, but due to their proximity to the action of the alehouse, they very frequently deposed without their husbands, who might be in another room, in another building or field at work, or even further away. There are multiple accounts of coastal alehouses, for instance, where the wife held down the business while her husband worked away as a sailor.

The Winsbury deposition is one of 192 statements regarding Westcountry alehouses currently under analysis. It was chosen because in just three sentences, it typified a number of trends consistent elsewhere in the Westcountry ale trade. We see a married couple running an alehouse, with the husband working away from the home and the wife managing the alehouse in his absence (‘her husband… being att Labour in a neighbouring field’). Additionally, the woman was not likely to be brewing, but was instead undertaking a variety of activities, even going beyond a traditional understanding of what it is to host (in this case, the hostess was chasing would-be criminals). This reminds us that we must be crystal clear about what we mean when we say ‘alewife’, but most importantly the deposition demonstrates that we need to reassess women’s role in the ale trade. Yes, brewing underwent a process of masculinisation. But women - not just widows, but married women - remained highly active in many of the day-to-day responsibilities of alehouse keeping. 

Depositions like this are particularly useful when considering women’s work in alehouses. Unlike an analysis of alehouse licenses, depositions describe activities that happened in alehouses. They give us the opportunity to visualise what was done, and often by whom. The Winsbury deposition is fairly short, but we know that food was cooked, drink was served, and beds were made up. More specifically, we know that the Winsbury hostess was expected to deal with money and pursue anyone who tried to dodge payment. In a longer deposition, we might typically see her accepting or rejecting pawned items, negotiating with a local official, performing surveillance on customers’ behaviour, hosting a wedding, or breaking up a fight. By the time James Winsbury was examined, selling ale was no longer a story of brewing. Keeping an alehouse was a varied occupation, and one in which women played a much more prominent role than the existing literature suggests. Conflating brewing and selling creates a narrative in which we only ‘see’ the men, and women’s (abundant) work becomes even less visible. To look specifically at selling, and to do this through targeted sources, will be key if we wish to truly consider the role of women in the drinks trade.


*Although she was married to James Winsbury, there is no certain indication that her name was Mrs Winsbury, so I will refer to her as ‘the Winsbury hostess’. In 2014, Amy Erickson published an article that highlighted the fact that ‘Mrs’ held a different connotation than it does today. Indeed, a single woman could be ‘Mrs’ if she governed others. Likewise, if a married woman did not hold sufficient governing office to be called ‘Mrs’, she might be called ‘Goodwife Winsbury,’ for example.

Further reading

  • Ågren M., Making a living, making a difference: Gender and work in early modern European society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Bennett, J. M., Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England : Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Bennett, J. M., “Misogyny, Popular Culture, and Women's Work,” History Workshop, 1991, 31(31), pp. 166–188
  • Mcintosh, M., Working Women in English Society 1300-1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 140
  • Whittle, J., “Enterprising Widows and Active Wives: Women's Unpaid Work in the Household Economy of Early Modern England,” The History of the Family, 19(3), 2014, pp. 283–300


The information of James Winsbury Of the parish of Muxbeare Husbandman in ye sayd County

This informant saith upon his oath that John Ferrill and Richard Ferrill pretending to be disbanded soldiers came into this the formants house being a common Alehouse and their Lodged on night and called for meat and drink to the value of five shillings & fower pence and the next morning about eight of the clock ran away without paying of their reckoning. And being followed by their Landlady swore they would beat out her brains if shee did follow them any further at which she make- ing a great Crye this Informant her husband and other workmen being att Labour in a neighbouring field came to her Assistance and seazed upon the sayd John Ferrill & Richard Ferrill upon which they swore & cursed in a most [?] & heinous manner. then calling the Constable carryed them before a Justice of the peace and farther saith not.
13 days March 1699
Corain Mr

The mark of James / Winsbury

Peter Beavis

Commerce in the Courts; Women as Creditors

Now faced with a complete dataset of work activities recorded as part of the project ‘Forms of Labour’ I am beginning to explore the ways in which we can examine the commercial activities that underpinned day-to-day trade in early modern England. Within the database, work activities categorised as ‘commerce’ make up the second largest group of activities with 2115 instances of commercial work recorded. Initial analysis of the gender division of labour within this category shows women performing a large proportion of commerce.

The category of ‘commerce’ includes five subcategories; buy, sell, exchange, run stall/shop and go to market. To this I have added two additional sub categories from management; financial management and pawning, in order to capture the range of commercial exchanges that were undertaken as part of buying and selling, increasing the total work activities to 2523. The intention is to analyse the forms of payment listed within this data. When I limited the analyse to the category of ‘commerce’ alone there was a very strong prevalence of coin but when extended to include the transactions within the sub category of financial management there is a greater variety of payment methods including various forms of deferred payment, credit, bonds and bills as well as payments in kind. The sub category ‘financial management’ includes all those work activities surrounding credit such as recording payments in debt books or accounts and requesting or collecting payments for a sale when not made at the point of exchange. It captures some of those work activities associated with the extended process of buying and selling. The decision to include pawning is similarly motivated by a desire to capture those work activities in which an exchange was made to facilitate buying and selling. When we look at the gender division of work within pawning there is a clear gender divide that shows a greater proportion of work performed by women than men. The gender division of pawning is of no surprise. Women were granted greater autonomy over the management of household credit in order to balance short-term needs for sustenance within the household and had greater claim to ownership over the small material goods within their home and about their person.1  Within this discussion I would like to explore this small subcategory and consider some of the methods of analysis that can be applied here that may be useful tools to extend to other subcategories within the larger category of ‘commerce’. 


The examples of pawning captured within the database describe credit relations outside the formal pawning industry associated with urban growth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Beverly Lemire’s study of professional money lenders operating in London in the seventeenth century shows a gendered pawning industry. The money lender John Pope operating in 1667-1671 lent money to both men and women. Women formed the greatest proportion of borrowers and borrowed smaller sums. They were significantly more likely to pawn objects as security for their loan.2 The formal records of debt depict women as predominantly borrowers of small sums of exigent credit yet informal pawning supplied a vital form of income to sustain poorer households and provided a market in which women could operate as creditors. Our database captures some of this financial work done by poorer households. When Peter Warren in Taunton Somerset went to pawn a pail he sought 8d from a servant Mary Michel. When she did not have the ready coin he turned to Alice Solcombe. Pawning offered the opportunity for women to operate as creditors and from this example we can see servants being approached as potential money lenders. From the evidence in the database where a spatial description is given within the case, the examples of pawning were conducted either within the home or the alehouse. The evidence we have collected illuminates the informal networks of credit through which women were able to exert financial autonomy and judge the creditworthiness of their extended networks. 

An analysis of the gender relations within pawning reveals female credit networks. Within the 39 female work activities there are 35 individual actors, 19 of whom are recorded as brokering the pawn and lending money and 16 who were seeking to pawn objects. Almost exclusively women pawned their objects with other women and we can see in the activity descriptions evidence for female commercial networks along familial ties. In a case of theft in Ashburton Devon in 1670 Weltham Tapper was found in possession of a smock which she claimed to have had of Jane Weiger who had pawned it her in receipt of 2 groats. The same smock Jane Weiger claimed to have received as pawn from Elizabeth Trust for 12d. Joan Nichols of Totnes in Devon in 1630 had pawned various items she had received from her father. One blanket she had pawned to her mother-in-law for 5s 6d. This table shows the division of work between men and women within the subcategory of pawning. Women were more likely to be creditors and lent money to both women and men.

The objects that were pawned also differed according to gender, women in our data pawned blankets, yarn, cloth, spoons, ribbons and linen whereas men pawned, alongside household linens and clothes, a hatchet, silver, a watch and animal skins. The value of goods pawned also differed. This table lists the items pawned and, where we have evidence, the value of the object pawned. The value of women’s pawned objects ranged from 3d-5s 6d with an average value of 1s 11d. The value of men’s pawned objects was significantly greater with a value ranging from 8d to 40s with an average value of 6s 9d. This may reflect both the value of goods which men and women had access to and ownership of, as well as the amount of credit that was required in order for them to conduct further commercial transactions. In one instance of pawning the debtor, Israell Plumley, described how the coin he received went straight to pay for his lodging and food.

Analysing the marital status of the female actors within the subcategory of pawning highlights the significant role of married women as both creditors and debtors.

Whilst there are some occupational descriptors within the unknown category that may indicate at least one of the unknown creditors was an unmarried woman, being described as a servant, the relative lack of ‘never married’ women is somewhat surprising given the legal capacity of women in the English context. Studies of probate accounts have shown ‘never married women’ engaged with the credit market and acted as formal money lenders. Judith M. Spicksley’s work on the role of ‘never-married women’ as creditors has demonstrated that single, unmarried women extended credit and charged interest not only in response to population and economic pressures but institutional changes with the Act Against Usury in the late sixteenth century. The growing tendency identified in probate material for father’s to leave a cash inheritance to their daughters irrespective of their marital status acknowledged cash as an important means of investment and future financial security. Maria Ãgren writing on the role of women in brokering credit in Sweden in the seventeenth century attributed the lack of single women to their comparative limited access to legal recourse.4  Our evidence however, seems to point to a particular role played by married women as local creditors for small sums in the informal pawning trade in early modern England. When Edmond Edgcomb went to see the tinker Degory Merrifield of Tavistock to pawn pewter, Degory was accompanied by his wife. In 1618 John Chappel of Ilminster, Somerset, went to pawn spoons with ‘Cawcombe’s wife’, identifying her only by her marital status. Even in those instances where men sought to pawn an object with a male creditor women are described as being witness. In 1668 John Buttal sought to pawn a serge with the servant Thomas Edwards. The exchange was witnessed by the wife of Edwards’s master and another female maid servant. In the one example we do have of a woman pawning goods for a loan from a male creditor she recalls going to pawn goods with John Stanford and his wife. In the instances described here married women were integral to the pawning industry as creditors, mediators, appraisers and witnesses.

‌How useful is an analysis of pawning to determine the role of women in the credit economy? The examples of pawning within the database draw a picture of female credit networks that facilitated wider commercial exchange. The relationships described between creditor and debtor suggest that women were not only likely to borrow from one another but that they almost exclusively dealt only with other women. The practice appears so common place that pawned objects had a biography that saw them passed from hand to hand in exchange for small sums of quotidian credit. Significantly capturing the trade in pawned goods outside the accounts of professional money lenders demonstrates the authority of married women as creditors within their local communities with valued experience in determining the quality and worth of household goods. It was a tactile job that required experience that comes with managing a household. Six of the pawning tasks recorded were placed within the alehouse and it is perhaps worth considering the role of married women as alewives in this period and their ability to facilitate a nexus of credit operating from the alehouse.

‌Though the number of exchanges captured in the database is relatively small, the evidence does highlight the nature of small scale credit and the second hand goods trade that eludes probate accounts and testamentary disputes. Spicksley’s study of never married female creditors is concentrated on probate accounts and reflects those wealthier households with estates above £5. The smallest sums of credit extended in her study are of a couple of shillings whilst the evidence within our database looks to objects with values as low as 3d. The evidence from the database presented here captures a small proportion of the undercurrent of exchange in low value second hand goods in the pawn trade that supported poorer households in the early modern economy. Whilst the probate material used by Spicksely and Froide has centred attention on the role of ‘never married women’ as creditors and investors in the economy, the incidental evidence from court cases presented here suggests that, for smaller sums of credit, married women played a significant role as creditors.5  It is a picture closer to that found by Cathryn Spence in the credit economy of early modern Scotland where 47% of female moneylenders in debt litigation were recorded as being married.6  For poorer households engaging with the credit economy, marital status appears to have afforded some authority be it over goods, cash or the expertise with which to determine value, trust and worth.

Within the subcategories of commerce are buy, sell and exchange all of which record payments made in coin, kind and credit. It is hoped that by analysing the methods of payment in the database the instances of credit in commerce can be identified and the role of both men and women as creditors and debtors can be established. In doing so I think we can say something of great importance about not only the wider patterns of commerce in the early modern period but the ways in which men and women engaged with the credit economy.

1. Beverly Lemire, The Business of Everyday Life, (Manchester, 2012), p. 17
2. Lemire, Business of Everyday Life, pp. 20-27.
3. Judith Spicksley, ‘Usury legislation, cash, and credit: the development of the female investor in the late Tudor and Stuart period’, Economic History Review, 61, 2, 277-301.
4. Maria Ãgren, ‘Providing Security for Others: Swedish Women in Early Modern Credit Networks’, Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial Europe, (Belgium, 2018), pp 121-142, p. 125.
5. Judith Spicksley, ‘Women, ‘usury’ and credit in early modern England: the case of the maiden investor, Gender and History, 27, 2, (2015), 263-292., Amy M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England, (Oxford, 2005).
6. Cathryn Spence, Women, Credit and Debt in Early Modern Scotland, (Manchester, 2016), pp. 148-149.