The Medieval Merchant

The 29th Harlaxton Medieval Symposium

‘The Medieval Merchant’

23-26 July 2012

Convened by Anne F. Sutton and Caroline M. Barron


Conference Programme


It was a pleasure to return to Harlaxton after several (too many!) years to attend the 2012 symposium on ‘The Medieval Merchant’. The programme was enticing, thoughtfully put together by the organisers, Caroline Barron and Anne Sutton, to present the latest research by new and more established scholars. The surroundings were, as ever, conducive to both serious academic discussion but also (thanks to the welcome reappearance of the sun) to socialising in the gardens around Harlaxton College. The conference was, as ever, efficiently and good-humouredly facilitated by Christian Steer, working with the excellent team from Harlaxton.

The programme was organised into themes which brought to life in their different ways the world of the medieval merchant – trade and consumption, culture, piety, death, marriage, politics and writing. The mark of a good conference is often the way that commonalities between papers and themes emerge, especially during discussion. Here, for instance, we had several presentations which emphasised the skills possessed by medieval merchants, which as well as ensuring their own financial success could lead them to influence the organisation of parishes, or be sought by princes for key administrative tasks. Mark Whelan told the remarkable story of Filippo Scolari, an Italian financier who was given responsibility for the Hungarian empire’s southern border by Emperor Maximilian, while Samantha Harper described how Sir John Shaa (a London goldsmith) was entrusted with important duties by Henry VII, including the burial of Princess Elizabeth (the king’s fourth child). Inevitably, perhaps, London and its merchants featured prominently in the programme. John Oldland persuasively argued for a significant change in the wealth and consumption patterns of London merchants between 1480 and 1520, a result of rapid increases in the value of both imports and exports, and the city’s share of national trade. Justin Colson’s paper presented intriguing insights into the government of the London fishmongers, where the fishmongers and stockfishmongers for many years had separate wardens, a reflection of the locations of the two trades and their markets. However, there was also discussion of the city’s relationships with the rest of the country: Jessica Lutkin’s paper surveyed the evidence for goldsmiths in English urban centres, and posed some important questions about the reach and influence of the London goldsmiths.

The culture and writing of medieval merchants was another prominent theme, not surprisingly given the interdisciplinary traditions of Harlaxton symposia. Malcolm Richardson reflected on ‘mercantile rhetoric’ as found in sources such as guild minutes; Julia Boffey and Anne Sutton reminded us respectively of the cultural importance of Robert Fabyan and William Caxton; and Charlotte Bolland and Jane Bridgeman each provided insights into the portrayal of merchants in art. The cultural and religious interests and contributions of merchants were explored by several presenters, with Clive Burgess encouraging more work on their involvement in parish churches, while Nicholas Rogers’ paper ranged widely over the subject of saints and cults associated with merchants. The naming patterns of merchants’ ships was a particularly intriguing aspect of this, emphasising (as other papers also did) the importance of international travel and communication.

This was a stimulating and wide-ranging conference, which provided much food for thought. The contributions from early career scholars were especially welcome. Other highlights included a very rewarding excursion to Stamford, with guided visits to William Browne’s hospital, and to All Saints church, where wonderful brasses of the Brownes survive. Finally – and setting a new standard in Harlaxton events – was a ‘Mumming’, performed after dinner in the Great Hall by a troupe under the imaginative direction of Meg Twycross and Elisabeth Dutton. The text used was that written by John Lydgate for the mayoralty of the London mercer William Estfield in the 1430s. Guests at dinner were entertained and intrigued in equal measure, not least by the appearance of Christian Steer and Hannes Kleineke, representing St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London respectively, and Anne Sutton as the ‘spirit’ of the Mercers.

Matthew Davies, August 2012