Interview with Lisa Jefferson

Medieval London was a centre of business and trade, and its various guilds were important civic and economic institutions.  For those who are interested in researching this field, they can now access two excellent editions and translations of their records. Lisa Jefferson first published Warden’s Accounts and Court Minute Books of the Goldsmith’s Mistery of London, 1334-1446 in 2003, and in 2009 she and Ashgate Publishing have produced The Medieval Account Books of the Mercers of London: An Edition and Translation.  We interviewed Lisa Jefferson about her books and these records can be a valuable resource for historians.


1. The Medieval Account Books of the Mercers of London is your second  book that edits and translates the records of a London guild. Your  first was the Warden’s Accounts and Court Minute Books of the Goldsmiths’  Mistery of London, 1334-1446How did you become interested in  working on these texts?

I had been working for the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, my remit being to find words which were not in this dictionary.  I had turned first to documents at the PRO and then thought of the London Livery Companies, found out which of them had surviving records from the medieval period, and which of these were written in Anglo-French, and, after some work at the Merchant Taylors’ and consultation of various published records, discovered the treasure trove of the Goldsmiths’ Company first and a little later that of the Mercers.  It became obvious to me that the interest and value of these texts was very high and that a good edition of them would benefit many scholars in many different fields.  I realised also that I had both the linguistic knowledge and the editorial experience to do this work, and indeed that the reason it had not been done before was that, whereas a few historians had known of these records and had used them, they had perhaps not had the necessary competences for editing the texts; these had therefore only been very partially exploited, and in most cases the published work using them has cited them only by paraphrase or with very brief quotations and these in (not always accurate) translation.  What I have now provided is the basic raw material from which many other scholars can work.  For both the Goldsmiths’ records and now those of the Mercers, I have presented an edition of the original texts, written in medieval Anglo-French, in medieval Latin, and for the later period in Middle English, and in parallel facing-page format I have given a translation into modern English, the aim being to allow as many researchers as possible to be able to access accurately the information contained in these extremely interesting texts, and thus to proceed onwards to further work using them. 

2. These kinds of records offer a wealth of information, not only about the rules and practices of urban guilds, but much else also. What areas of research can be conducted using these records?

Very many.  The Mercers were of course not only merchants of silk, linen and many luxury goods, they were also, many of them, Merchant Adventurers engaging in trade particularly in the Netherlands, and in England they were  heavily involved in the governance of the City of London; references to these activities occur, many of the leading mercers having served as Mayors of London, as well of course as aldermen and sheriffs.  Each medieval guild controlled its own craft or trade and those working within it, and thus the records preserved details of fines and other punishments meted out to those who acted illegally, whether over weights and measures, or infraction of ordinances, or who fought among themselves either verbally or physically.    The Mercers also had a chapel, and furnished this with vestments, statues, curtains and altar-cloths, as well as ample supplies of wax and tallow candles.  They looked after their own poorfolk and others, and many details of alms payments are found in each year’s account.  They took part in the annual processions of the sheriffs and mayors of London, for which they issued special livery clothing and also employed musicians to play their trumpets, clarions and drums, and for whom they provided livery hoods. The Mercers also owned both their own premises and a very large amount of property which they rented out.  In some years one finds only a total sum for rental income and necessary expenditure upon the properties, but for other years precise details are found, both of how much income was received from each particular house, shop, cellar or workroom, whether this rent had been reduced or increased, and also of what precise monies had been spent on what repairs in which property.

The financial details given in these accounts of the Mercers are one area of interest that I hope to see studied by specialists and used in their research.  Accountancy is a field where comparatively little historical work has been done at all, and very little on the medieval system of “Charge and Discharge” accounting, which not only preceded the “double entry book-keeping” method, but continued to function alongside it.  In my ‘Introduction’ to these accounts of the Mercers, I have given a brief introduction to this accounting system, and have examined the technical vocabulary associated with it.  This vocabulary will certainly be of interest to lexicographers, and it is an area often missed in dictionary coverage.  The Mercers’ medieval accounts preserve this vocabulary for us because what has survived is not just the “in-house” record kept by succeeding wardens, but a very formal “fair copy”, intended for posterity and done to the highest standards both of visual presentation and of linguistic accuracy.  Where other guild records might just have a heading “Receipts”, and then below a list of items and sums received, these records were kept throughout using full sentences, careful headings, and thus verbal as well as numeral accounting.

3. Did you find differerences in editing these manuscripts, and were there any challenges? 

Indeed there were!  The surviving medieval records of the various London livery companies show an immense variety of type of manuscript.  Many more records have been lost than have evaded the hazards of neglect, carelessness, fire and flood, seeming redundancy, or even theft, and what has survived is different in each case. The Goldsmiths’ surviving accounts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were written on paper, were the wardens’ own record, written up year by year (with some gaps) by a very long series of different writers who were clearly sometimes “in a hurry”, and some of the paper quires had later suffered from damp and neglect.  Here therefore there were a number of problems purely of decipherment.  The Mercers’ two main record books of the same period, the main Wardens’ Account Book and the Renter Wardens’ Account Book, had been made of high quality materials, parchment for the Wardens’ account book, and alternating parchment and paper for the Renter Wardens’ book; they were written up as a fine fair copy from other more temporary notes and records (which have not survived but which are referred to), by either professional scribes or members of the mistery, the beadle often, who had excellent handwriting.  My ‘Introduction’ provides details of all the scribes, many of whom are known by name, others anonymous, and which pages were written by them.  No real decipherment problems occur in these manuscripts (to one familiar with hands of the time and with the languages used).  The scribes’ command of French varied however, and some of the vocabulary and phrasing used is very technical, and accurate interpretation was therefore a key issue. 

I have also prepared a very full Name Index of every person mentioned, listing each and all occurrences of that person’s name by date and by type of mention (entry to apprenticeship, fees paid, fines imposed, date at which made a warden, names of apprentices taken on, property owned, civic functions etc).  Caxton appears here, as does of course Richard Whittington, the Mayors William Eastfield, Henry Colet, Henry Frowyk, John Stockton, and others well-known in history, but also thousands of others, either unknown or little known, glimpses into whose lives are afforded and whose family and professional relationships can be charted to greater or lesser extent.  The detailed Subject Index should also be of great help, and can for instance be used to track, under ‘Building materials’, where bricks are mentioned, where lead and solder were used, and when they sold off supplies of old timber for how much; one can also track cushions and pillows, locks and keys supplied, candles bought from wax-chandlers; and one can follow through the fines and penalties for a wide variety of offences, find the dates of various ordinances, look up the folio numbers where Arabic numerals appear (unusual at this date), discover when houppelandes were in fashion, where to find brokerage rates listed, where to find all mentions of musicians and their instruments.  Composing these indexes was certainly a “challenge” but a very worthwhile one, as they will allow very direct access into the riches of these records. 

4. Were there any unexpected discoveries you made?

One of the most delightful was perhaps to find the well-known illuminator, William Abell, turning up as a tenant of the Mercers.  He rented a garden in Moor Lane from them.  I was familiar with his work, as examined by Jonathan Alexander and several others, and knew that he was thought to have been the artist who drew the scene of Richard Whittington on his deathbed which appears on f. 1r of a manuscript held by the Mercers’ Company with the English version of the Whittington almshouse ordinances, and so it was with real pleasure that I read the entry in a rental for property held in Moor Lane: “De Willelmo Abelle, lymnour, pro uno gardino ibidem per annum  -   iii s.”

5. Now that you have completed these two works, what are your future research plans?

They do not lie in the field of further work on London records, for the simple reason that I now live in the south of France, in the Pyrenees, and my research interests have therefore moved into areas that can be investigated locally.  Recently my work has been on medieval incised effigial funeral slabs, usually with an inscription around the sides, concentrating on those to be found in this area, and working closely with the expert in this field, Paul Cockerham.  I shall however always keep up as far as I can with future work on the history of the London livery companies, a fascinating area of study, or rather areas, many of which have not yet been explored. I shall also always be happy to help with any queries that might arise over these texts and to help in any way I could with further research by others. 

We thank Lisa Jefferson for answering our questions.

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