The Origins and Early Associations of London Mercers, 1270s–1340s
The diverse origins, work processes and expectations of each craft and trade governed their individual development as communities or misteries. Two of the characteristics unique to mercers have been mentioned: their heavy dependence on female crafts which allowed a trouble-free control of most of their workforce, and their itinerant methods of trade. The consequences of the latter – the acute consciousness of the privileges conferred by the freedom of the city, and the need to protect themselves on the road or at sea -– will be dealt with later in this chapter. The mercers’ community or mistery in London is invisible and unrecorded in the thirteenth century so it must be reconstructed from other data: family and craft backgrounds and neighbourhood. Each mercer had a personal origin which contributed to the identity of his community; it is likely that only the lowliest pedlar had no antecedents and few permanent associations, his calling being self-justifying and self-created, and most mercers had come from a particular place or craft. The participation in a mercery craft was a basic characteristic of an early mercer, and an investigation of any group of mercery artisans, identifiable by the bynames of their craft, should therefore provide rare clues as to how these workers developed into a self-conscious community. From the confines of their craft – whether cappers, lacers, or buttoners – artisans could expand into general mercery, with a similar growth pattern to that already noted for the Godcheps, and become the earliest coherent groups of entrepreneurs in the London Mercery. The later rejection of these bynames by established members of the Mercers’ Company was a result of the constant search for status by mercers. Other bonds were provided by county origins as most Londoners were immigrants. An examination of the mercers’ county associations reveals an unparalleled connection with Norfolk: as the twelfth century progressed, a higher and higher proportion of London mercers came from Norfolk as apprentices or adults. All these family groups and ties affected the mercers as a whole, as much as the habit of itinerant trade.