The Demise of the Medieval Mercery
The almost entirely successful story of the mercers’ involvement in the overseas trade of England in the first three-quarters of the sixteenth century was a bright background for profound and troublesome changes that occurred in the mercery crafts and trade, and consequently the company’s membership, in the same period. The worrying aspect of the trading success was the limitation of wealth to fewer and fewer men and the consequences this had for company recruitment. But there were other losses and changes. The Mercers’ Company lost their dominance of the main mercery textiles of fustian, linen and silk: that is, they continued to import these textiles to a reduced extent, but they lost control of their retail, as they had already lost the retail of small merceries. They had long known how non-mercers ‘meddled’ with mercery, but they lacked the ability, and more importantly the will, to fight them off.1 The ancient Mercery of London – place, people and trade – disappeared and survived under different names, such as haberdashery. By the 1550s the working mercer and his silkwoman wife – the ideal mercery unit – had been forgotten by the company; a sixteenth-century mercer who exported woollen cloth would not have recognized such a household as the defining part of his mercers’ world. Mercers had ceased to make mercery or to sell mercery small-goods; they ceased to retail the ancient mercery cloth of silk and goods made from it, and they had lost their ancient dominance of the linen trade, both import and retail. They were at last made to realize some of their losses in 1561 when the queen’s council demanded to know why the price of silk was so high and the mercers could not answer. Further self-examination in 1571 made them take some action – far too late. Their own lack of respect for artisans and retailers had been partly to blame and, despite their recognition of their losses, that dislike remained a deeply ingrained characteristic of the greater merchants among them.