The textile industry in Essex in the late 12th and 13th centuries:
A study based on occupational names in charter sources

by Michael Gervers


The present study is concerned with the manufacture of textiles for the purpose of trade and commerce extending beyond domestic and local market consumption. In this context, the history of textile production in Essex in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries is closely tied to the economic activity generated by the ancient town of Colchester and, to a lesser extent, by the border town of Sudbury in Suffolk. Even for these places, however, there is very little evidence of industrial activity prior to c. 1230. Seeking to identify other early centres, historians have repeatedly cited the reference in the Domesday of Ipswich to the cloths of 'Coggeshale, Maldoun, Colecestre, [and] Sudbery' which were exported from that port sometime around the turn of the fourteenth century. (1) Further evidence for early sites of production may be derived from the East Anglian wool returns of the thirteenth century. N. Heard argues that the towns which paid the highest tax on wool sales subsequently became centres of cloth manufacture. Based on this criterion, he confirms the prominence of Colchester and Sudbury as well as of Coggeshall and Halstead. (2) For E. Miller, the towns of 'Coggeshall and Maldon stand for the newer, semi-rural centres which had developed during the thirteenth century.'(3) No other places are mentioned in the literature, although, with the exception of Maldon the consensus based upon this slim evidence is that the industry was concentrated in the north-central part of the county between Sudbury and Colchester and that, outside these two established places, such industry was new in the thirteenth century. It has been argued that prior to that time, cloth-making in England as a whole was centred in the towns, but that for economic and sometimes technological reasons (especially the advent of the water-powered fulling mill) a movement began which sent the textile processing trades into rural areas. The result was an urban/rural competition which led, by the late thirteenth century, to the end of the urban monopoly over cloth manufacture.(4)

This thesis is not without its critics. A. R. Bridbury finds it nonsense 'to see town and country as rivals. (5) Confirming the growing importance of town manufacturing in the twelfth century, Miller emphasizes the indigenous nature of country industry and points out 'that some rural industry was being positively encouraged by urban entrepreneurs. (6)

One cannot deny the antiquity of weaving in rural England as a means of providing textiles for the individual villager, but neither can the early appearance of rural weavers, fullers and tailors, presumably working for local or domestic markets, be considered industrial beginnings for the increasing number of 'semi-rural' cloth-making centres which are known to have prospered in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Even Colchester's early thirteenth-century production may be questioned for, unlike other cloth centres, the town is not recorded in the Pipe Roll of 1201/02 (3 John) as having requested exemption from the Assize of Cloth.(7) For nowhere else in Essex was exemption sought either, suggesting that whatever textiles were being produced were for local consumption and not for trade further afield. It is a large step which leads from the modest signs of activity, especially semi-rural activity, at the beginning of the century to the end when an established, if geographically limited, industry is identified by the Ipswich Domesday. Such a change can be explained only by significant developments which have not left their traces in the traditional sources of inquiry.

Nearly half a century ago, E. M. Carus-Wilson emphasized how little source material there was to draw upon for the study of the rural cloth industry in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.(8) She, like G. A. Thornton, pointed to the lack of court rolls which, from the fourteenth century, throw valuable light 'on the technique and structure of the industry.'(9) Most medieval records have their chronological limitations, but it is the common title deed or charter which pervades all periods. It is in such sources that Miller has found villagers in the early thirteenth century whose occupational names reveal various aspects of the textile crafts. (10) Admittedly, charters provide little information about industrial activity other than through occupational names,. but, when considered in the context of the document itself and among other documents of the same type, informative patterns emerge about the chronology and topography of the trade, as well as about the economic status and propertyholding capabilities of those who dealt in it.(11) It is from the roles played by members of the textile professions in conveyances, and their relationship to the property conveyed, that one can provide an answer to Carus Wilson's question as to 'what manner of men they were.'(12)

The Sources

The ubiquitous charter may enable historians to identify a much broader geographic base for late twelfth- and thirteenth-century industrial activity in England than has previously been recognized.(13) This paper represents the first systematic attempt to use such sources to that end. Its substance is based in part upon the analysis of approximately 4000 property exchange documents and related records which correspond to the Documents of Essex England Data Set or D. E. E. D. S. database at the University of Toronto. The database includes material from c. 1120 to 1300. This study draws upon the nearly 1,000 twelfth- and thirteenth-century Latin charters in the cartulary of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England (hereafter BLC), (14) 2,720 final concords for the period known as the Essex Feet of Fines (hereafter EFF), (15) and 300 inquisitions post mortem (hereafter IPM)(16) "which refer to Essex properties. These sources were selected because of the precise dates associated with the final concords, because of the author's long familiarity with the Hospitaller charters, and because of the broad topographical spread of both. Evidence from these records, to be referred to as the ,sample' (Appendix 1), is used wherever possible in conjunction with that from a randomly selected second series of comparable size extracted from a nearly similar number of documents from other sources. This second series will be referred to as the 'Control' group (Appendix 2). Even though the dating of its content is generally less precise than that of the sample, the topographical and occupational indications it provides are equally valuable. Where evidence from the Control is either not available or incomplete, however, the discussion will depend on that provided by BLC/EFF.

Conveyances in BLC and the Control group deal largely with property transfers, but there are major distinctions between them and the concords in the EFF. Each of the latter is precisely dated; thirteenth-century charters rarely are. These charters generally contain witness lists; entries in the EFF never do. With the exception of manors belonging to the royal demesne, the EFF cover much of the county (27 parishes go unmentioned);(17) a considerable proportion of BLC entries pertains to north-central Essex, particularly to Hinckford Hundred, although this concentration is largely balanced by the entries in the Control group. Charters for Sudbury, located in Suffolk on the northern border of Hinckford Hundred, appear in BLC (only once in the Control group); being out of the county there are few references to that industrial centre in EFF. Entries in BLC date from c. 1120 and in the Control group from c. 1150, while the EFF begin only in 1187. On the whole, thirteenth-century concords from the EFF concern properties of greater economic value than do charters in BLC and the Control group for the same period. Despite these differences, the two types are complementary. The dated EFF serve as a context for the undated charters in BLC and the Control group and together they provide information about individuals from a broad spectrum of economic and social backgrounds.

The record is by no means complete. The nearly 8,000 documents from which the occupational names analyzed here are derived represent probably no more than a quarter of the county's extant conveyances for the period under consideration. Large gaps both chronological and topographical are thus bound to occur, but taken as a whole the data reflect general trends.

BLC and EFF contain references to 89 men and one woman whose occupational names suggest their association with the textile trades. The Control group includes the names of 90 men and two women. Thirteen professions are indicated; they include burel (18) and chalon merchants, coif makers, drapers, dyers, fullers, hatters, hood makers, a napper, quilters, a stitcher, tailors and weavers.(19) The individuals act as conveyors, recipients, tenants (a role which includes references to neighbours), witnesses and agents. The information from three groupings concerning 1) individuals, 2) their roles, and 3) the property with which they are associated is analyzed separately. The lists in the appendices cite the name, occupation and role of each individual, the date or approximate date where available of his or her occurrence, the place and property with which he or she is associated in the document and a reference to the source whence the information is derived. These lists, together with information in tables 6 and 7, point to marked distinctions between those engaged in the manufacturing, tailoring and trading of cloth.

BLC provides 48 names (28 of which occur as witnesses), EFF 42. Relative to the number of records from each source, the frequency of individuals involved in the textile trades is 23% greater in BLC than in EFF. (20) This differentiation is undoubtedly due to the fact that the EFF reflect property transfer among a generally more wealthy stratum of society than do the charters, a stratum by no means accessible to all members of the textile professions. All of the occupations except quilter occur in BLC. Coif makers, hatters, hood makers, the napper and the stitcher are absent from EFF, undoubtedly because of the inferior economic standing of these trades. On the other hand, although the ratio of appearances of occupations in BLC is higher than in EFF, such occupations as burel merchant, chaloner, draper, dyer and tailor, which represent the wealthier side of the trade, have a higher frequency of occurrence as holders or conveyors of property in EFF than in BLC or even the Control group.

Table 1 provides a comparison of the number of properties transferred and of conveyances transferring them between a) BLC and EFF and b) the Control group and EFF. In BLC the number of conveyances providing names of textile workers is 2.7 times less than the number in EFF, while in the Control group the number is approximately 1.25 times more. Even if the numbers from BLC were extrapolated by multiplying them by 2.7, the percentage differences in both cases would favour EFF.

Although the records which were searched for textile occupational names present an unequal chronological and topographical coverage of the county, it is nevertheless more than likely that those places with the most active economies are identified in them. The 48 textile workers derived from BLC are connected with 26 parishes, the 42 from EFF with 41, and the 92 in the Control with 46; resulting in a total of 90 different parishes in Essex and four (Clare, Haverhill, Stoke and Sudbury) in Suffolk. The only places which are associated with the textile professions more than once each in both BLC and EFF, and which also occur in the Control group, are Colchester and Halstead. (21) The 90 Essex parishes represent nearly a quarter of the 399 parishes in the county. (22) Twenty-three percent of the parishes contained in BLC bear reference to the textile trades, while in EFF the ratio is only 11%. Despite the broader scope of EFF, the lower percentage of occurrences of textile occupational names from that source and the fact that records bearing such names from all sources are more numerous for Colchester and Halstead than for any other sites, suggest that in the twelfth and for much of the thirteenth century at least, commercial textile manufacture outside those two places was relatively limited.

The purpose of the charters and final concords was to record property exchange. As a consequence, they have obvious limits when used to identify the development of industrial activity. They indicate in differing degrees of accuracy who did what, when and where. A large proportion of occupational names comes from the witness lists. In cartulary copies, these lists are often either abbreviated or entirely missing. Furthermore, occupational names can be considered a valid means of identifying profession only to the beginning of the fourteenth century when there was an increasing tendency to adopt them as family names. (23) 'Me association of witnesses and agents with the places mentioned in the documents must be done with some care as these roles need have had no precise bearing on the individual's place of residence or where he held land. For those men who made sufficient profits to enable them to invest in rents or landed property, or to engage in money lending, their roles as conveyor or recipient may not be a good indicator either of where they practiced their profession. Attempts must, therefore, be made to distinguish between residential/commercial property and investment property. (24)

There are no explicit references in the sources used to the organization or process of textile manufacture or trade. The documents shed no direct light on the nature, size, quality, quantity, colour or value of what was being produced, nor whence the raw material came, nor where the finished product went. We do not know for sure what the weavers wove, the dyers dyed, the tailors cut or the drapers traded. In short, with the exception of the rare references to livery, the corpus makes no mention of textiles whatsoever. The use of conveyances as the basis of this enquiry means, therefore, that our conclusions will depend largely on the interpretation of occupational names in terms of their chronological and topographical context. By so doing, while it will sometimes even be possible to infer what kinds of textiles were being produced and where, conclusions throughout must remain tentative.