Friday, 30 May 2008

Medieval customs

Oysters occupied a different position in the trading hierarchy to other goods. This is a medieval edict from Ipswich.

Concerning oysters and mussels brought by boat to the town quay, for selling, it is ordained for common benefit (of poor men as well of rich men) that such shellfish be sold by the same men who brought them. No one in the town is to meddle with such merchandise contrary to this ordinance, upon pain of its confiscation and 40d.

Later, this time in 1578, but showing the same spirit was still afoot

“The bailiff may licence any impotent or lame person to dredge oysters…provided there be but one person in the boat.”

Such pronouncements not only ensured the money went to local boats, but also kept the price down to feed the local poor. When oysters were scarce, the local burghers would always make sure they had enough for themselves and the town before any were sent away to market. Oysters were not really seen as a trading commodity.

Ipswich had other lively local bylaws to do with food too – cooks could be put in the pillory if their cooking was not good enough; so too bakers if they adulterated their bread or cooked anything for which they did not have a licence. The town bailiffs visited the inns and taverns each year to taste the wines and make sure old wines had not gone off, being adulterated or mixed with the new.

A town freeman could buy
any other cargo that was brought for sale to the port. Merchants negotiated a price for their goods with the town bailiff and then posted an announcement in the town hall or market square, after which the locals had first refusal to buy. This trade was a communal activity. If a freeman failed to pay up, the whole town became liable.

On this basis began the Essex and East Anglian trade in wool and cloth. The erection of a crane at Hythe, in old English literally a place where goods are landed, in this case about a mile from Colchester fort, made the area important. Much of the commercial activity centred on the passage of boats, both local bringing essential goods, but also from Holland, France and even as far as Italy. Some trades, usually essentials like coal, could only be carried on by freemen, but others like brewing and baking could be done by outsiders, but only by licence. Herrings were listed as items of trade, but oysters seem to have been regarded as essential to the parish and as such left apart.