[Caroline Barron and Nigel Saul, eds., England and the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages, 1995, pp. 99-114]



Traders and Playmakers: English Guildsmen
and the Low Countries


Alexandra F;. Johnston

University of Toronto


In recent years those working in late medieval English drama have become more and more aware of the close connection between the popular drama of England and the popular drama of the Low Countries. Gradually, English speaking scholars are coming to understand that the influences, in all probability, flowed from the continent to England. The primacy of the Dutch morality play, Elckerlijc, over its English counterpart, Everyman, has been established beyond any reasonable doubt for over a generation and, as more and more Dutch and Flemish texts are made available in editions and translations, the similarities between this drama and that performed in England become ever more apparent. Themes and preoccupations echo across the 'Middle Sea' and staging and stage devices are similarly mirrored.


The main reason for this close connection is to be found in the trading links between the Low Countries and the east coast ports of England in the late Middle Ages. The drama of this period is, above all, drama of the towns and cities - quasi professional productions that combined religious piety with civic pride. It was quintessentially a bourgeois art-form produced and promoted by the town councils of England and the Low Counties. When they were not engaging in their annual playmaking activities at home, the burghers of England were loading their ships with cloth and lead and themselves heading out across the 'German Sea' to buy and sell in the markets of the Brabant, Zeeland, Holland and Flanders. Chaucer's Merchant, for example, sets out on his pilgrimage sporting a Flemish beaver hat wishing that 'the see were kept for any thyng/ Bitwixe Middelburgh and Orowelle'.2 Middelburg was a great trading centre in Zeeland; the Orwell flows between Ipswich and Felixstowe in Suffolk. He was typical of his day and generation, taking his 'bargaynes' and his 'chevyssaunces' to the Low Countries.


The heavily indented coastline curving north from Calais, with its many sea ports and its many rivers navigable by the small ships that plied across the North Sea, had been a prime centre of commerce since the eleventh century.3 By the fifteenth century English traders had become 'the mainstay of the Flemish, Brabantine and Dutch fairs'.4 The fairs or marts


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were held four times a year at the changing of the seasons: the winter or cold mart, the spring or pase mart, the summer or synxon mart and the autumn or balms mart. These were the occasions of great commercial gatherings with all their attendant celebrations, entertainments and exchange of news and ideas.; Here English seamen trading with the Low Countries from Newcastle, Hull, Boston, Ipswich, Lynn, Grimsby and London and the merchants from the wool towns of York, Beverley, Norwich and, in the sixteenth century, Wakefield, rubbed shoulders with their counterparts from all over Europe. Maud Sellers gives us a vivid picture of these occasions in Antwerp, the centre of the English traders in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries:


Four times a year in the spring, summer, autumn and winter, those non-resident masters, who left their cloth in charge of factors or apprentices, hurried over from London, York, Newcastle, Norwich, Lynn or other sub-posts to supervise the sales that took place at these seasons. Their days would be full; as well as their bargainings they had to attend the courts, where new ordinances were promulgated, new officials elected and the general policy of the company discussed; . . . The streets and market place of Antwerp, the 'English House,' where the most important merchants lived, and the lodgings of the less important, were filled with the cloth sellers; the buyers, too, came from far and near to these fairs.6


It is no coincidence that the provincial towns and districts represented annually at the fairs in the Low Countries are just those towns and districts from which the great bulk of surviving English drama comes. Nor is it coincidence that many of these towns had processions that paralleled the 'ommegange' of the Low Countries.


Of these trading and playmaking towns, York has the greatest amount of surviving archival material. The archives of the city itself and of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Adventurers7 together provide a unique opportunity to see the Mercers and Merchants of York as both traders and playmakers. During this period York was a mercantile oligarchy and the same men were traders, guildsmen and members of the city government. Of the eighty-eight mayors between 1399 and 1509, sixty-eight were Mercers.8 in some years they dominated the city council; for example on 1420 twenty-two of the twenty-nine members of the council were Mercers.9 Their influence declined in the sixteenth century, a decline which reflected the serious economic depression which affected the city, but even then the number of mayors who were merchants exceeded that of all other vocations combined.10


As both guildsmen and aldermen they were personally involved in




playmaking. The Mercers Guild was responsible for the episode of the Last Judgment, the lavish finale of the town’s great Biblical play now known as the York Cycle. The city council took collective responsibility for the entire sequence and often individual members of the guild appear in the civic records in connection with the play. By matching the names that appear at meetings of the guild that make key decisions about the European trade or that appear on bills of lading with the playmaking references, we can gain some idea of the exposure that the men actively engaged in drama during this period in York had to the culture of the Low Countries.


The York Cycle, performed annually on Corpus Christi day, remains one of the great works of English literature from the fifteenth century.1l We do not know who wrote it or when the city and its guilds became involved with it, but we do know that it existed in some form in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. The play was produced by the city council, with each of the forty-eight separate episodes recounting salvation history the responsibility of one or more of the many craft guilds. Over the


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two centuries that the play was performed, the craft guilds came to define themselves in relation to their sister crafts by a complex pattern of donations to the pageants of other crafts so that when the plays were suppressed in the 1560s, the guilds were hard put to find new ways to define their inter-connectedness.


The cycle began early in the morning with the creation of the heaven and earth and ended near midnight with the Last Judgment. The central action of the sequence depicted the Passion of Christ in long and gruelling detail. Each episode was performed on a moving stage called a pageant wagon at an average of twelve separate playing places or 'stations' designated by the city along a pre-determined route within the city walls. The stations were rented by the city council to the highest bidder who, in turn, had the right to sell seats and provide refreshments for the audience gathered to see the play at that location. The income from the station rents is a regular item in the account rolls of the city chamberlains throughout the life of the play. The night before the production, the mayor processed along the route and placed the arms of the city at each authorized place.12


As the producer of the play, the city council held the ultimate control over the performing guilds. Any changes in the sponsorship of episodes had to be authorized by the city council. An official 'check-list' known as the 'ordo paginarum' was drawn up about 1415 listing the performing crafts and the episodes for which they were responsible. For the rest of the life of the cycle, the town clerk kept the list up to date. Any changes in the content of an episode or the sponsoring guild or guilds were noted as they occurred.13 All the episodes were sponsored by craft guilds except the pageant of the Coronation of the Virgin for which the city council itself took responsibility, sometimes in conjunction with one or more guild over the history of the performance of that pageant.14 The 'or do gathering' also contains the official proclamation of the play to be read on the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi laying out the regulations for the performance:


"And yat all maner of craftmen tat bringeth furthe ther pageantez in order & course by good players well arayed & openly spekyng vpon payn of lesyng of C s to be paid to the chambre withoute any pardon And that euery player that shall play be redy in his pagiaunt at convenyant tyme that is to say at the mydhowre betwix iiijth & vth of the cloke in the mornyng & then all oyer pageantes fast folowyng ilkon after oyer as yer course is without Tarieng sub pena facienda camere vj s viij d. 15


The fines were levied as the council monitored the annual performances. A regular entry in the Chamberlains' Rolls lists the annual expenses incurred by the mayor and the council on the day of the performance when they




watched the performance from one of the designated stations The mayors, chamberlains and all the aldermen therefore, were intimately involved in the annual production in their official capacity.


The aldermen who were Mercers were doubly involved since their craft was responsible for the finale of the day's event. The first significant document concerning the Mercers' pageant that survives is an indenture drawn up in 1433 between the company and the four men who in that year acted as pageant masters. The post of pageant master was normally filled by a junior member of the guild but, on this occasion, two of the four men were merchants of some standing. One, William Beadle, had been master of the company the year before and would be mayor three years later.l7 The other, Henry Market, was a Hanes merchant who had become a freeman of the city in 1412 but had become naturalized only three years before by an act of parliament.l8 The two constables of the company that year, Nicholas Useless and William Aroma'' both became freemen the same year as Market. In 1433, these two men and the master of the company Richard Louth engaged the town clerk, Roger Burton, to write to the Lord of Campveer, the port town of Veere near Middelburg in




Zeeland.20 in this combination of people and events we can see the York Mercers concerned on the one hand for the pursuance of their trade with the Low Countries but on the other hand, anxious to put the production of their play on a businesslike footing.


The 1433 indenture is one of the most remarkable pageant documents that has survived from anywhere in England. It lists the costumes, including angel wings with iron in the ends, and masks for most of the characters including double-faced masks for the devils. The wagon itself, according to the property list, was elaborately hung with painted cloths and was decorated with twenty artificial angels, nine of which were small and red with a string attached to make them 'run about in the heavens'. The central feature of the design was a hoisting device that took Christ up to heaven after the judgment.21 This indenture became the controlling document for the next few decades of the life of the play in 1443, the day that Thomas Scauceby was first elected master, the company issued an ordinance regulating the election and activity of the pageant masters 'by Indentour'.22 The pageant masters were expected to collect the annual levy or 'pageant silver' from all the members of the craft and, using this money, refurbish the wagon, hire the players and ensure that the episode was performed in a seemly fashion so as not to incur a civic fine. They were to account to the company for all the costumes and properties listed in the indenture .


Thomas Scauceby, who oversaw the adoption of the ordinance for the pageant masters, was five times master of the guild, bailiff of the city in 1447, mayor in 1463 and a regular patron of the entire play renting the second station on the pageant route in 1454,23 1462, 24 and 1468 25 Since only these three rolls survive from this period, he may have rented the station for the entire twelve years. The next account roll is for 1475, four years after his death.26 His name appears frequently in the Mercers' rolls as a trader but our most vivid picture of him in this capacity is as the overseer of the loading of the ship Kattryn bound for Bruges in 1457. Most of the bill of lading speaks only of chests and containers but there is some detail in one section where cloth specified as whites and western whites, and melds are listed along with calf skin, lead, and breast plates, helmets and other pieces of Barnes' or armour 27


A rather tattered document survives telling us of two meetings of the craft held between 1472 and 1475 that governed their trading activities. One decreed that no ship should sail 'newther of thissyde see or on tother syde of the see'28 unless they were fully loaded. The other sets the fee for trading abroad:


. . . Also it is enacted by the mastered constables, and all the fellyshipp


that everie brother of the said fellyshipp occupying as maistre in




Flanders, and Braband, and Seland shall pay at his hansynge (i.e. entry

into the guild) at Bruges, Andwarpe, Barow (i.e. Bergen op Zoom)

and Midilburg, ijs. at everie place aforesaid, and no more. And everie

apprentice of the said fellysship shall pay at his hansynge in Bruges,

Andwarpe, Barowe, and Midilburg, xvjd. at everie place aforesaid, and

no more. 29


Of the twenty-eight members of the company (twenty-seven men and one woman) named in the second document, fourteen appear in the dramatic records of York because of their specific involvement in playmaking activities. Ten of the men were mayor at least once and three more held office as sheriff. As members of the city government, as we have seen, they could have been closely involved with the annual festivities at Corpus Christi - proclaiming the play, setting out the banners of the city at the stations, walking in the Corpus Christi procession and, of course, watching he play from their assigned station.


As mayor, several of them presided over specific decisions about the play. In 1476, Thomas Wrangwis was mayor when an important ordinance was passed specifying auditions for all actors taking part in the cycle, amateur and professional alike, and prohibiting anyone from taking a part in more than two episodes.30 That same year, he also presided over an agreement between the Tapiters and the Weavers concerning their contributions to :he Passion sequence in 1475-6.31 in his next term, in 1484, he presided aver an agreement of the Innholders to share the production of the Coronation of the Virgin.32 Nicholas Lancaster, in his second term as mayor in 1483, settled a dispute among the sub-crafts of the Smiths concerning the play of the Temptation.33 Richard York, also in his second term in 1482, worked with the Pinners and the Wiredrawers to settle a dispute about the performance of the Crucifixion.34 John Tonge in his firm in 1477 presided over the meeting that included the Labourers, a group of men who were not considered to constitute a craft, who were to contribute financially to the Masons for their production of the Purification of the Virgin, organizing the collecting of 'pageant money' by ward 35


Several of the men who attended the important meetings of the craft in the 1470s were also involved in mounting special performances for visiting royalty. In 1483, John Tonge and Thomas Wrangwis undertook to produce the Creed Play for the special visit of Richard III to York on the occasion of his son's consecration as Prince of Wales in the Minster.36 Richard York, William Todd, John Beseley and John Shaw were all in office during the preparation of the elaborate Royal Entry for Henry VII in 1486.37 They commissioned Henry Hudson, a poet, to devise the show that followed the Pageant route to the Minster with six special tableaux for the king




including an appearance of the Virgin in Stonegate using the Weavers' pageant wagon of the Assumption for the set. In the following years during Todd's mayoralty, he and York arranged for a special performance of the Corpus Christi Play in August to entertain the king who was again in the north following the Lambert Simnel uprising. At the end of that visit both men were knighted by the king.38 Twelve years earlier, in 1475, the younger Todd is listed as the owner of two ships the Grace de Dieu and the Juliana Pilkingron, that plied the route between Hull and Zeeland.39


Richard York had been even more intimately connected with playmaking. As a young man, he had been one of the four pageant masters of the Mercers in 1462.40 The detailed account for that year survives recording the building of a new costume for God and mending some of the twenty artificial angels that decorated the wagon. He ended his life as a merchant of the staple - a member of the London company as well as the one in York.4l


Another of the company named in the document drawn up to govern the trading of the guild in the 1470s, Henry Williamson, served not as mayor but as sheriff and had also been a pageant master as a young man in




1461.42 That year was the first occasion when the company decided to rent angel wings rather than once again repair them. It was also the year three and half yards of red buckram were used to make new banners. The buckram was bought from another member of the company who attended the meetings to draw up the ordinances, Thomas Beverlay, who the same year undertook to repair the crabs ceremonial torches.43 Beverlay was both master of the guild and mayor in 1471.44


Finally, two of the Mercers named in the document rented stations on the pageant route following Thomas Scauceby's example. Wrangwis himself rented the tenth and last station at the Pavement in 1462 45 and Thomas Welles rented the fourth station in 1486.46


The ordinances of the company concerning trading practices were redrawn in 1492. They confirmed the fees for European trading established in the earlier ordinance and went on to make specific provision for the behaviour of their members while abroad. The master and constables were to name 'anew honest persona or is of the company at ilk wale when men passes over the see, that is to say, to Flaunders, Braban, and Seland, to have ful power of the maister and constables'.47 These men were to act for the company in disciplining the members of the craft and their apprentices who were living and trading abroad.


In 1498, the company issued an ordinance requiring all ships sailing to the Low Countries or Normandy from Hull to pay the company 6s 8d.48 Again, there was a large attendance of the members of the craft. Of the thirty-eight present, five became mayor at least once and two more sheriffs. Four had acted as pageant masters and two are recorded as renting Stations for the play. More significant, however, is the presence at the meeting of six of the eight men (including the then mayor Richard Thornton, a grocer) who four years later commissioned Thomas Drawswerd, an alabaster carver of some repute, to


…mak the pagiant of the dome (i.e. doom) belonging to the merchauntes newe substancialie in euery thing pervnto belonging havyng for the warkemanship and Stuff of the same vij Illarcs in money And his entrie free with Also the old pagiaunt…49


Drawswerd later became both master of the company and mayors His pageant with its gabled roof and carved decorations seems to have been much more like the pageant wagons of the Low Countries than the fifteenth-century wagon with its rich cloth hangings had been.


In 1536, a royal embargo was placed on the export of lead and from a document dated that year we have lists of the members of the company who intended to ship lead to the continental of the sixteen hoping to ship to Flanders, seven had served as pageant masters as young men, one of


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whom, George Hall as master of the company in 1560, was in Antwerp.32 Hall and two other men on the 1536 list became members of the London company as well The close connections between the English traders and especially the town of Antwerp can be measured by the fact that all members of the English company were assessed to help pay for the royal entry of Philip of Spain into Antwerp in 1554.33


During the 1560s the play declined at home and the trade with the Low Countries became more troublesome. In 1563 we find Christopher Herbert whose house still stands near the Pavement in York and who was pageant master in 1550 and 1551, in Antwerp for an extended period trying to sort out the problems. Many of the political problems were beyond the control of traders. Their eyes turned farther east and, in 1567, a full court of the company was held in Antwerp to discuss the first serious proposals for making a major shift to Hamburg as the major port of entry to the continents English trade again returned to the Low Countries in the seventeenth century but by then the involvement of the trading crafts in their own playmaking was long past.


The merchants of York have here been used simply as an example. Throughout this period, although the London merchants dominated the trade, merchants and seamen from all the provincial ports played a vital, if subordinate role. A similar survey of the records of any of the port towns and their upland wool suppliers would demonstrate the same pattern These men were Merchant Adventurers; they did not stay at home and the sights and customs of Antwerp, Bruges, Middelburg, Dordrecht, Leuvens Bergen op Zoom, Verre and Amsterdam were as familiar or more familiar to them as other English towns.


But what did they see in the Low Countries? Although scholarship on the drama of the Low Countries is not as advanced as the work on English drama, intriguing patterns are emerging from the ground-breaking work of the last two decades in The Netherlands.55 The drama from the Low Countries influenced the content of English drama as well as its staging and was also important in the formation of the traditions of civic display.


The texts are still largely unedited but already the results of recent research are suggestive. Many of the plays were the result of the annual competitions among the Chambers of Rhetoric. Although there was one 'puy' or competition held in London around 1300, this feature of the culture of the Low Countries and northern France did not find fertile ground in England.36 However, the types of plays that were written for the competitions did. The English seem to have been particularly interested in Biblical or apocryphal material that could be adapted for the many plays on such themes in English. Lynnette Muir and Peter Meredith have traced the relationship among the Eerste Bliscap (a play on the life of the Virgin) Som Brussels (1441), a Rouen play of 1471, the N-Town Virgin sequence and




the Valenciennes plays from the 1 540s.37 The manuscript recently identified as from Lille58 contains many plays based on obscure Old Testament themes adapted to reflect the history of Lille and some based on parables. One such play, the Play of the Vineyard, may have York connections. A play of this name was paid for by the York city council as part of the Corpus Christi celebration in 1442.59 Perhaps Thomas Scauceby, who was chamberlain that year, had seen the play on a recent business trip and brought a text home to be translated and performed. No other reference to a play on this theme in England survives.


Romance themes such as those in Esmoreit, a play becoming more familiar to English speaking scholars through performance, were a standard element in many of the plays of the rhetoricians. The romance elements in the play of Mary Magdalene from the Digby manuscript, one of the two East Anglian collections of saints plays and moralities, may owe a debt to the Low Countries. A possible family connection lends credence to this suggestion. The name William Blomfeld appears in association with the Fraternity of St Thomas or the merchant guild of Norwich in l409.60 In the next generation two Blomfelds with associations both with Norwich and with Bury St Edmunds have connections with the Digby manuscript.61 The elder, another William, was in his early life a monk of Bury but left the monastery before dissolution and was later vicar of St Simon and St Jude in Norwich. The younger, Miles, of Bury, at some time during the sixteenth century had the Digby manuscript in his possession. His name appears on the first leaves of the plays of the Conversion of Paula Mary Magdalen and Wisdom.62 Miles also possessed a copy of William Blomfeld's 'Quintessens or the Regiment of Philosophy' on which he had written, among other biographical notes, that William was 'a good Latinist, partly a Gretian, an hebritian havyng also the tounges of dyvers languages as dutch and french.'63 In their article about the early history of the Digby manuscript, Donald Baker and John Murray suggest that the plays were originally in the possession of William Blornfeld of Bury with the strong implication that he may have been, if not the author, at least the compiler of the collection that has survived. They suggest that just as Miles Blomfeld came into the possession of William's 'Regiment', so he came into the possession of the play book. William's facility with the Dutch language and the possible connection with the older merchant William adds tantalizing but inconclusive details to the possible transmission of continental influences to the plays in this collection.


The morality genre was a favourite among the Dutch and Flemish playwrights. This is in sharp contrast to the English tradition. Only four English morality texts survive before the appearance of Everyman in the sixteenth century, three from East Anglia. The earliest one, The Pride of Life is a fragmentary play on the death of the King of the World found in a




mid-fourteenth-century account roll from the Priory of Holy Trinity, Dublin.64 The East Anglian plays are The Castle Perseveranse, Mankind and Wisdom.65 Many years ago, Professor David Bevington in an influential book called From Mankind to Marlows,66 argued that the morality genre as it changed from religious to educational and political themes during the sixteenth century was a major shaping influence on the great English drama of the end of that century. This argument has seemed less convincing, however, as the Records of Early English drama project has progressed. Only one positive external reference has so far been uncovered to plays in this genre in the provinces in East Redford in Nottinghamshire.67 But Bevington's argument remains a convincing one if we recognize the morality genre from the late fifteenth century onwards as essentially an imported one. If the history of the transmission of Everyman from the Low Countries in a printed edition is typical of the process,68 it is more than likely that printed texts of Dutch and Flemish plays followed the printing presses from the Low Countries to London, were translated for the English stage and became part of the metropolitan culture rather than that of the provinces.


Other major influences from the Low Countries were the great 'omnegange' - the processions of wagons, tableaux marching giants and other mythical and traditional characters. The Renaissance paintings of such events in Antwerp are familiar to the scholarly world. More particularly, however, a lesser known civic document, the town book of Leuven (or Louvain) surviving from the end of the sixteenth century69 has a lively series of water colour sketches that picture the entire procession in honour of the Virgin from the first marching militia, to the four orders of friars, to the cathedral clergy with the choir boys in attendance, to the pageants depicting the life of the Virgin, to St George and the dragon, to the city waits preceding the mayor and aldermen in their solemn black velvet as they march in honour of the town and the Virgin. Dogs and children dart in and out of the parade; the feet of the bearers of the giants peek out from under their skirts. In this series of pictures we have a late contemporary representation of the customs that existed in the Low Countries and much of England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was these shows that the English merchants saw on the continent and returned home to imitate.


Although very few English towns sponsored drama performed in procession as at York, many towns had local annual processions that contained special features that were repeated year after year. The procession on Corpus Christi Day from 1498 1569 in English-occupied Dublin contained, among Biblical tableaux, a dragon, a pageant of Arthur and his knights and another of the Nine Worthies.70 Hereford's procession included a St Katherine tableaux and the one at Norwich a grifEln.72


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Other similarly exotic beasts appear in the Ipswich Corpus Christi procession which boasted a dolphin and a bu11.73 Chester used pageant camels, dromedaries and other beasts in their Midsummer Show as well as giants.74 Norwich included a giant in their greeting of Queen Elizabeth (Woodville) in 1496.75 Both stationary and marching giants were an important part of London civic displays from the early fifteenth century.76 All of these have analogues in the 'ommegange' of the Low Countries.


     The Flemish wagons undoubtedly provided a model for the northern English pageant wagons but, as we are discovering wagon staging of true drama was unusual in England The last of the Leuven drawings depicts a play of St Katherine being performed on a booth stage made of boards and trestles set against the wall of the church in the town square. Stages built indoors or outdoors of boards and trestles or boards and barrels seem to have been much more common in England than wagon plays. For example, in the parish of St Laurence, Reading a stage was built against the wall of the Benedictine Abbey in an open space called the Forbury to) perform Old Testament plays in the early sixteenth century 77


     Historians of the English theatre can no longer neglect the plays and processions of the Low Countries as a major source of analogous material for study. The field has for too long been dominated by nineteenth century ideas of the importance of nations Our scholarly parents and grandparents lived in a world ruled by the cultures of England France and Germany. Belgium and Holland were the battlegrounds where the great


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powers settled, or failed to settle, their quarrels. The central importance of these states for the culture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England went unrecognized. Only now as texts and records on both sides of the ‘Middle Sea’ are being discovered, edited and reinterpreted is the true picture beginning to emerge.