Thursday, 4 July 2013

Chaucer on Thames Street

View of Wool Wharf from the Tower
I've chosen the Paul Strohm lecture on Chaucer from the 'On the River' Summer School to write up first. There are a few immediate reasons: the talk wasn't about Chaucer's poetry; it involved the commercial aspect of the Thames; and the corruption amongst 14th century tax collectors felt very familiar. The scream of the Ricardian parliament for legislation! legislation! seems extremely modern and was just as effective.

As I proceeded to write this up, I started to question some of Strohm's assertions, some of his concluding remarks particularly confused me. However I hope that the summary of this lecture gives an insight into his ideas. He opened by stating that no one really mentions Chaucer's role as customs official, concentrating solely on his poetry. He says, and I agree, that people are missing quite a lot of interesting detail. Hence when Strohm stressed his interest in historical than literary Chaucer we were keen to hear what he had to say.

In 1374, in mid career, Chaucer took a new job as controller of customs on the Wool Wharf for the Port of London. Strohm described the circularity of his life. He had been born on Thames St on the Vintry, his father was a Guildsman and shipper of wheat. It was suggested that with some imagination the place of his childhood can still be visualised because the street plan of a city doesn't really change. Really? I would argue, having worked in that area for a year, that it's really not a pleasant part of the City and lacks any literary charm at all. A lot of imagination would be needed!

What would this well known, well connected, famous, courtly sophisticate  have made of this return to the locale of his family home? And certainly the skewered heads on the roof of his free, 'perk of the job' Aldgate rooms would have added a certain atmosphere. Using Wyngaerde's panorama c1554-57, his daily journey from Aldgate down through the city to the wharf is visible. As are the heads...
In the 18th century Matthew Hale described what a port required in his Portibus Maris. It needed:  
  • Natural access to the sea - the wide tidal Thames had been used since Roman times and was very well developed in Chaucer's time with quays, jetties and 'bridges'. Commercial activities can be seen in the street names. Wool Wharf was just down from the bridge and usage was in its zenith. From 1400 or so larger ships were using London less and less, going to Southampton and other developing ports. As an interesting aside, he described the regulations regarding shipping crew; the need to raise the appropriate ensign, the singing of the 'kyrial' and yet no singing upstream of London bridge. Furthermore, ships were only allowed to dock for a limited amount of time, whilst crew members had to remain within the city and encouraged to stay in the immediate environs. He said that London was quite xenophobic - again, really? 
  • Something artificial - purpose built administration and offices, warehouses etc. Chaucer's new offices for this role were moved from modest housing on Thames St which used to be on the river bank to better premises on reclaimed land. The offices with their five gables and two bays can be seen on Wyngard's map and has been confirmed by archaeology. Another image of it is quite extraordinary - from the late c15th an illumination shows a more idealised, glamorous view of the tower of London, looking west up river so you can see London bridge. Strohm argues that this was pictorial fairy dust, a public recognition of trade in royal and financial affairs, highlighting the importance of the wool trade and that it was the only trade
  • Something civil - associated duty and customs houses, trade associations and guilds. 
He then turned to the wool trade itself.

The Wool Trade

The real point of the lecture was to stress that the wool trade was a massive part of the economy; one third of total revenue was derived from wool. Other less  significant exports included lead, 'frippery', feathers, beds, wode, wax and fat. In his words, 'miscellaneous and modest'. And as with any major exports, it seems that everyone in the wool trade was crooked and on the make and there were rich profits to be had.

It seems odd that Chaucer didn't really comment on the short comings of the trade, however his contemporary John Gower did and he was very critical. The main protagonist in Strohm's story is Lord Mayor Nicholas Brembre. He was responsible for weighing, certifying and collecting duties but astonishingly this included collecting his own duties, where there was a huge conflict of interests. Not content with this he would also lend money. Chaucer was appointed - with Brembre's approval - as a controller who was supposed to prevent abuses. 

The role of controller was essentially that of state appointed auditor - he would keep accounts and ensure that everything tallied. The problem is that he was outgunned from the start; appointed in conjunction and connivance with the merchants it was a precarious situation. There has been a certain amount of criticism of Chaucer and academic debate as to whether he was a crony, co-conspirator or hapless dupe.

This post was no sinecure but a real post requiring attention. Given the amount of wool that was being processed at any time it was a lot of work and meticulous records were kept, as directed by the Exchequer. There were, Paul told us, 8-15 cargoes a month and names of ships, quantities, and tax were all recorded and sealed using the 'cocket' seal. Wiki explains that 'in old English law, a cocket was a custom house seal; or a certified document given to a shipper as a warrant that his goods have been duly entered and have paid duty'. However his central responsibility was keeping an eye on the collector, this greedy, belligerent yet important member of the  royal faction, Brembre.

We have to keep in mind the way he was appointed, the discrepancy in powers. Was he going to cause trouble with the powers that be? Not really. These controllers were usually scapegoats so he would have had little real to prevent any wrong doing. There was also the matter of the double sided seal-die which was divided so that two people would have to come together to seal a deal. In theory this medieval idea was supposed to prevent abuses and used to ensure equality and agreement of parties. However in reality for Chaucer, this was subverted as the Lord Mayor held all of the seals most of the time

So the big question was he necessarily supine in office? Did he have his hand in the till? Strohm maintains that the evidence suggests not. Chaucer didn't leave office a wealthy man, in fact he was flat broke, in debt to John Churchman, who had provided a lot of the finance to build the new warehouses, office and wharf. The opportunity for him to have skimmed off percentage would have been there, however the only beneficiary seems to have been Brembre. Strohm concludes that Chaucer was not a criminal, nor a reformer; not a fun loving naif, he would have needed wiles to negotiate the faction ridden court; not merely a naif collector of taxes but a man who kept his head down; simply a knowing enabler for a deeply unpopular Lord Mayor.

The end of Chaucer's official tax career was signalled on Oct 1 1386, in the session of parliament which was known as the 'Wonderful Parliament'. A resolution was passed saying that these controllers of customs posts were not for life. As a result, Chaucer resigned his post and removed from his apartment. This left him with no job, no home and no immediate prospects. Now this is where a lot of material I have look at seems to disagree with Strohm. He suggested that only a handful of people knew him as a writer, despite much of his poetry being created during this time and concluded that for the next three years he wandered around Europe... I am no Chaucer scholar but a simple checking of the timeline shows no sign of the wandering and he was actually still in relative favour with Richard and then Edward.

Please feel free to explain this to me! There is a podcast of this lecturer at 

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