English Medieval Industries

A.R. Hilton | Published in History Today
  • English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products
    Edited by John Blair and Nigel Ramsay - Hambledon Press, 1991 - xxxiv + 446pp. - £45

This is a handsome and well produced book to which specialists in the history of the manufacture of fifteen craft products have contributed. For the most part, the descriptions of the production process start with the raw materials from which the products were made. These are: stone; alabaster; Purbeck marble; tin, lead and pewter; copper; gold and silver; bone; wood. A few concentrate primarily on the finished product, such as brick, glass, textiles, pottery and tiles. The focus is, to a considerable extent, on techniques, though geographical distribution, consumer demand and other matters, such as gild organisation are by no means neglected. Nigel Ramsay's introduction provides a useful, indeed necessary, generalising background.

It is unfortunate that he concentrates almost entirely on London for evidence of gild activity. This may be responsible for the neglect of a very important aspect of the activity of gilds, namely, that of performing a policing role on behalf of urban rulers. This was much more important in provincial towns than in the capital. It is not enough simply to present gilds as representing the interests of the craftsmen. Another theme which is lacking in some of the contributions is that of the organisation of craft masters, journeymen and apprentices within the workshop or other locations of manufacture. Some contributions do give good information about the organisation of the labour force within the artisan workshop. For example, Richard Marks' contribution to 'Window Glass' is very useful on this point, as well as on the commissioning of work by employers or patrons.

However, given the emphasis on techniques and on the finished product, it is perhaps to be expected that the organisation of the labour force should not be much explored. It should also be accepted that the documentation for the manufacture of many of the products concerned is too scanty to allow speculation about the human side of the units of production. Some crafts are much better documented than others, as is demonstrated by Ronald Homer in his section on tin, lead and pewter, and Nicholas Moore on brick. And as one would expect, the well documented medieval textile industry has enabled Penelope Walton to produce a very broad survey of textile production at all stages, from various raw materials to the dyed and finished product, not to speak of its geographical distribution and marketing. Here, too, the organisation of labour in the workshop is hardly dealt with.

One of the attractions of the book, in addition to the very useful studies of craft techniques, is the large number of illustrations distributed among the various sections some 200 in all. Most of these are reproductions of medieval images from manuscripts and other media. They notably enhance the attraction, not to say the utility of the volume. Our understanding of the descriptions of craft processes is much improved by the reproduction of contemporary paintings and drawings, as well as by photographs of surviving products not to speak of the aesthetic pleasure which many of them give.

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