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A Fifteenth-Century Merchant family

A solid middle-class clan who exported English wool to foreign markets, the Celys have left behind them a graphic record of their private affairs and shrewd commercial dealings, as Alison Hanham here finds.

The records of domestic life in the fifteenth century immediately call to mind the Paston Letters; but there is another collection from the same period that is in some ways more significant: the Cely Papers. Where the Pastons had aristocratic pretensions, the Celys were first and foremost wool merchants, belonging solidly to the rising class of the bourgeoisie. Their letters lack the sophistication of the Pastons, and are less amusing to read, but their matter-of-factness may perhaps make the writers more real to us. The Pastons, with their attainders and sieges, their cruelty to their children, and the general violence of life in Norfolk, seem more remote and more frightening than the Celys, whose troubles are concerned with selling their wool on the Continent at a time of civil war in Flanders, and with such details as a man who claimed their wool-store and threw dung over its contents. They seem to have been persecuted to some extent by the local gentry, for rather mysterious reasons, but they usually bought themselves off. They were careful not to meddle in domestic politics: any “hot” news was strictly for verbal communication. “W. Cely can tell you more than I dare write,” says a correspondent in 1487.1

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