BOOK REVIEW: The Medieval Account Books of the Mercers of London: An Edition and Translation (Lisa Jefferson)-Review by Nadia Van Pelt

Lisa Jefferson. The Medieval Account Books of the Mercers of London: An Edition and Translation. 2 vols. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. 1180 pp. £235,00. ISBN 9780754664048.

Lisa Jefferson’s edition and translation of the Account Books of the London Mercers is deserving of more attention than it has received since its publication in 2009, which is why it finds itself under review in this publication. Jefferson’s two comprehensive volumes, including the surviving accounts from 1344 to 1464, invite readers into the day-to-day world of one of London’s prominent livery companies. Volume 1 opens with an elaborate introduction in which Jefferson offers information about the manuscripts used, and editorial and translation methods. She also explores the financial accounting system employed by the Mercers, and the medieval vocabulary of accounting. The edition of the account books is presented as a facing-page format, including a transcription of the original text on the left, faced by a modern English translation on the right. Jefferson translates ‘mistere’, ‘mystere’ and ‘mistier del mercerye’ as ‘mistery’, as she explains that the word ‘company’ is anachronistic, and because of the necessity to distinguish the word from ‘compagnie’, which she understands to refer to ‘companions’ or ‘persons who belong to the ‘fellowship’’ (41) rather than to the organisation itself.

The businesslike manner in which the scribe refers to expenditures, receipts, debts, gifts, and alms, is only occasionally interrupted by a more personal note. For example, in 1407-8, he notes:

Md de fiebles dettes en le darrein acompt devant cest acompt escriptz [Memorandum about hopeless debts written into the account before this one] (208- 209).

Jefferson explains that ‘fieble’ here suggests that the debts are unlikely to ever be paid (209).

The accounts show that the mistery operated through a strictly organised hierarchy, in which Wardens were selected by the Wardens of the previous year, and Aldermen were sworn in before the Mayor of London, where they were given the jurisdictive power to ‘punish recalcitrants with punishments ordained by communal agreement among them’ (63). References to fines enable a reconstruction of the mistery rules and ordinances that members adhered to. For example, failing to be present at the annual Lord Mayor’s procession (167) could lead to a fine, just as did disobedience towards the wardens (385). Other offences were not attending a funeral, or neglecting to wear a gown when celebrating Mass (389). One William Gedge was fined for ‘speaking at St Thomas’s when we held our court there, and for not keeping silent when we banged our mallet in accordance with our ordinance’ (387), while John Knottys ‘was rebellious against the mistery’s ordinance’ (137), the particulars of this rebellion remain unknown. A substantial number of members infringed the ordinance that ruled that mistery members were prohibited from buying certain fabrics and goods from the Low Countries (385).

Fines aside, the records indicate expenditures for salaries, clothing, and feasts. It can be seen that the Mercers invested in festivities demonstrating the wealth and power of the city of London, including of course the chance of a platform for their own prestige and ceremonial status. The Mercers can be shown to have invested in barges for the king, the payment of musicians at the annual Lord Mayor’s processions (89), and such expenses on special occasions, such as can be seen from the payment to musicians at King Richard II’s return from Ireland in 1394 (97), and in the reference to extrinsic expenditure for ‘ale paid for the torch-bearers at the burial of Queen Katherine’ (509), who was the widow of Henry V, and had married Owen Tudor (505). Notably, the Mercers added financial to political gain, as they produced the livery for these large-scale events (129). On one instance, the Mercers were reimbursed ‘for the expenses on a mummers’ play performed for our lord the King this year – £6 13s. 4d.’ (111). They were also recorded to ‘have received from profit on the collection made for the mummers’ play for the King at Eltham, over and above all costs – 35 s. 4d.’ (155).

Jefferson’s volumes are a treasure-trove of nuggets of information, some of it leaving the reader with a wish to know more about a particular event or person than a two-lined description in the accounts, such as the single reference to a woman having been listed as admitted to the company:

Fynez: Alis Bridenelle, the doughter of Thomas Picot, þe sone of John Picot, the sone of Nicholas Picot, sumtyme mercer of London, for a fyn to make her free – xx s. [Fees: Alice Bridenelle, the daughter of Thomas Picot, the son of John Picot, the son of Nicholas Picot, sometime mercer of London, for a fee to make her free – 20s]. (384-385).

Was she a widow? What was her involvement with the mistery before she was ‘made free’ to join? What was her social position within the collective as sole woman member? Jefferson’s edition evokes questions, and enables scholars and students to understand the London world of fabrics and costume-making with an incredible amount of detail. A great starting point for anyone interested in the internal organisation of medieval London’s commercial world.


Nadia T. van Pelt is a lecturer of English Language and Literature at the University of Leiden. She was awarded her PhD at the University of Southampton in 2014. Her forthcoming monograph is under contract with Routledge. She is also editing a collection of essays with Dr Clare Egan, titled Meanings of Time and Self in Early Modern Europe.