Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling: Mercantile Authority, Margaret Paston, and Margery Kempe

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In 1388, the twelfth year of the reign of Richard II, England's second Parliament of the year convened in Cambridge for thirty-nine days. Apart from passing sixteen acts, Parliament ordered that two writs should be sent to every sheriff in the land: the first called upon the masters of guilds and brotherhoods to send to the King a "Return" detailing the origins, holdings, and regulations of their guilds; the second called upon the masters of all mysteries and crafts to do the same. The writs were distributed by November 1, 1388, and guilds and masters worked throughout the winter to compile their Returns to be presented to the King in council in 1389. Today, "there are still extant the official Returns of more than five hundred of the brotherhoods which once were scattered all over the land, enough to teach us the characteristics, purposes, and value of these institutions" (Smith 25). One such Return survives from the Fullers' guild of Lincoln. Fullers were responsible for working raw and stiff cloth until it was supple enough to be used in making garments and other products. Like many guilds of the time, the Fullers contained members from related clothing trades, making it neither wholly social nor craft, (1) and like most guilds of the time, it contained both male and female members. But remarkable in this Return is the focus it gives to a gendered aspect of the craft's mystery, or practices: "Item providetur inter eos quod nullus eorum laborat in alvo. Et quod nullus ejusdem officii ad perticam cum muliere laboret, nisi cum uxore magistri vel ancilla sua commensali" ("None of the craft shah work [i.e., full cloth by treading it with the feet] in the trough; and none shall work at the wooden bar with a woman, unless with the wife of the master or her handmaid"; Smith 180).

The level of detail in this case is exceptional among guild ordinances. Since most were created as documents for monarchical control, their stipulations tended toward the mundane and focused primarily upon the economic duties of the guild's constituency (amount of dues, feast/holy days, funereal obligations, etc.). Rarely does the ordinance comment on the operations or mystery of the craft. Such comments are then often reserved for activities that affect the local populace or government, as in cases when the craft must make use of the city's water supply. Smith, glossing the Fullers' practice of walking on the newly made cloth in a pit or beating it with a bar or pole in order to soften it, comments, "But why is he not to work at the bar (to strike the cloth) in company with an ordinary woman, while he may do so with the master's wife or her handmaid?" That question is central to understanding the role of women within the guilds and their own sense of female mercantile community, for it may represent an instance of gender trouble, as Judith Butler phrases it, in a document designed to institutionalize the guild's authority. There appears some degree of consternation over the need, and ability, to constitute categories of merchant activity that seek to keep women "in their place": the trough or the bar.

Some sixteen years after the Lincoln Fullers' guild Return of 1388, the London Fullers' guild seemed to take a stand on the appropriate method of fulling cloth, and this mandate is also marginally gendered; the guild complains: "fulling at mills and by foot, is false work, and reprovable, and deceitful, because the said work cannot be properly fulled except by handfulling only and in no other manner ... no work of the said trade shall be fulled in mills or by the feet, but only by the hands of men" (Riley, Memorials 559). This petition of 1404 addresses at least part of the question posed by the earlier Lincoln Return. Fulling "by foot" produces, according to the guild members, inferior products--and quality assurance was certainly one of the expressed reasons for the previous Writ for Returns from the Guilds of Crafts of 1389--and the only appropriate method was to full by hand, and by the hands of men, at that. …