Historical context

brokage book SC5/5/29 1492-93
Showing detail inside front cover

England’s overseas trade in the later middle ages is well known through the classic studies of Power and Postan (1933). Carus-Wilson and Coleman (1963), Hatcher (1996), and Ruddock on Southampton (1951), all of which are based on England's excellent customs records. Internal trade wholesale and retail was no less extensive (Chartres 1977; Everitt 1967; Willan 1976), yet the sources for study have been generally lacking. Markets and marketing have been studied (Everitt 1967; Farmer 1991; Kowaleski 1995; Letters 2003). Medievalists have done their best using records of consumption by particular instititutions such as Durham Priory and Winchester College (Threlfall-Holmes 2005 and Harwood 2008) or Cambridge colleges (2005). Before the creation of the excise in 1643, England had little systematic indirect taxation, few internal tolls and customs, and hence no national statistical data relating to internal trade. Indeed there are only four systematic series of data: the Cornish haveners’ accounts (Kowaleski 2001) ;the Newcastle chamberlains’ accounts for only 1508-11 (Fraser 1987); the Chepstow customs for only 1535-6 (Dimmock2004); and the brokage books of Southampton 1430-1540, which survive both in remarkable detail and as a series over a whole century.

Southampton 1430-1540 had county status, the castle, walls, and friary of a great city, but a modest population of little more than two thousand people. It was however a busy international port, hosting both numerous local vessels engaged in England’s coastal traffic and carracks, galleys and ships engaged in trade overseas. What made Southampton of particular importance was its Italian trade, as Venetian galleys and Genoese carracks unladed oriental spices and Mediterranean products. English wool and cloths were conveyed from areas of production to Southampton by cart and exchanged for alum, dyestuffs and other raw materials of the cloth industry and luxury goods mainly for the London market. Southampton’s principal trading partners were the three towns of Romsey, Salisbury and Winchester nearby, the city of London, and scores of towns and villages, some small and local, but including for instance the cities of Bristol and Coventry, the towns of Kendal and Newbury. Southampton’s trading hinterland comprised central southern England and the southern Midlands.

Much more can be known about Southampton’s internal trade (and hence, by extension, that of England as a whole) because traffic overland had to pass through Southampton’s northern gate (the Bargate) where the town broker levied tolls and dues. Several dues were collected, so that even Southampton citizens could not wholly escape, and rates varied with the quantities, commodities, and distance travelled. From 1430 (and perhaps no earlier) the broker recorded all such traffic in detail in his brokage books, which remained accurate records for more than a century rather than becoming fossilised (like most tax records) or fictitious. Through the brokage books the overland trade of Southampton with its region can be illuminated for a whole century. It is the best source for inland trade in the era before the excise.

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