The Haberdasher

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The Haberdasher

The “orphan pilgrims” of the Canterbury Tales appear to be quite interesting with their “geere apiked (365).” A snapshot of the guildsmen determines that the men were wealthy, apart of some type of brotherhood, and had wives that were socially upstanding. Now an argument arises when trying to decide whether or not the craftsmen were actually in a guild or not. Evidence supports my view that, not only were they in a guild, but it was legitimate, exclusive, and included only those with similar occupations.

A haberdasher was amongst the fraternity Chaucer mentions. During the medieval times, this hat maker was probably using a cloth called chaperon to make hats. Both men and women wore these types of hats; beaver hats became popular. Women also wore veils on their head to hide their hair (Britannica). At this point in history, there were no legal contracts. This became a problem when the townspeople needed credit to buy items and the craftsmen needed raw materials. The main solution was for the craftsmen to join guilds in an effort to boost their reputation.

“The ‘solempne’ and ‘greet fraternitee’ in whose livery Chaucer dressed the five Burgesses in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales was probably a craft fraternity (McCutchan 313).” Guilds were very important forces in the fourteenth century. A haberdasher or any craftsman would join “for personal establishment” and membership also was “the most frequently employed means of claiming such status in local society (Rosser 10).” The fraternities served as a form of kinship and inclusion amongst peers.

The fictional kinship of a fraternity lent a moral force to the
declarations of mutual respect sworn between the ‘brothers’ and
‘sisters’. These declarations reinforced high standards of sobriety
and Christian charity imposed by fraternity statutes upon all
members: ideal qualities which helped to provide a basis for
collaboration in the complex environment of work in the medieval
town (Rosser 10).

Craft fraternities got most of its members from the mistery. Brotherhoods were formed if a fraternity became associated with a particular trade or simply if a few people gathered for regular meetings, paid dues, and thought it necessary to establish such a guild (McCutchan 314). As stated earlier, these guilds were exclusive and usually only accepted members that were of the same trade. However, exceptions were sometimes made.

“Through a process known as Redemption, members of other crafts could attain the livery of the Drapers’ Fraternity without having served an apprenticeship (McCutchan 314).” Only the powerhouses of the craft fraternity arena extended honorary memberships. Such provisions were made to offer prominent citizens of a different trade an opportunity to take part in a profitable business arrangement.

So it was that a fraternity member took the position seriously. “The concern to keep up the moral standing of the membership was reciprocal (Rosser 10).” Each member was required to sustain a certain level of respectability to keep work. This included paying the designated dues on time and observing the rules of the guild. In return, members received a positive reputation in the community as well as aid in time of need. “Practical aid might include cash handouts during periods of ill health or unemployment, financial loans at low interest, or legal aid in work-related disputes (Rosser 10-11).”

There is a possibility that the haberdasher and his comrades were not apart of a real fraternity at all. According to the royal charter, each guildsman was supposed to be their own communitas or craft (Harwood 413). If they were apart of a fraternity together, it may have been a religious one where they had honorary membership. The guildsmen would have joined a religious fraternity for advancement within community, since their primary craft fraternity was not prestigious. Obviously, the haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer, and rug weaver thought highly of themselves, so much so that they were eligible for political office.

Wel semed ech of hem a fair burgeys
To sitten in a yeldehalle on a deys.
Everich, for the wisdom that he kan
Was shaply for to been an alderman (369-372).

However, Chaucer’s guildsmen were from a lesser company. Greater companies had “a long tradition of self-regulation as well as a charter from the king (Harwood 414).” Neither of the companies in the General Prologue were “among the thirteen chief mysteries summoned in 1351 to elect the Common Council (Harwood 414).” Nine of the 260 elected aldermen were from lesser companies in the fourteenth century. This means that even though the haberdasher may have been well off, it still wasn’t likely that he or his fraternity brothers would have become and alderman. So, the men went through the process of joining a fraternity under honorary membership to get connections with the merchant class who controlled the politics in London.

There were three fraternities that accepted honorary members, the lower stratum of skinners, the liverymen or upper stratum of skinners, and the tailors’ fraternity. The lower stratum of skinners which were dedicated to “the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption,” would not have benefitted the men much. This particular fraternity was already comprised of those from lesser companies. The liverymen were dedicated to the feast of Corpus Christi. It was, however, exclusive and only a small number of the members came from lesser companies.

The tailors’ fraternity of St. John the Baptist was the only one that was readily open to burgesses. Due to fact that this fraternity had partnerships with hospitals and monasteries, King Richard II allowed it to admit anyone they wanted, regardless of the craft (Harwood 416). “To share in the fraternity’s spiritual benefits, persons who were not tailors paid a substantial entry fee. Tradesmen among the new honorary members were paying no less than twenty shillings, as if they were young tailors joining the company as regular members (Harwood 416).” Being members of this tailor fraternity meant contact with the merchant class as well as a certain type of dress.

The clothing would probably have added a bit of bright
colour to the line of pilgrims; for in 1568, at any rate, the
hood will vary between scarlet and pink and scarlet and
crimson. This livery would have placed the five in a highly
visible religious organization. And the livery would have
linked them with one of those great companies in whose
control the Court of Aldermen remained (Harwood 416-416).”

Now it may also be the case that Chaucer’s guildsmen were part of a higher order guild. Many things happened during the fourteenth century and guilds “tended to alter and to adapt themselves as economic conditions demanded (Kirby 504).” Clothing became the main determinant for these alterations.

Originally the livery was assumed in order to stimulate the
feeling of brotherhood and solidarity among the craftsmen,
and with no intention of creating class distinctions. . . .
Gradually, however, a distinction began to emerge betwee
those who wore the livery, and those whose poverty excluded
them from the ranks of the privileged body (Kirby 504).

Chaucer specifically mentions the dress of the men and their personal cook, to reveal their status and hint at the fact that they may have been a group of men who formed a clique within a guild.

Perhaps the haberdasher was not apart of any type of fraternity at all. Maybe Chaucer just grouped these men together because they were wealthy and had similar occupations. This may have been a possibility if it was not for the content of Chaucer’s work. Repeatedly he makes reference to and illustrates situations that were characteristic of the fourteenth century society of London. As any good author, he presents the reader with a glimpse of what it was like in the medieval times. Apparently, guilds were a controlling force of the city especially within the political arena. Even though Chaucer’s orphaned the men, he did just enough to suggest that the reader research to find more information on medieval guilds.

The haberdasher would have meshed well with the other pilgrims. Due to his membership in a prestigious guild, his reputation and respect would have been commanded and expected. I would even go so far as to say that other than the knight there was no greater community or political force than those members of the guilds. Being a part of a society strengthened each one of them, especially professionally. Now, because of the fact that they are all men, Chaucer may have picked up on the issue of masculinity. However, the haberdasher would have also been a witty character. One that worked well with people and their preferences. He was a risk taker in that he did what it took to become successful. His General Prologue portrait would have gone like this:

There was a haberdasher of great skill
Who was twice a member of a guild.
Both to benefit himself
And guarantee his earthly wealth.
He dressed the part in the community
Decked out in all of his livery.
Silks, laces, and velvets had he
And hats to match, for that was key.

His shoes were of the finest leather.
Built well, they didn’t fray in weather.
His purse weighed his buckle down
As he was the best haberdasher in town.
His customers thanked him graciously
With all things silver and monetary.
They gathered in his shop sometimes
Often just to past the time.
And listen to the stories he had
For some had moral and some were sad.
Some gory, some happy, none did they forget,
But they all had a touch of his wit.

A wife he had youthful of age.
Respected she was on the stage
Of the community. And envied she was
Amongst the women because
She was spoiled with idleness
And clothed in only the sharpest dress.

The two had a child old enough
To prentice his father making hats and stuff.
Yet the child was not interested
In the possibility of craft kindred.
Exactly what, he didn’t know that
Only that he did not want to make a hat.
And so there was tension
As I will later mention.
The tension was with his father
Who loved the hat slaughter.
They could not at all agree,
But they remained family.

Heere bigynneth the Haberdasshere’s Tale

There was once a young man, who was an apprentice to a carpenter with a shop on Carrier Street of the Seven Dials in London, named Marcus Sapiens. He was a jolly young man and was admired for the skill he possessed at such a tender age. Sapiens also happened to be a trendy dresser, which fact impressed the ladies. He was friendly with the other craftsmen of his boss’s guild and so, since he was admired, they spared cloth from carpet weaving, clothes and hats to create outfits for the young gentleman occasionally. It is at this moment that the host must momentarily digress. Usually it was the case that the craftsmen rendered gifts unto Sapiens. However, it has also occurred that Sapiens took clothes at his own liberty; and not necessarily for the women, but to show his promise as a future man of wealth amongst the city. Now we return the portrait of the young talented Sapiens. So it was that one day while he sat with customers who were admiring his craftsmanship of a new bookcase, he posed a question. “Of the cities of our country England, which do you think the greatest?”

Some said Stratford-upon-Avon, and some London, and others Oxford, and some said this and some that, all bewildered and amused (Boccaccio 321). At this response, Sapiens also was filled with laughter.

“You are sick in the head, you ignorant fools, you are wrong as two left feet. The oldest and greatest city, in all of England and even the world is Monmouth. Men of the highest intelligence and education are aware of this fact. Any person who has ever stepped foot in the city realizes this.”

When the customers bore witness to this declaration, they were all bent over with laughter as they were surprised at Sapiens’s remarks.

“You must be out of your mind. We have been to Monmouth.”

“I am of sound mind and body you imbeciles. I’ll bet anyone a week’s worth of wages.”

The men agreed and took their situation to the judge Laudamus. Laudamus was not considered a biased man, so he was the most fair in the city. The customers followed Sapiens to Laudamus so they could see this fool embarrassed in the presence of the judge. After a few blocks of travel, they reached Laudamus and the customers explained.

“How did you reach the conclusion that Monmouth was the greatest city?”

“What do you mean how?”

“I’ll make a valid argument. The older cities are the most revered and respected. They are the ones with the most world wonders and such. Monmouth is the oldest city there is and therefore the greatest. If I prove that it is the oldest city than you all owe me a week’s wages. God created Monmouth before he had a chance to perfect his skill; everything else was made after he had become the master of creation. Let me explain to you by comparing Monmouth to other cities.

Monmouth is small because God was experimenting and did not to create something of great magnitude if it was incorrect. The street in Monmouth is not paved because those materials were not yet available and there’s only one road so that the simple people he placed there would not be confused. He allowed only a few people to live there as he was still a rookie as I said. So you see, Monmouth must have been the first city that God created and consequently, the greatest in the world.”

After listening to Sapiens’s argument, Laudamus the judge and the customers began laughing because they knew these things were true. They agreed that Monmouth must then be the greatest city in England and the world; they each gave Sapiens’s a week’s wages. He used the money to buy more clothes to impress the ladies, but still didn’t give up the gifts that the craftsmen gave or the occasional clothing item that he stole.

Heere endeth the Tale of the Haberdasshere

It would have been interesting to see Chaucer’s genius operate in regards to the “orphan pilgrims.” He would have used fabliau, to exploit and embarrass the British government and its relationship with guilds. The haberdasher and his companions were the Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Tommy Hilfiger, and Dolce and Gabbana of today’s society. Although these persons are well known for their craft and creativity, they are not necessarily powerful enough to obtain an elected political office. However, they are highly revered respected in the community and part of that is because of the product that they make. Clothing is a symbol for status, a political statement, and a first impression.

Works Cited

Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Garden City: Garden City Publishing Company, 1930.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.

Harwood, Britton J. “The ‘Fraternitee’ of Chaucer’s Guildsmen.” The Review of English Studies 39.155 (1988): 413-417.

“Hat.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 13 Nov 2003

Kirby, Thomas A. “The Haberdasher and his Companions.” Modern Language Notes 53.7 (1938): 504-505.

Rosser, Gervase. “Crafts, Guilds and the Negotiations of Work in the Medieval Town.” Past and Present 154 (1997): 3-31.

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"The Haberdasher." 08 Feb 2016

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