The country merchant of this absorbing book was John Heritage, wool-broker (‘brogger’) and grazier of Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, one of those late medieval English yeomen who formed the link between local peasant producers and the great London merchants who shipped wool on to Flanders to be woven into some of the finest cloth that Europe produced.
A competitive business, wool-brogging involved constant travel. This was partly local, within a radius of eight miles of Moreton. It was here that Heritage would meet growers, inspect flocks, and secure fleeces on the futures market by advancing sums on trust, then paying in stages (though not always promptly) once the sheep had been sheared and the wool gathered. Heritage also journeyed between Gloucestershire and London. In the capital he collected tar, fish and even gunpowder to sell back home. His account book, 96 folios long and “grossly, obscurely and lewdly kept”, reveals his book-keeping methods as rather outdated and his memory fallible. Perhaps this is why his business was more profitable during the 1500–09 period than in the latter years of the story from 1510–20. After 1520, when Heritage was about 50, his book abruptly ends and he disappears from the records.
The known facts of Heritage’s life are interesting in themselves – a restless and acquisitive young man, an encloser prepared to push less fortunate neighbours off the land, on the one hand a pillar of the local community and on the other a man who bent the rules in the interests of personal profit.
Yet Christopher Dyer prefers to use his story as a peg on which to hang a picture of a changing society. The question of whether or not Heritage should be described as a capitalist is perhaps a bit forced (Dyer’s view is that he should), but the portrait presented here, of a society in which lordly authority had declined, labour was scarce due to the ongoing effects of plague and depopulation, and enterprising peasants and yeomen were continually pushing at the margins of their ‘station’, is a convincing one.
This is familiar territory for Dyer, who has devoted a lifetime to the study of the economy and society of late medieval England, especially the west Midlands. One of the many virtues of this book, apart from the clear and straightforward writing, is that he demonstrates in detail the steps by which a period of equilibrium of the years around 1500 was attained. Another is the solidity of his research: not just into the record sources (he says that Heritage’s account book took him eight years to transcribe, “slowly”, although the adverb seems redundant), but also into the physical shape of the late medieval townscape and landscape. This encompasses the houses and barns, streets and markets, heaths and pastures, fences, woods and villages (many deserted by now) with evocative names such as Compton Scorpion, Norton Sub Edge and Hanging Aston.
More than most historians, Dyer is able to conjure up a sense of what it must have felt like to be alive in the times about which he writes. His account of John Heritage and his world is both fascinating and valuable.
Chris Given-Wilson is professor of medieval history, University of St Andrews