Daily Archives: July 14, 2016

Taken aback, a long way back

I remember teaching Chaucer and explaining why the Merchant in the General Prologue, lines 278-279, provided a precise dating:

He wold the see were kept for any thyng
Betwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle.


The Staple was (and already I’m questioning my use of tense there) a taxation device. All English wool sold across the Channel had to pass through an English trading company: the Merchants of the Staple. In 1363 just 26 English merchants, located in Calais, had the monopoly of all English wool sales. The Staple shifted around, depending on political conditions in the Low Countries. Between 1384 and 1388, it was located in Middleburg on the island of Walcheren. So, that gives us a definitive reference and dating.

Come to think of it, like the Merchant, we are still in the thorny post-#Brexit business of keeping the route open,  for any thing and at any price, between Ipswich (though the port of Harwich is more contemporary) and the Continent.

I had assumed the Staple was something of and for the history (and, in my case, literary history) books. Then, today, at the Great Yorkshire Show I was confronted with:


The Lady in my Life accosted a worthy, and was told, yes, indeed it was a survival. I looked it up:

The Company of Merchants of the Staple is one of the oldest mercantile corporations in England.

It is rare, possibly unique, in being ‘of England‘ and not bounded by any city or municipality. It may trace its ancestry back as far as 1282 or even further. A group of 26 wool merchants apparently first started the Company. The Dukes of Burgundy and Counts of Flanders granted it charters. The Merchants were in Bruges in 1282, Dordrecht in 1285, Antwerp in 1296 and St Omer in 1313. The Company controlled the export of wool to the continent from 1314. The Duke of Flanders awarded a grant to the English Merchants in 1341.

The Company’s commercial significance in the 14-16th centuries was in the control of the export of wool to the continent of Europe through Calais and later Bruges.

Today the Company runs a growing charitable trust with scholarships and projects in the wool, textiles and agricultural sectors, as well as university student travel bursaries.

The Staple company has over 120 Freemen who meet and dine in Yorkshire and London. It is governed by its Court of Assistants; the Mayor serves for one year from the Michaelmas Court meeting in October.

Watching the sheep-shearing demonstration I heard the term “staple” used again, to define the length of the clipped wool. Sure enough, Oxford English Dictionary: staple, n.3:

The fibre of any particular variety or sample of wool (in later use also of cotton, flax, or other material for textile processes) considered with regard to its length and fineness; a particular length and degree of fineness in the fibre of wool, cotton, etc.

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