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Latin in Medieval Britain$

Richard Ashdowne and Carolinne White

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266083

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266083.001.0001

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From Chronicles to Customs Accounts: The Uses of Latin in the Long 14th Century

From Chronicles to Customs Accounts: The Uses of Latin in the Long 14th Century

(p.85) 4 From Chronicles to Customs Accounts: The Uses of Latin in the Long 14th Century
Latin in Medieval Britain

Wendy R. Childs

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The 14th century continued to see a predominantly trilingual society in England, with a number of vernaculars used alongside English, French, and Latin. Latin was the most widely written language and its use in the church, scholarship, and administration provides an immense range of Latin sources for the medievalist, from the highly literary to the practical. This chapter focuses on chronicles and customs accounts for shipping. The chroniclers consciously used classical styles, vocabulary, and quotations, while nonetheless incorporating the changes inevitably occurring in a living language. The customs collectors used plain, often formulaic, Latin and introduced vernaculars, but always within an accurate Latin matrix. Together they illustrate the range of content, style, and vocabulary found in 14th-century Latin sources.

Keywords:   chronicles, customs accounts, Latin, shipping, vernaculars

1. England Trilingual

IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT ENGLAND IN THE 14th century was trilingual in English, French, and Latin, but it was more than that. In the southwest, Cornish was still a living language; in the territories of England’s conquests, Welsh and Irish Gaelic was needed; in England’s remaining possessions in Aquitaine, Gascon-French was the working language. Nonetheless, at the core of English life the most frequently used languages were English, French, and Latin. It is also well known that there was not a simple hierarchy between the three, but rather a complex relationship according to function and register and time. There was also considerable variety in purpose and style within each language. However, with many appropriate qualifications, we can say broadly that English was the everyday language, French was the courtly language, and Latin was the learned language.

English, with all its varying dialects, was above all the language that every-one understood. It was accepted as the language for mass communication. It was used for proclamations and sermons (although these might be reported in Latin), for oral legal pleading from 1362 (although writs, records, and reports remained in French or Latin as appropriate), and it was also the language of protest, whether the sermons and letters of John Ball in 1381 or Lollard treatises of the late 14th and early 15th centuries (Muessig 2002: 78–9; Ormrod 2003: 755–8; Strohm 2006: 459–66). At the beginning of the 14th century relatively little, either for literary or for administrative purposes, was written in English, but at its end the use of English was significantly extended when Chaucer, Hoccleve, and Gower chose it as an appropriate language for their writings.

French was still the dominant social language for upper ranks, and still naturally spoken at court in the reign of Richard II. It was thus the main (p.86) language of leisure and entertainment, used for romances, poetry, instruction in jousting, etiquette, chess, animal husbandry and for some popular secular chronicles, such as the French Prose Brut and the chronicles of Jehan Froissart. French was also used in the law courts and in central government for internal material, such as royal letters and chancery warrants (Ormrod 2003: 753, 774–5). It was also used in many town records and trade contracts,1 and Gilbert Maghfield, London ironmonger, kept his debt book for 1390–7 in French (Rickert 1926; James 1956). The French used in England varied considerably in style. That used by the law courts was a development from Norman French of the 11th century, but courtly French was steadily modernised by royal and aristocratic marriages. By Chaucer’s time, Paris French clearly had social caché, and those who failed to learn it were a source of amusement, as was his Prioress, whose French was ‘after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe’ (Chaucer CT prol. ll. 125–6).

Latin, however, used in the church, the universities, and administration remained the dominant written language in the 14th century and beyond, alongside the increasing use of vernaculars. Latin had been a handy bridge between Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon churchmen (and continued to be a useful bridge in international diplomacy). It was the language of educated, literate, civilised men (and some women) whose learning was infused with Latin writings of the past, both the writings of classical Rome and those of the Christian Church. So strongly was it felt to be the most suitable language for serious study that some works originally written in the vernacular were translated into Latin (Gransden 1982: 73). This probably explains why Thomas Walsingham (or his scribe), when recording the English shouts at Hotspur’s rebellion in 1403 (which all his readers must surely have under-stood), thought it necessary to translate ‘Henry Percy Kyng’ for his Latin chronicle: quod sonat Henricus Percy Rex (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. ii. 370). But writing of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, he left in English both John Ball’s sermon theme, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman’, and his subversive letter. He also left in English the declarations by Richard II, Henry IV, and William Thirning during the process of Richard’s deposition in 1399.2

The use of Latin spread far beyond the educated elite. Everyone heard Latin in church, even if the lowliest did not understand much. And, because literate churchmen dominated administration, it became the language of government (ecclesiastical, royal, and aristocratic). Then, as these administrations (p.87) became more complex and the use of written records grew, so increasing numbers of local officials had to keep, read, and reply to documents in Latin. These were Malcolm Parkes’s ‘pragmatic readers’ (Parkes 1973: 555–60).3 Reading and writing Latin were not just occasional events in their lives: the sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in seventeen months in 1333–4 received around 2000 writs requiring action, often entailing further written instructions and queries pushed downwards to the bailiffs of the hundreds. This was alongside all the sheriff’s other judicial and financial business (Jenkinson and Mills 1928: 24–7). Thus Latin became for certain groups across the country an everyday language as well as a highly cultured one. Like English and French it had its varieties (Mantello and Rigg 1996: 137ff), which were also reflected in its many scripts, ranging from the most formal book hands to cursive hands discernibly different in Chancery and Exchequer scripts (Parkes 1979: xiii–xxv).

Some readers could deal adequately in all three of these main languages, even more in two out of three. For some purposes they might use them interchangeably, and certain Latin tags might be used without the user being entirely sure of what they meant, just as nem. con., quid pro quo, caveat emptor might be used now with little grasp of Latin. General literacy levels are still debateable, but it seems to be well recognised that literacy was not unusual among some of the peasantry by the 14th century (Clanchy 1979: 182–201; Parkes 1973: 559–60), and Sylvia Thrupp’s (1948: 156–8) figures for 15th-century London men are still widely used. She estimated that 40 per cent of ordinary lay male Londoners (excluding the professional scriveners and lawyers) could read Latin and probably 50 per cent could read French and English. Their education started in elementary schools, leading to grammar schools for a few. For those not destined for higher education, some unlicensed schoolmasters taught Latin outside grammar schools, and education also took place in families and through apprenticeships, to reach levels sufficient for commerce and for the inevitable contacts with government administration and the law.

2. The Range of Latin Materials

Because of its wide use, the range of material written in Latin in this period is massive. Sometimes in fine copies and sometimes in highly abbreviated working copies, the medievalist has, for example, erudite works on theology and philosophy, encyclopaedias, legal, scientific, and medical treatises, Bibles, (p.88) prayer books and volumes of sermons, poetry, history, and travel books to help understand intellectual life. Beyond the literary works there survive treaties, charters, writs, regulations, law-suits, coroners’ rolls, wills, inventories, letters, accounts, and many other documents from which to approach political, commercial, and everyday life. The list could be endless. But a closer examination of two sources, chronicles and customs accounts, will illustrate the range of material available and the varieties of Latin used within it. Chronicles are highly literate works: their narratives come with a strong literary past, literary conventions, and a rich literary vocabulary. Customs accounts illustrate government literacy, with set formulae, a more limited Latin vocabulary, and much greater use of vernacular vocabulary, but always within a Latin matrix.

2.1 The chronicles

Writing history was a serious business in the Middle Ages. Few writers followed William of Malmesbury in his critical analysis of past writing, but all saw their duty as recording their present to provide history for posterity. They wrote so that the great events and great men of their own time were not forgotten and were accurately recorded to instruct readers on God’s purpose (Given-Wilson 2004: 1–20). Not all history met the highest standards: contemporaries criticised Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fantastical Historia Regum Britannie. Not all was in Latin: chivalric and urban chronicles were written in French (Gransden 1982: 3, 59–60; Given-Wilson 2004: 138–41). And chronicle writing was steadily moving away from the monasteries: secular clerks (John of Salisbury and Roger Howden) had already made their marks in the 12th century and by the 14th increasing numbers of secular clerks (the canons of St Pauls, Adam Murimuth, Geoffrey Le Baker), friars (Nicholas Trivet), and even laymen (Andrew Horn as author of the Annales Londonienses) joined in. The majority of chronicles written in the 14th century, however, were still written in Latin and church led.

These chronicles remain important to historians. They were the mainstay of historical writing until archival research in the 19th and 20th centuries opened up new research areas in economic and social history that were impossible to investigate through chronicles alone. This record material also added immense depth to political history and for a time chronicles were sidelined as biased and uninformed, but in truth we need both. Chronicles offer insights, attitudes, details, and local information that never made it into the records; and a close comparison of chronicles and records show that many chroniclers were in fact well informed about central affairs. In 1936, Professor Tout acknowledged that ‘in re-reading even the best known chronicles in the light (p.89) of the study of records, many passages that hitherto had suggested very little become full of meaning’ (Tout 1936: 4).

The two chronicles examined here are the anonymous Vita Edwardi secundi and the Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham. Both have immense value to historians, although their authors differ in background, scale, and intent. The anonymous author of the Vita was a ‘modern’ author, not a monk but a secular clerk, learned in the law and very close to the court.4 The Vita’s importance has been long acknowledged and it has been edited once a century since 1730 (V. Ed. II lviii). Thomas Walsingham was a traditional chronicler, a monk at the Benedictine abbey of St Albans, who consciously wrote in the tradition of Matthew Paris his great 13th-century predecessor at the abbey.5 In scale, the Vita is relatively short, covering eighteen years (1307–25) of Edward II’s twenty-year reign and focussed sharply on Edward II and his court. Walsingham’s Chronica maiora sprawls in comparison. Not only does its contemporary section cover forty-six years (1377–1422), but it is more expansive; year for year it is over three times as long as the Vita. Moreover, Walsingham intended his chronicle to be a general chronicle of his time. He therefore included not only court politics, but also local events, wars, the Peasants’ Revolt, the great schism, the deaths and marriages of foreign kings, weather, eclipses, miracles, and the discovery of the Canary Islands. Both writers reveal prejudices. The author of the Vita expresses rather conventional disapproval of youth and modern covetousness and Walsingham reveals a passionate hatred of Wycliff and mendicants, but both were conscious of the importance of truthful history for the instruction of future readers. Although the Vita seems never to have circulated, the author’s comments show that he expected to instruct readers. On Piers Gaveston he wrote:

ut reprobacio unius alios instruat … causas odii et inuidie pro posse meo curabo exprimere.

V. Ed. II 26

so that the condemnation of one may instruct others … I shall endeavour to explain the causes of this hatred and envy as best I can.

Walsingham’s chronicle was clearly circulated in several different copies and abridgements, and bore with it his strong moral purpose (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. lxii–lxxiv, cvii–cviii, 338–40). Both works reflect the intellectual interests of (p.90) their authors. Unsurprisingly, they are deeply permeated by biblical learning. Eighty per cent of the Vita’s identified quotations and allusions are from the Bible and four fifths of those are from the Old Testament, with a liking for Job, Ecclesiasticus, and Jeremiah, which perhaps reflects the increasing interest in the books of wisdom at this time (Childs 1997: 179). The author of the Vita then displays his legal training with 12 per cent of his citations coming from canon and civil law. He only occasionally quotes classical writers. Just 3 per cent of his citations come from only five classical authors (Horace, Juvenal, Lucan, Claudian, and Palladius); to these he added allusions to Achilles and Patroclus. Seventy per cent of quotations in Walsingham are also biblical, with a greater reliance on the New Testament, but then Walsingham displays his keen interest in classical authors with eighty quotations drawn from seventeen classical writers, some 25 per cent of the total quotations identified.6

Both are ‘great reads’ and it would be possible to pull out many examples to show their continuing value alongside the detail of the records. Here I have chosen just a few examples, mainly (but not exclusively) to illustrate their insights into central politics.

2.1.1 The Vita

The author of the Vita offers two political themes of great interest. First is his continuing attempt to analyse the difference between legitimate and illegitimate resistance in the opposition to Edward II. Second is his comment on political favouritism. His interest in categorising the actions of the opposition is partly the product of his legal training, but is also a reaction to the increasing harshness in punishing opposition under Edward I, a topic that undoubtedly concerned many of those at Edward II’s court. The author’s vocabulary indicates that he is aware of changes in the conceptions of kingdom and state. It shows both the traditional language of lordship and the vocabulary of Roman law. On the one hand, he writes of rex et regnum, status regis et regni; on the other, of magestas, res publica. He accepts resistance to an oppressive king on grounds of self-defence and the king’s breach of his contract to rule (that is, his coronation oath), but he cannot find justification for open military rebellion, which was treason. His vocabulary in reporting threats to Edward II is precise: diffidatio (breach of fealty) could be justified, lesa magestatis could not and is given its full Roman weight of an unpurgeable crime against the realm or office of king, but more often he uses proditio, which he uses precisely to describe treasonable offences against the person of the king, (p.91) although not the office of kingship. Time and again he struggles to categorise the actions of Edward’s opponents: have they slipped past the boundary of resistance and into treason? Have they slipped from diffidatio into proditio or, even worse, lesa magestatis? (Childs 1997: 180–90).

The author is equally interesting in his reflections on the personalities central to politics and particularly in his sharp analysis of why Piers Gaveston’s relationship with Edward II caused so much anguish. While some writers, then and later, have seen the relationship as immoral and favouritism in high political circles as a fault in itself and inevitably distasteful, the Vita’s author saw power and personality as the keys and made it crystal clear that the favouritism was a nuanced rather than a simple problem. Those who ask why Piers was so hated, he says, might be surprised that favour caused such trouble, for it is quite normal for great men to show favour to one individual:

queret autem aliquis unde tantam indignacionem baronum meruerat Petrus; que causa odii, quid seminarium ire et inuidie extiterit, uehementer forsan admirabitur, cum in omnium fere magnatum domibus optentum sit hodie ut unus aliquis de familia dominice dileccionis gaudeat prerogatiua.

V. Ed. II 26

But if anyone asks how Piers had come to deserve such great baronial displeasure, what was the cause of the hatred, what was the seedbed of the anger and jealousy, perhaps he will be surprised, since it happens in almost all noble houses today that some one of the lord’s household enjoys a prerogative of affection.

He went on to explain that problems arise only when favouritism is compounded by exclusivity and indiscretion. Love between men was acceptable as long as it was not excessive: Ionathas dilexit Dauid, Achilles Patroclum amauit; set illi modum excessisse non leguntur (‘Jonathan cherished David, Achilles loved Patroclus, but we do not read that they went beyond what was usual’). Excessive love, however, leads to exclusivity, and that causes envy, because all should have access to the king’s favour (and thus patronage): ab antiquo omnibus desiderabile exstiterit habere graciam in oculis regum (‘of old it has been desirable for all men to find favour in the eyes of kings’). In this case, Edward ignored all others in favour of Piers. Yet even this was not the greatest problem. That was indiscretion. Piers flaunted his position. Given a royal title, a royal wife, and near exclusive access to Edward, he swaggered and strutted and preened around the court. It was this intolerable arrogance that caused his downfall:

erat igitur baronibus fastus eius intollerabilis et prima causa odii simul et rancoris … credo igitur et constanter teneo quia, si Petrus ab inicio prudenter et humiliter erga magnates terre se gessisset, nunquam eorum aliquem sibi contrarium habuisset.

V. Ed. II 28

(p.92) His arrogance was, then, intolerable to the barons and the main cause of both the hatred and the rancour … I therefore believe and firmly maintain that if Piers had behaved discreetly and humbly towards the great men of the land from the beginning, none of them would ever have opposed him

A very similar view of favouritism gone wrong appears in Walsingham nearly ninety years later, when he castigates Robert de Vere for flaunting his favoured place beside Richard II. Walsingham disliked Vere and during his life called him arrogant, lacking in integrity, unremarkable, and cowardly, but at his death he admitted that if Vere had kept quiet about his royal friendship he could have enjoyed his good fortune:

felicis quidem si se inter se continuisse statuisset, sed propter extollenciam infelicitate subactus.

WALS. Chr. S. Alb. ii. 30

He would have been a fortunate man, had he decided to keep their friendship between themselves, but he suffered misfortune through vaunting it.

Such comments on resistance and favourites add considerably to our understanding when put alongside the details in the records.

2.1.2 The St Albans’ Chronicle: the Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham

In a chronicle covering forty-six years there is so much of great value that choice is difficult. Walsingham’s comments on the political crisis in 1388, John of Gaunt, the Cheshire Rising of 1393, the deposition of Richard II, and much more all add important points to our understanding. In contrast to the rather cool analysis of central politics by the author of the Vita, Walsingham’s great political insights often burst with rumbustious life. This is particularly evident in his descriptions of the trial of William Bagot, one of Richard II’s close advisors, after the deposition. He describes the shouting, leaping up and down, and throwing down of hoods as challenges, when the Dukes of Aumale, Surrey, and Exeter defended themselves against accusations of supporting Richard in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. In the next session the Earl of Westmorland also leapt up to defend himself against implications of supporting Richard against the exiled Earl of Warwick, and Lords FitzWalter and Morley offered to fight anyone who said that the Duke of Gloucester had been a traitor (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. ii. 246–60). Here Walsingham both describes episodes wholly missing from official documents and portrays the emotions (the passionate defensiveness, bitterness, and fear), which were unlikely to appear in the documentary record.

His narrative of the Peasants’ Revolt is full of interest both for its content and for what it reveals of his historical method. When events occurred in (p.93) many places, he consciously finished one theme before turning to another. For example, in his narrative of London events he mentions the arrival in London of men from St Albans, but continues his main narrative until the dispersal of the rebels and then turns back to the St Albans men, noting ‘we shall repeat this account in greater detail so that it may be more fully understood, beginning again from the day they set out from St Albans’. He also explicitly acknowledged the difficulty of writing coherently about events taking place all over the country at the same time and limited his material in the interest of clarity (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. 420–3, 442–3, 478–81, 486–7, 496–7). Despite his dislike of the peasants, Walsingham was aware of the need to write a balanced narrative in the interest of truth. On the one hand, he blamed the lords for inept reactions, praised the peasants’ lack of looting, and recited their grievances at some length; but on the other hand, he considered that they deserved to be hanged, and those in St Albans who cut down their hanged fellows without permission deserved the horrendous job of returning their decayed and putrid bodies to the gibbets from which they had been taken (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. 414–15, 418–19, 500–5, 562–3). On the whole, he was inclined to see the revolt as part of God’s purpose, a justified divine scourge, God’s punishment for England’s evil living, but here he revealed his prejudice against the friars, as he was disposed to blame them for a good deal of the rottenness in England at this time (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. 502–5).

Both chroniclers display their extensive and flexible Latin vocabulary, but Walsingham’s chronicle also highlights one of the problems for medieval writers once they ventured away from traditional political or literary themes. Latin was a taught language, which people sought to master and use as the great figures of the past had done; but Latin was also still a living language, which changed throughout the Middle Ages in grammar, syntax, and inevitably vocabulary (Mantello and Rigg 1997: 79–93). Latin had to adapt to Northern European cultures and to changing times; it needed to cover activities, commodities, and practices that were not part of classical Roman life. Latin words might develop completely different meanings, as with the money terms solidus and denarius (Spufford 1988: 18–22, 33–4), or writers might incorporate and Latinise vernacular words, or simply use ‘raw’ vernacular words, which they sometimes took care to explain.

Walsingham illustrates the problem when he writes of ships. Defining ship types of the past is notoriously difficult (Pryor 1996: 452–8). The classical words that Walsingham used—navis, uas, ratis, puppis—meant nothing precise in the shipbuilding styles of the North. The Latinised medieval vernacular words he used—bargia, balingeria, galea, coggo, ciulis (‘keel’)—meant more to contemporaries, although they are often still obscure to us, but occasionally he felt some need to explain, as with aliud genus ratis quod uocatur lyne (p.94) (‘another sort of vessel called a lyne’), and nauis maxima qualem uocamus hulkam siue coggonem (‘the biggest ship which we call a hulk or cog’).7

The carrack, a new addition to the maritime scene, clearly caused him problems. Writing before 1394 of the 1380s he wrote of vessels at Southampton in 1381 as trieres quas caricas alii uocare solent (‘trieres which others are wont to call carracks’) and of a vessel wrecked off Furness on its way to Scotland in 1383 as nauis que carica uocabatur (‘a ship which is called a carrack’); and then writing after 1405 he described vessels which the English fought in the Channel as trieres quas carricas uocamus (‘trieres which we call carracks’).8

As we now understand it, the carrack was a mid-14th-century Mediterranean development that soon appeared in the North. A Genoese ‘caryk’ was wrecked off Guernsey in 1352 and Genoese carracks were regularly recorded unloading at Southampton by 1380.9 A carrack was a large round sailing ship with great carrying capacity, rising to 1,000 tons’ burden in the 15th century, by which time it had three masts; but how early it became a three-masted vessel is uncertain. Two masts were certainly known in the Mediterranean from drawings as early as 1367 on Pizzigani’s portolan chart, and three masts were certainly used by 1406, as is shown on a Catalan drawing of that date. By 1420, a three-masted ship was owned in England (Friel 1995: 157–62; Hutchinson 1994: 42–4, 61–4).

Clearly the carrack presented something of a problem to Walsingham and his use of trieris poses problems for his readers and editors.10 His choice of trieris seems deliberate as he used this word only in relation to carracks, but what he understood by trieris, and indeed by carrack, is not clear. Trieris was a Latin term of Greek origin for a vessel with three tiers of oars, but a carrack was a sailing ship entirely without oars. Did Walsingham know exactly what trieris meant? Or did the prefix ‘tri’ simply suggest a suitable word for a three-masted ship? We might also ask whether the carracks visiting England in 1380 had three masts as early as this and, if they did, whether Walsingham knew that? Yet, given the wide range of words for ships at his disposal, it may be significant that he chose this one and may indicate an early date for the third mast. By 1416, he (or his scribe) no longer felt any need to explain and simply wrote carricas (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. ii. 691–2).

(p.95) 2.2 Customs accounts

One does not of course look for accurate maritime and commercial history in chronicles, although it is interesting to note that chroniclers were often well aware of the value of trade.11 For a proper look at overseas trade, records are paramount, and this brings me to my second category of Latin material—customs accounts.

English historians are very fortunate with the wealth of government material that survives, much of it in Latin. Latin proved a good bridge between Anglo-Saxon and Norman churchmen in 1066 and continued as the language of administration, which was dominated by churchmen. Surviving records such as Domesday Book (1086) and the Exchequer Pipe Rolls (from the 1130s) demonstrate Anglo-Norman administrative skill and from the 1190s records proliferated. The regular enrolling in chancery of office copies of important out-going documents leaves a long series of enrolled charters and letters and increasingly specialised rolls for diplomatic material: Gascon, Roman, French, and Scotch rolls. Exchequer records proliferated at the same time with receipt rolls, memoranda rolls, issue rolls, and a variety of others. These enrolments are only the tip of a great iceberg of written government. Alongside them were internal writs, memoranda, drafts, and instructions. Not all this business was in Latin: signet, privy seal, and other warrants might be in French, as were some legal records, but most final formal documents and enrolments were in Latin. By the 14th century England enjoyed (if that is the right word) a sophisticated and wide-reaching royal administration through the activity of Chancery, Exchequer, and law courts.

There are two general points to make about these records. First, government administration, augmented by increasing ecclesiastical and aristocratic administration, in using Latin encouraged an understanding of the language all over the country. Just as ordinary people regularly heard Latin in their churches, now many also came into contact with it through law and administration, so much so that it has been argued that some Latin, through manorial organisation, reached the level of well-off peasants. That Latin slid down the social scale has been established through the work of Malcolm Parkes (1973: 555) and of Michael Clanchy (1979: 186–201), and knowledge of practical Latin continued to widen as general literacy spread throughout the century. Secondly, this administrative Latin was different from that of the literary world, although many of those who wrote it were familiar with that world. It was a language of formulae and often limited but necessarily accurate (p.96) vocabulary, for which vernacular words were regularly and increasingly used. Customs accounts illustrate both these points.

2.2.1 The national customs system

First a word about the customs system. England has few surviving private commercial documents, but makes up for it with a wide range of governmental sources. Diplomatic material establishes the relationships between England and its overseas markets; central and urban government regulations establish the framework of conditions under which merchants work; lawsuits illuminate details of actual practices; and financial accounts of many types provide the scale and patterns of trade. Among these, customs accounts are an outstanding source, and England has the best series of national customs accounts in Europe. It also has good examples of local customs accounts most of which were also kept in Latin, further confirming the use of Latin at local levels.12

The first permanent national customs system was set up by Edward I in 1275 with a tax on the exports of wool, wool-fells, and hides. Exports had to clear customs through thirteen designated head-ports from Newcastle in the northeast to Bristol in the southwest. The new tax was an instant revenue success and other charges followed. By the end of the 14th century all exports and imports by all nationalities were included under one duty or another and two more head-ports in the west had been added to the original list. This brought yet more bureaucracy to the provinces. In each of the designated head-ports two local collectors were appointed, normally drawn from the merchant community. A controller was appointed from outside the mercantile community, often a king’s clerk, to keep an independent record. Further checks were made through the appointment of searchers and then surveyors of search.13 All these officials made returns to the Exchequer in Latin.

On the ground, the system worked like this. As merchants presented their cargos and paid duties, the collectors and controller issued them a receipt (the cocket or certificate). Wealthy merchants might present cargoes in several portions and for each portion would receive a separate cocket or certificate. In exemplary, straightforward Latin the receipts recorded the date, the merchant’s name, the amount and type and value of his cargo, the ship on which it was loaded, and the duties paid. The receipts were made out in duplicate, one given to the merchant, and the other kept as an office copy. An example from (p.97) Hull in 1324, (written on a parchment strip 30 cm wide by 4 cm deep with a seal tag cut from the right) ran as follows:

Uniuersis balliuisad quos presentes peruenerint [names] collectores noue custumein K. super Hullam salutem. Noueritis quod [merchants’ names] pro [commodity and amount and value] carcatis in naui [name and master] bene et fideliter soluerunt nobis nouas custumas suas apud Kyngestoniam super HullamIn cuius rei testimonium presentibus sigillum officii est appensum. [Date …]

EEC 143 n. 714

To all bailiffs … to whom these present letters shall have come [names] collectors of the new custom … in … Hull [send] greetings. You should know that [merchants’ names] for [commodity and amount and value] loaded in the ship [name and master] have well and faithfully paid to us their new customs at Kingston-upon-Hull. … In witness of which the seal of the office is appended to these present letters. [Date …]

What is important is that not only the collectors and the controller responsible for collecting the duties but also the merchants who paid them needed enough Latin to be able to check the record. Merchants could, of course, use clerks, but it was still prudent to have enough Latin to understand what they were being charged and what they were responsible for. Mistakes and negligence over matters of revenue brought heavy penalties from the government.

At the end of the year (or other designated term) the collectors and the controller drew up separate particulars of account in Latin and sent them to the Exchequer. To do this they sorted out their strings of cockets ship by ship in date order, then within each ship merchant by merchant (often systematically entering the merchants according to the size of their cargoes with the largest at the top of the list). Again the collectors could use clerks (the controller was expected to keep his roll ‘in his own hand’), but they needed to understand what was sent in their names. There is some interest in the evolution of the format of the particulars of the customs accounts over the years. The earliest records seem to show that no exemplar was sent out from the Exchequer, but that local appointees were literate enough to devise their own practices. Hull’s earliest wool account (1275–6) was in fact in French, but this was quickly dropped in favour of the Latin used by all other ports.15 There were other variations. Most early wool accounts recorded exports ship by ship and the east coast ports also recorded the new customs duties on foreign trade ship by ship immediately from their imposition in 1303, but London and the (p.98) southern ports used a simple list of merchants’ names in 1303. Nonetheless, all ports used the ship-by-ship format by the 1320s. The gradual standardisation probably came through copying ‘best practice’ rather than by directive from the Exchequer, because accounts were never completely standardised. Even when all ports used the ship-by-ship format, the details they included varied. Most ports recorded ships’ names and homeports as well as their masters, but London collectors identified ships solely by the master’s name; and Bristol was the only port whose collectors consistently recorded destinations and last ports of call.

At the Exchequer, the auditors checked the accounts one against the other and, if satisfied that they were accurate, enrolled a summary of the tax received. From these enrolled accounts, which survive almost without a break into the modern period, historians can work out the volume of the major bulk trades, which paid tax by the piece (wool, wool-fells, hides, wax, wine, and cloth). The original particulars, once audited, were less important to the government and survive patchily, but where they do survive they are wonderful social sources as well as economic ones. Not only do they show the directions of trade, the patterns of shipping used, the nationality and wealth of merchants involved, but also the immense range of other goods paying ad valorem duties. They thus reveal England’s industrial demands and consumer desires. They show industrial imports of dyes and alum, iron and timber; they show silks and spices and luxury goods for the rich; they show increasing amounts of consumer goods for lowlier people, especially in London: cabbages, garlic, onions, tiles, pins, girdles, sheep’s bells, locks, buckets, and hundreds of other commodities. It is especially the imported commodities that demand the use of vernaculars within the Latin matrix.

2.2.2 The use of vernaculars in customs accounts

In general, the collectors used Latin for common bulk commodities. The main exports such as lanum, pannus, pannus sine grano, plumbum caused them no problems, although specialist types of cloth may appear in Latinised vernacular, blankettus, or in ‘raw’ vernacular: wurstedes, kerseyes, quiltes, and bed wares.16 They also dealt happily with many of the bulk imports from North and South: again pannus, ferrum, vinum, oleum, frumentum, sal, alluta, fructus, amygdala, ficus et racemus. Weights and measures settled at a combination of classical words (often with modern meanings) and Latinised Anglo-Norman forms. Thus centum, mille, dolium, libra came from classical Latin, while pipa, barellus, bundellus were based on Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman words. There seems to have been a preference for Latinised measures (p.99) (as part of the matrix), and a writer trying hard to produce a good account might even Latinise hogshead as caput porci or caput de porco. But many commodities (and some measures such as hods for hops and skoks for trenchers) were written in the vernacular, or rather vernaculars. The increasing use of vernaculars is often remarked for the 15th century, but vernacular words for commodities were frequently used from an early date. This might be because the writer did not know the Latin word, but more often was needed because there were no exact Latin words to use for specialist commodities and only the vernacular provided precision.

Writers dealt with the mixture of Latin and vernacular in different ways. Sometimes words were flagged up (as with Walsingham’s carracks). We can see this most clearly in tariff lists rather than the customs accounts themselves, as for example at Ipswich in 1303:

corda que vocatur cable

iij d.

corda que vocatur upteye

i d.

corda que vocatur nethrop


EEC 159

rope called ‘cable’ [pays]

3 pence

rope called ‘up-tie’

one penny

rope called ‘net rope’

a halfpenny

But mostly, especially in the customs accounts themselves, the words were used without comment. They included both English and non-English vernaculars, reflecting the words familiar on the quays and the ease with which customs collectors and merchants dealt with the variety of languages. Quite often vernacular words were provided with a Latinised form and declension, but often they were left ‘raw’. In the early 1300s, woad from the Picardy area showed its French origin in the use of weysde in the Southampton accounts, and wayde at Hull and Lynn.17 Words for fish and timber often appear in vernaculars if collectors wanted precision, since the naming of fish and cuts of timber, then as now, often has very localised significance.

Classical words for Mediterranean fish were not very useful in Atlantic waters. Allec became widely associated with the herring, but in the early 14th century, imports of Latin allec rubeum sat alongside imports of the Latinised makerellus and the unchanged haddok’, pollack’, and congres at Southampton, and alongside flatfisk, hakefysk, cuntefisk, and colefysse at Hull.18 Much of the dried cod imported at Hull and its out-port Ravenser at this time were recorded with Norwegian and Icelandic names: balgfisk, lustscrayth (also (p.100) luscrayches, lochestraythe, lutskreit), middelscrayth, and recscrayth (from Norwegian skreith: dried fish).19 Ling came as keling and titling (both from Norwegian or Icelandic dialects) and cropling. Lynn’s collectors in 1303–5 stuck to classical Latin and hid the precise variety of imports under the exemplary but broad Latin term piscis durus (‘hard fish’), but after 1306 they too occasionally used balfix, splatfix, and lutskreit.20

Timber also demonstrates strongly the use of non-English vernaculars. Some Latin words were regularly used: remus for oar and tignum for large timber.21 Borda (‘board’), Latinised from Old English, was frequently used, and could be amplified to paruas bordas ad barillos faciendos and bordas ad facienda dolia. At Lynn, collectors generally hid the variety of timber imports with the catch-all borda (just as they hid the varieties of cod under piscis durus), but at Hull the collectors were as precise with their recording of timber as they were with fish. This demanded a wider use of the vernacular. Imports of Norwegian timber were usually described as bulkborde and cheveron, but once the Baltic trade hit its stride these terms gave way to German ones: waynscotes, kystholt, bouholt, reemholt, righolt, tunholt, melvyngholt, and clapholt.22

The following example of part of a cargo (probably from Norway) imported to Hull’s out-port of Ravenser in 1305 shows the vernacular words for fish within the Latin matrix:

Nauis Johannis de Long’ intrauit in portu de Rauenser’ xx die junii     Idem habuit in eadem vjM de Bulkebordis, jM tygnorum, iiijxx bollas olei, vM

de luscrayth, vjM de croppelyng, vM de Lenges

KR AcCust 55/1723

The ship of John de Long’ entered the port of Ravenser on 20 June.

     The same (John de Long) had in it 6,000 ‘bulk’ boards, 1,000 timber beams, 80 bowls of oil, 5,000 luscrayth, 6,000 cropling, 5,000 lings.

Similarly at the end of the century in 1383 at Hull, vernacular words for Baltic timber appear in the Latin matrix:

(p.101) Nauis Hermanni Stoyt uocata le Mareknyght de Meluyng applicuit [no date given but c.3 Sept.]

     Stephanus Percy indigena pro ijM iiijC boustaffs, xv barrellis cinerum, iiijC swardscales, jC righold, vij plankys.

KR AcCust 59/8

The ship of Hermann Stoyt called the Maryknight of Elbing arrived [no date].

     Stephen Percy, denizen, for 2,400 bowstaves, 15 barrels of ashes, 400 sword- scales [for making scabbards], 100 pieces of righolt, 7 planks.

Specialist vernacular vocabulary was used for other goods too, from fine cloths and furs to nails, if more precision than the generic word was desired. The London account for 1390 provides a wealth of examples. We see fine silks called ‘rakemas’, ‘satyn’, ‘taffat’’, ‘tartaryns’, ‘velwet’, ‘brokettes’. Fine linens were recorded by knots; ‘naperie de iiij knottes’ was most common, but three and even sixteen knots appeared. Furs appear as ‘redwerk’, ‘greywerk’, ‘lucewerk’, ‘popill’’, ‘ermyns’, and more. Nails appear as generic clavi, but are described further as ‘cardnailles’, ‘latisnailles’, ‘platenailles’, and ‘pattennailles’. In this account we can also see quite simple goods recorded in the vernacular. A Latin entry of vm allecis immediately followed by j barello herynggres seems to fit this pattern too, but the same argument does not seem to hold for tiles, since both tegula and ‘tyelles’ were used generally, but again the more precise descriptions moved to the vernacular: ‘tyels pro chymenes’ and ‘tyelles pro pavyng’.24 The vernacular was often used for exotica, such as popingays and marmosets (although simia was also used). This increasing intrusion of vernaculars is especially obvious in London, with its large and demanding consumer market, but it is also visible elsewhere, not least at Hull, which served the wealthy city of York. Here imports from the Low Countries in 1383 show, as ever, the Latin matrix with a variety of Latin and vernacular commodities:

Nauis Edmundi de Thurne uocata le Philipe de Hull applicuit primo die augusti Johannes de Bylsthorp indigena pro xij barellis smygmatis, xij barellis olei

allecis, vj rollis beuyr, v pok’ madr’, j fardel’ canuasii continenti iijC [value and customs due]

Robertus de Saltfletby indigena pro ij doliis olii ciuil’, iij parūis pecez cere de Ryn’, j pok’ aluminis, j barello sturioūn, ij parūis kystis, xv tymbre werk’ popill’

Thomas Chiry indigena pro j barello continente ij libras piperis, ij libras clowes, ij libras grayne de paris [for ‘paradise’?], dimidiam libram saffron et corkys.

KR AcCust 59/825

(p.102) The ship of Edmund Thorn called the Philip of Hull arrived 1 August

John of Bilsthorpe, denizen, for 12 barrels of soap, 12 barrels of herring oil, 6 rolls of beaver, 5 pokes of madder, 1 fardel of canvas containing 300 yards

Robert of Saltfleetby, denizen, for 2 barrels of Seville oil, 3 small pieces of Rhenish wax, 1 poke of alum, 1 barrel of sturgeon, 2 small chests, 15 timbers of popelwork [squirrel skins of early summer]

    Thomas Chiry, denizen, for 1 barrel containing 2 lb of pepper, 2 lb of cloves, 2 lb of grain of paradise, half a pound of saffron, and corks

As we move into the 15th century, vernacular words increase. This was encouraged not only by the need for precision, but also by the sheer range of everyday goods imported. Hundreds of goods such as teasels, felt-hats, pig bristles, cuttlebones, lutes, pepper querns, scoops, ladles, playing tables, coffers, and beer might tax the vocabulary of collectors (although often their combinations of words, for example ‘graturs pro zinziberis’, still suggest a good underlying knowledge of Latin). The choice of the vernacular may also be a sign of an increasing acceptance of written English, but sometimes the mixture of Latin and vernacular for common goods may simply show that the collectors were familiar with both languages, and could switch, perhaps unconsciously, from one to another. This can happen in accounts both early and late. For example in Hull in 1304–6, while onions are generally recorded as cepa, one collector regularly wrote ‘unyouns’; and much later in 1460 Hull collectors used both mel and ‘hony’ in the same account. ‘Hony’ would avoid the confusion of mel with the English ‘mele’, which was regularly used instead of farina for exports to Iceland, but this was not done consistently, which suggests that the collectors shifted from Latin to English unconsciously.26

Despite the increasing use of the vernaculars, we should not assume that the Latin of these practical Latin users, in the customs system or elsewhere, was poor. The framework of the customs accounts remained solidly and accurately Latin. Moreover, behind the customs accounts lay many other documents, such as the cockets, the interim ‘views’ of account sent up to the Exchequer half way through the year, the applications for allowances and expenses, the receipts for customs collected and for disbursements made. Where these survive we can see that, although the vocabulary is necessarily limited and many sections are formulaic, the Latin grammar, declensions, cases, and agreements are correct. The increasing vernacular vocabulary is less a sign of badly learned Latin than a sign of a widening commercial life and a desire for precision. The customs accounts are, then, another of the administrative sources that indicate how far down the social and educational ranks a practical knowledge of Latin must go. Merchants of any substance were likely to be literate in French and English but it was also important for (p.103) them, their factors and clerks to understand enough Latin to deal with formulaic documents and to check the records and documents for which they were responsible and on which their business depended.

3. Conclusion

In 14th-century England, against a changing linguistic background and growing literacy, Latin remained the most widely written language, used in church, scholarship, and administration. This provides a massive range of Latin sources for the medievalist, from highly literary works to a great deal of practical Latin in administrative, legal and financial records. In these sources Latin appears as both as a conservative taught language, in which literary writers might strive to emulate the styles of the classical period, and as a modern language adapting to a Northern world, very different from the classical Mediterranean world of its origins. The two examples here, chronicles and customs accounts, illustrate the varieties of content and of Latin styles in the sources. The chronicles display highly literate writers who consciously used the Latin of the past—biblical and classical—alongside the changing grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of their own times. The customs accounts illustrate how deeply Latin was entrenched in the administrative world and provide another example of how Latin slipped down the social ranks, in this case into commercial communities all round the coast from Newcastle to Bristol. They also show how vernaculars slipped into practical documents while Latin matrices remained intact and accurate. In all types of sources, the vocabulary can present problems. A living language includes both changing meanings of classical words as well as innovative intrusions for technical, specialist, and even everyday words, and makes the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources indispensible to all medievalists.


Bibliography references:

Ac. Cust. Hull Customs Accounts of Hull 1453–1490, ed. W. R. Childs, Arch. Soc. Yorks rec. ser. cxliv (1984).

CalPat Calendar of Patent Rolls (1232–), Patent Rolls of the Reign of Henry III (London, HMSO, 1906–).

Cal. Pl. Mem. Lond. 1381–1412 Calendar of Select Pleas and Memoranda of the City of London, preserved among the archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall A. D. 1381–1412, ed. A. H. Thomas (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1932).

Chaucer CT prol. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales’, ed. L. D. Benson, The Riverside Chaucer (Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

(p.104) EEC N. S. B. Gras, The Early English Customs System (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1918).

Flor. Hist. Flores historiarum, ed. H. R. Luard, 3 vols, Rolls Series (London, 1890).

KR AcCust Records of the Exchequer, King’s Remembrancer, Customs Accounts, MS TNA: PRO E 122.

Port Bks Southampton The Port Books of Southampton 1427–30, ed. P. Studer, Southampton Record Society (Southampton, Cox and Shawland, 1913)

WALS. Chr. S. Alb. Thomas Walsingham, The St Albans Chronicle, ed. J. Taylor, W. R. Childs & L. Watkiss, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 2 vols, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2003–11).

V. Ed. II Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. W. R. Childs, The Life of Edward the Second, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2005).

Britnell, R. H. (1997), ‘Pragmatic Literacy in Latin Christendom’, in id. (ed.), Pragmatic Literacy East and West, 1200–1330 (Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer), 3–24.

Childs, W.R. (1997), ‘Resistance and Treason in the Vita Edwardi Secundi’, in M. Prestwich, R. H. Britnell & R. Frame (eds), Thirteenth Century England VI (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press), 177–91.

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Denholm-Young, N. (1956), ‘The Authorship of the Vita Edwardi Secundi’, English Historical Review, 71: 189–211; reprinted in his Collected Papers (Cardiff, University of Cardiff Press, 1969), 267–89.

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Jenkinson, C. H. & Mills, M. H. (1928), ‘Rolls for a Sheriff’s Office of the Fourteenth Century’, English Historical Review, 43: 21–32.

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(1.) See, for example, charter parties of 1323 and 1392 in Ward (2009: 229–34); Cal. Pl. Mem. Lond. 1381–1412 196–7.

(2.) WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. 546–8, ii. 206, 208, 212, 214.

(3.) For the impact of Malcolm Parkes’s concept of pragmatic readers see Britnell (1997) and Lacy (2012).

(4.) Noël Denholm-Young’s (1956; 1957: xix–xxviii) suggestion of John Walwayn, DCL, clerk to the earl of Hereford and then to the king, is certainly the type of person who might have written the account, even if it is impossible to be certain that it was him (V. Ed. II xxiv–xxxii).

(5.) The chronicle varies in style and tone after c. 1394 and it is probable that between then and his death in 1422 Walsingham supervised the chronicle but often left the writing to others (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. xlii–xlvi, ii. xlvi–li).

(6.) WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. cx, 995–6; ii. li, 849. For Walsingham’s classical learning, see also Clark (2004: 163–208); but note that his comment on the uniqueness of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 7 (2) is inaccurate (WALS. Chr. S. Alb. i. xl; ii. xxi, xlv).

(9.) CalPat 1350–4 283; KR AcCust 138/3.

(10.) How should editors translate it? In the first instance we translated trieris as ‘galley’—but to say ‘a galley called a carrack’ is nonsense in maritime terms. In the second case, we translated it as ‘three-masted ship’ but that is possibly going too far.

(11.) The Merton Flores lamented the civil war damage to England’s trade in 1265, using a mix of Biblical, classical, and recent trading patterns to praise the richness of England’s trade (Flor. Hist. iii. 266–7). Walsingham makes no comment on trade as a whole, but often shows interest in the Bordeaux wine fleets.

(12.) Local accounts at Exeter, Winchelsea, and Sandwich for the late 13th and early 14th century used Latin. The earliest 15th-century local accounts at Southampton are in French (but frequently used summa, nihil, valor, suggesting the clerks were at ease with both languages), before giving way to Latin in the 1430s (Port Bks Southampton viii–ix, 2, 4).

(13.) In 1275, customs duties added c.£10,000 a year to the Crown’s normal income of c.£35,000 a year; not surprisingly the system was closely supervised.

(14.) A further example from Great Yarmouth in 1377, using a different format but in equally neat and practical Latin, is printed in EEC 144 n. 2.

(15.) KR AcCust 55/1, EEC 224–44.

(16.) KR AcCust 136/8, 136/21 (Southampton 1308–9); 55/17 (Hull 1304–5).

(17.) KR AcCust 136/8, 136/21, 55/17, 55/19, 93/2.

(18.) KR AcCust 136/8, 136/21.

(19.) KR AcCust 55/17, 55/19, 55/23, 57/1, 56/7, 56/10.

(20.) KR AcCust 93/2, 93/3.

(21.) KR AcCust 55/17, 55/19; 93/2, 93/3.

(22.) KR AcCust 55/17, 55/19; similar terms in London, 1390, KR AcCust 71/13.

(23.) Customs accounts are normally abbreviated. Where the extensions are reasonably certain they have been shown here in italics. The values and the customs due are omitted here and in subsequent quotations from the accounts.

(24.) KR AcCust 71/13.

(25.) In some cases, for example ‘pok’, ‘madr’, it is impossible to be sure whether the clerk was intending a Latinised or vernacular word.

(26.) KR AcCust 55/17, 55/19, 61/74 (the last printed in Ac. Cust. Hull 20–1).