Project update: Prices from the Durham Obedientiary Accounts
I was delighted to speak to the Friends of Durham Cathedral about my research, 'Buying and selling in the medieval north east: the experience of the monks of Durham Cathedral Priory' on in Priors Hall, Durham Cathedral. All were welcome, and it was a lovely event.
On the face of it, the picture looks bleak for the north east in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The region had the particular experience of the Anglo-Scottish war, compounded from mid century by the economic problems shared more widely in Britain. The prices of wool – which had been bouyant in the later thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries but began to slump even before the Black Death of 1348-9 – now experienced a period of sustained decline, in terms of price and the amount which the monks recorded as available to sell. In some years even the smaller amounts produced remained unsold. On the more positive side, the region had considerable advantages in terms of pastoral farming and mineral production – and of course access to the sea which was a source of fish and facilitated trade links. The distinctiveness of the monks’ experience is that, in the face of a decline in their prosperity, they nevertheless continued to purchase luxury products, such as wine, imported from France, and to buy imported goods when there were cheaper local alternatives. Contrasting with the experience of earlier centuries, when the monks travelled south to Boston to sell their wool and bought wine, cloth and spices in London, now they habitually made their purchases of imports from more local merchants, particularly those in Newcastle. Durham itself, however, features rather less prominently than we might expect as a place where major purchases were made. Nonetheless, at a time of economic downturn the consumption patterns of the cathedral priory would have played a large part in creating demand for imports in this region, boosting trade and helping to maintain links between the north east and the international market.
These photographs are taken from my walk each day to the cathedral archives, housed in 5, The College, beyond the cathedral cloister. The first image is the famous view of the River Wear below the cathedral and castle, showing the drama and beauty of the setting. The second is the less well known, indeed now almost hidden, path which pilgrims used to take to reach the shrine of St Cuthbert in the cathedral. As my time in Durham draws to a close I am ever more mindful that it is a huge privilege to be in this beautiful and ancient place, where I have discovered so much about the lives of the medieval monks: their food and drink, their clothes, their building projects; their hospitality and almsgiving; their relations with local people. Beyond that, I have had the chance to reflect on the part which the monks played in the wider world, beyond Durham itself: their commercial relations with merchants of Newcastle, Darlington and York; the impact on their lives of the still turbulent relations with Scotland; the support they gave to scholar monks studying in Oxford; and their awareness of the great international events of the day such as the Great Schism and the Council of Constance.
Here are some pictures of the commodities for which I am collecting prices...it is surprisingly easy to find modern equivalents, although the shapes and conditions may be very different from those of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Iron, cheese, salmon, candle wax and wool
16th May 2017
I have arrived safely in Durham after a very smooth train journey. How remarkable it is that I should be able to travel from Oxford to Durham in four and a half hours - in the fourteenth century it would have taken over a week, even for a messenger with fast horses. I went straight to the archives in Palace Green where the first batch of bursar's accounts awaited me and soon I was reading of sales of wool, purchases of oxen, salmon, coal and canvas. As I walked through the cathedral which houses the shrine of St Cuthbert and where Bede, England's first historian, is buried, I felt that a sort of pilgrimage - to understand the medieval north east - and indeed to get to know its modern successor - had begun.
A journal article based on the prices of a range of consumables in the northeast in the period 1368 - 1460 will be produced later in 2017.
Price series data for a range of consumables (livestock, fish, animal produce, cloth, wine, minerals and metals) for the period 1368 – 1460 will be available via the journal article.
‘Prices from the Durham Obedientiary Account Rolls, 1278-1367’, Money, Prices and Wages: Essays in Honour of Professor Nicholas Mayhew edited by Martin Allen and D’Maris Coffman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) pp. 74-93
‘Durham Grain Prices, 1278-1515’, Elizabeth Gemmill, Ben Dodds and Phillipp R. Schofield, Archaeologia Aeliana, 39 (2010), 307-327