In this blog Dr Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin discusses her article Gifting cultures and artisanal guilds in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London which was published in The Historical Journal.

Sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century London was an intensely competitive, diverse, and precarious society. Against a backdrop of massive population increase, religious reformation, and epidemic disease, the city’s inhabitants jostled for social advantage, professional opportunities, and simply the means to survive. Artisans and craftsmen, members of the city’s craft guilds, were among the most dynamic and skilled Londoners. Artisans produced a vast range of material goods, they kept shops to market their wares, and they were principal participants in the design and expansion of the built fabric of the city itself.

My Historical Journal article explores an important social practice through which artisans established and perpetuated their reputations as citizens and skilled makers: the presentation of material gifts to their associated guild. In early modern culture, as in our own, gifts were loaded with meaning for givers and recipients. The gift economy was essential in lubricating social, political, and professional relations.

Examination of London’s guild archives – including inventories, books of gifts and wills, and material culture survivals – demonstrates that artisans developed a broad gifting repertoire. Gifts included textiles, silver and pewter plate, weaponry and cutlery, cooking apparatus, books and manuscripts, paintings on walls and wooden boards, furniture, and even building supplies, such as stone and timber. These donated objects ranged from the everyday and inexpensive, such as a wooden trencher, designed to act as a rudimentary plate, to the exclusive and luxurious, such as silver-gilt and rock crystal garlands, used only at guild election ceremonies.

But why give? My research shows that motivations for material gift-giving within the guild were complex. Gifting could be a way of asserting civic authority, as in the case of John Pasfield, Master of the Armourers’ Company, who gave in the 1590s a ‘fair large chest bound with iron’, specifically for the secure storage of the guild’s charters and archive (and Pasfield alone retained control of the master key).[1] Gifts could also affirm a commitment to rites of conviviality and sociability, essential features of guild culture. In the mid-sixteenth century a girdler (belt maker) even presented ‘the frame for the high table’ to facilitate company feasting.[2]

The presentation of material things could also be an attempt to ensure remembrance within the context of craft fellowship. A silver-gilt cup presented by an early seventeenth-century goldsmith was inscribed with the donor’s arms and the following mnemonic: ‘When at your Hall doth shine with plate, And all your dishes served in state, When mirth abound, and wine is free, Then (freely drinking) think on me’.[3] Finally, the gifting of hand-wrought objects enabled artisan donors to demonstrate their workshop skills and expertise, characteristics upon which their social reputation and commercial success depended. Cutlers presented their most impressive knives, armourers designed and donated innovative suits of armour, and clock makers gave timepieces. Gifts embodying the particular ‘mystery’, or embodied knowledge of the craft, were prominently displayed in the most exclusive spaces of the city’s livery halls; and these things might be processed through streets during civic festivals.

Artisans were one of the most significant – and yet hitherto under-researched – social groups in early modern London. My article shows that the deep-rooted culture of gift-giving was a crucial means through which craftsmen negotiated identity, social legitimacy, and post-mortem reputations.

Free access to the full article Gifting cultures and artisanal guilds in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London until the end of 2017.

[1] Guildhall Library, MS 12105, fo. 13.

[2] GL, MS 5817, fo. 11.

[3] Walter Sherburne Prideaux, ed., Memorials of the Goldsmiths’ Company (2 vols., London, 1896-7), I, pp. 156-7.

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