1. The merchant
Between 25 June 1437 and 24 June 1438 Robert Large, a London merchant, paid two shillings to the Mercers’ Company. This was a fee for taking on William Caxton as apprentice. This is our earliest record of Caxton. Robert Large need not have paid the fee immediately after taking Caxton on, but it is reasonable to assume that the payment was fairly close in time. As an apprentice Caxton cannot have been younger than 14 and it is unlikely that he was older than 17, so he was probably born between 1420 and 1424.
The merchant from Caxton's second edition of The
Canterbury Tales. The British Library G. 11586, f.i7 v.
The merchant from Caxton's second edition of The Canterbury Tales. The British Library G. 11586, f.i7 v.
The Mercers’ Company was a London
guild of wholesale merchants. Although it is no longer a guild of
merchants, the Mercers’ Company is still in existence, and several
of the documents relating to Caxton are still in its archives.
Bruges was the most important and prosperous commercial centre of Northern Europe, where northerners traded with merchants from Venice and Florence and further afield. From an English perspective, it was the main continental outlet for English woollen cloth, which Caxton sold while he bought a variety of manufactured luxury goods for importation into England. A document from 1453 gives us an insight into the sort of things Caxton imported: a cargo of which he was part owner was seized by the customs officers at Nieuwpoort near Ostend, and they listed what was on board, including furs, silk, ermine and saffron. The fur hat worn by the merchant in the Canterbury Tales was imported from Flanders. Chaucer mentioned the merchant’s Flemish hat to emphasise the luxury of his attire.
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