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The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts
By Paul Strohm
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
THE MAYORAL ELECTIONS scheduled for 13 October 1384 at the London Guildhall must have seemed a sure thing to incumbent Nicholas Brembre and his party of merchant capitalists. Not only did Brembre enjoy secure majorities among the aldermen and members of the common council, but the opposition was in disarray, with previously defeated rival John Northampton and his closest followers under various forms of arrest and banishment. Nevertheless, Brembre and his party had left little to chance. Early in Brembre's 1383 term they had taken steps to discourage opposition, including a novel December 1383 proclamation, in English, against "congregacions." And, according to a subsequent accusation of the mercers, on election eve they smuggled arms into the Guildhall itself and laid ambushes about Cheapside to assure their effective control of civic space: "In the nyght ... he did carye grete quantitee of Armure to the Guyldehalle ... and certein busshments were laide" ("Petition," 34).
But those mercers, tailors, goldsmiths, and others who had supported John Northampton appear to have entertained some continuing political hopes of their own. They developed a credible alternative candidate in goldsmith Nicholas Twyford, an old Brembre adversary.1 And they staged a demonstration on election day, a mixture of planned and spontaneous actions, involving a considerable number of armed men. Records of persons subsequendy imprisoned, or for whose good conduct security was taken, suggest that the troublemakers were mainly guildsmen of "mediocris status," concentrated in the guilds that had supported Northampton all along (Plea Rolls, mem. 4b, Pleas, 62–63). The tailors and other guilds, for instance, planned a meeting at St. Paul's early on election day ("in quadam congregatione dicta diuersi homines plurimarum misterarum in ecclesia sancti pauli londonii die electionis maioris"), from which they proceeded to die Guildhall to make an uproar ("ad faciendum clamorem," Plea Rolls, mem. 4b, Pleas, 64). This demonstration seems to have elicited additional support. William Woodcock, tailor, showed up at the Guildhall and, after assessing the situation, returned to his shop to fetch a variety of weaponry—sword, buckler, and poleaxe—in the hope that a riot would ensue.
Showing his "stronge honde," Brembre carried the day with little or no actual bloodshed ("Petition," 34; RP 3:226). The would-be demonstrators seem to have been easily dispersed by the sorts of tactics later described by the mercers: "When free men of the Citee come to chese her Mair [Brembre's followers] breken vp armed cryinge with loude voice 'sle! sle!' folwyng hem; wherthourgh the peple for feere fledde to houses & other hidynges as in londe of werre" ("Petition," 34; see also West., 100–102). Within days, a repression set in, with guild masters submissively complying with a request to furnish names of their own members who took part in the disturbances (Plea Rolls, mems. 4b-6b, Pleas, 62–69). As is generally the case with such repressions, the repression itself became an occasion for settling all sorts of scores, those connected with the disturbances and others as well; the masters of the cordwainers guild turned in one John Remes for a variety of charges including inflammatory words and other insubordinations, and for rebellion against their own leadership within the guild (Plea Rolls, mem. 4, Pleas, 61). So did this particular confrontation ebb away. Yet, for part of a day, the Guildhall and its environs had been a contested space, a staging ground for political actions expressed within—and expressive of—a charged factional situation.
The brief narrative of one such action—an action limited in scope but rich in symbolic implication—is the subject of this essay. This narrative is contained within a transcript of accusation or appeal ("accusatio sive appellum") launched by a disgrunded former apprentice, John Banham, against his master, mercer Thomas Austin, and other members of his household. This accusation occurs within a series of charges and countercharges exchanged between Banham and fellow servant John Hore on the one hand, and Thomas Austin and his brother Roger on the other, springing from a quarrel over Banham's and Hore's alleged misappropriation of funds. All the parties to the dispute were jailed at one point or another, as advantage shifted back and forth between them. The accusation in question represents Banham's attempt to gain an edge by launching a preemptive strike against Austin on new, political terrain. Dictated on 16 September 1387, at a time when the Brembre faction was still securely in the driver's seat, Banham's accusation seeks to incriminate Austin by associating him with the faction of John Northampton, and with that faction's misconduct on election day of 1384.
Charging Austin and his wife and brother with sundry seditious statements and suspicious contacts with Northampton loyalists, Banham moves to a close focus on the events swirling around the Guildhall before and after the 1384 election. On the night before, Austin is said to have hidden goods about the city in a suspicious manner, and to have communicated with Northampton's followers. On election day, he sent Banham into Cheapside to see whether dissident guilds like the goldsmiths and tailors and cordwainers were in fact approaching the Guildhall. Banham says that Austin advised the men of his own household to show up at the Guildhall armed, but that when he got there and saw Brembre's strength he abandoned his plans and told his men to go open the shop as if nothing had occurred: "Thanne Thomas Austyn saw here strengthe and a non he keste offe his harneys and seide 'al is lost that we hau ben a bowtyn' and bad his meyne privyly goeth to the schoppe and settythe opyn as no thyng were don."
According to Banham, however, a residual encounter remained for that day, involving a Brembre supporter, Hugh Fastolf, and a group of Austin's servants, including Hochon of Liverpool, John Hore, and himself as participant and observer. It seems that, the Northampton people having scattered "to houses & other hidynges" ("Petition," 34), Hochon, Hore, and Banham remained behind, using a "chambre" as a "wayte" or ambush, when Hugh Fastolf came onto the scene:
Ther was that same day that Hochoun of Lyuerpoll his seruaunt stod in his chambre in a wayte and there cam Hewe Fastolfe and made water agens the cherche wal of seynt Laurenses and thanne seyde Hochoun of Lyuerpoll, "Yonder is on of the thefys," and thanne he seide, "wit thou sen how I schal naylen hym with an arwe to the wow [wall]," and forthe ther withe he teysed up his bowe for to hau keld hym and thanne seyde I ... "lad ben [let be], thou wilt on don us alle," and so it was ileft.
The fourteenth-century St. Lawrence's was located on the site of its successor, at the southwest corner of the Guildhall enclosure. Hochon and his companions, described as within sight of it, presumably occupy one of the rooms across Guildhall yard to the east. Since Fastolf is described as one of the "thieves" who has stolen the election, the voting is now over, and Fastolf is probably to be imagined as exiting the Guildhall itself and crossing Guildhall yard to St. Lawrence's, with Hochon and his associates viewing him across the yard. Fastolf pausing to urinate, the disgruntled Hochon issues his threat, but as a result of Banham's mollifying presence the threat is defused.
Like most texts, this one is less innocent than it appears. If we are looking for unmediated data or other forms of "primary evidence," we are not going to find it here, within a legal document dictated well after the fact by an interested party for an audience of other interested parties. For, whatever evidentiary qualities this narrative possesses, it finally exists to promote an already interpreted scene, a scene that is at once knowledgeable about the field of already existing interpretations within which it positions itself and energetic in its attempt to refocus those interpretations in order to discredit the Austins.
The interpretative situation is further complicated by Banham's own precarious position. Needing to incriminate himself in order to explain his presence at the scene, he recounts a situation in which he was indeed aligned with the Austin household but acted as a moderating force. That some instability of intent would slip into such a narrative seems inevitable, and this inevitability is heightened by the intervention of other vocalities. Confederate John Hore was probably present at the testimony and may have added his voice to Banham's own (see n. 5 and appendix 1, 166–67). And, despite the requirement that coroners take such testimony in something very close to verbatim form (Hunnisett, Medieval Coroner, 73; Kellaway, 80–85), the fact remains that this entire accusation was mediated through the ear and hand of coroner John Charney, whose terms of office had involved service on both sides of the factional fence.
Fissured and incomplete as we might expect this narrative to be in realizing its own apparent intent, it must also rely upon the cooperation of a receptive audience before it can fulfill its designs. Seeking to harness a highly contentious political situation for its own ends, it would be fortunate to enlist such cooperation. As it happens, this narrative is indeed subject to rival interpretations, not just as a consequence of ingenious twentieth-century reading, but as a result of alignments in London politics of the 1380s. The idea of a "pro-Brembre" reading and a "pro-Northampton" reading is, of course, a stylization, both because membership in the two factions ebbed and flowed and because any narrative may be read in as many different ways as there are people to read it. But, in this case, the existence of two communities of readers, each responding differently to Banham's account, may not only be inferred, but may be verified by actual shifts in the fortunes of his accusation.
Banham's Narrative and Its Intended Audience
The immediate audience of any accusation such as Banham's would have been the mayor, together with the two sheriffs and coroner of London. The mayoralty had been in Brembre hands since 1384. Brembre himself served from 1383–1386, and, after close associate Nicholas Exton assumed office in 1386, Brembre was appointed official spokesperson for London in its relations with the king (CLBH, 315). When Banham dictated his accusation, the sheriffs were two Brembre men—William More, vintner, and William Standon, grocer—and John Charney was coroner. New elections were held five days later, on 21 September 1387, and an even more conspicuously loyalist group was chosen, consisting of sheriffs William Venour and Hugh Fastolf, together with coroner William Cheyne. In other words, not only could Banham expect his narrative to be read by Brembre loyalists, but by remarkable coincidence or shrewd anticipation on Banham's part it soon developed that one of his protagonists—Fastolf—was to be among the small group of persons responsible for the disposition of his testimony.
Considering Banham's audience, and the date at which he dictated his testimony, any accusation of excessive Northampton partisanship would still have carried a great deal of negative force. And the force of this particular accusation is enhanced by the unobtrusive way in which it manages its effects. At first glance, Banham's narrative offers itself as a transparent and virtually authorless account of "what happened" that election day. Banham himself assumes the unobrusive role of objective observer, artlessly stringing together a series of clauses in the natural order of their occurrence ("and ... and ... and then ... and then ... and forthwith ... and then ... and so"). This effect is furthered by the way in which he finally does enter his text: erasing his own role in its creation, he reinserts himself in its action as a relatively minor character, intervening at the end on a prudent and cautionary note, bolstering his own position and credibility as a witness, and all but inveigling us into forgetting his importance as interpreter, if not fabricator, of the entire scene! And, on closer inspection, his natural order of events is essentially that of an "order of pleading," like those judicial narratives described in the Rhetorica ad Herennium, "in which the speaker sets out the facts and turns every detail to advantage in order to win a judgment" (I, 8).
The initial focus is on Hochon, skulking in a "wayte" or "ambush." Note that he is identified as Austin's servant. On a different social level than apprentices Banham and Hore, who possess at least remote hopes of someday entering the mercer's trade, Hochon is beholden to Austin in a more rudimentary way. His name, in fact, implies a servile—or at least humble—status. Banham and Hore possess actual surnames; Hochon is merely "from Liverpool." Moreover, to the extent that Banham and members of his audience were aware of it, the name "Hochon" itself introduces an added implication of loose living and near-vagabondage as a diminutive of the French hoche, meaning a "gambler" or "dice-player" (Dauzat, 329). Then, in contrast with the already partially discredited Hochon, we are given Hugh Fastolf, just happening along on no business at all, or on business of the most personal and least conspiratorial of sorts. He enters the scene as a known personage of undeniable eminence—an eminence signaled by the fact that his resonant name alone (unaccompanied by the mention of his guild or profession or neighborhood customary in written records of London mercantile life) suffices to identify him.
Just as Hochon's humble station suits Banham's purposes, so does Fastolf bring a number of advantages to his role as Banham's aggrieved party. Technically a Great Yarmouth fishmonger, Fastolf actually accumulated his wealth as a monopolist and enterprise capitalist in collaboration with London merchants and financiers of the royalist party, such as Walter Sibile (CPR [1381–1385], 108, 109), Simon Burley (CCR [1381–1385], 232) and John Philipot (CCR [1381–1385], passim). His London ties began with membership in the powerful company of grocers in 1373 (Hist. Pari.) and multiplied in 1379, when he began to dispose of his holdings in Great Yarmouth and its environs (CCR [1377–1381], 30). Taking up residence in London on Thames Street by 1381 (CPR [1381–1385], 30-31), he represented London in Parliament in 1381 and possibly 1382 (Hist. Pari.). He served repeatedly as alderman for Tower ward in 1381–1382, 1384–1385, and 1385–1386, though relieved in the last case so he could attend to duties as deputy constable of Dover Casde under Simon Burley (CPR [1381–1385], 589), and for Bridge ward from 1386 to 1390. His association with prominent grocers of London would have marked him as a likely factionalist, and by 1384 he had already bolstered his partisan credentials by playing a role in the condemnation of Northampton at Reading (CLBH, 246). Banham's 16 September 1387 narrative catches Fastolf just at the brink of preferment: already deputy constable with Burley, he is now just five days from appointment as sheriff of London.
So here we have Hochon, a mere servant, menacing a London citizen of considerable repute and substance. And, underscoring Hochon's dangerous intentions, Banham gives them to us via a mimed action (tensing the bow), a commentary on the action ("see how I shall nail him"), and his own expository conclusion about Hochon's intention ("to have killed him"). Hochon's violent enactment would presumably have been amply disturbing to members of the Brembre camp and of course to Fastolf himself. But what about those less committed—for example, the members of the jury that would consider the accusation? Even they might find occasion for distress in the violative aspects of Hochon's behavior.
Excerpted from Hochon's Arrow by Paul Strohm. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: False Fables and Historical Truth
Ch. 1 Hochon's Arrow
Ch. 2 "A Revelle!": Chronicle Evidence and the Rebel Voice
Ch. 3 The Textual Environment of Chaucer's "Lak of Stedfastnesse"
Ch. 4 Saving the Appearances: Chaucer's "Purse" and the Fabrication of the Lancastrian Claim
Ch. 5 Queens as Intercessors
Ch. 6 Treason in the Household
Ch. 7 The Textual Vicissitudes of Usk's "Appeal"
Appendix 1: The Accusations Against Thomas Austin
Appendix 2: The Literature of Livery