Trade in the North

mti16b The Fur Trade     Eeva Tomukorpi

The acquisition of furs was a comparatively simple matter in the 13th and 14th century as the European forests sheltered great numbers of fur-bearing animals. Particularly rabbit skins were popular among the English, while hare, fox, wild cat and other skins were plentiful in the country, too. Besides furs of wild animals, those of domestic animals were sought after, too, for example lambskins. Skins reached the local market from a variety of sources: manorial stewards accounted regularly for the sale of lambfurs and of rabbit and hare skins taken from their lord's warren, while the villagers also sold furs there, as they were free to hunt in non-royal forests.

Some provincial skinners were content to work only on skins coming from within the British Isles but those who catered for luxury trade were in a very difficult position. The finest furs came from the colder lands further north: sable, marten, ermine and grey-blue squirrel were only found in Russia and Scandinavia or in the more remote high forested areas of Southern and Central Europe. As the furs of these animals were popular among their wealthier customers, the skinners were forced to look abroad for supplies.

The manufacture of furs was less fully developed in England than on the continent but she still shared in the expansion of the fur-trade in 12th and 13th centuries. The English skinners showed little interest in arranging themselves for imports of furs: only a very small number of skinners or general traders took part in the trade of skins. They were served by a most efficient supply system but they were discouraged by the strength of the Hanseatic monopoly. As a result the Hanseatic merchants regarded England as one of their less important markets for furs, this can be seen in the small quantity of fine furs brought into the country.

It is not known when it became customary for a separate group of craftsmen to specialize in the dressing and making up of fur skins. The more skilled and costly work on furs always occupied fewer craftsmen than the manufacture of leather goods. Even in larger provincial centres specialized skinners were very few. Normally a skinner did not carry any stock of materials with him, but instead his customers would first buy the raw skins they required and then they would bring them to him to be dressed and made up. However, it was not unknown for the more prosperous skinners to buy the raw skins themselves, then to dress them and sell them in their own shops.

The 13th century saw the emergence of prosperous fur trade in London. By 1250 the group of London skinners were knowns as the merchant skinners, they were trading with King John on a scale which indicates that a prosperous and flourishing industry lay behind them. The London skinners had always played an important role in the English fur trade as they played an active part in the distribution of imported furs throughout the country, the growing dominance of the merchant skinners is well illustrated by the accounts of purchases of furs made for the king. Whereas in 1250 the furs bought for John were supplied by small traders, a century later the London skinners practically monopolized the valuable trade of supplying the royal household with furs. As a result the English nobility and country gentry also took their custom to London.