Doers, Listers, and Makers: An Artisanal List in London, British Library Harley MS 541

© British Library Board, Harley MS 541, f. 229v

by Martha Rust

Parchement makers (parchment makers)
Screueners (scriveners)
Lymyminiers (manuscript illuminators [MED s.v. “limnour”])[1]
Bokebynders (bookbinders)
Texte wryters (text writers)
Arblasters (crossbowmen [MED s.v. “arblaster”])
Chymne swepers (chimney sweepers)
Gonde feriers (ferrymen [MED s.v. “goundel”])
Sande lome and grauellyris (sand clay [MED, s.v. “lom”] and gravelers)
Carters and laborers
Portars in diverse plasis (porters in diverse places)
Wyne drawers (wine drawers)
? makers
Net makers
Lynyne drapers (linen drapers)
Stokefyshe mongers (stockfish mongers)
Felle mongers (skinners [MED s.v. “fel”])
Jewillers (jewelers)
Wolle marchauntis (wool merchants)
Wolle packers (wool packers)
Paltocke makers (doublet makers [MED s.v. “paltok”])
Heere makers (makers of haircloth [MED s.v. “her,” n. 2])
Webers of wollen (weavers of wool [MED s.v. “webber”])
Webers of lynen (weavers of linen)
Tapstres (weavers of upholstery or tapestries [MED s.v. “tapicer”])
Setters (brick or stone layers [MED s.v. “setter”])
Paternostres (rosary makers [MED s.v. “paternosterer”])
Weodemongers (garment sellers [MED s.v. “wede,” n. 2])
Ostelers (innkeepers [MED s.v. “hostiler,” sense 2a])
Nedelers (needlers)
Foser makers (ditch makers [MED s.v. “fosse”])
Cappers (makers or sellers of caps)
Hatters (makers or sellers of hats)
Curners (?) (carvers of millstones [MED s.v. quern n. (2)]
Coresers (horse dealers [MED s.v. “corser”])
Hekeney men (keepers of hackneys–small saddle-horses–for hire [MED s.v. “hakenei”])
Coyners (coin makers)
Sope makers (soap makers)
Lechus (physicians or surgeons, [MED s.v. “leche,” n. 3])
?oxters for blode
? for sadelis (saddles)
Gougelers (harpers/entertainers [MED s.v jogelour])
Waferers (makers or purveyors of wafers [MED s.v. “waferer”])

The above list of occupational terms appears on the last leaf of London, British Library Harley MS 541, a fifteenth-century miscellany associated with the household of Sir Thomas Frowyk (d. 1485).[2] While the list bears witness to the diversity of artisans plying their crafts in late-medieval London, it may also reflect the work of the city’s bureaucrats, which included members of the Frowyk family. Such a list would have been useful to them following the passage in 1413 of the Statute of Additions, which mandated that certain legal documents “add” a reference to the social status of any defendant named therein, either in terms of his or her rank in the aristocracy–Knight, Duke, Baron, etc–or with respect to his or her profession, trade or craft. As historian Lawrence Poos explains, “The Statute did not include an approved list of ‘additions’: there was no drop-down menu of approved status terms for clerks to choose from while drafting.”[3] A list such as the Harley 541 example could thus have come in handy to the public servants of the Frowyk family seeking terms for occupations.

But along with providing documentation of the worlds both of commerce and of bureaucracy in late-medieval London, this list of terms for doers and makers also speaks to the art and craft of making a list. What are the most basic elements of a written list? To begin with, a writing surface, and before that, someone to make it: a parchment maker for instance, the first term on this list. After that one needs a writer: that is, a “scrivener” or a “text writer,” terms that are also high on this list, representing occupations with which the Frowyk family may have been particularly familiar.

Next, one needs a list’s contents. Ostensibly, this list contains terms for people occupied with various kinds of work, yet the impression one has upon reading it is less of people than of the production of things: from book bindings to caps, hats, and coins to needles, soap, rosaries, and wafers. The list conveys this impression because, grammatically speaking, it is a collection of agent nouns, that is, nouns derived from the verbs and nouns that refer to the things these workers make. In English, such nouns are formed by adding -er to the end of, most commonly, a verb.[4] In this way, the term book binder derives from the verb “to bind,” and denotes someone who performs the action of binding; similarly, the term “maker” is based on the verb “to make” and denotes someone who performs the action of making something, be it soap, nets, doublets, or ditches. Many of the terms for makers in this list employ neither a verb or the term “maker” and simply add -er to the terms for the things the makers make: cappers make caps; hatters, hats; needlers, needles; and so on.

Every list has contents, but this list demonstrates that the craft of list making requires contents with a degree of uniformity. The compiler of this list accomplishes that uniformity in his near exclusive use of agent nouns and noun phrases (only the term “lechus” breaks the pattern). The repetitions of the -er ending and of the word “maker” results in a list of artisans that could be called an artisanal list, a well-wrought list that touches on poetry. In fact, the repetition of “maker” in the list calls to mind other senses of the term in  Middle English: a “creator” and a “writer or composer of a book, poem, song.”[5] And if its ‘mere’ utility would prevent a list from being called a poem, the writer of this list has added one further touch that transforms it into something more than a bureaucrat’s reference tool. By making its contents uniformly plural, the maker/poet of this list not only presents a useful lexicon but also evokes multitudes of each of the listed kinds of workers, thus putting the kinetic and profusive productivity of his city before our eyes.

A poetic reading of this list may seem far-fetched, but another poet and list maker, William Langland (1332-1386), used the same strategy to depict the scene of London. At the end of the prologue to his great poem Piers Plowman, he describes a crowd in London in terms of its plural doers and makers:

I sez in þis assemblee, as ye shul here after;
Baksteres and brewesteres and bochiers manye,
Wollen webbesters and weueres of lynnen,
Taillours and tynkers and tollers in markettes,
Masons and mynours and many oþere craftes:
Of alle lybbyne laborers lopen forþ somme–
As dykeres and delueres þat doon hire dedes ille

[I saw in this assemblage, as you shall hear later; / Bakers and brewers and butchers aplenty, / Weavers of wool and weavers of linen, / Tailors, tinkers, tax-collectors in markets, / Masons, miners, many other craftsmen. / Of all living laborers there leapt forth some, / Such as diggers of ditches that do their jobs badly ….][6]

If we encountered Langland’s list inscribed in the blank space below the Harleian list, would we call his poetic and the other utilitarian? Perhaps in the light of Langland’s, with its poetic meter and alliteration (another kind of uniformity), the Harleian list would have a poetic ring as well; after all, it rhymes, and many stretches of it also follow a pleasing trochaic pattern. For as Umberto Eco observes in his book The Infinity of Lists, “what often distinguishes a poetic list from a practical one is only the intention with which we contemplate it.”[7]


[1] For words whose Modern English equivalents are difficult to make out, I reference entries in the Middle English Dictionary (MED), ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001). Online edition in Middle English Compendium, ed. Frances McSparran, et al. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018),

[2] For an excellent description of the manuscript and its production, see Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, “The Making of a Minor London Chronicle in the Household of Sir Thomas Frowyk (died 1485),” The Ricardian 10 (1994): 86-103.

[3] Lawrence Poos and Martha Rust, “Of Piers, Polltaxes and Parliament: Articulating Status and Occupation in Late Medieval England,” Fragments: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Ancient and Medieval Pasts, 2017. The Statue of Additions also required inclusion of a defendant’s place of residence.

[4] The Oxford Dictionary of English defines an agent noun as “a noun denoting someone or something that performs the action of a verb, usually ending in -er or -or, e.g. worker, accelerator” (Oxford Dictionary of English, ed. Angus Stevenson [Oxford University Press, 2010]).

[5] Middle English Dictionary, s.v. “maker,” senses 1 and 3a.

[6] William Langland, Piers Plowman, B.P.217-24; B.5.308-19. Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt, Vol. 1: Text (New York: Longman, 1995). Translation from E. Talbot Donaldson, Will’s Vision of Piers Plowman: An Alliterative Verse Translation, ed. Elizabeth D. Kirk and Judith H. Anderson (New York: Norton, 1990).

[7] Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists, trans. Alastair McEwen (New York: Rizzoli, 2009), 371.


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