livery companies illustrate socio-economic organization

In London, medieval craft guilds developed into livery companies. Livery companies became enmeshed in local government and the state church.  Positions in the livery companies depended more on family inheritance and social connections than on business activity.  By the sixteenth century, many liverymen did not engage in the craft of the livery company with which they were associated.

In 1515, city officials ranked London’s 48 livery companies in an order of precedence.  The order of precedence was a ranking of social prestige and political influence.  The top three livery companies were mercers (merchants), grocers, and drapers (wool and cloth merchants).  Those livery companies did not control those trades, which were large and diverse.  Many persons in those trades were not economically or politically powerful.  The livery companies were elites with ancient historical connections to the livery companies’ nominal trades. The livery companies and the order of precedence had little relation to the economic reality of actual trades.

In present-day London, the livery company known as the Worshipful Company of International Bankers has order of precedence 106 out of the current 108 London livery companies.  The Worshipful Company of Mercers remains the livery company with the highest order of precedence.

Social positions are much more stable than economic positions.

coat of arms for Worshipful Company of Scriveners, London 1596

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The Folger Shakespeare Library has on exhibit until Sept. 30, 2012, Open City: London 1500-1700.  That exhibit traces London’s transformation from a walled city with a population of about 50,000 in 1500 to an “open city” developed far beyond medieval walls and having a population of about 500,000 in 1700.  A broadsheet showing chief corporations of London in 1596 is on display in that exhibit (online image).  The image of the scriveners’ coat of arms (above) is from that broadsheet.  Here’s a machine readable version of the broadsheet’s list of the chief corporations of London in 1596 (Excel file).

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