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‘A place of great trust to be supplied by men of skill and integrity’: assayers and knowledge cultures in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London

  • JASMINE KILBURN-TOPPIN (a1)

Abstract

This article suggests that institutional workshops of assay were significant experimental sites in early modern London. Master assayers at Goldsmiths’ Hall on Foster Lane, in the heart of the city, and at the Royal Mint, in the Tower, made trials to determine the precious-metal content of bullion, plate and coinage. The results of their metallurgical experiments directly impacted upon the reputations and livelihoods of London's goldsmiths and merchants, and the fineness of coin and bullion. Engaged in the separation and transformation of matter, assayers and the affairs of their workshops were also a curiosity for those interested in the secrets of nature. Making use of a wide-ranging body of sources, including institutional court minutes, artisanal petitions, mercantile guidebooks, recipe books and natural-philosophical treatises, this article uncovers a complex culture of metropolitan expertise. We first examine the workshop spaces in which assayers undertook their professional activities, and their secretive corporate cultures. We turn next to the manuscript culture through which assayers codified and communicated knowledge, ‘secrets’ and techniques to broader urban audiences. Finally, we assess exchanges and tensions between assayers and the wider community of Londoners engaged in scientific knowledge production and dissemination.

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Copyright

Footnotes

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I am very grateful to Rebekah Higgitt, Jim Bennett and Noah Moxham for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Footnotes

References

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1 Goldsmiths’ Hall Archive, London (GHA), Wardens accounts and court minutes (WA/CM), P2, fo. 15v.

2 The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio (tr. Cyril Stanley Smith and Martha Teach Gnudi), New York: The American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, 1942, p. 136.

3 Long, Pamela O., Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, Chapter 6.

4 Ercker, Lazarus, Pettus, John, Fleta minor: The laws of art and nature, in knowing, judging, assaying, fining, refining and inlarging the bodies of confin'd metals (London, 1683), sig. A1v.

5 de Malynes, Gerard, Consuetudo, vel, Lex mercatoria; or, The ancient-law merchant, vol. 1 (London, 1622), p. 284.

6 Evelyn, John, The Diary of John Evelyn, vol. 4: Kalendarium, 1673–1689, ed. de Beer, E.S., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955, p. 138.

7 BL Sloane MSS 1423, 2210.

8 Pettus, op. cit. (4), sig. B2r–v.

9 These institutional histories include Reddaway, Thomas F. and Walker, Lorna E.M., The Early History of the Goldsmiths’ Company, 1327–1509, London: Edward Arnold, 1975; Challis, Christopher E., A New History of the Royal Mint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991; Forbes, John S., Hallmark: A History of the London Assay Office, London: Unicorn, 1999.

10 Zilsel, E., The Sociological Roots of Science, Dordrecht: Springer, 2000, p. 721; Rossi, Paolo, Philosophy, Technology and the Arts in the Early Modern Era, New York: Harper & Row, 1970; Smith, Pamela and Findlen, Paula, eds., Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, New York and London: Routledge, 2002; Smith, Pamela H., The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006; Long, Pamela, Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400–1600, Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2011; Smith, Pamela H., Meyers, Amy R.W. and Cook, Harold J., eds., Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

11 Long, Pamela O., ‘Power, patronage, and the authorship of Ars: from mechanical known-how to mechanical knowledge in the last scribal age’, Isis (1997) 88, pp. 141, 4.

12 Smith, op. cit. (10).

13 Harkness, Deborah E., The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 6, 10.

14 Challis, op. cit. (9), p. 184.

15 Challis, Christopher E., The Tudor Coinage, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978, pp. 13.

16 Bayley, Justine and White, Harriet, ‘Evidence for workshop practices at the Tudor mint in the Tower of London’, in Saunders, David, Spring, Marika and Meek, Andrew, eds., The Renaissance Workshop, London: Archetype Publications, 2013, pp. 138143.

17 It is very likely that the varied workshop processes at the Mint, for example those of assaying, melting and blanching, were undertaken in different ‘houses’ (or certainly, at least, separate chambers). See Challis, op. cit. (15), pp. 14–16.

18 The National Archives, Kew (TNA), T 48/92, fo. 22v.

19 For a contemporary account of the Trial of the Pyx see GHA, MS C II.2.1, fos. 28r, 30r.

20 The Goldsmiths’ Company's assayer was variously known as the common assayer, assay master and deputy assayer. These terms are used interchangeably in the company's archival records.

21 Reddaway and Walker, op. cit. (9), pp. 164–165.

22 GHA, MS 2524, fo. 13v.

23 In the sixteenth century the customary weight of the sample taken for testing was either fifteen or thirty grains. See Forbes, op. cit. (9), p. 21.

24 The de moneta of Nicolas Oresme and English Mint Documents (tr. Charles Johnson), London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965, p. 81.

25 In general: ‘historical actors … in the course of controversy they attempt to deconstruct the taken-for-granted quality of their antagonists’ preferred beliefs and practices, and they do this by trying to display the artefactual and conventional status of those beliefs and practices’. See Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 7.

26 Agricola, Georgius, De re metallica (tr. Hoover, Herbert and Hoover, Lou), New York: Dover Publications, 1950, p. 223.

27 For craft guilds and secrecy, see Long, op. cit. (3), pp. 3–4, 6–7, 13–14, 72–101; Davids, Karel, ‘Craft secrecy in Europe in the early modern period: a comparative view’, Early Science and Medicine (2005) 10, pp. 341348.

28 GHA, MS 2524, fo. 55v. This ordinance states that if any man ‘reveals the secrets and good regulations of the craft to him [a stranger], he shall be deprived of all the benefits of St Dunstan until in the presence of the whole livery he acknowledges his misdeeds or else he shall pay a fine of 40s’.

29 On civic parlours see Griffiths, Paul, ‘Secrecy and authority in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London’, Historical Journal (1997) 40, pp. 925951; Orlin, Lena Cowen, Locating Privacy in Tudor London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 114, 146151. For a discussion of ‘secrecy as a dynamic social relation’ see Vermeir, Koen and Margocsy, Daniel, ‘States of secrecy: an introduction’, BJHS (2012) 45, pp. 153164.

30 Walter Sherburne Prideaux, ed., Memorials of the Goldsmiths’ Company, 2 vols., London, 1896–1897, vol. 1, p. 62.

31 Forbes, op. cit. (9), p. 99. The term ‘stranger’ referred to foreign artisans.

32 GHA, WA/CM, O2, fo. 194.

33 Richard Rogers was employed as company assay master from 1559 to 1567.

34 In 1566 Rogers was appointed assay master at the Tower mint.

35 GHA, WA/CM, K1, fo. 316.

36 GHA, WA/CM, K1, fos. 271, 321.

37 GHA, WA/CM, K1, fos. 271, 361, 382.

38 John Reynolds was in post as company common assayer for a decade, from 1619 to 1629.

39 GHA, WA/CM, Q1, fos. 112r–v.

40 GHA, WA/CM, Q1, fo. 113r.

41 Prideaux, op. cit. (30), vol. 1, p. 152.

42 GHA, WA/CM, Q1, fo. 122v.

43 Prideaux, op. cit. (30), vol. 1, p. 139.

44 Challis, op. cit. (9), p. 407.

45 TNA, Mint 19/I, fo. 90r.

46 TNA, Mint 19/I, fo. 98v.

47 de Munck, Bert and Soly, Hugo, ‘“Learning on the shop floor” in historical perspective’, in Munck, Bert De, Kaplan, Steven L. and Soly, Hugo (eds.), Learning on the Shop Floor: Historical Perspectives on Apprenticeship, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007, pp. 332, 7; Wallis, Patrick, ‘Apprenticeship and training in premodern England’, Journal of Economic History (2008) 68, pp. 832861, 847–848.

48 After institutional anxieties about a ‘proper [skilled] succession’ of assayers at the Mint, there was a special drive from the mid-eighteenth century to ensure that ‘the Mint always had a trained assayer waiting in the wings’. See Challis, op. cit. (9), pp. 407–409.

49 Prideaux, op. cit. (30), vol. 2, pp. 33, 73, 140.

50 Eamon, William, ‘Arcana disclosed: the advent of printing, the books of secrets tradition and the development of experimental science in the sixteenth century’, History of Science (1984) 22, pp. 111150.

51 Leong, Elaine and Rankin, Alisha, ‘Introduction: secrets and knowledge’, in Leong and Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800, Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 120, 6.

52 Pamela Smith, ‘What is a secret? Secrets and craft knowledge in early modern Europe’, in Leong and Rankin, op. cit. (51), pp. 47–66, 49.

53 GHA, WA/CM, O3, fo. 454.

54 GHA, MS C II.2.1.

55 Eamon, William, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 112120.

56 There are two manuscript versions of The Gouldesmythes’ Storehowse, and five known copies. The copy owned by the Goldsmiths’ Company is the longer version and contains a discussion of the specialization of the trade. See Jenstad, Janelle, ‘“The Gouldesmythes Storehowse”: early evidence for specialisation’, Silver Society Journal (1998) 43, pp. 4043, 40.

57 Duffin, Anne, ‘Gamon, Hannibal (bap. 1582, d. 1650/51), Church of England clergyman’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, at www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-10329, accessed 25 June 2018.

58 GHA, WA/CM, O2, fo. 313; O3, fo. 454.

59 GHA, WA/CM, O3, fo. 454.

60 See Records of London's Livery Companies Online: Apprentices and Freemen 1400–1900 (ROLLCO), at www.londonroll.org, accessed 20 October 2012.

61 See, for example, GHA, MS C II.2.1, fos. 23r–v, 33v.

62 BL Harley MS 38.

63 Challis, op. cit. (15), pp. 37–38; Steven Gunn, Henry VII's New Men and the Making of Tudor England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 74.

64 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fos. 28r, 30r.

65 Long, op. cit. (3), p. 246.

66 Long, Pamela, ‘The openness of knowledge: an ideal and its context in sixteenth-century writings on mining and metallurgy’, Technology and Culture (1991) 32, pp. 318355, 334–335, 355.

67 TNA, T 48/92.

68 Public trust in the purity of the coinage was essential for the success of the Financial Revolution. See Wennerlind, Carl, Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2011, Chapters 3, 4.

69 BL Harley MS 660. Mint and Moneta has numerous illustrations of tools and equipment found in the assayer's workshop which are not included in this earlier manuscript on coin and assaying.

70 TNA, T 48/92, fo. 5v.

71 Shapin, Steven, ‘The house of experiment in seventeenth-century England’, Isis (1988) 79, pp. 373404.

72 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fo. 4v.

73 Pirotechnia, op. cit. (2), p. 48.

74 Long, op. cit. (66), p. 350; Lazarus Ercker, Treatise on Ores and Assaying (tr. Anneliese Grünhaldt Sisco and Cyril Stanley Smith), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951, p. 194.

75 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fo. 5v.

76 Practitioners of the new experimental science expressed concerns about the deceptive possibilities of ordinary (and unaided) sense perception. See Eamon, op. cit. (55), pp. 292–294, Smith, op. cit. (10), pp. 193, 222–223, 228.

77 For a further discussion of the sensory knowledge of artisans see Smith, Pamela, ‘Vermillion, mercury, blood, and lizards: matter and meaning in metalwork’, in Klein, Ursula and Spary, E.C. (eds.), Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 2949, 32–33.

78 Georgius Agricola, op. cit. (26), p. 243.

79 Pirotechnia, op. cit. (2), p. 211.

80 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fo. 76v.

81 TNA, T 48/92, fos. 11r, 16v.

82 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fo. 6r. Tellingly, he specifically uses sensory language to talk about tool technology.

83 Pirotechnia, op. cit. (2), p. 281.

84 Ercker, op. cit. (4), p. 93.

85 Stielau, Allison, ‘The weight of plate in early modern inventories and secularization lists’, Journal of Art Historiography (2014) 11, 130.

86 Pirotechnia, op. cit. (2), p. 360.

87 TNA, T 48/92, 4v.

88 TNA, T 48/92, 12v–13r.

89 Georgius Agricola, op. cit. (26), xxx. See also Popplow, Marcus, ‘Why draw pictures of machines? The social contexts of early modern machine drawings’, in Lefevre, Wolfgang (ed.), Picturing Machines 1400–1700, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2004, pp. 1748, 26.

90 Shapin and Schaffer, op. cit. (25), Chapter 2; Smith, and Schmidt, , ‘Introduction: knowledge and its making in early modern Europe’, in Smith, Pamela H. and Schmidt, Benjamin, Making Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Objects, and Texts, 1400–1800, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 116, 13.

91 Patrick Wallis and Catherine Wright, ‘Evidence, artisan experience, and authority in early modern England’, in Smith, Meyers and Cook, op. cit. (10), pp. 138–163.

92 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fos. 27r–v.

93 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fo. 27v. The goldsmiths are undertaking a material assessment, and their honour and expertise are also on trial. See Wortham, Simon, ‘Sovereign counterfeits: the trial of the pyx’, Renaissance Quarterly (1996) 49, pp. 334359, 336.

94 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fo. 28v.

95 TNA, T 48/92, fos. 22v–23r.

96 TNA, Mint 19/I, fo. 90r.

97 Eamon, op. cit. (55), pp. 4–5.

98 Johnston, Stephen, ‘Mathematical practitioners and instruments in Elizabethan England’, Annals of Science (1991) 48, pp. 319344, 326–327; William Eamon, ‘How to read a book of secrets’, in Leong and Rankin, op. cit. (51), pp. 23–46, 30. See also Bertucci, Paola, Artisanal Enlightenment: Science and the Mechanical Arts in Old Regime France, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017, Chapter 5, esp. pp. 147, 153–155.

99 Long, op. cit. (3), p. 188.

100 Cormack and Mazzio have suggested that a ‘how-to’ book ‘was useful in two ways, instructing individual practitioners and consolidating the claims of the group as a whole to a field of knowledge or expertise’. See Cormack, Bradin and Mazzio, Carla, Book Use, Book Theory: 1500–1700, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 85. See also Glaisyer, Natasha and Pennell, Sara, Didactic Literature in England 1500–1800: Expertise Constructed, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, p. 9.

101 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fos. 5v, 74v, 76r.

102 Long, op. cit. (3), p. 177.

103 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fo. 32r.

104 GHA, MS C II.2.1, fos. 31v–32r.

105 Ercker, op. cit. (4), p. 228.

106 Smith, Natalie Zemon, ‘Beyond the market: books as gifts in sixteenth-century France’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1983) 33, pp. 6988, 72.

107 Pirotechnia, op. cit. (2), p. 363.

108 Pirotechnia, op. cit. (2), p. 364.

109 GHA, WA/CM, O3, fos. 551–552.

110 Forbes, op. cit. (9), pp. 70–71.

111 GHA, WA/CM, Q1, fo. 21r.

112 Mitchell, David, Silversmiths in Elizabethan and Stuart London: Their Lives and Their Marks, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017, pp. 7779.

113 GHA, MS C II.2.1, 32r.

114 ‘Blanching’ referred to the process of whitening coins. ‘Shearing’ involved cutting and clipping.

115 Challis, op. cit. (9), p. 267.

116 BL Harley MS 38, fo. 237r.

117 Pirotechnia, op. cit. (2), p. 358.

118 Pepys, Samuel, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol. 4: 1663 (ed. Latham, Robert and Matthews, William), London: Bell, 1971, p. 143.

119 C.S. Knighton, ‘Pepys, Samuel (1633–1703), naval official and diarist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, op. cit. (57), at www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-21906, accessed 25 June 2018.

120 Pepys, op. cit. (118), pp. 143, 145. ‘Experiment’ had an ambiguous meaning at this date, signalling: ‘The action of trying anything, or putting it to proof; a test, trial’. See ‘experiment, n.’, OED Online, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, at www.oed.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/view/Entry/66530, accessed 31 January 2019.

121 Eamon, op. cit. (55); Long, op. cit. (3).

122 Bacon, Francis, New Atlantis, in Bruce, Susan (ed.), Three Early Modern Utopias, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 151186, 180–183.

123 Harkness, op. cit. (13), p. 213.

124 Smith, Pamela, ‘Laboratories’, in Park, Katherine, ed., The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 3: Early Modern Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 290305, 296; Iliffe, Rob, ‘Material doubts: Hooke, artisan culture and the exchange of information in 1670s London’, BJHS (1995) 28, pp. 285318; Jim Bennett, ‘Shopping for instruments in Paris and London’, in Smith and Findlen, op. cit. (10), pp. 370–395.

125 Eamon, op. cit. (55), pp. 342–345; Ochs, Kathleen H., ‘The Royal Society of London's history of trades programme: an early episode in applied science’, Notes and Records (1985) 39, pp. 129158, 130–131.

126 See ‘assay, n.’, OED Online, op. cit. (120), at www.oed.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/view/Entry/11756?rskey=jtrlNj&result=1, accessed 25 June 2018.

127 This connection or parallel – between the reporting of assay trials and the recording of experimental practice – has also been made in Pastorino, Cesare, ‘The mine and the furnace: Francis Bacon, Thomas Russell, and early Stuart mining culture’, Early Science and Medicine (2009) 14, pp. 630660, 654–655.

128 Shapin and Schaffer, op. cit. (25), Chapter 2; Eamon, op. cit. (55), p. 289.

129 Fleta minor was reprinted in 1686 and 1689.

130 Philosophical Transactions (1683) 13(147), pp. 189–196. It was noted that Pettus ‘asserts his own experience’.

131 Pettus, op. cit. (4), B2r–v.

132 ‘The words “alchemy” and “chemistry” were used interchangeably to refer to the same body of activities throughout most of the seventeenth century, and only during the eighteenth century were distinctions similar to those in common modern usage rigidly drawn between the two’. See Principe, Lawrence M. and Newman, William R., ‘Some problems with the historiography of alchemy’, in Newman, William R. and Grafton, Anthony (eds.), Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 385431, 386.

133 Newman, William R. and Principe, Lawrence M., Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002, pp. 3839, 41, 46, 49. See also Newman, William R., ‘Alchemy, assaying, and experiment’, in Holmes, Frederic L. and Levere, Trevor H. (eds.), Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2000, pp. 3554.

134 Nummedal, Tara E., ‘Words and works in the history of alchemy’, Isis (2011) 102, pp. 330337, 331.

135 Smith, op. cit. (10), p. 186.

136 Bacon, Francis, Novum Organum: With Other Parts of the Great Instauration (tr. and ed. Urbach, Peter and Gibson, John), Chicago: Open Court, 1994, pp. 26, 44.

137 Letter from Evelyn to Boyle, 9 July 1659, quoted in Houghton, Walter E., ‘The history of trades: its relation to seventeenth-century thought’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1941) 2, pp. 3360, 48.

138 TNA, Mint 19/I, fos., 90r, 91r, 99r. Notably Robert Boyle referred to his workshop technicians (or ‘invisible actors’) as ‘operators’. See Shapin, op. cit. (71), p. 395.

I am very grateful to Rebekah Higgitt, Jim Bennett and Noah Moxham for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

‘A place of great trust to be supplied by men of skill and integrity’: assayers and knowledge cultures in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London

  • JASMINE KILBURN-TOPPIN (a1)

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