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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: August 2012

3 - Apprentices


Teache a child in the trade of his way, and when he is olde, he shal not departe from it.

Proverbs, 22.6, Geneva Bible (1560)

Thomas Dekker's play The Shoemakers' Holiday (1599) gives a romantic account of the rise of the fifteenth-century Lord Mayor of London, Simon Eyre, a member of the Shoemakers' Company. The world of trade depicted in the play is a mixture of down-to-earth handicraft, with a workroom of labourers engaged in cutting and stitching leather in the manufacture of shoes, and rather magical investment, as their master Eyre makes a killing by buying up, on a tip, the cargo of a newly arrived ship. Its accuracy as a portrayal of a bourgeois world lies in the mixture of the small-scale and domestic with the considerable wealth and power that characterized work and trade in London particularly throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Within traditional crafts and industries – the cloth trade, for example, which had been at the centre of English economic output from the fourteenth century onwards – the scale ran from the small sheep-farmer who did his own carding, spinning, and weaving to the great merchants who traded in the international market of finished cloth, buying and selling in quantity at substantial rates, extending and incurring credit and debts. A successsful career in a trade was one principal path of social mobility on the part of the able and the reasonably lucky; Dekker's legend of Eyre is to that extent based on the contemporary world in which the play was performed.

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