Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of the Guild by Louise Lamprey
In the Days of the Guild by  Louise Lamprey

Saint Crispin's Day

How Crispin, the Shoemaker's Son, Made a Shoe for a Little Damsel, and New Streets in London



Scarlet leather sewed together—

Thus we make a shoe!"

—William Allingham.

L ONDON was a busy town when the long Venetian galleys and the tall ships of Spain anchored in the Pool of the Thames. Leather and silk and linen and velvet and broadcloth came to the London wharves, and London people were busy buying, selling, making and decorating every sort of apparel, from the girdle to hold a sword to the silken hood and veil of a lady. And nobody was busier than the men who worked in leather.

Nowadays we go into a shop and try on shoes made perhaps a thousand miles away, until we find a pair that will fit. But when Crispin Eyre's father sold a pair of shoes he had seen those shoes made in his own shop, under his own eye, and chosen the leather. It might be calfskin from the yard of a tanner, who bought his hides from the man who had raised the calf on his farm, or it might be fine soft goatskin out of a bale from the galleons of Spain. In either case he had to know all about leather, or he would not succeed in the shoe business. The man who aspired to be a master shoemaker had to know how to make the whole shoe. More different kinds of shoes were made in Thomas Eyre's shop than most shops sell to-day, and as he had begun to use the hammer and the awl when he was not yet ten years old, he knew how every kind should be made.

Early in the morning, before a modern family would be awake, hammers were going in the shoe-shops—tap-tap—tick-a-tack—tack! Sometimes by the light of a betty lamp in the early winter evenings the journeymen would be still at work, drawing the waxed thread carefully and quickly through the leather. Hand-sewn and made of well-tanned hide, such a shoe could be mended again and again before it was outworn. Riding-boots, leather shoes, slippers, sandals, clogs, pattens, shoes of cloth, silk, morocco, cloth-of-gold, velvet, with soles made of wood, leather, cork and sometimes even iron, went to and fro in the shadow of St. Paul's Cathedral, and sooner or later every kind crossed the threshold of Thomas Eyre's shop. The well-to-do came to order shoes for themselves, and the wooden-shod and barefoot came to get the shoes others would wear.

Each trade kept to its own street, even in those early days. When the Guilds had multiplied so that each part of each trade had its own workers, who were not supposed to do anything outside their trade, the man who made a shoe never mended one, and the cobbler never made anything. Each trade had its Guild Hall, where the members met for business councils or holidays, and some of them had their favorite churches. It was like a very exclusive club. Men and women belonged to these societies, they made rules about the length of time a man must work before he could be a master workman, and they took care of their own poor folk out of a common fund. Each Guild had its patron saint, connected in some way with the craft it represented. The especial saint of the shoemakers was St. Crispin, and his day was the twenty-fifth of October.

The leather workers were among the most important artisans of London, and in course of time each branch of the trade had its own Guild Hall. The cordwainers or leather workers took their name from Cordova in Spain, famous for its beautiful dyed, stamped, gilded and decorated leather. The saddlers had their hall, and the lorimers or harness-makers theirs, and the skinners and leather sellers and tanners had theirs. London was rather behind some of the cities on the Continent, however, both in the number and the power of her guilds. King Henry II. was not over-inclined to favor guilds, especially in London, for London was too independent, as it was, to please him. He had observed that when cities grew so strong that they governed themselves they were quite likely to make trouble for Kings, and not unnaturally, he felt that he had trouble enough on his hands as things were without inviting more. If he had allowed it London would have had a "Commune," as the organization of a self-governing city was called, long ago.

Crispin heard this discussed more or less, for all sorts of chattering and story-telling went on in the shop, and he heard also many stories which tended to make him think. The popular tales and songs of the Middle Ages were not by any means always respectful to Kings. The people understood very well that there were good monarchs and bad ones, and they were not blind to the reasons for the difference.

The story that Crispin liked best was the one about his own name, and on this October day, seated on his low bench beside Simon, the oldest of his shoemakers, he asked for it again.

"Aye, I'll warrant," grunted Simon, "an Eyre would be a born shoemaker, and name him Crispin——Eh, lad, what be you after with that leather?"

Crispin's fingers were strong, if small, and he was busy with hammer and awl and waxed thread, making a little shoe.

"Just a shoe, Simon—go on with the story," said the boy, with a little, shut-mouthed grin. Simon fitted the sole to the boot he was making and picked up his hammer.

"It was a long time ago—(tap-tap) when the emperor of Rome was a-hunting down the blessed martyrs, that there were two brothers, Crispin and Crispian their names were, who lived in Rome and did nothing but kindness to every one. But there be rascals—(trip-trip-trap!)—who do not understand kindness, and ever repay it with evil. One of such a sort lived in the same street as the two brothers, and secretly ran to tell the Emperor that they were plotting against his life. Then privately the wife of this evil-doer came and warned them, for that they had given her shoes to her feet. So they fled out of the city by night and came to France and dwelt in Soissons, where the cathedral now is.

"This England was a heathen country then, they say, and France not much better. Before long the king of that kingdom heard of the strangers and sent for them to know what their business was. When they said that their business was to teach the people the story of our Lord, he asked who this lord might be, and whether he was mightier than the king, or not.

"Then when the heathen king heard that the Lord of Crispin and Crispian was more powerful than either King or emperor he had a mind to kill them, but he was afraid. He asked if they had ever seen a palace finer that his own, that was made of wood and hung with painted leather, and they said that there were finer ones in Rome. Then said the king, 'Give me a sign of the greatness of your Lord.' And they asked him what it should be. And the king said, 'Cover the streets of my city with leather and you shall go forth unharmed.' Only the rich had any leather in those parts.

"That night Crispin and Crispian took the leather hide of their girdles and made a pair of shoes for the king. And when they came before him in the morning, they put the shoes upon his feet, the first shoes he had ever seen , and told him to walk abroad and he would find all the streets covered with leather."

The apprentices had been listening, and a laugh went round the shop, as it always did at that part of the tale.

"Thus it came to pass," concluded Simon, "that the two brothers lived at court and taught the king's leather workers how to make shoes, and that is why Saint Crispin is the friend of shoemakers."

"What was the name of him who told you the tale, Simon?" Crispin asked thoughtfully.

"Oh, he is dead these many years, but his name was Benet, and he came from Soissons, and had been to Rome and seen the street where the brothers lived. He had a nail out of one of the shoes they made for the king. People came to our house while he was with us, only to see that nail and hear the story. I heard it so many times that I learned it by heart."

Old Simon drove in the last nail with a vicious stroke that sent it well into the leather. "I'll warrant," he said, "the blessed Saint Crispin made none o' them shoes we make here, with pointed toes and rose windows on the leather, fitten for a lady." He held up the shoe with great disfavor. It was for a courtier, and the toe was two feet long and turned up, with a chain to fasten it to the knee. The front of the shoe was cut into open work in a wheel shape to show the gay silken hose underneath, and the shoe itself was of soft fine leather. With a parting sniff, Simon tossed it to a slim, grinning youth who would finish it by putting on a gilding.

The shoe that Crispin was making was of a different sort. It was a little round-toed sturdy thing, about the right size for a child of ten. The mate to it was on the bench at his side, and he put them together and looked at them rather ruefully. The shoe he had made was plain, and the other was trimmed daintily with red morocco and cut in a quaint round pattern on the toe—the decoration that was known as "a Paul's window," because the geometric cut-work with the colored lining looked like stained glass. Crispin frowned and shook his head.

"What's ailin' ye, lad?" Old Simon peered at the shoes in the boy's hands. "Bless ye, those ben't mates!"

"I know that, but I haven't any colored leather for this one even if I knew how to finish it," Crispin said with a sigh.

"Um-m-m!" Simon looked more closely at the little gay shoe. "That never came from these parts. That's Turkey leather." He gave Crispin a sharp glance. The great bell of Bow was ringing and the apprentices were quitting work. "Where did this shoe come from, now?"

Crispin hesitated. "Don't you tell, now, Simon. I found a little maid crying in Candlewick street—standing on one foot like a duck because she had lost her other shoe. She was so light I could lift her up, and I set her on a wall while I looked for the shoe, but it wasn't any good, for a horse had stepped on it. She cried so about the shoe that I—I said I would make her another. And then her father came back for her and took her away."

"Who might she be?" inquired Simon dryly.

"I don't know. I didn't tell father. She said she would send for the shoes though."

Simon had been rummaging in a leather bag behind his bench. "If she don't there's plenty of other little wenches that wear shoes. If the leather should be blue in place o' red, would that matter?"

"I shouldn't think so; one shoe is no good alone." Crispin began to be hopeful.

Old Simon pulled out some pieces of soft fine leather the color of a harebell and began to cut them quickly and deftly into fine scalloped borders. "This ben't Turkey leather, but it is a piece from Spain, and they learnt the trade of the paynim, so I reckon 'twill do. Stitch this on the other shoe in place o' the red, and I'll cut the pattern."

Nobody would have believed that Simon's old, crooked fingers could handle a knife so cleverly. In no time the pattern on the old shoe had been copied exactly on the new one. When Crispin had stitched the blue cut-work border on both, and Simon had rubbed the new leather on some old scraps and cleaned the old a bit, the two shoes looked like twins.

"Is there a boy here named Crispin Eyre?" inquired a man's voice from the doorway. Almost at the same time came the sweet lilting speech of a little girl, "Oh, father, that is the boy who was so kind to me!"

Crispin and old Simon stood up and bowed, for the man who spoke was a dignified person in the furred cloak and cap of a well-to-do merchant. The little girl held fast to her father's hand and gazed into the shop with bright interest. "Look at the shoes, father, aren't they pretty?"

The merchant balanced the little shoes in his broad hand. "Which did you lose, Genevieve, child?"

"I—I don't know, father," the child said, pursing her soft lips. "Cannot you tell?"

"By my faith," said the merchant thoughtfully, "if a London shoemaker's boy does work like this I doubt Edrupt may be right when he says our ten fingers are as good as any. This shoe is one of a pair from Cordova. Who's your father, lad?"

"My father is Thomas Eyre, so please you, master," said the boy proudly, "and I am Crispin."

"A good craft and a good name and a good workman," said the merchant, and dropped a coin into the litter of leather scraps. It was the full price of a new pair of shoes.

Crispin certainly could not have dreamed that his kindness to little Genevieve Gay would be the occasion of new streets in London, but it happened so. Master Gay, the merchant, came later to talk with Thomas Eyre about the shoe trade. Then, instead of sending a cargo of Irish hides abroad he gave Eyre the choice of them. Other shoemakers took the rest, the shoe trade of London grew, and so did the tanneries. The tanners presently needed more room by running water, and sought new quarters outside London Wall. The business of London kept on growing until the Leatherworkers' Guild had presently to send abroad for their own raw material. England became more and more a manufacturing country and less a farming country. In one or another trade almost every farming product was of use. Hides were made into leather, beef went to the cook-shops; horn was made into drinking-cups and lantern-lights, bones were ground or burnt for various purposes, tallow made candles. What the farmer had been used to do for himself on his farm, the Guilds began to do in companies, and their farm was England.

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