An Ancient CallingThe term "Cordwainer" is an Anglicization of the French word cordonnier, introduced into our language after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The word itself is derived from the city of Cordoba, in the south of Spain, a stronghold of the mighty Omeyyad Kalifs until its fall in the 12th century. Moorish Cordoba was celebrated for two staple trades in the early Middle Ages, silversmithing and the production of cordouan(cordovan)leather, called "cordwain" in England. Originally made from the skin of the Musoli goat, then found in Corsica, Sardinia, and elsewhere, this leather was "tawed" with alum after a method supposedly known only to the Moors. English Crusaders brought home much plunder and loot, including the finest leather the English shoemakers had ever seen. Gradually cordouan, or cordovan leather became the material most in demand for the finest footwear in all of Europe.
The English term cordwainer, meaning shoemaker, first appears in 1100. By the late 13th century a distinction grew in England between Cordwainers. proper, called alutari, who used only alum "tawed" cordwain, and another class of shoemakers called basanarii, who employed an inferior "tanned" sheepskin which was prohibited for footwear apart from long boots. Since this period the term cordouan, or cordovan leather, has been applied to several varieties of leather. Today cordovan leather is a "vegetable tanned" horse "shell," and like the Medieval cordwain is used only for the highest quality shoes.
Since the Middle Ages the title of Cordwainer has been selected by the shoemakers themselves, and used rather loosely; however, generally it always refers to a certain class of shoe and boot-makers. The first English guild of shoemakers who called themselves "Cordwainers" was founded at Oxford in 1131. "Cordwainers" was also the choice of the London shoemakers, who had organized a guild before 1160, and the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers has likewise used this title since receiving their first Ordinances in 1272.
First Cordwainers in AmericaThe first "Cordwainers," or shoemakers, to arrive in America came to Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in this continent established in 1607. Captain John Smith, an alleged Cordwainer himself, was first among the leaders of the settlement, from which began the overseas expansion of the English speaking peoples as the earliest outpost of the British Empire, and the first beginnings of the United States of America. Captain Smith's historic adventure of settlement was, in part, supported by profits made in the English shoe trade.
Shoemakers, tanners, and other tradesmen had arrived in Jamestown by 1610, and the Secretary of Virginia had recorded the flourishing shoe and leather trades there as early as 1616. The first shoemaker to arrive in America, whose name has been preserved, was Christopher Nelme, who had sailed from Bristol, England and arrived in Virginia in 1619. Nearly one year later, when the first Pilgrim settlers landed in Massachusetts, they relied upon the colony in Virginia for several vital commodities and when the first shoemakers arrived there, in 1629, it is likely that they survived in part on Virginia leather until their own tanners were established. Throughout the late 17th century, Virginian exported her leather to New England, initially supplying the shoe trade which boomed there after the 1760's.
"Cordwainer" not "Cobbler"One distinction preserved by Cordwainers since the earliest times is, that a Cordwainer works only with new leather, where a Cobbler works with old. Cobblers have always been repairers, frequently prohibited by law from actually making shoes. Even going so far as to collect worn-out footwear, cut it apart, and remanufacture cheap shoes entirely form salvaged leather, Cobblers have contended with Cordwainers since at least the Middle Ages. In 16th century London the Cordwainers solved their conflicts with the Cobblers of that city by placing them under the powerful authority of the Cordwainer's guild, thus merging with them.
Whenever shoemakers have organized, they have shown a clear preference for the title "Cordwainer," conscious of the distinguished history and tradition it conveys. Today's Cordwainer is no exception. The current generation of boot and shoemakers includes a growing number of self-employed tradesmen and women, who having largely adopted early hand-sewn techniques supplemented by only a few simple machines out of economic necessity, continue to practice the traditional skills established centuries ago. In the face of declining domestic footwear production every year, it can be easily said that the true future of this trade lays in its past, and is being insured by the skilled hands of these modern Cordwainers.
Guild of Cordwainers Exeter 1841
Gild of the Cordwainers, Exeter, 1481(This version is extracted from Rolls of the Mayor's Court of Exeter, Roll xix of the year 21 and 22 Ed IV in Smith, Toulman ed, English Guilds... (Early English Text Society, 40), London: Oxford University Press, 1870 (reprinted 1963))To all men that this presentez schall here or see, gretyng in oure lorde euerlastyng. Where-as the Maister of the crafte of cordynerez, of the fraternyte of the blyssed Trinyte, in the Cyte of Execter, hath diuerse tymez, in vmble wise, sued to the honorable Mayor, bayliffs, and commune counsayle of the saide citee, for certayne ordinauncez and ruelles to be vsed wtin the jurisdiccion of the saide cite, concernyng the said crafte, vnder the favoure of the saide Maior, baylifs, and commune counsayle, in reformyng diuerse inconveniencez that ben down before this tyme, and here-after myght ensue, and for the conseruacion of the politik gouernaunce of the same, to the lawde and honor of the saide fraternlte of the blessyd Trynyte, and the wele of the kyng oure souerayg lordez people. Wherefore, Mayor, bayllifs and commune counsayle, consyderyng there desirez, wille and graunte that the Mayster and Wardenez of the sayde crafte schall enyoye and vse suche ordinauncez and ruellcz wythin the jurisdiccion of the saide cite as folowith.
ffirste, that the saide Maister and Wardenz, and their successors, wt iij. othere men of the saide crafte convenient, schall make due serche, att alle tymys, of euery thyng necessary perteynyng to there saide crafte, as by sufferaunce they have vsed wtin the jurisdiccion of the saide cite; that is to wete, of all were lethere and drye botez, botwez, schoez, pyncouz, galagez, and all other ware perteynyng to the saide crafte, made and unmade, whiche is desceyteously wrought, as in tannyng, coryyng, cuttyng, or sowyng, or in any other wyse made, where-thurgh the kynges lege peopell scholde be disceuyd; that then suche ware, so founde defectyf, to be by the saide Maister and Wardenz forfet and seased; and that to be preysed lawfully in the Yeldehall of the saide cite; --half of the same to be to the behough of the saide cite, and the other halfe to the behough of the saide fraternyte.
Also, where-as they have a-leccion a mongez the saide crafte, of a Mayster and Wardynz for the convenyent gouernaunce of the same; That he that is so by the saide fraternyte electe to be a Maister, and he wolde refuse to take the gouernaunce vppon hym, wherby a inordynatt ruell schulde ensue, that then he so electe, for his refusell, to paye xx.s.; wherof the half to be to the behough of the saide cite, and the other half to the behough of the saide fraternyte, as ofte as they so do offende.
Also, where-as the saide ffraternite haue, by suffcraunce, to electe Wardynez of the saide crafte, for the yere folowyng, whereof ij. of theyme schalbe schoppeholders, and ij. other jorneymen, wtin the saide Cite; that if he so electe for the Wardyn of the schopholders, refuse to take vppon hym, to forfette xiij.s, iiij.d.; halfe therof to the behough of the saide cite, and the other half to the behough of the saide ffraternite, as ofte as hit schall so happen to offende. And if any of the Jornaymen of the saide crafte be electe Warden, refuse to take the office of Wardynschippe, that then they forfet vj.s. viii.d.; the one halfe to be to the behough of the saide cite, and the othere half to the behough of the saide ffraternyte, as ofte as hit schall happen.
Also, if any person of the saide crafte, what degre or condicion he be of, be warned, in resonable tyme, to come before the saide Maister and Wardynz, att there place acustumed, and he so warned absent hym, and no resonable excuse hadd, that then, for euery defaute so donn, that thay schall paye for the saide dissobedience iij.s, iiij.d.; the sayde cite to have the oone halfe, and the saide fraternyte the othere half.
Also, that no maner of man, what condicion he be of, of the saide crafte, holde no open schoppe wtin the jurisdiccion of the saide cite, butte he be a ffraunchised man, accordyng to the olde custumez conteyned in the blake rolle of the saide cite, uppon payne of vj.s. viij.d.; half to the behough of the saide cite, and the othere half to the behough of the saide fraternyte.
Also, that no maner of man of the saide crafte, dwellyng wtin the jurisdiccion of the saide cite, as well in the suburbis as in the cite, were none lordes levery ne other gentilman-is, uppon payne of vj.s. viijd.; the half thereof to the behough of the saide cite, and the other half to the saide fraternyte.
Also, that if any schopholder of the saide crafte within the saide cite, set any man aworke by the space of a monyth, and then the straunger to paye iiij.d, to the wax of the saide fraternyte; and flint he that so settyth hym aworke schall awnswere the saide iiij.d.
Also, that no man of the sayde crafte in the saide cite, sette no man a-worke that is reteyignde in any man-ys service, on the tyme that he be had, in examinacion before the saide Maister, Wardyns, and felisshipp, to understond the departure of hym; and if any do the contry, he to forfette vj.s. viij.d.; the halfe therof to the behough of the saide Cite, and the othere half to the behough of the saide fraternyte.
And also, if any man of tlle said mystere, of what degree or condicion he be of, that suche summys of mony as he or thaye bene sett for to paye, for the sustentacion of the Prest and of there chapell, after ons warned, and refuse to paye hys duty, he to lose, for euery defauut, xl.d.; and that euery Maister answere for his servauntz to the same, vppon the same payne: the forfett whereoff, the one half to grow to the Cyte, the other half to the saide ffraternyte.
Provided alleway, that the saide Maister and Wardons of the said Mistere, shall come, euery yere, on-to the Yeldhall of the said cite, the nexte Moneday vppon the Eleccion of the new Maier, Baillifs, and other offycerres of the saide Cite; and ther, by the payment of iiij.d., to surrendre all there sayde power on-to the saide Maier Bailifs and communalte; and then and there to take and resume hit, by the new Maier-ys graunte, of the saide cite, accordyng to the saide enrollement vnder his seale of office, without any fees there-for to be payed; provyded all-so, that the liberteis of the saide cyte, francheis, and old vsuages, allwaye be savyd, and yn no wyse interrupte by the saide graunte.
And that this saide ordynauncez and constitucionz, wt othere conuenyent rewlis as acordyth wt reason, schall be ferme and stable, we the saide Maior bailifs and commune counsayle haue lette enroll hit in a roll, beryng date the Munday next after the ffeste of the Purificacion of oure lady, yn the xxjth yere of the reynyng of the kyng our souerayg lord, kyng Edward the iiith, amongez the recordez of the saide cite.