Discovering Medieval Merchants' Marks in Norwich

Discovering Medieval Merchants’ Marks in Norwich

Norwich is a place full of interesting history, with the marks of time everywhere you look. In fact, Norwich is famed for having one of the most complete medieval streets in the country. But did you know you can see medieval marks all across the city? Here, Darren Leader, Graphic Designer, Researcher and Educator, tells us more.

We all understand the visual culture of logos. Brands are instantly recognisable with a visual identity symbolic of quality, attitude, and style. Their trademarks inspire our love and loyalty.

Many of our favourite shops around the Norwich Lanes are masters of brand communication. We intuitively decipher a range of visual identities that are symbolic of finely crafted products and customer experience. But our interaction with brands is not entirely a contemporary activity. Surprisingly, commercial branding originates from our distant past.

Merchants’ Define Their Difference

During the 14th–16th centuries, Norwich was a centre of regional and continental trade with products defined by merchants’ marks that ensured the instant recognition and authentication of goods belonging to individual traders. Each logo had to be different from its competitor or neighbour and distinguishable by a mostly illiterate population.

The term ‘merchant’s mark’ is also applied to a range of working individuals. Logo devices were utilised to indicate craftsmanship by stone masons, saddlers, cutlers, and goldsmiths. City artisans such as woollen and tapestry weavers, drapers, tanners, grocers, bakers, brewers, printers, and bookbinders attached their own logo device to their products to prompt customer recognition. Some persons also required their own brand. Sheriffs, mayors, and alderman working in local government used distinctive marks as a form of personal identity.

Where Merchants Worked

Norwich merchants probably worked with access to the Rivers’ Wensum and Yare, with branded goods transported through the Broads to Great Yarmouth and connecting overseas with the Netherlands. Norwich city centre areas such as Pottergate, Maddermarket, Colegate, St Stephens, St Andrews and Tombland were places of residence and business premises. The area of Coslany, located today near the St Miles bridge by Anchor Quay was regarded as a village within the city and was a vibrant quarter in the production of woollen weaving. Norwich market was busy with outlets for grocers, butchers, livestock, clothiers, ironmongers, and many other trades.

Merchants’ marks were probably seen regularly in everyday medieval life. They would be found as carvings above wooden door frames or timber beams. Letters and deeds would be validated by a logo device in the form of signature. Merchants’ marks could also be found inside churches either engraved in stone or rendered upon stained-glass to indicate donation toward restoration. And upon the passing of a merchant, their sign would sometimes appear on a gravestone or brass nameplate.

Mysteries of Mark Making

The design of merchants’ marks tended to avoid literal interpretation of purpose or speciality. Instead, the makers of these marks crafted a visual language based upon angular line and geometric shape. Intriguingly, some design compositions were derived from ancient signs such as rune alphabets, a writing system by Germanic peoples. Rune symbols had profound meaning, but it is unknown whether specific signs were chosen to embody a merchant’s prime activity, perhaps it was forgotten when designs were further developed with the adornment of orbs or crosses. Sometimes, the Sign of Four would define the character of a logo design. Its meaning is the subject of speculation and thought possibly to be the four virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Honourable values which you can imagine a medieval merchant would probably want to communicate within a singular logo device. But definitive meaning is lost in time.

Logo examples from the 15th and 20th centuries. Can you identify which ones they are?

Connecting the Past and Present

There is a case for merchants’ marks and printers’ marks to be seen as a precursor to the modernist trademarks of the 20th century. They share the intention to create captivating brand symbols that communicate with the minimum of elements. A history of merchants’ marks in Norwich were researched in the early 1700s by the antiquarian John Kirkpatrick (1687–1728), and informed the book, ‘Notices of the Merchants’ Marks in the City of Norwich’, by William C Ewing, 1850. It featured hundreds of merchants’ marks rendered in pen and ink. Today, digitally remade logo devices are being posted on Instagram to preserve their legacy. This social media channel and further projects aim to introduce merchants’ marks to a wider community.

The story of merchants’ marks in logo history is relatively unknown and deserves to engage a contemporary audience of scholars, designers, artists, lecturers and students. And future visitors to the City of Norwich.

You can follow the progress of the Merchants’ Marks project on Instagram. Discover who the merchants were, their professions and where they lived and worked in Norwich.

Sources:

‘Notices of the Merchants’ Marks in the City of Norwich’, William C Ewing, 1850

‘English Merchants’ Marks’, F.A. Girling, 1964

‘Merchants’ Marks in Suffolk, F.A. Girling, 1961

Credits:

Thanks to the Norfolk Heritage Centre and the Norfolk Record Office.