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  • "Their labour doth returne rich golden gaine":Fishmongers' Pageants and the Fisherman's Labor in Early Modern London
  • Laurie Ellinghausen (bio)

Audiences for early modern English plays inhabited an island kingdom. Therefore the drama's preoccupation with the sea comes as no surprise. Maritime settings abound in comedy, tragedy, history, and romance. Even the most ostensibly land-bound genres, such as city comedy, incorporate the ocean in ways that signal its importance to the nation's identity and, more specifically, its economy.1 Indeed, A. F. Falconer speculates that the period's most famous playwright, Shakespeare, spent time at sea himself—so diverse and plentiful are the maritime references in Shakespeare's canon.2

The ocean also figures prominently in the London Lord Mayors' shows, civic pageants staged to commend one citizen's ascendancy to the City's highest office. Oceanic images typically play an allegorical or a [End Page 134] mythological role in these productions. The shows regularly incorporate "ship of state" metaphors into visions of civic governance.3 Neptune makes occasional appearances to convey his mightiness, only then to submit to the new mayor's superior virtues.4 Pageants sometimes call for the mayor to arrive by barge, a custom that recruits the Thames into the shows' penchant for waterworks.5 Such imaginative features serve the general purpose of providing counsel for the incoming mayor and inspiring him to cultivate the qualities needed to see the City through the perilous waters of inevitable change. The successful mayor, these productions suggest, will distinguish himself as an upright, judicious, and knowledgeable captain of his proverbial ship and its charges.6

The Lord Mayors' shows represent the mayor's leadership as critical to the capital's—and by extension the nation's—social, economic, and political health. But London's livery companies—those ancient institutions that commissioned the shows and, indeed, conferred the prestige of urban citizenship in the first place—also viewed themselves as critical to those ends. Scholars have characterized the Lord Mayors' shows as promoting "unity" among various civic interests.7 However, these perspectives tend to leave underexplored the reality of competition among London's industries and, by extension, the ways in which guilds' specific interests registered in the pageants they commissioned.8 This paper complicates the unity aesthetic by analyzing representations of English fishing in pageants commissioned by the Fishmongers' Company. I will home in on the three early modern shows surviving in print9—Thomas Nelson's The Device of the Pageant: Set forth by the Worshipfull Companie of the Fishmongers (1590), Anthony Munday's Chrysanaleia: The Golden Fishing: Or, Honour of Fishmongers (1616), and Elkanah Settle's The Triumphs of London (1700)—to analyze how one company used the civic pageant to argue for its industry's continued relevance in an economy increasingly dependent on the long-distance trade of luxury goods, goods different in value and kind from those yielded by the humble fishermen who supplied the Company. I argue that these productions affirm fishing, and sea labor in general, in a way that anticipates the maritime foundation of the British Empire and argues for the Fishmongers' importance within that economic scheme. I will suggest further that the London guilds, although sometimes viewed as fossilized in nostalgia,10 in fact were highly responsive to change [End Page 135] and, more specifically, attuned to the representational possibilities of the pageant for imagining a specific industry's role in a prosperous national future.

The Fishmongers' wealth and position derived in part from their ability—or, more precisely, the ability of the fishermen with whom they worked—to extract fish from the surrounding waters. Significantly, the English fisherman's skill in sailing and navigation would one day become central to the success of the British Empire, a project that David Armitage characterizes as "Protestant, commercial, maritime and free."11 Armitage roots these four interrelated ideals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when figures such as John Dee, Richard Hakluyt, and Thomas Mun began to conceive of the oceans as highways for the kinds of large-scale trade and colonization that would ensure Britain's prosperity for centuries to come. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth...


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