Fairs and Markets


Even people who lived in the countryside in the fourteenth century were not always self-sufficient in food. Many tenants preferred to grow crops for money, rather than grow everything that they needed to eat. This meant that they had to buy food from markets in order to survive. Lords of the manor, who could, in theory, grow, rear or hunt everything they needed to eat, wanted to buy luxuries or foodstuffs that could not be produced on their demesne. If they wanted spices for their food or silk for their clothing, they had to go to fairs or markets to buy them, which meant that, like their tenants, they needed money. Both earned money by selling surpluses in markets.

Markets had arisen informally over the centuries. They were centres to which locally grown produce or the goods produced by local craftsmen were brought to be sold. Lords whose manors included the villages (later towns) where these markets were held wanted to benefit from them and they fixed the times and places of the markets so that they were easier to control. Then the lords were able to levy tolls and collect fines. There were many tolls to be paid by those buying and selling goods. If you wanted to take goods through a town, by road or river, you had to pay a toll. If your goods had to be weighed prior to onward transit, you had to pay a toll. If you wanted to set up a stall at the market, you had to pay a toll. If your goods did not match the local quality standards or if you used false measures, you had to pay a fine.  All of this money went to the lord of the manor.

Most people lived within walking distance of a market, but going there, buying things and returning would usually take up a whole day. I’ve discussed this previously here, although the example I used there of people living 12 miles from a market was not the experience of most people. The average distance an English peasant travelled to a market was a little over four miles.

As well as the lords and their tenants there were a variety of people buying and selling in the market. Even in villages there were craftsmen and servants who grew nothing, or very little, to eat. In towns few people had gardens and none could grow enough to live on. All of these had to buy food in the market.

Markets and fairs were eventually licensed by the king and this was supposed to ensure that everything was done fairly, with uniform weights and measures. It also meant that offenders would be punished. This was the theory. The practice was often very different.

There were two types of market: those that handled locally produced goods and those that handled goods from further afield. The former would provide things such as food, cloth, leather, coal, salt and fish. The later provided food, wool, wine, cloth and luxuries. Tradesmen and chapmen serviced the first and merchants the second. Chapmen were itinerants who took their goods from market to market.

Markets were held on two or three days a week and there were not supposed to be any other fairs nearby within two or three days. Needless to say, this injunction was not always observed and towns were frequently complaining about another nearby town holding markets that interfered with their own. Competition was fierce between markets.

Taking produce to market was often the task of women. They were usually the ones responsible for poultry, eggs, fruit, vegetables, honey and wax, so they were the ones who carried them to market in baskets to sell them, as shown in the picture at the top of the post.

Fairs, on the other hand, could last for days or weeks. They were usually held once or twice a year, usually in the summer. Fairs were common around Michaelmas (29th September) when labourers had been paid after the harvest. It was also the beginning of the agricultural year when people were thinking about, and buying, what was needed for the year ahead. The one in Winchester, for example, took place in September. Fairs were much bigger than markets and most of the trading was between merchants. People travelled much further to attend them, both buyers and sellers. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries merchants travelled for weeks from many different countries to attend the great fairs in Champagne, but even those fairs were on the wane by the beginning of the fourteenth century.







Filed under Fourteenth Century

28 responses to “Fairs and Markets

  1. Thanks, for doing this post, April. After the last one I really wanted to learn more about fairs and markets. Why did the fairs wane? Was it because towns were on the rise?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a fair in my work in progress, so I should have done this ages ago, because I got it wrong in the story. I’ll have to find another way to get the heroine her silk dress.
      In his book ‘Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe’ Peter Spufford says that Chapagne fairs in particular faded away because the court of the counts of Champagne moved away from the town where the fairs had been held; France was at war with Flanders which meant that merchants could not travel from the north; a commercial sea route opened from the Mediterranean to Bruges and ways of doing business changed so that merchants did not have to travel with their goods in order to sell them. The second and fourth of these would have had an impact on fairs in England.

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  7. Your posts are always so interesting!!!! I love them even more as my kids are covering certain topics at school, and when I read your posts, I think…oh, I know that, or I should tell my son/daughter!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve always loved history and really enjoy the glimpse you give us into what life used to be like. Makes me appreciate my 5-minute drive to the grocery store!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. angelanoelauthor

    I echo Ruth and Ritu! I learn a lot from your posts and wonder how you uncover some of the details. Like, how and where are the complaints about fairs held too closely together, recorded? That’s something I’d be surprised to find details about in a history book. Also, despite my years of reading Jane Austen novels, and many mentions of Michaelmas, I always assumed it was around Christmas–why? no idea. But, now I know! I’m curious on the history of that now, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Angela, thank you. When I wrote the post I knew the answer to your first question, because I’d just read the book that mentioned it. I can’t even remember which book it was now, which probably means it’s time to start adding a references section to the posts.

      The complaints would have been brought in one of the many courts, I suspect, which would explain why there are records of the complaints. A historian would make a note of the complaints in his book, since it shows what was accepted as normal.

      I always thought that Michaelmas was around Christmas, too. That’ll probably be because of the ‘-mas’ suffix. It’s just a shortened form of ‘mass’ and was attached to many special days – Candlemas and Petermas, for example. Michaelmas is the feast day of St Michael and All the Angels. I can see why they preferred Michaelmas.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Here in New England, agricultural fairs are still a big part of fall. Animal exhibits and competitions, lots of great food and entertainment. People come from miles around, its pretty neat

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    • That sounds like a lot of fun. We used to have something similar when I was a child, even though I grew up in a city. There are still lots of agricultural shows all over the country, but I don’t know how well-attended they are.


  11. how interesting that we still have the large country fairs now, with a nod to the tradition but most of them tend to be in July and August, so not related to the harvest. (Always a good day out when the sun is shining!)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Yep, another New Englander here, and there are more fairs, farmer’s markets, and such than you can shake a stick at. Love the historical perspective – it makes me appreciate them (and my quick hop to the local grocery store) all the more!

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    • There must be something about New Englanders to make them appreciate the past.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hmmm, that’s a good question, April. Maybe it’s being surrounded by so much history (I can think of at least three historic places only a stone’s throw from our place) that makes us so aware of our past.Granted, ours is about five seconds old compared to England – LOL!

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        • We rather take the past for granted. I was well into my teens (more like twenty) before I realised that not every town had walls dating back to the fourteenth century and that having a large twelfth century building in the middle of the High Street wasn’t terribly common. I appreciate it now, though.

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  13. globalhousesitterX2

    As always April I enjoyed reading your extensive knowledge on history and markets are a thing we try to go to in each new place we housesit and visit. Suz

    Liked by 1 person

  14. April, I always love your posts – they’re a great snapshot into history. You must have to do so much research on this for your writing too

    Liked by 1 person

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