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.