Medieval Shops

Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

This photograph shows a medieval shop. It’s closed. You can tell because the wooden counters at the front have been lowered. If it were open, the counter would be raised as it is in the photograph of the model below. Some shops have a board on top as well, which provides shade in the summer and shelter from the rain in winter for customers. At night the counter forms a shutter for the window, increasing the security of those within.

Model of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

Like most medieval shops, it’s narrow at the front to allow as many shops as possible to be crowded into the street, but it stretches back quite a long way. It’s on three levels: a cellar below ground in which the goods sold by the shop are stored; a ground floor level where business is transacted and money stored; and an upper floor where the owner and his family sleep. On the ground floor there’s also a hall where the family eats and the servants sleep. In some shops the hall is upstairs to allow a workshop to be set up in which the goods for sale are manufactured.

The shop above sells wine. You can tell this because from the barrel hanging outside. Literacy rates are quite high in fourteenth-century England, but not everyone can read, so signs showing the purpose of the shop use pictures or objects. A cutler might have a picture of knives on display and a surgeon’s sign usually has a representation of a bleeding arm wrapped in bandages.

Shops were a feature of medieval towns along with markets. Most towns were to be places where goods were created and traded. Although people could make much of what they needed, there were many specialised items that had to be bought, including nails, horseshoes, good quality candles, cloth, ironware and leatherware.

A market was the town’s main feature and it was usually, as we discovered in the post on St. Michael’s, in front of a church. Market stalls could be semi-permanent, or even permanent, and the main difference between market stalls and shops was that the shops sold goods for which there was a high demand in the town, while markets sold things for which demand was lower. Furs and expensive fabrics, for example were sold in markets by merchants who moved from town to town. Fish was usually sold in markets, since it had to be transported from the coast. Smiths, weavers, butchers, bakers, carpenters, drapers (selling woollen cloth) and mercers (selling linen) had shops.

Shops didn’t just sell goods brought in from elsewhere, however. Often the products they sold were made on the premises, for example by goldsmiths, shoemakers, cutlers, smiths, weavers and bakers. Butchers, carpenters and mercers also had shops, although they didn’t manufacture anything.

Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer


Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Life, Medieval Shop

19 responses to “Medieval Shops

  1. It’s interesting the general distinction between market and shop. I wonder if this became blurred in places where the market was permanent.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Where is the top one from April? Am amazed there’s so many medieval shops left standing, York and Shrewsbury in particular have a plethora. The model looks like an exact replica of your one.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Social history in medieval times is so interesting. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading about it. I liked the way the counters doubled as a shutter for security.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Another great post, April! Your description of the surgeon’s sign reminds me of the gruesome history behind the barber shop sign/pole.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not exactly on topic, but my medievalist friend here just shared this on Facebook:
    His work on Winchester sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Medieval Markets | A Writer's Perspective

  7. I just love these buildings!And like Fraggle says, amazing they are still standing…I doubt our modern shops will be so lasting. What a town to live in…thanks April.

    Liked by 1 person

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