Category Archives: Medieval Commerce

Medieval Markets

Westgate Hall, Southampton

Last week we looked at medieval shops and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at medieval markets today. On average, most people in England in the fourteenth century lived just over four miles from their nearest market, which meant that both buyers and sellers could get there and back in a day. Often people were both buyers and sellers if they came in from outside the market town.

It wasn’t just merchants who had goods for sale; by the fourteenth century peasants were growing crops to sell and they sold them in the nearby market towns. Although grain was the chief crop and had to be sold and transported in bulk, they also produced poultry, eggs, fruit, vegetables, honey and wax. These were normally the responsibility of the women and it was their job to take them to market, usually on foot. Peasants also grew flax and hemp and dyestuffs all of which would be sold.

Markets weren’t just about local produce, however. You could also buy, depending on which merchants were there, luxury goods such as sugar, almonds, dates, aniseed, liquorice, sweetmeats, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, currants, raisins, figs, cloves, ginger, salt and rice, most of which had travelled a long way. Foreign foods weren’t the only luxuries, though. Cloths and threads from silk to linen, furs and leatherware could also be purchased.

Most market towns were small and they were controlled by the lords of the manor who founded them. They received the tolls, rents and fines from the market. Tolls were paid to enter the town and rents were paid for the stalls. By the mid-thirteenth century markets had to be licensed by the king and a century later about 1,200 had been licensed. There were undoubtedly many unlicensed markets as well.

The authorities of a market town were keen to see that buyers weren’t cheated, since there was usually another market town not too far away. Smaller market towns existed solely to enable trade. If buyers went elsewhere there would be no more tolls, rents or fines, so the market was overseen by a catchpole whose job was to look out for merchants who were breaking the rules of the market, mainly by cheating their customers. This is where the fines came in.

Markets in towns close to one another were held on different days, partly to reduce competition amongst them, but also to allow traders to travel around them. In larger towns there could be a market on every day of the week, except Sunday.

Markets were held in large open spaces, often in front of a church, and the roads around it were made as wide as possible to allow carts to pass one another coming and going. It was the bells of the church that told everyone when the market was opening and closing.

I mentioned last week that many market stalls were semi-permanent and some were even permanent. Many were housed in arcades of a building that had an enclosed top floor used to store items sold by the traders in the arcades below. Usually there was a requirement that certain goods coming into a town be stored in one place, regardless of who they belonged to. This applied particularly to wool and it made it much easier to tax the traders.

Westgate Hall, pictured at the top of the post, was built towards the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth. Although you can’t see them now, there were arcades all around the bottom for stalls in the fish market. Relocated in the seventeenth century, it used to stand in the middle of the fish market, outside St. Michael’s church. The top floor was used to store wool.  I suspect that there was little point storing fish in a town where fishing was a major concern. There was, however, always the need for somewhere to store wool in a port from which it was exported.

In larger market towns, and large didn’t have to be very large in medieval England, there could be separate markets for different types of goods. There might be a cloth market or a fish market or a grain market where traders could buy in bulk, for this was another purpose of a market. It didn’t just exist to allow local people to buy and sell in small quantities. If an area specialised in a particular product, as Southampton did in fish, those who produced it didn’t necessarily want to travel long distances to sell their goods. It was better for them to continue to produce them while someone else sold their produce in distant markets. Traders with the resources to buy large quantities and transport them did so.

Sources:
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
A Social History of England 1200 to 1500 by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

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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.

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

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Medieval Rivers

The River Test at Romsey

In the comments section of last week’s post, I had a brief discussion with Doctor Christopher Monk about the use of waterways for transport in the Middle Ages. I wanted to know more, so I did some reading. By the way, if you’re even remotely interested in medieval food, and why wouldn’t you be since you’re reading this blog, you should visit his blog and his YouTube channel.

Rivers were used extensively to transport goods in the Middle Ages. Road transport was dependable and fairly predictable, although slower in winter, but it was expensive.  It cost 1 ½d per mile at the beginning of the fourteenth century to transport a ton of grain. By water it was ½d. It cost more to transport wine 50 miles on land than to send it nearly 1,000 miles from Bordeaux to London. Rivers didn’t go everywhere, though, and often it was easer to transport goods around the coast on ships. Roads were useful if you were transporting people, but if you were moving heavy or bulky goods, like wine, rivers were better.

Many goods didn’t have to travel far from where they were produced to where they were sold. Generally things like vegetables and eggs travelled between 7 and 12 miles, although the shorter distance was the norm. This was as far as the person who had grown it could travel to a market, sell the goods and return home in a day. These people would have travelled on foot, sometimes with and sometimes without a pack horse.

If you wanted your goods to travel further, other people and methods of transport had to be involved. Costs for transporting goods over roads included feeding hungry animals. Most items were carried by pack animals, which needed men to lead them. The animals had to be relieved of their loads each evening and reloaded in the morning, which took time. The same thing applied to carts, which were even more expensive to use, since they were a large capital investment on the part of the owner. Fewer men were needed on boats and no animals. Boats didn’t have to be unloaded and reloaded every few miles. They were another expensive capital investment, but they were cheaper to run than a cart.

Rivers were very useful for bulkier and cheaper goods which would have been prohibitively expensive to transport by road.  London needed to bring in hay to feed its horses and other animals in the winter. The hay was grown in the Lea Valley and transported to London along the River Lea. Had it been transported by road, the cost would probably have been more than the value of the hay.

Most foodstuffs for London travelled by river. Towns upriver from Oxford down and particularly Henley sent grain on the Thames. Vegetables travelled mostly by road, usually from Hertfordshire. Barley came round the coast from Kent and East Anglia.

Medieval boats had more or less flat bottoms and could sail up and down rivers that aren’t navigable for modern boats, although it must be said that some rivers have changed substantially in the last 700 years and some are much more silted up and overgrown than they were. Many rivers were navigable for long distances even for ships and work was often carried out to make rivers as navigable as possible. Channels were sometimes cut where the river was impassable.

Using rivers was not without its hazards. On some rivers there were fish weirs in the deeper water. These were wooden or stone structures built across the width of the river which directed fish into traps from which they could not escape. Not only were they a danger to boats, but they also threatened to reduce drastically the number of fish in a river. This possibility was recognised even in the early twelfth century and there were edicts and statutes against fish weirs over the centuries. That they had to be repeated shows how ineffective they were.  

Low bridges were another danger to boats. Since these were much cheaper to build and maintain than bridges with arches allowing boats to pass beneath them, it must have been a real problem. Eventually lifting bridges were devised. These were bridges with a drawbridge in the middle, which could be lifted for a fee.

Many goods travelled by both road and water, depending on where they were destined. The two methods of transport were complementary rather than in competition with one another.

Sources:
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer 
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Medieval Staples

The French attempt to recapture Calais

To my immense shame, I have often come across the word ‘staple’ when reading about the Middle Ages and not bothered to find out what it really means. I knew it had something to do with merchants and trade, but I didn’t know the details. Today I’m putting that right.

A staple was, essentially, the only town through which a certain commodity could be imported or exported. There were some in England and some were on the continent. The practice was begun by Edward I in Dordrecht.

The main commodity for which this was important was wool, England’s largest export, but there were also wine staples. The wool staple was introduced in 1313 by Edward II. All wool had to be exported through a single continental port. Initially it was St. Omer, then Antwerp and then Bruges. Eventually it was Calais. The port chosen depended on the king’s political and diplomatic goals at the time.

The staple gave an advantage to English merchants, as foreign merchants couldn’t buy wool directly from the producers. All wool for export had to be taken to a staple town and sold to authorised merchants who then sold it abroad. It was also a way of making it easier for the government to collect duty, as only a limited number of people had the right to export certain goods.

In 1354 the Statute of Staples listed the staple towns in England and Ireland. They were Bristol, Canterbury, Chichester, Cork, Drogheda, Dublin, Exeter, Lincoln, London, Newcastle, Norwich, Waterford, Winchester and York.  At first I was surprised not to see Southampton on the list, but the combined blows of the French raid in 1338 and the Black Death in 1348 had almost destroyed the town by this point. Much later it was made the staple for various metals.

Calais became a staple town in 1363 which it remained until it fell to the French in 1558. In Calais there were twenty-six merchants permitted to trade in wool. The intention of the English government was to make Calais financially self-sufficient instead of being a drain on the country’s finances. Calais was a town in France held by the English after a year-long siege in 1346/47. As you can see from the picture at the top of the post, the French wanted it back and defending the town from them cost money. In theory, giving the town the wool staple would increase trade within Calais and, therefore, duty, which could be used to reduce the financial burden on England. The theory was good, but the practice wasn’t. Making Calais a staple town had a negative impact on the wool trade from which it took some time to recover.

England wasn’t the only country to use staples. Scotland used them and there were also staple ports on the Danube and the Rhein. They were unpopular and powerful foreign merchants often petitioned against them. Sometimes they ignored them entirely and took their goods to non-staple ports where, presumably, local merchants were happy enough to break the law.

Sources:
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Chistopher Corédon and Ann Williams
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

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