Category Archives: Medieval Commerce

Medieval Bills of Exchange

Last week there was a question in the comments from Ellen Hawley who wanted to know how the innkeepers who stored and organised the transport of goods on behalf of merchants were paid by those merchants. I touched on this subject a bit when we were looking at how ransoms for prisoners of war were paid, but there is more to be said on the subject.

Banking in the fourteenth century was fairly sophisticated, even if two Florentine banks had gone bust lending money to Edward I and Edward III. Italian banks and Italian merchants were the most advanced in their business dealings, but we have to go back to the Templars in twelfth-century France to understand where the idea of how to make payments over large distances and in different currencies without physically moving lots of money arose.

Moving large amounts of coins was rarely a good idea in the Middle Ages. It was incredibly difficult to protect a train of slow-moving pack animals or carts from robbers and bandits. Even small amounts of money were vulnerable, as Chaucer discovered when he was robbed on three separate occasions when he was carrying money to pay men working for Richard II. This is not to say that real money and jewels weren’t transported around Europe and the East because they were. In 1328 a large amount of money was sent from the papal court in Avignon to Lombardy to pay the army there. There was a guard of 150 cavalry, but they were attacked and half the money was stolen and some of the cavalry were captured by the bandits and had to be ransomed.

Since it was so risky, another way had to be found to make payments across large distances. Somewhat surprisingly, we have to go back to the Templars and the Crusades. Although the Templars were active in protecting pilgrims and fighting in the Crusades in the holy Land, in England, France and Italy one of their primary functions was providing secure storage for important documents and precious objects. Although monasteries in general were fairly secure, the Templars were soldiers as well as monks. If I had to give my precious objects to someone, I think I’d prefer them to be in the care of men who were able to fight to protect them, rather than simply rely on the strength of monastery walls and doors.

The Crusades, however, meant that wealthy men needed to be able to access some of their money while they were in the East.  Not only did they have to feed the soldiers in their retinue, but they also had to replace lost or damaged equipment and horses. They also had to live in a certain style.

Fortunately, the Templars could help them. The Templars had preceptories all over Europe and in the East. A preceptory was a headquarters. Temple in London is where the English one was located and Le Temple is where the French equivalent was built in Paris. These were built like fortresses and were very secure. Wealthy men could deposit money in one of them and receive a letter of credit allowing him to receive the same amount in the local currency (less administration charges and interest) at any preceptory in Europe or in the Holy Land. This meant, of course, that the Templars made a profit on the transactions.

The records kept by the Templars were very thorough and everyone trusted them, with good reason. They even had a treasure ship off the coast of the Holy Land from which kings and nobles could make emergency withdrawals whilst on campaign. They were also able to make loans.

Since men from across Europe were involved in the Crusades, it’s not a surprise that the Templars became involved in the activities of Italian merchants and bankers who were interested in trade across Europe and in the East.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the Templar’s great wealth proved too tempting and Philippe IV of France destroyed the order in that country. The Florentine bankers had learned what they needed to do to fill the gap and came up with bills of exchange.

Bills of exchange allowed a person in one country to pay someone in a different country and in a different currency. They were also a form of loan on which interest was charged. Since charging interest was illegal, it was usually hidden in the administration fees, commission and exchange rates. Money didn’t have to be transferred just between branches of the same bank, but could also be transferred between different banks. The banks were not banks as we know them today. As far as I can discover, the only banks were Italian, but they operated all over Europe.

Bills of exchange weren’t always practicable. Sometimes the rate of exchange in one place made it too costly to buy a bill of exchange and silver, gold or precious stones had to be transported from one place to the other, because, despite the cost and risks involved, it was the cheaper option.

Bills of exchange weren’t just used by merchants, but also by people on business for the papal court. Men in the service of the kings also used them. Bills of exchange could only be used between locations that had more or less equal amounts of money in the branches of the bank. If the difference between them was too great, coins would have to be transported from one place to the other.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it allowed innkeepers in France to be paid in their local currency by a merchant in England.

Sources:
The Templars: History and Myth
by Michael Haag
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies
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

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Medieval Innkeepers

The Wool House, Southampton

Some time ago I started an intermittent series about trades and occupations in the Middle Ages. I reallised that it has been several months since I added anything, so it’s probably about time we looked at another one. Innkeepers managed establishments whose purpose was to provide accommodation, food and drink to the people and animals who stayed in them. People in the Middle Ages travelled much more than we tend to think. Pilgrims, merchants, clerics and messengers were all on the roads, but so were men who transported goods from place to place and people who just had business in another town. They all needed somewhere to stay and they all hoped that they would stay in an inn run by a reputable man. As we shall see, innkeepers were not all made from the same cloth. Some were little better than criminals and others were entrusted with important commissions.

The best-known medieval innkeeper is probably Harry Bailly, the man from whose inn the pilgrims set off at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. He’s a cheerful man who strives to keep the peace between the pilgrims and tries to manage the story-telling contest that gives rise to the various stories.

Not all innkeepers were as respectable as him, however. Some inns were not places where the Wife of Bath or the Prioress would want to find themselves. These were inns in which illegal gambling took place and a man who lost could find himself literally losing the shirt off his back, as well as all his other possessions if he lost beyond his ability to pay.

Inns themselves varied tremendously and could be large stone buildings built for the purpose with accommodation on an upper floor and stabling in the yard or a small room added to a tavern. We’re not really interested in taverns for this post, but we might come back to them later.

Inns were everywhere. They were in towns to provide accommodation for those who attended the markets and near pilgrimage sites to provide accommodation for pilgrims. They were also in places that people might travel to in order to petition the king or important and powerful clerics.

Accommodation was important to travellers. If there was no space for them in an inn or a monastery, they had to sleep outside the town, which might not be safe or particularly comfortable. Not that sleeping in an inn was always comfortable. Some inns had two rooms, one for men and one for women, but travellers generally shared one room with the innkeeper and his family.

As well as in towns there were also inns along all the trade routes and it’s the owners of some of these establishments who were at the top of the innkeeping trade. These innkeepers stored goods that came in bulk from one direction and were broken up into smaller quantities to be sent on in the other. They acted as agents of the merchants who owned the goods. Innkeepers organised the onward transport of goods where the method of transport changed. Goods might arrive by river and go on by road, either in carts or on pack animals and it was often innkeepers who took responsibility for this.

It wasn’t always possible for merchants to accompany their goods all the way from the place of production to the final market, possibly a thousand or more miles away, especially if the route passed through several countries and required different modes of transport. They were unlikely to have all the contacts necessary. They could, however, have a relationship with three or four reliable innkeepers wherever the method of transport changed. If, for example, an English merchant was sending goods to Italy, he might send an employee with them by sea to Bordeaux and on as far inland as the ship could sail. This would be Libourne on the Dordogne. Once there the cargo would be put into the care of an innkeeper and the employee would return to England with the ship and a different cargo.

The innkeeper, meanwhile, would weigh the goods, usually packed in bulk at this point. Then he would break the cargo down so that it could be transported overland by cart or pack animal. He stored it until he had arranged for a carrier to take it on the next stage of its journey, in this instance Montpellier in the south of France. He paid the carrier for the journey and his job was done.

The carrier delivered it to another innkeeper in Montpellier who took it in, weighed it and paid another carrier to take it to Aigues Mortes in Provence. From Aigues Mortes it went by galley to Porto Pisano in Tuscany. The innkeeper in Aigues Mortes paid for men and small boats to take the goods to the galley and that’s where his responsibility ended.

The English merchant only had to pay the innkeepers and he needed no local knowledge to transport his goods across four different countries with three or four different languages. He didn’t even have to think about how to prepare his goods for the different types of transport.

Innkeepers were prepared to store goods for some time, especially those in ports who had to wait for ships to arrive that were going in the right direction. Even inland innkeepers, however, might have to wait until a carrier with enough animals or carts turned up. They also had to pay tolls and deal with officials who would weigh the goods and tax them.

In order to operate as warehouses, inns needed to be large, like the warehouse at the top of the post, and secure. This, along with the necessity of paying carriers up front, meant that innkeepers had to be wealthy men. These were probably not men like Chaucer’s innkeeper, but men who had already made money elsewhere. Some of them were priests and lawyers, some were even nobles. However rich they were to start with, providing this kind of service made them much richer.

Sources:
A Social History of England ed. 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

Amazon

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Medieval Ransoms Part 2

The French attempt to recapture Calais

I wrote in last week’s post that the male protagonist in a novel that I’m plotting at the moment has valued his ransom at £175. Being English, Geoffrey and his brother have calculated their worth in pounds sterling, but they’re in France and ransoms there would be paid in French gold coins. Geoffrey’s captor would make his calculation in livres tournois, the currency used in France. The coins were made of gold, silver or a silver-copper alloy, depending on the value of the coin.

The silver coins were the most important for most people, as they were used to pay taxes, wages and rents. The silver-copper alloy coins were used for everyday expenses, such as shopping. Ransoms, though, were usually paid in gold.

One livre tournois was worth much less than one pound sterling. There were six livres tournois to one pound sterling, so Geoffrey’s ransom as he has calculated it would be 1,050 livres tournois.

Then as now, however, the exchange rate wasn’t the only element of the transaction.

Once Geoffrey’s ransom is agreed with his captor, he has a problem. Although he has enough wealth to pay the ransom he has calculated, he doesn’t have enough gold. There might be some gold coins in the booty he’s taken, but most of the coins will be silver. The rest of his booty might be valuable (or not so valuable) objects that he has taken in raids and he might be able to persuade his captor to take some of these in lieu of coins. If he’s unlucky, his captor will expect him to hand over 1,050 gold coins.

Geoffrey’s next problem is that there aren’t that many gold coins in circulation. Most people have never even seen a gold coin, let alone owned one, so he has to find someone who has gold coins … lots of them. There’s a chance that some of his friends or relatives will sell him gold coins, especially if they’ve managed to get ransoms from the French prisoners they captured during the battle, but they’re unlikely to have all that he needs. Florentine bankers are a good source of gold coins, but they will charge him a fee to change the coins and it won’t be a small one. He will need to sell some of his possessions and get in touch with a representative of a Florentine bank.

Once Geoffrey has sold anything that he needs to sell to ensure that he has the necessary coins, something that might take some time, he now has to get them to Florence and the bank in Florence has to get the gold coins to him. In theory. In practice it was far too dangerous to transport large sums of money that far. Fortunately, banking in the fourteenth century was far more sophisticated than that and bills of exchange were often used instead of physical money.

I’ve written about Geoffrey having coins and precious objects, but, of course, he doesn’t have them with him. They are, he hopes, safely in Bordeaux with his brother. Whilst some captors would allow their prisoners to leave their captivity in order to raise their ransoms, there’s a risk that some of them will simply go home as soon as they’re released. Geoffrey, though, doesn’t need to leave the castle where he’s being held. All he needs to do, is to send a messenger to his brother, who shouldn’t be too far away.

Geoffrey assumes that his brother has also survived the battle and has returned with the English army to Bordeaux, so we will too. The brother is the one who will contact their family and friends to try and exchange silver coins for gold coins. He will also sell anything he needs to get more silver coins. Eventually he will deposit the coins with a representative of the bank he or Geoffrey has chosen in Bordeaux and the banker will send a bill of exchange to a representative near to where Geoffrey is being held. This representative will then pay the gold coins to Geoffrey’s captor, assuming that they have sufficient gold coins in that part of France. As it was for so many, it’s beginning to look as if Geoffrey’s captivity will be a lengthy one.

Sources:
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl

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 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

Amazon

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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

Amazon

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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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