Tag Archives: Medieval Market

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.

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.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Life

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