Medieval markets and fairs.
Medieval markets and fairs made up the economy of Britain both before and after the Black Death. The world of the market then and now would be strikingly similar to today. The archives have revealed tax records that give some insight into how the market economy of Medieval Britain was directed through the activities of markets. There is an open access gazetteer of markets and fairs that brings together as much information as possible about Medieval fairs up to 1516. It is the first national survey (updated 2013) of its kind compiled by Dr Samantha Letters as a two-year project, based at the Centre for Metropolitan History.
Markets for the masses.
Many towns and small settlements were granted a charter under which they could hold a market and the occupants of medieval towns engaged in a wide variety of specialized commodity production, the main commodities being, victualling, leather making, textiles, clothing, vending, metal working, and building but the market sustained far more than just the merchants of the town or the clerical estates. It also allowed an income for the peasants who, if they were able to produce any surplus food products could sell them at a market. Wool the great cash crop of Medieval Britain was also a surplus peasants could take to market and it’s been suggested that before the Black Death most of the wool at market didn’t come from the large estates but from individual holdings.
Fairs versus markets.
The charters for the establishment of a market granted that market the right to be held in a certain time at a certain place. For example at Petersfield in Hampshire a weekly Saturday market was granted and two annual fairs on St Andrew’s day and St Peter’s day. These ‘holy’ days were as much about celebration aside from the economic intent of the weekly markets. The market at Petersfield still exists , as does a fair held on the Heath, close to the town centre. The markets did not earn much money for the owner but almost became an essential part of the ebb and flow of a community that still exists today. Some of the largest fairs in the country such as Weyhill Fair in north Hampshire were attended by people from all over the country and indeed Europe.
The right to hold a market.
Those with the right to hold markets (largely granted by charter) defended that right vigorously and tried to limit competition. If too many markets were allowed to operate too closely together in terms of both time and space, then that would dilute the economy of the market. The English courts generally interpreted this right as excluding only other markets held on the same day within 6.7 miles. This should have resulted in high revenue for market owners through toll rates if such a monopoly did in fact exist but the archives show that this was not the case and that many were exempt from paying a toll.
Foods bought for household consumption typically did not pay toll. Small goods produced by peasants such as apples or butter was also apparently often exempt. So the markets were not making big bucks for their owners.
Records interestingly point at trade and trade relations between markets and traders whose place of origin could be quite distant, for example toll payments show London traders bringing their goods to markets in coastal Kent.
Who got to pay the tolls
By the early thirteenth century English kings, had granted exemption from toll in markets to most major ecclesiastical centres. This exemption was held to apply to their manorial tenants also. The exemption was meant to apply to rural produce sold by the tenants to meet their rent payments to the houses. Tenants on the royal demesne had by custom a similar privilege.