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English history

Shopping in the Middle Ages

A medieval fair
https://commons.wikimedia.org (work in public domain).

How did people buy and sell in the Medieval England?

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages are often depicted as a dark period in time with few amenitites for ordinary people. No mobile phones !! No cars !! No supermarkets !! But despite the fact there was none of the technology that keeps business running today, the wheels of medieval society were kept turning as people relied on each other to provide their services.

A medieval community was generally split into three groups : fighters such as knights and soldiers, those who provided spiritual welfare namely, monks and nuns, and workers who provided goods and services. Let’s look at the thitd group, the tradesmen and find out what was on offer in medieval shops……

Medieval shops and guilds

Medieval tradesmen worked from their houses. Downstairs their workshops were open to the public, and their residence was situated separately on the higher floor. As the great majority of people were illiterate, the shop sign would be a model or an object that indicated their trade.

A blacksmith’s sign.
Copyright © JigZone.com

Within a town, neighbours would trade with each other. Skilled tradesmen would pay a fee to become a member of a guild, and in turn the guild provided a guarantee that all products were of the required quality, standardised prices to avoid unfair competetion and provided assistance if one of their tradesmen were ill or died. Of course I say tradesmen as opposed to tradespeople, because predictably, it was generally always men, not women. There were a minuscule amount of cases where a widow was allowed to continue with her deceased husband’s business.

There were two type of guilds – merchants’ guilds for those who traded and travelled with their goods, and from which the financially stable middle classes would begin to emerge. But the workers in local trade belonged to crafts guilds. which encompassed many more professions that you might imagine – for example, brewers, butchers, bakers and fishmongers. Baking, for example, was a well-established industry where you would find both master bakers and apprentices, and was held in high regard as a skilled profession.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is medieval-guilds.jpg
A selection of guilds, from London Livery Companies, with their coat of arms and date of establishment. Some of these were created at a later date from the Middle Ages.

Apart from those who provided food, there were locksmiths, blacksmiths, saddlers, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers…..and for sartorial needs, weavers, dyers, drapers, knitters, embroiderers, jewellers, glovers, and cordwainers, (who made new shoes, as opposed to cobblers who repaired old ones).

Medieval people didn’t have much of a life ? There were undoubtedly hard times for the poorest members of society, the same as in any era, but it doesn’t sound like everyone was dressed in sackckloth only eating plants and rotten vegetables, does it ?

The Medieval Market

Market activity had been in place in England since the time of the Romans; Colchester is generally ecognised as the oldest market town in England. Many of the names of market towns reflect the fact that trade played a important role in their origins : Market Drayton and Market Harborough, for example. The word chipping” came from an old Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to buy and is preserved in town names like Chipping Ongar and Chipping Sodbury.

From the 12th century, towns and villages could pay a yearly fee to the monarch who would then grant them a charter to hold markets and trade fairs. Market day was once or twice a week in smaller towns and villages, and in some of the largest cities, it could even take place every day. It was held in the town square, and there were market stalls for the customer to buy fresh food, dairy produce, cereals, and items of necessity such as candlesticks, cloth or kitechen utensils.

There were regulations in place to avoid short measure, overpricing and quality control, to attract buyers and provide them with peace of mind that they would not be shortchanged in some way. The Statute of Winchester from 1285 enforced collective responsibility from market traders if one of them was found guilty of improper behaviour. After all, the town was dependent on its good reputation to attract shoppers.

The stocks at Belstone in Dartmoor. Now a grade II listed monument.
By Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The stocks and the pillories were two devices that were in use for both sellers who violated the rules of fair play, and for petty thieves, drunkards and other wrongdoers. The stocks restrained offenders by their feet whilst the pillory restrained a person’s head and hands, and therefore was much more uncomfortable than the stocks, (which were also probably not a lot of fun after a while). The townsfolk would humiliate the trapped delinquents with verbal abuse and/or by throwing rotten food and other delights at them. Not a pretty sight. But probably effective as a deterrent.

The pillory, although thankfully no longer in use, left its mark on the English language by becoming a verb meaning to pour scorn on and ridicule in public.

And you know what ? A medieval market was probably noisy and smelly but a great source of entertainment to all those involved. It was a social event as well as a trading place. Town cryers would make their announcements in the market place as it was a central point for the community. Information was exchanged in addition to the products. It was a day that the citizens of the town probably looked forward to and enjoyed.

A medieval fair
https://commons.wikimedia.org (work in public domain)

So markets would be held on designated days but a chartered fair was a special event generally held annually and lasted for days or weeks.. Whereas markets sold the stuff of daily life, in a fair the trade was based on items that were of higher value such as furniture or farm equipment or cattle, or more expensive items from afar, such as spices or furs. And the fair usually included entertainment such as tournaments or singing and dancing to attract the crowds.

One of most famous of these was Scarborough Fair – yes, the one in the song. Scarborough was given a charter in 1253 and the annual fair was celebrated until 1788. The fair started on 15th Ausgust and lasted 45 days, attracting vendors, tradesmen, merchants, entertainers and visitors from all over the country, and providing plenty of business for local suppliers.

Like many other fairs, over time it lost importance for various reasons and by the 19th century, the location of the old chartered trade fairs had often became the site for a funfair – still providing entertainment for the masses.

We may have more technology these days, but our need to socialise and be entertained is still a basic human necessity. And to go to the shops of course !

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

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