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Medieval Travel Guide

Medieval Market and Annual Fairs

The medieval market was held weekly in a neighbouring town, and was an event that diversified the lives of farmers. Here they sold their fat capons, eggs, butter, and cheese. Besides the weekly markets there were the great annual fairs, which lasted many days, and were frequented by all classes of the population. The fairs were absolutely necessary for trade. In those days few people travelled far from their own homes. Due to the small number of inhabitants, even the towns could not afford a sufficient market for the farmers’ and traders' stock.

Medieval market cross
A Medieval Market Cross
in an English Village

The greatest of all medieval English fairs was held in the little village of Stourbridge, near Cambridge. Here flocked merchants and traders from all Europe. Flemish merchants brought their fine linen and cloths from the great commercial cities of Belgium. Genoese and Venetian traders came with their stores of Eastern goods. Spaniards and Frenchmen brought their wines, and the merchants from the Hanseatic towns of Germany sold furs and flax, ornaments and spices. In return, the English farmers offered the rich fleeces of their sheep, corn, horses, and cattle.

The booths were planted in a cornfield. The fair was like a well governed city, spreading for more than three miles. The shops were built in streets or rows, some named after the nations that gathered there, others after the goods offered for sale. There was a Garlick Row, a Bookseller's Row, or a Cook Row. There was also a cheese fair, a hop fair, a wool fair. Every trade was represented, together with taverns, eating-houses, and later, playhouses.

At the opening of a medieval market, a proclamation was read by the steward of the lord of the manor, who was also the lord of the fair and market, and was acting, as the proclamation read, “on His Majesty’s behalf.”

The proclamation contained the code of conduct for all the participants and the penalties applied to those who did not comply with the code. It prohibited quarrels and fights, and asked every participant to buy or sell only in open fair or market, such that “none buy or sell in comers, back sides, or hidden places, upon pain of forfeiture of all such goods and merchandise so bought and sold, and their bodies to imprisonment.”

We find that certain weapons were prohibited, as “no manner of person within this fair and market do bear any bill, battle-axe, or other prohibited weapons… upon pain or forfeiture of all such weapons and further imprisonment.” And there were severe penalties for those who did not use lawful measures: “no manner of persons shall sell any goods with unlawful mete or measures, yards or weights, but such as be lawful and keep the true assize, upon pain of forfeiture of all such goods and further imprisonment.”

If anybody experienced any sort of problems, they had the right to complain to the authorities. People were assured that they would be “heard according to right, equity, and justice.”

The medieval market was sometimes held in the churchyard, where, amid the memorials of the dead stood the parish stocks. Markets could be organized as often as every Sunday and holiday, when minstrels and jugglers thronged. The churchyard was also the place where the "church ales" were held, with much festivity, dancing, and merry-making.

Severe laws were passed to prevent "improper and prohibited sports within the churchyard, as, for example, wrestling, football, handball under penalty of two pence forfeit."

It is interesting to note that the market crosses, called "cheeping" crosses after the Anglo-Saxon cheap, to buy, gave their name to many places, like Cheapside, in London, or the market towns of Chippenham and Chipping Norton.

In the 13th and 14th centuries the new orders of friars founded by St. Francis and St. Dominic exercised an immense influence in the world. They did not shut themselves up in the cloister, but went everywhere, and the medieval market was one of their preferred places of preaching.

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