Market Towns and the Countryside in Late Medieval England

By Dyer, Christopher | Canadian Journal of History, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Market Towns and the Countryside in Late Medieval England


Dyer, Christopher, Canadian Journal of History


David Farmer made his name as a historian of the most austere of subjects -- prices, wages, grain yields -- and his fellow workers will remain in his debt for many decades because of the thoroughness and accuracy with which he collected and presented the evidence. His achievements stand in comparison with those of Thorold Rogers and Beveridge, and confer on his name a measure of immortality. In the last years he was also gaining a reputation for his research into trade and transport.(2) For the chapter in the Agrarian History of England and Wales on marketing he gathered together a mass of information from manorial accounts for the destination of goods which were sold, and the places from which purchases were made. He could accordingly reconstruct patterns of trade in dozens of items, from lambs to millstones. His able analysis of these data reveal the complexity and flexibility of the marketing patterns, which varied with the commodities, with the remoteness and transport facilities of each manor, with the price of goods from year to year, and with the trading venues available, whether they were towns, village markets, fairs, or simply bargains struck at the farm gate. So, to take two contrasting examples, between 1296 and 1346 the grain from the Wiltshire manors of Longbridge Deverill and Monkton Deverill was usually sold within seventeen km (10.5 miles) in such local markets as the tiny town of Hindon or the more significant, but still small centres of Frome and Shaftesbury. But the reeve of Elham in Kent in 1326-27 sent an expedition to Winchcomb fair in Gloucestershire, a road journey of more than 300 km, to buy horses.

Farmer always emphasized the human side of the transactions. The people of the time had to make decisions about where, when, and how to trade, and historians must use their imaginations to reconstruct the thinking behind the decisions. Indeed, we are drawn to conclude that the Elham venture was probably a mistake, because the horses were sold at a loss. Farmer was not impressed by laws and rules. Just as medieval traders, supposedly hemmed in by restrictions, often failed to observe the trade regulations, so their behaviour also differed from that predicted by deterministic modern theories.

This article tackles the same questions that Farmer addressed about the organization of medieval buying and selling, but from the vantage point of the town rather than the manor. It presumes a general acceptance of a now well-established definition of a town -- as a place with a dense, permanent and relatively large population, in which the majority of the inhabitants follow a variety of non-agricultural occupations.(3)

This definition excludes market villages, where agricultural occupations predominated, and industrial villages, which lacked occupational diversity. But it certainly includes the category of market towns or small towns, because although they might provide a living for only a few hundred inhabitants, with a bottom limit as low as 300, they fulfil all of the other characteristics.(4) The definition deliberately avoids any reference to legal status or tenurial privileges, like those associated with boroughs, whereby the tenants owed a fixed cash rent and were given freedom to sell or subdivide their burgage holdings. Boroughs cannot be equated with towns because some boroughs failed to develop an urban economy, and some places succeeded as centres of commerce and manufacture although they lacked borough privileges. Market towns often possessed borough status, but many did not. Some of them enjoyed considerable autonomy in government, through a guild merchant which allowed the leading townsmen to regulate trade and to decide who could be admitted to the privileges of full membership of the trading community, while the great majority were governed by their lords through bailiffs and a seigniorial court, either a special borough court or a manorial court. There were about 600 market towns in England by the mid-fourteenth century, and for the majority of country people they provided their main point of contact with the world of commerce. …

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