Keywords: medieval urban origins hinterland commerce regulation market licences tolls merchants cloth wool trade disputes fairs administration seigneurial rights competition


Markets in the formal sense – that is, a technical concept of institutions recognized by and subject to the law – came into being slowly and are not really evidenced until the late twelfth century. The concept of a market assumes: places designated specifically (though not necessarily exclusively) for the purpose of buyers and sellers coming together to do business; pre-agreed times when such events would occur; some consensus on fair and even standardized market practices/behaviours; and mechanisms for enforcing adherence to fair trading.

Markets probably have their roots in informal and ad hoc gatherings of people at which exchanges of commodities, sometimes through the medium of coins or other tokens, took place. This type of socio-economic activity was likely to occur where people would normally encounter each other, such as at crossroads, along major transit routes, or in churchyards in the case of local trade, or on estuary banks or coastal beaches in the case of maritime trade. Over the course of time such events became more habitual and more popular, then regularized and regulated. Gatherings of local and regional traders became associated more fixedly with specific locations, such as a wide stretch of the high street, or an area of open land designated for weekly assemblies of multiple vendors and consumers; town planning projects often made provision for such. But even where specific plots were designated as marketplaces, trading might sometimes spill into adjacent streets. Finally, local and/or seigneurial authorities gave their stamp of approval to such occurrences and to the places where held. In other words, markets became formalized, or institutionalized, and the term 'market' connoted not only the activity but also the place and time of its occurrence and the associated set of norms and standards. Gatherings attracting foreign traders, less frequent and more seasonal, known as fairs, became similarly organized and might be similarly located inside towns, although alternatively outside them.

Like fairs, markets too might attract long-distance traders, particularly those who had time to spare during their rounds of the fairs. But they were equally intended to service local and hinterland needs, including for townspeople to acquire unprocessed foodstuffs and other raw materials and for peasants to obtain manufactured goods. Rurally-produced raw materials would be brought to market by residents of the surrounding countryside, or townspeople would go out into the countryside to acquire them to resell, as-is or after transformation into a secondary product, in their urban market. Rural producers might frequent more than one market in their region, and urban re-purposers could likewise take to external markets those manufactured goods surplus to local needs. Some of those external markets were in other towns of the region, but many sprang up in rural areas. In some of the larger towns there might be markets dedicated to particular goods, as at Ipswich and London, and livestock were often kept apart from victuals in a separate market usually on the outskirts of town.

The timing and reasons for the development of a network of markets and fairs across England is an important subject, but one still being studied. There is documentary evidence of only a small number of markets in the Anglo-Saxon period, most associated with towns and ports, though the discovery of concentrations of coins at a number of riverside and coastal sites (some close to where towns would later emerge) suggests other early markets. In a country whose government and economy had been disrupted by first the Germanic and later the Scandinavian invasions, as well as by wars between regionalized kingdoms (even though, of course, these disruptions were not continuous), communities seem more concerned with local subsistence than with expanding trade connections. Only a few dozen markets are identifiable from Domesday, a minority being urban; although its commissioners were not particularly interested in such facilities, there are no other written sources that paint a different picture. Similarly, early borough charters of liberties rarely granted markets – something unnecessary given the long-standing legal recognition of urban markets – except where borough status was itself being newly acquired. Yet, as already mentioned, the existence of at least a rudimentary marketing network incorporating both urban and rural manifestations is perceptible prior to the thirteenth century, and long-distance commerce was sufficient to stimulate the growth of some towns, as the wik phenomenon exemplifies. By the late Anglo-Saxon period, with the emergence of a central authority, although still a relatively weak one, some effort was being made to regulate the economy, with towns as one key tool in the policy. Nonetheless, the most farmers and artisans do not appear to have been producing in quantities much exceeding local needs.

During the thirteenth century, and the first half of the following, the number of markets increased significantly. Part of the reason was that the great majority were established through grants by the Crown, which had come to view as a royal franchise the licensing of markets – seen as mechanisms for controlling commerce by limiting it to locations more susceptible to oversight and administration. But kings, and Henry III in particular – being in need of money to fund his foreign and civil wars and to reward his supporters – were willing enough to sell such licences to the lords of rural estates, to monastic houses, and to the lords or communities of towns (in some cases as part of a package of privileges in borough charters). It might be argued they were rather too liberal in that regard, setting aside matters of economic need of a region and leaving it to competitive forces as to whether the markets they licensed took root and prospered; licence-holders were not necessarily successful at implementing their new rights, and a few may not even have exploited their opportunity. The king too left markets under his ownership to stand or fall on their own merits. For example, at the royal manor of Brill in Buckinghamshire a borough had been established (perhaps in part to supply and service the king's hunting lodge there) by mid-thirteenth century and furnished with a market and fair; but by about a century later, after the king had transferred the manor into private hands, the borough had been re-absorbed into the manor and we hear only of a very modest fair thereafter.

Royal licences delegated not only the right to hold a market but, perhaps more importantly, the authority to administer it. For that purpose there may have been dedicated market officers – the tradition of a market reeve still may be found today (though not as a continuity) at Enfield, whose market traces its roots to a royal licence in 1303 to the lord of the manor. But such officials are little in evidence in urban records and much of the administration may have been handled through existing officers (e.g. bailiffs and their sergeants, or sub-bailiffs) as well as through local courts. Borough executives were probably considered to have overall responsibility for market regulations being upheld, and the delegation to some cities of the powers of the royal clerk of the market, towards the close of the Middle Ages, made that more formal, as at Northampton and at Norwich where the mayor's sergeants-at-mace carried out his market inspection duties and an additional salaried sergeant was engaged exclusively for that purpose in 1473. We occasionally hear of rural manorial markets being in the charge of dedicated bailiffs. While conceivable that towns with markets may have had specific market courts, nothing has survived by way of records they ought to have produced (in contrast to survival of fair court records); in most towns certain market offences, such as breaches of the assizes, were handled instead by leet courts, and disputes between traders by piepowder courts or overarching borough courts; certainly any criminal cases arising out of activities in the marketplace would have been handled by other courts. Market courts seem rather a feature of rural manorial administration; at Newmarket, for example, the roughly fortnightly session of the market court, sitting on market day, dealt predominantly with pleas of debt and looks like a counterpart to urban piepowder courts, but with the suitors being stall-holders rather than merchants in general; occasionally breaches of contract, transgressions, or evasion of tolls were matters tried, and a special session held at fair-time concerned itself mainly with stall-holders who had not kept their stalls in good repair.

The thirteenth century also saw the greater landholders – whether nobility, ecclesiastics, or royal servants – awakening to the potential of markets and fairs as sources of modest but regular income, outlets through which the surplus produce from their own estates could be sold, and through which most of the consumption requirements of an aristocratic household could be satiated. Generating income from a market depended largely on the volume of trade, which itself required a local population of consumers and producers of goods, who would in turn attract traders from further afield. The foundation of numerous small "new towns", by entrepreneurial magnates such as William Brewer was thus partly driven by the prospect of revenues from market tolls, stallage (Brewer's market at Chesterfield earned him 6d. per stall per year), fines on those infringing market regulations, and perquisites from traders' disputes dealt with in local courts.

The proliferation of markets could be seen, from one perspective, as the provision of trading facilities to address needs of growing local populations and an associated increase in agricultural productivity, but from another as an effort to tap into the growth of long-distance trade; that is, to find a niche in a perceived commercial network spreading out across the country from the longer-established trading centres of the larger towns. Indeed, tolls were particularly targeted at imports of goods and at goods exported for purposes of resale elsewhere, while locals or outsiders buying to provision their households were customarily free of toll. Purely localized commerce (such as between neighbours) did not really need formal markets; their purpose was rather to focus this localized activity into known and supervisable places and times, and to try to draw toll-liable traders from further afield, in order to tax those sales that were implicitly profit-taking. For the most part, tolls were not oppressively high (in proportion to the amount of money that could be made from sale of the taxed goods); but, like any tax, they might provoke resentment and sometimes formal complaints, notably when new tolls were introduced or collectors exceeded their remit. The revenue from tolls was increasingly offset by exemptions granted by borough charter, which itself could give rise to disputes. So the owner of a licence relied on his market becoming popular and competitive enough to generate a high volume of transactions.

There was the danger that the demand for market licences might result in the pie being cut too thinly; that any new market might, rather than generating a greater volume of commerce, simply draw traders or customers away from an existing market in the same vicinity. Consciousness of this may be evidenced as early as the tenth century, when King Edgar, in granting Peterborough abbey the right to hold a market in a nearby village on its estates, stipulated that no other market could exist between Stamford and Huntingdon and that ships bringing merchandize through the rivers of the district could not be stopped to levy tolls, except at Peterborough. However, this could also be seen as an indication the authorization of a market elsewhere than in a town was not to be taken as a precedent; besides, the royal charter is suspected a twelfth-century forgery, although possibly encapsulating an older tradition. The later licensing system had no reliable means to gauge potential competition in advance; so, after 1200, it sought to prevent or identify problems by making new licences conditional upon them not being detrimental to any existing market and by having public proclamations of newly-granted licences made as part of county court sessions. When rivalries emerged, established market licensees were prepared to oppose upstart competitors (licensed or unlicensed) within the same catchment area, either through extra-legal means including the use of force, or by taking their complaints to the king's court for adjudication. We have records of numerous challenges. For example, in 1301 a market licence that had been granted, seven years earlier, to the Priory of Rochester on behalf of the small Buckinghamshire settlement at Haddenham was revoked, after the Bishop of Lincoln complained it was a competitive threat to his market at nearby Thame; the priory was compensated with the grant of a fair, but we do not know whether it prospered. Over the course of the thirteenth century guidelines were developed to help courts define unfair competition: no new market was be established within a day's return-trip distance from another, unless held on a different day of the week. The legal treatise known as Bracton specified not only the distance which would define two markets as neighbouring but also that any market held within two days of another such event in the region might be considered harmful; this latter restriction would have become increasingly problematic as the number of markets, in terms of location and occurrences per week, grew, but Bracton was probably considered a source of guide-lines rather than the letter of the law. Stipulations to a similar end can sometimes be found among local by-laws, as for example at Maldon.

Such rules should not be taken as an indicator that trade remained highly localized. Although smaller-scale traders may have restricted excursions to markets they could reach and return from within a day, more ambitious merchants were quite prepared to undertake overnight trips to more distant markets or even longer journeys taking in several destinations, whether to rural locations where raw materials might be obtained at lower cost, or other towns where a different range of manufactured goods could be acquired. Masschaele's analysis of evidence of Lincoln's and Northampton's trade linkages with their surrounding regions [Peasants, Merchants and Markets, pp. 139-43.], based on allegations of toll unjustly demanded, as recorded in the Hundred Rolls of 1275, suggest that regular destinations of Lincoln traders lay mainly within a 30-mile arc north, east, and south of the city (with the notable exception of Nottingham to the west), while Northampton traders – although venturing as far afield as Lynn, Ipswich, and Winchester – were drawn particularly to important rural markets east and north-east of their town. The directional biases may have something to do with the quality of land and water highways, but Professor Masschaele concluded that urban merchants were likely to focus their regional business on the longer-established rural markets, because they tended to have a reasonable customer base, a fair number of local artisans offering products, and were more likely to attract regional farmers and traders from other towns.

Masschaele's analysis [ibid., pp.152-54] of locative surnames of non-residents allowed to become members of Shrewsbury's merchant gild, indicating that almost 80‰ of the places were within 20 miles of the town, similarly suggests that those outsiders who most regularly came to conduct business at the Shrewsbury market were probably those who could do so through a day-trip (the hinterlanders) or overnight stay. These foreign members were largely villagers and lords of local estates, whose lands must have played an important role in furnishing Shrewsbury with its food supplies. Similarly at Ipswich, although outsider merchants were denied burgess status, and the freedom from toll associated with that status – unless they were also householders of the borough – the community was prepared to grant a special status of foreign burgess, which also entailed membership of the merchant gild, to lords owning estates in the hinterland and to local monastic houses, a privilege extended to their tenant farmers. We must see this as a recognition of their importance in victualling the town. However, the freedom from tolls applied only to importing produce of their own lands and exporting necessaries for their own households; they remained liable for tolls on any merchandize (that is, goods acquired for resale) imported or exported. At Shrewsbury and Lynn we see gild membership granted to merchants of distant towns, but they were a minority and we do not know if these were special cases nor if other similar applicants were rejected. There was probably something to be said for bringing competitors into membership, where they could be subject to internal disciplinary controls. On the other hand, some one-time competitors acquired a solidarity by re-settling locally; the surnames of prominent Lynn residents of the thirteenth century reflect the scope of the town's commercial connections, with:

Instances of interurban trade tend to be reflected most in records of legal complaints made to the king or his justices, which show borough authorities jostling with one another, either to protect an established position in the commercial network – both the trade and the toll revenues they had built up – or to seek greater advantage by justifying a diversion of business to their own market, while upholding local merchants' exemptions from paying toll elsewhere. Courts had to resolve these sometimes thorny disputes by ascertaining which party's right (whether of collection or exemption) had chronological precedence. These litigation records may represent only those disputes that could not be resolved by interurban negotiation. To try to preclude the expense of fruitless litigation or the deteriorating relations that resulted from reprisals followed by counter-reprisals, places in dispute might communicate with each other by letter, or the town clerk or borough attorney would be despatched to show a copy of the borough charter and discuss the matter face-to-face; furthermore, at least some towns compiled lists of boroughs which could demonstrate valid exemptions. The powers of collection (in many cases implicit in the royal grant or recognition of a market) and privileges of exemption were among the reasons boroughs were careful to have their royal charters reconfirmed when each new king took the throne.

By the close of the fourteenth century most of England was saturated with markets, and fewer new ones were licensed thereafter. Founding a new market was a speculative venture, without guarantee of success. About three-quarters of the markets that had existed prior to the thirteenth century had sufficiently established a clientele that they managed to outlast the Middle Ages. Many others failed to find a profitable niche in the commercial network, or were quashed because of unfair competition rulings. Those places more tardy in obtaining market rights had less chance of establishing themselves, and only 14‰ of markets coming into existence in the fourteenth century had durability. Small market towns had the best chance of holding on if there was no large urban centre nearby that might gradually monopolize regional commerce. In the early development of a network comprising numerous fairs and markets England seems to have outpaced most other European countries, perhaps precisely because of the relatively slow development in England of very large urban centres.

Exhibit representing a market scene; photo © S. Alsford Cambridge market; photo © S. Alsford
Evolving from informal meeting-places to purpose-built structures, markets still have a lively role in today's consumer society, but are characteristically medieval institutions. While rural or minor urban markets may have had a rambling and ramshackle character, in a number of the larger towns we see evidence that stalls were laid out in a consciously organized fashion, with rows of stalls allocated to like vendors and particular areas assigned to petty traders. Such arrangements made supervision of commercial activity easier. Partly for similar reasons, in the post-medieval centuries it became increasingly common for civic authorities to finance the construction of covered or indoor market halls. While the majority of medieval England's marketplaces were open air, the precursors of market halls can be identified in the Late Middle Ages.
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 Thaxted guildhall; photo © S. Alsford Salisbury's Poultry Cross; photo © S. Alsford


Whereas markets were gatherings of buyers and sellers that took place on one or two days of each week, characterized by mostly small- or medium-scale transactions for household consumption or for local manufacturing, a fair was held only once a year, though for multi-day durations, and was mainly for medium-scale or bulk purchases, either of a mercantile nature (in which the buyer intended to resell) or for supplying some large religious or aristocratic household. Initially the creation of fairs was associated more with monastic houses than with towns, but most settings of those destined for some success or longevity came to be urban or suburban. Interestingly, although the Church disapproved of commercial activity on Sundays (at least during the times when religious services were held), multi-day fairs would often run through Sundays and not until the post-medieval period were there efforts to avoid this (e.g. in 1578 Colchester authorities prohibited the town's fair from operating on a Sunday). A fair site could be, as at Winchester, a vacant space on the outskirts of town, where, within an enclosure, temporary structures were erected to house vendors and administrators; or, as at St. Ives, it might take over part of the town, incorporating spaces requisitioned in some tenants' houses, temporary booths set up in the marketplace, and sales-stations authorized in other open areas or on ships moored at quayside. The minor fair instituted at Chesterfield, where William Brewer was in process of developing a borough, utilized the marketplace, and it was written into the seigneurial charters to the borough that market stall-holders had to turn over stalls to the use of the fair. The presence of a fair sometimes helped stimulate an existing process of urban growth, although in other cases seems to have had little direct benefit. They were a mixed blessing to boroughs, but helped familiarize long-distance traders with the destination and provided an opportunity for local traders to make business connections with outsiders that might develop into something longer-term. At some towns two or three fairs came to be licensed for different times of the year.

Although, as with markets, early fairs were held by customary right, in the sense of a franchise granted by the king the fair must be considered a Norman import, and the form of organization it took on mirrored that of continental counterparts. Its heyday in England (that is, when most significant as a component of the English economy) was during the High Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, it was in southern England – more densely populated, more productive, more under royal control, and with better access for Fleming, French, and Italian merchants – where the major fairs emerged. Northern England experienced some development, in terms of growth of number of fairs and markets, from the twelfth century, but Letters' survey of such institutions led her to conclude that by 1300 the highest density of fairs was in East Anglia (as also markets), followed by the South-West and the Midlands, while the lowest was in those parts of England that were under-urbanized. Although throughout the thirteenth century and into the early fourteenth there was fluctuating demand for royal grants of fairs, it was already too late for any of these to become important nationally, let alone internationally. Nonetheless they might hope to become lesser destinations on mercantile circuits built around the greater fairs.

The great English fairs were established not simply in a period of demographic and economic growth in England, but at a time when wool production and cloth-making were expanding there, and international traders were showing increased interest in such products. Most of these leading fairs were based in areas of England where the industry for making cloth, the chief commodity of the fairs, was strongest: Northampton, Stamford, Boston, Lynn, St. Ives, and Bury St. Edmunds; the royal household was a regular buyer at most of these. Winchester and Westminster were also important fair sites, while Ipswich and Yarmouth had some drawing power. Gradually these fairs sorted out their timing – through royal grants of changes in dates or extension of duration – to reduce conflicts with one another's occurrences, making it easier for merchants to schedule a circuit, fitting in some lesser fairs en route. Yet it became necessary, in 1329, to pass a statute requiring fair-owners to stick to the duration specified in their licences, making public proclamation of that duration at the opening of the event; three years later this statute had to be strengthened by threatening merchants who kept their selds and stalls open beyond the licensed time with a fine equal to twice the value of any merchandize sold 'after hours', with informers receiving a quarter of the proceeds.

All the sites of the great fairs were either well-serviced by roads and rivers, the latter permitting merchandize to be brought by cargo ships or barges, or were important ports (Boston and Lynn) or close to one (Winchester having access from Southampton). The fairs were frequented initially by English merchants, some acting as middlemen for the monastic houses whose flocks were one major source of wool, and others dealing particularly in cloth, both finished and unfinished; slightly later, as the thirteenth century progressed, there came growing numbers of Europeans, from Scandinavia to Italy, while English clothiers scaled back their attendance. Although English merchants (even the greater of them) did not generally attempt to attend all fairs held each year, many sent wares with fellow townsmen, as their agents or sometimes partners, or with servants (factors). We should not think, however, that fair users were mainly merchants from far afield; both buyers and sellers included residents of the surrounding regions, constituting (at a very rough approximation) some two-thirds of the total attendees.

A wide range of goods was sold by wholesale at fairs. Cloth was the principal item of merchandize in evidence at all the fairs, much of it English cloth made for export, but also finer cloths imported from abroad (notably Flanders) or items associated with luxury clothing (e.g. furs); the royal household was a prominent consumer. During the thirteenth century fairs played an important role in the marketing of domestic cloth, but in the fourteenth the larger cities – particularly London – were taking over this role. Wool, if not as important as cloth, was still a prominent item seen at fairs, for there was high international demand for it. Monastic producers used the fairs as a marketplace for their wool yields and in return purchased necessaries and luxuries for their community. Wine was another important fair commodity, in particular at Boston, one of the major import points. Other fairs also had their specialties; Lynn for example was known as the place to buy hunting birds, and Yarmouth's was nominally a herring fair. A wide range of spices and drugs were usually available, along with raw materials used in industrial processes (e.g lead, alum, dyes).

Fairs were used too for the sale of livestock, particularly horses and oxen, but this involved mostly domestic buyers and sellers. Victuals were also sold by retail, for consumption by fair-goers – such as bread, ale, cheese, and cooked food; it was largely victuallers from the locality or region who capitalized on a fair in this way, although a few would come from further afield. Appropriate services, such as smiths and cutters of cloth, would likewise have a presence at fairs. Medieval English fairs do not, however, seem to have been rowdy places where disorderly or anti-social behaviours were tolerated, nor magnets for itinerant entertainers or ne'er-do-wells; some efforts were made to keep undesirables out, and the fair site was subject to a curfew. Nonetheless, some allowance might be made for recreational needs of fairgoers, in terms of accepting the presence of minstrels or prostitutes. Effort was also made to group sellers in a logical or convenient fashion, and to segregate those presenting some health risk, such as butchers or service-providers using open fires or ovens.

For the most part, these fairs were outside the control of urban authorities. They were grants to the lord of the town – frequently a religious institution; the influence of the owners was generally sufficient to ensure that no rival fairs would be established in close proximity. In fact, the fairs presented a problem for the urban community: at the least a rival for local commerce, but sometimes the fair licence reduced or shut down local commercial activities for the duration of the fair, forcing town merchants and tradesmen to transfer their business activities to the fair site. This was a factor in enabling the latecomer fair at Westminster to gain a foothold, by obliging London businesses to close while the fair was held. At Winchester, city government itself was taken over by the fair authorities for the duration; in this case, and perhaps that of other towns where the major fairs were located, the presence of fairs may sometimes have seemed more to the detriment than the benefit of the urban community. Since the major fairs were not governed by the same restrictions that were imposed within towns, where it was in the interest of the enfranchised community to advantage their own members' commercial activities and limit that of non-freemen or outsiders, anyone who could pay the requisite licence fee could sell at fairs, man or woman.

It was necessary for the fairs to be well organized, to ensure that no problems arose between the participants from disparate jurisdictions, and that the fair's owner could reap the benefit of the revenues: rents from stalls and other locations of sale; tolls on goods being brought for sale; fees for weighing merchandize (obligatory); fines imposed by the fair court. Good organization and effective operation of a fair, to minimize the chance of problems arising and provide efficient justice when they did, was a factor in ensuring the long-term viability of a fair; it may help explain why fairs known to have existed before Domesday were of little importance later. A particular application of law, called the law merchant, held sway over such environments; fair authorities might impose their own regulations on participants (these varying from fair to fair), while groups of traders from major towns themselves established practices governing their members' behaviour at fairs – for any unethical practices by an individual would reflect on the community as a whole. Some towns appointed wardens to supervise the behaviour of merchants from their community during the fair, and their authority was an extension of that of the government of their town or of its merchant gild. Merchant gilds were also involved in arrangements for renting blocks of stalls each year, and then sub-renting them to individuals; this made it easier for the gild to keep an eye on the behaviour of its members. Stalls at fairs were typically arranged either in communal groupings, subdivided according to type of merchandize, or in merchandize groupings, subdivided according to community

It was the fair-owner who had to provide mechanisms for fair administration. He engaged personnel to police the fair: to patrol the grounds and guard them at night, and to keep a watch on access routes to the fair (susceptible to highwaymen). He appointed officials to oversee fair operations and enforce royal regulations, such as inspection of merchandize to ensure standards compliance with the assizes. And he appointed keepers, or stewards, to administer the fair and preside in the fair court; they were assisted by a staff of bailiffs and clerks. This keeper had to see to public proclamation of the opening of a fair, of availability of a court to resolve grievances, and of the code of conduct required from participants; in the time of Queen Elizabeth such a proclamation would prohibit: disturbing the peace, forestalling, use of false weights or measures, sale of adulterated or counterfeit goods, fraudulent trading tactics, sale of stolen horses, disorder (drunkenness or gambling)in local inns and taverns, and lodging of persons of suspect character or intent. The staffing requirements were the fair-owner's largest cost, with the provision of physical facilities – such as booths, enclosure, toll-gates – the next largest. But if a fair was successful in attracting business, its profits well outweighed the costs.

In the second half of the thirteenth century a gradual decline began, with merchant gilds being less involved in organizing participation by their members, and some of the larger buyers of luxury items – religious institutions and the king – having less of a presence, or focusing on fewer fairs. The king, for instance, was starting to buy more in London from city merchants, and changes in the cloth industry itself involved a shift from fine cloths to cheaper cloth for the general public, marketed through towns acting as regional distribution centres. Sporadic political hostilities between England and Flanders during Edward I's reign also took its toll on attendance at English fairs, and Edward's military activities in the 1290s curtailed royal expenditures and resulted in new taxes on, and prises of, wool, which severely disrupted the wool trade. The introduction of the staple system and the growing dominance of London in domestic commerce, especially in southern England, along with the greater importance of urban marketplaces generally, helped diverted mercantile activities away from the fairs. The major fairs continued to be viable into the first quarter of the fourteenth century, with some (notably Boston) remaining more popular than others, but as the century progressed the international character of fairs diminished and their clienteles and reach were more exclusively regional; the lesser fairs continued to operate on a similarly regional basis throughout the Late Middle Ages.

Colchester Medieval Fayre, 2010; 
photo © S. Alsford
Fairs may have been much less frequent occurrences than markets but, as larger-scale embodiments of commercial gatherings with larger numbers of participants from further afield, involving more valuable commodities and larger sums of money, they had to be even more intensively organized and managed.
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Created: October 28, 2014. Last update: January 7, 2019
© Stephen Alsford, 2014-2019