Keywords: medieval urban commerce shops stalls selds booths streets bridges shopkeepers artisans commodities inventory


Apart from marketplaces, the other accepted locales in towns for buying and selling were shops operated by particular tradesmen. Their existence may have been grudgingly accepted, on the understanding that in-between market sessions there was a need for people to acquire goods. In a world where fairs took place once a year, and full markets were held one or two days a week, shops accessible most days of the week were a convenience. Yet it was also the case that local tradesmen had equipment or stock that needed to be stored in a secure place, and some had need for ovens, fires, or work-benches; to take the extreme case of a goldsmith, for instance, an open market stall would not have been suitable for either the artisanal or commercial aspects of his trade. Shops are known to have been part of building design from at least the twelfth century; the so-called Norman House at Lincoln, for example, incorporated a row of ground floor rooms facing the street, with (originally) no access to other parts of the building and no hearths, so were most probably rented out to retailers. A Lynn ordinance of 1423 suggests that by that time it was fairly common to incorporate rows of shops in buildings. This had also been a widespread practice in Roman towns.

Besides this type of origin, which helped house-owners recoup some of the costs of building (while some owners may have operated one of their shops personally), shops seem to have proliferated in two ways. One was as the workshops of artisans inside their houses, which became a selling-place, notably by opening the street-facing window and conducting trade through it. The distinction between shops for selling and workshops for production was often blurry in the Middle Ages; either relied on a large open window, whether it was to enable wares to be displayed, or to provide light for artisanal activity. Since resident craftsmen or middlemen (at least those who were freemen/burgesses) were not liable to local tolls, it was more feasible for them to operate from domestic shops outside of, and perhaps even during, market days, though they were expected to close Sundays. The other way in which shops came about was from larger or more lucrative market stalls whose structures became gradually permanent over time, at first enclosed, and then, more sturdily rebuilt so that they could not be dismantled. Such a transition has also been visible in the past century, notably in the changes effected at Norwich's marketplace, not to mention the transfer of a number of open-air markets into expansive market halls.

In either case we should avoid imagining medieval shops in the modern sense of buildings holding a sizable inventory offering a wide selection of prefabricated products. Merchants involved in the wholesale business might have warehouses where they kept a moderately large stock, but retailers' shops had limited storage space and low security. Furthermore, some products (notably food and drink) had a short shelf-life and there was emphasis on quick sales and fresh supplies; while in other cases (such as footwear and clothing) customization was necessary. Many shop-owners were therefore likely to rely on regular markets to replenish their stock, or on their special skills and equipment to manufacture goods on demand, or again might sell semi-finished commodities (e.g. untailored cloth, unmilled grain) that could be turned into finished products by the consumer or by a third party. From this perspective it can be argued that medieval urban commerce comprised a higher ratio of service to goods than is the case today. Shops incorporated in merchant-built houses, if used by the resident rather than rented out, would have been the most likely to carry a relatively large stock, and their shop windows then served for lighting of the stock on display; transactions took place inside the shop rather than through the window, giving more privacy to the sort of clientele that would buy the merchant's higher-class goods.

Although it might seem that shops created competition to the marketplace and a challenge to the regulation of commerce, they seem to have become acceptable to the authorities, their fixed locations enabling sporadic supervision by borough or gild officials. That a differentiation between shop and market was maintained is exemplified by an enquiry at London in 1344, which found that certain residents of the Gracechurch neighbourhood, where there was already an official grain market, were using their houses as if an extension of the market, were selling by unauthorized measures, conspiring to raise prices in times of scarcity, and allowing their houses to be used by non-citizens vendors. Even where shops were part of the ground floor of a house, they were sometimes sufficiently separated from residential spaces to permit them to be independently rented, leased, or even sold. Larger houses could have their ground floors given over to a row of shops, whose rental provided regular income for the householder; alternatively, a row of shops, with solars above to provide modest living quarters or storage space, might be purpose-built onto the front of existing houses. This form of investment, to generate a regular rental income, seems particularly to have appealed to ecclesiastical owners or builders of domestic properties, but we also find shops among the realty assets of gilds and municipal corporations. Both documentary evidence and that from surviving medieval domestic architecture suggest that many houses within the commercial centres of large towns had shops installed in the street frontage of their ground floors, although few such shops now survive in what must have been their original form.

Given the scarcity of large-scale retail or manufacturing businesses, and prevalence of those operated by individuals with but a few if any assistants, it is conceivable that by the Late Middle Ages small shops were about as common (in proportion to the number of residential buildings) and as ubiquitous in towns as they were at the opening of the twentieth century. Shops tended to congregate along the most heavily used streets of towns – such were usually those running from the outside world, or from gateways in town walls, towards the town centre or marketplace. Some shops (perhaps particularly taverns) were in cellars and accessed by an entrance off the street; though in the fifteenth century this location for shops seems to have gone out of fashion. One or more sides of a marketplace, or streets surrounding it, might become lined by shops, although in some cases this may have owed something to market stalls becoming permanent, sturdier fixtures; quaysides were likewise a magnet for shops. Many streets acquired names that reflected the predominance of some type of tradesman there. Key bridges in larger cities, such as London, Bristol, and York, were also considered good locations, and even in smaller towns the street corners opposite one or either end of bridges were often occupied by shops; at the close of the fourteenth century there were 138 rental units on London Bridge, many of them with ground-floor shops.

When a register of civic properties was compiled at York ca. 1376, it included some three dozen shops on the Ouse Bridge or around the ends of the bridge, four shops and an unspecified (but probably large) number of stalls on or at the ends of Foss Bridge, and sixteen shops elsewhere in the city, several being in Hosier Row (located at one end of the commercial street known as Pavement) whose tenants included two drapers, a tailor, and a hosier. This number of course represents the tip of the iceberg, since it does not include non-city property. The shops are of various sizes, a few being explicitly described as small and one as large, and many are evidently in ground floor spaces of houses, while others may have been stand-alone structures; in this document, and later accounts of officials managing city properties whose rents were assigned to bridge maintenance, it is clear that multiple shops could be part of a single building, suggesting a row of them facing the street. A number of other properties listed in 1376, whose tenants were tradesmen, look as though they probably also contained commercial spaces (such as taverns). The Ouse bridgemasters' account for 1400/01 refers to several of the stand-alone shops having a chamber (presumably above), suggesting the shop-owners may have lived there, unless the chamber was simply for storage; but one suspects that the stand-alone shops described as small would not have been viable as living space. One shop, held by a glover, at one end of Ouse Bridge had a cellar which may have extended below at least some of the six adjacent shops. The shopkeepers in 1376 include a handful of women and the same is true in 1400, when eight held shops, among them one specified as a widow and two whose surnames may possibly be indicative of occupation: Alice Semester and Cecilia Gyrdeler (who was also renting a cellar nearby). In the early fourteenth century Canterbury had at least two hundred shops and Chester over two hundred and seventy.

Shops would, of course, normally be run by the town's residents, and this was in fact one of the privileges of citizenship, although it is not clear that this was vigorously enforced; traders coming from outside a town were expected to use the marketplace, or some other designated location; or, if their wares were few and portable, might be tolerated selling while wandering the streets. Most shops specialized in the products of a particular craftsman – such as goldsmiths, cutlers, coopers, candle-makers – or trader such as mercer or haberdasher. Some specialized in particular victuals, such as shops of fishmongers, butchers, poulterers, or bakers. A few were used for reselling victuals and other household necessaries in general, rather like the twentieth-century 'corner shop'; and indeed street corners were popular and conspicuous locations for shops in the Middle Ages too. Goods for sale were displayed inside the shop, in the window, or on the counter immediately in front of the window; borough authorities seem to have resisted the sales area spilling out into the street more than this, although someshopkeepers may have circumvented restrictions by displaying goods on shelves, hooks, or poles attached to the front of the shop. Customers mostly interacted with the proprietor through the window, or occasionally an open door would invite them inside to view more products, and there might even be a seat inside where they could contemplate purchases.

We do not often encounter such detailed information about individual shops, but there is no reason to think they much resembled modern shops, including in regard to the extent of their stock on-hand. Many artisans likely kept only a few samples of their work for display and produced to order, while other shop-owners may have kept most of their stock safer in some back-area or in containers. There is, however, evidence – unsurprisingly from London – of shop-owners with a more substantial stock. In 1356 an inventory and appraisal of goods found in the London house and shops of John le Leche – a surname usually thought to be derived from leech, though in this case the association might be with locksmith – suggests an ironmonger's business; the items that appear to be stock or business equipment (rather than domestic furnishings) included a few each of auncels, buckles, hammers, sledgehammers, punches, augers, pincers, shears, cartwheel strakes, fireforks, spits, andirons, door-latches, goldsmith's anvils, combs of the kind used by wool-combers, and larger quantities of bolts, bolt-sockets, lock plates, and keys, as well as hinges and axes of various kinds.

An inventory (1378) of the shop of Thomas Trewe, haberdasher of London, features a similarly wide range of goods, including:

The inventory of a jeweller's shop, made three years later in the same city, reveals large numbers of paternosters made of amber, jet, coral, silver, glass, or bone (intended for children), and a selection of silver rings and necklaces (goldsmiths dealt in jewellery made of gold), all stored in a lockable chest. The value of such inventories was sufficient to attract thieves, for the inventory of Trewe's shop was drawn up in the context of prosecution of a bead-maker, or bed-maker, who, with accomplices, was convicted of breaking into Trewe's house, in which the shop was located, at dead of night and carrying off the listed property. Trewe must have recovered his stock, for the gang-leader was apparently caught in possession of the stolen goods and the purpose of the inventory may have been to differentiate what was Trewe's from other stolen items found at the time of the arrest. Certainly Trewe's business did not greatly suffer, for by 1394 he was sufficiently prominent in his trade to be chosen one of the masters of the haberdasher's gild.

In addition to shops we hear of booths and selds, terms that may at times have been used interchangeably, and neither with any clear precision other than to differentiate them from stalls. We have little information about booths, but they seem to be an intermediate stage between stall and shop, at least partially enclosed but not sturdily constructed; we might think of them as little cabins, and indeed the term cabane is occasionally used for them in London. Although the term 'seld' sometimes (for example at Lynn and at Leicester) appears to be used as a synonym for 'shop' – either as a stand-alone structure or an extension onto the street frontage of an existing house – or in earlier occurrences even a catch-all that might mean, or include, stalls, it was also used to refer to shed-like structures (independent from any house) that could in some cases be sizable enough to host multiple stalls, often dealing in some particular type of goods. They were perhaps comparable with bazaars or souks of the Middle East Such usage is found particularly at London, where a number of selds were located around Cheapside, the city's commercial core. For instance, in 1370 we hear of the seld run by Adam Lovekyn in London as an outlet furnishing retail space to tanners from outside the city, on a toll basis; Adam complained of loss of business, because those tanners were now selling their wares in the streets or from hostelries. Selds seem to have become more common from the late twelfth century, providing a greater number of retailers, unable to afford houses incorporating shops along main commercial streets, with rented space just off the street; something similar still exists today in the antiques section of London's Portobello Road Market, whose outdoor stalls and house-front shops are supplemented by 'arcades': ground-floor interiors partitioned into multiple booths individually rented out to dealers. In the fifteenth century selds are much less conspicuous and had perhaps become unfashionable, or superseded in part by public spaces created as indoor markets.

The advantage of selds over stalls seems to have been greater space and security, allowing wares to be not just sold but also stored there; market stall operators must have had to transport their wares in and out each market day, as remains the case today. Selds were mostly privately owned, though the owners might rent out or lease the space(s) therein. This London application of 'seld' is also found at Norwich where, in the 1380s, the civic authorities purchased a large property with tavern on the north side of the marketplace and in the coming years proceeded to convert it into two buildings that would assist with their control over trade. One, the Common Inn, is discussed below. The second was the Worsted Seld, designated as the only location where rural weavers might sell worsted cloth to citizens. In 1373 an unused cellar of Colchester's town hall was renovated and repurposed to serve as the official wool market, and an annual cloth fair (perhaps more strictly a special session of the market to capitalize on a fair licensed to St. John's abbey, taking place shortly afterwards) was centralized in the town hall and certain selds in the adjacent marketplace. In 1447 Bury St. Edmunds authorities ordered that cloth could be sold in the town only at the Woolhall. These confinements of sales of key commodities, outside the scope of the victuals marketplace, were likely prompted not only by the desire to direct revenues such as stallage into the borough treasury, but also by that of supervising their trade more closely; the latter intent may have been reinforced by a statute of 1405 regulating the lengths and breadths in which certain cloths could be sold, which would have necessitated closer supervision.

Medieval shop-front in Tewkesbury; photo © S. Alsford Clothier's shop;  Bbliotheque nationale de France
Our two main sources of knowledge about how medieval shops looked are art and architecture.
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Created: October 28, 2014. Last update: February 2, 2018.
© Stephen Alsford, 2014-2018