Keywords: medieval economy towns cities administration commerce behaviour

 Revolution or reinvention? 

The Middle Ages cannot reasonably be seen as a period of revolutionary economic change. Yet, though it hardly needs saying, the England over which the Tudors acquired rule was quite different from that of Domesday Book in many ways. A much greater proportion of the population was resident in towns and reliant on inland trade both for subsistence and for the comforts of life. There was similarly a higher reliance on money both to fuel and grease the economic apparatus. The infrastructure of inland commerce was far more developed, better organized, and more reliable. This infrastructure included a larger and more evenly dispersed number of towns, licensed markets, fairs, and ports – some thousands of them – not to mention an incalculable number of small illicit markets, stall-clusters housed in public halls or private booths, street-level or cellar shops and taverns based in the owners' homes or in rented rooms within large houses owned by others, and at the lowest level of retail the itinerant street vendors. The reinvented urbanity was the gradual outcome of a number of factors, such as changing socio-economic habits, greater materialism and a decline in self-sufficiency, adaptation of traditional estate management strategy by opportunistic members of the aristocracy, and the efforts of national government to stimulate and standardize trading.

The conduct of overseas trade had benefited from improvements (some foreign in origin) in transactional techniques, notably those in the extension of credit and a risk-reduction approach to organizing mercantile ventures, as well as in a legal system better able to cope with the particular needs and challenges of international commerce. In regard to labour, skill-sets – some new, but most developed out of long-standing traditions – had become better diffused through a more systematic and less family-dependent approach to training and knowledge transfer. These skills included, not least, the spread of lay literacy which encouraged the use of written contracts and the keeping of financial accounts – the latter still mainly a tool of institutions (although poor survival chances may obscure the degree of accounting by private businessmen). Innovations, though they might seem small compared to some of the changes arising out of the so-called Industrial Revolution, helped increase productivity. The values, norms, and behaviours underlying commercial activity (which included the notion of reinvesting a percentage of profits in ways that benefited the community at large) were more widely agreed-upon by participants, more widely accepted by onlookers who had once been disapproving but had become beneficiaries of commercialization, and enforced more consistently throughout the realm by central and local authorities who had come to appreciate how they could cash in on the trend. While from one perspective the more elaborate regulatory system restricted the freedom of trade and imposed added costs on it, from another it provided traders and consumers with protections against bad faith dealing (allowing for more trust in transactions), made clearer the manner in which legitimate commerce could be carried out, while implicitly placing constraints on arbitrary interference with such activities by the authorities.

In all these areas it was a matter both of doing better things and doing things better, within a developing framework of national administration in which the towns played an integral role. That role derived in part from the monarchy's growing appreciation of the ways in which civic leaders could act as the local arm of enforcement of royal policies; but also from the growing recognition by leading townsmen – particularly those whose economic interests made them reliant on a world outside their home towns – that they needed a voice (notably through Parliament) in the formulation, or re-formulation, of national policy and in the shaping of international relationships. These perceptions of the two levels of government, complementary on the surface at least, shared the belief that relatively free-flowing commerce (within a context of customary privileges advantaging natives), secure markets, safety of travel, controlled development of industry, and maintenance of social harmony and peaceful foreign relations were foundation stones of economic prosperity, both in terms of increasing profit and decreasing transaction costs.

We should not think that the commercial network produced by all these changes was homogeneous, however, but rather perceive it hierarchically. As is the case today, there were greater and lesser players, and the situation was constantly in a state of flux. The designation of 'merchant' could be applied to modest retailers, to small-scale importer/exporters, and to men of considerable wealth and wide-ranging business assets and activities; generally, it served only to differentiate those who were primarily engaged in manufacturing goods from those who traded goods; insofar as merchants added any value to the goods, it was in aggregating quantities and/or transporting them to where they were needed (whether by consumers or by other middlemen). The category of 'towns' also covers a spectrum of economic roles:

Yet all of these types of towns had important parts to play in the commercial network, though their roles differed from each other; and all had indispensable connections, whether direct or intermediated, with rural producers of the raw materials which underlay most economic activity.

In their efforts to protect, manage, and develop the local economy, borough leaders had to keep in mind that their town was an integral part of a larger system that included rural producers and marketplaces, other towns and their traders, foreign merchants and marketplaces, and the royal administration of the realm. While it was sometimes necessary to take a combattive stance against what was seen (or portrayed) as unfair outside competition, policies of collaboration were probably recognized as more conducive to fostering commerce. Attracting outsiders, whether English or foreigners, to a town to do business there required respecting their rights, such as toll exemptions, and catering to their needs, such as for local accommodations in a supportive environment and provision of speedy justice should they have cause for complaint. It also required acquiring and maintaining a favourable reputation among outsiders, as well as potential settlers, as a safe, well-ordered, and profitable place to conduct business. Part of the latter involved effective control of standards among local traders – behaviours, weights and measures, prices, quality of goods. Effective administration of these matters – or at least the appearance of such – was also important for remaining in the good graces of the king, or other influential persons, whose favourable opinion of a town was worth maintaining for a number of reasons, not least in case their support might be needed in some matter of grievance between the town and an outside agency. At the same time, policing of standards was expected of civic authorities by the citizenship, whose interests – in terms both of equitable opportunities and communal reputation – was put at risk by dishonest traders. Yet, given that certain breaches of the letter of the law were necessary to earning a living, administrators had to interpret their regulatory duties flexibly so as not to create, punitively, disincentives to profit-taking behaviours that were, within limits, acceptable in the commercial-cultural norms of urban society. They also had to work with and through gild organizations that existed to assure a degree of competitive advantage for their particular constituencies.

Keeping all these various interest groups reasonably satisfied was a delicate balancing act for civic authorities – whose membership, we must always remember, was dominated by men whose own socio-economic status derived from profitable commerce – but one necessary to enable commercial activity to flow in a relatively free and natural manner, while generating the spin-off revenues for which the lords of the land had, in the first place, authorized commercial institutions and powers to govern them (some of which revenues came to be applied to maintaining or improving the infrastructure supporting local commerce), and yet guarding against greed-driven excesses that were defined as crime and/or sin. Much the same balancing act was characteristic of towns in other parts of medieval Europe, as well as cities of the ancient and modern worlds, for it was an inherent part of the commercial character of urban places.

Goldsmiths' products; ; 
photo © S. Alsford Carving of the nagging wife; 
photo © S. Alsford
From the primacy of the goldsmith among the crafts to experiments with simple marketing messages, the growth of commerce in England during the Middle Ages saw sometimes significant movement towards the commercialized society we know today, even though many of the developments initiated represented, to some extent, reinvention of a state of affairs prior to the collapse of the Roman Empire, or adoption of things learned of from English experiences abroad and from visitors and immigrants from the Hanse, Flanders, France, or Italy.
(click on the images for more information)

 Further reading 

AMOR, Nicholas. Late Medieval Ipswich: Trade and Industry, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011.

ASHLEY, W.J. An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory, Part I: The Middle Ages, 4th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1909. Boydell Press, 2011.

BLONDÉ, Bruno et al. eds. Buyers and sellers: Retail circuits and practices in medieval and early modern Europe, Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

BRITNELL, Richard. The Commercialisation of English Society 1000-1500, 2nd ed. Manchester University Press, 1996.

CARUS-WILSON, Eleanora. "The Medieval Trade of the Ports of the Wash," Medieval Archaeology, vol.6-7 (1962-3), pp.182-201.

CASSON, Catherine. "Reputation and responsibility in medieval English towns: civic concerns with the regulation of trade," Urban History, vol.39 (2012) pp.387-408.

CLARK, David. "The Shop within?: An Analysis of the Architectural Evidence for Medieval Shops," Architectural History, vol.43 (2000), 58-87.

DAVIS, James. Medieval Market Morality: Life, Law and Ethics in the English Marketplace, 1200-1500, Cambridge: University Press, 2012.

DYER, Christopher. An Age of Transition? Economy and Society in England in the Later Middle Ages, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

ELTON Charles and B. COSTELLOE. First report of the Royal Commission on Market Rights and Tolls, London: H.M.S.O., 1889.

HICKS, Michael, ed. English Inland Trade 1430-1540: Southampton and its Region, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2015.

JAMES, Margery Kirkbride. Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

KERMODE, Jenny. Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge: University Press, 1998.

KOWALESKI, Maryanne. Local Markets and Regional Trade in Medieval Exeter, Cambridge: University Press, 2003.

LETTERS, Samantha. Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516, London: Centre for Metropolitan History (; last updated 2013)

LLOYD, T.H. Alien Merchants in England in the High Middle Ages, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982.

MASSCHAELE, James. Peasants, Merchants and Markets: Inland trade in medieval England, 1150-1350, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997

MILNE, Gustav and Brian HOBLEY, eds. Waterfront archaeology in Britain and Northern Europe, Council for British Archaeology Research Report No. 41 (1981).

MOORE, Ellen Wedemeyer. The Fairs of Medieval England: An Introductory Study, Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1985.

OGILVIE, Sheilagh. Institutions and European Trade: Merchant Guilds, 1000-1800, Cambridge: University Press, 2011.

PAGE, Mark. "Shops and Shopkeepers in medieval Hampshre: Evidence from Fareham and Havant before the Black Death," Hampshire Studies, vol.66 (2011), pp.153-65.

POWER, Eileen and M.M. POSTAN, eds. Studies in English Trade in the 15th Century, London: Routledge, 1933.

SAGUI, Samantha. “Crime and Conviviality: The Social Space of Urban Drinking-Houses in Medieval England,” Paper presented at the Medieval England Conference, Fordham University, 2007.

SEABOURNE, Gwen. Royal Regulation of Loans and Sales in Medieval England, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003.

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Created: October 28, 2014. Last update: January 4, 2019
© Stephen Alsford, 2014-2019