Keywords: medieval urban merchants middlemen commerce attitudes Church morality market offences hucksters

 Of merchants, middlemen, hawkers and hucksters 

Historians naturally suppose that during the Early Middle Ages the acquisition or exchange of at least some of the goods and services that the vast majority of people required occasionally in living their lives was taking place day-to-day on an informal basis that, by its informal nature, leaves virtually no documentary traces for us. It was only when such transactions began to be concentrated at places such as wiks, markets, and fairs, that we start to see some evidence; and only as the volume, scale, and geographic distance of these trading activities – along with their increasingly conventionalized processes, protocols, and infrastructure – grew to the point where authorities felt that their management, through regulation, was necessary, desirable, or advantageous, that we obtain a reasonably vivid picture of commerce, the primary driver of the medieval English economy.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a key period for the growth in number and geographic distribution of facilities for trading, stimulated by rapid population expansion and increase in agricultural productivity – the latter being partly to feed the larger number of mouths, but also wealth generation by Norman lords (who had links to continental sources of demand) seeking to exploit more effectively the natural resources of their new English estates. This growth was "part of a wider commercial transformation, which included: a denser, organized market structure; an increase in the value and volume of coinage in circulation; growing credit markets; urban expansion and new towns; a proliferation of non-agricultural occupations; and a more market-oriented peasant society." [James Davis, Medieval Market Morality, p.10, summarizing the interpretation of Richard Britnell.]

An equally important factor, both causal and by-product, of this transformation was the emergence of a larger number of individuals within the population who primarily made a living not from the production of raw materials or manufactured goods but from their distribution; that is, by selling to consumers goods purchased from producers, or from other intermediary distributors. Many were small-scale operators active mainly within restricted locales, while others dealt in bulk goods and ranged over larger geographical areas. They mostly operated their own modest businesses, often with the aid of one or more family members, servants, and/or apprentices. Some found it convenient, or less risky, to partner with their fellows in overseas shipping ventures, or to spread financial risks by allying with investors; while others, needing to keep an eye on the local end of the business, found it necessary to work through employee or contractual agents who either would travel on their behalf or were based at key overseas destinations. Such agents or brokers might simultaneously be trading on their own behalf. All of these circumstances – but particularly long-distance trade – were fraught with problems and perils related to matters such as:

It was equally the case that commercial activity was fraught with temptations to further one's one interests illicitly or immorally at the expense of others. This was an epoch of self-help, counter-balanced only partially by a sense of communal responsibility.

The commercialization of English society was not without its challengers. The attitude of the Fathers of the Church was, at the risk of oversimplifying, that commerce encouraged fraud, avarice and other sins, and was inherently evil. This was the firm position of the Church until the twelfth century, when a distinction was made between trade profits reasonable to provide a livelihood and those that resulted from deceptive or usurious practices. Ccraftsmen who added value to raw materials by converting them into new products were entitled to a modest profit; but merchants – who were not perceived as adding any significant value to commodities, but suspected of pursuing immoderate and unjust profit by manipulating supply or using false weights and measures – were widely criticized. While some writers and preachers stuck to their guns, others attempted to adapt Catholic philosophy to changing economic conditions and the emergence of a commercialized society; there was a gradual recognition that merchants' re-distributive role, labour and costs in regard to travel, and risks incurred in the process, warranted some profit-taking from commerce, an argument that had partly been made much earlier by Aelfric (see below) but had then been a minority opinion. Even then, opponents continued to struggle against commercial activities taking place on holy days, and their influence was strong enough to obtain, from the devout Henry VI in 1449, a statute prohibiting fairs or markets to be held on Sundays and festival days, when

"out of great covetousness for material benefits, the people more wilfully than on regular working days submit themselves to the physical toil and tribulations, as in pitching and erecting booths and stalls, and in lifting, carrying, conveying (both to and from their homes), and deploying their wares for sale, as though they had quite forgotten how horribly their souls are defiled by involvement in buying and selling: its multifarious deceits, lies, false perjuries, the drunkenness and argumentativeness, and above all the failure of themselves and their servants to attend divine service."
[Owen Ruffhead, ed. The Statutes at Large, London, 1758, vol.1, p.619, my translation]
But even this measure exempted victuals from the ban and was to last only until further consideration at the next parliamentary session, as the king feared that the people would not stand for a permanent ban unless more convincing arguments could be provided than were in the preachy commons petition (conspicuously drafted by ecclesiastics) that won the statute. There is no sign of renewal of the petition, and the statute was allowed to expire.

Another unfavourable picture tends to come from late medieval literary works (some of which must be understood partly as satire) such as the London Lickpenny and Piers Plowman, describing marketing areas bustling with noisy and often pushy pedlars, deceitful stall-traders, petty thieves, and drunk or quarrelsome patrons of adjacent taverns – images that still resonate in stereotypical portrayals of modern marketplaces or commercial streets of large cities.

But we cannot base our judgement of medieval attitudes towards commerce purely on the writings of moralists and social critics; we must also take into account other factors:

The moral position of the Church – which, it must be remembered, relied on commerce to provide it with much of its trappings and luxuries, and generated much of its own wealth from the marketing of agricultural surpluses and the rents of tenants engaged in the same activity – had an influence on commercial activity, and not solely a negative one, but it was accommodated pragmatically by both urban authorities and urban traders; it may have slowed, but it did not prevent innovation. Some members of the Church acknowledged that commerce, although morally risky, produced results that were not all bad, for it provided individuals and communities with the necessities for mortal life, and some of the wealth generated was put to the construction, maintenance, and beautification of ecclesiastical structures, while some was directed towards charitable donation. Someone had to shoulder the costs and risks involved in long-distance efforts needed to supply the various classes with the necessaries or luxuries commensurate with their social position, and generate a wealth surplus that could be put to charitable ends, and this kind of public service (if not sacred duty) was the role of the merchant. The influential De Regimine Principum of Giles of Rome represented ethical behaviours as specific to social context, so that (for example) for certain members of society, such as merchants or labourers pursuing the necessities of life, commerce in goods or money-changing, including a moderate amount of profit they might generate for one party or another, were natural and legitimate, whereas for other members, such as nobles aspiring to a higher level of virtue, they ought be avoided; similarly, Giles saw nothing wrong in the acquisition of wealth, so long as it was not driven by avarice and the wealth accumulated was put to good purposes. In his Aristotelian world-view (filtered through Christian scholasticism), cities were created partly for the purpose of facilitating commercial transactions that enabled people to acquire what they needed to support an existence in which they might aspire to some degree of virtue. A similar view of merchants, as integral to society but susceptible to certain sins, can be seen in Jacopo da Cessole's allegorical treatise on chess.

Secular authorities at all levels were even more inclined to look favourably on commerce as the source of comforts of life for the well-to-do, revenues that helped finance administration, and financial loans for special projects or in times of crisis. The legends that grew up around some of the wealthier and more public-spirited merchants, such as Richard Whittington, reflect both a certain popular admiration combined with aspiration. Popular images of petty traders tended to be less complimentary, if not scurrilous or caricaturish; the proliferation of such images during the Late Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period is itself a reflection of how integral commercial activity had become to society.

Notwithstanding their critics, merchants – be they wholesalers or retailers – were an important and valued element of English society, just as the English shopkeeper has been lauded in more recent times as the backbone of that society. The common image of the medieval merchant is of a wealthy and peripatetic trader, assisted by a small cadre of apprentices and/or employees, possibly too a ship-owner, active in long-distance, if not international, trade in bulk raw products or luxury items, and sometimes investing his profits into rural land purchases or money-lending to his social superiors, often with the hope of rising in social status himself, or at least improving the marriage prospects of his children. Kermode [Medieval Merchants, p.159], for example, states that "What distinguished merchants from others was their engagement in wholesale and long-distance trade." Yet, while this is a useful distinction for historians to make, it is advisable to keep in mind that for much of the Middle Ages the term was often used more generically to also include middlemen-retailers, producer-retailers, and sometimes itinerant chapmen; even today the term 'merchant' is still colloquially applied to shopkeepers. Only by doing so can we properly understand the nature of those medieval phenomena known as the 'gild merchant' and 'law merchant'. The author of a legal treatise of the fourteenth century was quite content with this broad definition.

In the second half of the twelfth and first half of the thirteenth centuries the number of townsmen making a living primarily from trade was still sufficiently small that we can find terms such as mercator and merciarius being used apparently as by-names for townsmen, and even for peasants. As that number grew, such terms lost their value as personal differentiators and became more restricted to use as an occupational category, although encompassing a wide range of traders; in the subsequent age of hereditary surnames, Merchant and Mercator were and are uncommon, although Mercer and even Chapman have been more in evidence. It was not until the Late Middle Ages that there was some differentiation of wholesalers, retailers, and artisans, with the descriptor 'merchant' becoming restrictively applied to the first, and that we see the coalescence of a merchant elite able to exert a degree of influence, and indeed control, over the local economy and political administration disproportionate to their numbers, though not to their relative wealth. In larger cities, where occupational groups tended to come together in formal associations – gilds or companies – for mutual support, self-regulation, and protectionism, occupations such as grocers, mercers, drapers, fishmongers, and vintners tended to be viewed as mercantile, although their membership could range from wealthy wholesalers to retailers whose trading was on a smaller scale and who were of lesser means. Yet the differentiation is somewhat artificial, as wholesalers might also dispose of some of their imported goods by retail, while retailers might from time to time import or even export modest cargoes. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the wholesalers or dealers in luxury goods were the pedlars, the sellers of small items (such as fripperers), and those who rehabilitated old and secondhand clothing and other goods, some of whom in time became dignified under the occupational title of upholders (now upholsterers). In smaller towns having a lesser share of long-distance trade the differentiation between merchants tended to be less pronounced, except for the odd townsman who, through a combination of capability, determination, and good fortune, rose head and shoulders above his peers.

Yet in all towns, large or small, 'merchant' was not as specialized an occupation as we might imagine. For most burgesses economic and occupational diversification was a common strategy, and merchants could rarely afford to deal exclusively in one particular type of merchandize, or focus their efforts on one market (domestic or foreign), nor to forsake the opportunities and the income – smaller but steadier – that retailing or service-based commerce offered. An entrepreneurial mentality is evident among medieval tradesmen before the term was coined centuries later. Yet though prepared to capitalize on whatever business opportunity seemed likely to yield a profit, most merchants appear in practice to have focused most of their efforts on a limited number of commodities, perhaps based on familiarity with supply and demand, or well-established contacts with particular producers, geographical sources, or consumer groups. The more successful merchants were those adept, vigorous, and courageous at pursuing commodities wherever they could be acquired at a low enough price to provide scope for profit when sold elsewhere. Involvement with high-value commodities – such as wine, cloth, and spices – was particularly desirable, especially when they could be transported and stored cost-effectively. But there was more than one route to mercantile success.

Even at an early period that more restricted definition of merchant is not entirely lacking. Our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon commerce may be much sketchier than that of later medieval England, being largely based on archaeological evidence. Nonetheless, there are some documentary indications that English commerce was not without its adventurers. In the late tenth century the Benedictine scholar Aelfric, who would become abbot of Eynsham in 1005, wrote a text-book to teach Latin through a series of conversations and included one with a merchant who justified his utility to society and right to profit from commerce on the grounds he dared the High Seas to bring back luxury goods desired in England – such as gems, metalwares, silks, dyes, wine, ivory, and glass – simply so he might earn enough to feed himself and his family. Aelfric evidently saw the merchant as praiseworthy, even heroic. At the same period, English law saw the need to clarify the place within the social hierarchy for merchants, and allowed any who had made three or more overseas voyages to trade with their own money to claim the status of thegn; this is unlikely to have been done unless there were numbers of Englishmen involved in overseas trade. Other evidence shows English merchants active as far away as the Mediterranean in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. By the late twelfth century there was a sufficient number of Englishmen operating out of Genoa to warrant characterizing them as a very modest 'colony'. [R.L. Reynolds. "Some English Settlers in Genoa in the Late Twelfth Century," Economic History Review, vol.7 (1933), 317-323.]

If anything, the short-term effects of the Norman Conquest were to stifle this blossoming English commerce, by disrupting industry and agriculture as town and countryside were subdued, redistributing the wealth of the land to reward Norman supporters, and establishing French settlements in several towns, particularly in eastern England; the result was some reorientation of commerce, especially in regard to wool and cloth, to northern France and the Low Countries. The Flemings began to take over the cloth trade, and the Italians began to dominate the Mediterranean trade – instead of seeing English merchants frequenting Italy over the next couple of centuries, we find merchants from northern Italy's city-states – notably Genoese and Florentines, and later Venetians – establishing bases and even settling in England during the thirteenth century. In the following century they would displace the Flemings as the main consumers of English wool, and their use of Southampton as the point of import for luxury goods would become an important component of that port's economy, and a source of anti-Italian feeling among Londoners.

In the absence of private business records, for the most part, commercial activity in medieval England tends to be evidenced primarily through public documents such as customs lists, laws regulating commerce, and legal disputes relating to business agreements or transactions. Though this documentation shows only part of the spectrum of commerce, it does help emphasize a growing belief among authorities at all levels of society that economic problems could best be resolved for the public good through government regulation, rather than the earlier mechanism of cooperative associations or through a laissez-faire approach relying on market forces. In fact there was increasing nervousness about informal interest groups or associations with activist purposes and distrust of unsupervised trading.

One source of problems was traders on the peripheries of the business world, particularly those who were itinerant and thereby difficult to bring to account. Attempts were made to rein in or suppress brokers, for example; opposition to them arose, probably around the time of Henry III's reign, on the grounds that they ran counter to the principle of direct trade between sellers and consumers; but the underlying concerns were that their interposition in that process introduced an additional profit margin that pushed up prices and that they were prone to intercept goods en route to the marketplace (forestalling), in order to manipulate prices and, in some cases, deprive the town of its rightful tolls. Various deceits might be used to raise prices artificially, such as conspirators buying their own goods from one another. Regrators were another form of middleman or middlewoman, who bought for the purpose of re-selling, although generally dealing in smaller quantities of goods (usually victuals) than forestallers. Their activities became illegal when they: took place in locations other than markets; took place before official market trading hours had begun, or in some cases before a specified later hour which allowed consumers to have first call on buying in the marketplace; sought a profit margin either by charging higher than market prices, or by obtaining cheap and substandard goods to sell at market prices. Unlike forestallers, however, they were not dealing in such large volumes of goods as to present a risk of monopolizing the market. Yet while forestalling had moved from the sphere of local to statutory suppression by the close of the reign of Edward I, middlemen were an integral component of the commercial network and could not realistically be done away with.

A more regular concern for local authorities was the small traders, sometimes producers but more often re-sellers, who tended to operate outside of marketplaces and market controls. Again such middlemen, drawn from and catering to the poorer classes of urban society, were a natural and necessary part of the commercial system, and the best that could be done was to tax and limit, rather than eliminate, their activity. To prevent them from operating would only have increased the number of beggars in the streets. Much of their forestalling may have been too small-scale to make it practical to suppress the practice or prosecute individual occurrences, and it was easier sometimes just to identify repeat offenders ('common forestallers') or bring a group accusation against a mass of members of some trading group, such as poulterers or fishmongers, and see which charges would be upheld by jury verdict. Employees and apprentices were often used to forestall, and occasionally it seems to have been a family activity, as at London in 1305 when one large group accused of forestalling poulty included Robert Dosing, his wife, and two daughters. Although regrating was not necessarily confined to the lower echelons of borough society, regraters – or regrators, also found occasionally as regratresses – tended to be perceived as poorer members of the community and were often women involved in small-scale trading or in supplying their baking or brewing enterprises with cheap ingredients.

Female small traders known as hucksters, selling from suburban houses or in the streets, outside regular official oversight, in particular occupied one of the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Since road travel exposed women to banditry or worse, few of them were itinerant pedlars; they mostly operated in their home towns, some venturing to neighbouring markets. Their profit-margin must have been small; yet, because they met a need, they were managing to support themselves and, if sometimes a nuisance to authorities, were at least not a burden to urban society in terms of the call upon local alms. The authorities, however, looked upon them as not honestly employed, but rather living off the practices of regrating and forestalling; a London prosecution for forestalling grain in 1338 convicted Anabilia le Hokester, among others, but acquitted Agnes Sigily huckster. Hucksters might obtain their wares either by forestalling from rural producers or by buying in village markets or even the local town market, then re-selling elsewhere; sometimes they misrepresented the wares as being their own produce. Margaret la Buttermongere was one of a group of London men and women who in 1306 complained to the mayor, unsuccessfully, that the sheriff had confiscated a large quantity of poultry, eggs, and cheese from them, which the sheriff justified on the grounds they were common forestallers. Beatrice le Hukestere of Lynn occupied a modest house (whether owned or rented we do not know), divided up into at least two rooms, and she also employed a servant; the house was lost to fire in 1303.

15th century merchant and his merchandize 15th century pedlar
Medieval society was little different from that of today in encompassing a wide range of traders: from peasant farmers, pedlars, street vendors, and unmarried townswomen, all trying to eke out a living on low profit margins, to the great merchant capitalists who had fingers in many a pie and occasionally rubbed shoulders with kings. Most of the former were, to us, anonymous, the remainder virtually so; whereas the latter are sometimes very well documented, for the deployment of wealth inevitably leaves a paper trail.
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Created: October 28, 2014. Last update: August 8, 2016
© Stephen Alsford, 2014-2016