Keywords: medieval York commerce regulations food supply victuallers fishmongers cooks fraud prices fowl fish market offences bakers hucksters
Subject: Concerns over the marketplace food supply
Original source: York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, ff. 67,128-29
Transcription in: Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part I (1376-1419). Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 170-72, 221-24.
Original language: Middle English
Location: York
Date: 15th century


Ordinance concerning the sale of fish within the city of York [early 15th century]

First, it is ordained, by the assent of the mayor, sheriffs, aldermen, and commonalty of the city of York, that no man or woman may pursue or engage in the occupation of fishmonger (except those for whom it is the only trade in which they engage) – that is, no cardmaker, tailor, cordwainer, saddler, or craftsman of any other kind, regardless of status – unless they co-operate with the searchers of the fishmongers craft who are or shall be in office at the time, so that they may be known, both to the city and to the members of the said craft, for honest traders. Also, he is to pay at his admission [to the craft] 20s.; that is, 13s.4d. to the chamber and 6s.8d. to the craft, and perform all other customs and duties that pertain to the said craft. The which 6s.8d payable to the craft is to be reserved for the use and upkeep of its pageant, and to fund a light to be carried before the Host on Corpus Christi day.

Also, no enfranchised man is to cut up fish at the communal shambles nor use space at the shambles for selling fish, upon penalty of forfeiting 6s.8d to the chamber and 3s.4d. to the craft, which 3s.4d. shall be put towards the use and upkeep of the aforementioned pageant and light. And every stranger is to cut his fish himself and sell it himself.

And because fish and other victuals are often concealed in hostelries and other places in this city, through which concealment quantities of illicit and substandard commodities are kept and sold throughout the year at outrageous prices, to the great hindrance of the king's subjects, and infringement of the freedom of the city, it is therefore ordained that the searchers of the fishmongers' craft have the power to inspect all kinds of fish within hostelries, houses, and other places within the boundaries of this city, without being prevented or obstructed by anyone.

It is further ordained that outsiders from Scarborough, Whitby, or Hartlepool, or any other stranger or victualler who brings any victuals to the city – whether salted fish, or red or white herring, or any kind of victual pertaining to fishmongery – may not store or sell anywhere but in the communal market, without having first spoken with the mayor and chamberlains then in office in regard to the regulations ordained in the chamber concerning victuals that are brought to the city by water or land; upon penalty of forfeiting 6s.8d. to the chamber and 3s.4d. to the fishmongers' craft (and the same 3s.4d. to be put to the use of the aforementioned pageant and light.

Common cooks of the city have the following practice: Two of them will collude together, so that one of them buys 18d. worth of fish before they reach the market. Then they go home and one of them goes again to the market and buys 3s. worth of fish. And if the market keeper queries why he is buying so much fish before the hour assigned for that, he uses the excuse of his colleague, saying that he shall be sharing the fish with him, to the deceit of the market keeper. Afterwards the colleague similarly goes to the market and buys the same amount, citing [sharing with] the other as his excuse. And so through this trickery they are continually buying amounts of ten or twenty shillings worth of fish, and after that they retail the same fish from their houses at as high a price as they wish, to the hindrance of the common people. Therefore it is ordained that no cook who is a common cook in this city may buy more fish in the communal market than is customary and permitted by statute – that is, 18¼d worth – and shall not exceed this amount before the hour of ten has been struck by the clock at the chapel on Ouse Bridge; and that they may not sell any uncooked fish from their houses, but only sell what has been boiled, roasted, or baked in their houses, as is expected of their craft, upon penalty of a substantial amercement and punishment to be decided by the mayor for all those who infringe this ordinance privately or openly; that is, on each occasion a noble payable to the chamber.

Proclamation to be made in the Thursday Market concerning fowl and other victuals sold there [early 15th century]

As it has often been proclaimed here, it is the custom of this city that poultry, wildfowl and other victuals that are brought here for sale should be sold as follows:
one piglet for 4d.
12 doves for 5d.
1 partridge for 2d.
1 plover for 1½d.
1 woodcock for 1½d.
1 teal for 1½d.
12 fieldfares for 4d.
12 larks for 1½d.
1 goose for 4d.

Victuallers who are not enfranchised must, as soon as they enter the bounds of this franchise, bring all [such goods] to this the king's market to be sold here at the above prices; and none of such victuals may be taken away into any shop or house or elsewhere, but brought openly to this market, here to be sold to every man willing to buy at the above prices, upon penalty of forfeiture of those victuals and other punishment applicable to the offence. Nor is anyone to be so bold as to buy any of these kinds of victuals before the hour of six has been struck upon the communal bell at Ouse Bridge, upon the penalty already mentioned. And that cooks and regrators are to stick to their time for buying as prescribed by the regulations of this city, upon the penalty applicable to that offence. They know it well enough! That is, that no cook, in person or through some other, may buy any meat, fish, or other victuals between the ringing of Evensong at St. Michael's church at the end of Ouse Bridge to the morning, when Prime is struck at the Minster, except an amount less than 18¼d. worth, for the dinners of travellers. No cook is to buy any kind of victuals in any place other than the market designated for that purpose.

[Ordinances related to bakers, July 1479]

Much bread is baked in the countryside and brought to this city to sell at various times in the year; these breads are often unwholesome or unfit for consumption and also not of the weight prescribed by the assize. Moreover, the breads are covertly brought to the houses of hucksters of this city to be sold, which had given rise to the deceit that many breads baked within this city are called 'country bread' in order to evade the inspection they should rightfully undergo. For this and other reasons, it is ordained and the observance firmly established that from this day forward no baxter of the countryside, his wife, servant, nor any other on his behalf, transport or arrange to be transported any kind of bread to the house, window, or residence of any huckster within this city, its suburbs, or precincts of the same. But that all breads brought by them to this city to sell are taken to the king's market called the Thursday Market, to be sold there and in no other place. Nor are they on any day to display or sell any before seven o'clock in the morning has been fully struck at Ouse Bridge, in order that due and lawful inspection of all breads may be conducted by the searchers appointed for that purpose by order of the mayor of this worshipful city then in office, upon penalty of forfeiting 3s.4d (without remission) to the chamber.

It is also ordained, enacted and established for firm observance that from this day forward no hucksters of this city, suburbs, or precincts of the same, presume to take it upon them to go into the market to buy any kind of country bread (as mentioned above) on any day before the hour of 9 is fully struck on the clock of Ouse Bridge, nor that they buy any except in the open marketplace, upon penalty – upon the seller as well as the buyer – of forfeiting 3s.4d. (without remission), if lawfully proved by such persons designated for the purpose by the mayor then in office, to inspect the breads for defects, and bring each and every [offender] before the mayor, chamberlains, or common clerk, as well as any who resist or fail to obey the searchers in their lawful inspections, who are to pay 6s.8d (without remission).

It is also enacted and established for firm observance from this day forward that no baker of the city or of the countryside, nor his wife, servant, or anyone else on his behalf, presume or take it upon themselves to go into the communal marketplace of this city called the Pavement on any market day of the year to buy any kind of grain, before 12 is fully struck by the clock of Hallows.


Pre-Conquest York is described in Domesday Book as comprising seven districts, or shires. One of these is assumed to have been what was later referred to as Marketshire, because it encompassed the earliest and most important of the city markets: the butchery, or Shambles (not strictly a market), Pavement,and probably the Thursday Market, both being general provisions markets. Not until the sixteenth century does there seem to have been differentiation in commodities sold at each site.

These marketplaces were approached by roads from the city's two principal bridges, crossing the Ouse river and its tributary the Foss; the bridges were themselves commercialized sites. Ouse Bridge, flanked by quaysides, housed across its main body and along the approaches at either end some three dozen shops (rented from the city) of mercers, spicers, goldsmiths, clothiers, skinners, and a variety of other craftsmen, while there stood an administrative building called (probably significantly) the Tollbooth at the corner where quayside and bridge met. Foss Bridge was also home to a few shops as well as a fish market; the combined rents of the stalls there was the most lucrative single item in the portfolio o f civic properties, when a register of those properties was compiled ca. 1376. Pavement, so named probably because one of the first city streets to be paved, had likely been a market site well before acquiring that name; its commerce spread out southwards along Ousegate, leading to the bridge, and Coppergate which led to the principal quayside. As was the case at London and some other larger towns, a number of smaller markets specializing in particular commodities (e.g. livestock) developed at York, but on the whole the Pavement and particularly the Thursday Market, with their approach roads, seem to have served as general markets.

Although the Thursday Market was so-named by the thirteenth century, Sunday was the official market-day, when rural traders supplemented locals in offering goods for sale; a Sunday market was prohibited in 1322, and thereafter the days varied from market to market, although many may have seen some activity on an almost daily basis. However, old habits died hard and some traders continued to conduct business on Sundays, with an informal market often taking place in the churchyard of St. Michael le Belfrey (located in the north-western part of the city, away from the formal marketplaces). This was outrageous to churchmen and, in 1426, acting upon pressure from an influential Franciscan a renewed ban on Sunday marketing was proclaimed, though whether any more effective we do not know.

As one of the largest concentrations of population in northern England, the base of shrieval and archepiscopal administrations, the site of royal minting operations (diminishing during the thirteenth century), and an inland port where officials of the customs administration operated, York was an important market centre both for local consumption and for redistribution of raw materials and manufactured goods. Although its leading merchants made their fortunes from trading wool, and later cloth, the export business appears less a preoccupation of civic authorities than the city's food supply, on which the welfare of a much larger percentage of the residents relied, and which was one of the foundations of maintenance of social order. They sought to centralize trade in foodstuffs through the designated markets, for reasons intended to benefit consumers and to facilitate market administration, although it looks to have been a constant struggle, as less scrupulous dealers and petty traders favoured a 'black market' approach that would enable them more flexibility in price-setting, less overhead in terms of tolls, and less supervision of their practices and the quality of their goods.

The above regulations relating to fish and fowl, although not assigned a date in the Memorandum Book, are interspersed with documents of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, and the mention of the sheriffs indicates the regulations post-date events of 1396, when that office was first instituted at York; one of the sheriffs' responsibilities was to enforce the assizes and other market regulations, as it was of the bailiffs who were superseded by the office of sheriff. The upper terminus for date is indicated by a marginal note indicating that during the mayoralty of 14117/18 the admission fee was reduced to half the level given above, while there was an additional reduction for fishmongers who paid the city for the privilege of selling fish from the Foss Bridge.

A much earlier effort to regulate the fishmongers' trade is seen in a set of ordinances issues by the York authorities in 1301. The passage related to fishmongers (both residents and outsiders) required them to restrict their selling to the locations designated as fish markets – one for saltwater and another for freshwater fish – and to the same hours indicated in the above proclamation about sale of victuals in the Thursday Market, as well as to conduct the selling personally, rather than passing fish along to middlemen; fish brought into the city from the hinterland could not be taken out again, but had to be sold there, and fresh fish not sold on the first day had to be salted before being put up for sale again. Offenders against these rules faced, progressively, increasing fines, a beating, and being banned from practising the trade. Poulterers were not one of the direct targets of the 1301 ordinances, but in 1389 the city authorities ordered that all outsiders bringing poultry or fowl into the city – this probably representing the majority of traders in such commodities – sell them through the Thursday Market, and not to inns or private houses; if they arrived in town in advance of market day, their goods had to be inspected by the market warden before accommodations were taken for the night. That ordinance also set prices for much the same list of fowl as in the later list given above.

Regulations governing the Ousegate market for freshwater fish were issued around 1418, ostensibly by the fishmongers' craft itself. These acknowledged the authority, over all fishmongers associated with that market, of the craft searchers, who were themselves answerable to the mayor for any maladministration. Fishermen from outside the city were prohibited from unloading their boats at the Fish Landing on the north side of Ouse Bridge, being instead directed to a section of the quayside on the other side of the bridge, and; they, along with outsiders bringing modest quantities of freshwater fish by road, were required to sell their catch at the point on the bridge where a stone cross stood. Residents were forbidden to sell freshwater fish on the Foss Bridge (which was reserved for saltwater fish), or from any location other than the designated market on Ouse Bridge.

We can see from these various ordinances that civic officials were conscious they could not rely purely on local dealers to provision the city at reasonable prices. Not only farmers bringing grain and other agricultural produce, but al so outsider butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and poulterers were welcome to sell at York, so long as they adhered to marketing principles and standards; it would have been inadvisable to treat them much differently to local retailers and risk them transferring their trade to markets elsewhere, but their activities must have been harder to police and so required some special attention. At the same time, effort was made to limit victuallers' activities to the assigned marketplaces, where official supervision could be carried out more effectively. The ordinance about the sale of fowl was produced for public proclamation in the marketplace, where both residents and outsiders could hear it; although whether it was proclaimed more than once cannot be known.

That ordinance, since it concerns itself with birds less regularly found on the dinner-table, is presumably a supplement to some already well-known price structure for goods more commonly sold in the Thursday Market, including chickens, which are conspicuous by their absence. We have a late fourteenth century list of tolls on goods sold in that marketplace (although it is so short as to seem incomplete and may itself have been a supplementary list), and none of the fowl from the later list are mentioned, although we learn that a halfpenny was payable as toll for every four piglets sold. A civic ordinance of 1301 regarding the practices of common cooks ordered them to sell at reasonable prices, particularly specifying that roast chicken (as well as chicken encased within bread (a medieval precursor to the sandwich) be sold for no more than 2d. a helping, and roast goose for no more than 4d. The same regulation specified that cooks should only use wholesome fish or meat, avoiding any of the latter which had already been exposed for sale through the course of a summer's day.



"the chamber"
That is, to the city – specifically to the financial office, run by the chamberlains.

This presumably refers to the butchers' shambles (in the street which still retains that name), although the term was also occasionally applied to the stalls of the fish market associated with Foss Bridge.

"great hindrance"
That is, hindrance iIn obtaining food supplies at reasonable prices, because so much has been hoarded in order to sell higher at times of dearth.

"Scarborough, Whitby, or Hartlepool"
The principal fishing communities along the North Sea coast that supplied York

"Common cooks"
Those regularly providing food services to the general public, rather than private households.

"the hour assigned for that"
To ensure that consumers were not deprived of necessities, the initial hour or two (after dawn) of market trading was typically reserved for purchases of small quantities of foodstuffs for household use, and only afterwards were larger transactions, or purchases with the intention of reselling, supposed to take place – the above regulation suggests this was from ten o'clock onwards.

A coin valued at 6s.8d. (half a mark).

A member of the duck family.

A member of the thrush family.

The ceremony of evening prayers, held at Vespers (sunset).

Beyond the marketplace, retailing was often conducted through the street-facing ground floor window of the house of a producer or merchant.

"seven o'clock"
A century earlier an ordinance had provided for seasonal adjustment to the hour from which poulterers and retailers of other victuals could expose their wares for sale: from five o'clock between late winter and early autumn, but seven o'clock during the remainder of the year. But it did not allow local poulterers or victuallers to buy, from the market, goods in which they dealt before ten o'clock, and thereafter they could only retail them from directly in front of their own houses.

The independent liberties are meant here. In 1371 the city authorities prohibited, and threatened disfranchisement to, any city vintner selling wine to anyone who intended to retail it within the precincts of St. Peter or St. Leonard's, the castle, or the Abbey of St. Mary, since the city officials could not enforce the assizes there. The abbey may have been of particular concern to them, for outside it had grown up the borough of Bootham, a thorn in their side; the abbot had in 1318 obtained royal licence for a market for Bootham and, although it was shortly thereafter cancelled as being competitive with York's market, the traders of Bootham continued to present problems to local regulation of commerce.

"without remission"
That is, they are denied the prospect of part or all of their fine being pardoned for extenuating circumstances (such as the poverty of the offender).

The church of All Saints, which faced the southern terminus of the paved street known as Pavement, where a provisions market was held.

"river and its tributary"
The presence of these two waterways was likely part of the reason why a Roman fort was situated at the future York; archaeologists suspect the Foss may have been to create a port in the later Roman period. It appears to have been close to the confluence of the Ouse and Foss that an Anglo-Saxon trading wik was established around the eighth or ninth century; subsequent Anglo-Scandinavians expanded their settlement in part by reclaiming land from the floodplains of the Foss and Ouse.

Tolls had been collected, since at least the thirteenth century, on wagons crossing the bridge, with proceeds put towards maintenance of the bridge, and the Tollbooth may have begun life as a modest structure for that purpose, as was probably the case with the like-named building at Norwich.

"daily basis"
Certainly this seems true of the butchers' shambles, judging from the record of a royal investigation in 1382 when three ex-bailiffs of the city, on their own behalf and that of the king, sued fourteen butchers over schamel toll, arguing that from time immemorial (the name of King John being bandied about) it had been a custom in the city that any butcher who sold meat during the week should pay a penny as toll on the Sunday of that week (this revenue being part of the borough farm) for the privilege of slaughtering beasts and selling the meat from stalls. Because the butchers were all 35 weeks in arrears – suggesting a concerted effort to resist the toll (and the butchers had, the previous year, complained to the king about the toll) – the bailiffs had seized a knife from each butcher, as distraint, but the butchers had, it was alleged, come armed and rescued them. The butchers defended that while outsider butchers may have been charged for the privilege of selling within the city (which the plaintiffs denied), any toll imposed on resident butchers was an innovation and extortionate. An inquest jury supported the claims of the former bailiffs, and a search of Exchequer records determined that such stallage had long been a component of the farm.

"around 1418"
Either the original text or Sellers' transcription contains an error, as the numerical and regnal years do not conform (even allowing that Henry VI should read Henry V).

"stone cross"
Doubtless erected to indicate the official site of the market. Such a cross was also to be found in the Thursday Market, for in 1421 Mary Braythwayt, widow of a prominent citizen who had York both as bailiff and as mayor, bequeathed 20 marks to build a new one there. At, or after, its construction it was surrounded by a shelter comprising a roof supported on pillars, the superstructure apparently decorated with statuary, and subsequently we hear that retailers of bread and ale were to station themselves there. Pavement may also have had a simple market cross but, if so, it was superseded by another roofed structure in the seventeenth century.

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Created: October 28, 2014. © Stephen Alsford, 2014