It can be argued that markets, more than any other institution, have been, collectively, the hub that holds together the wheel of urbanized society; this is now a given for most urban historians, and notwithstanding the preoccupation of classic writers with constitutional characteristics of boroughs is not new-fangled [see for example Thomas Kerslake, "What Is a Town?", Archaeological Journal, vol.34, (1877), pp.199-205]. Like towns, markets are places where people congregate and interact in order to respond to each other's needs in ways that are, on the whole, mutually beneficial. Despite the permeation of shop-based retail commerce in the post-medieval centuries, and the rapid one might almost say revolutionary growth in the modern world of online commerce around the turn of the millennium, marketplaces are still the focal point of many smaller towns today, and market attendance still part of the weekly routine of town-dwellers.
While the very gradual revival of commerce, following the collapse of the western Roman Empire and the influx of waves of outsider groups to fill the power vacuum, was at one time explained largely in terms of merchants braving the dangers of long-distance voyages, historians are now more cognizant that a growing volume of small, local or regional transactions was at least equally important in the formation and densification of a network of markets, which in turn stimulated production and facilitated product aggregation in ways that made large-scale, long-distance commerce viable. Although many market transactions were, and are, occasional, casual and singular, markets tend to foster the formation of more enduring interpersonal networks of producer-consumer and trader-trader types; such interpersonal networks stabilize and fortify the institutional networks, the two together forming a backbone for commercial growth. Economic historians have similarly differentiated between consumer and trader models of periodic marketing [Tim Unwin, "Rural marketing in medieval Nottinghamshire," Journal of Historical Geography, vol.7 (1981), p.232-33].
The process of re-emergence of the institutional infrastructure supporting trade has, however, been less studied by historians than the growth of that trade itself. Here our concern is with the development of the urban-based component of the market network in England; interpersonal networks, which did much to give rise to a merchant class, are very difficult to perceive during those centuries in which the market network took shape, although they start to become more visible in the Late Middle Ages, once we have routine recording of debt recognizances and lawsuits, export licences, and customs accounts. Yet trade became a regular activity primarily where people congregated whether for reasons of mutual support and protection, court sessions, worship, or social interaction and settled, so that the revival of town life is closely tied to the redevelopment of a market network, albeit that towns were not solely responsible.
Historians today are more likely to speak, in regard to the Early Middle Ages, in terms of 'central places'. These might include locations of minsters that is, churches erected, in the era before medieval parishes were formed, on large private (particularly royal) territories, often contained within some kind of enclosure, and endowed to support, financially, a community of secular clergy intended, initially, to help Christianize the local population by converting, baptising, and adminstering the sacraments (the term surviving today as an honorific for the more important churches) and of centres for administration for royal estates or for hundreds. These types of places remained important, in terms of both urbanization and expansion of the market network, following the Conquest, largely because of the engagement of some lords in the organization, or authorization of the same, of commercial activity. Central places tended to be foci for population, the regular, if infrequent, meetings of hundred and shire courts drawing together a broad range of consumers and agricultural producers, while minsters (a phenomenon that is still somewhat hypothetical, with many minster identifications tentative), if they functioned also as pilgrimage destinations or informal markets, could also attract a transient element.
However, the existence of a royal estate with minster was no assurance a place would develop as a market settlement. A case in point is Tisbury, in Wiltshire, where no market is evidenced, although this may have had something to do with the minster community having disbanded after the Tisbury estate was granted to Shaftesbury Abbey before the mid-tenth century. Nor can we restrict ourselves to royal estates and minsters to explain the growth of a market network in Wiltshire, or elsewhere. Corsley whose parish of that name contains not even a village, settlement at Corsley being no more than a hamlet whose Domesday population was very small provides an example of a minor estate, granted by Henry II out of the royal estate of Warminster; in 1232 the manor was acquired from descendants of the original grantee by a relatively minor landowner who licensed a market and fair the same year, and probably built the local church, first heard of in 1245, as a chapel-of-ease which was allowed some parochial functions because Warminster's parish church was so far off. Although nothing more is heard of these commercial institutions perhaps because the owner gave the manor to the nuns of Studley in 1245 to finance a chantry taxation records of the fourteenth century indicate that Corsley's population and prosperity had nonetheless increased.
The growth of trade in England is often described in terms of the growth of boroughs, particularly those that were regional centres or ports. Most large and ancient towns of England were once small, new towns and, moreover, market towns; consequently English urban history cannot be fully understood by focusing attention solely on the larger, better-known towns. What has become a widely accepted tenet among economic historians has been stated by Rodney Hilton thus: "the development of small and medium sized market towns is a good indication of the progressing commercialization and urbanization of a medieval economy" ["Medieval Market Towns and Simple Commodity Production", Past & Present, no.109 (Nov. 1985), p.5]. When medievalists talk about market towns they often are using the term to distinguish smaller towns from cathedral cities, county towns, or well-chartered boroughs whose origins and historical development are better understood usually because more richly documented. However, these different categories are not hard and fast, but overlap. For one thing, not a few small towns were at some time referred to as boroughs, or we hear of burgesses living there, and some even received charters of liberties typical of boroughs, though these did not always go much beyond advantageous tenurial conditions provided to only a subset of the total local population. Historians have used various criteria to identify or define boroughs, such as: being taxed at the higher rate applied to boroughs ('taxation boroughs'); being instructed, or having the right, to send representatives to parliament ('parliamentary boroughs'); receiving seigneurial grants of particular sets of privileges or liberties ('chartered boroughs'); or simply documentary references to burgesses or burgage properties there. Again, these sets of categories are overlapping.
Similarly, the category of market towns did not exclude boroughs. When Edward I sought urban representation at his early parliaments, he ordered invitations to be sent both to boroughs and market towns, perhaps perceiving no significant distinction between them, for his purposes; his sheriffs had a more difficult job in implementing their orders, however, and it was not long before the distinction was abandoned. The term villa mercatoria is also found in other contexts, but rather than being understood as a category entirely differentiated from boroughs, it seems more to be cross-cutting, for some of these 'market towns' had burgess residents and might be described as borough in the same or some other document; nor is there any reason to suppose market towns were being distinguished from chartered boroughs. Chartered liberties were not prerequisites for towns to have borough status, for the entry level was defined by burgage tenure, this creating quite a bit of variability within the 'borough' category, which could include places from small market towns to large cities; some places accorded that status may have been towns from the legal perspective, yet in other senses do not, arguably, deserve to be so categorized. Several well-respected urban historians of the early twentieth century held that burgage tenure was the primary defining characteristic of a borough, as distinct from a township, though allowing that no generalization would hold true for all examples, and it remains considered today one of several indicators that assist historians to make the call, though not necessarily a sine qua non. Furthermore, as Alison Deveson observes, "it has been noted that burgage tenure could exist in rural communities" ["Medieval Whitchurch: The Origins of a New Town", Hampshire Studies, vol.53 (1998), p.125], yet the authority on which she draws Pollock and Maitland's History of English Law supports that conclusion with two examples (Atherstone, Warks., and Pilton, Devon) that are not entirely lacking other characteristics of urbanizing communities, and for which market licences would be obtained. While certainly the distinction between rural and urban communities can be hazy, it may well be that burgage tenements were normally introduced only in places where the manorial lord had ambitions to establish a market town, even if such ambitions did not come to fruition; this is true of the Hampshire Whitchurch that Deveson was herself studying [see also "Medieval Whitchurch: Failed New Town or Successful Village?", Hampshire Studies, vol.55 (2000), pp.169-84]. The principal advantage of adding burgage tenements was in attracting probably mainly from within the manor and its surrounds new or upwardly mobile settlers of types, industrious and ambitious, that could be expected to contribute to developing the commercial potential of the manorial economy.
Not a few supposed boroughs were so insubstantial, even by medieval standards, as to comprise just a cluster of burgages alongside a small marketplace and it is hard to imagine a society of a few dozen burgesses with the socio-economic sophistication that one would expect from an urban community. This is perhaps particularly noticeable in Devon a shire with a thin and scattered population, a relatively undeveloped economy, and consequently the appearance of scope for competitive urban enterprise for which Beresford & Finberg's urban survey (taking into account its later supplement [Urban History, vol.8 (1981), pp.59-65]) registered an extraordinary 75 towns having come into being before the close of the Middle Ages, most as seigneurial foundations of the thirteenth century; this was more than in any other county, and some were situated very close to each other, vying for a share of existing road-based or coastal trade, so that only a handful ever amounted to much. In some, perhaps many, of such cases across the country it might be more meaningful to think of them as burghal components, or units, within larger variegated communities, rather than mature towns.
But, more important for our present purpose, markets are considered one of the key defining features of an urban settlement, so that even a relatively large settlement for which there is no evidence of a market or marketplace, is not likely to be credited with being more than proto-urban (that is, in the process of developing at least some of those characteristics by which we would define a town. The term 'market town' is thus practically tautological; though it is incorrect to assume, as some writers have done [e.g. A. Hollingsworth, The History of Stowmarket: The Ancient County Town of Suffolk, Ipswich, 1844, p.65; M. Taylor, "Kirkoswald Castle", Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, 1st ser. vol. 2 (1876), p.1] that possession or the grant of a market converted a village into a town.
It is difficult to imagine a town without a market, formal or informal, and the relationship between owns and markets could arguably be thought of as symbiotic. Ironically the nearest to an exception that proves the rule might be London, where the spirit and reality of commerce was so deeply embedded, that it took many forms and did not rely on a single central market despite that the wide, open, and shop-lined street known as Cheapside served as a very market-like space or even several dispersed ones, so that the city as a whole might be considered an emporium within which a number of foci for commerce developed over the course of the Middle Ages. Yet we might also point to the Essex settlements of Wivenhoe, whose importance and prosperity arose from its role as a port, and Bocking. The latter was a late Saxon settlement on a Roman road, originally focused around church and manor-house, which from the 990s was under the lordship of Canterbury cathedral-priory and developed a cloth-making industry aided by the priory's construction of a fulling mill (1303), an influx of Flemish weavers the following year, and building of two more fulling mills before the close of the Middle Ages so that by the late medieval period it had become an important and prosperous cloth centre, with almshouses, hospital, schoolhouse, possible guildhall, and several houses containing halls likely used to sell cloth and wool. Like Wivenhoe, within the shadow of the major market centre of Colchester, Bocking is not known to have had its own market pillory and whipping-house, common features of marketplaces, being placed instead by the gate into the manor-house perhaps because able to rely on that of neighbouring Braintree. Mention might also be made of Epsom (Surrey), where Domesday records a church-focused village, held by Chertsey Abbey; at later but uncertain date, the abbey created a new component west of the village, by digging a pond to drain an area of ground and provide a watering-hole for cattle; the reclaimed land surrounding the pond was then divided into some sixty long, narrow plots, backed by meadows this would later become part of Epsom's High Street neighbourhood (consequent to its post-medieval role as a health spa resort). Cottages and farmhouses were built at the front of these plots. Yet the new settlement seems to have been predominantly agricultural in character, there being no evidence of a market during the Middle Ages.
As an alternate for 'small town' the descriptor 'market town' remains useful to help divide up the large number of towns into different, if somewhat artificial, categories, and to remind us of the variability that existed within the medieval urban sector, just as exists in our own time. Tait [The Medieval English Borough, Manchester: University Press, 1936, p.356] suggested that villa mercatoria might be better translated as 'merchant town', to improve differentiation between places involved in long-distance trade and manorial vills possessed of markets and serving mainly local traders and consumers. But this distinction would be a difficult yardstick to apply when we know so little about the relative percentage of sales involving locals compared to outsider merchants at particular market locations; furthermore, it relies on a narrow understanding of the meaning of 'merchant'.
Going in the opposite direction, economic historian Richard Britnell used 'market town' for "any settlement with a formal weekly market" ["Burghal characteristics of Market Towns in Medieval England", Durham University Journal, no.73 (1981), p.147]. This served his immediate purpose - to argue that tenements of a character normally characterized as burgages seem to feature in many rural settlements that are not otherwise considered boroughs but since it includes innumerable manorial villages where licensed markets were established, it is not helpful from the perspective of the historian trying to chart the often nebulous process of re-urbanization during the Middle Ages. However, it is certainly the case that settlements incorporating compact clusters of plots that have the characteristics of burgages (land-poor tenements well suited to the needs of individuals making a living primarily through a trade, craft, or service, rather than agricultural labour), while they may reasonably engender an initial suspicion that the settlement was, or contained, a burghal component at some time in its history, are not by themselves sufficient evidence of that, for reorganization of tenures in manorial villages could sometimes produce the same appearance, as was recognized as far back as the compilation by Beresford and Finberg of English Medieval Boroughs: A handlist [Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1973, p.35]. New neighbourhoods created by seigneurial lords to extend an existing settlement, for example, often seem to have adopted this kind of plot pattern. Disproportionately long plots length at least six times width seem to be more typical of earlier new town foundations than of later ones [D.M. Palliser, T.R. Slater, and E. Patricia Dennison, "The Topography of Towns 600-1300", in The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol.1 (2000), p.169]. A stronger, though still not absolute, presumption of the existence of a market town comes where burgage units and a market are both present in a settlement, especially where they are topographically associated (usually, adjacent), and so the Handlist [p.36] implicitly saw market towns as "the smallest settlements that had developed (or were being given) opportunities for economic activities beyond agriculture", although this too fails to weed out villages with markets. Historians seem to be moving increasingly towards perceiving market settlements as a continuum of types, rather than attempting a rigid distinction between village and town.