The Market of the Middle Ages | A Story of the Guilds and Market Towns of Britain

Trades–and thus traders–that were associated with a particular craft flourished all over Europe for centuries. The City of London companies, which are known as the Livery, are unique in number and diversity.

Livery companies, which evolved from medieval guilds, are similar to the fraternities and mysteries which come from the Latin misterium which refers to a professional skill. The word ‘guild’ derives from the Saxon word for payment, since membership into these fraternities had to be paid for. This is no different to the clubs and associations of today where a subscription fee has to be paid in order to join.

These companies were originally formed in the 12th century to guarantee that a member was both trustworthy and fully qualified and that the goods they produced and created were of reputable quality. These early companies were the medieval equivalent of trading standards departments, checking and overseeing the quality and quantity of goods that were ready to be sold. They also controlled imports, set wages and working conditions as well as trained apprentices.

The two-fold aim of these guilds were to protect the public as well as its members from fraudsters, charlatans and all that were deemed ‘unworthy’. Many guilds were formed right up until the 17th century. But due to political upheaval and the growth of the City of London; companies, which could only control trade within the City itself, began to struggle to compete.

The social and economic conditions which produced the guilds have perhaps long been overtaken by vast changes that have occurred in industry, commerce as well as consumer and workplace legislation. Amazingly, however, the Livery Companies, still continue to flourish till this day.

These companies have survived because the continue to foster their trade in a wide context, serving the community as well as embracing modern skills and professions. We have a lot to learn from these medieval enterprises. Anything and anyone that can and has survived that long without disintegrating–especially in the commercial wonder–is a wonder, indeed.

The Start of Feudalism

The Norman Conquest was the 11th-century invasion and occupation of England by an army made up of thousands of Normans, Bretons, Flemish, and men from other French provinces. They were led by the Duke of Normandy who was later styled as William the Conqueror.

This linked the crown of England with possessions in France and brought a new aristocracy to the island nation which dominated landholding, government and the church. They brought with them the French language and maintained their rule through a system of castles and the introduction of a feudal system of landholding.

In feudal societies, a social hierarchy was established based on local administrative control and the distribution of land into units. A landowner gave a unit, along with a promise of military and legal protection, in return for a payment of some kind from the person who received it.

The Normans adopted many Anglo-Saxon governmental institutions. But what the feudal system did was concentrate and consolidate power in the king and a small group of elites. From the time of the Norman conquest, the right to award a charter was viewed as a royal prerogative. Once a charter was granted, it gave local lords the right to take tolls as well as afforded the town some protection from rival markets.

“Norman soldiers” from Military Antiquities: Respecting a History of The English Army from Conquest to the Present Time by Francis Grose

The Market Town

In the Middle Ages, a market town was a settlement which was obtained by custom or royal charter and that allowed it to host a regular market. This distinguished it from a village or city. In Britain, small rural towns with a hinterland of villages are still commonly called market towns which is sometimes reflected by their names.

When a chartered market was granted, it was typically for a specific number of market days, and nearby rival markets were prohibited from opening on those very same days. Across the boroughs of England, a network of chartered markets sprang up between the 12th and 16th centuries, giving consumers a reasonable amount of choice in the markets they preferred to patronise.

Until around the 13th century, markets were often held on Sundays, which coincided with when the community congregated in town to attend church. At the time of the Norman conquest, the majority of the population made their living through agriculture and livestock. Most lived on farms which were situated outside the town. Farmers and their families brought their surplus to informal markets which were held on the grounds of their church to trade after worship.

During the 13th century, a movement against Sunday markets gathered momentum and the market gradually moved to a locale in the town’s centre and was instead held on a weekday. By the 15th century, towns were prohibited from holding markets in churchyards.

In either case, as the number of charters granted increased, competition between market towns also increased. In response to competitive pressures, towns invested in a reputation for quality produce, efficient market regulation and good amenities for visitors.

For instance, counties with important textile industries were investing in building market halls specifically for the sale of cloth. Over time, certain market towns garnered a reputation for particular high quality local goods. London’s Blackwell Hall became a centre for cloth while Bristol became associated with a particular type of cloth known as Bristol red.

Market cross in a market, French, c. 1400

The Role of the Guild

The way in which guilds were organised as well as how they functioned varied greatly. There is, however, a certain general trend that has been noted by historians. The guilds in medieval Europe could be classified into two types: craft guilds and merchant guilds.

Craft guilds were made up of craftsmen and artisans in the same occupation: carpenters, blacksmiths, masons and so on. Many craft guilds were born because population growth in cities and towns led to increases in specialisation and division of labour. Merchant guilds, on the other hand, included most or all of the merchants in a town or city who partook in regional and long distance trade.

The functions of craft guilds and merchant guilds sometimes overlapped when merchant guilds opened shops or craft guilds engaged in trade. While guilds also existed in rural areas, these were mainly non-profit entities which were established for social and religious purposes.

The Long Lost Yet Enduring Legacy

What was the legacy of these guilds and market towns? Perhaps you could safely conclude that this is not the way in which the vast majority of commercial enterprises today function. There are many reasons that led to the decline of such enterprises.

The enduring legacy–and perhaps one that is not yet lost–is the need we still possess for high quality products and produce from a reputable source. The legacy that seems to have been lost, however, is that of a long-term commitment to one’s craft. The apprenticeship system was a trademark of this era. Formal schooling was largely unavailable to the populace and thus this system provided a viable way to pick up both a trade and a professional skill.

The decline of these enterprises are rooted in the liberalisation of the world economy as a whole. The case could be made that this economic liberalisation led to a decline in the quality of goods as well as an overall decline in the prices of goods.

For instance, the furniture and jewellery that were created during my grandparents generation were of a completely different quality standard. Not many producers make things like that anymore. Even our tech gadgets, which used to have a longer lifespan, now come with a shorter shelf life than ever before.

In the tech world, items and gadgets are considered ‘vintage’ and ‘legacy’ items in less than five years. Considering how large the markup is on such items–and how short their shelf life is–perhaps our generation and the generations currently in existence will not be able to acquire any assets of our own. Neither when it comes to our skills and nor when it comes to our possessions.

We have become a consumerist culture. It’s not entirely our fault or anybody’s fault. But this focus on consumption coupled with a longer human lifespan than ever before will eventually lead to a generation that ‘has more’ but also ‘has less’.


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