Market Towns and the Countryside in Late Medieval England


Market Towns and the Countryside in Late Medieval England

By Christopher Dyer

Canadian Journal of History, Vol.31:2 (1996)

Abstract: This study of the interactions between market towns and their surrounding countryside is inspired by David Farmer’s work on agricultural marketing. Central place theories of “spheres of influence” are applied to a number of small English towns for which there is evidence of commercial contacts in the period 1280-1520. A sample of towns is used, including a group of contiguous market centres in the west midlands. Trading hinterlands are defined and compared, showing that a half of places with which small towns traded lay within a radius of ten km.

The shape of hinterlands was influenced by a number of geographical and economic factors. Analysis of debts and records of trade contacts allows us to define the urban hierarchy and the extent of competition between towns. A commercial chain is found linking London and the ports to provincial cities and then with the network of market towns, which in turn dealt with small-scale village traders. Even some small towns, which usually went in for little specialization, developed a distinctive product or commodity. Social and cultural factors also played a part in defining relations between town and country. The study of hinterlands and relations between towns gives general insights into the medieval economy.

Introduction: David Farmer made his name as a historian of the most austere of subjects prices, wages, grain yields and his fellow workers will remain in his debt for many decades because of the thoroughness and accuracy with which he collected and presented the evidence. His achievements stand in comparison with those of Thorold Rogers and Beveridge, and confer on his name a measure of immortality. In the last years he was also gaining a reputation for his research into trade and transport. For the chapter in the Agrarian History of England and Wales on marketing he gathered together a mass of information from manorial accounts for the destination of goods which were sold, and the places from which purchases were made. He could accordingly reconstruct patterns of trade in dozens of items, from lambs to millstones. His able analysis of these data reveal the complexity and flexibility of the marketing patterns, which varied with the commodities, with the remoteness and transport facilities of each manor, with the price of goods from year to year, and with the trading venues available, whether they were towns, village markets, fairs, or simply bargains struck at the farm gate. So, to take two contrasting examples, between 1296 and 1346 the grain from the Wiltshire manors of Longbridge Deverill and Monkton Deverill was usually sold within seventeen km (10.5 miles) in such local markets as the tiny town of Hindon or the more significant, but still small centres of Frome and Shaftesbury. But the reeve of Elham in Kent in 1326-27 sent an expedition to Winchcomb fair in Gloucestershire, a road journey of more than 300 km, to buy horses.

Farmer always emphasized the human side of the transactions. The people of the time had to make decisions about where, when, and how to trade, and historians must use their imaginations to reconstruct the thinking behind the decisions. Indeed, we are drawn to conclude that the Elham venture was probably a mistake, because the horses were sold at a loss. Farmer was not impressed by laws and rules. Just as medieval traders, supposedly hemmed in by restrictions, often failed to observe the trade regulations, so their behaviour also differed from that predicted by deterministic modern theories.

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