By Richard Britnell
Canadian Journal of History, Vol.31:2 (1996)
Abstract: This study, concentrating in particular on the sale of grain and fish, examines evidence of the way in which prices were determined in the market places of English boroughs in the later Middle Ages. It argues that public intervention, inspired by principles of Canon Law, was more active than has previously been supposed, and that free-bargaining between buyers and sellers was not allowed. On the contrary, there was at any given moment an official market price, authorized by market officials, that was binding on both buyers and sellers. For large consignments of grain or fish entering urban markets, there was a further, subsidiary procedure for fixing prices whereby sellers had to agree to a selling price with the town authorities before the goods were put on sale. The object of these procedures was to hold down prices in the interests of urban consumers. The offence of forestalling, usually understood simply as the creation of monopolies by those who bought up produce on its way to market, often involved the further charge of evading these price-setting arrangements.
The paper demonstrates that urban price-setting policies were not wholly neutral between different types of households, since a widespread system of rationing favoured free burgesses over others in times of scarcity. It may also be observed that many prosecutions for offences relating to high prices were more a symbolic assertion of the liberties of free burgesses than a response to serious misdemeanours. There was inevitably some potential for conflict in the enforcement of policies based on the assumption that grain prices were set from day to day in urban markets, given that, in reality, price changes often originated in the countryside in the course of negotiations between rural producers and urban buyers.