Medieval Markets

medieval-merchant-guildThere’s birdsong and the swoop of the ravens looking for fallen scraps, but loudest of all are the calls buzzing in the sunshine and echoing across the field; come buy my apples and cabbages, tin whistles, kidney pies and wooden beads. There’s the old man ready to pull rotten teeth for a penny a tooth, and your blood may soon stain his apron. There’s the goose-boy with his flock hissing and trying to flap their way past his guiding stick. Their flat feet are tarred, ready for the long walk to the shambles and the butchers’ shops.

The sun shines on the awnings, stripes on oiled canvas and a protection if it starts to rain. But the sun is gleaming across the brass where the  candlestick maker is polishing his wares and the sky is clear and cloudless. No wood smoke spirals from the thatched cottages and their tall chimneys surrounding the market square..

“Hot pies straight from the oven, four pence farthing and worth twice as much.” “Fresh turnips, still damp from the earth.” “Cockles, muscles and  herrings still bright with salt.” “Silk ribbons for your lady-love,” and “Strawberries, pretty as your wife’s cheeks in the morning.”

There’s a perfume of beeswax from the chandler’s stall, and warm crusty bread from the communal ovens, then there’s the rotten stench from the piled gutters where the offal, blood, and the spoiled fruit collects, but above them al, floating free on the golden air there’s the sweet fresh smells of herbs and ripe berries.

Markets in the late medieval period might open weekly, others only monthly, but in the old City of London some were daily and the housewives could shop as they wished. But markets not only had goods for sale.

Dog fights were staged and wagers taken. Cock fighting was popular, and even bull and bear baiting. These were spectacles mainly for men, but some women also join the spectators, or take bets.

On –the-spot medicine, crafts such as wooden puppet carving and stalls where coopers, shoemakers and tailors would sit and work, attracted customers who passed and stopped to watch such skill.

The market was also the place to meet friends, to discuss business, to pick up a prostituteDaily routine of medieval merchant (medieval woodcut) behind one of the stalls, to swap the latest scandal and rumour, and to shout “Stop Thief” and set up a hue and cry.

This was the centre for surreptitious illegal practises as well as excellent ones. Not pick-pocketing since there were no pockets in those days – but purse snatching, a quick grab from one of the stalls, or the theft of one thing while the stall-keeper was busy selling something else. There was no police force and citizens were expected to do their own policing, unless the crime called for the Constable and his assistant to come from his nearby chambers and sort matters out. Yet what went on behind the hedge and the shadowed awnings was ignored by most.

The life of medieval London was my first temptation into what has become my passionate fascination with research. I have read and studied for many, many long years until now I can walk the old cobbled streets with my eyes shut, am haunted by the cries of the market vendors, and dream of The Tower, the river in flood, and the everyday lives of the people, rich, poor, noble and criminal.

Who could resist the markets of the past?


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