Medieval traveling tinkers and small merchants

Medieval traveling salesmen, 1st of 3:

Medieval merchants came in sizes small, medium and large. The small ones did the thankless work of bringing small, cheap things to rural and even remote villages. They were up against two obstacles: lack of cash in the hinterlands, and terrible roads.

Roman roads were still much used in the Middle Ages, but Rome had built roads between their forts, and settlements had grown well beyond those limited places. In general, a road was a place where grass did not grow because feet and wheels trampled it. If many people passed, it was wide enough for a wagon; it might be wide enough for two wagons to pass. If so, it was rutted and generally awful.

Roads less traveled might support a two-wheeled cart pulled by one ox or horse. They were rutted and the cart might have to go around holes, along the edge of woods or fields, to get through. One axle and one draft animal was more maneuverable than the two-axle wagon we assume. Most carts were of the one-axle type, pretty much everywhere, in country and town. But they carried less freight than a real wagon, so right there, our traveling salesman’s capacity is limited.

Rural roads were no more than a path leading over any sort of terrain. Bridges could be no more than two logs in some places, and even a one-axle cart could not cross. So for reaching the remotest places, a salesman had to use a string of donkeys with baskets. When we picture a merchant arriving in deeply rural places, that is what we should see: a man on foot, leading two donkeys with wicker panniers strapped to both sides.

The second problem he had was that most rural villagers had little cash. His sales were probably trades for other goods. Little written record exists, so we have to reconstruct guesses based on models that lasted for centuries. One of the chief trade goods was anything made of tin. Tin was an easy metal to work with, and products made of tin were relatively light. This is why one type of traveling salesman has always been the Tinker.

People in the outlying places had to trade for tin. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book (1800s America), a tinker trades for wool and linen rags, by the pound, which he’ll later sell for paper pulp. This became a trade item in the very late Middle Ages, but it’s more likely that the tinker filled his panniers with skeins of wool thread. His essential service was to collect spun wool from the outlying villages, carrying it to market towns for them. At that later point of sale, he finally received cash. There may have been other portable goods, such as hard-to-find herbs; we don’t know.

Traveling merchants of this type probably tried to keep a predictable schedule so that people could have their skeins ready for him. But his travel was rough, walking on hill paths with donkeys, and he probably could not keep a strict circuit. His wares would vary, and what he received in payment might vary as well. It was a hard life, but until the plague began to winnow the numbers, there were many decades and even centuries when having any firm role in the economy was reason to thank the saints.

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