Medieval merchants and regional fairs

Medieval traveling salesmen, 2 of 3:

The middle range of traveling salesmen were merchants who worked within one region or nation, moving things farther than ordinary people could easily travel. They were not as limited by roads, since they could count on traveling to towns with reasonable accommodations.

Towns, manor lords, and any other powers that be tried to get the main roads fixed at key times. One of those key times would be when an annual fair was approaching. The story of the regional/national merchant is mainly the story of the fair cycles.

A fair was an annual event held on the same day every year; this day was defined by its dedicated saint. A church named for the saint usually had a festival, and its town a fair, on that day. Fairs didn’t have to be connected to the church’s saint, but it was a simple means of scheduling. In order to hold a fair, the sponsor needed a charter from the king. The charter essentially delegated authority to collect taxes and fees, and to hold criminal courts for and during the fair event. Fair charters were a cheap way for kings to reward knights without actually giving them anything, so they were quite popular and fairs proliferated.

The fair grounds were fenced so that entrance was controlled at a gate, where fees were collected. The fair had an executive and under his authority, a court that heard cases in rapid rotation as problems arose. Sales were taxed; the fair had a tax booth watching sharply. If my history essays could leave you with just one thing, it would be this: when you think of the Middle Ages in Europe, forget armor or bones thrown on the floor, and think instead: taxes, fees, and tolls. That is the true spirit of the age.

A regional fair had two purposes. Merchants from outside the region brought hard-to-find goods, and local people brought livestock. The merchants’ goods ranged among copper pots, bolts of cloth, glassware, leather, spices and various ready-made items like shoes. The local people, however, knew that at each fair, one kind of livestock was in demand. You could bring other animals, but the large-scale buyers came for the advertised animal, and these were brought in from distances and in large groups.

There were famous fairs for sheep, cattle, horses and geese, usually in the fall. Each fairground set up enclosures and tents for each livestock’s needs. It made an efficient system, since farmers/sellers made only one trip, even if it was a long one, and were guaranteed sales. Big-city butchers could send agents to bring a large flock of animals to a nearby field, to be kept as supply for the coming butchering season. Some of the fairs, such as the Horncastle Horse Fair, gradually had more fair days and eventually became permanent fixtures with year-round sales. (Now I have to tell you that I had the pleasure of googling the historical horse fair’s name, and coming up with a hit for my own book! Lazy sod that I am, not even reaching for it myself.)

The merchants who traveled among the goose, sheep and horse fairs probably used wagons (certainly carts) and brought in much larger amounts of things. Just like modern regional suppliers, they specialized in certain things: dye materials, gruit for ale, types of leather, pottery, and so on. Their lives would have been a good bit more comfortable than the small tinker’s life, and they retired to decent houses in their base-of-operations town.

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