People tend to think of the Middle Ages as a time of contention; city states and petty kingdoms constantly at war as rulers jockeyed for power. Despite fluctuating borders, people still need stuff and commerce was alive and well. At the medieval fair, buying and selling took place on a grand scale. The fair at Champagne was famous early on, but Britain, Germany, and other countries were equally well-attended.
Most fairs had origins as religious festivals. Crowds of pilgrims naturally gathered to pay homage to a particular saint and understandably might want a little nosh afterwards. Astute merchants and vendors saw a golden opportunity and jumped right in. The first rule of marketing: get your product out in front of buyers, and it helps if you have God spread the word. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris secured a fragment of the true cross in 1109 and became the center of a yearly June pilgrimage. It didn’t take long for booths to be set up between the areas of Montmartre and St. Denis. The fair became known as Lendit from the French word l’endit or assembly. The bishops had no objection as it brought more of the faithful to the cathedral.
Fairs weren’t only established around cathedrals; other buildings did nicely. Some were even founded by religious orders. One of the largest was established in 1036 by the Abbey of St. Vaast at Arras in Germany. Clerics discovered not only the advantages of having goods and services for sale close at hand, but also the joy of taxes. Pheasants, meanwhile, discovered the joy of discovering loopholes in revenue laws. They staggered into Arras weighed down by bundles of goods on their backs because merchandise arriving on foot wasn’t taxed. Can’t carry all those pigs to market in a sack? Make sure to use a cart with an unshod horse. Shod horses were taxed at two deniers apiece.
As years passed and the popularity of fairs spread, temporary structures and itinerant merchants were replaced by fixed stalls and benches. The spread of commerce brought more money into circulation and merchants began to construct small shops, often with storerooms behind and living quarters above. It wasn’t uncommon for similar merchants to concentrate in a particular area; one street would be devoted to butchers, another to spice merchants, others to trades such as cloth, leather goods, or metalworking.
So what could you buy at one of these fairs? Everything your little medieval life needed. Fishmongers sold sturgeon, salmon, and salted herring, but if you lived at the coast you might wander down to your favorite stall and see if they had any fresh whale meat today. Food preservation was generally restricted to brining, salting, smoking, or drying so the fruits and vegetables were sold by the growing seasons. Cattle and pigs tended to be butchered in the fall after summer fattening, but chickens and eggs might be available year round. Honey, salt, oil, cheeses and a variety of wine and beer were also common purchases. Need to cook your foods? Visit the smithy who can hammer out some pots and pans. Planning to get married? Some stands carried specialty items such as delicate lace or fine embroidery. There was no such thing as off the rack shoes, everything was to order so pick out your cowhide from the cobbler and have him rustle up a nice pair of boots or use that new embroidered cloth for a fancy pair of slippers.
As the Middle Ages progressed, trade became increasing professional. Early merchants were from the lower class and used commerce to rise above the status of downtrodden peasant. Markets and trade expanded and so did the middle class. They grew not only in size, but also in economic power and began to demand more rights. Royalty wasn’t happy, but they were also dependent on trade and the taxes it brought to support their regimes. Eventually, the power of the monarchies slipped. And you thought civil war was necessary to bring about democracy. Nope, it only required shopping.
L. A. Kelley writes science fiction and fantasy adventures with humor, romance, and a touch of sass. She's no dummy and always uses unshod horses to tote her books to the fair. Check out her Amazon Author page.