Medieval Commerce Was Not Free Market   Leave a comment

The urban areas of Medieval Europe became the foundations for the modern age of capitalism, with its legal protections for individual rights, private property, and the emergence of an economic order in which each participant fulfills his own wants by serving others through production and trade in a system of interdependency in an exchange-based system of division of labor.

Image result for image of a medieval townThis was not a free market system. While the institutions of property and contract slowly emerged during this period, but competition as we know it today did not exist. In fact, people in that time would have viewed free market capitalism as a dangerous and undesirable way of doing business. Prices and wages were all controlled along that era’s concept of “fairness” and “justice”.

Communal ownership and management of property in the towns was a common practice in a number of areas. The town generally provided a common pasture where the townspeople grazed their livestock and the town usually controlled the grain mill, and sometimes the bakeries, ovens and marketplaces.

Similar to how I made my farming peasants free folk who could choose to vote with their feet, I made my townfolk owning their own shops and taverns. It would be a stretch to assert that people who diverged from 5th century Europe would continue to develop in the exact same systems for a 1000,000 years once in Daermad. Their interaction with the Kin would have at least led them in different directions. But they do have similar characterists, because I like basing my fantasy writing in the real world.

Like the Medieval towns of Europe, the towns and cities of Celdrya revolve around the guilds.

Guilds were occupational associations that determined who was permitted to trade in the town, under what terms, how the product or service was to be produced and offered on the market.

Foreign merchants were permitted to trade in a town only under special permit. Their movements were watched, they were not allowed to “undersell” the town’s merchants, and could only offer products of specified qualities and types.

Among the townspeople themselves, the guilds had far-reaching influence. They set the rules for apprenticeships – who and how many people might enter a profession or occupation each year under a master who was a member of a guild. They made all sorts of business decisions. They controlled the methods and materials that might be used in producing goods, but also the hours when businesses were open for trade, the time when goods could be withdrawn from the shelves at the end of the day, and generally they allowed items to be sold only in the guild-controlled markets. Prices of both products and resources were fixed within maximums and minimums. Violation of any of these rules was subject to criminal prosecution.

Sir William Ashley, in An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory (1909), recounted some episodes of such regulations and how they were enforced:

In the year 1311, Thomas Lespicer of Portsmouth had brought to London six pots of Nantes lampreys [an eel-like water animal with a jawless sucking mouth]. Instead of standing with his lampreys for four days after his arrival in the open market, under the wall of St. Margaret’s Church in Bridge Street [as was required by law], he took them to the house of Hugh Malfrey, a fishmonger. There he stowed them away, and sold them a couple of days after to Malfrey, and without bringing them to market at all.

They were brought before the mayor and alderman, confessed their guilt, and were forgiven; Thomas gave an oath that henceforth he would always sell lampreys at the proper place only, and Hugh that he would always tell strangers where they ought to take their lampreys …

[In the year 1364] John-at-Wood, a baker, was charged before the common sergeant with the following offense: “Whereas one Robert de Cawode had two quarters of wheat for sale in common market on the pavement within Newgate, he, the said, John, cunningly and by secret words whispering in his ear, fraudulently withdrew Cawode out of of the common market; and then they went together into the Church of the Friars Minor, and then John bought the two quarters [of wheat] at 15.5 pence per bushel, being 2.5 pence over the common selling price at the time in that market, to the loss and great deceit of the common people, and to the increase of the dearness of corn.

At-Wood denied the offense … Thereupon, a jury of the venue of Newgate was empanelled, who gave a verdict that At-Wood had not only thus bought the corn [wheat], but had afterwards returned to the market, and boasted of his misdoing; this he said and did to increase the dearness of corn.

Accordingly, he was sentenced to be put into the pillory for three hours, and one of the sheriffs was directed to see the sentence executed and proclamation made of the cause of the offense.

The rationale for the guilds and their intricate system of rules and regulations of prices, production, and entry into professions and occupations and trades was said to maintain reasonable prices for customers and minimum qualities of the goods offered to them in the marketplace.

Truthfully, the guilds served as a legal means to the monopolize trade within crafts and professions. It acted as a retarding influence on any improvements in the qualities of goods or in the varieties of commodities offered on the market, and a disincentive on the part of craftsmen and professionals to try to lower their costs of production and increase their revenues by offering their goods at reduced and more attractive prices.

Quality improvements, increased variety, lower selling prices were declared “unjust” and “unfair” trading practices that would harm all the “honest” men in the various lines of production and trade. Such market conduct would destabilize markets, disrupt traditional standards of doing business, and harm both producers and consumers in the long run. It was thought better to control and limit supply, methods of production, and prices and wages to customary paths to assure “continuity” to town and commercial life.

In Daermad Cycle, my people are a little bit more free. They can move from town to town to find the guild structure they like best, but once in a town, they are forced to accept the system there unless they want to leave. In The Willow Branch, I have Padraig visiting the guild master at Clarcom to become a member. In Mirklin Wood, he is forced to travel south because he cannot join the guild in Wwmgleadd because (unstated) the rules say you must live there a certain time before you’re permitted to join. This is a deliberate attempt to keep herbmen from the caravans from remaining in Wwmgleadd. We also see Taryn’s brother and Regent Gerriant standing in judgment on disputes between individuals involved in commercial enterprise.

The Middle Ages were a time between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Modern era. Look for the next post.


Posted October 25, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in History

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