As a writer with a libertarian bent, I balked at writing pure peasants stuck under the thumb of their overlord, but it would be incorrect to suggest that there were no opportunities or avenues for experimentation in trade in Medieval Europe. The Medieval Fair provided the most successful avenue to experimentation in trade. A trade fair usually required the permission of the king or sponsorship by a local lord or a church dignitary. In Daermad Cycle, Lord Ryen oversees the Cenconyn Horse Faire, for example.
These fairs were frequently held at the crossroads of famous and much-travelled trading routes, often where towns were founded that later became famous cities. They coincided with religious festivals or other holidays that would attract large gatherings of people. They might last for a few days, or up to six weeks. The more successful and prominent fairs became national or international institutions throughout Europe, attracting merchants and tradesmen from across the continent. Besides business, the fairs also served as occasions for social diversion and merry-making, with sideshows, wild animals, dancing bears, magicians, musicians, and “freaks.”
The duke or bishop hosting the fair would try to promote its success by arranging for merchants, dealers, and tradesmen to be exempt from the usual taxes, tolls, and trading regulations and restrictions while these individuals were at the fair. Of course, they paid the noble or religious sponsor for this largess through a special fee.
The relatively free trade environment that surrounded the events resulted in them coming to be called “free fairs.” This system of trading fairs came to have two important functions:
First, it acted as a medium through which the different parts of Europe could have regular, though infrequent, contact with each other, and be made familiar with the types and qualities of goods and their methods of manufacture.
Second, it introduced rules of commerce, and concepts like contract and property rights in a setting which showed the gains from exchange provided enhanced opportunities for mutual benefit and profit when regulations, tolls, and taxes did not rigidly hamper the free flow of men and goods. People began to learn the lessons offered from a practice of more-free trade.
Even with emerging appreciation and recognition of property rights and legal contract relationships for commerce and exchange in the towns, the economic system was one of strict regulation of prices, production, and employment through the craft and professional guilds.
The manorial and guild systems meant that the economic focus, political loyalties, and social relationships tended to be limited to extremely narrow geographical confines. Little attention and few political or economic ties connected the various parts of Europe except for the periodic free fairs.
Again, adapting rather than slavishly recreating the system from Europe, my Celdryans have much more freedom of movement and commerce in a system that lacks a king and whose rigs cannot lay claim to a man’s labor if he moves outside of his realm, but a guild system does strangle trade in many places except for the market faires which nobody seems to be able to properly control.