Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Markets in the Middle Ages in South Wales: Medieval retail therapy

  Markets have been held in the Welsh Marches since Medieval times: this one, in Abergavenny has been on Tuesdays for nearly 800 years. We have a reference to it between 1256 and 1267 when Lord Edward was in possession of the lordships of Abergavenny, Monmouth and the Three Castles.          Recently some official (officious?) pronouncement advised the elderly that, when walking on icy pavements, they should imitate the gait of the penguin and toddle slowly, beak down and body bent forward. That is exactly how I proceed in a market so that I am sure of spotting any bargains whilst honing my bartering skills.
   Before the advent of markets, trade was more in the form of barter and we know that a good horse was worth 12 cows as was a quality hawk or a sword: the earliest mention of money in this area was towards the end of the 11th century when payment was in gold or silver or even in coins from Saxon England. An interesting cashless sale by 2 brothers in 740 was 500 acres of land between the Rivers Monnow and Wye in exchange for 24 cows, a good horse, a precious sword and a Saxon woman but we do not know who received what.

The growth and organisation of markets
   Towns grew up around the great castles imposed by the Norman conquerors in the Welsh Marches and provided defence as well as supplying goods. A chain of markets in these settlements evolved according to 2 different systems: the "trader" model and the "consumer" type. It is likely that the Marches combined both. In the trader model, local markets were held on consecutive weekdays within a day's journey of one another so that a merchant could visit them all in turn and stock up on Saturday at ports such as Gloucester.
   There were 2 circuits in Monmouthshire although they were probably not discrete: Grosmont held a market on Mondays; Abergavenny on Tuesdays; Monmouth on Wednesdays; Ross on Thursdays and Newent on Fridays. There was another market at Grosmont on Fridays, a Monday and Thursday one at Crickhowell and one established later on Wednesdays at Tretower. On a different route, Usk's day was Monday, Tryleg's Wednesday, Caerleon's Thursday and Newport's on Saturday, leaving Tuesday again free for Abergavenny. Where there was sufficient trade, markets could be held in nearby places on the same day (consumer model) and there were others I have not mentioned.

   Records for a comparable town (Newark in 1328) show that goods traded included: corn, salted meat and bacon, furs, sheep, goats, pigs, fresh meat, fleeces, tanned hides, cloth, iron, steel, tin, woad, wine, wool, fruit, nuts, timber, horses, hay, rushes glass, garlic, salt, firewood, coal, nails and horseshoes. To maximise trade, markets were placed so that travellers had to pass through them to go on their way and shops may have grown around them. The trade they engendered in the 13th and 14th centuries did not reach such intensity again until the agrarian and industrial revolutions. Records reveal exports, too, into England from Chepstow, Caerleon and Usk of salmon, oxen, pigs, lampreys, partridges, malt and vinegar.

Their place in the political structure
    Permission for markets and fairs in South East Wales was in the hands of the Marcher Lords (not in the control of the king as in England) and these happenings became part of a calculated political strategy for their emerging aspirations. Such commercial dealings led to great social change as surplus consumers and traders were brought together in a recognised place from which a ruling elite could draw revenue. This facilitated the funding of armies so that territorial ambitions could be fulfilled. It was therefore in the best interest of the lords to encourage an efficient system in their area and the process of establishing a market went along with the growth of a new town and borough. A lord would then have to co-operate or at least take into account the patterns of trade in a neighbouring lordship of which there were several in this area in that period. No point in disrupting a working economy!

   We still love a market and the bustle and excitement that a good one creates. Added to this we can enjoy a sense of partaking in a way of life that is hundreds of years old - and, as always in this blog, savour a large slice of CAKE after our retail therapy.

In the Tithe Barn cafe, Abergavenny
As these towns mostly grew up around castles, you might like to fit in a visit whilst you are there. I have written about Abergavenny Castle, Usk Castle and Monmouth Castle and there are also the Roman remains at Caerleon and fascinating things to see at Trellech (Tryleg.) Of the Three Castles, Skenfrith, Grosmont and White Castles, I have, so far, covered the last.

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