Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

How Goods Were Sold

After a man had manufactured something, shoes or caps or saddles or swords, as the case might be, after his gild had declared that the material was good and that the articles were well made, the next question was how to dispose of them.

If he lived in a large town, he could sell many goods to the people of the town from the bench in front of his house. As has been said, the people of one craft lived near together; and if any one wanted a sword, for instance, he went to the street of the sword-makers; if he wanted some cloth, he went to the street of the drapers. For bread, he visited the pestours, for saddles the sellers, and for fish the pessoners. If he needed to have a window glazed, he called upon the verrours.  If he intended to indulge himself in a new suit of clothes, he went to the place of the talliaunders  to give his order; but if he purposed only to have his old ones repaired, he went to the quarters of the dubbers.

Many goods were sold in the country, at castles, cottages, convents, and manor houses, by pedlars who roamed about the land. They packed their merchandise into bundles or boxes and slung them over a horse or a mule. They carried all sorts of articles for a house or a wardrobe, such as caps, hats, girdles, gloves, purses, pewter pots, hoods for men, headdresses for women, and even musical instruments. These pedlars must have been a great convenience to the people who could not come to town; but they did not bear a very good reputation for honesty. There is an old picture that the folk of the time must have enjoyed. It represents a pedlar sound asleep beside a tree, while three monkeys are opening his pack and helping themselves to its contents.


trades entering a town
(from a stained-glass window)

Another opportunity to dispose of goods was at the markets which were held in many towns from one to three times a week. No town could hold a market without the permission of the king. This permission was a valuable gift, for every one wishing to sell in the market had to pay a toll unless he lived in the town. Sometimes the king "gave the market" to an abbey, sometimes to a noble, and sometimes to the town itself. Before a new market could be established, the question had to be considered whether it would be so near some older one as to lessen its tolls, and so injure the "owner." It was a common feeling that markets should be not more than six miles apart, in order that people might walk there, sell or buy what they wished, and get home before dark.

When market day had come, the good folk from all about came to town and went to the market-place. This was an open space in some central location. Stalls and booths were set up and were rented by some of the dealers; others sat on low stools with baskets of eggs or rolls of butter or live poultry in front of them and waited for customers. In the market-place a cross of wood or stone was usually set up; and often some article belonging to the king, such as a glove, hat, sword, or shield, was put upon it to show to all people that the spot was under the special protection of the sovereign. In some towns on the Continent huge stone figures were reared called Rolands, perhaps from Charlemagne's famous knight of that name. Each Roland bore the sword of justice; and the threat was more than an empty show, for whoever committed any offense during market time had to pay not only the usual penalty, but also a good-sized fine.

Every market had a court of its own to decide the disagreements that are sure to arise where many people are buying and selling. It was composed of merchants, and was called the court of pie-powder, or more properly, pieds-poudrés, that is, the court of "dusty feet," because when any dispute arose, the disputants came before this court at once, even with their feet dusty from their journey. Each one told his story, and the matter was promptly settled. This court was held in a hut or booth called a tollbooth, that is, a booth for collecting tolls. Usually a better building was put up for the court after a while; and this became the town prison, or perhaps even the town hall.


paying toll

The tolls were of so many kinds that one wonders how the traders could have made money enough from their sales to pay them all. If a man who was not a citizen of the market town wished to sell fish, for instance, in the market, he must first pay a toll for each load—cart-load, horse-load, or man-load—that he brought in. For the board on which his fish were laid for sale he paid a rent of one farthing a day; and every cart-load on the board was also taxed one penny.

After a while little shops were opened in the towns; but they had only a narrow variety of articles. Most of the towns were so small that it did not pay traders to bring very many goods of a kind or to come long distances even for market days; and those who needed large quantities or articles from other countries fared poorly at the markets. But on one occasion people did gather in great numbers, and that was on pilgrimages. On the special saint's day of any famous shrine, thousands came together. The wideawake merchants were not slow in finding this out, and in bringing goods of all sorts to such places. This was the beginning of the famous fairs that were held in every country in Europe.

For these fairs merchants at first put up simple booths of green branches in the churchyards, and there sold their goods. This was soon forbidden, but they were allowed to establish themselves outside the towns. Fairs soon began to be held at other places than shrines; but it was always necessary to choose a location that could be reached either by good roads or by water-ways.

The right to hold a fair had to be obtained from the king. This was an exceedingly valuable privilege; for of course the tolls were much greater than those received from a market. The king usually gave this right to some favored nobleman, to an abbey, or a hospital. If a town had been burned or had met with any other serious misfortune, their sovereign did not need to draw upon his treasure for a contribution; he simply granted the town permit to hold a fair. These permits were very definite. They stated not only whether the fair might be held once, twice, three times, or four times a year, but even the number of days that it was allowed to remain open. Another privilege of value was that during fair time the shops in the neighboring towns were ordered to be closed; and if these were market towns, it was forbidden to hold a market until the fair was over. This was not so unjust as it might appear, for the merchants could bring their goods to the fair and probably make much larger sales than if they had remained in their shops. They had to pay tolls, to be sure, and occasionally a close-fisted trader would avoid the entrance fees by working his way into the fair enclosure much as the bad boy of the storybooks gets under the circus tent. Most people who sold also purchased; and as a general thing, dealers felt that their toll-money was well spent, for at fairs weights and measures were so carefully tested that there was far less chance of being cheated. There was also another protection for the buyer: if he discovered that he had been tricked by some merchant, the laws of the fair held not only the one man, but all the merchants from his home town responsible for the amount; and the goods of any of them could be seized to make the buyer whole.

When a fair was to be held, streets were laid out and lined with wooden or canvas booths. People of one trade were usually on the same street or row; and there were pewterers' row, tailors' row, and others. The day before the fair was to open, officers of the person or hospital or church that owned the fair went about the town declaring its rules. Every merchant must be in his place at a certain time unless he had been delayed by a storm at sea, by some accident, or by robbers. There was danger of robbers everywhere; for the noble in his castle often demanded "toll" of any merchant who passed near his stronghold. This really meant that the noble and his followers dashed out upon any merchant who was so unfortunate as to be obliged to go by his castle. The merchant lost his goods and counted himself in luck if he did not lose his life. The officers also announced that disagreements would be settled by the court of pieds-poudrés, and that nothing could be sold within several miles of the fair, but whoever had anything to dispose of must bring it within the gates. They proclaimed how strong the wine and ale must be and how much the loaves of bread must weigh. These officers tested the weights and measures. If any false ones were discovered, they were burned, and the owners were obliged to pay fines.

It was forbidden to make any sale until the fair was opened; but when the hour had come, a trumpet was blown as a signal, and trade began at once. There were swarms of people from town and country. There were merchants from distant lands, there were knights and ladies and peasants, there were jesters and jugglers and minstrels. Stewards of large abbeys were there to lay in a year's supply of salt, spices, wine, fur, and linen; and humbler folk were there to buy the few little dainties that would be their only luxuries for the year to come. Iron goods, tar, gold, cattle, horses, wool, hides, cloth, velvets, ribbons, silks, satins, hay, grain, glass, copper, flax, salt fish, wax, tallow, honey, oil, resin, pitch, timber, armor—these were only a few of the articles that were for sale. There were, too, so many kinds of amusements that every one could find entertainment. Jugglers did their sleight-of-hand tricks; minstrels chanted romances; trained bears went through their performances; cheap jacks sold their quack medicines; wrestlers showed their strength and skill; and dancers balanced themselves on their hands rather than their feet.

Fairs were not only a great convenience for buyers and sellers, but they were a help in keeping prices steady. Small quantities of goods brought into a town would often command a high price, because there might not be enough for all that wanted them; but if the people knew that in a short time the same sort of goods would be for sale at a fair near at hand and at a reasonable cost, they would wait, if possible. This would lessen the demand for the goods, and only a fair price could be obtained.


a market scene
(From a stained-glass window)

Fairs were held, as has been said, throughout Europe. The journeys of the crusaders had shown what comforts and luxuries there were in the world. People had developed new tastes and they made new demands. They would have thought themselves ill-treated indeed if they had had to depend upon a town market to supply their wants. In England, the largest fair was that of Stourbridge, near Cambridge. Its streets and booths were spread over an area half a mile square. Some of these streets were named for the trades represented and others for the nations represented. Stourbridge fair lasted a month, and during this time there were immense sales of both English and foreign productions. Two seaports specially liked by merchants on the Continent were near Stourbridge, and vessels came in by scores loaded with foreign goods. Italy sent silks and velvets and glass of her own manufacture, and also cotton, spices, and manufactured articles from the East. From France and Spain came quantities of wine. Flemish ships brought fine linen and woolen cloth. The Hanseatic League, or union of German towns that ruled the commerce of northern Europe, brought many products of the north, such as iron, copper, timber, salt fish, and meat, furs, grain, amber, dried herring, resin, and pitch. As time passed, the business of the League spread to the south and west, and then this great mercantile union brought wine and oil and salt from France and Spain and Portugal. At Stourbridge the League merchants bought barley for the breweries of Flanders, together with large numbers of horses and cattle. Most of all, however, they wanted wool to sell to the various towns where it was to be woven into cloth. England raised such vast quantities of wool that its sale brought in large amounts of money. It was looked upon as an important source of the country's wealth, and to this day when the Lord Chancellor enters the House of Lords, he takes his seat upon a large square bag of wool covered with red cloth.

Another famous English fair was held at Winchester. This dates from the time of William the Conqueror. He allowed the Bishop of Winchester to hold it for one day in the year; but William's greatgrandson, Henry II, allowed it to be held for sixteen days. Whoever traveled on a road leading to the fair or crossed a bridge had to pay toll. The fair was a valuable bit of property in those days; but its chief dependence was upon the sale of wool. This sale gradually passed to the eastern ports, and the fair dwindled away.

Often fairs became noted for the sale of some one thing. People in England who wanted to buy geese went to Nottingham; those who wanted to enjoy every kind of amusement that was dear to the folk of the time could hardly wait for the opening of the Greenwich fair. Probably no one ever made a long journey to Birmingham expressly to buy gingerbread and onions; but those were certainly the two articles that had won fame for the Birmingham fair. At Smithfield, where the Londoners went for their sports, St. Bartholomew's fair was held. This was famous for some time for wool and cloth. Later, the chief sales were of wool and cattle. Gradually the character of the fair changed, and it became simply a place for wild and rollicking amusements.

It is only seventy years since Saint Bartholomew's fair was given up; and some of the great fairs have continued to this day. There is one at Beaucaire in France seven hundred years old, where all sorts of rare merchandise may still be found. The fair of Leipsic in Germany is even older. It has a most excellent location, because it is so central that it can be easily reached from any part of Europe. It is still held, and is well known for its sales of books.



The most famous fair that is still in existence is that of Nijni-Novgorod, or Lower Novgorod, in Russia. This began, no one knows when, in an old custom of Russian merchants and merchants from the East meeting on the Volga River to exchange goods. The place of meeting moved from one site to another, and about one hundred years ago it was permanently settled at Nijni-Novgorod. When the time of the fair draws near, the Volga River swarms with boats, and the quays for ten miles along the river front are heaped up with goods, protected as best they may be by sheds until they can be removed to the shops made ready for them. There are about six thousand of these shops, most of them built of stone. To this fair Asia sends tea, cotton, silk, madder, and various manufactured wares, made chiefly of leather. Western Europe sends groceries, wines, and manufactured articles. Russia herself provides four-fifths of the goods sold; and she makes a fine display of iron, grain, salt, furs, and pottery. The fair continues for a month. It is estimated that the value of the goods sold there each year now amounts to about three hundred million dollars.

An enormous quantity of merchandise was carried over Europe every year, and always by water whenever there was a convenient river or sea. In the thirteenth century goods from India were brought up the Persian Gulf and the Tigris River until the point nearest to Antioch and Seleucia was reached. Some merchants then went directly to these cities, and there put their goods on board Venetian vessels. Others went from the Tigris northward to Trebizond on the Black Sea by caravans. At Trebizond they met Venetian vessels, and the spices, silks, cottons, oils, sugar, gums, and precious stones of the East were carried through the Black Sea, the sea of Marmora, around Greece, into the Adriatic Sea, and then to Venice. A third route was to go by water from India to Aden, at the southeast end of the Red Sea, make a nine-days' journey to the Nile, down the Nile to Cairo, through a canal to Alexandria, and there transfer the cargo to Venetian vessels. It was chiefly through this trade that Venice and, a little later, Genoa, became wealthy and powerful; but in 1497 three small vessels set sail from Portugal to make a long voyage. When they returned, they had rounded Africa and so had discovered a new route to India and the East. The people of the East were no longer obliged to send their goods to Europe by wearisome and dangerous caravan journeys; they could load them upon ships and dispatch them directly to Portugal. The power of Venice grew less. Genoa was forced to yield to Milan, which, like Florence, had won wealth and fame by its manufactures.


trade routes from the east to venice

So it was that goods were brought from the East to Europe. The traders who carried them from southern to northern Europe must have been glad that there were two such rivers as the Danube and the Rhine; for they could load their vessels on the Black Sea and float them up the Danube and the Waag, if they were going to Russia; or they could continue up the Danube as far as it was navigable, go by land to the Rhine River, and then down the Rhine to "the quaint old Flemish city" of Bruges. They could also go northwest from Venice to the Rhine if they wished, and then to Bruges, which was for a long while the centre of commerce in the north. Many Venetian merchants were accustomed to go all the way by sea, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the coasts of Portugal and France to Flanders.

At a time when no one seemed to think it possible to do any special thing unless he was a member of a society for doing that thing, of course all this buying and selling was carried on in great degree, not by individuals, but by companies of merchants. This was far more than a mere custom. Traders usually had to make long stays in the countries where they went to sell goods. It was often next to impossible for a foreigner to obtain justice, if any disagreement arose between him and a native; but many merchants united in a strong company could win not only justice, but valuable privileges of trade. One of the most important of these associations in England was known as the "Merchants of the Staple." The articles exported from England in largest quantities, such as wool, tin, and lead, were called staples. In order to make sure of collecting the duty on them, laws were made forbidding any one to export these things from any other place in England except the ten "staple towns," Newcastle, York, Lincoln, Norwich, Westminster, Canterbury, Chichester, Winchester, Exeter, and Bristol. The staple goods were taken to these towns to be weighed and taxed, and then they might be shipped to other countries. Wool was the most important staple, for until the middle of the fourteenth century, the English wove only coarse, heavy cloth, and imported their fine cloth, chiefly from the Netherlands. Some town in the Netherlands was chosen as a "foreign staple," and there the English goods must be carried before they could be sold. The plans of the government, however, for staples were very uncertain. Just as merchants became well accustomed to one foreign staple town, another one was chosen. Then it was decided to remove the staple to England, then to the Netherlands again; and more than once the whole plan of staples was given up for a time, and merchants were free to carry what they liked wherever they chose to take it.


trade routes from the south to the north of europe

Traders who imported or exported goods in their own vessels were called "adventurers," and in England there was a famous association called the "Merchants Adventurers." Fine weaving had at length been introduced into England, and the exports which they carried from England to the Netherlands were chiefly cloth. In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the "Adventurers" were great folk indeed, with their governor and twenty-four assistant governors, their great wealth, and also their brand-new charter and their coat of arms, both granted to them by the king.

There was one company, however, far greater and more famous than all the others. This was the Hanseatic League which has already been mentioned. "Hanse" or "hansa" is a word of several meanings. It seems to have signified in the first place a society; then the fee paid for entrance into a trading gild; then a company of merchants trading away from home. The Hanseatic League was a union of seventy or eighty cities in northern Germany. It aimed not only at commerce, but at making it safe to travel among these towns and also by sea. In those days piracy was looked upon as being disagreeable, indeed, for any vessel that was captured and robbed, but it was, nevertheless, a perfectly respectable calling. The German Ocean and the Baltic Sea were overrun by a gang of pirates, one of whose leaders was a nobleman named Stortebeker. The League sent out its vessels in pursuit, captured the leaders and one hundred and fifty men. Even if piracy was regarded as respectable, the pirate who was caught was adjudged to deserve death, and this nobleman was doomed to be hanged with his companions. "Let me go free," he said, "and I will give you a chain of pure gold long enough to go around the cathedral and the town." This request was refused; but his second wish was granted, namely, that he and his comrades might dress themselves in their best and march to the place of execution to the music of drum and fife.

The Hanseatic League aimed at monopolizing the trade of the greater part of Europe. It grew stronger and stronger. Sometimes the members bought trade privileges, and sometimes they fought for them. They established "factories," or trading stations, in as many countries as possible. Bergen in Norway was one of their chief stations. They paid no taxes, and obliged the people to send to Bergen all the productions of the land that were for sale. There the Hansards selected what was of most value before any sales could be made elsewhere. About three thousand members of the League lived in the factory at Bergen. They were forbidden to marry or to spend a single night out of bounds. The young men and boys were treated with the utmost severity. Every newcomer had to undergo tortures, one of the mildest of which was to be flogged till the blood came. If he survived, the possibility lay before him of rising to a high position and gaining great wealth. The trade of Denmark and Sweden was in the hands of the League. In Russia it was for many years so powerful that it was able to forbid the Russian merchants to trade on the sea. The members established themselves at Novgorod; and at length became strong enough to oblige the Russians to obey whatever laws they chose to make. For instance, if a Russian merchant failed, the League decreed that he must pay in full whatever he might owe the Germans before he was allowed to pay the smallest debt to his countrymen. In the Netherlands the Hansards founded a factory at Bruges. Here they obliged every passing vessel, save those going to England or the Baltic coast, to halt at the port of Bruges, pay toll, and allow them to select from the cargo whatever they chose to buy. In France, Spain, Portugal, and Venice, they carried on trade; but not so widely as in the northern countries.

In England the power of the League was greatest. The English called its members Easterlings, because their land lay to the east of England. The German money was often spoken of as Easterling, or sterling money. It was with this sterling money that the Hansards bought their way to the favor of the English sovereigns. More than once, when an English king was in need of gold, the League helped him out of his difficulties, and in return graciously accepted trade privileges worth far more than the loans that they had made. The people of England were not always pleased to have these favors shown to foreigners, and during the Wat Tyler rebellion in the latter part of the thirteenth century, they made a fierce attack upon the Germans. "Say 'bread and cheese,' " they would command every one who was suspected of being a foreigner. If he pronounced the words with a trace of the German accent, he was struck down on the instant. It was easy, however for the Hansards to get their revenge. All that they had to do was to tax the English heavily at Bruges or Bergen, or to refuse to allow their vessels to enter the Baltic Sea or to stop at any port of Iceland or Greenland. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, however, both Hansards and English had been playing pirate, and at length a treaty was actually made between them with as many formalities as if this trading company had been another nation.

The headquarters of the League in England were a settlement in London known as the Steelyard, probably because here stood the great scales called by that name. This was a city within a city. Its buildings stretched up the river front, so that the merchandise of the League could be unloaded at its own wharves. Here stood the great hall, a handsome stone building which was used for business meetings and also for a dining room. A strong tower protected the treasures of the company. Not far away was a garden with trees and vines. There were also tables and seats; for the garden became a favorite resort for both Hansards and Londoners, who went there summer evenings to drink Rhenish wine and eat the salmon, caviar, and neat's tongue for which it was famous.

Life in the Steelyard was far from being all play, however, for there was plenty of work for everybody and the rules of the place were exceedingly strict. No one was allowed to marry so long as he remained at the settlement. Playing at dice even in one's own room and entertaining any person not a member of the League were punished by heavy fines. If a man fenced or played tennis with an Englishman, he was fined twenty shillings. If two men indulged in a fight with either fists or knives, they needed to have long purses, for the fine was one hundred shillings. Every evening, promptly at nine o'clock, the door of each dwelling was shut and locked and the key given to one of the officers.


transporting merchandise

In Norway the Hansards behaved with a high hand, demanding whatever they desired and forcing the helpless folk of Bergen to do as they were bidden. In England the German merchants were no less bent upon having their own way; but as far as possible, they bought privileges rather than demanded them. They made liberal gifts, but usually in directions where they would "do the most good." The Lord Mayor of London received from them a generous present each year. The English alderman whose business it was to settle any disputes that might arise between English and Germans was more than willing to accept from the League its annual gift of fifteen gold coins worth about one hundred shillings, wrapped in a pair of gloves. The Inspector of Customs fared even better, for once a year a friendly windfall of about four hundred shillings delighted his heart.

In spite of lavish gifts to those in power and of princely loans to English sovereigns, the Steelyard had to be prepared at all times to defend itself against a London mob, and as a safeguard a high stone wall was built to shut in the settlement from the rest of the city. Every merchant was required to keep in his room a suit of armor and a supply of arms in order to be prepared for any possible uprising.

As English merchants grew stronger, their jealousy of the League increased. The attacks of the mob upon the Steelyard became more frequent, and at length, near the end of the sixteenth century, its charter was taken away. The later history of the League in other countries was much the same. The Hanseatic merchants were so successful that the merchants of other lands sought earnestly for the same success; and as soon as the different cities and countries became rich and powerful enough to manage their own trade, the League weakened and came to its end. The free cities, Hamburg and Bremen, were the last to yield; but in 1888 these two gave up their independence and joined the German Empire.

If we judge the Hanseatic League by present standards, its methods seem cruel and despotic; but it is a long way from the thirteenth century to the twentieth; and many things are frowned upon now that were regarded as entirely right and proper seven hundred years ago. Remembering this, we can appreciate the fact that the record of the League should be looked upon as noble one. It aided the development of industry, it spread civilization, it created the commerce of northern Europe, and it trained merchants and magistrates and sea-captains. In the cities of the League there was courage and independence, there was industry and enterprise; better still, there was an ever increasing appreciation of order and of peace.

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