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York - Marketplace
The Thursday Market in York still has a strong flavour
of a medieval marketplace, surrounded by houses of the town merchants.
My first experience of it was on a late afternoon in November when the
marketplace was shrouded in mist, creating a blurring effect which only
made it easier to imagine how the market might have looked in the
Markets and commercial privileges were fundamental features of towns
(although not exclusive to towns), and the development of trade was a major
factor in urbanization. The marketplace was a focal point, both
economically and socially, of and often a fairly central space (as
in York) in the town. It might take the form of a large open space,
or be held along one or more streets of the town. Often certain types of
goods were sold in particular, set locations; e.g. in York, meat was
sold in the Shambles, just off the Thursday
Market, while fish and poultry was sold on the Ouse and Foss Bridges.
Some characteristics of the medieval market have lasted into the twentieth
century. The selling of goods from stalls, in the open air, was typical of
much medieval retailing. Although craftsmen would have workshops in their
residences, most selling of goods was done from through the ground-floor
front windows of houses, from temporary stalls outside the houses, or
in a marketplace (or similar area designated for retailing); over time
these stalls became more elaborate and permanent fixtures, and evolved
into the modern shop. This conversion process often meant that parts of
the original marketplace were lost to the structures in process of becoming
The public character of retailing was important, particularly since some
bargaining would be involved. The marketplace brought retailing into a
venue where both community and local authorities could see that trading
was conducted fairly, with goods (above all, foodstuffs) freely available
to all-comers, of a satisfactory quality, and offered at a fair price.
Ordinances were made to restrict or prohibit retailing in private places
or outside normal market hours. The purpose of the marketplace was also
to allow producers of goods to sell directly to the public, without
intervention of middlemen who might seek a profit by raising prices or
lowering quality or quantity. Thus a set of ordinances made by York's
government in 1301 included the specifications that:
Of course, the fact that such regulations were necessary is itself witness
to contrary practices; profiteering is innate to commercial activity and
was not to be controlled.
- Middlemen could not sell food or drink for higher than the price they
bought them from the producers.
- Fishmongers should sell fish only in the public market designated
for this, holding none back for private sale in their own houses, nor should
they resell fish they had bought from others; fish was not to be sold
between the hours of Vespers and Prime.
- Fixed prices were set for various goods and anyone selling at a higher
price would forfeit the merchandize.