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Peer-reviewed scholarly article published in: Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d'histoire XXXI, April/avril 1996, pp. 1-15, ISSN 0008-4107 © Canadian Journal of History
One of the most predictable features of urban life, at almost any time or place, is some form of regular market.* A recent study of markets and fairs in Roman Italy stresses their importance as a normal feature of Roman towns, and surmises that a large portion of the Roman food trades passed through them.* Anthropologists and development economists have viewed such institutions across the world in modern times. In a memorable chapter of his Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss recalls the markets, fairs, and bazaars he has visited in India and South America, flies, crowds, and all. He goes on to describe the market place, from the ancient times onwards, as one of the foundations of civilization.* Amongst economic historians, at least, this ubiquity has fostered the idea that "price-setting" is a fundamental and unproblematic concept. This complacency is further encouraged by the close dependence of economic history upon economic theory, which often generates a false confidence in the adequacy of predictive models for understanding the workings of economic institutions. Price-formation through the intersection of supply and demand schedules is, of course, an essential tool of economic analysis, but the analysis is designed to explain why prices change rather than to demonstrate how in fact they are set or changed in any given market context. In their standard forms, such models are compatible with a wide range of institutional variation since they are highly abstract representations of the markets that the historian or the anthropologist might observe.* The historical characteristics of markets have to be added to the models rather than deduced from them. This paper sets out not to question the predictive power of the models used by economists but to discover something specific about how medieval markets really worked. The markets to be discussed were particular institutions in which participants regularly engaged in price-setting practices of which they themselves could have formulated a description, had they been asked.
The existence of a dense network of urban and rural markets in England in the mid fourteenth century meant that there were many points at which local prices might be determined, and so (presumably) contributed to the reliability of marketing as system of distribution. Richard Cantillon, writing about the conditions of trade in the early eighteenth century, supposed that it would be almost impossible to establish prices in the course of trade between merchants and villagers without formal market places, and that it was only there that prices were fixed according to the interaction of demand and supply conditions.* Perhaps the whole population stood to benefit from an institution whose primary effect was to reduce transaction costs, improve market information, and set competitive prices, especially if it is possible to demonstrate that markets were policed in such a way as to reduce fraud and eliminate monopoly practices. If markets were the one medieval institution that was organized and policed solely for the universal public good, this would be such a remarkable anomaly that we should hope for exceptionally close observation of what went on there to supply some contrast with all those other institutions in which people of high status and wealth were able to get the best deal. However, in current historical literature trading in public markets is almost as much hidden trade as trading in inns, taverns, and private houses.* Though there have been numerous distinguished discussions of different aspects of the regulation of markets and trade in England in accordance with the economic principles of the Middle Ages, none of these takes price-setting and its implications for the distribution of goods as a central issue. There is here a large area of social convention that has been little explored, but whose details must illuminate the politically dominant social values of the later Middle Ages and the social conflicts through which they were asserted and opposed.
It is well known that local authorities regulated the price of bread and ale, and that they did so by reference to current grain prices that were independently determined. Evidence for this procedure is abundant, both because it followed written mandates and because the resulting inquests were recorded in local court records.* By contrast, public intervention in setting the prices of grain itself, and of other basic foodstuffs, is much less visible in the records because it was achieved by procedures of a different kind. It might readily be supposed that the price of these basic commodities was set by haggling between buyers and sellers, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, this expectation might call upon ethnographic support. In modern peasant markets prices are characteristically set by bargaining so much so that at one time they were regarded as a close approximation in reality to an idealized, competitive model.* However, this paper will argue that prices of grain and fish, at least, were not in fact fixed by free bargaining between buyers and sellers in medieval English markets.* Bargaining may have been standard practice in livestock markets and in some others the evidence remains dark. But in most food markets people who tried to bargain risked a fine.
Though the scholastic concept of a just price approximated to the modern economist's notion of a competitive price insofar as it was antagonistic to monopoly practices, its widespread adoption as a principle of justice did not imply the absence of public intervention in price-setting. Theologians and common lawyers recognized that current market prices were often officially regulated to ensure they were as low as possible, and the idea seems to have caused them no trouble.* It harmonized well enough with the principle, taken over from Roman law, that in cases of dispute over a price the true value of goods should be determined by informed judgement. William of Auxerre wrote that there were no general rules for determining what was a just price, and that in particular instances of doubt recourse should be had to a "good and wise man."* This seems to be the principle on which the setting of prices was instituted in urban markets of the later Middle Ages. Public authorities, the wise men in question, assumed that in the food trades, and some others as well, a just price could not be expected without a great deal of formal regulation and official vigilance.*
The information on which the following comments rest is mostly from documentation of the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and is too patchy even within that period to permit any sense of development. Since the fourteenth century saw considerable commercial regulation, both statutory and local, it would be unwise to assume that late medieval practices go back a long way in the absence of evidence to that effect. At the time of the Black Death in 1349, local authorities were encouraged to intervene particularly energetically in price regulation by legislation that required them to impose "reasonable" prices on butchers, fishmongers, innkeepers, brewers, bakers, poulterers, and other food-sellers, and this law was subsequently restated and elaborated.* It is likely that the observations to be discussed are more relevant to the period 1349-1500 than to earlier times. A second restriction on the scope of this discussion concerns the range of commodities that local authorities attempted to regulate. Those most obviously illustrated in the available examples are grain and fish, and it is likely that local government's direct concern with just prices did not extend much further. Such practices cannot have extended in the same manner to goods and services that were normally sold away from public market places in shops and other private premises, and that excludes from consideration many raw materials and almost all manufactured goods.*
Evidence concerning marketing regulations is sparse because it is limited to carefully worded descriptions of trading offences that were more commonly bundled together as forestalling or taking excessive profit. However, what there is strongly suggests that, particularly in urban grain and fish trades, the determination of price normally depended upon the mediation of borough officials, who declared perhaps after negotiation with dealers, or with certain principal dealers what selling prices should be. An initial price must have been declared at the time the market opened. If officials had allowed traders in the market to open the day's trading by private bargaining, the subsequent transition to an enforced price would have been a messy procedure. In some circumstances, to be discussed, it was permitted for prices to fluctuate in the course of a day, but this seems to have required official approval, and was not the outcome of unmediated bargaining in the market place.
The number and appointment of the agents assigned to the task of regulating the market varied from town to town. Sometimes one man was responsible. In Lynn the mayor had this duty, to judge from a late-medieval requirement that fish should be publicly sold "as the merket goeth by a vyse of the meire."* In Nottingham responsibility for supervising the markets had been transferred in 1284 from the bailiffs to the mayor, who performed some of his responsibilities through a sergeant at mace.* In Coventry the mayor assessed prices, though in 1529 he had assistants; in that year the burgesses elected John Bonde and William Wicame to help him "in assessing the prices of victuals."* In Winchester, the city authorities appointed a warden to supervise the corn market in the 1360s.* In London, not surprisingly, there was an exceptionally large number of officials answerable to the mayor and aldermen for policing the markets of the city, and the evidence for their activities is particularly early.* In 1300, for example, six grain wardens were appointed to see that no one sold his grain above the just price nor committed any fraud.*
Such institutional evidence suggests that some form of official supervision of grain prices was older than the Statute of Labourers, obscure though these earlier developments must remain. This is demonstrable from London, where, not surprisingly, corrupt market officials were likely to be punished with considerable severity. In July 1347 John Burstall was imprisoned for forty days there because he had caused two bushels of his own wheat to be carried by an unknown man into the Gracechurch corn market and had there assessed it himself in open market and offered 1«d. a bushel above the market price.* Shortly afterwards Walter le Thresshere was pilloried in London because he assessed his own grain in the open market at Newgate, and offered 3«d. above the market price for it.* These two examples imply that a seller who wanted to charge more than the current market price for his wares because of their exceptional quality was allowed to do so as long as he had their superiority ratified by an official assessment.
It is difficult to determine the exact stages by which market prices were set. Normally the price for particular commodities was fixed for the whole market, and those wanting to trade above or below this price required authorization to do so. In exceptional circumstances where predictable surges of demand or deficiencies of supply were expected to cause socially disruptive price increases, it was not unknown for urban authorities to fix prices of foodstuffs temporarily by a written ordinance.* However, even in normal circumstances, when prices were expected to fluctuate in accordance with changes in supply and demand, local authorities regarded some particular market price as lawful at any given moment and were prepared to enforce it. The acceptable market price was the lowest at which any traders were willing to sell. There is a strong statement of this principle in a report made by a Colchester jury of presentment in 1451; John Grene had illegally put out fresh herrings for sale in the common market at four for 1d. after the bailiffs had commanded him to sell them at five for 1d.* Again in 1471 six oyster-sellers were amerced because they put their oysters for sale at 2«d. a wash after the bailiffs had proclaimed and commanded that a wash should sell for 2d.*
The binding nature of current market prices on sellers can be illustrated from a number of sources. In 1473 the victuallers of Coventry were said to be taking produce to sell outside the city "be-cause the[y] may not utter hit after their owne concentes and prices."* In London William Cokk of Heese was pilloried in 1363 for refusing to sell at the market price; indeed, he informed a servant of Robert de la Launde, the goldsmith, that he would not be able to buy wheat cheaper than 1s. 9d.* A comparable policy of price-control is documented well in Colchester. In 1379 John Saman and John Baron had come to Hythe with fish (morling) and were selling a hundred of them for 1s. 4d. when John Beste came along with another consignment of inferior fish and sold them illegally at the rate of a hundred for 1s. 6d.* John Badcock of Abberton's daughter was in bad odour in 1437 for selling wheat on the Cornhill at 10d. a bushel and in the common market at 1s. 2d. a bushel at a time when others were selling on the Cornhill at 8d. and in the common market at 10d. or 11d., and all because her mother had told her not to sell for less. She was also accused of selling a pair of young pigeons at 1« d. when others were asking 1d., and "she chided and wickedly insulted other women selling around her who did not want to sell at such a high price, against the peace."* By implication the women who "did not want to sell at such a high price" were women who intended to abide by the rules of the market. The difference in price between the two grain markets here implies that in Colchester, as elsewhere, there was an institutionalized recognition of different grades of wheat. Jurors in late medieval Nottingham recognized three qualities best, middle, and poor.* The markets of small seigniorial boroughs had similar restrictions on sellers of foodstuffs. At Clare in 1352, William Pope was distrained to answer in court because he sold herring at six for 1d. at a time when others sold at eight or ten for 1d.* In such instances there is no given explanation why offenders were able to charge an illegal higher price, but it may be supposed that supplies at the lower price were seen to be running short, that demand was still unsatisfied, and that some buyers were prepared to pay more rather than risk going home empty-handed. This presumably explains the offence of John John of Colchester who in 1481 was charged with selling sprats (epimera) first at 2d. a wash, then at 2«d. and then at 3d., all within the space of an hour.*
Around Michaelmas 1404 John Caunceller had fresh herring for sale in Colchester at four for 1d. Then some other fishmongers came along who sold much better herrings at five for 1d. At that point, by implication, the official price was lowered. Faced with this intervention, John Caunceller stopped trading until all the cheaper herrings were sold, and then when there were none of them left he started again to sell his herrings at the former price. For this offence he was amerced 1s. 8d., a punishment sufficiently severe to imply more than merely token disapproval.* This is an interesting case in several ways. Not only does it illustrate the mandatory nature of the current market price. It also demonstrates that the authorities were willing to approve a drop in the official price on the arrival of new supplies during the course of a day, and so illustrates well the nature of the official price in question. In addition, the amercement of John Caunceller shows that those who had exposed commodities for sale in the market were not allowed to withdraw them speculatively in the hope or expectation of higher prices later in the day.
The dealings between the authorities and a single principal seller often involved a subsidiary set of procedures, chiefly characteristic of waterside markets, which are well illustrated by accusations before the Colchester borough court. Incoming shipmen with cargoes of foodstuffs were expected, on arrival at Hythe, to acquire written authorization from the town clerk to sell their wares.* This procedure was chiefly, no doubt, to ensure proper payment of tolls and customs,* but it was also an essential part of the system of distribution. Some cases of 1406 suggest in greater detail what happened when a shipload of produce was brought to Hythe, a small port within the borough's jurisdiction. The master of the ship was obliged to go to the moothall for the necessary permit. If the goods had been imported on contract for particular burgesses the master was given a document to this effect. If the goods were not so bespoke, the master agreed with the bailiffs of Colchester to advertise his goods to the burgesses, and a public announcement was made to this effect.* This arrangement illustrates both the need for formal contact between the seller and the market authorities, and the fact that, in Colchester, the bailiffs the borough's chief executive officers were the appropriate officials for this purpose. The seller's agreement with the bailiffs included a definite price at which the licensed goods were to be sold. In 1444 Thomas Lyoun of Margate was fined 3s. 8d. "for selling wheat at a price other than the one he had agreed with the bailiffs."* In 1482 Oliver van Cach and John John were heavily amerced for coming to market with fish at Hythe and fixing the price at will without the bailiffs' licence.* Announcements concerning available wares in Colchester were made publicly by a beadle. The advertising of wares at a prearranged price is demonstrable from 1388, when five men were fined for deceiving the public because "they made the town beadle proclaim a wash (was) of sprats for 2d., and when people assembled at Hythe to buy these sprats they would only sell them at 2« d. a wash."*
This practice of setting prices for incoming cargoes had the remarkable property of encouraging urban authorities to restrict the communication of market information. Numerous urban regulations discriminated against outsiders in favour of burgesses, but for the determination of prices the most essential were those intended to enforce ignorance upon them. This was to ensure that the urban authorities could settle with incoming merchants for the lowest possible prices. A couple of accusations from Colchester in 1408 directly concern the passing on of market information to merchants from other parts of the country, in one case by letter, without any implication that the informers had directly benefited from their misdemeanour.* In 1433 John Auntrous of Colchester was heavily fined for advising shipmen intending to come to Colchester to go to Maldon instead, presumably because prices there were higher.* In 1437 two "Dutchmen" were fined for giving mercantile information to Flemings, and one of them was charged particularly with giving advice about current prices in Colchester.* Frequently the passing of information was associated with opportunities for personal gain. At Colchester in 1396 Stephen Flisp was alleged to be in the habit of going out into the sea to meet incoming boats freighted with wheat and other grains, and advising those in charge of them to sell their cargoes at a higher price than they had intended, in return for which he acquired some sort of partnership in the deal.*
Regulation of the food trades did not only restrict the activities of sellers. Similar constraints were placed on the prices which purchasers were allowed to offer for corn. Some London bakers were pilloried in 1364 for going to the common corn market at Newgate and offering to buy corn above the current price.* In 1375 the chaplain John Fynch was imprisoned because when the price of the day at Gracechurch market was 1s. 6d. a bushel he had offered to buy wheat from other sellers at 1s. 8d. in order to push up the price, so that he could sell his own wheat for more.* Similarly in 1405 it was reported that a baker from outside the town was in the habit of coming on Saturdays to the Cornhill in Colchester and buying wheat at 1d. or 2d. a bushel more than anyone else was willing to pay.* This was the same offence, presumably, that was punished in the smaller market town of Clare in 1352, when Andrew the Ironmonger was charged with buying wheat at a high price.*
In most cases it is impossible to know why a buyer was prepared to pay more than the current price, but such evidence as there is yields two intelligible reasons. In Colchester in 1352, John Cutte of St. Osyth was alleged to have bought two bushels of wheat in Colchester market place at a price 2« d. above what others were paying. In defence he replied that he had not bought the two bushels at a fixed price but had agreed to pay the best selling price for that day. He was presumably buying on credit, so that the difference between the current price and highest price of the day would represent the seller's reward for waiting. An inquest decided against him; the jurors judged that he had bought the wheat at a fixed price of 1s. 4«d. a bushel at a time when the best wheat was selling for 1s. 2d. a bushel. John was deemed to have acted against the community, and so forfeited his wheat.* This example demonstrates that prices might legitimately rise in the course of a day if newcomers brought new supplies after those at lower prices had run out. It also draws attention to an interesting implication of all this evidence: effective enforcement of official prices would make it difficult to disguise usurious practices in sales made in a regulated market place. It seems likely, for this reason, that trading in urban markets was a matter of sales for ready cash.
Secondly, buyers might be prepared to pay more than the current price because they were speculators trying to cut out other purchasers. This was presumably the case with John Fynch in the Gracechurch market, whose offence was described earlier; he is best understood as a speculator in grain who hoped, by buying up wheat at 1s. 8d. a bushel, to corner supplies with a view to making additional profits on his whole accumulated stock when the official price should rise. In an example from Colchester in 1429 such an overbidder is described as a forestaller.* The same usage is implied in 1438 when "John Badcock forestalled rye in the market, that is by buying two bushels (modii) for 15d. each in September when rye was selling in the same market for 12d."*
This latter group of offences did not constitute forestalling as defined by the law of the land during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.* Technically, forestalling was the offence of intercepting goods on their way to market and buying them up in order to resell them in the market at a higher price. By extension the concept was also used to cover the offence of buying up produce in the market before the official opening time with the intention of reselling it at a profit later on,* though activity of this kind was also often described as regrating. The stated object of these regulations was to prevent monopolistic practices. In 1391, for example, five Norwich men were accused of conspiring together to rig the market (custodire mercatum) by forestalling wheat and other grain.* However, because these rules against forestalling were combined with the active policy of price determination within the market itself that has been explored above, it is not surprising that there should have been some confusions of terminology.
In any case, instances of forestalling in the technical sense are sometimes intimately associated with offences against urban price-fixing policies. For example, they may be accompanied by the charge that the monopolist had paid excessive prices to those bringing goods to market. In 1461, John Merveyn was accused of forestalling barley on the roads into Colchester by paying an excessive price of 4s. 6d. a quarter at a time when the price in the common market had been 3s. 0d. a quarter, "so that no one at present can buy barley in the said town except at the price so increased and raised by the said John Merveyn."* Accusations of this sort show that sellers who negotiated with forestallers were not benefitting simply by some reduction in their transaction costs making a sale earlier in the day, perhaps after a shorter journey, and without payment of tolls. They were also better off to the extent that they could obtain prices higher than those permitted in the official market. This aspect of forestalling is most clear in the use of the concept to describe the offence of those who sabotaged the price system by passing on information relating to current market conditions; if such information allowed an incoming merchant to negotiate with the market authorities an unexpectedly high price for his wares, his informants could expect to benefit from the conspiracy.
Forestalling, which was most commonly an offence charged against traders in grain and fish the commodities whose prices were most closely supervised was therefore in some instances a direct and deliberate attempt to undermine the official system of price-setting. It is impossible to say how illegal markets operated, except that they did not follow the procedures of public ones. In an extreme form one can imagine groups of urban wholesalers outside the official market bidding up prices in rival attempts to control incoming supplies. Unchecked forestalling of this sort opened the way to privately organized sales by a sort of auction, in direct rivalry with the declared aims of public policy. The link here is clearer in French; the expression vente aux enchères corresponds almost exactly to the illegal activity vendicio in caristiam mercati that medieval local authorities punished when they could.* The early history of auctions in grain and fish, at least, belongs to the history of crime. The significance of rules against forestalling is better perceived when illegal markets are interpreted in this way as the subversion, and maybe even the inversion, of normal pricing policies. If in the later Middle Ages illegal marketing was a more serious threat to the publicly regulated markets than in the past,* this was perhaps a direct response to increasing official intervention in the regulation of prices.
So far attention has been given only to those aspects of marketing practices that seem, at least, to be designed simply for the protection of consumers, and from which all consumers of whatever social standing or income might be expected to benefit. It was in the interests of consumers, as consumers, that provisions should be as cheap as possible. Yet it does not take much experience of medieval urban records to realize that there were things other than the protection of consumers going on in markets. There are two principal points to establish here. One is that urban markets were not systematically even-handed between consumers, and that there were in many circumstances some groups favoured over others. Some of these forms of discrimination went back long before the mid-fourteenth century. The second point is that because marketing regulations were so often identified with urban privileges their enforcement was sometimes an expression more of symbolic than utilitarian values.
Taking first the question of distinctions between consumers, it is easy to demonstrate that even in basic food trades certain procedures in urban markets favoured groups of higher status. Especially in port towns, the privileges available to burgess households amounted virtually to a system of rationing, which depended upon the official licensing of bulk sales at declared prices. Ordinances from Grimsby in 1258 required that all burgesses present were entitled to a share in the purchase of merchandise.* At Hull in 1355 an ordinance required that those bringing coal, saltfish, or oysters into the harbour should allow burgesses to have their share at cost price. This custom was developed by 1379 to allow compulsory acquisition of incoming cargoes out of community funds, or by private consortia on the community's behalf. Burgesses wanting a share then had to pay 1d. tax to the community for the right to do so.* In 1342 the burgesses of Newcastle upon Tyne, both rich and poor, were entitled to a share in any merchandise entering the port.* At Colchester in 1406 the rules required that "when any goods or victuals arrive at Hythe all burgesses of the town claiming a share may have their share in proportion to the amount of the produce available."* The Bailiffs' Minute Book of Dunwich contains a similar reference from 1428 to burgesses there being able to claim a share in commodities entering the harbour.* In fourteenth-century Southampton, and in Dublin in 1438, similar systems of sharing were defined as the privilege of members of the merchant gild.* Such policies were not confined to coastal ports, and occur as privileges of guildsmen or burgesses elsewhere. Nor were they confined to foodstuffs. The early fourteenth-century customs of Norwich provided that the burgesses, as "peers of the city," should be able to share equally in consignments of merchandise, and prohibited individuals from taking more than their fair share by making purchases through more than one servant.* At Leicester in 1313 Thomas Louerd was sued because he refused a fellow guildsman his share of wool bought at Blackfordby.* This same policy accounts for the rule relating to the Saturday market at Leicester in 1467, that no buyer should buy more than he needed for his own household.*
The application of the law against forestalling was often intended as much to protect these privileges of burgesses as to keep prices low for all consumers. In 1380 it was reported in a Colchester court that three dealers had bought most of their fish while it was still at sea and had refused to allow other townsmen their share.* In 1406 five men were severely amerced for forestalling fish in bulk and then refusing to allow a share to any townsman who would not invest 1s. 8d. in some venture that the court roll does not specify.* In 1436 Thomas Oskyn and other interlopers who bought fish and other victuals from boats in the Colne estuary were said to be forestalling "so that other burgesses of Colchester who live farther away from the quay at Hythe cannot have their rightful shares unless they pay an unreasonable price to the foresaid Thomas Oskyn and others."* One ploy of forestallers to avoid prosecution was to allege that a consignment of goods they had bought illegally had been acquired on commission for some large household, since this entitled them to exemption from the rationing system.* This last example has the virtue of demonstrating that there were in fact three relevant status distinctions in the purchasing of imported bulk goods wealthy households who commissioned such sales and evaded the rationing system altogether, households who could take advantage of the rationing system at times by virtue of their privileges as burgesses, and non-burgesses who were not able to benefit from the rationing system.
The second qualification to be made to the notion that regulations relating to trade in basic supplies were dominated by principles of universal utility concerns the symbolic and non-utilitarian (or dubiously utilitarian) nature of many prosecutions. In practice juries were rarely interested in establishing whether a forestaller was aiming to create a monopoly or whether any degree of monopoly had in fact been created. Often the charge of forestalling seems to have depended upon no more than the assumption that if people had made a profit by buying to resell then their activities must have pushed up the price. At Nottingham in 1395, for example, nineteen people were accused simultaneously as common "forestallers and gatherers of coal, selling it excessively high." It seems unreasonable to speak of monopoly profits in the coal trade when so many sellers were involved in such a small town.* Many of the common forestallers who were fined paltry sums had too little capital to monopolize anything; their amercements were merely token punishments for the honour of the town.
The danger of monopoly was probably remote, too, in the acquisition of produce from afar by provision merchants. Some of the charges brought against suppliers under the name of forestalling imply that vagueness in the interpretation of the law was compounded with prejudiced interpretation of custom in local courts. Suspicions are aroused whenever price increases are defined in town courts as having been imposed on the townsmen by unscrupulous suppliers who had allegedly paid excessive prices to producers in country areas. In London Thomas Adam pleaded guilty in 1375 to having created scarcity of grain by offering 1s. 4d. and 1s. 5d. a bushel for grain in the market at Henley-on-Thames at a time when wheat was selling at 1s. 2d.* In 1408 John Bakere was amerced in Colchester for buying up wheat in the surrounding countryside at a price that was 1d. a bushel above the current Colchester market price.* In 1440 Thomas Wode was penalized heavily for buying 500 quarters of barley in Norfolk paying for it 20d. a quarter more than the current price in the common market.* Accusations like these can arouse sympathy with Adam Smith's observation that "the popular fear of engrossing and forestalling may be compared to the popular terrors and suspicions of witchcraft."* In such cases the courts can have had little solid evidence that the buyer concerned was acting against the town's interests. Such accusations perhaps originated with rival merchants who had been outbidden in their attempts to secure supplies, but that in itself implies that supplies were unobtainable at lower prices. It is hardly credible that the activities of a single merchant could determine the price of wheat in the Thames valley or the price of barley in East Anglia.
In normal circumstances there was no great discrepancy between urban prices and those in the surrounding countryside. Townsmen had to take their idea of what was fair from somewhere, and the main criterion of fairness was that prices should be in line with those elsewhere in the region. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 instructed victuallers to sell produce at a reasonable price "having respect to the price that such victual be sold at in the places adjoining," with the seller's mark-up to be related to the costs of transport.* Because town and country prices did not normally diverge significantly, it was even sometimes useful to traders outside the market to use urban prices as a reference. This may be illustrated by a thirteenth-century contract for the sale of grain on credit. Luffield Priory (Buckinghamshire) bought grain from William de Plumpton, clerk, on 14 April 1275, to be paid for after two months on 17 June, and the priory agreed to pay "according to what a quarter of wheat happened to be sold for in Towcester on three market days preceding the feast of St. John the Baptist."* This transaction represents a method of avoiding usury, since prices could be expected to rise between April and June.
However, in periods of rising prices local jurors tended to react with hostility to the idea that the local price should be determined in markets other than their own. The grain-mongers from larger towns were in the habit of acquiring grain in lesser markets elsewhere. Around 1300, for example, London merchants bought large quantities of grain from Henley-upon-Thames and Faversham.* Moreover, recent research has emphasized the amount of trade that took place outside regular markets in the Middle Ages, and one of the implications of this is that the prices paid by urban victuallers were farm-gate prices.* Amongst urban jurors and officers, problems of corporate identity and status occurred whenever unwelcome price increases were being imposed on their market by wholesale merchants because of constraints upon supply. In these circumstances townsmen were inclined to insist that the general price level ought to be determined within their local market, and to show increased intolerance for different modes of price-setting elsewhere in the marketing structure. These expectations, being out of line with reality, expose a recurrent conflict in the policies of medieval towns between the need for merchants to obtain provisions in the countryside and the idea that current market prices ought to be fixed in urban markets. In these cases enforcement of urban laws sometimes had primarily symbolic interest as the uncompromising assertion of local privilege.
These points do not affect the interpretation to be placed upon English price data of the later Middle Ages, which David Farmer did more than any one before him to establish systematically.* The annual series of agricultural prices he has left us do not owe their value as trustworthy economic indicators to free bargaining in public markets. The competitive element in price-setting came not within public markets but between them and outside them. The English evidence derives predominantly from the records of rural sellers who had considerable freedom of choice about where to sell their produce to best advantage, and who were not in any way constrained by the foibles of those managing any particular urban market in their vicinity.* However, an understanding of price-setting in urban markets can usefully complement our knowledge of how people understood prices in relation to their institutional structures, and it can therefore help to interpret rules of trade that would otherwise be open to misunderstanding.
This paper has examined only some aspects of price-setting in medieval markets, and there are many other respects in which their status as unproblematic and self-evident harbingers of economic modernity might be questioned. The evidence demonstrates unambiguously as was only to be expected that the setting of prices is a culturally embedded phenomenon. Economic analysis can explain how prices moved in response to changes in supply or demand, but it requires a different type of enquiry to explore how that result was obtained. The examples of administrative practice that have been examined suggests that medieval philosophy and canon law had a greater impact upon the everyday commercial life of English towns than has been recognized. In the second place the evidence shows unambiguously that market operations were not unaffected by distinctions of power and social status. In many ways market regulations reinforced inclusive and exclusive social values, encouraging co-operative practices between the burgesses of each town while simultaneously privileging them against non-burgesses and outsiders. They were far from expressing a neutral concern for universal welfare.
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