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Medieval markets

by Dr Emilia Jamroziak

Detail from image of fruit and vegetable stall at Hatfield market (images courtesy of Wellcome Images)

Medieval markets

Markets existed in Britain since at least the Roman times. They were held at regular intervals, usually weekly, on a set day. They were held in urban settlements and even villages. Before 1200, it was common to hold the market on Sunday, often around churchyards as people came from larger areas to the church service. In the thirteenth century the church authorities began to oppose trading on Sunday or to trading in churchyards where people were buried, so markets were moved to other days of the week.

Seasonal vegetables (image: You are what you ate)

Who could run a market?
After the Norman Conquest (1066), markets became a royal franchise. If anybody wanted to establish a new market they needed to obtain permission from the king. For a fee, the monarchs gave a right to hold a market and collect all kinds of revenues including tolls from the traders. After 1199, careful written records were kept of all grants of markets. Establishment of any new market was given on condition that it did not damage the interests of the existing places of trade. Of course many markets existed well before written permission was needed and such places of trade came to be known as ‘prescriptive’ markets because the right to run them was based on custom not royal authority.

Medieval market in Leeds
The medieval market in Leeds was of the ‘prescriptive’ kind, but its existence is only recorded in the historical documents from 1258 when the customary right to run it was held by Edmund de Lascy. In 1322-3 and also in 1326-7 it was in the possession of Thomas Dayville.  In 1341 it was recorded that the market was held on Mondays and located in Briggate.

By the sixteenth century, the wool-trade had become a cornerstone of Leeds economy. John Leland, a poet and ‘father of English local history’ who travelled extensively across the country between 1535 and 1543, left descriptions of buildings that no longer exist. On the subject of Leeds market he said the following: ‘two miles lower then Christal Abbey [Kirkstall Abbey] on Aire Ryver, is a praty market […] and as large as Bradford but not so quik as it. The town stondith most by clothing.’

Animal fairs
Live animals were sold at fairs rather than at markets. Fairs were normally held at a set place and all urban centres had at least one fair - many had several fairs occurring at different times of year. Fairs were sometimes held outside the physical limits/boundaries of town because of their size - that was especially true for cattle markets. Any fair was held once a year, usually in association with a religious festival, such as saint's day. The legal status of the fairs was the same as that of markets; that is, they were a royal franchise. Fairs and markets formed a network. Large ones were centres of trans-regional or even international trade.

Find out more about Thomas Dayville by visiting our new exhibition which is currently travelling round libraries in the Wakefield area. See here for more information.


Documents relating to the Manor and Borough of Leeds, 1066-1400, ed. John le Patourel (Thoresby Society 45, 1957)
Discovering Leeds: the Markets
K.L. McCutcheon, Yorkshire Fairs and Markets to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Thoresby Society, 39, 1940)  
Samantha Letters, Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England Wales to 1516

Information compiled by Dr Emilia Jamroziak, School of History, University of Leeds