by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 2007, A.S. XLI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
For most people of the current age, the Middle Ages conjure up images of knights in shining armour, castles, and beautiful princesses. These images are assembled from movies, fantasy novels, and craft shows that dress up as medieval and renaissance fairs. Of these, the fairs are more true to the spirit of the originals. For while the modern fairs do not carry the importance of the originals, they share the function.
The word faire comes from the Latin word feriae, meaning holiday. And to the medieval people of all ranks, fairs were holidays. Yet at the same time they had a serious economic purpose.
Up until the time of the Industrial Revolution, most people lived their entire lives within thirty miles of their place of birth. Thus much of what they used in their daily lives was constructed from local materials. But resources are not uniformly distributed, so some items must come from elsewhere. Hence the need for trade.
One of the main difficulties in trade is insuring that there are enough customers to make the trip worthwhile. The solution was to concentrate the buying and selling to a specific time. For local goods it was the weekly market. From there it expanded to the seasonal regional fairs, to the annual fairs of international trade.
Fairs were usually paired with saint days after planting in the spring, and more commonly after harvest in the fall. Local fairs would last but a day, though many would span three days. The regional fairs would last a week or two. The great international fairs would stretch over two months. Larger towns could hold four fairs over the course of a year, in some places more.
The amount of money these events could generate did not go unnoticed. Local nobility made a point of regulating and licensing these markets. A major step in the growth of a town was getting a charter to hold a local market. More entrepreneurial nobles would work in establishing a regional fair, or maintained the roads and bridges that lead to an existing fair. Tolls and taxes would be the reward for these efforts. The Church was just as active as any secular lord.
A distinct feature of the fair was that it had its own court. This court was independent of both the court of the local lord and the town. In England these would be called courts of piepowder, a corruption of the French ‘pied poudre’, a reference to the dusty feet of itinerant peddlers. Within these courts, merchants would settle trade disputes. Many cases involved whether the proffered goods met quality standards.
The smaller fairs would merely offer the goods of what merchants showed up. But the larger fairs generally had a theme to them. The theme would center on the principal commodity of the region. England had a number of wool fairs. Livestock fairs were also common. The most celebrated fairs involved the textile industry. What is generally overlooked when discussing fairs is that the principal activity was wholesaling. While there was always an element of retailing occurring during any fair, it was the bulk buys that fueled a fair’s existence.
But fairs offered more then just goods. Some came to support the fair goers, food vendors and moneychangers being the most obvious. Housing the crowds was always a problem. And as fairs drew crowds, crowds drew entertainers. There would be sporting events; even tourneys could schedule to occur at fairs. For the fairs associated with the Church, there was also the element of pilgrimage to add to the experience. For the locals it was a chance to see and experience things they would otherwise miss.
Early fairs were held in the town’s common area, in lieu of the usual local market. The churchyard was a favorite location. As fairs grew, they moved into a field outside of town. Typically the stalls and booths used were temporary structures, though at the more established fairs permanent buildings would appear. Considerable amount of effort was put into planning, organizing and running the fair.
The most famous of the medieval fairs were those of Champagne. There were actually six fairs spread throughout the year and the county. The principal business at these fairs was textiles and spices, though they also served as a major wholesaling center for many other goods. These fairs were also were the seed for the international banking system that still governs trade today.
The medieval fairs contained the seeds of their own demise. Starting at the international level, the more trade they induced, the more sense it made to setup a permanent presence, and thus less need for a special event to conduct business. The rise of guilds in towns also diminished fairs as they attempted to restrict competition. But it was the Industrial Revolution with its attendant railroads that spell the end of the traditional fair. Goods could now be shipped on demand and the fair’s economic raison d’etre disappeared. What remained where the entertainers and what we now refer to as traveling carnivals.
While the Renaissance Fairs of today do not serve a critical economic purpose of their archetype, they still fill the niche of providing excitement and the extraordinary. A break from the ordinary. It provides a place for the craftsmen of exotic items to show their wares. For entertainers to practice ancient skills. In the Middle Ages, fairs were a special time. Today they still are.
Bautier, Robert-Henri. The Economic Development of Medieval Europe. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Cameron, David Kerr. The English Fair. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998.
Gies, Joseph and Frances. Life in a Medieval City. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Publishing, 1973.
Knight, Melvin. Economic History of Europe to the End of the Middle Ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.