Medieval Market

Trade    Apprenticeship    Cottage.Industry     Small.Business     Big.Business



The evolution of the merchant class in the latter half of the Middle Ages was brought about simply because trade as a career required the abolition of feudal obligations. It is this class of merchants which operates in a medieval marketplace. Early marketplaces had moveable stalls; then marketplaces with fixed stalls or house front shops became more popular. But now, without the protection of feudal lords, merchants had no way to protect themselves or their property. Guilds offered merchants the same privileges of protection and support provided by lords to their vassals -- at a price, of course. Each occupation had its own guild, which fixed prices and arranged trade. Guilds could even regulate working hours; in London, a work day was up to 16 hours in summer and up to 12 in winter.

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In medieval London, it was assumed that everyone would be employed by fourteen or fifteen, the age at which people were taxable. But before a girl or boy could become self-employed, she or he would have to go through rigorous training by an expert at that trade: apprenticeship. Girls and boys could both be apprenticed at a young age. It was, in fact, illegal to apprentice a child if he or she were over twelve and had been working in agriculture since before he or she was twelve. (This prevented an overwhelming migration to the cities). Girls could be apprenticed to men or to women, but they were under the tutelage of a male master's wife. There were many restrictions on an apprentice. Male apprentices could not marry, but in some female apprentices' contracts, a clause was included that allowed them to marry with the payment of a forfeit to their masters .

Apprenticeship was not without its hazards. Female apprentices were easy prey for the sexual advances of their masters; they might even be sold into prostitution by their mistresses.

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Cottage Industries

Knowledge of a trade that could be practiced at home was of value in the marriage market. Any extra money that the wife could bring into the home was appreciated. Women often practiced more than one profitable trade at a time -- such as brewing and weaving. Though this undoubtedly helped their families, it may have contributed to their exclusion from guilds as independent workers (Power 62). Women's cottage industries are visible in history because of an interesting remnant in the form of surnames. Trade surnames with the suffix -ster or -xter denotes that the trade was practiced by a woman. "Brewer" is a male brewer; "Brewster", a female. "Baker" became "Baxter". "Spinsters" and "Websters" were weavers.

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Small Business

Small businesspeople made their own goods and sold them themselves, either from the storefront of their own homes, or in a moveable cart, or by hawking them in the streets. These craftspeople were eligible to join guilds as the cottage worker was not.

And women were eligible to join guilds, though not often independently. Women who joined guilds joined by default, by assisting their fathers or husbands in their trade. A wife who joined a guild with her husband would be an independent guild member after her husband's death .

Women worked outside the home in a number of occupations, including several usually handled by men. They learned their husbands' crafts or their fathers' and carry them on when husbands and fathers were dead. However, then as now, women were paid less for the same work. For example, London girls working as servants made even less than boys, who might make sixpence a week. Apart from this, women who carried on a trade separate from their husbands' were treated legally just as unmarried professional women were. Women were successful in a number of diverse professions, professions which relied not only on mere donkey work but also on skill and intelligence.

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Big Business

Most craftspeople were also merchants, but not all merchants were produced their own goods. These were the people engaged in long-distance trade. Long-distance trade by women was the exception rather than the rule. Besides being discouraged from long journeys by peers at home, women faced abduction, murder, and rape from vagabonds who would not normally trouble a well-known male trader. Unlike small businesses and cottage industries, big business trade partnerships were rarely exclusively female, and usually a woman was involved because big business was the family business. 

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Adapted with permission from Dominion and Domination


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