Market town

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Shrewsbury market square Shrewsbury Market square - panoramio.jpg
Shrewsbury market square
The market square (Marktplatz) in Wittenberg, Germany (in 2005) Wittenberg Market square.jpg
The market square (Marktplatz) in Wittenberg, Germany (in 2005)
The Old Great Square (Vanha Suurtori) in Turku, Finland (in 2006) Vanha suurtori.JPG
The Old Great Square (Vanha Suurtori) in Turku, Finland (in 2006)

A market town is a European settlement that obtained by custom or royal charter, in the Middle Ages, a market right, which allowed it to host a regular market; this distinguished it from a village or city. In Britain, small rural towns with a hinterland of villages are still commonly called market towns, as sometimes reflected in their names (e.g. Downham Market, Market Rasen, or Market Drayton).


Modern markets are often in special halls, but this is a recent development, and the rise of permanent retail establishments has reduced the need for periodic markets. Historically the markets were open-air, held in what is usually called (regardless of its actual shape) the market square (or "Market Place" etc), and centred on a market cross (mercat cross in Scotland). They were and are typically open one or two days a week.


Market cross in a market, French, c. 1400 Scene de foire - ca 1400 - BNF Fr12559 f167.jpg
Market cross in a market, French, c. 1400

The primary purpose of a market town is the provision of goods and services to the surrounding locality. [1] Although market towns were known in antiquity, their number increased rapidly from the 12th century. Market towns across Europe flourished with an improved economy, a more urbanised society and the widespread introduction of a cash-based economy. [2] Domesday Book of 1086 lists 50 markets in England. Some 2,000 new markets were established between 1200 and 1349. [3] The burgeoning of market towns occurred across Europe around the same time.

Initially, market towns most often grew up close to fortified places, such as castles or monasteries, not only to enjoy their protection, but also because large manorial households and monasteries generated demand for goods and services. [4] Historians term these early market towns "prescriptive market towns" in that they may not have enjoyed any official sanction such as a charter, but were accorded market town status through custom and practice if they had been in existence prior to 1199. [5] From an early stage, kings and administrators understood that a successful market town attracted people, generated revenue and would pay for the town's defences. [6] In around the 12th century, European kings began granting charters to villages allowing them to hold markets on specific days. [7]

Framlingham in Suffolk is a notable example of a market situated near a fortified building. Additionally, markets were located where transport was easiest, such as at a crossroads or close to a river ford, for example, Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan. When local railway lines were first built, market towns were given priority to ease the transport of goods. For instance, in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, several market towns close together were designated to take advantage of the new trains. The designation of Halifax, Sowerby Bridge, Hebden Bridge, and Todmorden is an example of this.

A number of studies have pointed to the prevalence of the periodic market in medieval towns and rural areas due to the localised nature of the economy. The marketplace was the commonly accepted location for trade, social interaction, transfer of information and gossip. A broad range of retailers congregated in market towns – peddlers, retailers, hucksters, stallholders, merchants and other types of trader. Some were professional traders who occupied a local shopfront such as a bakery or alehouse, while others were casual traders who set up a stall or carried their wares around in baskets on market days. Market trade supplied for the needs of local consumers whether they were visitors or local residents. [8]

Modern market hall in Frankfurt-Hochst, where the market dates back to at least 1356. Frankfurt Hochst Markthalle.jpg
Modern market hall in Frankfurt-Höchst, where the market dates back to at least 1356.

Braudel and Reynold have made a systematic study of European market towns between the 13th and 15th century. Their investigation shows that in regional districts markets were held once or twice a week while daily markets were common in larger cities. Over time, permanent shops began opening daily and gradually supplanted the periodic markets, while peddlers or itinerant sellers continued to fill in any gaps in distribution. The physical market was characterised by transactional exchange and bartering systems were commonplace. Shops had higher overhead costs, but were able to offer regular trading hours and a relationship with customers and may have offered added value services, such as credit terms to reliable customers. The economy was characterised by local trading in which goods were traded across relatively short distances. Braudel reports that, in 1600, grain moved just 5–10 miles (8.0–16.1 km); cattle 40–70 miles (64–113 km); wool and woollen cloth 20–40 miles (32–64 km). However, following the European age of discovery, goods were imported from afar – calico cloth from India, porcelain, silk and tea from China, spices from India and South-East Asia and tobacco, sugar, rum and coffee from the New World. [9]

The importance of local markets began to decline in the mid-16th century. Permanent shops which provided more stable trading hours began to supplant the periodic market. [10] In addition, the rise of a merchant class led to the import and exports of a broad range of goods, contributing to a reduced reliance on local produce. At the centre of this new global mercantile trade was Antwerp, which by the mid-16th century, was the largest market town in Europe. [11]

A good number of local histories of individual market towns can be found. However, more general histories of the rise of market-towns across Europe are much more difficult to locate. Clark points out that while a good deal is known about the economic value of markets in local economies, the cultural role of market-towns has received scant scholarly attention. [12]

By country

Czech Republic


In Denmark, the concept of the market town (Danish : købstad) has existed since the Iron Age. It is not known which was the first Danish market town, but Hedeby (part of modern-day Schleswig-Holstein) and Ribe were among the first. Per 1801, there were 74 market towns in Denmark (see the full list here). The last town to gain market rights (Danish : købstadsprivilegier) was Skjern in 1958. At the municipal reform of 1970, market towns were merged with neighboring parishes, and the market towns lost their special status and privileges.

German-language area

The medieval right to hold markets (German : Marktrecht) is reflected in the prefix Markt of the names of many towns in Austria and Germany, for example, Markt Berolzheim or Marktbergel. Other terms used for market towns were Flecken in northern Germany, or Freiheit and Wigbold in Westphalia.

Market rights were designated as long ago as during the Carolingian Empire. [13] Around 800, Charlemagne granted the title of a market town to Esslingen am Neckar . [14] Conrad created a number of market towns in Saxony throughout the 11th century and did much to develop peaceful markets by granting a special 'peace' to merchants and a special and permanent 'peace' to market-places. [15] With the rise of the territories, the ability to designate market towns was passed to the princes and dukes, as the basis of German town law.

The local ordinance status of a market town (Marktgemeinde or Markt) is perpetuated through the law of Austria, the German state of Bavaria, and the Italian province of South Tyrol. Nevertheless, the title has no further legal significance, as it does not grant any privileges.


In Hungarian, the word for market town "mezőváros" means literally "pasture town" and implies that it was unfortified town: they were architecturally distinguishable from other towns by the lack of town walls. Most market towns were chartered in the 14th and 15th centuries and typically developed around 13th-century villages that had preceded them. A boom in the raising of livestock may have been a trigger for the upsurge in the number of market towns during that period.

Archaeological studies suggest that the ground plans of such market towns had multiple streets and could also emerge from a group of villages or an earlier urban settlement in decline, or be created as a new urban centre. [16]


While Iceland was under Danish rule, Danish merchants held a monopoly on trade with Iceland until 1786. With the abolishment of the trading monopoly, six market town (Icelandic kaupstaður) were founded around the country. All of them, except for Reykjavík, would lose their market rights in 1836. New market towns would be designated by acts from Alþingi in the 19th and 20th century. In the latter half of the 20th century, the special rights granted to market towns mostly involved a greater autonomy in fiscal matters and control over town planning, schooling and social care. Unlike rural municipalities, the market towns were not considered part of the counties.

The last town to be granted market rights was Ólafsvík in 1983 and from that point there were 24 market towns until a municipal reform in 1986 essentially abolished the concept. Many of the existing market towns would continue to be named kaupstaður even after the term lost any administrative meaning.


In Norway, the medieval market town (Norwegian kjøpstad and kaupstad from the Old Norse kaupstaðr) was a town which had been granted commerce privileges by the king or other authorities. The citizens in the town had a monopoly over the purchase and sale of wares, and operation of other businesses, both in the town and in the surrounding district.

Norway developed market towns at a much later period than other parts of Europe. The reasons for this late development are complex but include the sparse population, lack of urbanisation, no real manufacturing industries and no cash economy. [17] The first market town was created in 11th century Norway, to encourage businesses to concentrate around specific towns. King Olaf established a market town at Bergen in the 11th century, and it soon became the residence of many wealthy families. [18] Import and export was to be conducted only through market towns, to allow oversight of commerce and to simplify the imposition of excise taxes and customs duties. This practice served to encourage growth in areas which had strategic significance, providing a local economic base for the construction of fortifications and sufficient population to defend the area. It also served to restrict Hanseatic League merchants from trading in areas other than those designated.

Norway included a subordinate category to the market town, the "small seaport" (Norwegian lossested or ladested), which was a port or harbor with a monopoly to import and export goods and materials in both the port and a surrounding outlying district. Typically, these were locations for exporting timber, and importing grain and goods. Local farm goods and timber sales were all required to pass through merchants at either a small seaport or a market town prior to export. This encouraged local merchants to ensure trading went through them, which was so effective in limiting unsupervised sales (smuggling) that customs revenues increased from less than 30% of the total tax revenues in 1600 to more than 50% of the total taxes by 1700.

Norwegian "market towns" died out and were replaced by free markets during the 19th century. After 1952, both the "small seaport" and the "market town" were relegated to simple town status.

United Kingdom and Ireland

England and Wales

The Fish Market at Hastings Beach by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1810 Joseph Mallord William Turner - The Fish Market at Hastings Beach - Google Art Project.jpg
The Fish Market at Hastings Beach by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1810

From the time of the Norman conquest, the right to award a charter was generally seen to be a royal prerogative. However, the granting of charters was not systematically recorded until 1199. [19] Once a charter was granted, it gave local lords the right to take tolls and also afforded the town some protection from rival markets. When a chartered market was granted for specific market days, a nearby rival market could not open on the same days. [20] Across the boroughs of England, a network of chartered markets sprang up between the 12th and 16th centuries, giving consumers reasonable choice in the markets they preferred to patronise. [21]

Prior to 1200, markets were often held on Sundays, the day when the community congregated in town to attend church. Some of the more ancient markets appear to have been held in churchyards. At the time of the Norman conquest, the majority of the population made their living through agriculture and livestock farming. Most lived on their farms, situated outside towns, and the town itself supported a relatively small population of permanent residents. Farmers and their families brought their surplus produce to informal markets held on the grounds of their church after worship. By the 13th century, however, a movement against Sunday markets gathered momentum, and the market gradually moved to a site in town's centre and was held on a weekday. [22] By the 15th century, towns were legally prohibited from holding markets in church-yards. [23]

The Fish Market by Joachim Beuckelaer, c. 1568 Joachim Beuckelaer-Marche aux poissons.jpg
The Fish Market by Joachim Beuckelaer, c. 1568

Archaeological evidence suggests that Colchester is England's oldest recorded market town, dating to at least the time of the Roman occupation of Britain's southern regions. [24] Another ancient market town is Cirencester, which held a market in late Roman Britain. The term derived from markets and fairs first established in 13th century after the passage of the Magna Carta, and the first laws towards a parlement. The Provisions of Oxford of 1258 were only possible because of the foundation of a town and university at a crossing-place on the River Thames up-river from Runnymede, where it formed an oxbow lake in the stream. Early patronage included Thomas Furnyvale, lord of Hallamshire, who established a Fair and Market in 1232. Travelers were able to meet and trade wares in relative safety for a week of "fayres" at a location inside the town walls. The reign of Henry III witnessed a spike in established market fairs. The defeat of de Montfort increased the sample testing of markets by Edward I the "lawgiver", who summoned the Model Parliament in 1295 to perambulate the boundaries of forest and town.

London's Clare market by Thomas Shepherd, 1815 Clare market by Thomas Shepherd.jpg
London's Clare market by Thomas Shepherd, 1815

Market towns grew up at centres of local activity and were an important feature of rural life and also became important centres of social life, as some place names suggest: Market Drayton, Market Harborough, Market Rasen, Market Deeping, Market Weighton, Chipping Norton, Chipping Ongar, and Chipping Sodbury  chipping was derived from a Saxon verb meaning "to buy". [25] A major study carried out by the University of London found evidence for least 2,400 markets in English towns by 1516. [26]

The English system of charters established that a new market town could not be created within a certain travelling distance of an existing one. This limit was usually a day's worth of travelling (approximately 10 kilometres (6.2 mi)) to and from the market. If the travel time exceeded this standard, a new market town could be established in that locale. As a result of the limit, official market towns often petitioned the monarch to close down illegal markets in other towns. These distances are still law in England today. Other markets can be held, provided they are licensed by the holder of the Royal Charter, which tends currently to be the local town council. Failing that, the Crown can grant a licence. [27]

Market cross at Devizes, a market town in Wiltshire.
Market cross at Devizes, a market town in Wiltshire.

As the number of charters granted increased, competition between market towns also increased. In response to competitive pressures, towns invested in a reputation for quality produce, efficient market regulation and good amenities for visitors such as covered accommodation. By the thirteenth century, counties with important textile industries were investing in purpose built market halls for the sale of cloth. Specific market towns cultivated a reputation for high quality local goods. For example, London's Blackwell Hall became a centre for cloth, Bristol became associated with a particular type of cloth known as Bristol red, Stroud was known for producing fine woollen cloth, the town of Worsted became synonymous with a type of yarn; Banbury and Essex were strongly associated with cheeses. [28]

A study on the purchasing habits of the monks and other individuals in medieval England, suggests that consumers of the period were relatively discerning. Purchase decisions were based on purchase criteria such as consumers' perceptions of the range, quality, and price of goods. This informed decisions about where to make their purchases. [29]

The Market Place, Ely, Cambridgeshire by W. W. Collins, 1908 Ely the market place-1.jpg
The Market Place, Ely, Cambridgeshire by W. W. Collins, 1908

As traditional market towns developed, they featured a wide main street or central market square. These provided room for people to set up stalls and booths on market days. Often the town erected a market cross in the centre of the town, to obtain God's blessing on the trade. Notable examples of market crosses in England are the Chichester Cross, Malmesbury Market Cross and Devizes, Wiltshire. Market towns often featured a market hall, as well, with administrative or civic quarters on the upper floor, above a covered trading area. Market towns with smaller status include Minchinhampton, Nailsworth, and Painswick near Stroud, Gloucestershire. [30]

A "market town" may or may not have rights concerning self-government that are usually the legal basis for defining a "town". For instance, Newport, Shropshire, is in the borough of Telford and Wrekin but is separate from Telford. In England, towns with such rights are usually distinguished with the additional status of borough. It is generally accepted that, in these cases, when a town was granted a market, it gained the additional autonomy conferred to separate towns. [31] Many of the early market towns have continued operations into recent times. For instance, Northampton market received its first charter in 1189 and markets are still held in the square to this day. [32]

The National Market Traders Federation, situated in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, has around 32,000 members [33] and close links with market traders' federations throughout Europe. According to the UK National Archives, [34] there is no single register of modern entitlements to hold markets and fairs, although historical charters up to 1516 are listed in the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales. [35]


Market houses were a common feature across the island of Ireland. These often arcaded buildings performed marketplace functions, frequently with a community space on the upper floor. The oldest surviving structures date from the mid-17th century.


In Scotland, borough markets were held weekly from an early stage. A King's market was held at Roxburgh on a specific day from about the year 1171; a Thursday market was held at Glasgow, a Saturday market at Arbroath, and a Sunday market at Brechin. [36]

In Scotland, market towns were often distinguished by their mercat cross: a place where the right to hold a regular market or fair was granted by a ruling authority (either royal, noble, or ecclesiastical). As in the rest of the UK, the area in which the cross was situated was almost always central: either in a square; or in a broad, main street. Towns which still have regular markets include: Inverurie, St Andrews, Selkirk, Wigtown, Kelso, and Cupar. Not all still possess their mercat cross (market cross). [37]

In art and literature

Dutch painters of Antwerp took great interest in market places and market towns as subject matter from the 16th century. Pieter Aertsen was known as the "great painter of the market" [38] Painters' interest in markets was due, at least in part, to the changing nature of the market system at that time. With the rise of the merchant guilds, the public began to distinguish between two types of merchant, the meerseniers which referred to local merchants including bakers, grocers, sellers of dairy products and stall-holders, and the koopman, which described a new, emergent class of trader who dealt in goods or credit on a large scale. Paintings of every day market scenes may have been an affectionate attempt to record familiar scenes and document a world that was in danger of being lost. [39]

Paintings and drawings of market towns and market scenes

See also

Related Research Articles

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Hanseatic League Trade confederation in Northern Europe

The Hanseatic League was an influential medieval commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in central and northern Europe. Growing from a few north German towns in the late 12th century, the League ultimately encompassed nearly 200 settlements across seven modern-day countries; at its height, it stretched from the Netherlands in the west to Estonia in the east, and reached as far north as Swedish Gotland and as far south as Krawkow, Poland.

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Commerce Exchange of goods and services

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Magdeburg rights

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A charter fair in England is a street fair or market which was established by Royal Charter. Many charter fairs date back to the Middle Ages, with their heyday occurring during the 13th century. Originally, most charter fairs started as street markets but since the 19th century the trading aspect has been superseded by entertainment; many charter fairs are now the venue for travelling funfairs run by showmen.

Economy of England in the Middle Ages Overview of the economy of England during the Middle Ages

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The economics of English towns and trade in the Middle Ages is the economic history of English towns and trade from the Norman invasion in 1066, to the death of Henry VII in 1509. Although England's economy was fundamentally agricultural throughout the period, even before the invasion the market economy was important to producers. Norman institutions, including serfdom, were superimposed on a mature network of well established towns involved in international trade. Over the next five centuries the English economy would at first grow and then suffer an acute crisis, resulting in significant political and economic change. Despite economic dislocation in urban areas, including shifts in the holders of wealth and the location of these economies, the economic output of towns developed and intensified over the period. By the end of the period, England would have a weak early modern government overseeing an economy involving a thriving community of indigenous English merchants and corporations.

Beverley town fair

The market town of Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England, has had a fair since medieval times. In the early days the fairs were places for trading goods and animals, and were useful for meeting people and finding news of what was happening elsewhere in the country. Towns were given the right to hold fairs by Royal charter. In the early 12th century Archbishop Thurstan was granted a charter to hold fairs four times a year, each lasting up to five days. Beverley's medieval fairs were:

Scottish trade in the Middle Ages

Scottish trade in the Middle Ages includes all forms of economic exchange in the modern boundaries of Scotland and between that region with outside locations, between the departure of the Romans from Britain in the fifth century and the establishment of the Renaissance in the early sixteenth century. There are not the detailed custom accounts for most of the period that exist for England, that can provide an understanding of foreign trade. In the early Middle Ages the rise of Christianity meant that wine and precious metals were imported for use in religious rites. Imported goods found in archaeological sites of the period include ceramics and glass, while many sites indicate iron and precious metal working. The slave trade was also important and in the Irish Sea it may have been stimulated by the arrival of the Vikings from the late eighth century.


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Further reading