Trade and Commerce in 13th century Flanders

Today, most commodities and goods are sold world-wide and closing a deal does not take more than a simple phone call, fax or mouseclick. The actual location of today's merchandise is hardly important and so are the whereabouts of all parties involved in the trade. Commodities and goods are also traded on a permanent basis and the modern merchant easily finds his way around the entire globe.

The medieval market

In contrast to our modern ages, the marketplace in the Middle Ages was a well-defined physical location. All international trade took place at regular and periodic meetings, commonly for a period of a couple of days or weeks. At any given location, such a trade meeting or "grand fair" was usually held not more than twice a year. These grand fairs encouraged long-distance trade and were organised in large towns. Most goods were relatively valuable and the merchants attending the fairs often travelled considerable distances.

During the 13th century, the international businessman was a travelling merchant whose journey was determined by the pattern of the fairs he frequented. These grand fairs were complemented by local markets, catering for the needs of the local communities. Markets were organised on a weekly basis at much closer geographical intervals. The area served by a market was determined by the distance a man could travel in a day and it was quite common to find a market every seven-or-so miles.

Cloth hall of Ypres
The Cloth Hall and Belfrey of Ypres, finished in 1304.
The world famous woolen cloth was traded here.

Though different in function, there was no strict separation between fairs and markets. Most merchants would have visited a number of local markets on their way to the next regional fair, while many locals would also have been present at the regional fairs to buy the few exotic goods they were ever likely to possess.

A three-layered system

In Flanders a three-layered system emerged during the 11th and 12th century:

  • Grand Fairs in the county of Champagne
  • Regional Fairs in most major towns
  • Local Markets in most villages

Local markets were organised in almost each and every village and several of these markets grouped together would form almost permanent trading centres. There would a market in yet another village close to your home almost each and every day of the week.

The second layer was formed by a number of regional fairs that gained in importance during the 12th century. These fairs were organised in sequence at each of a group of towns, allowing the merchants to attend all possible fairs in their region. The sequence of fairs lasted throughout most of the season when the merchants could travel and do business. Merchants visiting these fairs would generally travel together with their goods and did not really plan meetings with other merchants until they arrived at the fair. The Flanders fairs declined with the rise of the towns as trade centres in the 13th century, but the sequential fair system did not disappear until well into the late Middle Ages.

The very top layer of the 13th century trade system were the grand fairs of Champagne. These were the most notable and commercially important trade fairs on the European continent and provided the necessary link between the Low Countries and Italy, which were the two main commercial hubs in the known world. During the late 12th century a cycle of six fairs emerged, each lasting six weeks. Two fairs each were held in Provins and Troyes, one each in Bar-sur-Aube and Lagny. Generally speaking there was an interval of about two weeks in between fairs.

The grand fairs of Champagne clearly aimed at the international businessman. The organisation of a grand fair was strict and well defined. The first week was spent setting up trading stalls along the town streets. This was followed by a ten-day cloth sale, an eleven-day leather sale and nineteen days when various other goods were allowed to change ownership. A number of days devoted to the settling and closing of all accounts ended each fair.

The role of the merchant changed slightly. He still travelled together with his merchandise, but usually arrived at a fair after it had opened. They employed a number of couriers riding out in front of the baggage carts at much greater speed. Their task was to arrive on the opening days of the fairs to announce the varieties and quantities of goods en-route to the fair. Goods were soon sold without being seen and during the 13th century it became common practice not to pass coin at this stage.

En-route to Modern Trade

Disaster struck in the 14th century when the French king annexed the County of Champagne into his royal territory and decided to bring Flanders on its knees by severely restricting the fairs. The outbreak of the Hundred Years War between England and France, together with the increasing importance of the sea route from Italy to the Low Countries via the Strait of Gibraltar caused the grand fairs of Champagne to decline by the mid 14th century.

Trade fairs never disappeared from the European scene but became little more than regional markets at which farm stock was sold. In contrast, International merchants now started to operate out of static offices in all major European towns and did no longer travel about.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
The picture of the Ypres cloth hall and bellfry is copyrighted by Jan Decreton and comes from "Rondreis door middeleeuws Vlaanderen", Honoré Rottier.
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on June 5th 2001.