Fred Hocker

title.none: Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets (Hocker)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.004 99.08.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fred Hocker, Texas A and M University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Masschaele, James. Peasants, Merchants, and Markets. Inland Trade in Medieval England, 1150-1350. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 275. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-16035-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.04

Masschaele, James. Peasants, Merchants, and Markets. Inland Trade in Medieval England, 1150-1350. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 275. $45.00. ISBN: 0-312-16035-6.

Reviewed by:

Fred Hocker
Texas A and M University

The physical appearance of this book is deceiving. From the diminutive size and seemingly innocuous title, one might expect a broad but not terribly deep survey, such as is often written for series intended for an undergraduate audience. Cover the key themes, sum up the major works on the subject, introduce the readers to the primary sources, do not scare them off by challenging them too much or overwhelm them with information. But woe to the casual or unprepared reader! This volume combines a wealth of detail, combed from a wide variety of sources, with penetrating analysis to produce a comprehensive, and convincing, picture of England's rural economy in the relatively peaceful and prosperous two centuries before the Black Death. Part of this feat of deception is accomplished by the publisher's use of nearly microscopic type, but it is primarily Masschaele's resourcefulness and grasp of the data that fill these pages with ideas, clearly and reasonably presented.

Masschaele's thesis is that the English economy of the late twelfth through early fourteenth centuries was much more sophisticated than previously allowed, and its prosperity was based on a combination of peasant (more than manor or estate) production, merchant mobility, and regionally integrated local markets. The staples and raw materials of the countryside, on which was based the manufacturing and growth of the towns, were collected, moved, and sold within a transport and market infrastructure operated by producers, burgesses, and merchants with relatively little direct assistance or sponsorship from the crown. Merchants, far from being concentrated into a few large towns and cites, were dispersed throughout the system and maintained regular contacts between markets, often at surprising distances from their homes. Hundreds of local markets, although certainly the scene of simple exchange of local foodstuffs, were created and managed by their franchise holders with the clear expectation that they would attract trade from outside and with some appreciation of the way competing or complementary markets in other towns and villages affected the flow of goods within the region. Masschaele examines each of these three components separately, using evidence drawn from all over the country, and then brings them all together in a case study of the county of Huntingdonshire.

Part 1 discusses in two chapters the nature of the relationship between rural and urban production and the role of peasants in the production of the basic raw materials on which everything else was based. Using tax documents from a series of lay subsidy evaluations, the author demonstrates that much disposable urban wealth was held in the form of rural produce, primarily food stuffs and raw materials for use in the production of typical medieval manufactures. Despite the problems inherent in trying to make general observations from data collected on a county-by-county basis from people with plenty to hide, it does seem clear that, outside London and a few major international ports, the direct basis of urban prosperity was the conversion and marketing of rural produce. This should hardly be surprising, given the nature of medieval manufacturing with its wide range of products produced from a relatively small range of raw materials, almost all of which had to be either grown or harvested, rather than mined or quarried. What is intriguing is the range of townspeople holding rural products and being assessed on the basis of it (goods held for personal consumption were not, apparently assessed). There is a strong suggestion that a substantial number of people wanted a piece of the action.

The second chapter, which addresses the role of peasants, challenges the conventional notion that the driving forces in agricultural production were manors and ecclesiastical estates. Through an examination of royal purveyance records (relating to crown efforts to feed the army by purchasing grain and other foodstuffs on the local markets) and tax documents, the author presents a convincing case that peasants accounted for the largest share, if not the bulk, of surplus production of the major commodities. To be sure, the data are not quantitatively conclusive, but Masschaele handles the sources imaginatively and carefully. In the absence of comprehensive tax or production records, his conclusions may be debated in degree, but it seems to be difficult to disagree with the basic thesis, at least for the period under study. This is in direct contrast to developments elsewhere in Europe, where manors and abbeys dominated not only production, but the transport and market infrastructure. See, for example, Hedeager, Kristiansen and Porsmose 1988 on the situation in Denmark in the same period. Here, in a country with similar geographical constraints, it is believed that what peasant surplus there was was almost totally consumed by taxation, and that only the large landowners produced a significant, tradable surplus.

What is immediately apparent is that the term "peasant," while it may have a specific legal meaning, covers people with such a wide range of incomes as to be nearly useless as an economic indicator. The peasants producing the surplus are not all or even a majority, but just a few major farmers in each village, often those classed at the time as virgaters. These people, although technically peasants, were wealthy men in their day and were often local leaders in their villages. The more important economic distinction must lie not in legal status, but in the amount of land controlled by an individual or family, as well as the number of families. As Masschaele makes clear, individual peasants did not produce more than individual lords or abbeys, but their numbers made the difference in the total. Masschaele does not specifically address the issue, but it should be important to develop a clearer picture of peasant landholding patterns in this period, and how a class of "super peasants" came into being in England, but did not in other places.

The development of the markets is addressed in Part 2. The abundant evidence for the chartering of markets (which were created not as public services or communal efforts to improve trade, but as money-making opportunities by local lords) indicates a dramatic upsurge in the number of markets being initiated between about 1250 and 1320, but later records suggest that few of these creations prospered, and even those that enjoyed initial success typically failed within two generations. Masschaele uses this as evidence of two phenomena. First, the basic market structure had been effectively established by about 1250, and there was insufficient room in the economy to support many more markets, although a few of the newer markets did prosper or even replace older foundations. Second, the success of the older foundations was readily apparent and made the creation of a new market a potentially lucrative proposition, leading to a rash of attempts to cash in on the growing prosperity.

It is in this part of the book that the author makes some of his most effective and imaginative use of the sources. A charter for a new market would not be granted by the crown if it could be demonstrated that the new market, either by its location or timing in the weekly cycle of markets, would harm existing franchises. Thus many of the new creations of the later thirteenth century were challenged in a relatively well- defined legal process. The operators of other markets would present a plaint in which they laid out the reason or evidence why another market would adversely affect their existing markets. In exploring the reasons put forward by these competitive men, Masschaele reveals a group of entrepreneurs with a surprising intuitive grasp of the forces affecting the regional economic structures in which they operated. The subtext of these arguments is clearly based on an expectation of toll income generated not by the exchange of locally produced foodstuffs for personal consumption (on which toll could not be collected) but by the attraction of outside merchants, sometimes coming from several counties away, with profit on their minds.

These merchants, and the trade networks they created in their journeys to local and regional markets, are the subject of Part 3. Their distribution throughout the country, as revealed by tax records, has long posed problems, in that some regions of England seem to have merchant enterprises concentrated in a few large centers, while others have merchants more broadly distributed in the countryside. Masschaele's attempts at explaining the variation meet with little more success than earlier efforts by others who have observed the same phenomenon, but are no less reasonable. It may be that the right type of evidence does not exist. In any case, the networks developed by these merchants, who often maintained guild membership in distant towns, were based on the collection and distribution of a wide range of products, in addition to the ubiquitous food stuffs and wool conventionally recognized in the literature. Scheduling of markets focused on producing a natural progression for these merchants to follow, and complaints against rival markets normally charged that a damaging market was disrupting the established pattern and detouring the outsiders from bringing their goods to established centers of exchange. Scheduling was hardly a major issue for the medium of local exchange, but the author notes that there is evidence that some of the outsiders visiting local markets were peasants from other parts of the region, either in fulfillment of a manor obligation or on their own account. One might say that the system, through the spacing of markets throughout the counties and through the week, made it practical for a larger segment of the population to participate in the profitable exchange of agricultural surplus and local products, even if they did not do so on a weekly basis.

Part 4, a case study of how all of these elements worked together in Huntingdonshire, an unremarkable county somewhere in the middle of the economic ladder, brings together the different threads examined in the previous sections and addresses a few other aspects of the market system, notably transportation. Here one of the most intriguing observations is that the well developed market system in pre-plague England allowed English kings on foreign adventures to supply their armies without the need of investing heavily in the construction of infrastructure. Instead, they could rely on local officials (the sheriffs) to acquire foodstuffs and forward them to coastal ports using established market and transportation systems. The king might hire river barges, but he had no need to build or own them.

This book falls well within the tradition of English economic history, both in its detailed analysis of a wide range of administrative sources and in its Postanian focus on peasant producers as the backbone of the economy. Masschaele is thus able to take advantage not only of his own extensive mining of the documents, but of more than a generation of detailed local and regional studies. He does this effectively, communicating both the overall structure of the English economy and the regional variation within it. He is also able to muster copious evidence to support the majority of his points. If there is any disappointment in the work, it lies also in its traditional approach. It seems as if the English economy stops where the salt water starts. There are occasional references to foreigners and to the shipment of goods out of the country (largely in relation to wool or supplying armies), but little indication of the relationship of the local markets to broader developments in the European economy. To be fair, the book concentrates on the local picture, but by the thirteenth century, English wool producers, at the least, were participants in an international economy reaching to the Mediterranean, and subject to events abroad.

The standard of execution is quite high. Masschaele is adept at explaining the intricacies of medieval taxation and legal records and in presenting statistical data, although there is little mathematical modelling of the factors he identifies. A number of maps are included, and there are plenty of tables summarizing numerical data. One general map of England, with the medieval counties marked, might be helpful for those not intimately familiar with English geography. The writing, a challenge in a work of technical density such as this, is very good, although the author occasionally seems to have swallowed his thesaurus (it has been a long time since I read a new work that used "vouchsafed" and "perduring" in the same chapter) and the frequent use of 90s business jargon can be jarring.

On the whole, this work should prove stimulating and valuable, both as an overview of the period and as the basis for discussion of larger themes. The growth of an independent and economically important class of peasants requires further investigation, as does the relationship of the English economy to the European economy as a whole. Finally, this book should be a challenge to the economic historians of the rest of medieval Europe.


Hedeager, L., K. Kristiansen and E. Porsmose. Det danske landbrugs historie I: Oldtid og middelalder (Danish agricultural history I: Antiquity and the Middle Ages). Odense: Landbohistorisk Selskab, 1988.