The Origins of Fairs

I have been working through a book by Nigel Heard, ‘International fairs’. By focusing on trade, it shows how European history has been affected by commerce. Greek civilisation drove trade, similarly to that of Western Europe in the 19th century. When Rome expanded to the Levant, it gave them access to gold, and silver, so trade poured into the empire, which expanded to the West. Romans worshipped many gods, many of whom had their own feast day with ceremonies, so were called ‘feria’ or holidays.

Along the Roman frontiers commanders would make truces with tribes to allow cross border trading which in time became known also as feria, so when the Romans were in Britain, such events ere common along Hadrians wall. When Rome fell in the 5th century, so did their government, so towns and roads fell into decay, so society became based on villages not towns, and government being taken on by the Roman church. Fairs returned to the ancient meeting places, such as St Giles fir at Winchester, held beneath the ancient long barrow. Stourbridge Fair in Cambridgeshire, founded much later, claims to have begun in Roman times, being close to the Icknield Way, but also close to water transport. The earliest fairs were Christian versions of pagan rituals which became commercial events later as merchants were drawn to them.

When Rome fell, their merchants had already fled to Constantinople, taking their wealth with them, triggering a long period of austerity, even for Spain with its wealth of minerals. Into the power vacuum the West became more localised, feudalism established to form lose economic federations, which saw the rebirth of the fair. Despite the region being divided into many warring groups, there were no commercial barriers, with men of similar class mixing freely.

By the time Spain fell to the Moors in 732 Western Europe was a patchwork of semi barbaric kingdoms cut of from the Eastern Mediteranean civilisations by fleets of Barbary corsairs, so the West began to stagnate. Western industry and towns ground to a virtual halt, hence the dark Ages. The wealthy merchants vanished, and travel became too dangerous for trade. Lack of coins made trade more difficult, so barter increased. Only the church stopped the towns from collapsing completely. As the church expanded, so did the towns and road network. But lack of trade made kings unable to maintain set court so became peripatetic.

Towns near major crossroads or near major ecclesiastical sites grew, and became sites for better paid, specialist trades who became freemen so free of peasant duties. The earliest were armourers, weapon makers, leather workers and jewellers who became more expert so industries expanded and improved. As towns expanded, communities of victuallers, such as butchers, bakers, grocers and vintners formed in the towns.

The first trades to recover enough to be traded were salt for preserving food, and iron for weapons, so became the first of the great medieavel merchants. Regions began specialising, with wine from France and Rhineland, England wool and grain. But most exchange was still local in towns. Small groups of traders began travelling together, joining locals trading in surpluses, with an occasional foreigner, esp from Levant or Jew. They tended to arrive at times of religious festivals, to get the biggest crowds, where they would wait outside the Cathedral to sell their goods.

Thus a circuit of fairs was started. Viking raids disrupted these circuits for 2 centuries, eventually causing the towns to be refortified to become ‘burghs’ which were often given special status and the right to mint their own coins. Fairs and weekly markets became based on royal charters which gave them advantage over their rivals, becoming the great Medieval towns. Merchant wealth grew, as did their power to become independent of the feudal lords.

The Viking raids eventually stimulated trade as the Saxons were not great sailors, but the Vikings who settled opened up international trade, expanding contact with the Levant and re-introducing many luxury goods. Viking raids on monasteries released much gold and silver for coins, further increasing trade.

By the 11th century, Western Europe was on the rise, and wanting to re-establish trade links with India and the Far East, so began the Crusades which were about both trade and religion. Italy’s city states formed fragile links via Palestine and the overland routes to the East. This need to reach the east was increased with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, led by the Spanish & Portugese.

This put an end to the notion of the Mediterranean being the centre of the world, and nationalism rose as counties competed for access to the Far Eastern trade. Wars, trade barriers and colonial settlement replaced co-operation. the Industrial revolution increased this expansion, but now being overtaken as Europe runs out of raw materials.

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