Holinshed's Chronicles, from which came most of the material for the Shakespearean plays, were published in 1577. One of Holinshed's collaborators was William Harrison, chaplain to Lord Cobham, who wrote the Descriptions of Britain and England for the chronicles. They have preserved for us a vivid and detailed picture of the England which Elizabeth inherited. This series will present a slightly abridged version in which the language has been modernised for clarity. In this extract, Harrison considers the markets and fairs of Tudor England. In his usual style, he does not hold back his criticism of those who, he believes, are responsible for the inflation of contemporary food prices!
There are, I understand, few great towns in England that do not have heir weekly markets, one or more licensed by the monarch. In these all kinds of household provisions are to be bought and sold, for the ease and benefit of the people living round about. Because of this, no buyer needs to make a great journey to find his necessities and no supplier needs to travel far with his commodities, unless he chases after the highest prices. The latter are commonly found near the larger cities, where a quick turnover is always to be had. Even though these markets were, in the past, set up for the benefit of the realm, they are in many places, now too much abused. Nowadays they do not seem to be intended for the convenience of the buyer so much as for the benefit of the seller.
And the magistrates, wary of upsetting people during their year of civic dignity, are not as careful in the exercise of their duties as they ought to be. Therefore, in most of the markets the regulations concerning the weight of a loaf of bread or the quality of grain and other goods offered for sale are not properly enforced. Instead, each stall-holder is allowed to sell or set up what and how he likes, and this is one obvious cause of the short supply and scarcity of some goods even in times of great abundance.
I could give many examples but will confine myself to just one. As I said, there are very few checks carried out on the loaves offered for sale to see if they comply with the regulations. Yet, if any country baker comes into town on market day and offers a proper loaf for sale his goods are immediately denigrated and run down by the locals. With the result that the poor honest man, who has tried to live according to the law, is driven out of town. Even more, through the exercise of their privileges, the local guilds ban him from ever selling in that market in the future.
A Fraudulent Baker PunishedYet, if they are mean in the quantity of flour in their bread, it is quite the opposite when it comes to ale and beer. This is so strong that those who habitually drink it have given it a variety of names such as huffcap, the mad dog, Father Whoreson, angel's food, dragon's milk, go-by-the-wall, stride wide and lift leg etc. There was a recent case where one man, by God's providence, developed a troubled conscience when he considered his useless life and the danger to his health. One of his companions, seeking, it seems to me, to change his colour rather than his mind, carried him straight away to the strongest ale, as if to the nearest physician.
It is incredible to see how our maltbugs lug at this liquor, just as young pigs lie in a row lugging at their mother's teats, until they lie still again unable to move. Not even Romulus and Remus sucked their she-wolf, or shepherd's wife Lupa, with such eager and sharp devotion as these men hale at "huffcap," until they are as red as cocks and little wiser than their combs. But how am I fallen from the market into the ale-house?
Returning to my theme, I find that there is daily abuse in the matter of corn which is to the great disadvantage of town and country alike. Those who suffer most are the poor artisans and householders, who do not till the land but work all week to make the price of a bushel or two of grain by market day, but then cannot buy it because the bodgers, loaders, and common carriers of corn not only buy up the lot, but pay above the normal rate in order to corner the market. Shall I go any further? Well, I will say yet a little more, and something of own experience.
At Michaelmas time, poor men must sell their grain for a profit in order to be able to pay their rents. However, as long as the poor man has grain to sell, the rich man hoards his and, instead, buys up what the poor have. This is often done with the pretence of using it for seed corn or in crop rotation (because a single variety of wheat sown continuously from the same seed will soon die off and turn to darnel [a deleterious grass which is particularly susceptible to ergot]. For this reason, therefore they must buy up what is available in the markets, even if they be twenty miles off and where they are strangers. If they happen to be challenged there (which, God knows, is very seldom)they immediately promise to send the same amount from their own stores to the next market, but I am not aware of when that promise has ever been fulfilled.
Travelling to Market
If this ruse does not work, and just as the fox will never use the same track twice in case of a snare, they will arrange for someone from the town in which the market is held who, for a pot of huff-cap or merry-go-down, will buy it for them in his own name. Or they will employ one poor man or other as a bodger and get him a license on some forged pretence. Then they will supply him with money to buy for them until their lofts are full. If, after that, he can buy any grain for himself well and good, if not, they will give him something for his pains this time and promise to engage him the following year.
How many other bodgers in a similar position smuggle grain into blind creeks along the coast I don't know, but that some do so, and under the protection of other men, is too, too obvious. But who can dare to challenge them when they have a license? Even if it is purely to supply with grain the house of a mean gentleman who has given up tilling his land and who boasts that can buy his grain in the market for less than it would cost him to sow and reap it. The same devise is used by the rich farmers who turn from tillage to grazing because grazing requires him to employ fewer servants and workmen and so costs him less.
If anyone comes to the market cross to buy his bushel or two from these "bodgers" he is immediately told: "Forsooth, here was one even now that bade me money for it, and I hope he will have it."
In truth, these "bodgers" are regular chapmen. Their language is littered with phrases and patters such as
"Let me see it! What shall I give you? Knit it up! I will have it -go carry it to such a chamber, and if you bring in twenty more loads in the week-day to such an inn or cellar where I lay my corn, I will have it, and give you so many pence or more in every bushel for six weeks' day of payment than another will." Thus the "bodgers" buy it all up, so that the poor artisan and labourer cannot find what he needs in the markets since they are loath to sell by the bushel or smaller quantities. Even worse, these bulk buyers are now looking to get in a bushel what the regular bodgers used to supply as a quarter [two bushels]. No, the poor man cannot even buy his grain direct from the farmer because he has undertaken to supply these "bodgers" exclusively or, in his greed and insatiable desire for profit, hopes that he will get a better price at the market. The result is that the poor man is forced to pay two pence or even a groat [four pence] above what the farmer got for a bushel at the last market or else go hungry. About the exporting of our grain to foreign countries I will say nothing because I do not have all the facts, only hearsay, and cannot be sure as to the truth of the situation.
By this stage of the market, the small growers have had to sell off all their grain in order to raise the money they need for their Michaelmas rents. However, in order to feed themselves and sow a new crop they will need to buy again. But by now all the grain has been bought up by the larger suppliers who have up to now threshed none of their own crop. They now begin to sell, but not so quickly as to flood the market - a bushel or a small horse-load at the most. Therefore they create an artificial sense of scarcity with the result that people will be eager to buy the grain without regard to cost. Thus the price of grain is high but it will be even higher by the next market day.
There also speculation about future prices and often they conclude that the price will be higher later in the year or even the following year. For this purpose they have certain superstitious observations which they use to guess at the future demand for grain. In the part of the country where I live, people judge the future price of barley by the price it fetches at Baldock market on St Matthew's Day and that for wheat by the price it fetches in the sowing season. They also use a measures the date of the first flocks of cranes to fly south in winter, the age of the moon at the beginning of January and such apish toys as laying twelve corns on the hot hearth for the twelve months etc. etc. In all of this they show themselves as hardly good Christians, but what do they care about that if they can make money?
By the same token, they will thresh three quarters of the old corn towards the end of the summer when they new corn is coming in and mix the latter with the remaining quarter. There it lies until the following spring or until it turns to must and putrefies. It is not a pretty sight, in many of our great markets of England, to see the musty corn that these large landowners have brought out when it can be kept no longer. As they are often forced, in these circumstances, to reduce the price, a plague commonly follows amongst the poorer people who have been forced, out of necessity, to buy the stuff. These plagues result in the deaths of thousands of people for which these farmers, in my opinion, are directly responsible.
Reaping the CornBut to continue. If they don't hoard their grain in this way, they have yet another ruse by which they will seem to have a small supply available for the market. Now they will tie up their sheaves in new bundles and re-stack them in a way which takes up less space. Not only does this make it look smaller in quantity but it also makes room for the corn that is yet to be taken to the barn or is even still growing in the fields. If it happens that there is so much corn available on market day that they cannot sell at their preferred prices then they will take it away and store it at some friend's house until they can fetch the price they want. If they sell it directly from their barn not only do they keep strictly to the minimum in a measure but the poor man who buys from them must pay, as we saw, two or four pence a bushel above the market price. These things must stop and I wish that God the eyes of these people so that they can see their own errors. But some of them will still care little for the suffereings of the poor, so long as they can fill their own purses and carry off the profit.
It is amazing also to see how most places of the realm are pestered with purveyors, who take up eggs, butter, cheese, pigs, capons, hens, chickens, hogs, bacon, etc. to one market under pretence of their commissions, and allow their wives to sell the same in another market, or to the poulterers of London. If these chapmen are absent but two or three market days then we find these wares available at reasonable prices and the market cross supplied with enough of all goods. In the same way, the number of buttermen has greatly increased and they travel around the country in such a way as to arrive at the dairyman's house to buy his butter even before he can make it, that it is incredible to see how much the price of butter has gone up. In the days when the dairymen had to come to market, and fewer of these butter buyers were around, our butter cost eighteen pence a gallon, if that. But now, a gallon costs at least three shillings and fourpence [40 pence] and sometimes even five shillings [60 pence].
From all of this I conclude that by maintaining a superfluous number of dealers in most trades, except, of course, in tillage, we have one of the greatest causes of the excessive prices in these times. And, whilst our country produce continues to be bought and sold at our private houses I cannot see how the situation will be redressed and the markets properly provisioned.
I could say more, but this is quite enough, and more, I expect, than I shall be thanked for. But it is the truth even though some do not think that it an evil. Moreover, it is a great shame that we do not have a standard measure in general use throughout all of England. Instead, every market town has its own weight for a bushel and, naturally, the sellers will flock to those markets with the smallest bushels. The situation is compounded by the covetousness of many clerks of the market, who will always arrange matters so that one and the same bushel shall be either too big or too little at their next inspection, but will never go without collecting a fine. The result of this is that the country has to bear an extra cost burden but still has few fair and just measures available.
Similarly there are many unscrupulous dealers who have one measure for selling and another for buying and you find the same thing in weights even though they are all supposed to be marked with a seal. Therefore, it would be a good thing if the both of these were reduced to a single standard, that is, one bushel, one pound, one quarter, one hundred, one tale [means of countning], one number system. In this way would order be established in time and there would be fewer causes of disagreement in our country.
About the complaint of the poor tenants who pay their rent in corn I will say little. They are often dealt with very harshly. Not only do they lose out, sometimes as much as a tenth, because of the iniquities of the measuring system and the greed of the receivers, but they are frequently told by the latter that their grain is sub-standard. And so, the tenant has to part with money in order to seal the receiver's mouth or else, he is assured, "My lord will not like of the corn," "Thou art worthy to lose thy lease," etc. Moreover, if the price of corn in cheaper in the markets than that which was agreed in setting the rent then they must pay cash instead of the corn, which is no small hardship. And so we see how each of us endeavours to fleece and eat up another.
Another aspect of our markets that needs looking into is the business of taking grain back from the market into lofts and cellars and which I alluded to above. If it were ordered that where a seller failed to agree a price and sell his produce in a given time the market officials would then take over and sell it at their discretion so that the farmers could not store it in a friend's loft I am convinced that our grain prices would soon come down. Also, if sellers were obliged to sell at their own market and not run off six, eight, ten, fourteen, or twenty miles from home in search of the highest price, and thus leaving their own neighbours without a source of grain our markets would be far better served than present they are at the present time. Finally, if men's barns were independently inspected immediately after harvest, and an record of the amount of grain in them made we would have much more grain on sale at our town crosses than we normally see. Because, no one could then hide and hoard what he wants either in order to sell at a higher price or to pass it on to bodgers who smuggle it out to sea and sell it in foreign parts and even to our enemies. But why do I, a minister, speak of these things and argue for the suppression of bodgers? Certainly I have a right, as a buyer, who suffers because of them. Even so, I speak in general terms and not of particular individuals.
To conclude therefore, in our markets all things necessary for man's use are meant to be available and we normally buy in these what we need for the week coming. Therefore, as there are no great towns which do not have at least one weekly market, so there are very few of them that do not have one or more fairs in the course of a year and which are held under charter from the monarch. Even though some of them are no better than the Louse Fair at London or the common kermess in foreign parts, yet there are many which are not inferior to the greatest marts in Europe. I could mention Stourbridge fair near Cambridge Bristow fair, Bartholomew fair at London, Lynn mart, Cold fair at Newport pond for cattle.
Links to the other articles in the series.
Elizabethan England: The Social Classes
Elizabethan England: Watch and Ward
Elizabethan England: The Cities and Towns
Elizabethan England: The Gardens and Orchards
Note: Harrison's abridged text in the original Elizabethan language is available on-line at Bartleby