Trade in Anglo-Saxon England
In the early middle ages, as in other periods of history, trade was an important part of life. If a farmer had a surplus of livestock or produce, he would take it to the nearest market and exchange it for any one of the many things that would be needed around the farm: iron, salt, lead, hone and building stone, wine, fish, flax, antler, etc.. Common sense shows us that many commodities were unavailable on the 'average' estate, whether it was in Britain, Ireland or Scandinavia. Some of these things could only be found in a few areas. A class of professionals soon appeared who would carry these commodities from their place of origin to the markets - the merchants.
Some of the commodities traded in the early middle ages did not have to travel far, for example fish. Most had to make a longer journey, such as the iron mined in Kent and the Forest of Dean, the lead mined in Bristol, or the salt obtained from pans in Droitwich and Cheshire. More 'exotic' items came from overseas, including quern-stones from the Rhineland that have been found in York.
In addition to raw materials there were also finished goods, though these tended to be small items: for example jewellery, glassware, and weapons. These would end up in the homes of thegns and eorls who could afford them. We must also remember the smaller trade in finished goods such as pottery and woodcrafts. The commonest pottery in our period was produced in Stamford and Thetford. These goods are not as 'glamorous' as certain others, but their trade was widespread and extremely valuable.
All trade needs an outlet, and this would have been in the markets of the burhs. Everyone visited a burgh at some time, usually to dispose of excess grain, livestock or dairy produce. By choosing his route carefully a merchant could be in a different burgh every few days. Most markets were set up by the king or eorl in whose lands the burgh lay, and there was usually some form of tax on the merchants' transactions. This tax would either be a daily charge (like hiring a stall at a car boot sale), or a charge proportional to the profits made (like an early VAT). Markets were important and valuable places, and it is no surprise that mints were later set up in market towns.
Trade relied upon transport to be effective. Water was the preferred method of transport, being quicker, less physically exhausting, and cheaper than roads. Most successful markets were on, or near rivers. Such trade was dominated by the traditionally seafaring races such as the Frisians and Scandinavians. Where river transport was unavailable long trains of pack-horses had to be employed, together with drivers and, in many areas an armed escort. In some parts of Britain travel overland was so restricted by the activities of brigands and warbands, that six miles was the limit of one's journey. Roads were often little better than muddy tracks. Their importance is obvious from the many charters that mention the landholder's obligation to build and maintain roads and bridges; but road-building had declined since the days of the Romans. Regular traffic did find it necessary to travel long distances, and some main Saxon highways are still in use today, including the A1 and the A38. Most of the books about our period concentrate on the trade with foreign countries. This is inevitable, since the period was dominated by the 'Men of the North'. However, very little is said about the merchants themselves and how they operated. Not all traders were Vikings. Regardless of what the goods were, or how they were carried, certain facts can be stated.
First, the merchant bought goods at his own expense. Such things as credit and distribution agents came much later. The merchant therefore needed a lot of 'up front' capital. Most merchants, however, would have operated seasonally, selling off the estate's produce in between planting the crops and harvesting them.
Second, the economy of the early middle ages was not entirely cash based. Even though coins were minted, their use was not widespread, and a lot of goods were bartered especially within the lower social classes who would have rarely had any silver pennies to their names. It may have been that trading was not seen as a way of making money, but merely an end in itself. Thus exchanging a few brooches for a night's bed and board may have been enough, and that would have been one heck of a night's bed and board. If the merchant was working seasonally then the whole point of the exercise would have been to barter the goods for the crops, livestock and other items that the estate was lacking. At the end of the season a merchant and his companions would hope to return home with a ship filled with commodities. Thus repeating the cycle for the coming year.
Original article by Mike Farmer 1989