Sights, Sounds and Smells of a Medieval Market


Much of the action in my work in progress occurs in the markets of Elcneido, Inshulco, and Trofmose, three of the towns in the land of Tlefas. I decided to do a little research into medieval markets to discover just what might be found in a village market.

In smaller towns, the markets were held in any open space, such as the churchyard. In larger towns, a wide street or main square was used.

Most vendors used wooden carts or tables to display their wares. Some had awnings, or sides made of heavy cloth hanging from poles to create a kind of booth.

Most were very crowded as there wasn’t much space. The morning was the busiest time, and most vendors were done by three. Those who provided services, like the barber or blacksmith, often worked until dark.

All kinds of things could be bought: meat, cloth, pottery or fruit were common items for sale. Salt, cheese, eggs, fish, baskets, rope, chicken, ducks, geese, pigs, sheep and more were often to be found. In some areas spices were available.

Many people didn’t do their own baking, as it was more efficient for that to be done in large communal ovens. So bread and pastries were also available for sale. I can imagine the smell of fresh bread in the air. And to think I thought buying bread was a modern development.

While it sounds romantic, medieval markets weren’t always pleasant. The area around the butcher would have pools of blood on the ground, and anywhere there were animals, there was sure to be offal. Drains running down the side of the street or in the middle took care of some but not all of the problem. Shoppers had to be very careful where they put their feet. The stench would surely have overpowered any other aroma.

Adding to the noise of the people hawking their wares, trying to get as many sales as they could, were the bells of the town crier, who strolled through the streets, calling out the news.

In most markets, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment. Jugglers, musicians and other entertainers generally only appeared at fairs, which were annual events in larger communities and drew bigger crowds.

Behind the scenes, the merchant guilds and craft guilds vied for power, meaning control of the profits. Merchant guilds regulated prices, quality, weights and measures, and business practices. The power of the guilds was absolute in their domain, and to be expelled from a guild made it impossible to earn a living.

Craft guilds regulated the quality, working hours and conditions of its members. Both guilds worked to ensure they got their fair share of the profits from trade.

Politics and the desire for money and control are clearly not modern inventions.

All this gives me lots of fodder for my setting, as well as potential for trouble and mayhem. Now it’s time to put my over-active imagination to work.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *