Black Satchel: Historical Cookery: #researchtober: 3rd

Today's #researchtober post concerns guilds, monopolies, and food supply in 14th century England.

"In 1363 parliament passed an ordinance restricting all traders to a single class of wares and all craftsmen to a single craft. The aim was to stop traders from engrossing and holding up merchandise, and in July 1364 charters were accordingly granted to the fishmongers, vintners and other London gilds forbidding anyone to take part in their trade unless he was a member of their guild. The granting of monopolies in these victualling trades led to immediate price rises, allegedly of as much as a third, and to riots in the same month, forcing the repeal of the ordinance in the next session of parliament."
-- English Medieval Industries, John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, p. xxii

It's worth noting here that the price of food was considerably more in England in this time, percentage-wise, of most people's income than it is now. So a rise of a third in prices of fish was disastrous for most people buying it. Bread probably wasn't affected, since bread prices were controlled by the crown for long stretches of the medieval era. If it had been, the reaction would have been even more sudden and violent.

For me, the interesting thing here is the way in which the supply of food and drink to the city folk was understood and controlled. It's not as strong a tendency in medieval England as in, say, 16th century Florence, where retailing was essentially illegal, but there are still some very strange-to-us attitudes concerning commerce. People were expected to do one thing, and sell one thing. Buying from one person and selling to another came under various different names of engrossing, regrating, and forestalling - all of which were, at various times, crimes. The idea was that if you bought your grain, say, from the person who had grown it, you both knew all the details of what was happening, and the price would be fair.

Were someone else to insert themselves into this trade, buying from the farmer outside the city, bringing the grain into the city, and selling it, they would have to make a profit, and this, it was felt, made the price unfair. The middleman was getting something for nothing; he had put no work into the process. If you brought the stuff further - four miles seems to have been a nominal marker for this - then you were allowed to sell it, because now you had put in the work of transporting it. And engrossing was essentially stockpiling a good - possible in an era of limited transport - so as to provide yourself with a local monopoly, and therefore to set the price as you wished.

But, as outlined in the quote, granting a monopoly to the producers (or in the case of the vintners, importers) didn't work either - they merrily raised prices as soon as they were able. The withdrawal of that particular ordinance could be argued to be the foundation of London as a centre of free trade.