Nottingham Goose Fair. Courtesy of the Paul Nex Collection.
The “great trading event” of the Middle Ages was the Medieval fair. These were huge, festive, open-air gatherings held once a year or once a quarter for several consecutive days. The fair was much larger than the market and offered local, regional and international goods. Fairs boasted more expensive items like cloth, livestock (cattle, horses and sheep) and farming implements, as well as hosting the wholesale trade of a number of goods from both home and abroad.
The “heyday” of the Medieval fair was the 12th and 13th centuries. Here one could find performers, jugglers, and magicians. There were dancing bears, peddlers, games and drinking. Specialized merchants and financiers sold insurance and merchant company stocks as well as changed money.
The Medieval fair was a place for both peasants and nobles; for men, women and children. Peasants and artisans could buy spices, cheese, flour, wine and meat. The rich could buy handicrafts, perfumes, wood carvings, furs and fruits. Everyone could find something to buy at the fair, however small or large.
Regional fairs continued to be popular in England during the Early Modern period. By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, 822 fairs were still operating. Small-scale manufacturers depended on these fairs for much of their sales, and the hiring of servants occurred at fair events - similar to today’s job fairs. They were also centers for the livestock trade.
Most of the trading at fairs was held between merchants. International merchants could buy in bulk, and wholesale goods could be supplied to retailers in towns. Each fair had its own rules and laws. People traveled long distances to attend fairs, sometimes for weeks and from other countries.
Fairs could last for days or weeks and were usually held in the summer. They were especially common around Michaelmas (September 29th) when laborers had been paid after the harvest. Provisions and other commodities could be purchased at fairs for the year ahead.
By the 14th century, the popularity of great fairs was waning. Unfortunately, we do not have any fair-related records of sales to compare more successful fairs with those of less activity.