Understanding Medieval Economy through the Portable Antiquities Scheme Data

Weekly markets and annual fairs were integral components of medieval economic life. In England and Wales over 5,000 such individual events have been recorded by the sixteenth century in written sources, demonstrating extraordinary economic vitality that encompassed not only the urban inhabitants of towns but spread deep into the rural countryside. Recent scholarship has rightly emphasised the importance of local commercial sites that existed beyond towns to the economic development of the whole kingdom. Documentary sources, however, often give only the sparsest indication of the existence of the vast majority of rural markets and fairs, and the processes that drove their development over time are still poorly understood.

By 1200 the vast majority of the English medieval population lived with a day’s return journey of more than one market or fair site, which served as key points of access to wider commercial networks. This research project seeks to produce new analysis of the emergence, growth and decline of medieval commercial centres using both archaeological and written evidence. Central to the project’s methodology is locating commercial activity and archaeological evidence in the context of the local historical geography, by combining the documentary sources, such as royal administrative records, with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis of PAS finds data. Our aim is to produce new data, analysis and methodologies that can be used by the medieval scholarship at large to understand the important economic functions of this multitude of commercial events.

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Medieval markets recorded in the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales by 1516, with an underlying point density “heatmap” (r = 20 km) highlighting regions that potentially enjoyed access to multiple market events. Ground 200 m above sea level in black.

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Findspots of medieval (1066-1540) objects in the Portable Antiquities Scheme online database, along with kernel density “heatmap” (r = 15 km) of finds data highlighting areas of intense PAS findspot concentration. Ground 200 m above sea level in black.


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