We discovered produce markets when we moved to Italy. The fresh-from-the-vine strawberries rarely made it home before we attacked them, the juice running down our chins. We found the same in Greece, where weekly market shopping became a habit. Over time, we discovered we preferred this vendor for peppers and onions and another for tomatoes. Our landlady recommended a cheese vendor, and I will never forget the day I wanted to try the yogurt. She asked which I preferred. Sheep or goat? I had no idea, so I tried them both. For the record, sheep is creamier, and goat has more of a tang, which is better for making tzatziki. We continued the habit in Germany and are now exploring the markets here in Maryland.
A merchant is an essential character in my new series, so I wondered how these markets came about. Most historians believe markets existed in ancient times when early man first began trading items. Locations set aside for people to meet regularly to sell and purchase provisions, livestock, and other goods can be identified as early as 3,000 BCE. Documentation exists of zoning policies in larger cities. Some believe the earliest bazaars were held in Persia and quickly spread.
Across the Mediterranean and Aegean, networks emerged in the early Bronze Age, selling vast arrays of goods such as salt, lapis lazuli, dyes, cloth, metals, pots, ceramics, statues, weapons, wines, and food items. Many of the latter were not available in the areas they were sold. Archaeologists have found evidence of Bronze Age traders dividing the routes into geographic circuits.
As their popularity grew, differences emerged. In the East, they developed in a linear pattern across the city (the market in Tabriz stretches 1.5km), whereas in the West, the sites were more centralized. In the East, such as in Egypt, women did the shopping, unlike in the West, where the men met in the markets.
In cities in Greece, open areas, known as agora, sprang up for organized trade. Individual stalls were grouped by the type of goods they provided, i.e., fishmongers in one location and merchants selling cloth in another. These clusters became known as stoa, consisting of a free-standing colonnade with a covered walkway. The mountainous terrain in some areas gave rise to the wandering merchant. This retailer operated as a middleman, purchasing produce and transporting it over rugged terrain to sell in remote locations.
In ancient Rome, trade took place in the forum. There were two in the city of Rome: the Forum Romana and Trajan’s Forum. The market in the Trajan Forum consisted of multiple buildings with four levels of shops. It is often considered the first example of a retail shopfront. Pompeii, a city frozen in time in 79 AD, had several marketplaces serving its population of approximately 12,000. Produce was sold in various locations near the city center while livestock vendors were on the perimeter. Stall holders paid a fee for the right to vend on market days.
The Domesday Book of 1086 lists 50 market towns in England, but most historians believe this number should be much higher. By the 12th century, these unregulated, informal markets gave way to a system of chartered markets. Increased regulation brought better consistency for the dates they were held and the quality of the merchandise. Additional rules on weights and measures and the fairness of pricing ensured consumer confidence that they were not being cheated.
Initially, European markets developed close to monasteries, castles, and royal residences. Priories and manorial estates created a considerable demand for goods and services. In later Medieval England, the chartered markets were held at the Market Cross in the city center. They were surrounded by alleyways where artisans, such as metal workers, weavers, leather workers, and carpenters, could be found.
In the 12th century, English monarchs began awarding charters to conduct markets and fairs for towns and villages. This charter protected the town’s privileges in exchange for an annual fee. Once a city was issued a charter for a market day, no other town or village in the area could operate one on the same day. Fairs, which were also chartered, were usually annual occurrences, most likely connected to a religious holiday. A fair’s primary focus was trade, but included entertainment such as music, dancing, jousting, and other revelry.
There are markets in England that have been in operation since the 12th century. Still, by and large, permanent structures have overtaken these. By the end of the Medieval period, these shops were increasingly available. While they incurred higher overhead costs, they offered daily schedules with regular hours and built a relationship with their customers. Often, they included value-added services such as providing credit.
While I understand the convenience of the big box stores and I admit to shopping there, I try to purchase as many items as possible from local vendors. How about you? Where do you shop?