Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
Medieval attitudes towards market traders can be discerned further through an analysis of the legal pronouncements and jurisdictions that sought to regulate their behaviour. The enactment of medieval law was intimately connected to the predominant moral assumptions of the age, and notions of social justice and the common good figure prominently. Legislation represented the most covert means by which society could control the behaviour of its members and codify common expectations. While moral and religious strictures defined the wider context of human behaviour, often within a spiritual context, the creators of trading legislation established more exact and tangible guidelines for secular offences and implemented a number of administrative mechanisms to enforce conformity.
The growth of markets and petty trade in the late Middle Ages was accompanied by a multitude of laws. From the thirteenth century onwards, traders were confronted by a proliferation of statutes, town ordinances and manorial by-laws, which sought to outline the standards of commercial practice. Such laws and ordinances were also a reminder of the authority vested in the king, lord or corporation, but commercial law was shaped as much by the needs and morals of market-goers as by the state. As Richard Britnell has stated, ‘urban commercial regulations has complex origins in early English royal traditions, in canon law, in the privileges of chartered boroughs and in ad hoc pragmatism’.