Market town or market right is a legal term, originating in the Middle Ages, for a European settlement that has the right to host markets, distinguishing it from a village and city. A town may be correctly described as a "market town" or as having "market rights", even if it no longer holds a market, provided the legal right to do so still exists.
England and Wales
From the time of the Norman conquest, the right to award a charter was generally seen to be a royal prerogative. However, the granting of charters was not systematically recorded until 1199. Once a charter was granted, it gave local lords the right to take tolls and also afforded the town some protection from rival markets. When a chartered market was granted for specific market days, a nearby rival market could not open on the same days. Across the boroughs of England, a network of chartered markets sprang up between the 12th and 16th centuries, giving consumers reasonable choice in the markets they preferred to patronise.
Prior to 1200, markets were often held on Sundays, the day when the community congregated in town to attend church. Some of the more ancient markets appear to have been held in churchyards. At the time of the Norman conquest, the majority of the population made their living through agriculture and livestock farming. Most lived on their farms, situated outside towns, and the town itself supported a relatively small population of permanent residents. Farmers and their families brought their surplus produce to informal markets held on the grounds of their church after worship. By the 13th century, however, a movement against Sunday markets gathered momentum, and the market gradually moved to a site in town's centre and was held on a weekday. By the 15th century, towns were legally prohibited from holding markets in church-yards.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Colchester is England's oldest recorded market town, dating to at least the time of the Roman occupation of Britain's southern regions. Another is Cirencester, a market town in late Roman Britain. The term derived from markets and fairs first established in 13th century after the passage of the Magna Carta, and the first laws towards a parlement. The Provisions of Oxford of 1258 were only possible because of the foundation of a town and university at a crossing-place on the River Thames up-river from Runnymede, where it formed an oxbow lake in the stream. Early patronage included Thomas Furnyvale, lord of Hallamshire, who established a Fair and Market in 1232. Travelers were able to meet and trade wares in relative safety for a week of "fayres" at a location inside the town walls. The reign of Henry III witnessed a spike in established market fairs. The defeat of de Montfort increased the sample testing of markets by Edward I the "lawgiver", who summoned the Model Parliament in 1295 to perambulate the boundaries of forest and town.
Market towns grew up at centres of local activity and were an important feature of rural life and also became important centres of social life, as some place names remind us: Market Drayton, Market Harborough, Market Rasen, Market Deeping, Market Weighton, Chipping Norton, Chipping Ongar, and Chipping Sodbury – chipping was derived from a Saxon verb meaning "to buy". A major study carried out by the University of London found evidence for least 2,400 markets in English towns by 1516.
Early market towns often grew up close to fortified places, such as castles or monasteries, not only to enjoy their protection, but also because large manorial households and monasteries generated demand for goods and services. Framlingham in Suffolk is a notable example of a market situated near a fortified building. Additionally, markets were located where transport was easiest, such as at a crossroads or close to a river; ford, for example, Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan. When local railway lines were first built, market towns were given priority to ease the transport of goods. For instance, in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, several market towns close together were designated to take advantage of the new trains. The designation of Halifax, Sowerby Bridge, Hebden Bridge, and Todmorden is an example of this.
The English system of charters established that new market town could not be created within a certain travelling distance of an existing one. This limit was usually a day's worth of travelling (approximately 10 kilometres (6.2 mi)) to and from the market. If the travel time exceeded this standard, a new market town could be established in that locale. As a result of the limit, official market towns often petitioned the monarch to close down illegal markets in other towns. These distances are still law in England today. Other markets can be held, provided they are licensed by the holder of the Royal Charter, which tends currently to be the local town council. Failing that, the Crown can grant a licence.
As the number of charters granted increased, competition between market towns also increased. In response to competitive pressures, towns invested in a reputation for quality produce, efficient market regulation and good amenities for visitors such as covered accommodation. By the thirteenth century, counties with important textile industries were investing in purpose built market halls for the sale of cloth. A study on the purchasing habits of the monks and other individuals in medieval England, suggests that consumers of the period were relatively discerning. Purchase decisions were based on purchase criteria such as consumers' perceptions of the range, quality, and price of goods. This informed decisions about where to make their purchases.
As traditional market towns developed, they featured a wide main street or central market square. These provided room for people to set up stalls and booths on market days. Often the town erected a market cross in the centre of the town, to obtain God's blessing on the trade. Notable examples of market crosses in England are the Chichester Cross, Malmesbury Market Cross and Devizes, Wiltshire. Market towns often featured a market hall, as well, with administrative or civic quarters on the upper floor, above a covered trading area. Market towns with smaller status include Minchinhampton, Nailsworth, and Painswick near Stroud, Gloucestershire.
A "market town" may or may not have rights concerning self-government that are usually the legal basis for defining a "town". For instance, Newport, Shropshire, is in the borough of Telford and Wrekin but is separate from Telford. In England, towns with such rights are usually distinguished with the additional status of borough. It is generally accepted that, in these cases, when a town was granted a market, it gained the additional autonomy conferred to separate towns.
The National Market Traders Federation, situated in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, has around 32,000 members and close links with market traders' federations throughout Europe. According to the UK National Archives, there is no single register of modern entitlements to hold markets and fairs, although historical charters up to 1516 are listed in the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales.
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The medieval right to hold markets (German: Marktrecht) is reflected in the prefix Markt of the names of many towns in Austria and Germany, for example, Markt Berolzheim or Marktbergel. Other terms used for market towns were Flecken in northern Germany, or Freiheit and Wigbold in Westphalia.
Market rights were designated as long ago as during the Carolingian Empire: in 800, Charlemagne granted the title of a market town to Esslingen am Neckar. The conferment was one of the regalia in the Holy Roman Empire, as mentioned in the Constitutio by Frederick I Barbarossa at the 1158 Diet of Roncaglia. With the rise of the territories, the ability to designate market towns was passed to the princes and dukes, as the basis of German town law.
The local ordinance status of a market town (Marktgemeinde or Markt) is perpetuated through the law of Austria, the German state of Bavaria, and the Italian province of South Tyrol. Nevertheless, the title has no further legal significance, as it does not grant any privileges.
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In Norway, the medieval market town (Norwegian kjøpstad and kaupstad from the Old Norse kaupstaðr) was a town which had been granted commerce privileges by the king or other authorities. The citizens in the town had a monopoly over the purchase and sale of wares, and operation of other businesses, both in the town and in the surrounding district.
Market towns were first created in Norway in the 12th century, to encourage businesses to concentrate around specific towns. Import and export was to be conducted only through market towns, to allow oversight of commerce and to simplify the imposition of excise taxes and customs duties. This practice served to encourage growth in areas which had strategic significance, providing a local economic base for the construction of fortifications and sufficient population to defend the area. It also served to restrict Hanseatic League merchants from trading in areas other than those designated.
Norway included a subordinate category to the market town, the "small seaport" (Norwegian lossested or ladested), which was a port or harbor with a monopoly to import and export goods and materials in both the port and a surrounding outlying district. Typically, these were locations for exporting timber, and importing grain and goods. Local farm goods and timber sales were all required to pass through merchants at either a small seaport or a market town prior to export. This encouraged local merchants to ensure trading went through them, which was so effective in limiting unsupervised sales (smuggling) that customs revenues increased from less than 30% of the total tax revenues in 1600 to more than 50% of the total taxes by 1700.
Norwegian "market towns" died out and were replaced by free markets during the 19th century. After 1952, both the "small seaport" and the "market town" were relegated to simple town status.
In Scotland, market towns were often distinguished by their mercat cross: a place where the right to hold a regular market or fair was granted by a ruling authority (either royal, noble, or ecclesiastical). As in the rest of the UK, the area in which the cross was situated was almost always central: either in a square; or in a broad, main street. Towns which still have regular markets include: Inverurie, St. Andrews, Selkirk, Wigtown, Kelso, and Cupar. Not all still possess their mercat cross.
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- Koot, G.M.,"Shops and Shopping in Britain: from market stalls to chain stores," University of Dartmouth, 2011, <Online: https://www1.umassd.edu/ir/resources/consumption/shopping.pdf>
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- A Revolution from Above; The Power State of 16th and 17th Century Scandinavia; Editor: Leon Jesperson; Odense University Press; Denmark; 2000
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