Mark Page, Victoria County History, Oxfordshire
Village Shops in Medieval England: The Case of East Meon, Hampshire1
By the 14th century shops were a common feature in towns and villages throughout England. In medieval Hampshire shops were particularly prominent in large towns and cities including Winchester, Southampton, and Portsmouth,2 and they also flourished in smaller towns such as Alton, Fareham, and Havant.3 A dense network of weekly markets meant that inhabitants across the county had easy access to at least one – and often more than one – place where goods and services were regularly exchanged, and trading also occurred at the farm gate and in other unofficial locations. Villages supported fewer shops: demand was insufficiently strong to provide enough custom in rural places where most inhabitants were agricultural tenants and partly self-sufficient. Nevertheless village shops did exist in the Middle Ages, and this short article examines one recorded at East Meon.
In the 13th and 14th centuries East Meon was a largely agricultural village without commercial pretensions. It did not possess a licensed weekly market, and its inhabitants were within a day’s journey (reckoned at about 6 miles) of the market town of Petersfield. The village was, however, relatively isolated in hilly countryside on the edge of the South Downs, and it was the focus of a large parish containing numerous hamlets and farmsteads. Moreover in the years around 1300 the medieval population was at its height. Thus the appearance of a shop at East Meon would not be entirely unexpected. In 1321 Thomas le Mason left to his wife Alice and his brother Peter two stalls next to the stile of East Meon churchyard. Four years later a third stall in the same location was surrendered by Thomas le Barrer.4
A stall may originally have referred to a moveable wooden trading booth for temporary use at different places, but by the 14th century many stalls had become semi-permanent structures which could be bought, sold, and inherited like other types of property. The development of a temporary stall into a permanent shop is certainly suggested at East Meon, where Peter le Mason’s property next to the stile of the village churchyard was explicitly called a shop in 1339. In that year Peter surrendered it to Richard le Ridler, who also planned to enlarge it by acquiring an additional 5 ft of ground on its south side, 4 ft on its east side, and 3 ft on its north side. The shop’s encroachment of ground on its north, south, and east sides suggests that it bordered the churchyard on its west side, and a building fitting that description is shown on late 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps.
The shop’s location on the edge of the village churchyard is potentially significant. In the 12th century and probably before, unofficial markets were sometimes held when large numbers of people assembled at major churches to celebrate feast days or other significant occasions. These churchyard markets were unpopular with the church authorities, which tried to suppress them, but in many villages the churchyard provided the largest and most convenient public space for gatherings of local people for whom the church had become a focal point for both religious and secular purposes.5 East Meon was the mother church to a large Anglo-Saxon parochia, and even in the 14th century the church still served a wide area: in 1327 the parish encompassed places including Bordean, Coombe, Langrish, Oxenbourne, Riplington and Ramsdean.6 Long before Peter le Mason’s shop existed the village churchyard must have been the site for regular comings and goings of people from a wide area, offering plentiful opportunity for the exchange of news, gossip, goods and services.
While medieval records demonstrate the existence of village shops, and tell us something about their size, location, and ownership, they reveal little about their day to day use. What was bought and sold in the shop on the edge of East Meon churchyard? Did it offer a range of different goods and services, or was it more specialised? Was it open full-time or only part-time, perhaps when parishioners gathered at the church for specific religious events? Was it run by a professional shopkeeper, or by an agricultural tenant for whom it offered by-employment during slack times in the farming year? Were shops more often run by men or women, who might thereby supplement their household’s main income from agriculture? If surnames are still any guide to occupations in the early 14th century Richard le Ridler was a siever or sifter of corn, or possibly of sand and lime in making mortar, while Peter le Mason was a stoneworker. Were both these men involved in the building trade, and was the shop therefore the medieval equivalent of a builders’ yard? Certainly there was demand from the bishops of Winchester for builders to construct and maintain the episcopal residence and farm buildings at East Meon, and repairs to the barley barn and other structures were made in 1302.7 Whatever the shop was used for – and sadly we will probably never know for sure – it reminds us that commerce and exchange extended deep into the medieval English countryside.
1 This article is an extract from a paper titled ‘Who were the shopkeepers of medieval England?’ delivered to the conference ‘Retailing and Distribution before 1600’ at the University of Wolverhampton on 15 September 2016.
2 D. Keene, Survey of Medieval Winchester (1985); C. Platt, Medieval Southampton (1973); K. A. Hanna (ed.), Deeds from Portsmouth and its Area before 1547 (2008).
3 M. Page, ‘The origins of towns in medieval Hampshire: the case of Alton’, Hampshire Studies 60 (2005); M. Page, ‘Shops and shopkeepers in medieval Hampshire: evidence from Fareham and Havant before the Black Death’, Hampshire Studies 66 (2011).
4 Evidence from the Winchester pipe rolls entered in M. Page, ‘Peasant land market in southern England, 1260-1350’, database deposited at ESRC data archive, ref. no. SN 4086.
5 J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (2005), pp.335, 458, 503, 508.
6 P. Mitchell-Fox and M Page (eds), The Hampshire Tax List of 1327 (2014), pp.6-7.
7 E. Roberts, ‘William of Wykeham’s house at East Meon, Hants’, Archaeological Journal 150 (1993); M. Page (ed.), The Pipe Roll of the Bishopric of Winchester 1301-2 (1996), p.287.