Fontaine L. (1993) The French pedlars in Europe, 1650-1900

Fontaine, Laurence (1993) Histoire du colportage en Europe. XVe – XIXe siècle, Paris: Albin Michel, 334p.


“if you ever hear the pedlar, you would never dance again after a tabor and pipe; no, the bagpipe could not move you … he has songs for men and women of all sizes … he hath ribands of all the colours i’ the rainbow … he sings them over as they were gods and goddesses”

William Shakespeare, Winter’s tale.


This book is both important and disappointing. While the title indicates a history of the peddlers in Europe from the 15th to the 19th century, what its author delivers is closer from a research on one or two French networks from 1680 to 1850.  Laurence Fontaine studies the traders rather than the trade itself, the quantitative aspects (how many traders, value of the goods traded) are never dealt with. As usual for a French historian, the economic exchanges are seen as embedded in the social relations, which gives a convenient excuse not to undertake the painstaking economic approach of the issue. 

Nevertheless, the reader will close this book with at least one important idea in mind: emigration in the premodern period was not solely due to Malthusian pushes but was also caused by pull factors (i.e. geographically remote market opportunities). Moreover, migrants regularly returned home which does not fit with the usual understanding of emigration as a necessary demographic security valve in times of famine (p.122).

During the early modern period, mountainous regions were constantly crossed by merchandizes of all sorts (p.20). This gave the opportunity to highlanders (from Scotland, the Alps, the Pyrenees, etc.) to spread and build expansive commercial networks (p.21) For example, the three Bitot brothers in the early 1600s were involved in business from Lyon to Venice and from Haarlem to Gdansk. But their official place of residence remained Montagny, Savoy (p.24).

The three levels of peddling

The beggars

Over the book, a number of different types of “pedlars” appear to have travelled through Europe. The poorest amongst them were almost beggars. They had very little else to sell but their work. Some managed to buy pious images and sold them all over Europe (p.33). They also commonly sung, displayed wild animals, told stories and announced the news they had heard on their way; thus they replaced the theatres that had gone indoors in the 1600s (p.105). Their petty thieveries contributed to create the dark legend of the chapmen as a dangerous vagrant (p.110).

The chapmen

As soon as the harvest was finished in the mountains (p.111), the pedlars went to the lowlands’ towns to buy the wares they would sell during the next six to eight months. Usually a pedlar’s circuit was limited to a ten or fifteen villages and he would only travel further to reach the fairs where he could find rare products (p.113). The most successful ones went from town to town and stayed in each location around two weeks while their servants toured the neighbouring villages.

One important aspect of peddling was the low level of the specialization of the networks. The same merchants could deal in textile and smuggle forbidden books. Similarly many traders were also artisans. For instance the French bakers in Spain were also important providers of wares for the petty merchants (p.43).

The success of pedlars came from their ability to quickly bring to the rural areas the newest items of the urban material life. Watches, handkerchiefs and forks were common in the Northwestern European countryside by the 1730s (p.237). Not only did they offer a vast variety of products, but these products came in varied qualities allowing each and everyone to buy something. For example, the mirrors could cost one sol or twelve times that (p.232). They offered dreams, an intimacy and a basic level of luxury to their clients (p.242). They proved so efficient that producers adapted their products to their requirements. For instance, books increasingly catered for this more popular rural readership (p.244)

The shop owners

The peddling system depended on a dense network of shops were the petty merchants could buy and stock the products they would later sell in the countryside (p.36). The most successful pedlars would purchase the citizenship of a given town and become the provider of his countrymen touring the region. The local elite seldom welcomed these newcomers (p.27).

The three levels of credit: cement of the networks

Consumer credit

Typically the pedlars’ consumers would receive the bulk of their yearly income right after the harvest but they needed to buy his products all over the year. As a result, the consumers always obtained a credit and would only repay the pedlar the following year. This was also a way for a pedlar to build himself a captive client base (p.117).

Urban credit

Consequently pedlars rarely had ready cash to pay their providers upfront. Them too had to obtain a credit from the shop owners to be able to start their tour. They could only repay their urban partners after they collected what their clients owned them from the previous year (p.155).

Village credit

When pedlars could not repay their urban providers, they would turn to the richest shop owners originating from their village who would loan them money for sometimes as much as ten years (p.156). They would use the pedlars’ belonging (typically his fields) as a collateral. For the shop owners keeping contact with their parents back in the village was essential as they would be in charge to collect what the pedlars owned them (p.157).

This credit activity was so important that the most successful shop owners closed their boutique and became full-time bankers (p.137).

Credit had been at the origin of peddling. Typically the richest villagers would pay someone’s taxes and would be repaid by this person’s work in the lowlands as a servant (p.130). This created migratory habits. Symptomatically the valleys where the elite was not involved in trade experience no seasonal migration (p.145). On the other hand, the aim of the migrant beggars was to accumulate enough cash to buy land and use it as a collateral to access credit.

The village

Unlike the other rural areas, in the mountains landholding was not the main source of wealth. Credit was (p.127). As a result the homogeneity in land ownership hide important economic inequalities. But trade also allowed an upward social mobility unknown in the lowlands (p.147).

The mountain villages were transformed by migration. These landlocked areas suddenly found themselves in touch with the most recent trends of the urban material culture. Indeed, as the situation of one’s business was a well-kept secret, appearance was often the only indicator creditors could rely on to assess their debtors’ wealth. Owning clean shirts and a nice house was thus a business imperative (p.225).

Pedlars seldom travelled alone, they usually toured with a parent (p.158). In the same way, they typically shared the risks by created associations usually running over four years where the partners shared the investments, labour, benefits and losses (p.28). Established kinsmen were also essential for a younger or poorer pedlar to access credit (p.159) and to be introduced to the providers.

The end of peddling

A number of factors contributed to the slow disappearance of peddling in Europe. After 1600, the networks that used to cover several countries retracted on mere regions. The rise of the modern states created borders that disturbed the traditional networks (p.51). The migrants were also seen as potential troublemakers and their movements were restricted (p.181). Mercantilist government did not approve of the large imports involved by international peddling. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars also disturbed the business. The rise of nationalism did not help the foreign merchants either. Finally, the rise of England as the continent’s powerhouse reoriented the trade routes and many mountainous regions lost their strategic position (p.52). Proof of the disappearance of the networks, by the 1820s most of the shop owners had integrated into the traditional municipal elite of their host cities and lost any link with their original villages (p.53).

A quick succession of crises in the early 1800s brought the system to its limit: bankrupcies became common and few parents accepted to caution their kinsmen’s lines of credit (p.167). Peddling survived a bit longer in the backward countries where the density of rural shop was lower such as Spain, but even there it had disappeared by 1900 (p.66).

In England, since the 18th century, the pedlars had been complemented and gradually replaced by the salesmen or Manchester men. The new comers were employed directly by the producers to go from town to town and sell to the rural stores and chapmen (p.118). They used modern means such as advertisement in newspapers (p.119).

Peddling solely survived in some specialized niches such as books (p.61) and flowers (p.192). In Geneva, Venice, and Avignon (a city ruled by the pope in the middle of France) books could be published free of copyrights and away from the censure (p.80). A close network of booksellers from Savoy often from the same villages or families covered 18th-century Southern Europe. In 1750, in Lisbon, 14 bookstores out of 17 were owned by Savoyards (p.71).

But gradually, the pedlar elite integrated into the commercial elite of their host region. The French for instance became the creators of the first department stores in Mexico. Other turned to proto-industry (p.55). In the villages, stable wages and sedentary lifestyles lured the migrants away from peddling and into manufacture, the administration or domestic service (p.173). Modern individualism did not created a new set of mind that did not allow the high level of solidarity necessary for migrant merchants (p.168).


After having been one of the most important aspects of European trade for centuries and formed strong and expansive networks supported by endogamous matrimonial strategies (p.26) and the habit never to refer to the courts to settle their disputes, the pedlars had disappeared from the continent. Historians commonly reduced their understanding of pedlars to a handful of semi-beggars but this book demonstrates the strength of their networks that linked countrymen from the rich merchants to the poor chapmen. A wonderful example of a merchant network with members always ready to relocate to a more welcoming place and whose allegiance was to their original community not to a geographic location.


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