Epstein S. (2000) States and fairs

Epstein, Stephan R. (2000) “States and fair”, in Freedom and Growth. The rise of states and markets in Europe, 1300-1750, Idem, Abingdon: Routeledge, 73-88.


New fairs everywhere

During the second half of the 14th century and the 15th century a great number of fairs were created around Europe. Testimony to their success, most of them lasted until the 1500s and beyond. They responded to the problems posed by the lack of “cheap and flexible system of distribution” over the continent, specially between the depopulated cattle-grazing uplands and the meat-, wool- and dairy-consuming towns (p.75). Livestock fairs where thus “often set up at the foot of major mountain passes”, Besançon for instance (p.76).

As the merchants were mobile and typically followed an establish circuit, a number of specialized fairs were often in practice united into a regional network, which “lowered the costs of search and co-ordination, improved information about commodity and financial markets, and made it easier to develop credit relations” (p.77). Most new fairs arose in the most dynamic regions such as the Val Demone in Sicily (p.78). There was a strong positive correlation between the success of a fair, its specialization and the size of its catchment area.

Everything’s political

Fairs had a positive impact on the local economy and on the ruler’s finances. Unsurprisingly states struggled to dominate the most successful (see for instance the conflict between the dukes of Lombardy and the Swiss cantons over the fairs commanding the Transalpine trade). On the other hand a ruler could support a new fair so as to compete with the existing structures of a neighbouring rival.

Before 1350 market towns had been able to scotch attempts to create more rural fairs bypassing them and to protect their monopoly. But a booming trade and changing political circumstances allowed new fairs to break these restrictions and develop. Around Forez the new regime even started before the outbreak of the plague (p.79).

According to S. R. Epstein, “fairs were a consequence of the rise of more powerful territorial and national states” (p.81). Granting the right to hold market was viewed as a key regalian prerogative… a financially appealing one since grants were bought and trade was taxed.

Institutional supply-side explanation

“The state provided the political security needed for trade to occur, enforced contracts in the courts [and] granted toll franchises which gave the fairs significant cost margins over urban markets” (p.82).

Unlike towns, fairs were particularly cheap to set up (“an open space and some trestles, tables and canopies”). Their administrative costs were limited and the expenses for the visiting merchants were low. Besides, fairs were more flexible, they could be closed or moved at will according to the changing patterns of trade. “Traders could vote with their feet” and stay in urban markets, instead fairs prospered (p.83). Also, fairs had been in existence for a long time so the merchants new perfectly how to run them.

Establishing fairs was an efficient mean for rulers to weaken the powerful cities by diminishing their revenues and breaking the monopolistic relationship they could claim over their hinterland (p.84). Tellingly, in Lombardy, fairs prospered only after 1447, when the territorial prince Sforza managed to impose his authority over the region’s city-states (same thing in Flanders, count Luis of Male v. Ghent, Bruges and Ypres).

The English exception (as usual)

“Before the Black Death, England’s combination of weak urban jurisdiction, a strong monarchy and extensive manorialism had given rise to an unusually dense network of rural fairs that partially compensated for the country’s low rate of urbanization. However, the greater number and density of fairs in pre-Black Death England limited their catchment area; […] most English fairs before the Black Death were little more than glorified local markets. After 1350, as the more recently established and the commercially fragile events disappeared, the remaining fairs began to resemble their Continental counterparts in terms of size and specialization” (p.86).

Conclusion: creative destruction

The rise of fairs (along with the decline of serfdom) the feudal lords’ economic position, they lost their monopoly over rural access to trade and had to recognized the authority of the central state (p.87). Finally, it can be considered as one of the main positive economic change created by the shift of the distribution of power set in motion by the changing relative factor prices (i.e. rise of the value of labour due to the post-1348 demographic decline). It is also a positive consequence of the rise of the state and the decline of jurisdictional fragmentation (p.88).


John H. Munro in his 2006 article given to the settimana di studi of the F. Datini foundation, “South German silver, European textiles, and Venetian trade…” argues that the late 14th- and 15th-century ‘periodic coined money scarcities’ were caused by a lack of commercial innovation and low income velocity of money. But this hardly fits with the views of Stephan R. Epstein on the breathless development of fairs after 1350. Who’s right?

Contacted by e-mail, Pr. Munro pointed out that in his chapter about fairs the late Pr. Epstein failed to underline the mostly local and regional span of the fairs created in the century following the Black Death. Indeed, Pr. Epstein himself, elsewhere in his books points out that the development of territorial states did raise the custom barriers between those polities, while at the same time increasing market integration within these new states by limiting urban monopolies and feudal taxing.

Even the Sicilian fair of Valdemone he mentions as particularly important did not attract merchants from much further than Genoa, Provence and of course Catalunya. This is not to say either that no international fairs emerged between 1350 and 1450. In particular the various fairs uniting the North Sea commercial centers (Bruges, Antwerp and Bergen op Zoom) and the Italian and Swabian industries did grow precisely at this period, Frankfurt am Main in particular comes to mind.


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