The Decline of Fairs and Merchant Guilds in the Low Countries, 1250-1650

Oscar Gelderblom


Between the 11th and 13th century long-distance trade in Europe expanded rapidly. Merchants from Venice, Genoa, Barcelona, and various other ports in southern Europe began to explore new markets around the Mediterranean and started trading with merchants in Germany, England, Flanders, and France.2 One explanation for this Commercial Revolution that has
found increasing support among economic historians in recent years, points to improvements in the organization of commercial and financial transactions. 3

The basic premise is that the rise of fairs and merchant guilds offered superior solutions for three problems haunting all long-distance traders: criminal assaults and arbitrary arrests; dishonest behavior of agents; and uncertainty about the profitability of trade.4
Medieval fairs were periodic gatherings of merchants from different countries or regions. Europe’s international fairs typically consisted of a series of such events in neighboring towns. Undoubtedly the most prominent fairs in the 12th and 13th centuries were those held in five towns in the French Champagne.5

However, similar fair cycles attracting an international crowd of traders existed in East England, Flanders, the Rhineland, and the Po
delta in Italy.6 The temporary concentration of so many merchants secured the supply and demand of a wide variety of goods. To stimulate the gathering of as many buyers and sellers as possible, local rulers guaranteed the save arrival, sojourn, and departure of merchants. In
addition, the fairs boasted law courts to secure the speedy resolution of commercial disputes,
and financial institutions – i.e. clearing facilities and lettres de foires – tailored to the needs of the visiting traders.7

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