THE TOOLS OF CREDIT IN MEDIEVAL ENGLAND: New study of ‘merchant law’

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31 Mar 2016

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Business people and merchants have long been concerned about how to reduce red tape, including more efficient means to pursue debts and enforce contracts. This was no different in late medieval England. Medieval merchants wanted speedy, efficient justice that suited their commercial interests. 

A study by James Davis, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge, highlights how many local courts attracted business by employing a special type of procedure called ‘merchant law’. This ‘law’ allowed merchants to expedite their cases and reinforced the importance of written proof over the sworn word of local men.

In essence, merchants were a privileged group in the courts of late medieval England and merchant law allowed them to travel more confidently from market to market. From the perspective of the lord of the court, the merchants not only brought trade to the area but fees to the court’s coffers. A balance was therefore struck between the court’s practical consideration of merchant law and the extent to which this was more of an exercise in perception and reputation. 

Small town courts wanted to be seen as offering the most conducive conditions for traders and were competing with other courts in the region. Indeed, a number of small town courts of fifteenth-century East Anglia were offering procedures for debt pleas at a time when trade was generally contracting and money was in short supply. 

The new research argues that certain small town and seigneurial courts, designated specifically as ‘market courts’, were advertising ready access to the procedures of merchant law. In many ways these small markets were seeking to ape the facilities of royal chartered boroughs in offering more efficient, rigorous and merchant-friendly systems of enforcement. Their efforts were a competitive attempt, not always successful, to temper concerns about the extension of sales credit in local markets and attract merchant business. 


‘The use of merchant law in the local courts of medieval England’

James Davis (Queen’s University Belfast);; 07801 242664

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