Commerce and craftsmanship


From marketplaces to malls

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Small markets sprouted up at fixed sites along the Danish coast starting in the latter half of the Iron Age. The markets were seasonal, and closed when travelling merchants moved on. Hand-crafted items was normally the most important items sold at markets. Gold and silver were often added as decoration on buckles, and could be fashioned to order. Old glass could be smoothed and made into beads, while the comb maker sold knife handles, combs, game pieces and other items made of bone or antler.

Royal control
Most Iron Age marketplaces have long since disappeared, but still with us are the remnants of larger marketplaces that attracted merchants from outside Denmark's borders. The first to be established was in the town of Ribe, in the eighth century. Later came marketplaces in Hedeby and Schleswig. Control over trade was an important tool for the king to rule his kingdom. A source from 808 writes that Danish King Godtfred before retreating destroyed the marketplace known as 'Reric' in Danish [near modern-day Wismar, Germany], which through the taxes they paid was a great contribution to his kingdom. He took the merchants with him together with his army by ship to the port known as Schleswig".

Market town privileges
The king's interest in commerce was tied to the establishment of market towns. Most towns were controlled by the king, meaning that they paid taxes to him. The first towns to earn market privileges or to come under municipal law did so in the early 13th century. Doing so meant they were recognised as towns, which granted them certain rights and obligations. The first market towns were Schleswig, Tønder, Copenhagen and Ribe, and by granting them market town privileges the king ensured that certain activities were only carried out within town walls. The most important of these activities were commerce and craftsmanship.

Market truce
The violent societies of the Middle Ages placed special demands on towns to provide the necessary protection to ensure confidence and peace amongst merchants and customers. Only the king could make such guarantees, but in return they had to obey the laws of the king and the town. Markets could only be held on the marketplace on market days. The marketplace wasn't always a town square, but often the part of town reserved for merchants. The municipal law of the town of Roskilde dating from 1268 stated that the marketplace extended from the House of the Holy Ghost to St Mikkel's Graveyard. The Copenhagen municipal law of 1294 states that market days were Wednesday and Saturday. And that "he who should violate the market truce on these days should make amends amounting to 40 marks each to the injured party, the bishop and the town. The truce begins at sunrise and ends when the evening bells sound". Forty marks was the same fine paid for murder.

Special market rules
The new market towns were a sign that people now needed to exchange goods. Danish towns were unable to survive without their networks of foreign merchants. Between the 12th and the 16th centuries, the herring markets of Scania drew thousands of merchants, including peasants from throughout Denmark to both buy and sell. Merchants from the Hanseatic League were viewed as both competitors and partners, and Danes wanted clear guidelines for what they were and weren't permitted to do. In 1422, the king declared that commerce could only be carried out "in our market towns, and on our marketplaces and squares, as it always has. Aldermen in all market towns must hang a sign stating when it is market day, and as long as that sign hangs, none, save the male residents of the town and its citizens shall buy or sell. This sign shall be taken down and may no longer hang from the point of the day when the clock strikes 10. After that time, any guest may buy or sell to anyone". The "guests" were the German merchants. In time, they were driven from market towns. Peasants were also forced to sell their goods in market towns, but the further away from the centres of power one came, the more difficult this rule was to enforce.

The free market threatens
Market town commerce gradually came to be controlled by merchants. Starting around 1500 and lasting until 1880, merchant houses were the trading companies of the day. From the most powerful merchant in Copenhagen to the tiny provincial trader, merchants consolidated trade in agricultural goods, finance, brewing and distilling. Competition between towns was especially fierce, and they closely protected their rights. Foreign merchants, travelling hucksters and peasants who proved too enterprising for the merchants' good were watched closely and run out of town.

Craftsmen's guilds
Starting in the Middle Ages and until industrialisation began, craftsmen remained the biggest trade groups in market towns. Over time they became increasingly specialised: dyers, smiths, carpenters, cabinetmakers, masons, cobblers, coopers, ropemakers, hatters, milliners and tailors. Fear of free market competition was greatest amongst craftsmen. They formed guilds, and set up a hierarchical system that had guild masters at its peak. Guilds had their own rules and honorary titles. They controlled the number of masters, journeymen and apprentices in the town, fixed maximum prices and kept competition to a minimum by dividing work amongst themselves.

Monopolies broken
The tight control of commerce and crafts came under attack in the 19th century by the newly emerging liberalists. In 1857, market towns lost their monopoly on commerce and craftsmanship. Guilds disappeared. The free market had arrived and would give the nation's economy a push. The downside was that the poorest craftsmen found themselves working as day labourers or factory workers. Others found work at repair shops or opened their own speciality shops.

Merchant house to mall
Merchant houses also disappeared starting around 1880 in the cities. Merchants in smaller towns hung on for another half century. Their money lending developed into a banking sector. Brewing was consolidated into breweries. Timber sales developed into timber yards. Wholesalers began to specialise and soon had spilt into financiers and distributors. They became the richest group of the day, and were responsible for setting up international companies such as the East Asiatic Company and later A.P. Moller-Maersk. Merchant houses had become a thing of the past, and their facades transformed into the high street shops we recognise today. Grocers specialised into small operations like greengrocers and dairies before the rise of the supermarket in the 1960s. Today, the legacy of the merchant house lives on in a way in our modern shopping malls, where anything and everything is for sale.

Suggested further reading:

By og opland. Database og kort over de økonomiske købstadsprivilegier og handelsbestemmelser fra de ældst kendte til ca. 1900 (