The most prominent type of settlement associated with trading activities in the Anglo-saxon period was the Wic, an Anglo-Saxon loan word from the Latin Vicus meaning a dwelling, farm, hamlet, or subsidiary settlements. The Wics were communities very similar to those found in rural areas with the distinction of servicing trade and industry.
Most communities began as self sufficient, growing enough food to feed only themselves, making cloth only for themselves, making tools and weapons only for themselves. Once society began moving towards a more organised and structured way of life where tasks could be shared amongst a few, a surplus could be created. This surplus, whether in food or other desirable materials, could then be traded with neighbours for something that your community might not be able to produce.
Some communities became well known for a specific commodity or craftsmanship and people would travel further afield to acquire this resource. With more people coming into this one centre for a particular commodity some clever people realised that it would make sense to try and sell their wares at this centre also. Wic’s then were centres of trade and industry which were known locations where people either came to sell their produce, or came because that town was the centre for a specialised commodity (such as honey or a particular cheese or ale) or because there was a high concentration of tradesmen there (metalworking, boneworking, woodworking, textile production, leatherworking, pottery).
The centres that did best were also located along rivers, seaports or at a crossroads. Some famous examples are Hamwic (Southampton), Ipswich, London (Lundenwic) and of course York (Eorforwic). Notice how they all have wic/wich at the end of their Anglo-saxon names?
As part of my plans of outlining aspects of early medieval life I was going to write a post on Trade. In The Northumbrian Saga, Leodgar and Aethelwin are both traders of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria and with the invasion of the Vikings comes a whole new orbit of trade and trade partners, including Thorstein. As usual I ended up with more information than I knew what to do with and when I re-read my notes that I had made from the amazing Regia Anglorum site, I realised that I would be saying pretty much the same thing. So instead of plagiarising and copying word for word what has already been written, I have added a short extract with a link for further information. It really is a great site so check it out.
In the early middle ages, as in other periods of history, trade was an important part of life. If a farmer had a surplus of livestock or produce, he would take it to the nearest market and exchange it for any one of the many things that would be needed around the farm: iron, salt, lead, hone and building stone, wine, fish, flax, antler, etc.. Common sense shows us that many commodities were unavailable on the ‘average’ estate, whether it was in Britain, Ireland or Scandinavia. Some of these things could only be found in a few areas. A class of professionals soon appeared who would carry these commodities from their place of origin to the markets – the merchants.
Some of the commodities traded in the early middle ages did not have to travel far, for example fish. Most had to make a longer journey, such as the iron mined in Kent and the Forest of Dean, the lead mined in Bristol, or the salt obtained from pans in Droitwich and Cheshire. More ‘exotic’ items came from overseas, including quern-stones from the Rhineland that have been found in York…
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