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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On an Important Institution

Cotton Market, Jerusalem "Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SA Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

There is something particularly invigorating about going to the market. It is an intensive and intimate encounter with our fellows, one of the most intense in our daily lives. The crowding together, the jostling, the noise, colour and smells. Some people, perhaps for this very reason detest it and avoid it like a disease. Others, like myself delight in the occasional experience. It is in the market that one really gets a sense of being part of something – a city, a nation... humanity. I suppose it is because in the market many of the artificial barriers that separate us are momentarily dropped.

If Napoleon, as is often claimed, indeed dismissed the English people as a nation of shopkeepers (there is some doubt in this attribution* and of what he intended if indeed he had made it) he was doing them a double injustice. He was slurring a very important and necessary occupation by suggesting that it was a vocation to be looked down upon, and he was belittling the English people by suggesting that this occupation was the only aptitude that they possessed. But there is nothing to be despised in retail trade. It is at the heart of urban life and an important part of what identifies a city. This was even more true in the past than today, when it is largely by physical size and the size of the population that we define a settlement as being either a village or a town. In the Middle Ages a settlement's status was mainly determined by what institutions it did or did not possess. And one of those defining institutions was the market. In the kingdom of Jerusalem, there were villages that were as large as, or possibly even larger than some towns. But if they did not possess substantial fortifications, a cathedral church or a permanent market they retained the status of village in spite of their size.

The Franks took their shopping seriously. They built new and impressive market buildings, generally in the form of vaulted bazaars, and they appointed an official to be responsible for the regulation, among other things, of weights, prices, and cleanliness in these public places. He was known as the methessep/mathesep, a title adopted from the Muslim market inspector - the muḥtasib (محتسب‎‎). Markets went by general terms such as fondicum/funda, or platea convenientia ad forum which did not specify what goods were sold in them, and on some medieval maps of Jerusalem one of the central markets is identified with the quite unhelpful title – forum rerum venalium – the market where things were sold.

But what things, we ask? As in Islamic towns we find the Frankish markets to be generally divided into separate bazaars for different products, and the contemporary sources identify many of these for us. There are references to the meat market - macellum or becaria, the cloth market -platea telarum, the bread market - logia ubi venditur panis. The late twelfth century Old French text known as The Condition of the City of Jerusalem** records several of Jerusalem's markets, describing both their locations and the type of goods they sold. These included candles and palm branches (for pilgrims) cattle, pigs, fish, hens and ducks, meat, grain, eggs and cheese, fruit and vegetables, spices, prepared food and cloth. Among the markets of Acre there was a cattle market, meat and fish markets, a market where onions were sold …ubi vendebantur cepae, a street of cauldron-makers, and a street of biscuit-makers.

In Acre, the market streets are now mostly buried and lost, though with two exceptions: one in the former Genoese quarter is gradually coming to light through archaeology, and another is known only through its vague, ethereal appearance on aerial photographs taken by the German Luftwaffe in 1917 and by the British Royal Air Force in the early 1920s. But in Jerusalem most of the markets live on, somewhat changed in the wares they now vend, but still standing largely intact just as they were in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; narrow, noisy, colourful, and after over eight centuries, still packed shoulder to shoulder with humanity. And although today there are comparatively few Europeans in these streets and the language of intercourse has changed, it is perhaps here more than anywhere that one can get a real sense of life in a Crusader city.

* The phrase was used earlier by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) Book IV, section vii. c. "To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."

** The Condition of the City of Jerusalem is preserved in the Rothelin Continuation of William of Tyre . See Janet Shirley (trans.), Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century, Aldershot and Burlington, 1999, pp. 13-19.

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