Merchants on the Margins: Fifteenth-Century Bruges and the Informal Market

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During the late medieval period, Bruges acted as the prime hub of international trade in north-western Europe, with the town of Sluys as its outport. Trade along the Zwin, the waterway connecting the city to the sea, was subject to a series of tolls and a set of stringent and comprehensive staple restrictions, stipulating that all goods imported had to be sold on the Bruges market. The concentration of commercial activities which resulted from these rules allowed merchants with the necessary capital to trade more cheaply than elsewhere. For those with more modest means and ambitions, the trip along tollbooths to the heavily regulated and institutionalised staple market only jeopardised the profitability of their endeavours. Throughout the fifteenth century, local traders, international shipping crews, commercial staff and professional smugglers cut transaction costs by evading the restrictions of the staple and commercial taxation in Sluys. This article discusses the size of this informal market on the margins of Bruges’ jurisdiction, analyses the backgrounds and motivations of its visitors and reconstructs the strategies they used to evade punishment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)226-253
JournalJournal of Medieval History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Bruges
  • trade
  • informal economy
  • Middle Ages

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