Bread, How Did Ancient Civilizations Make It? Part IV: Markets, Merchants and the Tax Man

As the fourth and final part (I, II, III) of our look at the basic structure of food production in the pre-modern world (particularly farming grain to make bread), this week we’re going to look at how at least some of the delicious food we made in the last post might make its way into the hands of people who are not farmers or even farm owners.

In the previous three posts, I have mostly just used the magic word ‘markets’ to describe how the food produced in the countryside gets to the cities and people who are not farmers. As we’ll see in this post, that is a bit of an oversimplifying fib, both in that the phrase ‘markets’ covers a lot of complexity, but also (as we’ll see) some of the major drivers of moving that food from the countryside into towns doesn’t involve money or market interactions. That said, we’re going to start with market transactions, because while they are actually the minority-type in many of these societies, they are more readily familiar and understandable, I suspect, to modern readers. Then we’ll move to extraction as the other category.

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Point of Sale

I want to start by leaning on (with small modifications for clarity) Paul Erdkamp’s taxonomy of the various options by which food might get into the stream of commerce. A small farmer might sell their grain (I) directly to city-dwellers, (II) indirectly, via urban middlemen and grain merchants, either in the market or (III) ‘at the gate’ (meaning selling to merchants who come out to the farm in order to buy; the difference being who transports the food to the city), (IV) to itinerant traders at periodic rural markets or (V) to other local small farmers. As we’ll see, large landholders have a somewhat larger range of options within this taxonomy, but the fundamentals are the same.

While all of these sale methods certainly happened, in every society I have looked at, Option I – selling directly to city-dwellers – is fairly rare for grains and other bulk agricultural goods. Market gardeners, selling fruits, vegetables (and sometimes flowers) often do sell this way, maintaining a high-intensity garden near town and a shop or stall in the town market. Likewise, while Option V – small-scale trade between farmers – absolutely happens, it is typically non-monetary: the banqueting of neighbors discussed in the first post. Where it is monetary, it is typically quite small scale and very short distance. By and large, small and mid-sized farmers hadn’t the time, expertise or infrastructure to sell their goods directly. They needed to be farming, not manning a market stall or trying to figure out how to store their goods close to the point of sale. And of course large landowners, being rich, aren’t going to stand in the market square either (and in many cases don’t want their obvious representative doing so either, see below). So while I and V happen, they’re not too common or too large a portion of total trade and we may lay them aside for this discussion.

That leaves Options II, III and IV, all of which involve selling grain to a middle-man [ … ]

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