The Critical Role of Medieval Hiring Fairs in England

Medieval hiring fairs, often known as Statute Fairs or Mop Fairs, were a central part of the employment system in medieval England.

They originated in the 1300s, during the reign of King Edward III. The aim was to regulate the labour market as the country transferred from a feudal society, where labour was attached to specific manors and estates, to a money-based economy in which labour was more fluid.

King Edward III, in an act of law known as the Statute of Labourers, ordered that such fairs be held in a variety of places across England to ensure fair wages and maintain social order.

This was necessitated by the drastic drop in population and resulting labour shortage after the Black Death, where surviving laborers were putting up their wages beyond what landowners could afford.


Functioning of Medieval Hiring Fairs

Functioning biannually, these fairs were held usually around the feast days of Michaelmas (September 29th) and Lady Day (March 25th). These dates marked the beginning and end of the agricultural labourer’s year, a perfect occasion to hire or change employment.

ridge and furrow enclosure act
Medieval ridge and furrow

The fairs would attract a grand array of labourers, from maids and milkmaids to ploughmen and shepherds. Prospective employees would dress in their best attire and often hold symbols of their trade, such as shepherd’s crooks, a cowman, a lock of cow hair or a milking pail.

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And this is where the term ‘Mop Fair’ originates from. The name “Mop Fair” is derived from the tradition that individuals seeking work would attend the fair wearing a symbolic item, or “mop,” such as a piece of cloth or an object related to their trade, to signify their particular skill or trade.

Employers would travel from surrounding areas, hiring these workers after negotiating terms of employment, including wages, food allowances, and living conditions. Contracts were usually verbal and witnessed by others at the fair, making them legally binding for a year.

Significance of Medieval Hiring Fairs

Importantly, these fairs radically changed labour dynamics in England. They allowed labourers to sell their skills to the highest bidder and negotiate better working conditions. The competition among employers for skilled workers also led to an increase in wages, a concept fundamentally different from the feudal system that existed previously.

a shepherd in the 1800s with a shepherds crook and lamb
A shepherd in the 1800s, the open field system left over from the medieval era was a huge part in sheep farming.

Furthermore, these fairs also served as a crucial social event, one of the rare occasions when workers could mingle with potential employers, meet potential spouses, and enjoy shopping, music, and a range of entertainments.

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They also offered a chance for some workers to leave their village and see the broader world. Finally, as these fairs became more widespread, they contributed significantly to the development of the modern labour market.

They laid the foundation for contemporary recruiting methods, including job advertising and contract negotiations, which are still prevalent in today’s hiring processes.

Medieval Hiring Fairs: A Pivotal Shift in Labour Market Practices

In England, the advent of medieval hiring fairs signaled a vital shift in labour market trends. These fairs were not just avenues for job opportunities; they were catalysts for stimulating wage growth and pioneering modern labour practices.

Even though these fairs disappeared with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, their influence is still perceptible in employment practices and labour rights we observe today.

The Effect of Hiring Fairs on the Medieval Economy

In the Middle Ages, hiring fairs were not a rarity in English society, indeed, they presented crucial platforms for people seeking employment. They served to generate income for individuals and played a substantial role in the economic framework.

These fairs attracted labourers, servants, and craftsmen looking for job prospects, thereby creating a mobile labour market that efficiently catered to the demands of the agricultural and industrial sectors.

medieval commoner
The life of a medieval commoner was tough.

The custom of changing employers yearly led to a versatile workforce that filled different roles across various locations based on the prevalent economic need. Hiring fairs facilitated balancing wage rates by promoting a transparent labour market setting. This assembly of employees and employers enabled open negotiations and agreements about wages and working conditions.

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Such transparency hindered employers from taking advantage of their workers with undeserving low remuneration or unfavorable working conditions, ensuring that workers received a just wage for their services.

Hence, hiring fairs functioned as a primitive form of economic regulation, averting wage slump and endorsing economic progression.

Societal Stratification

The job opportunities provided at hiring fairs in medieval England were not merely economic constructs. They also played a significant role in shaping societal stratification and class structures. Individuals had the chance to advance or maintain their socioeconomic status through the direct employment opportunities these fairs offered.

A photograph, taken c. 1900, by Sir Benjamin Stone, of two villagers at the Bidford Mop, an annual fair held at Michaelmas in the village of Bidford-on-Avon
A photograph, taken c. 1900, by Sir Benjamin Stone, of two villagers at the Bidford Mop, an annual fair held at Michaelmas in the village of Bidford-on-Avon

It’s important to note that the fairs also reinforced societal divisions. Workers were categorised into various hierarchies based on their skills and the jobs they performed. For example, skilled artisans held a higher status than unskilled labourers. This mirrored and reinforced existing class divisions in medieval English society.

Women and Children at Hiring Fairs

Hiring fairs weren’t limited to adult men. Instead, they offered opportunities for women and children to contribute to household incomes.

Women were hired for a variety of roles, especially those related to household work. Increasingly through the medieval period, women also branched out into other jobs like brewing, midwifery, and small-scale trading.

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Although child labour is considered abhorrent in modern society, in medieval England, children also sought employment at these fairs. The income they generated was crucial for many families’ survival.

This further highlights the societal importance of hiring fairs during this time – they provided a means for entire families, including women and children, to participate in the economy and earn an income. While hiring fairs allowed some upward mobility in social classes, they also reinforced existing class structures.

An advertisement for a hiring fair in 1861
An advertisement for a hiring fair in 1861

High-ranking families and noblemen would have attendants and representatives at the fairs to hire staff for their estates. This reflects the deeply stratified social structure of the time, where roles and positions were largely predetermined based on your birth.

Yet, for the lower classes, these fairs provided a unique opportunity for employment and economic mobility. With a variety of roles available, individuals could aspire and strive for higher-paying positions, contributing to a fluid and dynamic societal structure.

Comparison with Other Countries

Comparative to other regions and eras, England’s use of hiring fairs in medieval times was a specific response to the agrarian calendar and labour needs. Unlike the factory-based hiring practices of the Industrial Revolution that focused on regular employment, medieval hiring fairs were an annual event tied to the agricultural cycle.

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This indicates the seasonal nature of most jobs during this era, unlike the long-term, consistent employment we associate with modern times. In contrast, regions in Continental Europe during the same era had a different approach to labour engagement.

For example, medieval French and Dutch societies tended to rely more on guilds for labour organization and employment negotiation, rather than hosting large-scale hiring fairs. Also, serfdom was more widespread across mainland Europe than in England, affecting labour practices quite differently.

Innovations and Changes

Over time, as societies moved from agricultural to industrial economies, and subsequently to technology-led economies, the nature of job fairs and hiring practices evolved simultaneously.

Yet, the essence of connecting job-seekers and employers, as initiated by these medieval hiring fairs, remains embedded in present global recruitment practices.

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The advent of newer technologies, including job boards and professional networking sites, has continued to bolster this fundamental concept. A closer look into history shows us the pivotal role of medieval hiring fairs in England. These events reveal the unique aspects of English labour practices and their profound influence on employment traditions that still exist today.

Transition from Medieval Hiring Fairs to Modern Employment Practices

The actual process of hiring at these fairs was underpinned by notable features of the medieval employment system. This was marked by the ritual of ‘fastening’, whereby a deal between employer and employee was sealed by the handing-over of earnest money, often a shilling coin.

This hiring fair system impacted hundreds of thousands of England’s workforce, thus reflecting its significance in labour market history. Compared to today’s employment practices, these hiring fairs enabled face-to-face negotiation of wages and working conditions.

Farm labourers on to their way to Woodbury Hillfort, Bere Regis, Dorset. In the medieval period it was the biggest hiring fair in southern England.
Farm labourers on their way to Woodbury Hillfort, Bere Regis, Dorset. In the medieval period it was the biggest hiring fair in southern England.

Contracted employment was not based on CVs or business meetings but on physical bargaining and the reputation of both parties involved. It was a way of regulating employment and setting wages, which indeed had a societal impact that spread beyond local communities.

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As England underwent the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the systems of employment also changed. The rise of factories and the migration of labour to industrial cities led to the decrease and eventual dissolution of medieval hiring fairs.

Moreover, new employment opportunities in these emerging industrial centers eclipsed the traditional labour patterns tied to the agricultural calendar. This transition allowed employers to retain labour year-round, rather than seasonally, marking the dawn of a new era in employment practices.

Modern Employment Practices: Echoes of the Past

Even though today’s employment practices appear largely disconnected from those of medieval times, there are elements of the hiring fair system which still echo today.

Modern job fairs, for instance, bear a considerable resemblance to these ancient employment practices. These events provide an avenue for employers and prospective employees to meet face-to-face for job applications and interviews.

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While the method of securing a job has undoubtedly become far more sophisticated, the underlying principle of personal interaction and negotiation has remained. In essence, medieval hiring fairs laid the groundwork for the basic structure of today’s labour market. They were the places where employers could find employees, and where people could find work.

This fundamental purpose is something that has not altered significantly over the centuries. Thus, understanding medieval hiring fairs provides us a historical overview of the evolution of employment practices.


The decline of hiring fairs became evident as the 19th century advanced, attributed to various factors. The agricultural depression that began in the 1870s led farmers to cut back on hiring regular workers, opting instead for seasonal labor during periods like harvest time.

Enhanced travel connections also fueled rural depopulation, as workers were drawn to cities and industrial centers. While the decline was widespread, it was not uniform, with some hiring fairs persisting, albeit on a reduced scale, even after WW1.

Many farmers grew hesitant to hire regular male labour due to the high wages demanded. This was largely because young men found better-paying and more appealing work in urban and industrial areas.

A medieval tradition had come to an end.