From the time of the Roman withdrawal from Europe until the 10th century Western Europe was underdeveloped economically, especially when compared to the Byzantine Empire or the Islamic Caliphate. the main problems faced by the western economy were the continuing political struggles and lack of security. The economy reverted , to a great extent, to a "natural" economy that is trade and barter, though a monetary trade did continue.
At the most basic level of trading a peasant housewife might as part of the household economy brew ale, spin yarn and sell any surplus produce such as eggs to the neighboring peasant households. There are mentions in records of windows in villages for the exposure of bread, ale, meat and fish for sale.
Monastic records indicate that by the 8th or 9th Century French and northern Italian Abbeys were gearing their production toward gaining a large surplus to trade. At this time ecclesiastics were forbidden to engage in business under canon law, so local travelling merchants were employed to buy and sell what the Abbeys loosely refer to as " our necessities " throughout not just the locality but neighboring states as well.
The 10th Century saw the recovery of the monetary economy due to the better stability of Europe and the population growth . The rising population meant more demand for products, as the towns expanded some industries moved out into the country. The potters often set up business as close as possible to the raw material and traded to the local villages. Pottery due to its fragile nature was traded over relatively short distances unless water transport was available. The potter would build up a stock and then either trade it himself or sell to a local or passing trader.
Tanning is another example of country side industries. Tanning stinks! urine is used in the tanning process and large vats of it would be kept by the tanner. It is quite probable that tanners were forced to move out of towns. The tanner like the potter would build up a stock and then sell this to the local glovers, beltmakers and cobblers who in their turn would travel further afield to sell the finished items.
Most low level trade was however dealing in essential commodities, food and whatever the land could not supply, better off peasants would rely on the sale of surplus grain to gain money to pay rent.
The surviving manorial records show large numbers of small grain transactions between tenant farmers and families with not enough land to sustain themselves.
Small traders and pedlars would make whatever purchases and sales opportunity allowed. "Havelock the dane " describes how Grim exchanged fish he caught, for other food stuffs by door to door sales, often using his entire family to help him in these endeavors. Villages were often dependent on this form of trade to obtain basic items . Villages were often quite self sufficient but would be glad to introduce some variety into their diet. The land could not produce some of the basic requirements of the peasant family such as clothing, salt, pots and pans or knives and other small implements, and it is these types of goods that itinerant traders would sell. the pedlar had to be sure that he could sell his wares so basic essentials are a safe bet.
In the 13th Century some evidence of small traders can be found, such as toll charges. The market at Yaxley in Huntingdonshire records that traders were charged 1/2d per pack horse load or 1/4d per load carried by a man. Itinerant traders and pedlars did use the markets to sell goods but the majority of their sales were outside the markets which is why they are so poorly recorded.
Villages often show evidence for a wide variety of trades, such as carpenters, butchers, bakers, brasiers, smiths, spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, carters, wrights, masons, saddlers, thatchers, pinders, shockers, cobblers, tanners, nappers, hoopers, soapmakers, cutters, fowlers, needlers, fiddlers, ratters, bloodletters, tinkers and mongers of various kinds. Most of those listed are artisans as opposed to peasants and some by the nature of their trade need only to sell their skill, these include masons and smiths, others of the list either sold their goods to itinerant traders or once they had a stock pedled it themselves, these include the soap makers, tanners and cobblers.
Travel in medieval Europe was not easy and in winter even short distances could become almost impossible due to the poor roads. the small traders probably tried to build up their stock during this period selling enough locally to survive.
The small trader had always to remember that robbery was rife and wild animals were a serious threat so journeys had to be planned. It is probably due to these threats that by the early 11th Century "hospites" were in operation in some European countries. In 1014 a German Bishop complained that Italian hospites were poisoning guests and presenting bills! This proves that there was enough passing trade to make these businesses viable a fair percentage of which was probably itinerant traders.