While coming up with a medieval era world, I suddenly realized that there was pretty much no defense against thievery except for patrolling city guards which to be honest probably isn't very effective. This is because by the time the shop owners report about the thievery, the thief has most likely gotten away.

Traps don't seem feasible as you still need your customers to enter the shop(can't have them falling into a spiked pit) and the shop owner might not have a good reaction time to activate traps in time.

A alarm would alert the city guards but then it's the same problem of whether they would be able to respond in time.

Hiring protection personnel would work, however I won't accept this as I want the protection to be independent of additional personnel.(This is a story-reason)

So what are some ways for shop owners to protect their goods while still displaying them?

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting little tidbit: According to Wikipedia, the first documented instance of shoplifting didn't occur until after the Middle Ages. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ Not worth an answer itself, but note that when you take something you need a place to put it and/or make use of it. Well, back in the day people didn't live in the 'burbs like they do now. It was a lot of poorly constructed housing that was all immediately adjacent, and the concept of 'personal privacy' hadn't really been invented yet. Long/short - if a merchant said "someone stole X" and your neighbor saw you had acquired "X" despite not making enough money for it to be likely that you purchased it, you were outed. A lack of privacy goes a long way as a crime deterrent. $\endgroup$
    – GrinningX
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre I can't believe there's an entire Wikipedia page on shoplifting... $\endgroup$
    – Skye
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre I'm not sure I'd trust that source. It's a pretty well-established that Shoplifting began here in ancient Phonecia. Thieves would literally lift the corner of a shop in order to snatch the sweet, sweet olives within. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ I am a little perplexed. All differences I consider important actually favour the medieval era(small society, owner sleeping nearby, horses easily heard on the pavement...)! What glorious means of protection do WE have? $\endgroup$
    – Ludi
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:13

7 Answers 7


Medieval times are an area of study for me, so let me tell you a little about the way the law worked during that time. This may be a different world, but I can give you a background on history and how theft was dealt with. First, by the time you reached the age of 12 in many principalities if you did not take action against a crime committed which you knew about you were considered a lawbreaker yourself. Everyone in the community was considered law enforcement. Goods were also tracked (as in, each item featured a maker's mark, sometimes even numbered for inventory, making it hard to fence).

Crime largely took hold in places where the Lord taxed severely. The Robin Hood legend comes from that. If you didn't benefit the community in some way (robbing from the rich and giving to the poor) most communities would turn you in. Protection from the law once you got to court only worked if you were noble, and, at least a few of these Robin Hood figures were younger sons of nobility, known to the community. They took the risk, because even if they were caught, they stood a good chance of only having to pay a fine. This did not hold true for the desperate men they worked with, who tended to be commoners on the run.

Many, but not all, shopkeepers did live in or above their shops to protect from theft.

City guards are a supplement. As I said, the entire community was expected to chase, apprehend or stop anyone who was a thief. If you were a male over the age of 12 and someone yelled "stop thief!" you were expected to throw yourself in their way or otherwise stop them. If you did not, you would be brought on charges yourself.

Now, let's talk a little about how Medieval shops were actually set up. First, this idea of coming inside a shop and browsing did not yet exist. (Look at the history of Selfridges to see what a revolutionary idea it was, and that was long after the Medieval era.) Most shops had a half door, and flap shelf. Nobody went in the shop--rather, you would look in, and see the artisan at work. Here's a picture from a little later in the 15th Century. enter image description here

As you can see, unlike today, stealing, while possible during business hours, was not as easy as it is today. At night, a flap was generally lowered and locked, and they often used one of those half doors, except with a shelf extending outward to lay their goods upon when showing them. Like the picture below, only with a shelf extending outwards to the street. Glass was rare, so do disregard the glass in the picture. enter image description here

Most shop owners simply worked inside, perhaps with an assistant at the window and buyers would come by and look in or ask to see specific goods.

If you have more questions I would be happy to answer them!

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    $\begingroup$ The festivals were where the big $$ was at. You would go to a city and set up a tent. The Hot Fair at Troyes is a good example. In that case there were actually special courts and security set especially for the fair. This was big, big money. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champagne_fairs $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ If you were part of the community, at that age, you took an oath to protect the community by taking such an action. Might seem harsh, but that was the way it was. Communities were tightly knit and everyone was expected to pull their weight. Until the Black Plague, everyone knew everyone else in most places. The Plague changed everything and made the population more mobile. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ In the case of "stop thief" yes, you were expected to give chase and/or try and stop the perp. Not only would you be charged with a crime, but the community would also possibly ostracize you. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby : Indeed, ostracization by the community was a very important factor in providing stability. Before modern media and electronic communications, people knew each other better, and before mass transit, local communities were more tightly bound. People also changed homes and professions much less often. This means, that most customers were well known by the shopkeeper and by other customers. Reputation was very important. Getting caught stealing in your community would destroy your life. As people knew each other well, strangers would be very conspicuous, and were watched closely. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ "lowered and locked" -- and note that even if locks with keys were expensive and rare, if you live in or over the shop then you can just bolt it from the inside. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 12:08

Shopkeepers did not display their goods to nearly the same extent as modern shops. Plate glass is a very modern invention, and even small panes of glass were expensive.

Shops had signs outside that told you what they sold. Frequently these would have pictures rather than writing, since many people were illiterate. You would look for a shop that sold the kinds of goods you were looking for, and go in and ask what they had. Things would be shown to you on top of the counter, in conversation with the shopkeeper or his assistant. There was no self-service.

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    $\begingroup$ I think I should kill myself for thinking that they would display their goods real nicely... $\endgroup$
    – Skye
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ What about open markets with stands? How would you secure these? Anyways, +1 $\endgroup$
    – user22613
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ You don't. Even in the modern era, there is very little security to an open stand beyond the fact that any shoplifters would be stealing with the entire crowd watching and would have their hand cut off if caught. (Well... odds of that last part have gone done in recent years, but other than that, nothing much changed) $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Sky that's the beauty of scholarship - the first step is just asking a question. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 0:13

Dog are man's best friend. Just bring them into the shop at closing and lock the doors. They have keener hearing and much better noses for smelling trespassers. They can also be quite fierce and drive away sneaky thieves.

Then there could be physical protection like complicated locks, metal bars, or multiple security points (different locks).

Pay protection money to the thieves so that you aren't a target at all.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the dogs anyway unless they count as additional personnel, particularly well trained ones could detect the goods on the way out even during opening hours, know from cues from the master whether this person should have the goods and chase any thieves - as well as acting as a deterrent. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ Actually I was asking for if the shop was open. $\endgroup$
    – Skye
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Ok the dog could be by the door and make sure no one sneaks anything out, the other answers also apply to if the store is open $\endgroup$
    – depperm
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ dogs, check. They sleep on the shop floor and are remarkably good at waking up at any disturbance. They also are good at barking to wake everyone else up and have big teeth. I know of a whole street that was burgled, except for 2 houses. The 2 that had dogs, they're good deterrents to. $\endgroup$
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 21:37

This assumes you want a slightly modern style shop with moderately large goods displayed for browsing.

Just have a single, rather narrow door with the shopkeepers counter right next to it -- and a club under the counter. The opening to the counter could also be towards the door so that a running thief could be tripped and a sneaky one intercepted. Small valuable goods would be on/at the counter but on the far side from the door. A step or two (up or down) on the way out, and maybe a signboard a couple of feet in front of the door would all slow a fleeing thief allowing more time to raise the alarm or use the club (or a throwing weapon if you want to go down that route).

This is actually still done in many small souvenir shops and relies to some extent on the deterrence value of the shopkeeper being on the way out. Even if the shopkeeper can't stop the thief, they get a good look at them (in the light from the door, important in your case as indoor lighting would be very dim).

The shopkeepers counter would also be their workstation for manufacture. Again if you've ever been in a small independent shop where goods are personalised (e.g. names stamped onto bracelets), the workbench is also the sales counter.


Iron bars seems to be the obvious answer here to protect your front windows.

You'd place expensive items on the shelves behind the counter.

The same as shops in the modern world, the shopkeeper keeps an eye on the customers and uses conversation to divert and show people you're watching them.

  • $\begingroup$ Is it really that easy? People can still steal stuff even if someone is watching, they just need to get away and they would probably be fine $\endgroup$
    – Skye
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Sky Yes, the same as happens in the modern world. Shoplifting happens, and is accounted for in terms of stocktaking and pricing. If you're preventing all theft, you may as well lock the entire shop and chain a catalogue to the outside the shop and supply order chits and little stubby pencils... $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Sky Towns where smaller at the time, and means of transportation slower and sracer. It was harder for a thief to disappear in the crowd. And if the merchant saw the thief, it was easier to find him again and beat him to a pulp. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ In medieval times before large scale iron smelting iron was insanely valuable. in Normandy ca. 1066, a healthy adult cow could cost about 12 ounces of iron (about .34 kg) In Medieval times, a cow was rather valuable. If you included iron bars to secure your shop you were probably risking more than the price of the contents of the shop if they just stole the bars. $\endgroup$
    – Murphy
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ If the total population is only a couple hundred people, checking all the suspects is reasonable. Theft of non-consumables doesn't make much sense in that environment. So put foreigners under more scrutiny. I like this answer. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:23

Use fake or old/useless products. Have everything hidden "under the desk" and display only objects that are worthless for the thiefs, like:

  • Fake item(s) - eg. mould a bread-like shape out of clay and color it

  • Old damaged item(s) - eg. An old, or otherwise un-sellable piece of bread

  • A drawing/sketch of the item(s), placed in front of (street stand) or above the seller o the back wall (normal shops)

  • Or just only one of each type if item you have

This method is used even today in shops, mainly in those where they sell expensive products, like jewelry, electronics, alcohol (this may not be used in the country you live).


What I have seen in traditional markets in Germany is sample products being glued down onto the display. Subtly pulling one off would be difficult. I guess it keeps them neat too.

The actual product is kept under the counter and is asked for rather than being taken off the shelf.


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