Medieval Occupations: Medieval Merchant

Merchants have existed for as long as humans have engaged in trade and commerce.

In ancient Rome and Greece, merchants could become wealthy but lacked high social status, contrary to the Middle East, where markets were an integral part of the city. During the Middles Ages in Europe, a rapid expansion in trade and commerce led to the rise of a wealthy and powerful merchant class. The age of discovering opened new trading routes and giving European consumers access to a much broader range of goods.

History of Merchants

Merchants and merchant networks operated in open-air and public markets in the ancient world: Babylonia and Assyria, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, Phoenicia, and Rome. There, merchants and traders congregated, usually in the town’s center. Trading and exchanges involved direct selling through permanent or semi-permanent stall-holders and shop-keepers, or through door-to-door direct sales via merchants or peddlers.

In the Roman world, local merchants served the wealthier landowners’ needs, who could call them directly from their farm-gates. Both Greek and Roman merchants also engaged in long-distance trade, as evidenced by Roman objects found in China as early as 226 CE.

During the Middle Ages, England and Europe witnessed a rapid expansion in trade and the rise of a powerful and wealthy merchant class. By the 12th century, there was an upsurge in the number of market towns and larger centralized merchant circuits. While the Crusades helped open up new trade routes in the Near East, Marco Polo stimulated interest in the far East in the 12th and 13th centuries. Consequently, medieval merchants began to trade in exotic and luxury goods such as spices, wine, food, furs, silk, glass, and jewelry.

Miniature of merchants 1401-1500, Hôtel de ville de Rouen. Manuscrits de la bibliothèque municipale de Rouen. Ancien fonds et Suppléments.
Venic merchants in the 16th century, “Officina della Moneda” (Coin office). Source: Wikimedia commons.

Merchant guilds began to form during the 12th century, controlling how trade was to be conducted and specifying rules governing the conditions of trade.

During the thirteenth century, European businesses became more permanent, allowing merchants and agents to become sedentary. Merchants specialized in financing while agents were domiciled overseas and acted on behalf of a principal. Over time these partnerships became more commonplace and led to the development of large trading companies.

From 1300 through to the 1800s, many European chartered and merchant companies were established to exploit international trading opportunities. These developments, sometimes known as the commercial revolution, triggered innovations such as double-entry bookkeeping, commercial accountancy, and international banking, including access to lines of credit, marine insurance, and commercial courier services.

Books about Merchants and Trading in the Middle Ages

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