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Merchants in the Middle Ages

Merchants in the Middle Ages

Are you wondering what life was like as a merchant in the Middle Ages? Under the feudal state of the Middle Ages, there were few other positions than that of a farmer, clergyman, or knight. But what was the role of the merchant at this time?

Because merchants made their money selling things to other people, they were not seen as valued members of society. As such, merchants were often disregarded as unholy and money-hungry people. This changed as the crusades made trade and merchants essential to society. 

If you’re wondering what role merchants played in the Middle Ages, you have come to the right place. We will discuss the role of merchants in the Middle Ages, how merchants were seen, and what the life of a merchant was like in the Middle Ages. 

What Was The Role Of The Merchant In The Middle Ages?

Merchants have been around for centuries. They played an important role in developing many ancient cultures and helped different cultures learn from each other. In the Middle Ages, merchants transported goods to and from Europe. While their societal roles weren’t regarded as highly as others, they played an integral role in developing Europe and the rest of the world. 

Merchants played an increasingly important role in Europe during the crusades. The crusades were a group of Christian warriors who fought worldwide [4]. The crusader knights fought people from other religions, and many of their battles were directed at the Byzantine Empire. 

While the rest of Europe established their wealth based on how much land they owned, merchants had cash, which became more and more necessary as the crusades progressed. As a result, the role of merchants developed somewhat from being hated “userers” to being valued members of society who had rank and class of their own. 

Merchants traded with various substances. In fact, they traded with anything they could find that they thought had some value to another country or back home. On their travels, merchants also gathered artifacts for themselves. 

Because of this, merchants became famous for their role in the French renaissance era, as they often had extensive art collections from their travels [2]. Merchants were responsible for bringing goods and food from other countries and selling them at ports and markets. 

Merchants didn’t make any products themselves. Instead, they were a middleman between the producers and consumers. Although merchants initially only traded with commodities necessary for survival, they later started trading in more valuable and profitable items. 

Spices, silk, and tea were among the top commodities traded in the later years of the Middle Ages. These products were sold to nobles at high prices, making the merchants more money and giving the nobles an even greater sense of status. 

Although merchants played an essential role in the Middle Ages and the development of Europe, they weren’t always welcomed in society. So, how did people view merchants in the Middle Ages?

How Did People View Merchants In The Middle Ages?

Merchants had a sort of bad reputation during the Middle Ages. This was primarily thanks to the feudal system that was in place at the time [3]. According to the feudal system, your importance and social status was based on how much land you owned. Most professions belonged to peasants who were farmers or bakers, or skilled laborers. 

The landowners were noblemen, knights, and royals. The royals and clergymen had the most power in the country, followed by knights and noblemen. The peasants worked on the farms and paid taxes to the landowners for protection and a place to stay. 

Because merchants didn’t fit into the feudal system of the day, they got a lot of bad publicity from the church. The church felt merchants had no honor because their trade was profitable. They also didn’t own any land, which made them even more unpopular [4]. 

The church named merchants “userers” since they didn’t produce their own products. Christians weren’t allowed to become merchants, so this profession mainly belonged to the Jewish people. 

Merchants weren’t regarded as part of the society since they didn’t own property and didn’t contribute to the development of the country. Merchants were also regarded as selfish and money hungry since they didn’t produce anything but sold the products made by others for a profit. 

Of course, some merchants sold the produce from their farms at markets. They were regarded differently than international merchants or merchants who only sold products without laboring for them. 

As a result of the bad name given to merchants, foreign traders were strictly regulated at markets [1]. They often had to wait for several hours before gaining access to the markets to give local merchants and shop owners an advantage in selling their goods. Foreign merchants also had to pay taxes on goods they brought into a country or town. 

As you can see, it’s not entirely true that locals and nobles didn’t stand to gain anything from these foreign merchants, as they did make some money through taxes. Nevertheless, merchants were often regarded as lower class, and nobles, knights, and clergymen avoided interacting with them unless necessary. 

Despite their bad reputation, however, the merchant industry and foreign trade sector continued to grow throughout Europe, which means that the same people who looked down on the merchants had no problems buying the luxury items they were selling. 

Merchants often had to entertain and impress noblemen to gain their favor and respect [1]. Having the support of a noble gave the merchants more security and status within the community.

Merchants also started transporting medicine from different countries, which helped Europeans access new medicines for illnesses they could not previously cure. Considering how vital the role of the merchant was in the Middle Ages, you may wonder how safe their job was.

Were Merchants Safe In The Middle Ages?

Considering the bad reputation of merchants, they didn’t receive any help or protection from nobles when entering a new country or province. That, combined with the fact that merchants were known for traveling with expensive stock and usually had money on them, meant that being a merchant in the Middle Ages wasn’t a safe job. 

What Dangers Did Merchants Face In The Middle Ages?

There were two transportation methods in the Middle Ages: land or sea. Of course, most foreign merchants often traveled by sea when buying goods and bringing them home. Traveling by sea was cheaper and often safer than traveling by land. 

However, merchants traveling by sea had to deal with pirates and bad weather that could delay their journey or cause them to lose their products if the ship sank [4]. In addition, merchants who traveled by sea were also gone for months at a time, which didn’t bode well for the family left behind. 

Similarly, merchants traveling by land had their own problems to deal with. Bandits and thieves often attacked merchants for their coins and products. In addition, the roads between cities were often in poor condition and dangerous, and traveling by road in the Middle Ages wasn’t as quick as it is now. 

So, no matter how the merchants decided to travel, they were never really safe. Merchants were also susceptible to illness and disease that spread between the towns they traveled to and from. For example, the bubonic plague that tore through Europe during the Middle Ages would have affected merchants too. 

What Was The Safest Way To Travel In The Middle Ages?

With no safe transportation option, you may wonder which method of transport was the safest for merchants. Well, it may surprise you that traveling by sea was often the safest way to transport your goods in the Middle Ages [4]. 

Traveling by ship meant that you could keep your possessions safe and in one place. While pirates were roaming the oceans, they weren’t as many as the bandits you faced on land. The ocean wasn’t as dangerous as some roads the merchants would use between cities. 

Merchants often traveled in smaller boats along European channels, which weren’t nearly as dangerous and unpredictable as the open ocean [4]. Moreover, merchants avoided crossing the private property of greedy landowners when traveling by sea. 

So, for the most part, merchants traveled by sea whenever they could. Again, this type of transportation wasn’t nearly as safe as it is today. But traveling by ship was cheaper and more secure than traveling by land in the Middle Ages. 

What Was The Biggest Merchant Industry In The Middle Ages?

Merchants from Holland and the Middle East trading.
Merchants from Holland and the Middle East trading
Thomas Wyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned some items traded and transported by merchants in the Middle Ages. Still, a few items were in higher demand than others. Items that were most often bought and sold by international merchants during the Middle Ages were:

  • Enslaved people
  • Perfumes
  • Silk and other textiles
  • Horses
  • Spices
  • Gold and other jewels
  • Leather items
  • Animal skins
  • Salt

These products were commonly transported and traded in the 9th century [4]. As you can see, while some of these items, like horses and salt, could be used by many people, the luxury items were likely mostly bought and used by people of higher status. This implies that merchants primarily catered to the wealthy. 

The merchant industry continued throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Renaissance. Therefore, the merchant sector is likely one of the oldest professions known to still exist today. Merchants were primarily responsible for bridging the gap between Europe and other countries, like Africa and Asia. 

As a result, these cultures started to blend and learn from one another. The role of the merchant is undeniable when discussing how people lived and learned in the Middle Ages and how the introduction of exotic luxury items came to Europe. 


The merchant’s life was not glamorous in the Middle Ages. Merchants were regarded as “userers” and immoral by the church, and they often faced great danger when traveling to new countries and cities. 

Yet, merchants played an important role in society in the Middle Ages and beyond. Many of the goods they transported were essential to the European elite and peasants alike.



Header image courtesy: Publisher New York Ward, Lock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons