Merchants in the middle ages were business people who did trade. The term merchant comes from the Latin term “mercer”, which means “trafficking”, and from the French term “mercies”, which means “wares”. Merchants, a new and discriminated class, were destined to change deeply the economy and social structure of Europe thus ending social immobility.
After the black death, in England, there was an economic revolution that led to a rapid increase of the population. Due to the shortage of land, farming techniques improved so that land could be used more efficiently. For this reason, a part of the population moved from the countryside into town and cities. In the towns the economy was based on barter. The class that later developed as the merchant’ one was the one of the peddlers which emerged in the X century and was composed of people who moved from town to town to provide products.
The medieval society was divided in three social categories: the clergy, the peasants and the nobility. Merchants were not considered a part of these classes and were discriminated. The other classes considered the merchants as people that were trying to gain wealth at the expense of society, even though this same society increasingly depended on merchants for the distribution of goods.
As the nobility grew wealthier, they were able to afford more expensive and exotic items, as the merchants that were travelling from town to town found themselves travelling to distant locations. Journeys to the east were spurred by the Crusades that helped to open up new trade routes in the East, so that merchants brought back itmes such as: African gold and ivory, precious stones, silks, perfumes, and spices from Persia and India, Turkish carpets, Persian ceramics, and Syrian glass and metalwork, all of which were really expensive in Europe.
The activities of the merchants changed deeply the structure of European society. Essentially, there was a shift of power from the landlords and nobility to the merchants. The merchants in fact could charge their products how much they wanted to, and this allowed them to generate considerable profits.
In the eleventh century, local merchants mainly sold their goods in weekly markets. In this period the network of weekly markets was one of the main components of economy. There were also fairs that were held in places of important trade routes. The merchant class largely populated the towns that were expanding, and influenced the economy and also social life of their societies.
With the increase of merchant activities and the rise of their class, it became necessary for them to learn reading, writing, and having a general knowledge of affairs. This led governments to set up schools to take care of the demand for education. The success of the schools, led to the establishment of universities. The rise of the merchant class gained them access to high society and some of them became patrons to the arts, financing artists or building churches.
Merchants, previously discriminated against, gained the favor of society and the clergy through donations to the church and charitable works and eventually became a fundamental part of society.