Ancient history

The figure of the merchant in the Middle Ages

The figure of the merchant in the Middle Ages is one of the most important, especially in the period after the Commercial Renaissance.

By Me. Cláudio Fernandes

In the context of the Low Middle Ages, one of the outstanding events was the Commercial Renaissance in Europe, which took place between the 13th and 14th centuries. Several factors boosted the development of European trade in this period, among them, the campaigns of the crusades and the breakdown of the Islamic hegemony of the Mediterranean Sea. The formation of urban centers such as Venice, Florence and Genoa also accompanied the commercial development of that time. It was in this environment that the singular figure from merchant.

The Merchant , as well as other members of the urban population (the artisan, for example), did not fit the social qualifications prevailing in the Middle Ages, that is, did not obey the triad:warriors, farmers and speakers. Expansive commerce required a different social type from the triad that founded the feudal system.

The flourishing of the mercantile class enabled the concentration of wealth and the emergence of boroughs, the first cities that contained the intense flow of people and goods. The merchant was the social character who was at the center of the relationships that took place in the commercial spaces of the boroughs. He was the mediator between the products that came from other continents and the buyers of the fairs medieval. The merchant “made himself”, “built himself” from the development of his skills, unlike the noble warrior, for example, who was linked to his origin, to his lineage, to the lineage of nobility.

Because he was, at the same time, a navigator and a merchant, the merchant needed to develop skills that contemplate these two branches of his activity. For that, there was a certain intellectualization required by the experiences of navigation and commerce. The careful study of navigation techniques, the exact handling of instruments used in nautical guidance, mastery of calculations, knowledge of the origin and quality of products, etc. All these requirements made the merchant an essentially different character in the medieval context.

Some historians have pointed out that, alongside the humanists, merchants were largely responsible for “the construction of the Modern Age”, for the creation of the “new world”. Their knowledge and skills favored the rise of the new class that would become the protagonists of modern history:the bourgeoisie. As Aron Gurevic rightly pointed out in his essay “The Merchant”:

“[...] the new understanding of nature, the ability to observe it from within, the perspective assimilation of space and the taste for real detail, the profoundly different sense of time and the understanding of history, the 'humanization' in Christianity, in short, the new appreciation of human individuality; all this corresponded to a more rationalist vision of the world and to the profound needs of the new class, the proto-bourgeoisie. The practice of merchants and the creative activity of individual principle, value and virtue were quite different, but both contributed to a common order, participated in the creation of the new world.” (GUREVIC, Aron. “The merchant”. In:LE GOFF, Jacques (ed.). The man medieval. Editorial Presence:Lisbon, p.188.)

*Image credits:Shutterstock and maljalen

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