Trade: Occupations and Work Habits

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Trade: Occupations and Work Habits


Economic Endeavor . Medieval trade was primarily an economic, rather than a social, endeavor, dedicated to buying and selling transactions in local and distant market settings. Sedentary or peripatetic, its principal participants were the medieval merchants or traders whose livelihood depended upon their purchasing goods cheaply and selling them dear. The life of bringing goods to market was never an easy one in the Middle Ages; the merchant was made the target of church doctrine and the golden egg of regional nobility. Exchange did, however, have its potential for lavish compensation, and despite the difficult environment of risky transport conditions, political decentralization, and fiscal disharmony, the key mercantile figures of the Champagne Fairs, the Flemish textile trade, or the Hanseatic League all made a good living. As a collective, medieval merchants were to leave a legacy of having fostered new tools of investment and exchange and having brought respectful contact through goods among disparate contemporary peoples.

Characteristics of Traders . Medieval traders bought and sold or exchanged goods in trade. Except for the fact that commerce was their immediate undertaking, it is difficult to establish other essential features of medieval traders as a group and thereby to identify the main aspects of their occupation as buyers and sellers. First, medieval traders were both a settled and a highly mobile group. Many a


Reginald of Durham, devoted disciple and biographer of Godric of” Fínchale, wrote one of the few surviving accounts of the life of a medieval merchant, telling of the Englishman Godric’s early life as scavenger, peddler, businessman, and sailor and of his later path as a hermit attracting visitors such as Reginald himself to the Fínchale forest near Durham. The following is an extract from the biography of Godric, who was born at Walpole, Norfolk, circa 1065 and died in Fínchale, Durham, on 21 May, circa 1170.

When the boy had passed his childish years quietly at home; then, as he began to grow to manhood, he began to follow more prudent ways of life, and to learn carefully and persistently the teaching of worldly forethought. Wherefore he those not to follow the life of a husbandman, but rather to study, learn and exercise the rudiment of more subtle conceptions. For this reason, aspiring to the merchant’s trade, he began to follow the chapman’s way of life, first learning how to gain in small bargains and things of insignificant price; and thence, while yet a youth, his mind advanced little by little to buy and sell and gain from things of greater expense. For, in his beginnings, he was wont to wander with small wares around the villages and farmsteads of his own neighborhood; but, in process of time, he gradually associated himself by compact with city merchants. Hence, within a brief space of time, the youth who had trudged for so many weary hours from village to village, from farm to farm, did so profit by his increase of age and wisdom as to travel with associates of his own age through towns and boroughs, fortresses and cities, to fairs and to all the various booths of the market-place, in pursuit of his public chaffer. He went along the high-way, neither puffed up by the good testimony of his conscience nor downcast in the nobler part of his soul by the reproach of poverty.

Source: Reginald of Durham, “Life of St. Godric,” in G, G, Coulton, comp., Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918).

medieval merchant resided, with his whole household, in a town and lived by selling wares in the local area. For a significant number of the earlier medieval traders, the sedentary way of life was, however, not seen to be the merchant’s ultimate vocation.

Travels . Traveling from town to town along specific trade routes was characteristic of many medieval traders, but the culminating goal of the profession seems to have been to become a rich and powerful “middleman” of exchanges across or through the Mediterranean or Baltic Seas, east and west, north and south. Undoubtedly not entirely representative even of fellow traders, since at the peak of his sixteen-year career he turned to the life of a hermit, the Englishman Godric of Fínchale is nonetheless an interesting illustration of a twelfth-century medieval merchant. Once an adult, he became first a chapman or peddler for four years in Lincolnshire, then a merchant traveling on foot north to Scotland and south to Rome, and finally a maritime trader with loci or interests in two merchant ships, which sailed frequently to Denmark and Flanders. Thus, although he began his mercantile career living at his family home and peddling goods at nearby villages and farms, in time his mobility became ever greater and the sphere in which he sold goods ever wider. By the thirteenth century, a sedentary lifestyle for the middleman returned to become in fact the most esteemed, especially in Italy, where it reflected one’s mercantile expertise that goods ordered could arrive safely, unaccompanied by any peripatetic trader.

Merchants’ Exchange . Second, characterizing further the occupation of the medieval trader poses another difficulty arising from the contemporary methods of economic exchange. Medieval merchants are usually identified as such because they sold goods for money. Whether money was a part of a medieval exchange has little to do with identifying any partner in the transaction as a merchant. The far more important element of the situation would be the consideration as to whether any party to the exchange saw transactions per se as his sole source of livelihood. The medieval merchant was the one whose principal endeavor was to survive by buying and reselling, and thus necessarily he was the one selling for more what he had acquired for less, to be able to live on the difference. If a medieval man could live from the return on his “outside affairs,” such that he could keep a household and a wife to provide him with “fresh stockings … good food and drink … white sheets … and privies about which I am silent,” he was worthy of the title merchant.

Wealth Gathering . If economic survival from exchanges was the medieval trader’s basic purpose, gathering much wealth was his next priority. This task required creating the greatest spread possible between the purchase cost of an item to the trader and its end sale price. Two economic “verities” already existed in the Middle Ages: the rarer the item the greater its value, and the greater the value of an item the greater its “markup” potential, the realizable difference between its purchase and sale price. Thus, trade in luxury goods, particularly items rare at any one point in time or region, offered the greatest opportunity for high return in exchanges. This type of trade would explain in large part the reason long-distance travel to bring luxury goods from their source to a market far away where they were considered rare was seen to be the pinnacle of a medieval merchant’s undertakings.

Transport . Sea voyages, overland transits, and the transporting of the goods in whatever circumstances were all part and parcel of the activities by which medieval merchants earned a good living. These mercantile efforts were not without cost. In the earlier Middle Ages all travelers confronted the dearth of roads. For merchants carrying any obvious prize for preying bandits, safe passage of goods and self were often hard to secure. At sea, pirates obstructed the use of coastal routes in some areas and political enemies resisted port entry. Given the vagaries of weather, marauders,

and wars, medieval transportation conditions were never so consistent as to become automatic to the trader. The only sure aspect of the job was that a market somewhere had to be reached to make the sale of goods purchased.

Profit Motive . The aspect of the general attitude of medieval merchants to their trade most striking to their contemporaries seems to have been their eagerness to practice it. When described by nonmerchants in a positive light, this zeal was seen to be the driving force behind boldness in travel and attention to “subtle conceptions.” More often, however, the enthusiasm with which medieval merchants sold goods was painted, again by nonmerchants, in a negative light. It was seen as greed or cupidity, which drove merchants to be deceitful in tampering with merchandise or measurement of its quantity, or even to sell more or at a higher price than needed for their own necessities. They were portrayed as weak to the temptations of fraudulent transactions and unmindful of the main tenet of exchange that no profit should accrue to him who simply buys and sells and adds no value to the goods themselves.

Accounts . There are few surviving documents in which medieval traders characterize themselves. Late medieval manuals written by merchants as collections of pertinent trade information are one such source. In their collection of advice on the quality of specific goods, routes, and markets and their practical data on regional weights, measures, and currencies, traders reflect the intense interest in their business invariably attributed to them by others. They also let the reader imagine that they recognized their heavy dependence on experience and reflected on their own and that of others. The merchant was a self-consciously free man whose hard work, or luck, could bring him fame and fortune. Godric of Fínchale had, for example, trained first in “how to gain in small bargains and things of insignificant price” and only then “advanced little by little to buy and sell and gain from things of greater expense.”

Social Group . Although widely disdained in the Middle Ages, merchants could not be identified by any detectable characteristic appearance. They came from all regions and parentage. The description of Godric, the seafaring merchant, is interesting because it is so detailed, but his broad shoulders, deep chest, middle stature, long face, piercingly clear gray eyes, bushy brows, broad forehead, long, open nostrils, comely curved nose, and pointed chin would have been his even had he become a husbandman like his father. Clearly, however, traders were recognizable to one another, and lively camaraderie was an important part of medieval merchant culture. Godric could not wait “to travel with associates … in pursuit of his public chaffer.”


G. G. Coulton, comp., Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918).

Odd Langholm, Economics in the Medieval Schools. Wealth, Exchange, Value, Money and Usury according to the Paris Theological Tradition, 1200–1350 (Leiden & New York: E. J. Brill, 1992).

Robert S. Lopez and Irving W. Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents Translated with Introductions and Notes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955).