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Medieval Travel Guide

Medieval Merchants

After the fall of the Roman Empire, it took a long time until the Medieval Merchants could start anything resembling a real trade.  Communications between different nations, even between towns of the same country, were often interrupted, and there were such periods of poverty and distress, that the commerce was reduced to the simple exchange of the necessities of life.

When the order was restored, and society and the minds of people became more composed, the commerce recovered his position. France was perhaps the first country in Europe in which this happy change took place. Frequent communications were maintained with the East.

Medieval Merchants sought their supplies on the coast of Syria, and especially at Alexandria in Egypt, which was a kind of depot for goods obtained from the rich countries lying beyond the Red Sea. Groceries, linen, Egyptian paper, pearls, perfumes were imported.

In exchange the Medieval Merchants offered chiefly the precious metals in bars rather than coined, iron, wines, oil, and wax. The agriculture was not prepared to offer more than what was required for the producers themselves. Industry was either purely domestic, or confined to monasteries and to the houses of nobility. Even the Kings employed women or serf workmen to manufacture the coarse stuffs with which they clothed themselves.

Medieval Merchants-Merchants Vessel In A Storm-15th Century
Merchants Vessel In A Storm-15th Century

The bad state of the roads, the little security they offered, the extortions to which the foreign Medieval Merchants were subjected were obstacles to the development of commerce. Above all, the main obstacle was the system of fines and tolls which each landowner thought right to extract before letting the merchants pass through their domains.

Under the powerful and administrative hand of Charlemagne, the roads were better kept up, and the rivers were made more navigable. The coasts were protected from pirates incursions. Lighthouses were erected at dangerous points. More important, treaties of commerce with foreign nations guaranteed the liberty and security of French Medieval Merchants abroad.

After Charlemagne, the things started to go bad again. The Church, using its social influence, tried to use its authority in endeavoring to remedy the miserable state of things. Unfortunately, the Episcopal edicts, papal anathemas and decrees of councils, had only a partial effect, and at any moment, the agricultural and commercial operations were liable to be interrupted.

However, it was the Church who again assisted the interest of civilization, and helped commerce emerge from this state of distress. "The Peace or Truce of God", established in 1041, endeavored to stop at least the internal feudal wars.

The conquest of Palestine by the Crusaders had first opened all the towns and harbors to the Western merchants. Many of them were able to establish themselves there, with all sort of privileges and exemptions from taxes, gladly offered to them by the nobles who established their feudal power in the newly conquered territories. In foreseeing that the occupation of the Holy Land will not be permanent, the Medieval Merchants based in the maritime towns of the West, switched their focus to a commercial alliance with Egypt. One of this maritime towns was Marseille, in France. In the 12th and 13th Century, she reached a very high position in the commerce with Egypt.

Medieval Merchants-Trading In Levant-15th Century
Trading In Levant-15th Century

Besides the manufacturing cities like Rouen and Caen, Paris began to foreshadow the development which it was destined to undergo. It was, however, outside the walls of Paris that the commercial activity progressed more rapidly.

The northern provinces united manufacturing industry with traffic, and this double source of local prosperity was the origin of their enormous wealth. Ghent and Bruges in the Low Countries, and Beauvais and Arras in France, were celebrated for their manufacture of cloths, carpets, and serge, and Cambrai for its fine cloths. The Medieval Merchants in these industrious cities then established their powerful corporations, giving rise to the commercial freedom so favorable to trade.

In the Middle Ages, religious feasts and ceremonials almost always gave rise to fairs. The Medieval Merchants naturally came to exhibit their goods where the largest number of people afforded the greatest promise of quickly selling them. Temporary and periodical markets were established. Fairs multiplied especially in the centre and south of France.

The gradual extension of the King’s power was a decisive factor in ensuring the development of commerce. As early as the reign of Louis IX, many laws and regulations proved that. Among the chief enactments was one which lead to the formation of the harbor of Aigues-Mortes on the Mediterranean. Another was the publication of the book of "Weights and Measures" by Etienne Boileau, a book in which the ancient statutes of the various trades were arranged and codified. And, a very important enactment which greatly benefited the Medieval Merchants, by guaranteeing the security of vendors, and, at the same time, to ensure purchasers against fraud.

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