1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

blog History for Fantasy Writers: Merchant Guilds

Discussion in 'Research' started by Black Dragon, Jul 1, 2018.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    skip.knox submitted a new blog post:

    History for Fantasy Writers: Merchant Guilds
    by E.L. Skip Knox


    A merchant guild is a great resource for any of your characters who might be a merchant.

    Why would any writer make a character a merchant? He might be fine for a minor character, some colorful fellow met at a tavern, and certainly just the sort of someone to rob on an empty highway, but for a major character? Yawn.

    But don’t overlook the merchant. He has contacts in multiple cities, knows how to move money and goods around, and he might very well know multiple languages and be conversant with foreign cultures. While some were booringly respectable, some “merchants” were little more than bandits who did legitimate business as it suited them. And, while I keep saying “he” in this paragraph, merchants can be any gender and any race, so there’s lots of flexibility in the role.

    The Merchant’s Guild

    Most merchants belonged to a guild. It’s not uncommon to find a Merchant Guild in a fantasy novel, but these are nearly always international in scope and that’s not historically how guilds worked. They were firmly local. Belonging to a guild usually gave you a seat at the City Council, so it was locally powerful. Beyond the city walls, though, the merchant guild of City A had no influence in City B. Although they went by the same name, and share some aspects of a craft guild, merchant guilds...
    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
    ImaginationGoneWild likes this.
  2. Ban

    Ban Staff Article Team

    "Why would any writer make a character a merchant? He might be fine for a minor character, some colorful fellow met at a tavern, and certainly just the sort of someone to rob on an empty highway, but for a major character? Yawn."

    And now I'm determined to have a merchant as the lead of a story. That's not what you intended, but thank you nonetheless ;)
    Dark Squiggle likes this.
  3. Tom

    Tom Istari

    I've been thinking of making a merchant lead for a while now! I technically have one already, as the main character of a fantasy parody--a cloth merchant dragged into a quest by a sentient sword. But I would like to feature a merchant as the lead for a serious story as well.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    Let me know when you've written it, Ban. I'll read it!
    Ban likes this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    Same reply as for Ban: I'll read it. I never even thought about the comedy angle, but the fat merchant stereotype--have a look at some 15th/16thc paintings of merchants--and they're obvious for the part.
    Tom likes this.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    PS, I can scarcely believe I left out old dustyfoot.

    The medieval phrase was "pied poudre" which translates pretty much straight across as dusty foot. It was a sort of nickname for merchants when the man himself not infrequently traveled the road along which his goods. That's a little more rough-and-ready sort of merchant.

    I first encountered the word in Henri Pirenne's little book on medieval cities, a book that was influential in getting me interested in urban medieval history. And there I go failing to get the phrase a mention.

    I do think "dustyfoot" would make a fine nickname for a medieval merchant character.
  7. Dark Squiggle

    Dark Squiggle Lore Master

    Thanks for the article. Merchants are my favorite group, and I find Fantasy, and Literature in general, does not have many of them, or see them as valuable the way it sees kings and knights as valuable.

    Merchants were and are the future. Their guildhouses were, and remain, among the most beautiful of Europe's architecture.They blazed trails, opened shipping lanes, built cities and factories, protected the weak (need labor/customers), and provided social mobility. Merchants fought the Lords and Kings who enslaved the people, but trusting one is like riding a tiger - no pretense of chivalry, the world is measured with the mighty dollar! - you must hang on to the ears or it'll bite you.

    I know very little about the medieval times, though, are there any good layman's' books about Medieval merchants?

    The peddler (small-time merchant) held Europe together and built the USA. US peddlers were far from fat. They walked 30+ miles a day, with 200+ lbs. on their backs, to sell manufactured goods, such as glass, guns, gunpowder, dolls, toys, bells, axeheads, knives, shoes, buckles, buttons, whalebone, fancy dresses and more. They fixed scissors and pans, and brought news to the isolated farms. They went lightly armed, and relied on maintaining healthy relationships with their customers - Indians, Irish, Whites, Blacks, Mormons, Quakers, Puritans, Chinese, Missionaries, French, British, outlaws, soldiers and more - rather than intimidating them. In the days before mail, they were the postal service, even if they only frequented some areas once or twice a year.

    Jewish merchants historically were responsible for defending their communities against their neighbors and the Church.

    Wasn't the Hanse an international Medieval merchants (specifically shipper's) guild?
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    There are scads of books on medieval merchants. The older ones are good for overviews; much of the more recent scholarship looks at specific merchants or towns, or some other micro-history approach. These are wonderful for getting historical tidbits, but will also contain much else besides.

    Sylvia Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London
    E.M. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers
    Henri Pirenne, The Medieval Cities, Their Origins and Revival of Trade
    Fritz Rorig, The Medieval Town
    Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prato
    Peter Spufford, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (not directly on merchants but the best thing I've read on money)
    (I'd better stop now)

    Do look at the histories of towns in general and of specific towns. Most of our sources concern those with influence and wealth, so there's far more about wool merchants, say, than about cobblers. IOW, plenty of good merchant info there.
    Dark Squiggle likes this.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    Also, the German Hanse. That was an association of cities mainly in northern Germany, doing business along the Baltic and North Sea. Originally it was a treaty or an agreement between Hamburg and Luebeck, but it grew to include a core of about twenty but well over a hundred towns were members at one time or another. Because they were towns, the Hanse mainly represented the interests of merchants, but more generally it was a kind of self-defense league against two main enemies: rival towns in Denmark, Poland and elsewhere; and the rural nobility who argued and even fought with the towns over countless slights and privileges.

    BTW, the word also appears as Hansa. "Luft" means "air" in German. Thus, Lufthansa. Air guild, or something like that.

Share This Page