History for Fantasy Writers: Merchant Guilds

merchant guild

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 were rather different organizations. The chief difference should be obvious: they didn’t make things, they sold things. The stereotype is the cloth merchant, about which more in a minute, but it applies also to things like a grocer (dry goods) or an apothecary. As you can imagine, the guild regulations didn’t say much about journeymen, nor about creating a master piece. They had a great deal to say about where goods were acquired and where they were sold.

As a very rough rule of thumb, the richer the customer, the more prestigious the guild. Goldsmiths had a higher standing socially than did a carpenter. On the mercantile side, this was manifested in two areas: one, wholesale ranked higher than retail (more money involved); two, the quality of the goods being sold mattered. Silk ranked higher than fustian. Also, keep in mind that while most merchants had a specialty or a strength, they typically dealt in a surprising range of goods. Just because your guy is a wool merchant doesn’t mean he can’t do a little business in potions or leather goods.

Another aspect that set merchant guilds apart from craft guilds, and this is important, was scale. A shoemaker could operate a shop of limited size. There were some industries where a shop might have twenty or thirty employees, but this was very rare. For the most part, it was the master plus a few journeymen and a few apprentices.

The merchant, however, could do business far and wide. He might own entire warehouses. He might have operations in other cities. He could branch out into other areas of activity, such as banking and lending. He could, in short, get filthy rich in ways that even the most successful craftsmen in the toniest guilds could only dream of.

And that translates to influence.

I said that guilds in many places had seats on the City Council. Guess which kind had more seats? It was the merchants who influenced politics. The craft guilds, where they had any presence at all, were generally followers, not leaders. When they did try to lead, politics quickly veered off into social revolution (e.g., the Ciompi Revolt), of the sort that common workers always lose. If you have unrest of one sort or another in a city, it would make perfect sense to have the Merchant Guild involved, either as the instigator or as the authority trying to put down a revolt.

The big money in trade was cloth. Cloth merchants were influential in just about every medieval city, from as early as there were merchants. Wholesalers in other areas (foodstuffs, metals, mining) were generally important but at a second rank. The cloth trade had some interesting permutations. A cloth merchant sent agents out into the countryside to buy wool. He brought it into his warehouses, then the wool was sent into the countryside again where peasants would spin it into cloth (cheap labor). His agents then gather it up and brought it back to town, where weavers and fullers and dyers did their work. Then the merchant sold the finished product, often to far-distant towns. Maybe you could develop something like this for the creation of magical artifacts.

One other aspect of merchant guilds is worth mentioning. They found that even operating at a city-wide guild level was sometimes not enough to be able to secure stable business. Since they influenced their City Councils, they would sometimes form leagues–formal agreements between cities that gave mutual assurances on a number of points. Their merchants would be tried in their own courts. They would meet regularly to arrange trading agreements. They would defend one another from attacks (rural barons were the major problem).

For the Fantasy Writer

Guilds were very much about control, so a Merchant Guild would naturally be concerned to control the trade in magical artifacts, potions, even creatures. They might control the equipment by which the purity of potions was tested. They might have inspectors to ensure certain kinds of artifacts were never brought into the city.

They would worry about the shipment of goods, and so would pressure the City Council to make sure the roads were safe—not only from monsters but also from predatory noblemen seeking to impose “tolls” along the way. A Merchant Guild was generally pretty wealthy, so they might even be able to hire their own protection.

Guild Hall of Hildesheim, Germany

A Merchant Guild could make a great foe. Not a primary foe, but one where our heroes might encounter red tape, officious inspectors, even temporary incarceration. A Merchant Guild might also make an interesting front for some more nefarious organization.

You might put some thought to who can join the Merchant Guild. Maybe anyone at all could join the Wool Merchants Guild, but what about the Artifact Merchants Guild? Are dwarves allowed to be members? Sprites? Mermen? Do your non-human beings even have guilds?

Does any of this spark ideas in you? Would you be willing to share?

Do you have questions about the historical guild system? I can only answer for Europe. Sorry!

E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.

E.L. Skip Knox
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Lizzie Butterworth
Lizzie Butterworth
2 years ago

I’d forgotten about this post, but am now just starting writing a novel 1st draft of a fantasy romance with a wealthy merchants’ daughter as the main protagonist, I’ll have to check out some of your recommended reading to add to my already long list!

2 years ago

im studying about decline of merchant guilds especially at 17-18-19th centuries, any suggestions about reading?

Dark Squiggle
Dark Squiggle
4 years ago

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?

4 years ago

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 😉

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.

Roel Karstenberg
4 years ago

“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 😉