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The merchants seem to have existed for as long as human history. But when did they begin to "take over" the kings? By that I mean, by the time of the "tycoons" like the Oil and Train people of the 1800's / industrial revolution, it seems to me the kings were already overpowered by businessmen. The American revolution of 1776 also meant merchants (?) were overpowering kings. But what about by the time of the first businesses in the early 1600's like the East India Company and such. They were subsidiaries of the kingdoms it seems to me, but I don't know much.

But before that, like during the 800s CE to the 1500s CE, what was happening with the merchants and their relation to kings? Did the pirates and vikings and such gain as much power as the kings in some places? What was their relation to the kings? When did merchants officially equal or rise above in power to the kings in different places in the world? If I need to narrow the question down, I would wonder in Europe, but I am also interested in China and India.

Basically I am trying to paint a vivid mental picture of how the merchant class gained power equal to or above the kings in Europe, China, and India (or anywhere else). Who were the key merchants (what were their names or ethnicities), and what did they do to aid in this transition?

Also as a tangent, would be helpful to know which books dig deep into this.

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    The earliest was certainly no later than Marcus Licinius Crassus in the Late Roman Republican – Pieter Geerkens Apr 23 at 5:30
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    What makes you think there was a moment in history where merchants were less powerful than the nobility and clergy? The only thing that made one group more powerful than another was a belief system. Also, what makes you think that the three were indistinguishable at all periods of time? – Denis de Bernardy Apr 23 at 7:51
  • These comments sound like they could go toward forming good answers! A valid answer to a question about When? is that it's always been so. – Nat Apr 23 at 9:13
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    @LancePollard: re "* I want to know when that started and how it evolved*" This has happened repeatedly, at different times, just in the history of Western European societies: Sparta, Athens and other Greek city states; Roman Republic; Genoa and Venice; Hanseatic league and Dutch Republic; Westminster Parliamentary systems, and of course the U.S.A.. Which one of these time periods would you like addressed in this question? As an a priori assumption that the circumstances and causes are identical likely precludes a definitive answer. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 23 at 12:20
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    @LancePollard: I've yet to read it myself, but based on what I've read about Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Years" I'm fairly sure you'll find interesting tidbits in it. As to the power relations, suffice it to raise that if colonial Indians had all spit on the British locals, the latter would have drowned. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 23 at 13:25
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Speaking very generally, merchant groups were relatively marginalized in all pre-modern societies. They formed networks across city-states in different regions, but were not allowed to take strong political footholds in more centralized states. Political rulers saw economic power as a threat, a (sometimes necessary) evil and were generally successful in keeping merchants subordinate.

One relative exception that illustrates the rule might be Song China. Merchants were thriving there economically in a way the world had never really seen, but politically they were still pretty subordinate. Most dynasties that followed (most notably the Ming and Qing) frequently cracked down on merchant power and even tried to stop all external trade for long periods of time.

What happened in Europe from the early modern period onward was more or less unprecedented in world history. Merchants started to have formidable political power during the late medieval period in certain parts of coastal Europe, along the Baltic (under the Hanseatic League) and Mediterranean (especially what became Italy). The Republic of Venice was an early and important city-state to be effectively ruled by the merchant class. In time the Medicis managed to take the papacy. I'm not aware of any earlier example of merchants seizing that level of political power. So that might be my direct answer to your headline question.

If you'd like more detail on how merchant classes were constrained in pre-modern societies around the world and how different early modern Europe was from previous patterns, I recommend the book Pre-industrial societies: anatomy of the pre-modern world by Patricia Crone.

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  • Excellent, this is exactly what I needed. Cleared up a lot of doubts. – Lance Pollard Apr 23 at 13:29
  • When you say "Merchants started to have formidable political power during the late medieval period", does that book go into it? I am specifically wondering how pirates and other ship people traveling the seas gained power and if they overtook the kings, like the vikings and such. – Lance Pollard Apr 23 at 13:34
  • It may only be a few paragraphs here and there, but I believe she at least touches on seafaring groups and their relation to land-based kingdoms. – Brian Z Apr 23 at 13:35
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    She mentions the Vikings exactly twice in that book, as "barbarians" rather than "merchants". – Brian Z Apr 23 at 13:38
  • Lance Pollard: When you say "Merchants started to have formidable political power during the late medieval period", does that book go into it? I am specifically wondering how pirates and other ship people traveling the seas gained power an --- THAT is marginal. One important thing about most despots is this: they had a view that everything in their land belongs to them and so is fair game when taxing people. Wealth is a merchant's clout politically but if someone powerful at a whim can take all of it ?? – Stefan Skoglund Apr 23 at 13:55
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Basically I am trying to paint a vivid mental picture of how the merchant class gained power equal to or above the kings in Europe, China, and India (or anywhere else). Who were the key merchants (what were their names or ethnicities), and what did they do to aid in this transition?

IMHO, you are trying to paint a picture of a world that has never existed! Some merchants or groups of merchants acquired considerable power, but ultimately they all had to bow their heads to their own sovereign or some rival feudal power.

There are some interesting examples, in which merchants could pressure princes into submission, challenge them on the field of battle or gain immense influence as financiers.

  • Hanseatic League: Possibly the best example. A more or less loose alliance of cities which were governed by city councils dominated by local merchants. Most of these cities and towns owed nominal allegiance to the German emperor. In practice, the cities had to worry mostly about their more immediate neighbors, notably the dukes of Mecklenburg or the king of Denmark. The League participated in numerous wars as a naval power in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. It reached its zenith after a war against the Danish king Waldemar Atterdag: Initially the war was a total disaster as its fleet was destroyed unaware, while the army and much of the crew were disembarked for a siege. Yet, the humiliated League didn't disintegrate, managed to assemble a new fleet and forced the king to sign a favorable peace treaty. The second half of the 14th century is also an interesting time with respect to piracy, the Baltic Sea turned into a completely pirate-infested water. Numerous knights and lesser nobles had been recruited as privateers and to supply assieged Stockholm in a conflict over the throne of Sweden. Yet, when the war ended, these Victual Brothers didn't retire but turned to piracy.
  • Italian city states: The Italian maritime republics were extremely rich and powerful. The most important cities were Genua and Venice. If it were not for Napoleon, Venice might still exist as an independent country! As far as I can see, there was less of a conflict between a traditional feudal aristocracy and a merchant class, but the aristocracy became heavily engaged in commercial endeavours. The power remained in the hands of a limited number of families who owned land, served in political positions as admirals etc. Piracy was a great issue in the Mediterannean Sea. The character differed. Muslim pirates (or privateers) attacked Christian seafarers and abducted passengers and crew into slavery - and Christian pirates did likewise with captured Muslim seafarers. The piracy didn't end until the early 19th century.
  • Some names of important merchants/bankers or such families:
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  • While not the earliest example Jakob Fugger was arguably more powerful than any king at the time – Martin Erhardt Apr 23 at 23:09

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