What was the status of merchants during the feudal age in Europe? Did they, like peasants, serve/have allegiance to certain land owning lord? If yes, do they have different status or privileges from usual peasants? Or are they free from allegiance? If the latter, how did they become free from feudal lords who were generally powerful?

  • 1
    Can you be a bit more specific? There's all sorts of different people who can be considered "merchants", from poor village peddlers to people owning shares in West India Company
    – DVK
    Dec 26, 2012 at 16:37
  • @DVK how about people who make (most of) their living from trading?
    – Fitri
    Dec 26, 2012 at 16:58
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    I think they called those "peddelers". I'm not sure there was enough trade to make the question meaningful, and I'm not sure "feudal Europe" is specific enough to make the question meaingful. You might look into the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanseatic_League; they might serve as prototype merchants.
    – MCW
    Dec 26, 2012 at 17:51
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    Imprecise. Please specify century and location. Dec 27, 2012 at 6:37
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    It is simply not possible to "be generic" when dealing with a thousand years of history from Greenland to the Urals and Levant, from Norway to North Africa. Dec 27, 2012 at 20:05

3 Answers 3


Merchants during the feudal system, tended to be Jews or other "foreigners." Lombards, Genovese and Venetians, (from the most entrepreneurial parts of Italy), and Greeks, tended to perform this function in northern Europe, Dutch (and other western Europeans) in Eastern Europe, etc.

Merchants were basically independent of the feudal system, being neither landowners nor peasants. As such, they were regarded with suspicion by the local elites. Their main selling point was that they had good connections with foreigners who could help them procure scarce goods. Hence, they were likely to be "foreign" (rather than local) members of a given society; most locals would not want to take on such a "foreign" role, at least at home.

Merchants weren't particularly well respected, but they were tolerated, and were allowed to live a bit outside the usual rules because they performed an essential (trading) service.

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    Don't leave out the Venetians and Genoans. Mar 12, 2015 at 21:14
  • @TylerDurden: Included them.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 12, 2015 at 21:52
  • Can you back up your statements with some resources? I never heared about Dutch being the main trading community in Eastern Europe (or other western Europeans.. you mean French or what?). There were significant Greek, Serbian, Jewish etc communities, though. Since the concept of nations is coming from about the XIXth century, "foreigners" are also a pretty vague term. Many cites in Europe were cross-cultural and ethnically mixed, and just as the nobility, they could be ethnically very far from the "official majority" or what retrospective popular history thinks to be majority.
    – Greg
    May 20, 2015 at 8:46
  • @Greg: I said "Dutch and others." The Dutch were invited to the party because of their seafaring capabilities. I was told this when I was in Gdansk, Poland, where a lot of buildings have Dutch architecture.
    – Tom Au
    May 20, 2015 at 13:24
  • @TomAu To be exact "Dutch and other Western Europeans". Dutch may have some connection to northern ports, but they were far from important, especially after the fall of Hanseatic League. Eastern Europe is more than just some ports on the Baltic see. Also, if you check the ethnography of cities around, i.e. the people how were engaging in local trade, you find few "western europeans".
    – Greg
    May 25, 2015 at 14:24

Merchants usually raised from the people of the cities, that is craftsmen. They usually did not originate from the peasants and as such had no allegiance to the feudal lords.

They also could originate from the city aristocracy, especially in Italy.

  • how could they resist being "conquered" by the powerful feudal lords, and who gave them security, protection, etc.?
    – Fitri
    Dec 26, 2012 at 16:46
  • @Fitri merchants often traded over water paths, that way they often were subject to piracy. The protection could be by hired mercenaries or sailors; or the guards from the merchants' home city. Some cities had formidable armed forces and protected their convoys.
    – Anixx
    Dec 26, 2012 at 16:52
  • I see.. who held power in these cities?
    – Fitri
    Dec 26, 2012 at 16:59
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    @Anixx: I think it's almost a contradiction in terms. Who owes homage to whom in a feudal republic? Specifically in Venice? Dec 26, 2012 at 17:50
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    @Anixx: Ah, I see! But the term is misleading - maybe just "merchant republics" would have been better? Dec 26, 2012 at 18:24

First of all, peasants were not slaves or anything like that. They were essentially renting a given lend, and most often than not they came into this relationship volunteerly as free men. In many if not most lands and eras getting free from this relationship was actually possible, and peasants could move to another landlord. After bigger wars or diseases that killed large part of the population of a given area, settlers from other lands are often came to work on the empty land.

While the relationship of feudal landlords and peasant were not rosy, being landless (therefore independent from a landlord) was not difficult - being landless AND SURVIVE in an agriculture based society, that was difficult. For certain ethnics and religious were even forbidden by law to work as a peasant, e.g. Gypsies and Jews in Eastern Europe.

Back to your original question: There were all kind of different kind of merchants. Some could have special status, or altogether could form independent communities. Merchants generally formed guilds to control and regulate local trade and negotiate with authorities. As cities are natural market centers and trade-posts, these guilds could give much power to a city or town. Many cities had local independence or were independent states. Independent state means independent not only local feudal rulers, but independent from kings, having own legislation, army, etc. Such city states with elected civil leaders were actually very common along major trading routes (e.g. Venice and Italian city states), and these cities often formed alliances (The Hansa or the Strasbourg-Zurich-Bern-Basel alliance) to protect themselves.

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