Trade in The Middle Ages

Trade in the Middle Ages

Trade, of course, never ceased even in the most static period of the Middle Ages. Itinerant merchants plied their way from town to town in spite of bands of outlaws, avaricious nobles, taxes, and tolls. Goods from the East filtered through the Italian cities to points in central and northern Europe. Soon merchants were buying articles made in one part of Europe to sell in another. The knowledge that goods could be sold stimulated changes in methods of production. Enterprising craftsmen became merchants. They secured raw materials and put them out to other handicraftsmen who carried on small manufacturing in their homes. For a time the merchant capitalist dominated the productive process. The expansion of markets called forth new forms of manufacture; the power driven machine, the factory, wages. The extensiveness of trade required money, banks, credit. And so the economic system changed into modern industrial capitalism at the heart of which lie trade and the market.

The trade of the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries was carried on mainly in the form of monopoly. The right to do business was a privilege dispensed by the head of the state for a price. But perhaps more fundamental as a reason for the large scale of trading organizations was the risk involved and the initial expense of outfitting expeditions. Foreign trade especially was marked by the monopolistic character of the participants. The Merchant Adventurers, the Muscovy Company, and the East India Company were synonyms for power and wealth. Their leaders were merchants whose commercial and political influence put them in the front rank of the nation's citizens.