Growth in commercial trade during the 13th and 14th centuries moved society away from the feudal system, which had come with negative thinking toward merchants for their failure to contribute to causes greater than personal wealth. Merchants began to educate themselves in mathematics, writing and business, gaining a secure place in society.
Although the term "merchant" simply refers to one who resells goods to make a profit, there were two main types of merchants during medieval times. Those who bought goods locally or from local wholesalers and sold to those in their area were local merchants, or retailers. Those who engaged in finance or concentrated on long-distance trading in regional or international markets were called great merchants.
A guild served to organize a group to protect their rights or priveleges and existed outside governments. Merchant guilds provided the hub of civic organization and were probably the first to appear, organizing as early as the 10th century, according to Iowa State University. Merchant guilds often obtained charters to found towns. Guilds served social functions as well, such as caring for the widow and children of deceased members or helping members who were ill, imprisoned or impoverished.
Because the feudal system had disapproved of merchants' focus on self-sustenance, attitudes toward merchants remained negative even as society came to depend on their services to function. According to Brown University, "His pursuit of gain was considered against the laws of God, because he was not a producer of real goods, but rather a resaler, or a usurer." This role can be seen in literature of the time, which put merchants through torments in Hell or dream states.
As trading grew more prevalent, merchants became more successful. Merchants sometimes married nobility, who were often wealthy and could help them occupy roles in civic government. As education became more available, merchants began to leave behind literature on current events, geneaology and history and the economy. Their wealth allowed them to dress more formally than most others of their time, enjoy better housing and choose from a wider variety of entertainment.
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