Daily Life in Medieval Europe >> Business in Medieval Europe

Business in Medieval Europe

the activity of making, buying, or supplying goods of services for money

Weavers, craftsmen, merchants, and many other people took part in business during the Middle Ages. The base of selling a product in those times was similar to those we have today. People such as shepherds and farmers were producing raw materials while craftsmen and weavers used those materials to create manufactured products. In the end, those were sold at guilds or by merchants. Not all, but some successful merchants were able to earn great sums of money. Business also led young men to their careers, becoming an apprentice in a guild. The working of business during Medieval Europe was magnificent.

Merchants were people who bought and sold goods to create and investment, mainly by buying raw materials and having people manufacture it and sold it at the end. In Medieval Europe, the strongest market was the wool market1, especially the wool from England and flocks from monasteries were highly recognized and popular among the merchants from anywhere2. In some cases, a merchant would have bought the wool in large quantities. In other cases, they would have made contracts with a church. A merchant would have paid money in advance and paid an annual payment as well, buying the monastery’s entire shears of wool. These contracts lasted for several of years, usually for seven3.

With the wool a merchant bought, he would have gone to a weaver to create a product. As he supplies the weaver with wool, he would have asked for a specified weave. However, merchants did not only put the job on one weaver, but would have had several of them who were scattered around a town4. With the wool market strong for them, many weavers would have benefited and had opportunities to make a living for his family who would have helped him with the weaving and spinning he does.

Today, we have many markets going up and down in their value. The wool market was no different. When the wool market was strong, as it usually was, weavers would had have merchants coming, bringing them large amounts of wool to weave and manufacture. The money he would have made by selling merchants their product would have had the family well fed who lived in the upper floors of his dwelling. However, when the wool market dropped, the weaver’s main income of wool, the merchants, would normally go to different people to place their capital or would have turned their attention to other raw materials. The drop in the market would have normally been caused by war, as it has divided trade routes for merchants5. This would have created chaos for weavers, as they would have had no job and their families would have been in front of church doors begging for food.

With the wool market helping merchants have big profits in most cases, it was not the only product which they had laid their hands on. Spices, wine, and metal were one of the many goods which were used for trading6. Merchants would have went to where there was a lot of trade, in most cases this was Italy as it was country that geographically benefited for trading, being near many countries and was the center of them. Merchants would have traded goods with other merchants, sold some goods instantly if he could find a customer. For some goods, they would wait till its market becomes stronger so they can sell with a higher price7. These tips helped many merchants into earning a great profit. However, some who might not be as skilled or lucky could have even lost money.

Guilds were formed by masters, people who were professionals in a certain craft. They are the people who take part in the creation of goods in business. Their guild had other people working on the same craft. However, between these people, there might have been competition. Some could have lowered their prices so they could have sold more. Some could have lowered their quality so more goods could be produced with ease. To avoid these, guilds has a set of strict rules everyone had to obey. These rules consisted of wages, prices, and standard of quality of their goods.

In theses guilds, you would see the Master’s apprentices and Journeymen who came to get a job. The apprentices, which is some cases was the Master’s son, who learn their master’s craft for a certain period of years, usually seven8. With hours of hard work a day, they would gain skill and experience with their craft. Once they had finished their learning as an apprentice, they would work as Journeymen (Journey meaning ‘Day’ in French)9. They would work in place and earn money which was saved up so they can have a store of their own. Women also took part in guild buy they were not treated as well as the men. Most of them were destined to an arranged marriage with the Guild Masters and almost never became Guild Mistresses themselves. Although some crafts like silk pinning and embroidery had Mistresses, they were completely governed and controlled by the men10.

Peasants worked in farms and grew crops in the country sides. Their production of vegetables, meat, eggs, and others were sold in markets and supported the European economy strongly11. Most of the economical growth was done with the help of the peasants increasing their efficiency of production. This was done by two main reasons, one being the increase of land. Peasants cut down trees and drained swamps to be able to use those lands for farming. This helped them add an acre of two, but in some cases new villages were brought in, which would have also spread the workforce. Another reason for the peasant’s increased production was the way they used the land. Fertilizers were scarce in Medieval Europe, so they had the idea of letting the land rest. This meant that they did not use a certain piece of land for a certain period so it could become more fertile than usual. They rotated their land, two strips were used to grow crops while one was empty, known as the three-field system. In some cases, even more than five or six strips existed12.

The currencies of money during those times were mainly Pounds, Shillings and Pennies13. One Pound was worth twenty shillings or two hundred-forty pennies. Also, twelve pennies equal one 1 shilling. Thus, the ratio of these currencies would be 1:12s:240d (Pounds: Shillings: Pennies) 14. This may look confusing to us, but merchants and shop keepers would use this system with great ease. The symbols of each currency come from their original name. Pounds were known as Livre, Shillings were Sou, and Pennies were Denier15. The currency system was also based on Troy with weighing precious metal. 1 Pound weighed the same as 12 shillings or 240 pennies. This system was used up to 1971 in Britain16.

Business in Medieval Europe has made many people rich but some people also very poor. Wealth is not only chosen by your status, but also your success in business. Some merchants have risen up to nobles, due to the riches they have been able to earn.



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(c) 2009 by Satoshi Ian Noguchi

Foot Notes

1. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
2. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
3. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
4. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
5. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
6. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
7. Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies
8. Medieval Europe A Short History, Judith M. Bennett
9. Medieval Europe A Short History, Judith M. Bennett
10. Medieval Europe A Short History, Judith M. Bennett
11. Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies
12. Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies
13. Life in Medieval Times, Marjorie Rowling
14. Medieval Europe A Short History, Judith M. Bennett
15. Medieval Europe A Short History, Judith M. Bennett
16. Medieval Europe A Short History, Judith M. Bennett