Merchant Class in the Renaissance: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 The Merchant Class
  • 0:35 Merchant Class Origins…
  • 3:15 Merchant Class in the…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Learn how the merchant class grew in Europe, starting with the Crusades. Merchants during the Renaissance were rich and powerful, and heavily involved in the artistic and cultural achievements of the period.

The Merchant Class

A merchant is someone who makes money by buying and selling things that other people make. For example, the owner of a car dealership is a merchant; he doesn't make the cars, he buys them from Ford and Honda and other auto manufacturers and sells them at his dealership. The merchant is like a bridge between the company that makes the cars and the people who end up buying them.

In this lesson, you'll learn how merchants became rich and powerful in Europe and how their appetite for art supported the cultural achievements of the Renaissance.

Merchant Class Origins in Europe

After the fall of the Roman Empire, people in Europe lived under an economic system called feudalism. Feudalism was a system in which most people were peasants who lived on the land and worked as farmers, while a few people at the top were the nobility. Nobility included knights, high-ranking members of the church, and the royal family.

The nobility owned the land where the peasants lived. Under feudalism, most people made a living from the land, either from farming or from owning land and collecting rent. Money did exist, but land was the most important source of wealth. There were some merchants but not a lot of them.

But starting in the 11th century, a series of wars called the Crusades created the need for a lot more merchants. People owned wealth in the form of money and made that money through trade. The Crusades were a series of Christian holy wars. The Pope and Christian rules in Europe wanted to recapture the so-called 'Holy Land' of Israel. Several Crusades were waged, from the 11th to the 15th century.

Getting from Europe to Israel was a pretty long trek and conquering a country isn't the kind of job where you can telecommute. That was a big problem for the European crusaders, how could they get food and supplies for their armies? That meant they needed merchants, who could coordinate between armies and food producers, ship food and supplies all around the world and match buyers with sellers.

The increased demand for their services drew a lot more people into becoming merchants. Many of these new merchants came from northern Italy. Keep that in the back of your mind because it's going to be important later. And the new merchants didn't just go home when the wars stopped. Once they'd established trading connections with people in the east, they had access to exotic luxuries, like spices and silks that they could sell for a high price back at home.

The growing numbers of merchants formed a merchant class, where merchants as a group with a particular role and position in society. And the new merchant class was doing pretty well for itself! Kings were spending all their money on the crusades and getting poorer, but merchants were making money from the crusades and the new trading opportunities. So the merchant class started getting more and more powerful relative to the nobility.

This didn't mean that everyone welcomed the merchant class. Merchants made a lot of money and they didn't hide the fact that they were trying to get rich, so they were often criticized for being greedy. Usury, or charging too much interest, was a common accusation. The church in particular often criticized the merchant class for being too interested in worldly wealth.

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