A merchant refers to a person who trades in commodities produced by other people in order to earn a profit. A merchant historically referred to anyone involved in business as long as industry, commerce, and trade have existed. The status of the merchant has varied during different periods of history and among different societies. In modern times the term occasionally has been used to refer to a businessperson or someone undertaking activities (commercial or industrial) for the purpose of generating profit, cash flow, sales, and revenue utilizing a combination of human, financial, intellectual and physical capital with a view to fuelling economic development and growth.
Types of merchant
There are two types of merchant:
- A wholesale merchant is a wholesaler who operates in the chain between produce and retail merchant, typically dealing in large quantities of goods. Some wholesale merchants only organize the movement of goods rather than move the goods themselves.
- A retail merchant or retailer, sells merchandise to end-users or consumers (including businesses), usually in small quantities. A shop-keeper is a retail merchant.
Merchants have existed as long as business, industry, trade and commerce have existed. A merchant class characterized many pre-modern societies. Merchants have been known since markets sprang up in the cities and towns of ancient times. Open air, public markets were known in ancient Babylonia and Assyria, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Phonecia and Rome. These markets typically occupied a place in the town's centre. Surrounding the market, skilled artisans, such as metal-workers and leather workers, occupied premises in alley ways that led to the open market-place. These artisans may have sold wares directly from their premises, but also prepared goods for sale on market days.  In ancient Greece markets operated within the agora (open space), and in ancient Rome the forum. In antiquity, exchange involved direct selling, merchants or peddlers.
The Phoenicians plied their ships across the Mediterranean, becoming a major trading power by 9th century BCE. The Phoenicians imported and exported wood, textiles, glass and produce such as wine, oil, dried fruit and nuts. Their trading skills necessitated a network of colonies along the Mediterranean coast, stretching from modern day Crete through to Tangiers and onto Sardinia. The Phoenicians not only traded in tangible goods, but were also instrumental in transporting the trappings of culture. The Phoenician's extensive trade networks necessitated considerable book-keeping and correspondence. In around 1500 BCE, the Phoenicians developed a phonetic alphabet which was much easier to learn that the pictographic scripts used in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Phoenician traders and merchants were largely responsible for spreading their alphabet around the region. Phoenician inscriptions have been found in archaeological sites at a number of former Phoenician cities and colonies around the Mediterranean, such as Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) and Carthage in North Africa. 
The social status of the merchant class varied across cultures; ranging from high status (the members even eventually achieving titles such as that of Merchant Prince or Nabob to low status, as in Ancient Chinese culture, owing to the presumed distastefulness of profiting from "mere" trade rather than from labor or the labor of others as in agriculture and craftsmanship.
In the Graeco-Roman world, merchants served the needs of the wealthier landowners. While the local peasantry, who were generally poor, relied on open air market places to buy and sell produce and wares, major producers such as the great estates were sufficiently attractive for merchants to call directly at their farm-gates. The very wealthy landowners managed their own distribution, which may have involved exporting. The nature of export markets in antiquity is well documented in ancient sources and archaeological case studies.  Markets were also important centres of social life.  In Greco-Roman society, merchants typically did not have high social status, though they may have enjoyed great wealth, and there were exceptions, such as in Syria and Palestine in late antiquity, where merchants did have a high social position.
In Medieval England and Europe, market towns dotted the landscape. Blintiff has investigated the early Medieval networks of market towns and suggests that by the 12th century there was an upsurge in the number of market towns and the emergence of merchant circuits as traders bulked up surpluses from smaller regional, different day markets and resold them at the larger centralised market towns. Peddlers or itinerant merchants filled any gaps in the distribution system. 
During the thirteenth century in Europe, businesses became sufficiently enough and permanent to maintain sedantary merchants and agents. Merchants specialised in financing, organisation and transport while agents were domiciled overseas and acted on behalf of a principal. These arrangements first appeared on the route from Italy to the Levant, but by the end of the thirteenth century merchant colnies could be found from Paris, London, Bruges, Seville, Barcelona and Montpellier. Over time these partnerships became more commonplace and led to the development of large trading companies. These developments also triggered innovations such as double-entry book-keeping, commercial accountancy, international banking including access to lines of credit, marine insurance and commercial courier services. These developments are sometimes known as the commercial revolution. 
Luca Clerici has made a detailed study of Vicenza’s food market during the sixteenth century. He found that there were many different types of merchants operating out of the markets. For example, in the dairy trade, cheese and butter was sold by the members of two craft guilds (i.e, cheesemongers who were shopkeepers) and that of the so-called ‘resellers’ (hucksters selling a wide range of foodstuffs), and by other sellers who were not enrolled in any guild. Cheesemongers’ shops were situated at the town hall and were very lucrative. Resellers and direct sellers increased the number of sellers, thus increasing competition, to the benefit of consumers. Direct sellers, who brought produce from the surrounding countryside, sold their wares through the central market place and priced their goods at considerably lower rates than cheesemongers.
From 1300 through to the 1800s a large number of European chartered and merchant companies were established to exploit international trading opportunities, for instance the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, chartered in 1407. A detailed study of European trade between the thirteenth and fifteenth century demonstrates that the European age of discovery acted as a major driver of change. In 1600, goods travelled relatively short distances: grain 5–10 miles; cattle 40–70 miles; wool and wollen cloth 20–40 miles. However, in the years following the opening up of Asia and the discovery of the New World, goods were imported from very long distances: calico cloth from India, porcelain, silk and tea from China, spices from India and South-East Asia and tobacco, sugar, rum and coffee from the New World.
By the eighteenth century, American merchants, who had been operating as importers and exporters, began to specialise in either wholesale or retail roles. They tended not to specialise in particular types of merchandise, often trading as general merchants, selling a diverse range of product types. These merchants were concentrated in the larger cities. They often provided high levels of credit financing for retail transactions. 
Merchants have often commissioned and been the subject of art.
Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532.
Sir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor, c. 1560.
Governors of the Wine Merchant's Guild by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1680.
|Holbein's The Merchant Georg Gisze at Smarthistory.|
Many buildings have taken their names from their former use as the home or place of business of merchants:
- Free market
- Free trade
- Licensed victualler
- Merchant account
- Merchant marine
- Street vendor
References and sources
- mer‧chant, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2013. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
- Bintliff, J., "Going to Market in Antiquity," In Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums, Eckart Olshausen and Holger Sonnabend (eds), Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 2002, pp 209–250
- Shaw, Eric H. (2016). "2: Ancient and medieval marketing". In Jones, D.G. Brian; Tadajewski, Mark. The Routledge Companion to Marketing History. Routledge Companions. London: Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 9781134688685. Retrieved 2017-01-03.
Perhaps the only substantiated type of retail marketing practice that evolved from Neolithic times to the present was the itinerant tradesman (also known as peddler, packman or chapman). These forerunners of travelling salesmen roamed from village to village bartering stone axes in exchange for salt or other goods (Dixon, 1975).
- Cartwright, M., "Trade in the Phoenician World", Ancient History Encyclopedia, 1 April 2016
- Daniels (1996) p. 94–95.
- JOHN NOBLE WILFORD (November 13, 1999) "Discovery of Egyptian Inscriptions Indicates an Earlier Date for Origin of the Alphabet", NYTimes.com
- Bintliff, J., "Going to Market in Antiquity," In Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums, Eckart Olshausen and Holger Sonnabend (eds), Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 2002, p. 229
- Millar, F., "The World of the Golden Ass", Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 71, 1981, pp. 63–67
- Barnish, S.J.B. (1989) "The transformation of classical cities and the Pirenne debate", Journal of Roman Archaeology, Vol. 2, p. 390.
- Bintliff, J., "Going to Market in Antiquity", In Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums, Eckart Olshausen and Holger Sonnabend (eds), Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 2002, p. 224
- Casson, M. and Lee, J., "The Origin and Development of Markets: A Business History Perspective," Business History Review, Vol 85, Spring, 2011, doi:10.1017/S0007680511000018, pp 22–26
- Clerici, L., "Le prix du bien commun. Taxation des prix et approvisionnement urbain (Vicence, XVIe-XVIIe siècle)" [The price of the common good. Official prices and urban provisioning in sixteenth and seventeenth century Vicenza] in I prezzi delle cose nell’età preindustriale /The Prices of Things in Pre-Industrial Times, [forthcoming], Firenze University Press, 2017.
- "Merchant Adventurers" in Encyclopædia Britannica, Online Library Edition, 2013. Retrieved 22 July 2013.
- Braudel, F. and Reynold, S., The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th to 18th Century, Berkeley CA, University of California Press, 1992
- "Decameron Web - Society". Brown.edu. Retrieved 8 February 2017.
- Savitt, R., "Looking Back to See Ahead: Writing the History of American Retailing", in Retailing: The Evolution and Development of Retailing, A. M. Findlay, Leigh Sparks (eds), pp 138–39
- Thrupp, Sylvia L. (1989). The Merchant Class of Medieval London, 1300-1500. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-06072-4.