One thing I love about World Building is how as things flesh out new questions naturally begin to arise. When I first fleshed out the social structure that surrounds my story I based it off of what I had read about feudal Japanese society. If you look to social pyramid to the right you will notice it looks very much like what I laid out in my last world building post.
Although I already knew why merchants were considered the bottom of the social order historically, I found myself intrigued by the idea. How do these people survive when they are mostly viewed as a necessary evil?
What challenges do they face? Are the stated reasons for their place in society the same as the real reasons? Are shop owners considered merchants if they sell goods they haven’t produced themselves? For that matter, with so much stigma how many merchants exist and how successful are they?
This is a lot of important information for me to know. True, my story focuses on the nobility, however knowing at least the basics of the empire’s economy is a good idea. At the very least I need to know who makes what, and how goods get distributed. Perhaps I have no immediate plans to use the information, but by virtue of having it at my disposal I now have more tools for future stories should I need them.
So, as a fun exercise, I’ve decided to do a very basic outline about how I think things work and post the result of this early work. Things won’t be set in stone at such an early stage, and I may decide to revisit this at a later time. If so I’ll likely share the changes I make as well.
Who Qualifies as a Merchant?
This is the most critical question I needed to answer with regards to merchants as technically anyone who sells a good or service fits the definition, however that clearly is not what the social order reflects. The key here is in the specific definition of a merchant, though I have found several. One definition states that a merchant is a person or company that engages in the trade of commodities for a profit. Under this definition any artisan who offers their goods for sale to support themselves (as they would be forced to do) could be considered a merchant.
Clearly that isn’t the case with my hierarchy, which means there must be a distinction between artisans and merchants. Another definition I found added an extra stipulation: the merchant trades in commodities produced by others. It is this definition I shall use within my setting for two reasons. First, it provides a clear line between merchants and those who produce a good then sell it. Second, it helps to explain the society’s negative attitude to merchants.
There remains a gray area when it comes to shops and businesses which you may find within a settlement. For example, is the owner of a tea house a merchant? They they probably don’t grow their own tea leaves, and certainly wouldn’t have made their own dishes. At most they blend a selection of leaves together and ensure the tea itself is brewed properly. Is that sufficient to qualify as an artisan?
It is a difficult question to answer, and I suppose it ultimately depends on the level of care that was taken in the tea preparation. If the tea house simply puts the leaves on hot water for a time and then serves without regard for quality I believe they would be viewed as mere merchants, however creating particular blend (especially one that is kept a trade secret), taking care to make sure the tea is not steeped for too long or in water that is too hot, and providing a suitable atmosphere that is pleasant for the customer to enjoy would probably tip the scale toward artisan.
With that in mind, there are two main groups that would be classified as merchants. The first, and largest, group is those who work with traveling trade caravans. The second group would be business owners who primarily sell goods brought in from other locations. In both cases they invest little effort in producing or altering the commodity that is being bought or sold, however they still profit from it.
Why The Stigma?
This is the natural follow-up to identifying the members of the merchant caste, and its answer has already been hinted in my post about the society’s structure. They are viewed as parasites. Why? The obvious reason is that they are profiting off the work of others. This isn’t that unusual of a perception, although today it tends to be reserved for multinational companies. It isn’t a stretch to believe that a primarily agricultural society with a rudimentary grasp of economics would be more sensitive to this perception. Distaste for the merchant class is hardly unique to Japan, similar attitudes existed in early European kingdoms as well.
There are several different perspectives merchants can be considered from. The one most likely to resonate today is that of a competing artisan who sees a trade caravan arrive to undercut his prices. To him these upstarts are stealing his customers, and every sale they make is money that should be his. This resentment is bad enough if he must lower his prices to compete, but what if the price is so low that he cannot possibly match it? These same concerns exist today, and are often brought up when discussing trade, offshoring of jobs, and import tariffs. To the craftsman it doesn’t matter that the merchant was able to find similar goods at a much cheaper price elsewhere, all he cares about is that his livelihood has been threatened.
If we look at the craftsmen a merchant purchases his goods from the situation is generally better, however that doesn’t necessarily improve their perception. In this case, while the merchant isn’t threatening the craftsman’s livelihood another issue is raised: that of jealousy. Of course merchants have a better idea of what prices are across a larger area, allowing them to find goods to buy at a low price and then sell elsewhere at a higher one. A weapon smith may be perfectly happy selling his spears for a few coins locally, but when he learns that the merchant is able to sell them for more elsewhere it is easy to see how he would resent someone else making money off of his hard work. Worse still, if he tries to raise his prices the merchants may stop dealing with him completely, forcing the local prices to stay low by threatening to remove a vital income source.
Among the general population there may also be feelings of resentment. Most merchants are peasants, however unlike most commoners they are able to afford guards and if their business ventures are successful their standard of living may be much better than the norm. Add to this that the majority of the population does farm work, which is by no means easy, and the perception that all merchants do is take things someone else has produced from point A to point B. The amount of work that goes into running a successful caravan means nothing against the fact that the job looks easy.
Finally, there is the matter of how nobility view the merchants. On the one hand, the merchant caste is useful for bringing in goods which are scarce locally. While you might think this would engender a mutually beneficial relationship, it is equally possible that they would feel disgust that they are forced to depend so heavily upon a lower caste. True, they already depend on the peasants working their land, but those commoners live in their territory and are under their control while merchants travel freely. Factor in the possibility of especially wealthy merchants gaining increasing amounts of power through something so base as mere money and it becomes clear that an adversarial relationship is also quite possible.
Wow, this is got long-winded in a hurry. I’m going to cut it here and will perhaps revisit later.