mediaeval merchants and their families - daily life


Well-Known Member
May 4, 2007
Can anyone recommend reading material about the daily lives of mediaeval merchants and their families, circa 1400s? I'm trying to research a novel but they're left out of a lot of stuff .
While not specifically about that subject, I believe these include it:

Time Traveller's Guide to Mediaeval England - Ian Mortimer
Daily Life in Chaucer's England - Forgeng and McLean
Daily Life in Mediaeval Europe - Singman

The first one is especially accessible, with the others being more detailed and somewhat scholarly.

There are others such as Mediaeval Lives by Terry Jones which is also a fun read, and History of Private Life: Revelations of the Mediaeval World by Duby which may be useful for providing further context, though can be somewhat heavy.
Thanks! I"m reading time travellers guide, and mediaeval lives may be useful but doesn't specifically have a chapter for them. I'll have a look for the others, thanks!
See also this thread Resources for Worldbuilders 7th through 17th centuries which includes The Goodman of Paris, the original of which was written c1393 and deals with a bourgeois household.

A novel which might be of interest for a few insights into a weaving household in Flanders is The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier albeit that's set c1500 -- I've no idea how accurate it is, but I believe she's an author who pays attention to research.
It's been a while since I've read it, and it's focus is slightly different, but....

Hewitt's The organisation of war under Edward III is fascinating as it comes more from the bueacratic and business side of things rather than the actual campaigning.

However I'd guess it's not really what you are looking for!

I haven't looked into it, other than a cursory search, but if you look up Youtube you might be surprised at the number of highly specific videos discussing quite narrow topics. Quite a number of academic lectures. See, for example: (again I haven't checked it out, so it may be very dissappointing or not what you are looking for)

Thanks @The Judge ! I need to have a look at the goodman of paris, i did stumble upon it, and it could be quite useful. Some of the stuff I'm trying to work out, is would a wealthy merchant's wife/daugher 1. have helped out with the business, 2. have done chores/domestic labour themselves or 3. behaved a lot like a noble lady and it could be quite useful for that. I'll have a look at the novel, thanks!

@Venusian Broon interestingly I stumbled upon a video made by a merchants' hall in my home city that's now a tourist attraction, which was surprisingly informative - indicating that the merchant in question had a trading hall separate from their residence, had several houses, daughers who married nobility. I'll have a look! That book about the organisation of war does sound fascinating. Not sure it's going to be helpful for the romance I'm working on but may well help inform further writing!
It was purely a random pick :) , I think if you dig down the rabbit hole of YouTube you will find lots of other potential hits. The page I had pulled up, had loads of BBC vids and other documentaries that seemed promising.

Usually, if they are doing their job well, they also mention their sources which you can then chase down.
This was very good: Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies. It's looking at very much everyday life of a, merchant rather than aristocratic life, and specifically at the city of Troyes in France; it being a well persevered mediaeval city. However the period it is looking at is around 1250 so maybe a little early for you.

I actually 'won' it here on Chrons some years ago!
I can answer your questions readily enough.
1. Yes.
2. Yes.
3. Not sure what you mean by "behave like a noble lady" but if you mean didn't help around the house at all, possibly. Some merchants were rich enough to have a household staff for home and apprentices (and sons) for the business, and indulgent enough to let the wife do nothing or negligent enough to let the daughter do nothing.

If you have other specific questions, feel free to ask. Meanwhile, I'll recommend Gies & Gies as well. Information on daily life is thin up until the 16thc. We know lots about merchants in their business; much less about their daily lives, but we know enough to say life varied greatly according to their particular trade and circumstances. If you know what you want in your story, you probably are just wanting to know if what you have in mind is realistic. If, otoh, you're wanting to learn about the subject, you have much dreary reading ahead of you to suss out the nuggets.
Thanks @sknox and @Vertigo ! That could be an interesting book to read. I have a people/fantasy based storyline in my head, it's just how exactly I'm setting it and what is adding colour, what the hero and heroine are actually doing with their time - I figure with my 1-3 above it was probably a bit of a spectrum, and I probably have a bit of discretion as to how many life skills the wealthy heroine has acquired. By 3) I basically meant 'is a lady of leisure' - more likely to be interested in embroidery and manners than bookkeeping and serious needlework. I'm also trying to pin down their social life - I'm thinking of guild pageants and feasts, religious occasions/other peoples' rites of passage, home-based entertaining- and trying to work out how on earth a young woman with a magical secret can find privacy, even in a wealthy family.

Gies and Gies looks interesting, even the back cover yields potentially useful clues. I've been reading about history for as long as I've been able - I was put in charge of the model ancient greek agora in year 6 because I kept telling people they were doing it wrong...
Women can always find privacy, at any social level. It would depend on the nature of the secret. If it was a large cat growing out of her forehead, that would be a challenge. It was that she could light a candle just by looking at it, that's rather easier. Sorry for the silly examples, but it makes the point. More interesting would be that she had a skill that she could employ in the trade, like persuading someone to sell cheap or buy dear. She'd want to help the business but not get caught out.

Does it have to be a merchant? Rural life would offer more opportunities, especially if her husband belonged to the (English) gentry. Plus, that would give you the opportunity to read the Paston letters.
Funny you say cat - she can turn into a (big) cat, and I guess her feline senses could well be useful - having to explain to her family how she knows not to accept a batch of cloth, that to her smells unbearably musty, or full of insect pests.

There are several reasons for choosing merchants. Guild politics will come into the storyline to some extent, though I'm sure you could replicate the effect with other communities. She needs opportunities to get close to her non-parentally-sanctioned love interest, and to observe and interact with the magical community she isn't yet a part of, which is much easier in a city, and being involved in trading, with the travelling and connections that involves, makes it easier for her future husband to regain his trade in another city with a new sponsor when his father has kicked him out.

Having said that, her father is decidedly on the up, and could easily acquire a country estate during the course of the story. Not set in a real place though. The paston letters look fascinating - and I see the Gies' have written a book based on them!
Cool. You're well on your way for historical details. There's been good work done on urban life for 15thc Italian cities. Good stuff on south German towns, too, but a little hard to find books in English.

Given what you've said, it sounds like a good-sized town is definitely the place to go.

Merchant guilds were run a bit differently from craft guilds. If you pick a trade like goldsmith you can still move in the upper circles of society. You might also give some thought to what kind of merchant--it's not like they were all in the same guild. Wool merchants were in most places among the most important, which means you'll find the most information about them. Alas, most books and articles will be about trade and business practices, not daily life.
I have been eyeing up the life in the time of the medici book on and got half way through another book about the medici. Now I've come up with the idea of transporting wool by dragon I may stick with cloth...
Ah! That reminds me, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet is a great piece of historical fiction fantasy that does a great job of covering mediaeval life, including mercantile activity, and it's very well researched. Although it's set in the 12th century, you may find some things in there quite applicable.
By chance, I've just started reading The Clerkenwell Tales by Peter Ackroyd, set in 1399. There's a short chapter called The Merchant's Tale which -- surprise, surprise! -- deals with a merchant, his wife and apprentice. There's not a lot there but if you can get a copy out of the library or cheaply second-hand, it might be worth a look.

More to the point, it describes the merchant -- a haberdasher -- going down to the shop and "he unlocked the wooden shutters and unfolded the counter" which instantly made me think of the Medieval Merchant's House in Southampton, which I should have remembered as soon as I first read your thread. It was built c1290, so a bit earlier than you want, but it's still indicative of how they'd have been living until the mid C14th. The English Heritage page on it is rather underwhelming, but there's a bit more about it on Wikipedia. EH guides are usually very good on giving background, but I can't recall if they have one for the house.

I should also have remembered the shop at the Weald and Downland Museum, which is mid C15th, so a bit later, but again indicative of what would have been around earlier Medieval Shop from Horsham | Weald and Downland

I know these are structures, but I'm a great believer in considerng how buildings reflect what is going on in daily life eg is there only one large bedroom, or have smaller rooms been created? That not only informs the issue of sleeping arrangements, but also their social structures and ideas of privacy. Anyhow, the buildings are wonderful to see, so if it's possible, they're all good for a day out. Plus, the W&DM has a number of living history days throughout the year when some buildings are occupied by living heritage groups/enactors, who can be questioned closely about social issues.
Thanks @The Judge ! I found the mediaeval house in southampton in my googling, and plan to use it to help me imagine the house of the slightly less stinking rich family. I noticed despite being a prosperous house there are only two bedrooms, which must have been fun as children grew bigger. I'll have a look at the shop you mentioned. A bit far for us to travel, but worth researching. Perhaps I need to visit the Merchant Adventurers' Hall or Merchant Tailors' Hall in my own city...

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