2 - Foreign merchants  pp. 23-59

Foreign merchants

By Keechang Kim

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‘Foreign merchants’ may be discussed from two different angles: (1) as a sub-category of foreigners; or (2) as a sub-category of merchants. The former approach relies on a juxtaposition of foreigners and Englishmen as contrasting categories. No doubt such an approach will be useful for a medievalist who wishes to understand the group psychology of medieval English society. But it is of little use for our purpose. It is not our aim to study the popular sentiments regarding the presence and activities of foreign merchants in medieval England. The aim of the present chapter is to investigate the legal environment in which these merchants lived and conducted their business. As far as personal legal status is concerned, I see no point in comparing foreign merchants to English serfs; or foreign slaves (some Italian merchants, for example, brought them for their personal use) to English knights. I therefore choose the latter approach; that is, foreign merchants will be discussed as a sub-category of merchants. This does not mean that I postulate a legal category of merchants. I use the term ‘merchants’ as a factual, economic category of traders. We may begin by posing the following questions:

(1) What was the legal environment for commercial activities in general in medieval England?

(2) What were the differences between the legal status of English merchants and that of foreign merchants?

Medieval England – like elsewhere in Europe – offered two distinctively different sets of legal environment for commercial activities: fairs and cities.