I am writing a fantasy world with post-medieval technology. Instead of just standard feudalism, I want mercantilism or capitalism to play at least some role in the power dynamics.

I am thinking about what factors would make the rise of a powerful merchant class possible, likely or even inevitable. Under what circumstances would merchants or companies be likely to challenge traditional power holders like hereditary land owning nobles?

I can brainstorm and think of a number of factors:

  • Technology.
  • Population size and density.
  • Culture and religion.
  • Opportunities for conquest and colonization.

But what I am asking for is not merely a list of things to think about, but some overview and perspective: What are the most important factors, and what are the most important questions I need to ask myself regarding technology, geography and the like?

Thanks in advance!

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    $\begingroup$ Army, law, believ system, money $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg May 31 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ Just look where money comes from. Nobles are powerful when most of the money comes from land. ( most historical kingdoms) Traders are powerful when most of the money comes from trade. ( Venice ) Capitalists are powerful when most of the money comes from factories. ( Contemporary production) $\endgroup$ – Euphoric May 31 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ Or, if you want the brutally simplistic view of historical materialism: the feudal structure headed by the king loses power in favor of the capitalist bourgeoisie as soon as the development of the forces of production reaches a point where the old feudal superstructure breaks down and is replaced by a capitalist superstructure; which may happen through a violent revolution, e.g., in France, or through a gradual and (almost) bloodless accommodation, e.g., in England. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 31 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this information readily available by Googling "rise of the merchant class"? More population -> more trade -> more merchants -> more money flowing around, et voila powerful merchant class $\endgroup$ – GrumpyYoungMan May 31 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ To quote Varys of a Game if Thrones: a king, a priest and a farmer stand around a sellsword in the middle. Each tells the sellsword to kill the others. Who will he obey? The king with money? The priest with eternal salvation? The farmer with food? Who is the power? After a debate of the conundrum he tells that" power resides where people believe it resides". There is no surefire way that a merchant class will dominate, unless people believe in the power and work to make it so. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane May 31 at 15:32

This could be fun, so I will try to write a gentle answer.

The overall picture is simple...

Political power will eventually tend to shift to class or classes which have economic power. That is because in any society it is the economic base which supports and generates the beautiful and intricate superstructure.

Remember the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. (Not necessarily literal gold: the "gold" could be silver, as in Ancient Greece; or it could be land, as in the European Middle Ages; or it could be capital in general, as in the modern world. But you get the picture.)

The overall picture is just that, an overall picture. In the real history of real societies the shift of political power towards the class or classes with economic power was never quick; it usually did happen eventually, but there is always a considerable amount of time between the moment when, let's say, merchants and tradesmen become the economic engine powering the society and the moment when the Peers and Barons cease to be the dominant political factor.

... But details are essential

The essential point is that there is no such thing as "the" the most important factors that determine the balance of power between kings and nobles and merchants at any given point in time. Yes, in the end political power will tend to shift to the class or classes wielding economic power; but this shift may take decades or even centuries, and it may or may not necessitate a violent revolution.

That is because the balance of power between kings and nobles and merchants is, to use the Marxist phrase, historically determined, that is, it fundamentally depends on the specific situation:

  • It depends on the history of the society in question.

    For example, the Emperor of the German Empire still had enough power at the beginning of the 20th century to engage his empire into a suicidal war againt the entire world.

    (Spoiler alert: they lost.)

    The point being that in 1914 Germany was a very highly developed nation-state, a world leader in science and technology, one of the most important exporters of expensive industrial products, an example of a stable society, with fully acknowledged rule of law etc. But their emperor was still enormously powerful, and only because of the history of how the German Empire had come into existence.

    For another example, compare England and France around 1700. The two countries had just about the same level of scientific, technological, and economic levels of development. Both were reasonably great powers (as great as powers could be at the end of the 17th century). Both were stable societies. Both were convinced that they were the pinnacle of human civilization. And yet, the dual sovereigns William and Mary of England had very much more limited powers than Louis XIV, the absolute *"l'état c'est moi" king of France.

    What do we learn from those examples? We learn that whatever list of factors we can come up with it won't be able to address any specific situation without taking into consideration the history of how the society arrived in that situation.

    For an example in our present time, compare and contrast the power of the President of the USA with the power of the Chancellor of Germany; both countries have a federal structure, both are highly developed, both are great economic powers. And yet the POTUS is an almost absolute king (term-limited, mercifully), while the Chancellor of Germany must constantly manoeuver to keep the Bundestag happy.

  • It depends on idiosyncratic accidents.

    Sometimes, actually quite often, the balance of power between the sovereign and the nobles (and even other political forces) depends on unforeseeable accidents. Is the king smart, determined, with a strong character, or is he a dullard who likes to live the good life and doesn't care about actually ruling? Does the great king die without a heir? Do the nobles have a strong leader? Is there religious strife in the land? Was there a seven years drought bringing the peasants on the brink of revolt?

    For an great example of how a country can abruptly transition from an absolute monarchy to the absolute domination of the great nobles, consider what happened in Hungary when king Matthias Corvinus died and the nobles, in a moment of epic selfishness, elected the hapless Vladislaus II of Bohemia as king. (They did get rid of royal absolutism and got to enjoy 36 years of freedom from royal rule; but in 1526 the Turks taught them a signal lesson on the foolishness of their actions; after the battle of Mohacs, the entire issue of the balance of power between king and nobles became irrelevant in Hungary.)

  • It depends on who has the economic power.

    Is there a numerous and rich mercantile class, generating most of the tax revenues? If so, the king may well prefer to rely on the merchants insted of on the nobles. Is the Crown really really rich? If so, a determined king may well choose to impose authoritarian absolutism. Is the economy dominated by agriculture? If so, the great landowners will almost certainly rule, either directly or indirectly.

    Plus that pesky historical determination raises its head again. Does the country have a tradition of not having a large standing army? Then the king will almost certainly lose power in favor of either the merchants or the nobles, depending on who is richer and can muster an actual efficient fighting force; see for an illuminating example the history of Cromwell and the Commonwealth of England.

  • It depends on what the dastardly hereditary enemies do.

    Countries are never alone, they always exist in a complex web of international relationships. And sometimes it happens that the devious plans of the hereditary enemy succeed beyond their wildest hopes, drastically altering the balance of power between the king and the nobles great and small.

    For example, by a perverse course of historical accidents, by the middle of the 17th century the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had come to adopt a rule of parliamentary procedure which required unamimous consent: the liberum veto. It didn't take long for Russia to realize that it was enough to bribe one Polish nobleman, preferably the poorest one as requiring the smallest bribe, in order to paralyze any kind of decision making in Poland. The problem of the balance of power between king and nobles went away because there was no longer any power to balance. By 1795 Poland itself was no longer, its territory incorporated into Austria, Prussia and Russia.


The conclusion is that it's complicated. Anybody who tells you that you can have a nice little list of factors which will tell you how power is balanced between king, nobles and merchants at a specific point in time is either an idealist to whom messy details don't matter, or else wants to sell you a book.

Instead of looking for a list, look at the real post-medieval history for clues and examples, and model your society on one or more of the real-life kingdoms. (And republics! There were a handful of republics, notably Venice, which in those days was a reasonably great power).

And really really try to read Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. (The link goes to Archive.org; the second volume is also available there.)

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for actual links to Montesquieu $\endgroup$ – Tom Jun 1 at 16:51

Money. Lots of.

I am thinking about what factors would make the rise of a powerful merchant class possible, likely or even inevitable. Under what circumstances would merchants or companies be likely to challenge traditional power holders like hereditary land owning nobles?

Essentially throughout practically all of history what defines who is in charge is who can pay the army reliably and best.

For merchants to become dominant they must be in a position to form a collective entity (a council or government) who, between them, have enough money and resources (political contacts, particularly inside the army) to be able to outbid and outbuy the resources of the monarchy and nobels.

Note that if only a very small number of individuals (or one) control the vast majority of the wealth you instead find the make a grab for absolute power. A good example would be Crassus (who I thought the expression "As rich as.." referred to - he was seriously loaded - but that seems to be a chap called Croesus - thanks to @GrumpyYoungMan for that reference). Crassus was part of the first triumverate that included the minor figures Julius Caesar and Pompey. Without Craussus' money we might not have heard of Julius Caesar. Likewise if one individual is exceptionally charismatic they are more likely to go for singular power than sharing.

Typically you don't get an actual takeover. Instead, slowly over time, the monetary power of the merchant classes makes it necessary for them to be granted more and more rights (by law) and politically (by first bribery and then by wealthy merchants being granted the rights to hold political office. In Roman history we see another route - the Civil Service, where enormous political power was yielded. This is less important to the merchant class - they don't really care who has power as long as they can be bought. Likewise the Civil Service generally don't care whose paying as long as someone is.

So the merchant classes slowly insinuate into the political fabric and tend to yield the law as a weapon more than the sword. Contracts have sharp edges. Kings and Nobels get into debt buying political favor and become dependent on a wealthy merchant class backing them.

Merchant classes tend to purchase land. Lots of land. This gives them control of agriculture and when you're a wealthy land-owner you send at least one son off to the military for a bit to make contacts and be able to say they were in the military. It's notable that for much of history military promotions were purchased, not awarded for ability and this suits your merchant family fine. This means that they also insinuate the higher ranks of the military and effectively control that to (albeit indirectly). If you're a monarch depending on an army to keep foreign threats at bay, you tend to need lots of money and borrow from they people who also now (kind of) own the military. Ordinary soldiers don't generally care who is paying or giving orders, just so long as they pay regular and well. So nobels and monarchs gradually lose real control of the military.

So merchant classes basically buy power, so that eventually all the monarchs and nobels do is rent power from them and act as figureheads. Which mroe or less brings us up to date.

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    $\begingroup$ Re: Crassus, that's a different person isn't it? The expression is "as rich as Croesus" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croesus $\endgroup$ – GrumpyYoungMan May 31 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @GrumpyYoungMan Thanks. Crassus was also loaded and I thought it was him. Maybe it was used for both. Wikipedia lists both of them as being amoung the richest in antiquity, but comparisons are impossible. Crassus would have a solid claim to the richest merchant in history I think - again difficult to make comparisons, but his buying power would have been astonishing in the day. $\endgroup$ – StephenG May 31 at 19:15

Violence is dominant.

For merchants to beat out Kings and nobles, they need to either control superior violence themselves or cause violence to become unacceptable enough that it is met with stronger violence.

Merchants have spent most of human history losing to Kings and nobles or trying to join them because they frequently lacked the violence to match them directly and violence against them was considered acceptable enough it did not meet superior violence.

For most of human history in most areas that I am familiar with, most of the population are not heavily trained for war and they are not heavily equipped for it because they are busy farming to provide food for themselves.

This frequently allows for small numbers of heavily trained and heavily equipped forces to rule over everyone else via violence.

The approach runs into issues when the technology level allows for individuals with significantly less training and significantly less expensive equipment to compete with those with significantly more.

In most circumstances, it takes time to develop a heavily trained and heavily equipped force which means that even if you have the funds to make something you won't have it anytime soon and during the time it takes to make it you can be attacked.


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