For context of the setting, numerous fairly large cities serve as the seats of regional feudal governments in a stable, prosperous kingdom. There are a lot of commerce in the cities, and merchants from near and far visit them for business. Diverse goods, both mundane and magical, can be found at shops throughout the kingdom.

Institutions like book publishers, or wealthy persons ordering construction to be done may sign a contract to someone for future work, but the concept of many end customers paying a comparatively small sum for a future deliverable is yet unfamiliar in this world.

A townsperson might be comfortable with paying ahead for a delivery of wool, which will (unless disaster befalls the shepherd) predictably be shorn and delivered. However, suppose a novel design for a padlock is invented (and protected by royal patent). It requires special tools and a workshop to be built in the city, before the locks can be produced and finally received by the end buyers. How could a townsperson be convinced to pay for the lock ahead of time, on the understanding that the facilities are yet to be built?

How is the concept of crowdfunding developed, and how does it gain acceptance and legitimacy?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Before crowdfunding, there were (and still are) Public companies. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ It's conventional to wait at least 24 hours before accepting an answer so that people from every time zone get a chance to weigh in. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander, Public traded companies are 1600s and later, usually a little on the late side for medieval fantasy $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ If you're not a priest, or already rich, then it's called begging. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ Either taxes or robbery. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 13:20

7 Answers 7


The cathedrals built in the High Middle Ages are probably the closest to crowdfunding. Usually, those were centuries-long projects funded by a combination of church funds and donations. The logistics of financing were truly fascinating.

Another interesting example is hospitals (bimaristans) during the Islamic Golden Age. Initially, they were built by the rulers but at later times charitable organisations and personal donations supported building and maintenance of the hospitals. Bimaristans were public hospitals open to all people regardless of their ability to pay, gender, race, and social standing. This was a religious requirement. They also doubled as medical schools and research facilities.

Apart from religion, professional guilds can be a driving force behind crowdfunding and public projects. Medieval guilds were powerful and influential organisations with hierarchical organisation somewhat similar to the church. They could have means and finances to start and more importantly complete a public project. Big guilds also had enough manpower to initiate donation collections.

You can read more about functions and organisation of craft guilds in this article. And here is an interesting paper on medieval English guilds that deals mainly with legal aspects.

Guilds can start with smaller guild projects and finance them from guild fees (paid by its members). After several successful projects, they can take on bigger ones. The townsfolk will be asked to donate money. The guild would also approach the town council and nobility/higher class for additional money grants.

Among other things, guilds were maintaining manufacturing standards and providing apprenticeship opportunities (with guaranteed employment upon successful completion). If people trust the guild to do the right thing they may be persuaded to chip in.


Crowdfunding really exists as a term due to the internet being used for fundraising. If crowdfunding existed in this medieval world, how is the money different from charity, fundraiser sales, donations, investors, or presales? (All of these would best refer to different types of crowdfunded projects).

All your character needs to do is ask for money for a project, keep the money for himself, and escape from liability over the project. He can escape by lying (saying the money turned out to be insufficient), paying part of that money for a third party to do the work then blame failure on him, or run.

  • $\begingroup$ "how is the money different from [...] investors, or presales?" I hadn't really stopped to ask myself that, good point! It probably isn't. Perhaps a crier calling on "prospective investors" in town square could rely on herd mentality to make backers comfortable with giving money over without a strict legal contract guaranteeing them products ("Well everybody is investing in this, I should too!") Thank you! $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 18:40

You mean like the catholic church did during this time period

Answer: invents a persuasive religion that offers salvation through repentant monetary donations.

Medieval relic trade


Desperation is how most things get started in the middle ages...

The well has gone dry and the town folk are having to walk all the way down to the river and back every day to get water. Craftsmen schedules which were already full to overflowing are now falling behind because of this extra chore which has become a part of everyone's life. And in the absence of regular bathing, the town is developing a bit of a funky smell.

A town meeting is gathered...

Reginald, the carpenter and Thom, the blacksmith, have an idea; a machine with an iron bit and several removable timber shafts which can be spun by a gear-works drawn by a mule. They believe that with it, they can make the well deeper and maybe find more water.

...but they don't have the needed iron or wood or mule.

Big John, the farmer has three old plow blades, which although dull and a little rusty, would be perfect fodder for Thom's forge.

Maid Mary, inherited that grove of trees down the hill which could provide more than enough wood.

Billy and Bryan from the Township Guard, offer to cut and clean the lumber.

And Friar Francis can loan his mule to the task.

Everyone else who will benefit from the revitalized well, will fetch water for the craftsmen and donate food, so they can focus on the new machine.

A month later, the well have been repaired and life returns to normal.

A year later, a neighboring town's well runs dry and its leadership ask Reginald and Thom for help.

"We'd be happy to be of assistance fine sir, but you must understand that the discounted sponsorship opportunity is over. You will have to pay the retail price for our services. If only you had come to use earlier, we used to fix wells for just some spare parts and a few free meals."

...after that, the towns folk of the original village might be more open to future crowd sourcing ventures, like your lock. Success breeds a hunger for future success. ...and that leads to a willingness to take a chance.

  • $\begingroup$ Your mention of lack of regular bathing made me smile. In the Middle Ages Europeans were renowned for their aversion to washing. At some point, it was considered to be unhealthy. Other than that it is a really nice answer. $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga you have mistaken the 16th century, during the Elizabethan era. with the entirety of the middle ages. (bathing declined due to the arrival of syphilis in the late 15th century, which can also spread thru water). I really wish I knew where that renowned aversion came from. Public Bath houses were a common sight thru all of Europe during the middle ages, "Cleanliness is next to godliness".. though they were also connected with brothels. It is the enlightened and intellectual renaissance that didn't bath. $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 23:01

This building was erected by the funds of the people of city Westminster.

You just don't have enough space to put that sentence on a padlock. And to be frank, that would be the stupidest idea. If you want to order a custom padlock it's because you want something secure. Like a Guild with its own set of lock and keys. So the people who are members want the least needed amount of keys. So you want the smallest amount of people to know about the order.

Making it public is like wearing white headphones when iPod was a thing. It screamed "rob me".

Everything else is/was crowdfunded. Crowdfunding is at the core of Catholicism. You have a large amount of money, you share it with less fortunate people and make their lives better.

One of the German requirements for transforming a village into a town (giving it the town laws) was that there were enough wealth people that after taxation would be able to support hospital on their own.

Another example is the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence when Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were commissioned by the public to paint the wall.

Crowdfunding is just fancy silicon valley word. Like "house hacking" for landlording.


Are you asking about crowdfunding in particular, or how capital was accumulated and then invested in new production capacity?

The idea of lending money at interest goes back to the Roman empire and beyond.

Bonds have always been popular. History of Bonds

Just how long have surety bonds been around? Thousands and thousands of years, say historians. One stone tablet written in cuneiform characters was discovered in 1889 during an archaeological dig at Nippur, in Mesopotamia, now present-day Iraq. The bond dates back to 2400 B.C. and the reign of the Babylonian King Dungi who ruled for 58 years.

However, I suspect that it would be the court (royalty or similar) that would fund the project. Usually, the King (or as @Olga has mentioned, guilds) pretty much owned and controlled intellectual property rights, up until the 1600's or so. See The Rise, Persistence and Decline of Merchant Guilds. Re-thinking the Comparative Study of Commercial Institutions in Pre-modern Europe for the dominance of guilds in intellectual property rights, and History and Sources of Intellectual Property Law and The Evolution of Intellectual Property. It is one thing to invent a better mousetrap, it is quite another to have it accepted by the powers-that-be.

There would be a natural hesitation for private investors to put money into a venture if the King or guilds could just appropriate the intellectual property and start producing it themselves, or they could just declare it illegal and shut down production.

The King, for instance, might object to the ability of his subjects to lock things up and out of his grasp. Therefore, he might make it illegal for commoners to own or use locks.


Only slightly out of period, consider the tontine, invented in or by 1689. Many people pay into a pot, the last survivor gets it. (The system can be abused, which is why it fell out of favor as people grew more financially sophisticated.) This system was used to finance businesses and wars, among other uses.

A less sophisticated version is the purchase pool -- 20 people commit to paying a tailor 1/20 of the price of a suit of clothing for 20 months. Every month, by lottery, one of the subscribers gets their suit. (Again, can be abused -- it needs a cohesive enough social structure that people don't walk away after getting their suit. I first heard of this practice in very well-connected Jewish communities in early 20th century New York.)

In practice, though, your inventor would need a wealthy patron of the arts/sciences to fund their research.


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