Merchants from Holland and the Middle East trading.
A merchant is a person who trades in commodities produced by other people. Historically, a merchant is anyone who is involved in business or trade. Merchants have operated for as long as industry, commerce, and trade have existed. In 16th-century Europe, two different terms for merchants emerged: meerseniers referred to local traders (such as bakers and grocers) and koopman (Dutch: koopman referred to merchants who operated on a global stage, importing and exporting goods over vast distances and offering added-value services such as credit and finance.
The status of the merchant has varied during different periods of history and among different societies. In ancient Rome and Greece merchants could become wealthy, but lacked high social status. In contrast, in the Middle East, where markets were an integral part of the city, merchants enjoyed high status. In modern times, the term merchant has occasionally been used to refer to a businessperson or someone undertaking activities (commercial or industrial) for the purpose of generating profit, cash flow, sales, and revenue utilizing a combination of human, financial, intellectual and physical capital with a view to fuelling economic development and growth.
A scale or balance is often used to symbolise a merchant
Merchants have been known for as long as humans have engaged in trade and commerce. Merchants and merchant networks operated in ancient Babylonia and Assyria, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, Phoenicia, and Rome. During the European medieval period, a rapid expansion in trade and commerce led to the rise of a wealthy and powerful merchant class. The European age of discovery opened up new trading routes and gave European consumers access to a much broader range of goods. From the 1600s, goods began to travel much further distances as they found their way into geographically dispersed market-places. Following the opening of Asia to European trade and the discovery of the New World, merchants imported goods over very long distances: calico cloth from India, porcelain, silk and tea from China, spices from India and South-East Asia and tobacco, sugar, rum and coffee from the New World. By the eighteenth century, a new type of manufacturer-merchant had started to emerge and modern business practices were becoming evident.
Etymology and usage
Costumes of merchants from Brabant and Antwerp, engraving by Abraham de Bruyn
The English term, merchant comes from the Middle English, marchant, which itself originated from the Vulgar Latin mercatant or mercatans, formed from present participle of mercatare ('to trade, to traffic or to deal in'). The term refers to any type of reseller, but can also be used with a specific qualifier to suggest a person who deals in a given characteristic such as speed merchant, which refer to someone who enjoys fast driving; noise merchant, which refers to a group of musical performers; dream merchant, which refers to someone who peddles idealistic visionary scenarios; merchant of war, which refers disparagingly to proponents of war.
Elizabeth Honig has argued that concepts relating to the role of a merchant began to change in the mid-16th century. The Dutch term, koopman, became rather more fluid during the 16th century when Antwerp was the most global market town in Europe. Two different terms, for a merchant, began to be used, meerseniers referred to local merchants including bakers, grocers, sellers of dairy products and stall-holders, while the alternate term, koopman, referred to those who traded in goods or credit on a large scale. This distinction was necessary to separate the daily trade that the general population understood from the rising ranks of traders who took up their places on a world stage and were seen as quite distant from everyday experience.