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This is for a game of Ars-Magicia but it could well cover any system.

The setting is Medieval Europe, specifically around 1197 in Pampalona (Near the eventual Spanish/French border)

My character is a "merchant" and would like to generate as much cash as he can uncomfortably wade in. But how?

I have resources, I have potential contacts; but how does one start a career in merchant-ness?

Given that:

  • He's on his own and had to move to the area. (But speaks the local dialect)
  • He has a steady yearly income of reasonable cash already.
  • He has potential non-local contacts
  • The campaign will stretch for many many years. (this gives me potential for a lot of long term money schemes)
  • The local lord is friendly.

Obviously magic can help in this regards (convincing people, communications) but the basic aspects of Medieval commerce are unknown to me!

Reading material and suggestions very welcome!

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I think this question would fit better in the history SE: history.stackexchange.com –  Maurycy Zarzycki Jul 26 '13 at 10:08
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What edition of Ars? City & Guild covers ... this exact situation quite neatly. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jul 26 '13 at 14:03
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Well, since you're not looking for system mechanics information in particular, but more for the social norms of Medieval society, the 5th edition City & Guild will probably help a lot. –  lisardggY Jul 26 '13 at 17:27
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This question appears to be off-topic because it is about real-life strategies for mercantile success best answered by historians and historical references. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 26 '13 at 18:21
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Voted to close with SevenSidedDie. If you're asking in general, the question belongs on History SE, but if you're asking about gameplay mechanics than I think you should narrow it to the exact version of ars magica you are playing. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 26 '13 at 18:53
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closed as off-topic by SevenSidedDie, Joshua Aslan Smith, LitheOhm, Phil, Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jul 27 '13 at 3:55

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3 Answers

Magic can help you more than one way. Most trade was done via ships and weather and banditry were the most common cause of lose of cargo. A mage would make a formidable asset to any merchant ship. However, your mage might not want to travel far away from his Covent. You could bind wind to the sails of your ship. Make sure its hull is never clogged or leaks. Make sure you know the depth of water in front of it. Make sure that there is always fresh water and citrus fruits on board. Thus giving yourself an advantage over other traders.

Spices are the best thing a mage can magically create and sell. After all, they just add flavour. I cannot remember how long you can make "magical food" last but unless you use vis (which has better use), the magic will fade away. This is bad for sustenance but not for spices -- all you have is an expire date. Saffron, pepper, cinnamon, etc... are all expensive but will not cause a problem their effect disappearing.

Cloths are the second best thing: Let the Lady f the house wear a different silk dress every night. Again, expiration dates need to be taken into considerations -- to comical effect? Make up is another example of what you can sell as it is ephemeral. Of course, any addition of spying magic on your make up is a service for the Lord to make sure his wife is faithful and not to give your mage intelligence on what is going on in the Lord's chamber.

Clearly all this is breaking the Hermetic laws but as long as you do not get caught... Of course, the local merchants might not like your way of doing business and might just send assassins/angry clergy/whatever against you. Oh look, plot ideas! ^_~

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The short answer it is about who you know. The focus of a would be merchant prince is learning what a person can make or provide and what they want in return. The goal is to have enough of a relationships that they will give you the "in" before anybody else. Then to have enough relationships to start making connections and thus profit by trading.

The way to make your mark is figure out what do people want in your home town. What specific individuals want specifically. Likely any mass good (like grain, livestock, etc) has already been monopolized by existing merchants. To get your wedge in you need to find things that are NOT being provided for. Alternatively you could find things that they are getting but is currently inconvenient either in terms of price or delivery times. This was a primary reason for much of the Age of Exploration where western europe wanted to avoid the traditional middle men for eastern goods.

Then when you have this knowledge figure out where the most likely place is to go. If you can afford it journey there and do the same thing there as you did at home. If you are lucky you will find the people with a matching set of needs. Then go home buy the set of goods you need, take it to your foreign place, trade, return home, and sell to the people who want the stuff.

Of course there will likely all kinds of risks to overcome like pirates, bandits, the challenges of terrain, etc.

But because of the slowness of communication it is highly plausible that a would be merchant would get first mover advantage by hustling and having a bit of luck with the hazards.

Once you are successful with this initial batch of trade you will gain a reputation for a man who can get things. At the very least this will expand your range of contacts in your home city as your reputation will cause people take you more seriously.

Eventually you will find you will need to find more foreign markets to supply want the hometown wants so you will have to go exploring other places.

Then you will find that Foreign Market A will want something from Foreign Market B and setup a trade route independent of your home town. This will help when estabilshed merchants start to try to horn in on your deals because the one thing they won't have at first is your knowledge of the foreign markets you deal with.

And if all goes well and you are lucky this will gain you the wealth and volume to challenge established merchants.

And if that goes well...

well you basically achieved your goal.

Remember the point is to expand the people you know, which gives you opportunities to trade. When that gets to be unmanageable you will need to find people you trust to work with you to handle the increased number of contacts.

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The secrets of success of a merchant in circa 1200 AD Europe is much the same as that of an "import/export business" now - buy low, sell high. Its simple in principle, but it's the "how" that makes for a good story.

Work The Supply Chain

A classic example is getting to know people who don't realize the true value of what they have. Let's say you get invited to a dinner party where you taste some really good cured meat appetizers. You politely gain a reputation as a pleasured guest by complimenting your host, but you ply the chef with your charm and find out who he bought it from.

With some leg work you find a butcher that humbly sells his goods for the usual going price of meat, even though the work and craftsmanship put into the curing process is truly expert. And he just sells it for regular prices and even gives it away as the occasional gift to local nobility!

You know very well that what he sells for a coin you could easily sell for 10 or 20 to the kitchen staff of fine estates. So you strike a deal to acquire these fine 'gifts' for your friends out in the country, and what you bought for 100 you can easily sell for 1000 to your 'contacts'.

Expand Your Operations

If you develop enough buyers in enough quantity, you can perhaps strike a deal with the butcher that in exchange for hiring people to help him and helping to secure the finances for a larger cure-house, you guarantee you'll purchase some quantity of goods for just as good a price as you are already giving him.

If that goes well, your reputation for providing a fine set of cured meats to nobility draws the attention of a bon vivant prince with money to burn and extravagant tastes - perhaps he likes more than just good food and drink? Perhaps he wants more than just a taste of Arabic hashish, but there's some exotic poisons/books/paintings that just so happen to be open for the taking in such a market? A man of his status can't send his own agents...but perhaps you know how to be discreet?

In short, one satisfied customer leads to more sources and more customers, and your ability to make money as a merchant is about finding not just individual opportunities, but spotting stable trends you can take advantage of. Once your meat operation is up and running you have other people doing the day to day chores, and you can move on to bigger and better schemes.

Enhance Your Profits (and Other People's, Too)

Buying silver from the mines at market rate can be profitable if you sell them far away, but when you are getting bars under the table from a coin mint in exchange for silver bars mingled with cheap metals you managed to put together (plus bribes, of course)? And what if its all being underwritten by the nobility on top of it all, they just need not to be seen as being involved?

Cheating Makes The World Go Round

You make a little money buying something for a penny and selling it for two. But to get filthy rich you need exclusive access - ways to cut down on prices and increase the final sell price. So you can be honest and helpful and anticipate peoples need (like a famine looms and you ride to the rescue with whole caravans packed with food), or you work the 'gray area' by taking advantage of situations...or you just do anything to turn a profit, because hey, people plagued by a mysterious disease aren't in a position negotiate the price of your cure, are they?

Magical Solutions

These are all suggestions with no magic involved at all. Magic makes everything better! Faster transport, lighter burdens, summoned materials, superior materials, blacksmithing goes a lot faster when you have fire spells to run that furnace and magic hammers to slam that stuff out flat in a hurry, you can convince people to sell only to you, invisibility makes smuggling a lot easier, etc. I think that's all the 'easy' part - but if there's no profit without magic then magic probably is just a waste!

Further Reading Material

"The Richest Man In Babylon" was written as a guide to how to manage your own finances in the present day, but it's set in the ancient era, and its full of good examples of how to do things right and how to do them wrong (trusting a mason to buy rubies, for example, can get you sacks full of worthless trinkets). Medieval Europe wasn't much different - buy low, sell high. It's also just a nice book.

"Against The Gods: The Amazing History of Risk" is a great book about risk management, and often details some of the finer points of how commerce was handled throughout the ages, including the origin of insurance "underwriters" and so much more.

"The Merchant of Venice" by Shakespeare is a nice dramatic look at the mental and social life of upper class merchants from a later period.

Note that historically the rise of the merchant class is generally later than 1200AD, and so the independence from local nobility would be unusual (though not necessarily impossible). Realistically you'd be dealing less with fellow merchants than with aristocrats and nobles, and according to this: http://www.euratlas.net/history/europe/1200/index.html

...you'll be dealing with considerable religious tension from the conquering Islamic Almohads in south/central Spain. That means more opportunity for profit, and for getting in trouble. Lots of potentials for naval involvement, and realize that European powers were no where near total naval dominance of the Mediterranean, but the Atlantic of western France was I think pretty safe from Islamic incursions.

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