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The symbiosis of towns and textiles: urban institutions and the changing fortunes of cloth manufacturing in the Low Countries and England, 1270 - 1570

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  • Munro, John H.

Abstract

This article, a contribution to the ‘proto-industrialisation’ debate, examines the relative advantages of urban and rural locations for cloth manufacturing in later-medieval England and the Low Countries. From the 11th to the mid-14th century, when the English cloth trade began its seemingly inexorable expansion, the Low Countries had enjoyed a virtual supremacy in international cloth markets, then chiefly located in the Mediterranean basin. The traditional view has attributed the ultimate English victory to the advantages of a rural location, using cheap labour and water-powered fulling. The proponents of this view further contend that in late thirteenth-century England a new rural industry had displaced a centuries-old ‘traditional’ urban cloth industry through such superior cost advantages. To challenge that view, this paper puts forth the following propositions: (1) that England’s traditional urban industry had declined, abruptly from the 1290s, chiefly because of steeply rising, war-induced, transaction costs in Mediterranean markets for its chief products: i.e. cheap and light fabrics, which they had sold as price-takers; (2) that the Flemish/Brabantine cloth industries, having had a similar industrial-commercial orientation, suffered from the same industrial crisis; and it more quickly responded by reorienting production, as price-makers, to very high-priced luxury woollens; (3) that rural locations were not always more advantageous, in lower labour and other costs; (4) that urban locations offered important benefits for the luxury-cloth production: a more highly skilled, productive, better regulated labour force; urban and guild institutions to enforce necessary quality controls and promote international reputations for high quality; (5) that England’s cloth industry, when it revived from the 1360s, followed suit in shifting to more luxury-oriented exports, while gaining its chief advantages from the fiscal burdens imposed on high-quality wool exports to its overseas competitors; (6) that English export-oriented cloth production also remained more urban than rural until the late fifteenth century (for many complex reasons explored in this paper).

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by University Library of Munich, Germany in its series MPRA Paper with number 11266.

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Date of creation: Jun 1998
Date of revision: Sep 1998
Publication status: Published in The Journal of Early Modern History: Contacts, Comparisons, Contrasts 1.3(1999): pp. 1-74
Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:11266

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Keywords: Keywords: towns; urban governments; guilds; weavers; fullers; dyers; dyestuffs; wools; woollens; worsteds; sayetteries; scarlets; late-medieval England; Flanders; Brabant; Holland; Bruges; Ghent; Ypres; Antwerp; Leiden; fiscal policies; monetary policies; export taxes; Calais Staple; Hanseatic League;

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Cited by:
  1. Börner, Lars & Quint, Daniel, 2010. "Medieval matching markets," Discussion Papers 2010/31, Free University Berlin, School of Business & Economics.
  2. John H. Munro, 1999. "The Low Countries' Export Trade in Textiles with the Mediterranean Basin, 1200-1600: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Comparative Advantages in Overland and Maritime Trade Routes," Working Papers munro-99-01, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
  3. Munro, John H., 2007. "Hanseatic commerce in textiles from the Low Countries and England during the Later Middle Ages: changing trends in textiles, markets, prices, and values, 1290 - 1570," MPRA Paper 11199, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Jun 2008.
  4. Munro, John H., 2004. "Spanish Merino wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: an industrial transformation in the late-medieval Low Countries," MPRA Paper 15808, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 22 Mar 2005.
  5. Munro, John H., 2002. "Industrial energy from water-mills in the European economy, 5th to 18th Centuries: the limitations of power," MPRA Paper 11027, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Jun 2002.
  6. Munro, John H., 2000. "The 'New Institutional Economics' and the Changing Fortunes of Fairs in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: the Textile Trades, Warfare, and Transaction Costs," MPRA Paper 11029, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Feb 2001.
  7. Munro, John H., 2006. "South German silver, European textiles, and Venetian trade with the Levant and Ottoman Empire, c. 1370 to c. 1720: a non-Mercantilist approach to the balance of payments problem, in Relazione economic," MPRA Paper 11013, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Jul 2006.
  8. van Bavel, Bas (B.J.P.), 2003. "Early Proto-industrialization in the Low Countries? The Importance and Nature of Market-oriented Non-agricultural Activities on the Countryside in Flanders and Holland," MPRA Paper 42361, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  9. Munro, John H., 2005. "I panni di lana: Nascita, espansione e declino dell’industria tessile di lana italiana, 1100-1730
    [The woollen cloth industry in Italy: The rise, expansion, and decline of the Italian cloth indus
    ," MPRA Paper 11038, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Sep 2006.

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