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Flemish Woollens and German Commerce during the Later Middle Ages: Changing Trends in Cloth Prices and Markets, 1290 - 1550

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  • John H. Munro

Abstract

This paper analyses the major changes in textile products, production costs, prices, and market orientations during the era when the 'draperies' or cloth industries of the late-medieval Low Countries had become increasingly dependent upon northern markets and the German Hanseatic League as the major vehicle in marketing their textiles. In several previous articles, I had examined the major factors that had led to the industrial and commercial reorientations of the Low Countries' cloth industries during the 14th and 15th centuries. In brief, the spreading stain of widespread warfare, piracy, and general insecurity, especially in the Mediterranean basin, from the 1290s (to the 1460s), led to a rise in transport and transaction costs that, in turn, had three major consequences for the Low Countries' textile-based economies: (1) to cripple the export-oriented production of the very cheap and light fabrics, most of which had been sent to Mediterranean markets and had comprised the bulk of northern textile shipments to this region; (2) to encourage most Flemish and Brabantine draperies to re-orient their export-oriented cloth production more and more towards high-priced ultra-luxury quality woollens, woven almost exclusively from the finer English wools, but wools that came to be burdened with high export taxes; and (3) to force the Flemish and Brabantine cloth industries (and the English as well), facing increasing difficulties in Mediterranean commerce, to become far more dependent on Hanseatic merchants and towns for their cloth sales, certainly by the mid-14th century. But in effecting these industrial and commercial orientations, the Low Countries' draperies encountered a new and even more dangerous challenge from expanding English competition in textiles, which enjoyed the signal advantage of control over high quality wools, which, for the domestic cloth industry, were tax-free and much cheaper. Nevertheless, for reasons outlined in this and earlier papers, the English took well more than a century to achieve final victory in the woollen broadcloth trade, though one that came to be fundamentally based upon German commercial forces, along with other commercial, monetary, and industrial factors outlined in this paper. Obeying the law of comparative advantage, the textile industries of the Low Countries responded to this English victory by once more re-orienting production to cheaper cloths, especially cheap, light worsted-says; but they were able to do so only when structural changes in European markets and trading networks, with falling transaction costs, from the later 15th century, once more favoured the export-oriented production of such cheap textiles. The major contributions of this paper, however, also lie in analysing production, product, cost, and prices changes in textiles, both cheap worsted and luxury woollens, in terms of nine tables: (1) export and production statistics for the English and Low Countries' textile industries, 1280 - 1549; (2) dimensions, weights, and composition of selected Flemish and English woollens and worsted-says; (3) English wool prices at the Calais Staple, 1475-99; (4) Price relatives for Ghent woollens and Flemish 'commodity baskets', 1340-1540; (5) Rank-order of cloth values at Ghent (from cheap to luxury woollens), for 1360-69, relative to the values of a standard 'commodity basket' and the purchasing power of a mason's wages; (6) Prices of selected Ghent woollens, large (luxury) and small (cheap), 1340-1412, in Flemish pounds groot and Florentine florins; (7) Prices of luxury woollens from Ghent, Mechelen, and Leiden and of cheap Hondschoote says, related to the purchasing power of a mason's wage, for 1535-45; (8) Prices of English wools (with wool-export duties), English and Ghent woollens, in pounds sterling and Flemish pounds groot, with English-Flemish monetary ratios, and with English, Flemish, and Brabantine commodity price-indices, 1320-1550; (9) Prices of various English, Flemish, Brabantine, and Dutch Woollens (in pounds sterling and Flemish pounds groot), 1400-1520.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by University of Toronto, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number munro-00-02.

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Length: 68 pages
Date of creation: 10 Jul 2000
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:munro-00-02

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