Gold, Guilds, and Government: The Impact of Monetary and Labour Policies on the Flemish Cloth Industry, 1390-1435
The late Prof. Hans Van Werveke, in two very contentious articles, had contended that the monetary policies of Count Lodewijk van Male (Louis de Male) 'had checked, for some time at least, the decay of the Flemish cloth industry' by allowing its industrial entrepreneurs (weaver-drapers) to pay their artisans in continually debased silver coins, thereby reducing their real costs and sales prices, which provided the only means by which 'it could hold out against foreign competition,' namely the growing threat from the English cloth trade. Although he subsequently wrote an important article on the 1390 monetary reform of the count's son-in-law and successor, Duke Philip the Bold, neither he nor anyone else has examined the possible impact of that entirely contrary monetary policy, in strengthening the coinage, upon the Flemish cloth industry, at the very time that the English and Dutch cloth trades had taken advantage of the damages inflicted by the Ghent Revolt of 1379-85 and the Hanseatic Embargo of 1388-92, to invade Baltic and German markets. This study focuses in upon the consequences of that policy in aggravating ongoing conflict in the industry's labour relations: in particular the ongoing strife between the weaver-draper entrepreneurs and the fullers, the one group of wage-earning employees that enjoyed some protection from a guild organization. This 1390 monetary reform had necessitated a 25-percent reduction in wages, along with other prices; and such wage cuts were bitterly resented, with threats of strikes from the fullers of Ghent, Kortrijjk, and Wervik. While compulsory arbitration from the ducal Council of Flanders did impose settlements, and new wages that endured unchanged until the 1420s, it unwittingly set the stage for subsquent strikes, especially in the case of Kortrijk, by specifying wages in gold coins as well as in silver coins, with a fixed bimetallic ratio. When the duke's grandson, Philip the Good, resumed drastic coinage debasements in the 1420s (to help finance his wars), and in manner that drove up the relative value of gold coins, the Kortrijk fullers then demanded to be paid in gold; and with the drapers' refusal and a sharp rise in the cost of living, they and the Ghent fullers engaged in disruptive strikes. But the most serious consequence of Philip the Good's monetary policy was to provoke an English retaliation in the form of bullionist payment regulations at the Calais Wool staple, where the Flemish drapers secured almost all their wools. Those onerous regulations and the conflicts that followed doomed both the English wool trade and the Flemish cloth industry to a sudden and irredeemable decline.
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