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Monetary Policies, Guild Labour-Strife, and Compulsory Arbitration during the Decline of the Late-Medieval Flemish Cloth Industry, 1390 - 1435

Listed author(s):
  • John H. Munro

This paper explores the impact of the Count of Flanders' monetary and wage policies upon the fortunes of the Flemish woollen cloth industry in a crucial but penultimate phase of its irredeemable decline, from 1390 to 1435, when it was beginning to yield to the growing supremacy of the now rapidly expanding English cloth trade. More narrowly (leaving larger issues of industrial decline to other papers), it focuses upon the sudden imposition and enforcement of Flemish monetary reforms in the early 1390s, after a half century of inflationary coinage debasements; those reforms greatly exacerbated other existing forces of deflation in north-west Europe. In the view of the count, his officials, and entrepreneurs in the cloth trades, this monetary reform could work effectively only if wages were cut proportionately; and such wage-cutting policies naturally provoked bitter resentment (even though the ongoing deflation in fact raised real wages). In the Flemish cloth industry, the only wage-earning artisans who were organized into a guild, and one that resembled a modern labour union, were the fullers, exclusively male workers, whose tasks were crucial in ensuring the luxury quality of the Flemish industry's chief exports. Their reaction to the post-Reform wage cuts of the 1390s was to go on strike (uutgangen), thus forcing the intervention of the count's officials, who imposed compulsory wage arbitration, establishing new wage contracts that gave the draper-entrepreneurs only half of their demanded cuts. One of these contracts specified the fullers' new wages in terms of both the silver and gold coinages, in an era when the gold:silver ratio was unusually low. After the Flemish count had resumed inflationary coinage debasements in 1416, leading to a rise in the gold:silver ratio (i.e. making gold coins more valuable in terms of the silver), some fullers' guilds now cited these contract provisions and demanded payment in gold coin, provoking new labour strife, which ended only with another monetary reform in 1433- 5. The paper also poses and answers the question: why did the draper-entreprenuers not respond to this labour strife by displacing fullers with water-powered machines? Mechanical fulling would have ruined the reputation for luxury quality on which the industry vitally depended, while reducing prices only minimally.

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Paper provided by University of Toronto, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number munro-98-05.

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Length: 60 pages
Date of creation: 18 Jun 1998
Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:munro-98-05
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