The textile industry and the foreign cloth trade in late medieval Sicily (1300-1500): a “colonial relationship”?’

The textile industry and the foreign cloth trade in late medieval Sicily (1300-1500): a “colonial relationship”?

By Stephen Epstein

Journal of Medieval History, Vol.15 (1989)

Abstract: Historians have recently argued that by the late Middle Ages a number of Mediterranean economies, notably southern Italy and parts of Spain, stood in a “colonial” relationship vis-à-vis other Mediterranean or northern European regions. For Sicily it has been argued that its economy was based on the exchange of agricultural products, principally grain, for imported manufactures, mainly textiles. Sicilian cloth manufactures were too weak to withstand foreign competition, which created an unbalanced and externally dependent structure of exchange and radically curtailed any chance of autochthonous economic development. This article discusses the empirical evidence upholding these statements about Sicilian textile manufactures. It includes an evaluation of the proportion of foreign imports to local production and consumption, of the socially distinct markets to which foreign and local manufactures catered, and of the nature, quality and extent of local production; the discussion is set in the context of the economic and social transformations taking place in Europe after 1350. The final part briefly analyses the institutional structures and constraints peculiar to Sicilian manufacture, such as the relationship between city and countryside and the apparent lack of any craft organizations. In the light of the extensive evidence for textile manufactures, the author concludes that the empirical basis for the argument that Sicily had a “colonial” dependence on cloth imports is insufficient, that local manufacture was quite capable of withstanding foreign competition of comparable quality, and that the explanation for Sicily’s economic development in the late medieval and modern periods must be sought in its own social structures and in the result of the conflicts that arose within them.

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