Luxury and ultra-luxury consumption in later Medieval and Early Modern Dress: relative values of woollen textiles in the Low Countries and England, 1350-1550

Luxury and ultra-luxury consumption in later Medieval and Early Modern Dress: relative values of woollen textiles in the Low Countries and England, 1350-1550

By John Munro

XIV International Economic History Congress (2006)

Abstract: Over many millennia, mankind has laboured to consume and satisfy three very necessary material wants or needs: food (including drink), shelter, and clothing. Each of these, however, has also been major objects of luxury consumption. Textiles were necessities in providing almost all people with protection from the elements: from winter and evening cold, from summer heat, and from precipitation (rain, sleet, snow, hale); and also protection, in terms of modesty, from public shame and humiliation. For many people, however, clothing has also served and still serves other or supplementary wants, in terms of luxury consumption: for decoration, the assertion of personal values, and also for assertions or symbols of social status. The subject of this particular study, woollen textiles, is arguably the one that best permits a statistical comparison of market values of both luxury and ‘every-day’ textiles, because of the abundance and continuity of price data that have survived in two economically linked regions, the southern Low Countries and England, over two centuries: from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries. Luxury- quality textiles from this region played a very major role in European international trade during this long period, for reasons also examined in this study.

The core of this study is a comparison of the prices and relative values of the purchases of two luxury woollen textiles and of two relatively cheap textiles in Ghent, Mechelen, and Antwerp in the years 1538 to 1544: the first category consists of the Ghent dickedinnen and the Mechelen zwart rooslaken broadcloths; the second (latter) consists of single and double says from Hondschoote, sold on the Antwerp market. The prices are given in the Flemish pond groot (live gros). But such prices are meaningless unless proper relative comparisons be made, to indicate the ‘real’ values of these textiles. This study utilizes two such techniques: (1) an estimate of the number of days’ wages that an Antwerp master mason would have required to buy one of these textiles (or 12 square metres of each); (2) the number of ‘baskets of consumables’, the measure used to construct the annual Consumer Price Index, whose aggregate value in pounds groot equalled the value of one of each of these textiles. The differences in relative values for these years are most vividly revealed by the first technique: For 1538-44, the average number of days’ wages required to purchase 12 square metres of cloth (enough to make up a man’s full suit of clothing) would have been: 13.725 days for a Hondschoote single say; 16.958 days for a Hondschoote double say; and 5.4 times as many days, 91.413 for a Ghent dickedinnen and 74.144 days for a Mechelen rooslaken. To make that comparison all the more clear – the differences between a heavy-weight luxury woollen broadcloth and a lighter-weight semi-worsted fabric (says) used for every-day wear, the next section analyses the physical composition of these various textiles, from the weavers’ guild ordinances: in terms of the wools used, the dimensions on the loom, the final dimensions after finishing, the weight of the cloths, and their gram weights per square metre.

A snap-shot comparison of these textile values for just these few years, near the mid-sixteenth century, will not prove convincing, however, unless the ‘real’ values of these and other woollen textiles can be presented over much longer periods of time. The following tables presents the values of woollen broadcloths from Ghent, Mechelen, Bruges, Ypres (Ieper), Leuven, and England, for various periods from the 1330s to the 1570s – more than two and half centuries. Those values are again presented in three forms: (1) in Flemish pounds (£) groot; (2) the number of days’ wages that a Flemish (Bruges-Ghent), or English (Oxford-Cambridge), or Brabantine (Antwerp) master mason would have had to spend to purchase just one of each of these woollen cloths; and (3) the number of annual ‘baskets of consumables’ (Flemish, Brabantine, English) whose aggregate money-of-account value equalled the value of just one of these textiles. Of all the woollen textiles produced in medieval Europe by far the most luxurious, rivalling silks in value, were the scarlets, whose nature, composition, dyestuffs, finishing costs, and market values are considered – in the same fashion – for Mechelen from 1361 to 1415 (the only period of continuous data available). Finally, tables are presented on the prices of the finer English wools used in manufacturing all these fine woollens.

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