The Dual Crises of the Late-Medieval Florentine Cloth Industry, c.1320 – c.1420
By John Munro
University of Toronto Department of Economics Working Paper (2013)
Abstract: During the hundred-year period from about 1320 to about 1420, the Florentine woollen cloth industry underwent two closely connected crises. The first crisis was the consequence, direct and indirect, of the ravages of warfare and falling population, afflicting the entire Mediterranean basin and western Europe from the 1290s, which raised transportation and other transaction costs to such an extent that long-distance trade in cheaper textiles became unprofitable, thereby forcing West European cloth producers to reorient their export-oriented production to very high priced luxury woollens (and silks) and also to shift from being price-takers to price-makers. Initially, the first crisis seemed to have had beneficial consequences for Florence: for its luxury woollens industry soon became late-medieval Italy’s single most important export-oriented manufacturing industry, with large spill-over benefits for Italian commerce, banking, and finance. Indeed, by the third quarter of the 14th century, the Florentine woollen industry (Arte della Lana) was rivalling and then surpassing the previously pre-eminent leaders – those in the southern Low Countries (Flanders and Brabant); and in Mediterranean markets of this era, Florentine woollens reigned supreme over all rival textiles.
But the consequences of that first economic crisis, in the ensuing transformation of the Florentine cloth industry, contained the very seeds that spawned the second and far more major crisis, which led to the inexorable downfall of this once majestic industry, by the early 15th century. The chief factors in that decline were: the accelerating population decline (especially after the Black Death), further raising transaction costs; the reorientation to very narrow luxury markets, with very restricted demand; and especially the complete dependence on imported, tax-burdened English wools (as the prime determinant of both luxury quality and the very high prices of Florentine woollens). All of these adverse factors led to drastic reductions in Florentine cloth production: from about 75,000 bolts in the 1330s to only about 9,500 in the 1420s – an overall fall of 87% (far more than the decline in the Florentine labour supply, or the European population). The Florentine cloth industry never regained its former if transitory glory. How the industry did, however, manage to achieve some recovery in the later 15th and 16th centuries, by resorting to domestic and then Spanish wools, is beyond the scope of this study.