The development of the Florentine silk industry: a positive response to the crisis of the fourteenth century
By Sergio Tognetti
Reti Medievali – Rivista, Vol.5 (2004)
Introduction: When we talk about the ‘crisis of the fourteenth century’, we are generally referring to a series of phenomena that have almost always been viewed as negative, especially when attention has focused on the evolution of the European economy: recurrent plague epidemics, starting with the one in 1348, which led to a sharp reduction in the urban and rural population; famine; war; the abandonment of villages; the reduction or stagnation of agricultural yields; the growth in wages and hence the cost of labour; the inability of urban economies to respond positively to changes in demand and consumption, and so on.
There are obviously innumerable variants on this sketchy outline of the ‘crisis’ in the various European contexts. It is now clear that the economic depression was felt more in continental than in Mediterranean Europe, that marginal areas suffered more from the drop in population and in agricultural yields, and that, in general, the economic structure of the more important cities managed to adapt to the drastic changes in the fourteenth century much better than the small and medium-sized urban centres. In many cases the fourteenth century was a period in which the gap in wealth between the various urban and regional economies widened, a period in which a kind of hierarchy of production, and thus an early embryonic international division of labour, was established.
It is not accidental that the ‘crisis of the fourteenth century’ occurred in communal Italy (the north and central regions of the Italian peninsula) in the context of simplifying the general political situation. Through the political/ military subjection of a series of small and middle-sized urban centres, some large cities with republican regimes (as Venice and Florence) or under dynastic rule (Milan under the Visconti and Ferrara under the Este) or absolute monarchies (Rome under the pope) no longer forged states on the basis of urban centres but rather according whole regions. In this way they created the preconditions necessary for valorising better-integrated economies of scale, even if corresponding more or less to the needs and interests of the dominating city.