The Wool Trade In English Medieval History

The Wool Trade In English Medieval History

By Eileen Power

The Ford Lectures (1941)

Introduction:  I shall perhaps be accused of beating a dead horse if I begin by insisting upon the weakness of the conventional view of the middle ages in Western Europe as mainly a period of natural economy and self-sufficiency. But my theme— the wool trade and English society in the middle ages—demands that I should emphasise the fact, even at the risk of truism. It is true that if, like Weber or Sombart, one wishes to characterise the period as a type of economic structure, in comparison with the type presented by other periods, the medieval age appears preeminently as one in which the bulk of the population is living a static existence in small and self-contained communities, the scale of their production circumscribed by the limits of their market. Yet directly we come to examine the picture in detail, seeking not to establish an ideal type, but to seize something of the infinite variety of the reality, we cannot fail to observe that the picture of self-sufficiency and natural economy is broken in several directions.

It is, to begin with, broken by the towns. Their existence and still more their growth were incompatible with self-sufficiency either for themselves or for the countryside. Fields and pastures we may have upon our hands, as one of my great predecessors as Ford’s Lecturer remarked, but the fields and pastures of the burgesses were incapable of completely feeding the town population, and that population itself was engaged in other pursuits and must perforce exchange the products of its industry and trade for food. Not even the smallest town, exchanging only with its own hinterland, could properly be called a closed economy; still less the great industrial and commercial centres whose area of exchange was a country, a continent, occasionally indeed a world.


For the picture of self-sufficiency is broken not merely by all towns as towns, but even more strikingly by certain export industries, the market for which spread far beyond the limits of the producing district and formed the basis for a large-scale international trade. Of these there was a great variety, but the earliest to develop and the most important was the textile industry. Cloth for domestic consumption was made in most European countries, but certain areas very early developed such a preeminence in the manufacture of fine luxury cloths that the products of their looms and dyeshops found a market all over Europe and the Near East. Such was the case with the cloth manufacture of Flanders and Italy, and to a lesser extent with the linen manufacture of the North of France and the silk manufacture of Lucca. The leather of Cordova, the metal wares of Dinant, and the glass of Venice are other obvious examples.

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