Textile Consumption in Late Medieval Castile: The Social, Economic, and Cultural Meaning of Clothing, 1200-1350
By Teófilo F. Ruiz
Erasmo: Revista de Historia Bajomedieval y Moderna, Vol.2 (2015)
Abstract: Focusing on the types of clothing imported into the realm, and using information from the royal accounts and tithes of a number of ports in the Bay of Biscay, I focus on issues of production and consumption in late medieval Castile and what this information tells us about the economic structures of the realm and on the exaggerated consumption of foreign cloth by certain groups within Castilian society.
Introduction: For a long time historians have known that the economic revival of the medieval West was fueled by the rise of manufacturing and long distance trade from the late tenth and early eleventh century onwards. In towns throughout Flanders, Hainault, Brabant, and northern France — Lille, Bruges, Ghent, Arras, and others — and in Florence and other Italian urban centers the making of wool cloth, and in the case of Florence silk as well, lay at the center of Europe’s first manufacturing revolution since the collapse of the Roman empire in the West. Not unlike the first industrial revolution in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the production of cloth was at the vanguard of new forms of economic activity. Textiles dominated medieval European manufacturing as did its trade.
Production is of course the flip side of consumption. Production, whether in the Middle Ages or today, is inexorably linked to consumption: the former will cease or diminished without the latter. For the medieval world, we do not know as much as we may wish as to how much cloth was produced over time or how much was consumed. Knowing however how many pieces of fabric were imported into specific regions provides a rough approximation to levels of consumption; far more important, it gives us a window into the social and cultural aspects of consumption in general and, in this specific case, textile purchases.
In the pages below, I wish to revisit some topics that have been close to my research interests for many years. Specifically, I would like to examine the role of textiles in Castilian markets, provide an implicit approximation to the level of consumption over time, and attempt to answer questions as to what the purchase, use, and symbolic value of certain types of cloth meant, and how cloth consumption helped shape social identity and social difference in medieval Castile. This study is limited to the late thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth century, mostly because a series of unique sources provide us with an entry into textile consumption in the period under study. The locus of this article is the kingdom of Castile, though some regions within the vast kingdom of Castile, such as Galicia and parts of Asturias, do not enter much into the story. Most of western Andalucía, conquered by Castilian armies in the mid-thirteenth century, present peculiar problems to be noted below. That region comes in and out of this study. The core of this inquiry therefore focuses on northern Castile, above all the great plain of Old Castile and the Cantabrian and Basque coastal towns.