Textile entrepreneurs and textile workers in the medieval city
By Jeroen Deploige and Peter Stabel
Golden Times. Wealth and Status in the Middle Ages, edited by Véronique Lambert and Peter Stabel (Tielt: Lannoo Publishers, 2016)
Introduction: What made the southern Low Countries in the Middle Ages unique in a European perspective was the weight of the region as an export-oriented industrial area. More so still than by trade and commerce, the towns in Flanders, Artesia, Hainaut and Brabant – and later also, but to a much lesser extent, in Holland – were characterized by the mass development of a vast textile sector which specialized in the first place, but not exclusively, in the production of woollen cloths.
Textile in Europe was then, after agriculture, the largest economic sector and the concentration of the textile production attracted large streams of workers to the towns. City authorities were moreover thoroughly aware of the sector’s importance. Demands for better or different privileges were invariably founded on the argument that it was the cloth industry that created welfare – and therefore also indirectly tax incomes for the prince. In many towns, large and small, more than half the population was active in, or dependent for their income on, the industry.
That industrial expansion determined everything: the size of the towns, the density of the urban network, the economic specialization of the inhabitants, the city’s involvement in regional and international trade flows, and even relations with the surrounding countryside, which became a genuine pool of labourers for the urban industry and also took over some cheaper textile production when the urban industries began to face market difficulties.