The 11th to 13th centuries were a golden age for the medieval Flemish cloth industry. But then it began to decline seriously.
The period between the 11th and 13th centuries was a golden age for Flanders. Thanks to the diligence of its weavers and the entrepreneurship of its merchants, Flemish cloth was renowned for its exceptionally high quality and was in great demand throughout Europe and beyond. The industry attracted wealthy Italian and Spanish merchants and bankers to the Flemish cities and financed the development of Ghent and Ypres, while turning Bruges into the busiest port in northern Europe. Yet in the 14th century the industry stagnated and by the early 15th century had declined to a fraction of its former glory.
The rise of the medieval Flemish cloth industry
Flemish cloth has long been an admired commodity. When the Romans entered the region they called Belgica, the high-quality cloth woven by the locals was greatly valued for making a man’s toga and a woman’s stola. In the early Middle Ages, Flanders’ major trading partners were situation on the North Sea and Baltic, since these areas were easily accessible by ship. Records exist of Flemish cloth turning up in the markets of Novgorod in Russia.
A number of factors had combined to contribute to this position. There was an ancient tradition of craftsmanship in the Low Countries, particularly in the monasteries and abbeys. The population density of the region was relatively high, forcing residents to supplement agriculture with other trades. And the terrain of Flanders was suitable for rearing sheep, particularly on the newly reclaimed polders.
New loom triples productivity
As the industry grew, so did the towns. Rural weavers, spinners and fullers migrated to Bruges, Ghent and Ypres where the burgeoning cloth trade was centered. A major acceleration occurred when weavers underwent a technological revolution in the 11th century. The shift from the conventional horizontal to the new vertical loom is estimated to have tripled workers’ productivity.
In the early 12th century, Flemish cloth merchants began to look towards the south of Europe for a new export market, and began to participate in the grand fairs of Champagne in France. These were rapidly becoming the most commercially important trade fairs on the European continent and provided the necessary link between the Low Countries and Italy – which at that time were the two main commercial hubs in the known world. The commerce focused on a cycle of six fairs, each lasting six weeks. Two each were held in Provins and Troyes, and one each in Bar-sur-Aube and Lagny.
Soon every textile producing town in Flanders had a presence in the cloth halls of Provins and Troyes. Here, their cloth was snapped up by Italian merchants, who took their purchases back to the cities of Genoa, Milan and Florence and even further afield to the Middle East.
Towards the end of the 13th century, a conflict arose between the King of France, who had recently annexed the county of Champagne, and the Count of Flanders. The result was that Flemish cloth was forbidden to be sold at the Champagne fairs. A potential economic disaster was averted by the Italians. With their newer, larger galleys, they opened up a direct sea route through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the French coast to Flanders.
Bruges becomes key market
Bruges was immediately catapulted into the status of a leading international port. A regular galley service between Genoa and Bruges was established. Venice was slow to follow, but by 1314 had supplemented her usual route over the Alps to the Low Countries with a maritime service to Bruges. Venetian merchants could not afford to delay, because by then Bruges was the most important European market north of the Alps. Italian merchants and bankers arrived in Flanders in large numbers, installing themselves in resident colonies. Their money led to the construction of numerous prestigious buildings.
The famous cloth halls typified the wealth created by the cloth trade. Not only were they centers of trade, they were important status symbols too. There would have been a lot of competition between towns to build the largest, most impressive cloth hall.
It was a boom time for Flemish cloth. In Ghent, almost two-thirds of its 65,000 inhabitants were directly or indirectly associated with the textile industry. So great was the production of Flemish draperies at that time that it has been regarded as an industrial revolution only a little less advanced than that at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.
Class differences emerge
However, as in industrial 19th century England, an imbalance existed between the different classes. At one extreme were the patricians; members of the wealthy families who had interests in the cloth industry and to a large extent governed the textile towns. They lived in luxury in inner-city palatial buildings. At the other extreme were the textile workers, who were often relegated to peripheral quarters where the factories were located. Even this group had its divisions. Weavers users the services of spinners, fullers and threadmakers. In Ghent, conflicts between weavers and fullers repeatedly led to social and political unrest, since both groups strived for political influence. The weavers consistently came out on top. The fullers were particularly poorly paid, and their job was considered filthy and degrading.
In the traditional process used in the Low Countries from the 14th to 16th centuries, the fullers placed the woven cloth in a large vat containing a mixture of hot water, fuller’s earth (a clay-like substance), and urine. The fuller would then stamp upon the cloth in this noxious emulsion for three days – or even longer in the case of very luxurious cloths. It’s therefore no surprise that being a fuller was considered to be the lowest, most degrading job. What’s more, the addition of dyes at this stage led to fullers having permanently discolored hands and feet.
The inequality between the patricians and textile workers led to uprisings. In Ghent in 1252 and 1274, poor cloth workers demonstrated against their lack of rights. In 1280 workers took to the streets in virtually every textile town in Flanders to protest against their working conditions. It was not until the time of Jacques van Artevelde, 50 years later, that the status of Flemish textile workers improved. By then, however, it was too late; the Flemish textile industry was already in decline.
The fall of the medieval Flemish cloth industry
According to experts, there were three main reasons behind the decline of the Flemish cloth industry. One was the sand that for a number of years had been gradually silting up Bruges harbor. Amidst concerns that the Bruges harbor would become inaccessible, the nearby port of Damme was built in 1180. But by the end of the 13th century even Damme could no longer accept the deep-draught Italian ships. In 1290 a new but even more distant seaport was opened in Sluis. The improvement was only temporary. Sluis harbor also silted up and the larger ships had to anchor at an offshore island and forward their cargoes to Sluis by barge, which wasted time and money. Bruges was beginning to lose its status, and the process for exporting cloth was no longer as straightforward as it used to be.
With the port facilities becoming less convenient, Italian merchants and bankers moved eastwards to Antwerp. It was not only a better port for deep-draught ships but also a more strategic location. It gave merchants easy access to the new land trade routes that were developing not through France but through Germany, and which offered other, more profitable investments than cloth.
Competition and tax have huge effects
Another reason for the decline was the political tension between England and France, which often had repercussions in the economy of Flanders. An English embargo on the export of wool to Flanders was a frequent weapon in the conflict, and an effective one too. With high quality English wool there could be no high quality Flemish cloth.
Thirdly, Flemish cloth was, for the first time, facing serious competition. England itself was developing its own cloth industry. To protect it, England gradually increased the tax on the export of its wool. In 1275 the levy was a fairly modest 6 shillings and 8 pence per sack (166 kg) of wool. By 1341 it had risen to a crippling 46 shillings 8 pence per sack.
The Flemish monopoly is broken
A cheaper alternative to English wool was found. It came from the Merino sheep of Spain. Its import into Flanders marked the appearance of Spanish merchants in Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. However, the quality of Spanish wool, while perfectly satisfactory for medium quality garments, was not suitable for the luxury woolens on which the Flemish cloth industry had been based. The Flemish monopoly had been broken.
Some Flemish textile workers migrated to England to seek work but most remained to await better times. Their prospects improved in the 14th century after their ranks had been thinned by the Black Death. The ensuing labor shortage resulted in an enhanced market position and therefor more favorable work conditions. But the golden era of Flemish supremacy in cloth had ended.
Know your Flemish cloth!
Flemish wool-based cloth manufacturing was divided into two major categories: the wet drapery and the dry drapery. This division roughly correlates to the more modern English distinction between woollens and worsteds.
In the wet drapery, genuine woollens were woven from very fine, short and curly-fibred wools. They were heavily greased in butter or oil to restore the natural lanolin. Greasing also helped processes such as combing, carding, spinning and weaving and protected these delicate fibres from tangling.
After removal from the loom, the woollen cloths were subjected to extensive fulling. The intense heat, pressure and chemical reaction would cleanse the cloth, remove the grease, and force the fibers to interlock. This would give the cloth its necessary cohesion and strength, making these heavy woollens virtually indestructible. The fulled woollens were then stretched on a frame to remove any wrinkles, and to ensure even dimensions throughout.
The cloth was then handed over to the cloth finishers, who subjected it to repeated napping, using the dried seed heads of teasels. This would raise the loose fibres of the nap, which were then shorn with long, sharp shears. The end result was a very soft texture, rivalling that of silks.
In contrast, the fabrics produced by the dry draperies were made from much stronger, longer, straight-fibered wools, which required no initial greasing. Once they were fully combed, the resulting yarns, when properly twisted in the spinning processes, had sufficient strength and cohesion so that when woven they were already fairly durable. Thus they did not require any real fulling beyond a brief and simple cleansing; nor were they napped or shorn. Consequently they were much lighter – and coarser – cloths.
Generally, the wet draperies produced the more expensive fabrics and the dry draperies thecheaper fabrics. However, there was nothing cheap about Flemish cloth. The lower strata of medieval society, in export markets such as Italy for example, would not have been able to afford such textiles from the Flemish draperies, especially after transport costs and taxes were added to the sales price. Such people were more likely to have worn homespuns or domestically made fabrics.
If you are looking for a detailed academic book on this topic, a recent (August 2022) and highly comprehensive book is The Fabric of the City by Peter Stabel. It will set you back around 90 EUR but if you want in-depth information from an expert on this topic, it’s a worthwhile investment.
More affordable is Fashion in the Middle Ages by Margaret Scott. It takes a look at the fabrics and composition of medieval clothing as well as the period’s attitude toward fashion.
Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-1450 covers topics such as techniques used in medievel textile production, different types of linen, sewing & tailoring, and dyes.
For somethine more broader, then Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade by Henri Pirenne is described as a classic and essential reading for all students of medieval European history.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon affiliate I may receive small commissions from these links).
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