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Spanish Merino wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: an industrial transformation in the late-medieval Low Countries

Munro, John H. (2004): Spanish Merino wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: an industrial transformation in the late-medieval Low Countries. Published in: Economic History Review , Vol. 58, No. 3 (August 2005): pp. 431-484.

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Abstract

This article seeks to explain why Spanish merino wools arrived so late in the Low Countries, only from the 1420s, why initially only those cloth producers known as the 'nouvelles draperies' chose to use them, and why their resort to such merino wools allowed at least some of them to escape the current crisis afflicting the traditional ‘old draperies’, and indeed to expand to become the chief producers of woollen cloths in the southern Low Countries during the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Although the merino have been by far the world’s finest wools, since at least the seventeenth century, English wools had enjoyed that supremacy in the medieval era. The Spanish sheep breeds that produced the first merino wools did not emerge until or after the 1340s; and it took many decades of experimental breeding and improved flock management to produce better quality wools in sufficient quantities for export (first to Italy). Before the introduction of merinos, the indigenous Spanish sheep had produced some of the worst wools in Europe. In the thirteenth century, they were used only in making very cheap, coarse, light cloths, when north-west Europe was producing a wide range of textiles, from such coarse light generally worsted-style fabrics to the most luxurious woollens. For reasons that I have elaborated elsewhere, the onset of a spreading stain of chronic and debilitating wars, from the 1290s, throughout the Mediterranean basin and north-west Europe, resulted in a sharp rise in transaction costs that made long-distance trade in cheaper textiles unprofitable. Consequently, by the 1330s, most north-west European draperies had abandoned export-oriented production of cheaper line textiles to concentrate on very high priced luxury woollens, those that could so much better ‘bear the freight’. Furthermore, in Flanders, a considerable number of small-town and village producers engaged in precisely the same industrial re-orientation; but in producing genuine heavy weight woollens, they sought to imitate those of the large Flemish towns; and, in selling their cloths at lower prices, came to be known as the nouvelles draperies. This industrial reorientation meant that cloth producers in the Low Countries became all the more reliant on English wools, above all the traditional urban draperies (who came to use such wools exclusively). The English crown was quick to exploit this dependency by sharply raising export taxes, which, by the 1390s, constituted half of the sales price; and that in turn accounted for up to 70 percent of production costs in the Low Countries’ urban draperies. Meanwhile, English cloth exports, very lightly taxed, gained an enormous cost and thus price advantage, but one not fully exploited until the fifteenth century. The catalyst for the final economic crisis, one that brought about the irredeemable decline of most of the urban draperies in the Low Countries, and the expansion of the nouvelles draperies, took place from 1429 to 1473, when the English crown sought to exploit the wool trade even further, in pursuing ill-advised bullionist policies: by requiring that the Calais Staple wool cartel sharply raise prices, that it seel all wools only for ‘ready English money’ without credit, and that it deliver one third of the sales receipts to the mint in gold bullion. Not until the 1470s did the Burgundians succeed in having these bullionist ordinances revoked. Meanwhile the traditional Flemish and Brabantine draperies, in continuing to use such high-cost English wools exclusively, for fear of losing customers, ensured their own rapid decline, indeed losing markets to both the English cloth trade and the nouvelles draperies, who also acquired considerable capital and labour from the declining draperies. Their success, as less quality-conscious imitators, lay in their willingness to use the far cheaper but now improved Spanish wools. An historic prejudice against pre-merino Spanish wools probably explains whey even they had not used these wools before the onset of this crisis. Having displaced the traditional draperies, the nouvelles draperies reached their apogee in the 1540s, when they were superseded by the sayetteries, after international market conditions had once more favoured long-distance trade in truly cheaper, light textiles.

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