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Hanseatic commerce in textiles from the Low Countries and England during the Later Middle Ages: changing trends in textiles, markets, prices, and values, 1290 - 1570

Munro, John H. (2007): Hanseatic commerce in textiles from the Low Countries and England during the Later Middle Ages: changing trends in textiles, markets, prices, and values, 1290 - 1570. Published in: Von Nowgorod bis London: Studien zu Handel, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im mittelalterlichen Europa: Festschrift für Stuart Jenks zum 60. Geburtstag, Nova Mediaevalia, Quellen und Studien zum europäischen Mittelalter , Vol. 4, No. 1 (September 2008): pp. 97-182.

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This paper analyses the major changes in textile products, production costs, prices, and market orientations during the era when the ‘draperies’ or cloth industries of the late-medieval Low Countries and England had become increasingly dependent upon northern markets and the German Hanseatic League as the major vehicle in marketing their textiles. In several previous articles, I had examined the major factors that had led to the industrial and commercial reorientations of the these cloth industries during the 14th and 15th centuries. In brief, the spreading stain of widespread warfare, piracy, and general insecurity, especially in the Mediterranean basin, from the 1290s (to the 1460s), led to a rise in transport and transaction costs that, in turn, had three major consequences for the Low Countries’ and England’s textile-based economies: (1) to cripple the export-oriented production of the very cheap and light fabrics, most of which had been sent to Mediterranean markets and had comprised the bulk of northern textile shipments to this region; (2) to encourage most draperies in the Low Countries and England to re-orient their export-oriented cloth production more and more towards high-priced ultra-luxury quality woollens, woven almost exclusively from the finer English wools, but wools that came to be burdened with high export taxes; and (3) to force these northern cloth industries, facing increasing difficulties in Mediterranean commerce, to become far more dependent on Hanseatic merchants and German towns for their cloth sales, certainly by the mid-14th century. But in effecting these industrial and commercial orientations, the Low Countries’ draperies encountered a new and even more dangerous challenge from expanding English competition in textiles, which enjoyed the signal advantage of control over high quality wools, which, for the domestic cloth industry, were tax-free and much cheaper. Nevertheless, for reasons outlined in this and earlier papers, the English took well more than a century to achieve final victory in the woollen broadcloth trade, though one that came to be fundamentally based upon German commercial forces, along with other commercial, monetary, and industrial factors outlined in this paper. Obeying the law of comparative advantage, the textile industries of the Low Countries responded to this English victory by once more re-orienting production to cheaper cloths, especially cheap, light worsted-says; but they were able to do so only when structural changes in European markets and trading networks, with falling transaction costs, from the later 15th century, once more favoured the export-oriented production of such cheap textiles. The major contributions of this paper, however, also lie in analysing production, product, cost, and prices changes in textiles, both cheap worsted and luxury woollens, in terms of 15 tables: (1) English wool and broadcloth exports, 1281-1550; (2) Production indices for the woollen cloth industries of the southern Low Countries, 1316-1575; (3) Production indices for the Hondschoote sayetterie and Leiden woollen industry, 1376-1570; (4 - 7) Prices and relative values of Ghent woollens: in terms of values of commodity baskets and a mason’s daily wage: 1331-1570 (no. of days’ wages to buy one cloth); (8) Prices of English woollen cloths at Cambridge and Winchester: and values in terms of a mason’s daily wage; and mean values of English cloth exports in pounds sterling, groot Flemish, and florins; (9) Prices of various Flemish woollen broadcloths, compared to the Flemish composite price index: 1351-1550; (10) Prices of various Brabantine woollen cloths, compared to the Brabant composite price index; and the no. of days’ wages for a master mason to buy one Mechelen broadcloth, 1351-1520; (11) Prices of Hondschoote Says and Ghent Dickedinnen Woollens, in pounds groot Flemish, compared with the purchasing power an Antwerp master mason's daily wages; (12) Purchase prices of Ghent woollens: by rank order of values, 1360-69: in pounds groot Flemish, units of Commodity Baskets of equivalent value, and the number of a master mason’s day’s wages required to purchase each cloth (from the cheapest to highest priced); (13) Dimensions, composition, and weights of selected Flemish and English textiles, 1456-1579; (14) Prices of and taxes on exported English wools (sacks), 1211-1500: (15) Prices of English Wools (48 grades) sold at the Calais Staple, in 1475 and 1499.

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