History

The Rise and Fall of the Medieval Flemish Cloth Industry

The cloth industry of Flanders in the Middle Ages

The 11th to 13th centuries were a golden age for Flemish cloth. And then the English introduced their crippling wool tax

The rise of Flemish cloth

Flemish cloth has a long history of being admired. When the Romans entered Belgica, the high-quality cloth woven by the locals was soon taken and used for a man’s toga and a woman’s stola. In the early Middle Ages, records exist of Flemish cloth turning up in the markets of Novgorod in Russia.

The strong position of Flemish cloth in the 11th century was down to a number of factors. The people of the Low Countries – especially in the monasteries and abbeys – were skilled craftsmen. The population density of the region was relatively high, driving people to supplement agriculture with other trades. And the fields of Flanders were good for sheep-rearing, particularly on the newly reclaimed polders.

So That's Why... Thomas Blanket Changed His Name

So cloth-making in Flanders grew, and with it so did the towns, as rural weavers, spinners and fullers migrated to the centres of the new industry: Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. To meet demand, high-quality English wool began to be imported into Flanders. It was perfect for making top quality woollen garments.

By the early 12th century, Flemish cloth merchants were beginning to develop a nose for export. They began to turn up in the big and commercially important trade fairs of Champagne, France (below).

Fairs-Champagne

This was a good move as it put the traders in touch with Italian merchants, who soon began to take their purchases back to the cities of Genoa, Milan and Florence.

By the 13th century, the Italians, with their newer, larger galleys, had opened up the direct sea route through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the French coast to Flanders. This resulted in Bruges becoming a leading international port. Regular and extensive trade was set up between Genoa, Venice and Bruges. Italian merchants and bankers flocked to Flanders. Their money led to the construction of numerous prestigious buildings, such as the famous cloth halls. These were the centres of trade as well as important status symbols. It was a boom time for Flemish cloth.

 

The original Cloth Hall of Ypres in 1914 (left) just before it was destroyed in the First World War, and today (right) after its reconstruction.

The fall of Flemish cloth

Unfortunately it was a boom that could not be sustained. As with its rise, so numerous factors played a role in its fall.

One was sand. For a number of years, Bruges harbour had been gradually silting up. Ships began struggling to reach Bruges – and its status was beginning to waver. As a result, Italian merchants and bankers moved eastwards to Antwerp. The port had deeper water and easier access. It also gave merchants better access to the new land trade routes that were developing through Germany, and which offered other, more profitable investments, than cloth.

trade routes

Another reason 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. Without 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 couldn’t pay these prices. They did manage to find a cheaper alternative to English wool: 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 woollens on which the Flemish cloth industry had been based.

The Flemish monopoly had been broken. In the 14th century the industry stagnated, and by the early 15th century it had declined to a fraction of its former glory. The golden era of Flemish supremacy in cloth had come to an end.

 

About Denzil

Discovering Belgium is my personal blog describing places to visit in Belgium. It mainly focuses on walking and cycling in nature, but also covers cities and events.

39 comments on “The Rise and Fall of the Medieval Flemish Cloth Industry

  1. Fascinating to learn. They needed fair trade, even then.

    • Yes, perhaps even more so than these days. But can you imagine the logistics involved in moving great amounts of material by “road” across the country? Especially when the countryside would not have been particularly safe for travellers.

  2. Makes me think of the high number of cloth halls, e.g. in Herentals or in Dendermonde. Interesting piece of history. Let’s see how Brexit hearts us this time 🙂

    • I have a feeling that Brexit is going to hurt the British more than the rest of Europe Guido. It would be interesting to try and discover how many cloth halls were constructed across Flanders, and how many are still standing in one form or another.

  3. Very interesting!

    • You see it’s not your President who invented protectionism. Obviously someone in the 1300s came up with “Make Britain Great Again”

      • Haha! During the last election, there were people wearing caps “Make America Great Britain Again,” perhaps we should have “Make It The Middle Ages Again” or maybe “Free Trade is Evil, Make It Medieval”
        When I was in college, I took a great course called “Raiders & Traders,” at the U of Hull, and learned a bit about trade routes through the Baltic, etc., but when I saw the map in your article, I’m still amazed at the distances these folks covered in their clumsy cogs and carracks, etc.

        • Ha I like all of those slogans Robert. So you spent some time in Hull did you? That must have been a culture shock, coming from NY State?

          • It was winter, so a bit gray, but I liked it. I was just sorry they put me in a house full of other Americans & Australians, who were pretty much there to go drinking six nights a week! Did not get much sleep that semester. But the courses were excellent, and I’d like to go back, and see more of Yorkshire

  4. Mark Thomas

    Excellent you should tell BBC Radio 4’s The Long View. This is right up their street.

    • Thanks Mark. I don’t know what this programme is but I’ll check it out.

  5. This was a very interesting post. Here in New England, there are a lot of old mill buildings that were originally used for manufacturing material. That business ran the course because labor was cheaper in the south, and the mills remained vacant. However, today they are coming back to life with lofts and condos and businesses putting down roots. 🙂

    • I sometimes wonder what the original inhabitants of centuries-old buildings might think were they to return to their abode and find it a loft, architect’s office, youth club, pub, internet cafe or whatever… Still, it’s better they are re-used than pulled down.

  6. If only the Flemish hadn’t insisted on supporting the French against England. No one’s going to make life easy for their enemy.

    Many Flemish weavers came to live in England in the fourteenth century. How do we know? Because they were targeted and killed in the Peasants’ Revolt.

    We have a relic of the wool trade where I live. It’s a warehouse, basically, built to store wool for export to … Italy.

    • Yes I read that a lot of Flemish weavers emigrated to England and helped the country’s wool trade. I didn’t know they were specifically targeted. Sounds familiar.

  7. Thanks for the interesting history lesson, Denzil. Enjoyed it!

  8. Interesting trade history. There will always be winners and losers.

  9. As the saying goes, history keeps repeating itself and nothing much changes. We visited the Cloth Hall in Ypres – it’s amazing to think it was all reconstructed. It’s been beautifully done.

  10. Very interesting. I love history and it’s interesting to see how things have progressed and also how they’ve stayed the same. Thanks for such an interesting article. 🙂

  11. Interesting reading Denzil!

  12. Very interesting! I remember learning about some of this way back in school history lessons (which weren’t as interesting as your blog, btw)!

    • I struggled with history at school Ruth and have only become interested in it in the last few years. Happy to hear that you are enjoying the blog.

  13. This is a very interesting post and I love reading it. I have also shared it on various social media outlets

  14. What an interesting time to be alive! You know, before everything was at your fingertips. LOL I’m sure all the new trends were just too exciting to pass up when the ports were open other places.

  15. Thanks, Denzil, for interesting history about the cloth industry, and the wonderful images.

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