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The Medieval Clothier

Author(s):Lee, John S.
Reviewer(s):Brown, Alex

Published by EH.Net (April 2019)

John S. Lee, The Medieval Clothier. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2018. xix + 365 pp. £25 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-78327-317-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net byAlex Brown, Department of History, Durham University.

John S. Lee’s The Medieval Clothier is an excellent first volume in Boydell’s new series Working in the Middle Ages, which aims “to provide authoritative, accessible guides to medieval trades, offering surveys of their origins and development, alongside the practicalities of the occupation,” under James Davis as series editor. As such, The Medieval Clothier is a hugely successful opening book to the series, providing a meticulous examination of the late medieval cloth industry in England. Lee demonstrates his mastery of the topic by taking the reader from the detailed world of cloth production and its many quirks through to the aggregate national picture, while similarly grounding in-depth case studies of prominent families in the larger trends that effected medieval clothiers as an occupational group. In doing so, we see not just the economic roles that clothiers played in medieval England but also their social, religious and political importance through a range of source material that includes national statistics and accounts, contemporary literature and visual material. This is reflected in the book’s beautiful presentation of ten color illustrations, twenty further black and white images and a range of accompanying figures, maps, tables and appendices.

The cloth industry itself was hugely important in late medieval England, with the number of cloths produced increasing from an estimated 163,900 in 1311-15 to some 308,100 by 1541-45, a growth which saw the pounds of cloth produced per capita increase from 1.3 to 7.0 across this period. But how were such increases achieved? Who were the clothiers driving these changes? And can they truly be described as early capitalists? In order to answer these questions, The Medieval Clothier proceeds logically from the production process of cloth in the opening chapter, moving on to explore the marketing of cloth, the regional identity of clothiers themselves, their relationship with the government through legislation, and their role in medieval society, before finally exploring some case studies of famous clothiers.

In Chapter 1, we learn of the world of medieval cloth production, showing how technological developments aided the growth of the industry. Productivity probably trebled at several stages of the cloth production process because of changes introduced in the late Middle Ages: spinning by wheel instead of by distaff and spindle; weaving using a horizontal loom as opposed to a vertical one; and fulling in a mill rather than by foot. Although some clothiers did develop a factory-style of production, the majority of cloth production was made through the widespread adoption of the putting-out system. Moving from production to marketing, Chapter 2 explores how this cloth was sold, what marketing networks the industry utilized, and who participated in the trade. Some individuals did build up their own regional, national, or even international networks, but the majority sold their cloth wholesale to merchants. And as might be expected, it was the Londoners who came to dominate this trade, especially the Merchant Adventurers who came to monopolize cloth exports.

In Chapter 3, Lee explores why the cloth industry came to be based in small towns and villages as the Late Middle Ages progressed rather than the cities and boroughs of medieval England. In some ways this is a product of topics discussed in the preceding chapters, with clothiers flourishing in areas with ready access to labor, capital and markets. After all, the putting-out system on which cloth production was based required little capital on the part of the worker, who in turn could work part-time around the demands of the agricultural seasons. In Chapter 4, we see some of the consequences of disturbances in the cloth industry because clothiers were creatures of credit: by providing delivery of cloth before payment, clothiers were particularly vulnerable to trade crises. This in turn meant they could not pay their workers and Lee shows how a sudden shock could produce serious short-term problems for workers in the putting-out system, who might join a local rebellion to express their discontent.

Chapter 5 shows how medieval clothiers as an occupation tended to transcend many of the traditional social status groupings that we associate with the Middle Ages and could include merchants, craftsmen, gentry or peasants. Clothiers were every bit as obsessed with death and remembrance as other groups in late medieval society, but perhaps most interestingly “clothiers and woolmen displayed the tools of their trade to a prodigious extent not generally found in other occupations,” suggesting a level of pride in their work. In Chapter 6, Lee tackles some of the wealthiest and most famous clothiers of the period: men like Thomas Paycocke who bequeathed money in his will that may have been intended for between 80 and 240 workers; Thomas Spring II whose bequest may have supported 220 to 3,900 workers; Jack of Newbury who may have employed over 1,000 workers; and, of course, William Stumpe who has been seen as a “manufactory-capitalist” by previous historians because of his work at Malmesbury Abbey.

Bringing the book together, Lee concludes that clothiers were a product of their time, emerging in the economic conditions that followed the Black Death of 1348-50 and the subsequent mid-fifteenth-century crisis. He convincingly argues that clothiers cannot truly be seen as early capitalists because — short of a few extraordinary individuals — the majority did not own capital assets and did not employ labor themselves. Instead they relied upon the putting-out system, which, although it left workers particularly vulnerable to trade slumps, did not constitute an economic relationship that could be defined as that of employer and employee.

The Medieval Clothier, therefore, is a highly successful book that provides an interesting, compelling and at all times authoritative survey of one of the most important trades in late medieval England, making it a must read for students and scholars alike.

Alex Brown is an assistant professor at Durham University. He has published on the late medieval and early modern economic and social history of England, including a recent monograph on Rural Society and Economic Change in County Durham: Recession and Recovery, c.1400-1640 (Boydell, 2015).

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Subject(s):Business History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval