Trade in Northern Europe

MTI12c - Manufactured Goods Paul Harrison


In the medieval period, the economies of most European countries was based on agriculture. However, the cool climate of northern europe meant the need to be well clothed was as important as being well fed. The period 1000-1500 saw a move away from homespun, and domestically produced clothing, towards commercially produced textiles. As industry in towns started, the textile industry was usually the first to develop.

The English textile industry was based mainly on the production of woolen cloth. Silk was also produced, but in much smaller quantities because only a small percentage of the population actually wore it.

Some of the larger towns on the continent were so focused on one particular type of manufacturing that the land that still remained devoted to agriculture was unable to cope with the demands for food from the industrial population. This was mainly in the cloth producing low countries but the problem also arose in silk producing Lucca, and steel producing St Etienne. Iron deposits were widely spread, yet the growing demand for metal goods such as tools, axles, armour and swords led to increased trading throughout Europe.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Flemish cloth industry was one of the most prosperous in Europe, with Ghent and Bruges following the example of Ypres in exporting to countries around the mediterranean. In the thirteenth century, the region of Picardy was important to the cloth industry because it was a leading producer of Woad, a type of dye used on cloth

It was not until the end of the thirteenth century that the Italian cloth industry gained any significant international recognition, but once into the next century it developed rapidly. By 1338 Florence was still importing 10000 cloths a year but also exporting 80000 itself. When the Black Death swept through Europe demand for cloth declined so production also decreased.

Such was the search for greater profits that the standard of cloth was often poor as unscrupulous merchants stretched smaller cloths in an attempt to produce the required size. This led to a thinning of the cloth which meant it was not as durable and holed easily. It was not until the late fifteenth century that legislation was past to penalise those who excessively stretched the cloth.

The fifteenth century also saw many new industries come to prominence. Linen was produced as an alternative to wool while the art of glass-making and the production of leather became more widespread.