Medieval Textile Worker's Craft Guilds in the Low Countries

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"The first craft guilds were therefore not necessarily industrial guilds. They often united other, wealthier professions involved in retail, such as butchers. The first textile guilds started out moreover without exception as religious associations. They initially devoted themselves to the organization of group devotion and internal solidarity. Their designation as charités or cariteyten (charities) emphasizes that solidarity precisely. Ideas of brotherhood were, since the emergence moreover of the cities as political municipalities, common, and the embryonic guilds logically also adopted that model. Common meals and religious rituals such as burials and processions served to foster the group spirit on regular occasions. In the sixteenth century it is still striking how guild members continue to call each other ‘brother’ during conflicts. To a certain extent, the association assumed the function of an artificial family. But early on, from the second half of the thirteenth century already, economic affairs occupied a far more central place in the guilds, something which the elites, probably under great social pressure, tolerated only reluctantly. What is striking is that in that process, the initial bonds of solidarity had to be formalized out of necessity. Solidarity simply did not stand in the way of economic inequality in the craft. Mostly in the fifteenth century, even specific organs of social security, the so-called bussen (boxes), were established in order to organize solidarity with masters who were sick or unable to work (whether limited to the masters in the guild or not). At the time, group solidarity was clearly a lot less natural already than in the initial phases of the guilds.

The textile guilds had the wind in their sails, however. Paradoxically enough, the international economic climate helped them significantly in that respect. Thanks to the growing competition, which brought about an increase in the scale of textile production in more and more European regions, the textile entrepreneurs in the main towns of Flanders, Artois and even the rising Brabant lost market shares. In particular, cheaper textiles could be sold locally, without high shipping or transaction costs. The textile entrepreneurs in the major cloth towns were therefore increasingly forced as it were to specialize and to deliver woollens cloth industry of a greater quality, a niche in which competition with other regions was a lot less pronounced. Just as German luxury cars easily reached a middle class clientele in recent decades in Europe, so too did the expensive, heavy Flemish and Brabant woollen cloths become status symbols, the local elites in Eastern and Central Europe purchasing them eagerly. In this process of industrial conversion, technical knowledge, a sense of fashion and more expensive raw materials (wool, dyes) became increasingly important. Organized in craft guilds, the small producers were pre-eminently suited to keep these industrial processes under control. The social consequences were, however, of particular significance. The merchants were indeed still controlling the regional streams of goods, but they were increasingly withdrawing from international commerce and also left their own direct involvement in cloth production to the drapiers or cloth manufacturers, who can increasingly be identified with the small guild masters. These became the key figure of industrial organization, and to a large degree their economic success determined the prospect of the towns of Flanders and Brabant in the Late Middle Ages.

These social transformations grafted themselves onto the political developments happening in the towns. The monopoly on power of the traditional elites of merchants and landowners was challenged more and more by the so-called new men, namely newly wealthy craftsmen and entrepreneurs who also sometimes used the guilds as a vehicle through which to realize their political aspirations. The textile guilds, and especially the numerically important guilds of weavers and fullers, were crucial in this development. They also supplied the largest contingents of militia members to the Bruges troops which in 1302 at the Battle of the Golden Spurs in Kortrijk withstood the coalition of the traditional administrative elites of merchants and landowners (the so-called Leliaards) with the French king. The latter wanted to keep the rich County of Flanders under tighter control. After the initial success, the conflict resulted in a trench warfare of sorts, in which the Flemish count could only retain power by making humiliating concessions to France. French Flanders was lost and the Northern French regions of the large textile towns of Douai, Lille, Saint-Omer and Arras would only revert to the complex of lands of the Count of Flanders at the end of the century, when the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, a younger descendant of the French dynasty of Valois, became the new Count of Flanders at the death of his father-in-law. But the social transformations in the towns of Flanders and almost simultaneously also in Mechelen and in the towns of Brabant could no longer be undone. The power relations in the towns had namely been fundamentally altered by the altered economic organization.

The result is well known. The craft guilds carried the day and they got their say in the administration of the towns – and therefore also of the principality – and their central role in the urban economy was thereby only reinforced. And they did so not only in the city of Bruges, the victor of 1302. In virtually all the major towns of Flanders and Brabant, politicians appointed by the guilds entered the municipal governments. Even in towns where the traditional commercial elites held their ground politically or where, after sometimes bloody conflicts, the clock could partly be turned back, alternative organs of power were often set up in order to make the political voice of the guilds be heard.


A collective identity nevertheless gradually emerged, in the first instance indeed in the groups that had come together in craft guilds. As argued elsewhere too, the guild authorities put a lot of effort into the development of a craft ‘ideology’ by means of communal activities (meals and pageants, the burial of members, chapels, fraternities and processions, etc.), or else internal solidarity was strengthened by the introduction of militia duty in countless towns or by establishing so-called bussen (boxes) for the organization of an internal social security for guild members that were ill, elderly or unable to work. In public events and even in moments of individual need, for instance when appearing before a court of law, the guild members presented themselves without fail as hardworking and modest craftsmen, for whom brotherly solidarity in the guild and social justice in the urban community were not idle words.

Perhaps this remarkable social reversal is articulated nowhere more tellingly than in the statutes of the cloth industry in Mechelen. As in Flanders, the craft guilds also managed in Mechelen to get access after 1302 to the town authorities and as in the major cities of Flanders and Artesia, in Mechelen too the production of woollens constituted the leading economic sector by a large margin. Thanks to a large number of preserved statutes which had to regulate the organization of the cloth trade and production before and after 1300, it is possible to identify the sensitivities of the textile workers and their employers at that crucial turning point. Before 1300, the association of merchants, the so-called guild of the ‘wool work’ (wollewerck), was the dominant force in the industry. Everyone who wanted to be involved in the sector also had to be a member of the merchants’ guild and it was the guild itself which controlled the production of cloth. The grip of the traders on the producers was virtually unlimited. As mentioned already, that had already come to light in the 1240s, when in a period of social difficulties, the Mechelen town authorities too participated in the lock-out of the travelling, striking textile workers. The merchants’ abhorrence of the manual labourers in general also incited them to ban the most crucial professions in the production chain, the weavers and the fullers, from entering the guild of the wool work, or later only to tolerate them in the guild if they paid double the entrance fee of ordinary Mechelen residents. Membership of the merchant guild thus remained the key to entrepreneurship in the town. The guild members even described the activities of the textile workers as fallacis officii or ‘repulsive professions’.

And yet the statutes that were issued after 1270 make clear already that the ‘repulsive professions’ were gradually taking on an identity of their own in Mechelen. The move towards more expensive woollens and superior quality had begun in Mechelen as elsewhere in Flanders or Brabant. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the craft guilds slowly but surely demanded their own place in society. At the issuance of the cloth privilege of 1270 by the town authority and the merchants’ guild, representatives of the weavers’ guild were already present as witnesses. Yet the merchants still unambiguously determined the labour relations. Weavers were banned from striking. So as not to impede the industrial production of the cloth entrepreneurs, they were not even allowed leaving their workplace once they had accepted work, and they were obliged to present themselves every Monday at the abour market. Moreover they could not take out credit to increase the scale of their business and if they were unfit for work due to illness, they could only call once on the solidarity of their colleagues. For virtually everything, the authorization of the merchant guild was necessary, but – and that was new –the craft guild authorities themselves were given nonetheless an increasingly important role to supervise the quality and to regulate work relations between the small entrepreneurs and their employees.

The growing economic significance of the guild masters continued in the following period and in Mechelen too the merchants increasingly seemed to withdraw from the actual work process. While in 1270 already a real collective identity of textile workers came to the surface, a turning point was in reached in about 1300. That identity was on one hand based on a hierarchical organization of the labour market and on the other on the great importance of a ‘moral economy’, whereby the textile workers evoked more and more emphatically the values of solidarity and decency, which were already to be found in the communal ideology of the High Middle Ages. It is certainly no coincidence that already in the weavers’ statutes of Mechelen of 1270 training and socialization within the guild were linked with a good reputation and impeccable behaviour of the members of the craft guild. Against the wealth of the merchants, the guild members increasingly posited a moral integrity. The honour and reputation of the craftsman could guarantee the quality of his end product, and therefore also the price that corresponded to that quality. That is why craftsmen were fined when they were not dressed decently, when they led a debauched life, had too many debts, were too drunk or lived with a prostitute. But these values were also mobilized to segment the labour market depending on the needs of the craft masters, who came to form a genuine middle class of small entrepreneurs with growing political ambitions. Even apprentices were disciplined within the craft ideology and indeed the temporary employees of the craft masters, the skilled journeymen, had to be brought into a position of dependence themselves. Attempts by the journeymen to establish their own associations were successfully thwarted in most towns. From being the repressed, the craft masters – and by extension the middle classes organized in guilds – increasingly became the dominant group in the urban community." (

More information


"The study of the textile industry in the medieval and early modern southern Low Countries has been dominated in the past decades by the work of the late Canadian economic historian John H. Munro. For a synthesis of his research results and a reference to more detailed studies, see MUNRO J.H. ‘Industrial Transformations in the North-West European Textile Trades, c. 1290--c. 1340: Economic Progress or Economic Crisis?’, in Before the Black Death. Studies in the ‘Crisis’ of the Early Fourteenth Century, CAMPBELL, B.M.S. (ed.), Manchester, 1991, pp. 110--148 and especially the chapters ‘Medieval Woollens: Textiles, Textile Technology and Industrial Organisation, c. 800--1500’ and ‘Medieval Woollens: The Western European Woollen Industries and their Struggles for International Markets, c. 1000-- 1500’, in The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, JENKINS, D. (ed.), Cambridge, 2003, pp. 181--227 and 228--324. Outdated in a lot of respects but nonetheless still valuable is the classic work by ESPINAS G., La draperie dans la Flandre française au Moyen Âge, 2 vols, Paris, 1923.

For the transition from domanial to urban textile production, the work of Adriaan Verhulst remains of key importance: VERHULST A., ‘Sheep Breeding and Wool Production in PreThirteenth Century Flanders and Their Contribution to the Rise of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges as Centres of the Textile Industry’, in Ypres and the Medieval Cloth Industry in Flanders: Archaeological and Historical Contributions, DEWILDE M., ERVYNCK A. and WIELEMANS A. (eds.), Asse-Zellik, 1998, pp. 33--40 and VERHULST A., ‘On the Preconditions for the Transition from Rural to Urban Industrial Activities (9th--11th Centuries)’, in Labour and Labour Markets between Town and Countryside (Middle Ages--19th Century), BLONDÉ B., VANHAUTE E. and GALAND M. (eds.), Turnhout, 2001, pp. 33--41. The relations between Flanders and England, including also migration and economic aspects, have been thoroughly studied in OKSANEN E., Flanders and the Anglo-Norman World, 1066-1216, Cambridge, 2012.

The perception of social groups in de High Middle Ages, including weavers, has been approached in a fascinating manner by KÜNZEL R., Beelden en zelfbeelden van middeleeuwse mensen: Historisch-antropologische studies over groepsculturen in de Nederlanden, 7de-- 13de eeuw, Nijmegen, 1997. On the appreciation of manual labour among heretical and religious movements, a number of ideas have been collected in DEPLOIGE, J., ‘By the Labour of Whose Hands? Two Reflections on the Appreciation of Work in Medieval Christianity on the Occasion of the Publication of Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, Worthy efforts: attitudes to work and workers in pre-industrial Europe’, in Tijdschrift voor sociale en economische geschiedenis, 11-1, 2004, pp. 89--104, but important facts can also be found in the work of SIMONS, W., Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-- 1565, Philadelphia, 2001. For a recent, critical approach of medieval heresy and the stereotyping of heretics as weavers, see MOORE, R.I., The War On Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe, London, 2012.

A quantitative approach of the production output of the Flemish cloth industry is to be found in STABEL, P., ‘“Dmeeste, oirboirlixste ende proffitelixste let ende neringhe”: een kwantitatieve benadering van de lakenproductie in het laatmiddeleeuwse en vroegmoderne Vlaanderen’, in Handelingen der Maatschappij voor Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde te Gent, 51, 1997, pp. 113--153 and THIJS, A.K.L., ‘Les textiles au marché anversois au XVIe siècle’, in Textiles of the Low Countries in European Economic History, Proceedings of the Tenth International Economic History Congress, AERTS, E. and MUNRO, J. (eds.), Leuven, 1990, pp. 76--86. On the position of textile manufacture in the economic transformations in this period: VAN DER WEE, H., ‘Industrial Dynamics and the Process of Urbanization and De-urbanization in the Low Countries from the Late Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century. A Synthesis’, in The Rise and Decline of Urban Industries in Italy and in the Low Countries (Late Middle Ages--Early Modern Times), VAN DER WEE, H. (ed.), Leuven, 1988, pp. 307--381.

The social history of the textile industry has been studied less systematically. In recent years the phenomenon of the craft guilds has been the focus of attention. See: LIS, C. and SOLY, H., ‘Subcontracting in Guild-Based Export Trades, 13th--18th Centuries’, in Guilds, Innovation, and the European Economy, EPSTEIN, S.R. and PRAK, M.R. (eds.), Cambridge, 2008, pp. 81-- 113; SOLY, H., ‘The Political Economy of Guild-Based Textile Industries: Power Relations and Economic Strategies of Merchants and Master Artisans in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, in The Return of the Guilds, LUCASSEN, J. et al. (eds.), Cambridge, 2008, pp. 45--72; SOSSON, J.-P., ‘Les métiers: norme et réalité. L’exemple des anciens Pays-Bas méridionaux aux XIVe et XVe siècles’, in Le travail au Moyen Âge: une approche interdisciplinaire, HAMESSE, J. (ed.), Louvain-la-Neuve, 1990, pp. 339--348 and STABEL, P., ‘Guilds in Late Medieval Flanders: Myths and Realities of Guild Life in an Export-Oriented Environment’, in Journal of Medieval History, 30, 2004, pp. 187--212. The older WYFFELS, C., De oorsprong der ambachten in Vlaanderen en Brabant, Brussels, 1951 still remains important. On trade ideology, see also DUMOLYN, J., ‘“Let Each Man Carry on with His Trade and Remain Silent.” Middle Class Ideology in the Urban Literature of the Late Medieval Low Countries’, in Cultural and Social History, 10, 2013, pp. 169--189 and LIS, C. and SOLY, H., Worthy Efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe, Leiden, 2012. The position of specific social groups in the textile industry specifically deserves more attention in the near future. At present one must make do with: ESPINAS, G., Les origines du capitalisme, 1. Sire Jehan Boinebroke patricien et drapier douaisien (1286 environ), Lille, 1933 and VAN WERVEKE, H., ‘De Koopman-ondernemer en de ondernemer in de Vlaamsche lakennijverheid van de Middeleeuwen’, in Mededeelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamsche Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren en schoone Kunsten van België. Klasse der Letteren, 8, 1946 for the role of the merchants; HOLBACH, R., Frühformen von Verlag und Grossbetrieb in der gewerblichen Produktion (13.--16. Jahrhundert), Stuttgart, 1994 for work relations between town and countryside; and STABEL, P., ‘Working Alone? Single Women in the Urban Economy of Late Medieval Flanders (thirteenth--early fifteenth centuries)’, in Single Life and the City, 1200--1900, DE GROOT, J., DEVOS, I. and SCHMIDT, A. (eds.), London, 2015, pp. 27-- 49 and CARLIER, M. and STABEL, P., ‘Questions de moralité dans les villes de la Flandre au bas moyen âge: sexualité et activité urbaine (bans échevinaux et statuts de métiers)’, in ‘Faire Banz, edictz et statuts’ légiférer dans la ville médiévale, CAUCHIES, J.M. (ed.), Brussels, 2002, pp. 241--262 for the role of women and the importance of moral codes.

An assessment and survey of of diplomatic and other documentary sources concerning the textile industry, can be found for the period prior to 1250 in Diplomata Belgica. Les sources diplomatiques des Pays-Bas méridionaux aux Moyen Âge, DE HEMPTINNE, T., DEPLOIGE, J., KUPPER, J.-L. and PREVENIER, W. (eds.), Brussels, available for consultation since 2015 on and for the later periodin,the series published by Georges Espinas and Henri Pirenne Recueil de documents relatifs à l’histoire de l’industrie drapière en Flandre, 8 volumes, Brussels, 1906--2006. On literary texts as a source for historical research, more research needs to be conducted, but the following studies are very useful: VAN UYTVEN R., ‘Cloth in Medieval Literature of Western Europe’, in Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson, HARTE, N.B. (ed.) and PONTING, K.G. (ed.), London, 1983, pp. 151--183 and GOYENS, M. and VAN HOECKE, W., ‘Vlaamse immigranten in het 13de-eeuwse Atrecht: de getuigenis van de "Prise De Neuville"’, in De Franse Nederlanden. Les Pays-Bas Français, 13, 1988, pp. 11--26." (


* Article: Textile entrepreneurs and textile workers in the medieval city. By Jeroen Deploige and Peter Stabel


Jeroen Deploige and Peter Stabel, ‘Textile entrepreneurs and textile workers in the medieval city’, in Golden Times. Wealth and Status in the Middle Ages, ed. by Véronique Lambert and Peter Stabel (Tielt: Lannoo Publishers, 2016), 240-281.