Medieval Clothiers and their workers: an early ‘gig’ economy?

by John S. Lee (University of York)

The Medieval Clothier is published by Boydell Press. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 31 March 2019. See below for details.

 

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Dyers soaking red cloth in a heated barrel. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Casual wage-earners dependent on wealthy entrepreneurs for their work are not just a modern phenomenon. A new book by John S. Lee, The Medieval Clothier, charts the rise of clothiers in the period 1350-1550, and the innovative ways in which they organised their workforce.

Clothiers co-ordinated the different stages of textile production and found markets for their finished cloth. They increasingly managed all the stages of cloth-making, operating what historians have called the ‘putting out’ system. In this method of organising work, clothiers put-out raw materials for spinners, weavers, fullers and other cloth-workers to process. Clothiers paid these cloth-workers, often based in their own homes, on a piece-rate basis, rather than receiving a regular wage.

Like the modern ‘gig’ economy, the benefits of this system were hotly contested. Clothworkers enjoyed the independence to choose their own hours, and combine their craft with other activities; clothiers incurred no overheads for work done in the homes of their workers and benefitted from lower labour costs. When clothworkers protested in Suffolk in 1525, their spokesman, John Green, explained that the clothiers

‘give us so little wages for our workmanship that scarcely we be able to live, and thus in penury we pass the time, we our wives and children.’

Another, a group of weavers, accused ‘the rich men, the clothiers’ of setting a single price for their work. Others complained that clothiers reimbursed their workers in ‘pins, girdles, and other unprofitable wares’ rather than in cash. Clothiers were even accused in 1549 of paying poor labourers with ‘soap, candles, rotten cloth, stinking fish, and such like baggage’.

Local and national governments responded with ambivalence. On the one hand, cloth exports brought welcome revenue through customs. Governments were also aware though, that disruptions to overseas cloth sales created unemployment and unrest. The putting-out system relied on outworkers, whom the clothier only paid when work was available, and on keeping labour costs low. Following disruption to overseas markets, the government tried to prevent clothiers from laying off their workers. Even the king’s leading minister, Cardinal Wolsey, pressurised London merchants to continue buying cloth from the clothiers.

A few clothiers were able to amass great wealth from this industry, construct lavish mansions and erect elaborate church memorials, which can still be seen today. Thomas Paycocke’s house at Coggeshall, Essex, built to impress in 1509-10 with its stunning woodcarving and elaborate panelling, is now a National Trust property. The wealth of Thomas Spring III, ‘the rich clothier’ of Lavenham, Suffolk, caught the attention of the royal court’s poet, John Skelton, in 1522. The screen constructed to surround Spring’s tomb in Lavenham church in Suffolk engaged craftsmen familiar with commissions for the royal court.

Clothiers that profited from their trade often remembered their workers in their wills. Thomas Paycocke, who died in 1518, left bequests in their wills to ‘my weavers, fullers and shearmen’. He gave additional sums for those ‘that have wrought me very much work’. Paycocke’s bequests to his workers, which totalled £4, may have stretched to as many as 240 workers, while those of Thomas Spring II of Lavenham, who died in 1486, may have supported nearly 4,000 workers. Both these clothiers operated large-scale production through the putting-out system, although exactly how large must remain a matter for discussion.

Cloth-making became England’s leading industry in the late Middle Ages – no other industry created as much employment or generated as much wealth. By the 1540s, as many as 1 in 7 of the country’s workforce were probably making cloth and 1 in 4 households were involved in spinning. This book offers the first recent survey of this hugely important and significant trade and its practitioners, examining the clothiers and their impact within the industry and in their wider communities.

Intended for the general reader, as well as students and academics, this book is the first in a new series – Working in the Middle Ages – which will examine different trades, professions and industries. The series aims to provide authoritative, accessible guides to medieval trades and professions, offering surveys of their origins and development, alongside the practicalities of the occupation.

New proposals for the series are welcomed, and should be sent to the series editor, Dr James Davis, School of History, Queens University Belfast (james.davis@qub.ac.uk) or to the Editorial Director (Medieval Studies), Boydell and Brewer (editorial@boydell.co.uk)

 

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code BB500 online at https://boydellandbrewer.com/the-medieval-clothier.html Offer ends 31 Mar 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email marketing@boydell.co.uk

 

To contact the author: jsl500@york.ac.uk

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