Background information | Places to Visit

Medieval Cloth Trade in Flanders & Artois

Best quality wool from England
The cloth towns of Flanders -
Bruges, Lille, Bergues, and Arras in Artois - were closely linked with England by the trade in raw wool. The damp island to the north produced excellent fine wool, but lacked the skilled craftsmen to make the finest quality cloth.

The 'Staple' - export tax on wool
English nobles made fortunes turning the peasants off their lands, and converting them to sheep pastures. English kings insisted that wool was exported through a few named "Staple" ports - like
Sandwich and Calais, where royal officials counted the bales and levied an export tax - which many smugglers tried to avoid.

map: medieval Flanders

Line of sand dunes after 9th century

Marshes at or below sea-level, gradually reclaimed

low land

higher land

MAP: Flemish towns & the medieval wool trade

Trade by water
Merchants brought boats up rivers from the coast to inland towns in Flanders - paying more taxes to different lords on the way.

At Lille there were rapids where all the cargoes had to be off-loaded and carried on horseback along a short road to calmer waters upstream. At Douai boats had to wait to pass through a lock on the river - and pay another tax.

Boats could supply cloth towns as far from the sea as St-Omer, Bethune, and Arras with their raw materials, and then take away their goods to distant markets.

medieval Bethune
Medieval Bethune - boats came up the river Lys from the Flemish coastal ports.

Cloth merchants
Highly skilled craftsmen and women spun the raw wool into yarn, and wove it into cloth. Others specialised in finishing trades, like dying and fulling (giving cloth a shiny surface). Years of training as an apprentice were needed to learn these skills. In each town trade was controlled by a Guild of master craftsmen. Cloth-making workshops were often busy behind the counter in the back of the cloth merchant's house.

European Trade
Some Flemish towns specialised in making garments like bonnets or stockings; others in making tapestries. The fine cloth and textile products were sold to merchants, whose boats took them back down river and traded them in fairs at
Bruges, Cologne, Paris, and all over Europe. These were top quality luxury goods that commanded the highest prices.
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15th century cloth merchant Cloth merchants houses Arras today
(left) 15th century cloth merchants. (right) Arras cloth merchants houses are preserved in the famous market squares.


cloth Hall -Ypres??? Bruges???

Royal patronage - 'Golden Age'
With the encouragement of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Flemish cloth trade enjoyed a "Golden Age" in the 14th and 15th centuries. The glittering Burgundian courts in
Bruges, Lille, and Brussels set aristocratic fashions throughout Europe for what noblemen and women should wear, and for decorating castles with hanging tapestries - boosting the sales of Flemish merchants.

St.Vaast and the bear - tapestry  14th century Flemish tapestry
1. A rare surviving tapestry from Arras: "St.Vaast and the bear"
2. A 14th century Flemish tapestry shows the sorts of fine cloth they produced which became fashionable throughout Europe.

1337-1453 Effects of wars with England
The wool trade linked Flanders with England, so they were usually allies in conflicts with France like the
Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). For over a century, northern France was ravaged by wars and plague - the Black Death came in 1348, and recurred periodically after.

Meanwhile cloth production flourished in Flanders, sheltered by the power of first the Dukes of Burgundy, and then the Spanish Empire (see 'History of Flanders'). Artois in the south was caught between France and Flanders, and came off worst.
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Tourcoing Franche Foire-medieval fair
1491 Tourcoing was granted the right to hold an annual tax-free "Franche Foire" by Maximilien of Austria - a big boost for the local textile trade (picture is present-day version!).

Lille's Exchange 1652

1652: Lille, Vieille Bourse: King Philip II of Spain granted Lille this new Exchange, on the lines of those that had been so successful in Antwerp and other Dutch towns. 24 cloth merchants each had a shop/offices around the courtyard, to buy and sell their wares to foreign buyers and traders, and arrange finance. Magnificent building recently restored; courtyard open day and evening.

18th century - End of the 'Golden Age'
By the time all the region had again become part of France, in the 18th century, Flemish towns were no longer the leading cloth-makers of Europe. The trade depended on individual skills, and too many key people had been driven away. Some were Protestant Huguenots, and emigrated after suffering
religious persecution to set up business in countries like England which became competitors. Some, like the clothiers of Arras or Hondschoote, were victims of the fighting between France and the Spanish Netherlands.

The Flemish cloth towns also faced competition from rural weavers, who - away from the controls of the town guilds - made poorer quality but cheaper cloth that required less skill, and found a ready market with the middle classes.Back to top

Industrial revolution & the North's textile industry


Background information
North's textile industry in 19-20th centuries
History of Flanders
Lace trade
Industrial Revolution

Places to visit
Cloth Merchants' Exchange ("Vieille Bourse"), Lille
Arras Museum of Fine Arts - see some of the few preserved tapestries
Roubaix Museum of Art & Industry
Museum of Textiles & Social Life, Fourmies - part of the Fourmies/Trelon Ecomusée
Maison de la Dentelle, Bailleul - museum and school keeping alive the tradition of handmade lace

Follow these links to trace the development of the North's textile industries




Arras © Copyright 1999-2002 Invicta Media Last updated 17th June 2002 / 18th November 1999