Arnoux Mathieu (2001) “Innovation technique et genèse de l’entreprise. Quelques réflexions à partir de l’exemple de la métallurgie européenne (XIIIe-XVIe siècles)”, Histoire, économie & société, 20/4, 447-454.
Metallurgy and the related industries have been significant players in the economic development of 12th- and 13th-century Europe. All over the period metal consumption increased significantly. The producers met the demand by finding ways of increasing their productivity. Hydraulic energy was used to hammer larger pieces of iron and steel and then to ventilate furnaces (448). The new process was further developed in Belgium (the so-called Walloon process) and spread all over Europe in 1450-1550.
Old and new
The early medieval methods relied on a simple small economic organization: a blacksmith in his workshop was producing for the local market. Everything depended on the individual blacksmith’s skills and the professionals were unified in guilds (449).
Consequences of the improved productivity were felt the whole society over: iron tool became common where they used to be scarce, some regions became major exporters of steel and iron bars (Sweden, Spain, Lombardy, Rhineland).
Mechanization led to a move towards the rivers and a significant increase of the production unit. The latter is made clear by the rise of wood consumption, which in numerous regions had major social and environmental consequences. The investment required by a Walloon type plant were such that the weight of the owner relatively to the workers increased significantly, the blacksmith from independent craftsmen became salaried employees (450).
The workforce became divided between well-paid, specialized, highly skilled professionals employed all year round (blacksmiths, engineers, usually less than 15 per plant) and lesser workers employed seasonally and having a piece rate pay (lumberjacks, drivers, assistants, up to 300 per plant). The plants themselves were divided between a melting, a hammering and a commercial department (while the original independent blacksmith was in charge of the three), thus creating a “modern firm structure” involving management and economies of scale (451).
The importance of the capital involved induced a new relationship between metallurgy and the financial world. It is likely that the merchants’ organizations influenced the creation of industrial firm-like structures. As the industry was recent, an efficient marketing turned out to be crucial for the growth of the exporting regions, which managed to seize market shares as for instance the Spaniards did in France and Burgundy.
The public authorities also played a significant role in the development of the European metallurgy. They created a number of incentives to foster the local industries’ growth: facilities to buy land next to the rivers, special visa deliveries to foreign skilled workers, patents and research conducted by state-employed engineers. Finally, metallurgy proved the spearhead of European labour law by initiating industrial labour contracts, etc. (453).