Thompson, J.K.J. (1983) Proto-industry in Languedoc

Thompson, J.K.J. (1983) “Variations in industrial structure in pre-industrial Languedoc”, in Berg, Maxine, Hudson, Pat, and Sonenscher, Michael, Manufacture in town and country before the factory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 61-91.


Languedoc hosted France’s (and potentially Europe’s) largest pre-modern concentration of textile textile production (p.61). Yet it does not fit in F. Mendel’s proto-industrialisation model: it was mostly a urban phenomenon, which dated back from the Middle Ages and it did not lead to a regional Industrial Revolution after 1800 (p.62).


Traditionally proto-industrial organization of production are divided into:

Kaufsystems: “small-scale, artisanal, familial production units”.

Verlagsystems: “large-scale production units, with significant division of labour, dominated by [merchants] and known as putting-out systems in England” (p.63).

A privileged region

The institutional structure of the province was significantly more effective than in the rest of France, its position as pays d’Etat protected both from the state’s fiscal pounding and the crippling feudal rule.

The agriculture was highly specialized and commercialised (p.64). The region benefited also from advantageous transportation infrastructures: the Canal du Midi, land routes going to Spain and Italy and a dense network of ports on the Mediterranean Sea (p.65). Finally, the fair of Beaucaire ensured a strong connection with international markets (p.66).

Beaucaire fair

Beaucaire fair

Industrial geography

The Upper Languedoc remained confined to the Kaufsystem and its production hardly evolved from 1300 to 1800 and was mostly destined to local consumption. On the other hand, Lower Languedoc was involved in the international circuits (p.67). Lower Languedoc was a dynamic industrial region, which deepened division of labour, invested in equipment and human capital, and followed aggressive marketing strategies.

During the 16th century, a shift occurred between the traditional production centers of the plain (Narbonne, Bézier, Montpellier, Nîmes) and the hill-towns (Carcassone, Castres). The later benefited from “abundant labour supplies, relatively weak guild systems, water facilities (for driving fulling mills as well as for washing wool and cloth), easy access to raw material” and a greater political and religious stability (p.69).


Although the hill-towns enjoyed a relative prosperity for most the 1500s, they entered a phase of depression at the end of the century, which lasted until the 1620s (p.70). During the following period of expansion, the region’s technology advanced considerably, in particular the Dutch-style cloth-making methods were introduce and European clients were commissioning work every year (p.71). In the towns, the high quality of the production required considerable division of labour.

By the 1650s, Dutch and English competition, the war with Spain, which disturbed wool imports (p.72) and closed the region’s principal export market, the overvaluation of the livre, civil strife, the collapse of domestic demand due to low agricultural prices caused a severe depression. The quantitative decline of production was matched by a collapse of quality. Division of labour decreased and numerous specialized workers emigrated (p.73). The rural small producers managed to free themselves from their urban employers’ oligopsony and to produce independently (return to Kaufsystem).

“Such a shrinking in size, and changing in form, of the basic industrial production unit was universal in times of depression in pre-industrial production zones” (p.74).

The 18th century

Thanks to Levantine demand, a vigorous period of growth started in the 1690s. “Fully fledged Verlagsystems had re-emerged. Clermont-de-Lodève’s clothiers, for example, controlled an average of eleven to twelve looms each [in 1720-40 against one or two in the 1680s], which would have meant that they employed labour forces of around three hundred. (…) The inhabitants of no less than fifty-six villages (…) were [working] for these urban clothiers”.

High-quality had returned and benefits were such that the capitalists could invest in “houses of manufacture” to enclose skilled workers to monitor the crucial finishing processes (p.75). Rural workers lost most of their leverage and had to relinquish their independence (p.76).

The Seven Years war triggered a slow decline. Once more quantity and quality of production declined, even though the regression was not as deep as in the 17th century, Kaufsystem grew (p.77).


How can these dramatic cycles of growth and decline be explained?

“Production for different markets could be highly specialized. This was particularly true for more distant markets. Competition was greater for such markets, and thus a steady upward pressure was applied to cloth quality. (…) Regulations enforced by guilds or by the state [ensured] that the quality (…) of the cloth should be maintained” (p.78)

But it also created inflexibility, which regularly prevented the producers to adapt to changing market conditions. For example, the 17th-century global crisis favoured cheaper, harder-wearing cloths such as the English New Draperies, a demand the Languedocian producers locked in a high-quality trap could not respond to (p.79).

The opening of market opportunities in a Kaufsystem environment would incent ambitious entrepreneurs and attract migrant cheap labour and thus give rise to a Verlagsystem (p.80). But this success could not be reproduced for more than two generations as the comparative advantages worn off. Social mobility decreased and low wages disillusioned the proletarian workforce and destroyed motivation and thus the base of productivity in a labour-intensive economy (p.82).

Industrial structure

“Different types of production system suited different types of cloth” (p.83). High-quality cloths required specialisation, control of the entire production process and investment, thus creating a “premium for standardisation”, small producers could not compete. But this system was vulnerable to demand interruptions and regularly collapsed (p.84).

Not all towns were at the same level of development, this explain a lack of synchronisation of their growth process. Some less develop ones could benefit from occasions more advanced ones could not grab, hence some may have thrived while other were loosing momentum.

This lack of synchronisation was made worse by a growing state intervention during Louis XIV’s reign (p.85). Some protestant towns had been purposefully excluded from certain markets and thus remained characterised by artisanal production. Paradoxically, this allowed them to respond to the sudden English demand for low-quality cloths in the 1750s, while the other towns were competing for the saturated Levantine market (p.86).

The Industrial Revolution

Mechanization allowed capitalists to compete with artisans in the production of cheap low-quality cloths. Both the machines and the enclosing of the labour force created fixed costs that small-scale producers could not face and the Languedocian textile industry (except the few towns mentioned above) was swept away after 1790 (p.87).

Paradoxically, the high-quality producers facing a downward business cycle proved also incapable to follow what has been described as the French model of industrialisation based on skilled labour and luxury goods. Inflexible state and guild regulation may have led to the demotion of the Languedocian industry as it proved incapable to adapt to the challenges of the 19th century (p.88).


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