Epstein S. R. (2000) The origins of protoindustry

Epstein Stephen R. (2000) “The origins of protoindustry, c.1300-c.1550”, in idem Freedom and Growth. The rise of states and markets in Europe, 1300-1750, New York/London: Routledge/LSE, p.106-146.



“The growth of rural and small town textile manufactures for regional and supra-regional markets was among the most significant features of the late medieval economy” (p.106). It is usually assumed that this phenomenon arose due to the diseconomies caused by the inflexibility of the urban craft guilds, using the available underemployed rural workforce, and to respond to the increased popular demand for consumer goods following the shift in terms of trade between capital and labour which followed the Black Death.

But this model faces significant empirical limitations:

  • most protoindstries grew independently from any urban input (p.107),
  • many protoindustries were more urban than rural and should be described as “semi-urban” in terms of structure and location,
  • protoindustries did not destroy urban crafts but pushed them into skill-intensive productions (silk).

The “general crisis of craft-based manufacture” never happened.


Theoretically, protoindustries which required a low skill level and were unregulated should have been evenly spread around the continent wherever supply of raw material was available. But instead they turned out to be highly geographically concentrated. What caused the protoindustries to cluster (p.108)?

❶ It appears that the development of protoindustries was related to the pre-existence of a successful urban production. Often labour was divided between the urban and rural workers, the former offering sophisticated finishing services to the latter. ❷ Moreover, the most dynamic rural industries owed their success to the technical spillovers and easier contact with clients and suppliers (p.109). ❸ The concentration of rural industries can also be explained by the fact that the success of a given district depended on the “freedoms” against urban monopolies awarded by the states (which were geographically restricted; p.110).


The linen and woad were produced domestically but wool was mostly imported (p.115). There were three types of linen manufacture: a domestic one for home consumption, the slightly more specialized and regulated sector for the provincial market and the sophisticated industries with detailed regulation in the provincial capitals (p.116). The Lombard industries expanded fast after the Black Death but their location was not determined by the availability of cheap raw material and labour (p.117).

The urban fustian industries emerged in the 13th century wherever the linen ones were not already strongly implanted (p.118). By the 1400s, the Milanese fustian industries were forced to move to the more skill- and capital-intensive silk production by international competition and by the cheap cloth their former semi-rural providers were able to produce (p.119).

The urban wool producers were not opposed to a division of labour with the rural ones as long as the latter followed the rules dictated by the urban craft guilds, and the urban control on the access to foreign wools and dyes was not challenged. Although the rural protoindustries commonly willingfully followed the urban rules once they reach a certain level of development but most of them started by manufacturing “semi-fraudulent imitations” (p.123).

The Lombard institutional framework

“The secret of Lombardy’s protoindustrial success was the segmentation of the region into competing urban, feudal, small town and rural jurisdictions. Every community that successfully established a new textile manufacture could claim feudal immunities, commercial franchises, and fiscal and judicial privileges – confirmed by Lombardy’s territorial rulers […] – which allowed it to circumvent merchant and craft monopolies”.

Tellingly, the greater independence of the highland communities from the authority of the cities of Milan and Pavia did develop rural industries, while the communities of the plains found it harder to break away from the urban tutelage (p.124). In 1346, the Visconti lords passed the Provisiones Ianue established a single custom system. Although the principle took over a century to be definitely established, it prevented the cities from imposing commercial restrictions without the green light of the ruler, this avoided the fragmentation of the regional market. This system allowed the Sforzas to foster new rural industries while maintaining market integration (p.125).

Variety and internal competition were key to the international success of the Lombard textile sector.


Urban wool industry developed later (1300s) in Tuscany than in Lombardy and was generally less sophisticated (p.127).  Florence and Pisa made low- and medium-quality cloth mostly for their respective captive market formed by their hinterland (contado) and colonies; although Florence did face some sort of competition from Prado (p.128). These different growth paths were due to different approach toward technological dissemination. Unlike their Lombard counterparts, the Tuscan urban craft guild managed to restrict skill labour mobility and thus technical diffusion. Thus the rural industries lagged significantly behind (p.129).

Tuscan protectionism prevented the rise of industrial clusters and the region did not benefit from their positive externalities. As specialisation was less advanced in the Tuscan cities (which, unlike the Lombard case, retained the bulk of the production of low- and mid-quality cloth), any new industry would compete more directly with those already existing (p.130). Rural protoindustries could not grow and were forced to remain minuscule and technologically crude.

The situation was made worse by the mass emigration of the Florentine skilled craftsmen after the defeat of the Ciompi insurrection (1378-1382). Although artisans were brought in from Central Europe, output fell by two-thirds between 1373 and 1437; skills lost in this industrial collapse would never be recovered (p.136). The Florentine guilds (chiefly the Arte della Lana) managed to impose authoritarian and autarkic policies that proved disastrous on the long-term (p.138): small industrial towns failed to develop, the economy became more agrarian, and living standards declined (p.140).

Tuscany was totally dominated by Florence, chartered freedoms were seldom granted to districts in the contado. Those awarded were renegotiated every five years, which limited their usefulness. Monopolistic tendencies prevented this competitive cooperation between towns that had been key to the growth of the Lombard textile industry (p.142).


Before the 1350s, Sicily had no cloth manufacture to speak of; the monarchy had actively held in check the craft guilds, wary of their role in the rise of communes in northern Italy. As a result, rural protoindustries could settle wherever factors of production were the cheapest since it did not depend on freedoms from urban monopolies granted to such or such district. Yet the lack of skilled labour force formed by guilds prevented the rise of an internationally competitive Sicilian textile industry, it remained limited to low- and mid-quality products destined to the local market (p.143).


The late medieval Italian textile industry was divided in three regions (map):

  1. “a industrialised and export-oriented macro-region stretching from Piedmont to (…) the Venetian Terraferma”,
  2. “a dense but less specialised and diversified industrial agglomeration which included Tuscany and Umbria and (…) L’Aquila”,
  3. “two smaller southern clusters around Naples and Eastern Sicily that produced primarily for domestic regional markets”.

This typology shows that protoindustries do not seem to have been particularly related to population density, property rights, immiseration  and by-employment (p.144). Protoindustries expended in highly urbanised regions and in times of rising living standards unlike what the system predicted.

“Cities and craft guilds were indispensable for the development of protoindustrial clusters after the Black Death. (…) A semi-urban manufacture had to obtain jurisdictional freedoms that allowed it to bypass craft privileges, gain access to regional distribution networks, and attract trained labour from the towns; a successful protoindustry would usually also set up its own craft guilds to enforce traning and production standards”.

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