Blanchard I. (1986) The 16th-century European cattle trade

Blanchard, Ian (1986) “The Continental European Cattle Trades, 1400-1600”, The Economic History Review, 39/3, 427-460.



The European international cattle trade arose in the 1470s out of a “context of a network of regional markets” for locally grazed animals (p.428). Antwerp for instance drew its supplies mostly from Zealand and Holland. The diminutive livestock trade was limited to the Hungarian exports to Venice and some Rhenish towns (Frankfurt, Cologne; p.429). “As gold production recovered in Hungary during the second quarter of the 15th century, […] the economy was subject to the dual pressures of a hard exchange and an excessive money supply which caused its export products to be overpriced on international market and turned a previously strong balance of trade into a decidedly weak one” (p.430). The northern Polish (Breslau, Poznan, Gniezno) products partly replaced the Hungarian cattle after the 1420s, they were exported through the fair of Leipzig. The Hungarian solely retained the south European markets.

The comeback of the international trade

In the 1470s, as Hungarian mining output decreased, the Magyar cattle became competitive again. But a new provider had appeared in the previous decade: Denmark (p.431). Danish exports went from c. 2,000 steers in 1423 to 13,000 in 1484 and peaked at 45,500 in the late 1560s. Danish exports reached most of Northern Europe (Lübeck, Hamburg and to Westphalia, Hesse and Saxony after a stop for fattening in Friesia). Danish exports ruined regional marts such as Diest.

Despite the Turkish invasion, from 1470 to 1574, Hungarian cattle conquered all the markets south of the Main (p.433). At the end more than 100,000 animals crossed yearly the border to the west (p.434), mostly transiting through Vienna (the weekly Wiener Oschsengries), except when bounded to Venice (in which case then went through Buda; p.435). Lombardy, alone, did not rely on Hungarian meat in the area, as it drew most of its consumption from Grisons and Valais. Although the Hungarian cattle reached as far as Strasbourg, “below this international network of exchange there continued a buoyant regional trade, centred on the market of Sennsheim (Cernay) which drew hundreds of animals each weeks from Burgundy”. This more local supply was specially welcomed during the regular crises experienced by the international trade (1485, 1515, 1526, 1550, 1562) and guaranteed some regularity (p.436).

In Poland, the producing areas shifted to the South-East (Ruthenia, Moldavia, Walachia; p.437). But by the mid-16th century, the Turks established pre-emptive rights for the sale of livestock in order to provision Constantinople, which totally re-oriented Polish trade. Thus, in the 1560s, Polish traders went even further East and started grazing cattle in White Russia and Volynia and sending it west through Brest. (p.440).

A new system

Overall the central European consumers had greatly benefited during the first 60 years of the 16th century: the number of animals falling under their butchers’ knife jumped from 85,000 in 1500/9 to 145,000 in 1560/9. “From 1569, ‘Reussische’ oxen led the vanguard of an advance which pushed Polish export to unprecedented heights. The pattern of half a century was broken and exports which had fluctuated between 20-40,000 animals a year, rose to 60,000 in 1569 and 80,000 in 1574.” Polish cattle reached for the first time as far as Strasbourg (1570), crowding out in the process Danish and Hungarian products (p.441).

In the mean time, increasing grassland productivity allowed a new growth for indigenous supply, thus creating a new pattern of regionalization. In this new context, the Danish producers solely remained leaders only on the Hanseatic and Amsterdam markets after 1580. Those previously involved in the fattening of the Danish export had to turn towards a specialization in dairying (p.442).

“Locked in mortal combat, for more than a quarter of a century the Hungarian and Polish producers vied for dominance of south German markets, which in conditions of acute price competition expanded rapidly. […] In these circumstances exporters of Hungarian cattle, whilst losing their market share, increased sales and enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity – at least until 1575.”

The crisis

In 1575/7 for the first time Poland was found wanting in the role of dampening the effect of the crises of Hungarian exports. Consumers had to resort to the regional market. Until 1590, the Polish trade continued to bear the scars of the previous crisis (p.443). In the 1580s, level of export hardly reached ¾ of what it had been 10 years before. After the outbreak of the “Fifteen Years War” (1591-1606) against the Ottoman, Hungarian exports totally receded from Germany and solely dominated the Venetian market. The century closes with the conquest of the German market by the Polish cattle (p.444).

Production process

Until the 1560s, all the cattle both for the regional and international trade were produced by single peasants owning 1 to 10 animals. “The exigencies of this commercial involvement were accommodated by a simple extension of the peasant’s basic stock which was primarily maintained to provide draught-power and a modest supply of food for self-consumption” (p.446). Men like the Hungarian Gáspár Biró who in 1550 owned 10,000 head were a very rare exception. But after 1560s, as cattle production moved to sparsely populated Aföld, these herds became more common. The grey-white cattle was also improved as the average weight increased from 350 kg in 1560 to 500 in 1647 (p.447). The size of herds was even greater in Ruthenia and the Ukraine.

Unexpectedly, despite the demographic expansion of Europe in the 16th (which should have replaced pastoral land by arable husbandry), by 1600, the supply of meat was 6.75 times greater than a hundred years before thanks to the international trade (p.448). And this situation was not reached through the exploitation of the European periphery as Wallerstein-ian view of the world.

“In order to draw forth increasing numbers of livestock from producers within the international trading system merchants offered steadily rising prices causing a reduction in self consumption amongst producers in return for a marked enhancement in cash income. Each increment to supply was thus only obtained through a marked increase in price, an increase which threatened to stifle consumption in the West. However by reducing transactions costs […] merchants were able to offset the enormous increases in the purchase price of cattle and could thus sell them on west-central European markets at prices which nominally rose relatively slowly and in real terms […] showed a definite tendency to fall.”

Transaction costs

Because of loss in weight and quality, herds seldom travel more than 450 km per year, they were then force over-winter in fattening transitional regions before being sent for a new leg of the journey or finally sold to the butchers. It could thus take four years to come from the Moldavian grazing fields (p.449). At each relay the cattle was sold, thus creating a complex system of overlapping marketing and transport operations. (p.451). But gradually mounted drovers started leading 200-strong herds through the continent in one go at 30/40 km a day. Economies of scale, falling transit times, reduced grazing costs had a dramatic effect on prices.


Over the century, the factors of great trading houses became involved in the trade, thus offering a wider view of the market to their principals allowing them to eliminate costly regional supply irregularities. Thus both increasing regularity and decreasing prices. The involvement of merchants also introduced financial tools unknown until then to cattle traders (except to the Danes, p.452).


Thanks to the international trade, most urban dwellers managed to avoid the fate of the labourers of the small Italian town on Montaldo whose diet contained no dairy no meat and was almost entirely farinaceous (p.454). Eastern supplies prevented the inhabitants of the west and central European metropolitan centers from experiencing meat famines (p.455). They started to form small “islands of plenty in a rural wasteland wracked by famine and disease” (p.456).


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