DuPlessis R. & Howell M. (1982) Killing capitalism in its craddle (twice)

DuPlessis, Robert S. and Martha C. Howell (1982) Reconsidering the Early Modern Urban Economy : The Case of Leiden and Lille. Past and Present, 94/, 49-84.

In Marx’s view, capitalism had arisen in the late Middle Ages out of a production system dominated by lords and guilds. In this framework, urban economies can be regarded as the craddle of capitalism (p.44), the places where capital and labour were separated through the use of putting-out, or the hiring of a migrant or female workforce (p.45). However some cities, such as Leiden and Lille where artisans remained proprietors of their means of production, still managed to integrated the very competitive European textile market (p.46).

In Leiden

In the 15th and 16th centuries, some 400 drapers worked in Leiden, of whom less than a quarter can be labelled large producers and accounted for a half of the total output (p.54). The lesser artisans were protected from the ambitions of their more successful counterparts by a series of legislation preventing speculation on wool, and even limiting the number of looms one could own as well as each draper’ annual production (p.55). Large weavers were also prevented from expending through vertical integration as they were forbidden to purchase dyeing materials. The fullers alone had lost their independence to successful weavers, unsurprisingly most of them were migrants. But even there the municipal government tried to protect them by ensuring minimum wage (thus halting the process of proletarianization; p.56). Noticeably, “the employment of cheap rural labour was forbidden in all processes but spinning”.

What appears surprising is that the legislations preventing large drapers from expanding were passed by a municipal government heavily dominated by these same large drapers (p.57). One possibility is that, as late comers in a competitive market, the Leiden artisans could not afford the unrests that would have inevitably followed the dismissal of petty production (p.59). Over all the city’s magistrates seemed to have been so attached to the old order that they did everything in their power to preserve the artisans, including distributing food in times of crisis. Only a series of shock (the rise of English competition, the Dutch Revolt, the arrival of exiled Flemish entrepreneurs) by the end of the 16th century forced the Leiden magistrates to abandoned the cause of the petty producers and accept a model of production more in line with the rising capitalism.

In Lille

Unlike Leiden, Lille was not solely an industrial centre (p.63). Indeed its elite was also greatly invested in trade (p.65). Merchants were the wealthiest group of the city and dominated the municipal institutions (p.66). Despite this economic and political might, the merchants were careful not to undermine the position of the lesser weaver officially out of concern for the common good (p.68). They were offered financial assistance, favourable regulations on the market and stringent production rules barred the entrance to monopolizing merchants (p.69). Finally the hiring of free workers was banned (p.70).

These regulation were periodically reinforced during downturns but did not inder the adoption of technical innovations (p.71). It can be argued that these apparently altruistic rules were a way for merchants to prevent successful artisans from growing and threatening their position (p.73). As importantly, the opportunity cost for merchants was likely to be low as the potential profits from vertical integration were likely to be limited (p.74). Moreover if one really wanted to use rural labour, it was simple to leave the jurisdiction of the city and do so (p.75). Defending the small artisans was also a way of insuring the city’s stability; unsurprisingly, the most protective regulations were passed in times of religious strife (p.76).


These two cities “shared a crucial feature: in both, conditions were ripe for the emergence of capitalistic forms of economic organization” but the shift did not happen due to the elites’ conservatism (p.78). It should be noted however that this did not prevent all and any change since technical innovation did occur (p.79).

“There is strong evidence that the ruling oligarchies subscribed to an ethic which judged matters by their effects on the entire gemeente or république [commonwealth], regardless even of the interest of the dominant class […]. Over tme, to be sure, the foundations of small commodity production were eroded and eventually Leiden and Lille were incorporated into the capitalist economy” (p.80).

In Leiden, it occurred quickly after the Dutch Revolt as the Flemish migrants took over the traditional mercantile class and imposed their own organization. In Lille, on the other hand, the change occurred slowly and only partly during the 18th century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: