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Working paper 323

John H. Munro, "Necessities and Luxuries in Early-Modern Textile Consumption: Real Values of Worsted Says and Fine Woollens in the Sixteenth-Century Low Countries", 2008-07-21
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Abstract: If mankind’s three basic necessities have always been food, clothing, and shelter, whose production, trade, and consumption have rightly been a primary focus of economists and economic historians for many generations, we may ask this vital question: how do they distinguish between necessities and luxury products? Indeed, any examination of later-medieval, early-modern commodity prices soon reveals that for all three of these basic categories there was a seamless continuum from the very cheapest to the most expensive goods sold on the market, so that making clear cut divisions becomes virtually impossible. How, when, where, and why did the consumption of food and drink, for example, shift from being a basic necessity to ensure survival to become a luxury that enhances and enriches the quality of life? Obviously the very same considerations apply also to clothing. For many people, if only for a much smaller segment of the population, chiefly to be found in the aristocracy, the higher clergy, and wealthy bourgeoisie, clothing has also served and still serves other wants, in terms of luxury consumption: for decoration and for the assertion of personal values, and especially of one’s social status. Indeed, for such people, luxury textiles may have been deemed as personal ‘necessities’.

This study is based upon two statistical tables, for the southern Low Countries, in the early to mid-sixteenth century, which, together permit us to make such a valid contrast between the nature, forms, and relative values of two major types of textiles. Representing ‘necessities’ in clothing are light-weight, coarse, relatively cheap worsted-type says (from the leading producer, Hondschoote, in Flanders); and representing ‘luxuries’ are the heavy-weight, very fine, and very costly woollen broadcloths from Ghent (dickedinnen) in the county of Flanders and Mechelen (Rooslaken) in the neighbouring duchy of Brabant. Table 1 provides the technical features of the composition of the cloths, the type of wools used, warp-counts, the dimensions, and weights, and finally the weight per square metre in grams. The luxury woollen broadcloths in Table 2 were all made uniquely from the finest English wools, then the world’s best; but Table 1 also provides, for comparison, a fine but cheaper woollen (from Armentičres) made from a mixture of Spanish merino and English wools. The other textiles in Tables 1 are worsteds and semi-worsted says from several towns in sixteenth-century Flanders (including Hondschoote) and England. Table 2 presents the prices, in pounds groot Flemish for two types of Hondschoote says, and for the luxury woollens of Ghent and Mechelen for the decade 1535 - 1544.

Two measures have been adopted in order to calculate the ‘real values’ of these textiles: (1) a comparison of the prices (nominal money-of-account values) of these textiles with the value of a ‘basket of consumables’, the one used to compute the Van der Wee Consumer Price Index for Brabant (Antwerp region); and (2) the purchasing power of wages: i.e., the number of days’ wages that a master mason in Antwerp would have had to spend to acquire each one of these textiles; and more particularly to buy 12 square metres of cloth, for a man’s annual clothing requirement. In terms of the latter measure, the average number of days’ wages required to purchase that same quantity of cloth would have been: 13.725 days for a Hondschoote single say; 16.958 days for a Hondschoote double say; and 5.4 times as many days, 91.413 for a Ghent dickedinnen, and 74.144 days for a Mechelen Rooslaken. That is certainly a much greater gulf in values that would be found today between every-day clothing and luxury apparel, for men at least. Consider that in Toronto, in July 2008, a journeymen carpenter earns a minimum of $33.07 per hour. In 91.413 days (i.e., the number of days’ wages to purchase that Ghent dickedinnen), at 8 hrs a day, that carpenter would earn $24,184 CAD (about € 15,115) and would never spend even 10 percent of that on clothing.

Keywords: luxuries, necessities, clothing, wools, woollen broadcloths, worsteds, says, serges, Flanders, Brabant, Antwerp, Hondschoote, masons, wages.

JEL Classification: F10; L11; L15; L67; M30; N63; N93; O52.