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The Wealth of England: The Medieval Wool Trade and Its Political Importance 1100-1600.

Rose, Susan, The Wealth of England: The Medieval Wool Trade and Its Political Importance 1100-1600, Oxbow Books, 2017; hardback; pp. 304; b/w and colour illustrations; R.R.P. [pounds sterling]40.00; ISBN 9781785707360.

Susan Rose has recently published a number of nicely illustrated books, initially on the wine trade and the history of Calais, intended to bring together various aspects of English trade and the sea during the Middle Ages and early modern period. This is a further work in what is effectively a series. Her coverage in all these books can be described as comprehensive and thematic.

In The Wealth of England, Rose relies heavily on surviving monastic material to cover the management of sheep farming, including the types of sheep involved, and the size and location of the flocks. She goes on to the role of the Crown and the ways in which it exploited the dependence of other countries on English wool as well as taxes on the product. She concludes with a survey of the behaviour of merchants and clothiers at different periods and the reasons why, towards the end, the English wool trade was in decline.

Rose does not, however, attempt to assess the relative importance of the trade of one of the smaller more peripheral countries of Europe compared to that of the wealthier, more sophisticated states, nor does she attempt to set the trade in wool into the overall English trade in all goods. This is a pity, as to appreciate fully the total wealth of any country it would be necessary to consider how each item of both outgoing and incoming product contributed to the well-being of the land. And yet, to judge the individual importance of one source of state finance, the whole structure of the taxation department including customs and excise would need to be evaluated. This would be a massive research undertaking and Rose understandably confines herself to the one or two contemporary attempts made by royal servants to calculate crown resources.

Rose leaves unresolved the reasons why English wool was so highly regarded, avoiding commitment in the long-running debate about the early existence of distinctive sheep breeds despite the increasing evidence that material from archaeology and parchment are making available. In order to link the production of wool to its final use she seeks to draw together aspects of the subject that have elsewhere been treated separately by researchers. Her strength lies in the recounting of specific examples that illuminate the way in which the business was carried on. In some cases these descriptions, such as that of the experiences of the Johnsons in the 1540s, could have usefully been extended, as they reveal all too well the pitfalls of the dealer's life.

Rose confines herself fairly narrowly to trade, treating the manufacturing of cloth in England as a side issue, so that the percentage of the wool produced that was employed locally at any given period remains unclear. The possible level of owling in the period is not discussed. Unfortunately, she does not repeat in the present book material she used in her history of Calais about the structure and role of the merchants of the Staple, which would improve the current reader's understanding of the political and military role of the institutions involved in managing the English wool trade. She focuses on the long-term official bodies such as the staplers, who claimed a monopoly over the trade, largely ignoring other major players such as the Italian traders who came to Southampton with private royal grants. This means that the role of the local ports in the trading patterns is not examined.

The overall result, while she develops some interesting details, is somewhat unbalanced. For instance, she refers in various places to the problems of exchange without fully clarifying what these were and how the system worked. As she fully acknowledges, she has drawn much of her material from the work of T. H. Lloyd, but she restricts herself narrowly to the trade in wool and cloth with the Low Countries, Flanders, and Northern Italy and its possible political leverage, ignoring the significance of other work Lloyd published such as the parallel negotiations of the English crown with the Hanse.

In her final chapter Rose tackles the question of whether the wool trade made England rich. She examines this under four headings, including the position of the Crown and English society, and makes it plain that there are too many aspects, including the conflict between the export of wool and the manufacture of cloth, for a single simple answer to be possible. Nevertheless, she concludes with the remarkable claim that it allowed 'commercial and enterprising attitudes to become too deeply embedded in all ranks of society to disappear' (p. 204). This is a suggestion that other historians may wish to reexamine as its implications for the economic development of Western civilization are considerable.

SYBIL M. JACK, The University of Sydney
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Author:Jack, Sybil M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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