The origins of the putting-out or domestic system of industrial production in England

Nicholas R. Amor, University of Suffolk

The out-worker has long been seen as a key figure in the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism. Operating from home, often using their own equipment, out-workers earned a piece-rate in return for their labour, but had no other stake in the financial success of the business. They stood half way between the artisans of the middle ages selling their products at the local market, and the waged proletariat of the industrial age toiling in dark satanic mills. Out-workers became well-established in woollen cloth production which was the most important industry in late-medieval and early-modern England and the first to develop a degree of specialization in the division of labour. They worked as carders and spinners who turned wool into yarn; weavers who interlaced yarn on a loom to produce cloth; fullers who washed the cloth to remove natural oils and give it a thick baize-like finish; dyers who added colour; and shearmen who gave it a smooth finish.1 Clothiers brought each of them in turn the material on which they were to work and then took the product away to sell for profit. This was the essence of the putting-out or domestic system of production. Ever since Marx wrote about domestic industry in Capital, historians have been fascinated by putting-out. In his influential volume, Studies in the development of capitalism, Dobb contended that capital began to penetrate production on a considerable scale, either in the form of a fairly matured relationship between capitalist and hired wage-earners or in the less developed form of the subordination of domestic handicraftsmen, working in their own homes, to a capitalist on the so-called «putting out system» (1946, 18). His work triggered the famous academic debate that was published as The transition from feudalism to capitalism, and edited by Hilton who echoed Tawney (1938, 79–80) and Power (1941, 4) in opining that «modern capitalism derived its initial impetus from the English textile industry» (1978, 156). Britnell and Dyer both recognised the development of out-working in late medieval England, but downplayed its general significance. Britnell argued that the commercial institutions that underpinned capitalism emerged mainly between 1000 and 1300. He acknowledged that the organisation of industrial production of textiles through wage-dependent workers in the putting-out system was one facet of capitalism, but stressed «the restricted extent of the structural change within the woollen industry» and «the subsidiary importance of woollen cloth in the economy as a whole». In his view such industrial organisation was «unlikely to have affected more than a few thousand workers» (1999, 367–9). Dyer identified a class of workers who depend mainly on wages for their livelihood as a hallmark of capitalism, and argued that «a great extension in the dependency of workers came about with the development of the putting-out system». However, like Britnell, he concluded that «there was no wholesale increase in the wage-earning workforce» during the later middle ages (2005, 230; 232). Lee contended that the putting-out system may have operated sporadically in parts of early-fourteenth-century England, but its use spread late in the century with the arrival of Flemish immigrants (2018, 18–21).2 Their role in extending the system in England underlines its Continental origins. The great late-medieval wool textile industries of Flanders and Florence relied heavily on out-workers (Carus-Wilson 1987, 639–40. Munro 2003, 218–21). In Italy the merchant members of the Arte della Lana organized production of relatively cheap, coarse fabrics through variants of the putting-out system (Munro 2015, 113–4). Over a period of three years, Francesco di Marco Datini himself engaged no fewer than 1,000 out-workers, who in turn were involved in 6,088 distinct or partial operations, in making the cloth on which he built his fortune (Banaji 2020, 91). Nevertheless, the very fact that England became the first industrial nation gives particular importance to the study of the system there. This paper is concerned with the nature and scale of the putting-out system in the English textile industry at the close of the middle ages, with particular reference to Suffolk, which was, by 1500, the nation’s foremost woollen cloth producing county. It begins by explaining how the textile industry evolved in response to increased overseas demand for English cloth and in a way that enhanced the role of the clothier as the commercial link between artisans and merchants. The relationship between the clothier and out-workers is examined in the light of bequests in those wills of wealthy testators that were proven in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (Prerogative Court of Canterbury). Finally, the scale of the industry and size of the workforce at the beginning of the sixteenth century are explored in detail. In this respect, the evidence of civil litigation within the Court of Common Pleas (Court of Common Pleas) is used to cast new light on these issues. Common Pleas was not the only forum for the resolution of textile disputes, although as a royal tribunal, with a nationwide jurisdiction and a minimum threshold of 40s for claims, it was well matched to the scale of the cloth industry and the long distance of the trade. We cannot assume that every plea by or against a clothier related to textiles, but there is no reason to suppose any variation over region or time in the proportion that did. The value of the litigation provides some indication, however imperfect, of the volume of trade and, in turn, of the scale of the industry.

DOI: 10.36253/979–12–215–0092–9.16

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