Image: Stadtbibliothek im Bildungscampus Nürnberg, Nuremberg, Amb.317.2°,f.4v

In a recent essay, Philipp Robinson Rössner pleads “for the economic history of the early modern period to be integrated into or restored as part of the history of modern capitalism.” His appeal to overcome the epochal boundary of 1750 is buttressed by his observation that “market thinking and market behavior” did not suddenly emerge in modern times but were instead present in a broad discourse that unfolded significantly earlier.1 This is certainly true for the early modern period, but the question becomes thornier in regard to the High and Late Middle Ages, due to our reliance on circumstantial evidence. Scholars have been laying the groundwork for such analysis for years by exploring the viability of applying the concept of “economic policy” to Staufer and Welf rule,2 reconstructing the system of fairs and markets throughout Europe3 to study how these were planned, and examining the agrarian history of the late medieval period to trace how farmers increasingly adapted to the commercial demands of local markets.4If such adaptations to the market are understood as intentional attempts to exploit economic opportunities and develop long-term strategies for producing and selling goods, it is worth examining the manufacturing landscapes (Gewerbelandschaften) that developed in southern Germany from the late medieval period onward. The textile industry that developed in Upper Swabia beginning in the thirteenth century and remained the region’s leading industry well into the modern age, undergoing multiple transformations along the way, is certainly a case in point.5

One of these major adaptations was the introduction of Barchent (fustian), a mixed fabric with linen thread in the warp and cotton in the weft that became the mainstay of the Swabian textiles sector from the late medieval period until shortly before the Thirty Years War. Fustian was more comfortable than pure linen and easier to dye, a significant factor given the contemporary craze for colorful clothing. It was also relatively inexpensive and rapidly became established in European cloth markets thanks to its mass affordability. Wolfgang von Stromer explored the beginnings of the cotton industry in central Europe as early as 40 years ago in his salient work on the subject. He dated the emergence of the sector to the 1360s and addressed the question of what led to this innovation in upper Germany. What caused the production of fabric for export that was so well-established in upper Italy, especially in Lombardy and the Veneto, to cross the Alps and take root in southern Germany even though one of its two raw materials, the cotton, still had to be imported from the eastern Mediterranean?6 This was no minor development: the production and distribution of the new fabric sparked an economic boom in Upper Swabia that lasted for almost two and a half centuries7 and gave Augsburg and the Upper Swabian imperial cities the means to surpass most of their southern German rivals.8 Some of von Stromer’s answers to questions thrown up by this development naturally remained vague or speculative. How did this innovation unfold? What were the prerequisites for its success and the characteristics of the ensuing boom? The discussion below seeks to show how findings from more recent research can contribute to answering these questions.

I. Phases of Innovation

Von Stromer assembled an impressive body of data for his study.9 A few key data points can be outlined here. The Augsburg merchant Lukas Rem notes (in the diary he kept from 1494 to 1541) that his grandfather Hans Rem “converted his entire fortune, worth 500 florins, to silver [i.e., liquidated his assets] in 1357, and increased it to 7,200 within ten years via trade with Venice .”10 The connection to innovative developments in the textiles sector only comes to light in an additional remark made by Lukas: Als ich von meim vatter selig gehort hab, hatt er die / erst bomwoll / heraus gefiertt /und darmit selch reichtong erobertt. (As I heard from my late father, he imported the first cotton and won such a fortune with it.)11. Von Stromer points out that the year given is hardly plausible, as a Venetian embargo against the upper German imperial cities was in force at the time due to an economic war between Venice, on one side, and Louis I of Hungary and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV on the other. The oft-cited evidence for Hans Fugger’s arrival in Augsburg in 1367—a terse note in the tax register stating Fucker advenit—also proves little. While Hans Fugger was evidently a rural weaver, we have no records of what sort of cloth he wove.12

We do, however, have some concrete indications in the historical record. The Augsburg Baumeisterbücher (Building Master Ledgers) contain detailed notes on the city’s expenditures, and von Stromer appears to have overlooked multiple entries under the heading of ‘Mills’ for 1378 that are related to the production of fustian: 2 lb 2 ß h Zu den Nuiwen stempfflachen Zu den Barchanden (2 pounds 2 shillings heller for the new stamping mill for fustians); a little later 2 ½ lb 8 ß 3 d Zu den Nuiwen stempfflachen Zu den Barchanden (2½ pounds 8 shillings 3 pence for the new stamping mill for fustians); somewhat later again 6 ß d vmb II pavmlach zu dem Barchant stempflach (6 shillings pence toward a second axle fitting); and then, once again, 16 ß d Zu den Barchat stempfflachen (16 shillings for the fustian stamping mill). The pieces of fustian were processed in a stamping mill before bleaching—and this finishing step clearly demanded significant investment.13 The first evidence for the use of a lion as a Parchant Zaichen,14 an export quality mark such as was used in Venice, to label the finished cloth is from 1390. There is also evidence that the Nuremberg merchant Hermann Kraft transported fustians from Augsburg and Milan to Prague in 1388.15 Even earlier, however, in 1385, the indirect tax revenue (Ungeld) from fustian production in Augsburg amounted to 402 Augsburg pounds and 98 Regensburg pounds, a tax yield suggesting that some 12,000 pieces of cloth must have been produced.16 Production was evidently fully established by this point: the technology had been mastered, and a quality mark had been put in place to facilitate exports. What is not clear is the amount of lead-up time that had been required to reach this point. The chronicle of the weavers’ guild produced by Clemens Jäger makes reference to a fustian inspection taking place as early as 1372—-es wirt dis jars der panck, zu den barchatdiechern zu geschauen, auf das Rathaus von neuem gemacht (The table on which the fustian cloth is inspected at city hall will be refurbished this year).17 and states that the Ungeld was collected from 1377 on. While this chronicle was not written until the 1540s, Jäger may have had access to comprehensive records that were subsequently lost.18

It thus seems highly likely that fustian production took root in Augsburg in the early 1370s—and evidence from other cities shows that Augsburg was in no way an isolated case. Records for the city of Ulm suggest that fustian was inspected there in 1389, resulting in a considerable tax yield of 1,257 pounds pence,19 and an ordinance pertaining to an Ulm weight tax, referred to in Frankfurt am Main in 1381, states that the duty payable on a fardel of fustian, a bale of 45 pieces of cloth, comprised one schilling heller, while a hundredweight of raw cotton attracted a tax of 4 shillings heller.20 In Ulm, too, it seems that the new system was already established and running smoothly by around this time. A cotton purchase made in Milan by a certain Johannes Vol in 1375 provides further confirmation.21 The historical record also shows that Biberach an der Riß exported fustian to Prague in 1386, and a legal provision in Ravensburg from 1379 demonstrates that linen and fustian were being produced by means of a putting-out (Verlag) system there. There is also a reference from 1382 for Constance, and the upper Rhine region around Basel was involved in the 1370s. In Vienna, a 1373 notation regarding a textor from Nördlingen presumably refers to a fustian weaver, and a 1375 reference in Landshut tells a similar story. The Runtinger trading company in Regensburg is recorded as having purchased cotton in Venice in 1383, and the company’s famous ledger records more than 1,400 contracts relating to fustian production in the putting-out system.

These key facts serve as our departure point. While the evidence is far from homogeneous, it is broad enough, especially in light of the typically patchy evidence we have for this period, to date the establishment of the new industry in southern Germany to the 1370s with some confidence.

Map of upper German fustian production (Rights: Institut für vergleichende Städtegeschichte)

But why was it possible for this innovation to take root so successfully despite its dependence on cotton, a raw material that was not available locally and had to be imported from across the Alps before it could be processed with the help of new techniques?

II. The Prerequisites for Transferring Technology

The techniques for producing fustagne had long been known in upper Italy, where cotton imports from the eastern Mediterranean to Venice and Genoa were part of the Levant trade. Since the twelfth century, Venice and the cities of Lombardy, in particular, had acquired the techniques of fustian production from the Arab lands that produced the cotton. Fustian-producing centers were clustered close together in an area stretching from Pavia, Piacenza, and Cremona to Verona, Padua, and Bologna.22 By the first half of the century, fustian was already “the most important product exported from Lombardy to Europe north of the Alps.” Fustian from Milan was particularly sought after by companies in Nuremberg and in Ulm, and this demand continued into the 1420s.23 Beginning in the early fourteenth century, trading in cotton had become more lucrative for Italian merchants than cloth production itself. Luciana Frangioni found a drop in production that she attributes to an imbalance between town and country: the exploitation of the peasantry had cut demand for cotton products in rural areas and affected the potential profitability for producers and the merchants running the putting-out system.24 A gap was already developing that posed an incentive for others to move into this segment. Exporting large quantities of cotton for processing on the far side of the Alps may have represented a route out of these difficulties, but the question of how and why it came about has remained unaddressed by research on the Italian side. As Maureen F. Mazzaoui comments: “The circumstances under which the techniques of cotton manufacture came to be diffused in southern Germany are obscure.”25

Von Stromer mulled over several different combinations of factors in his efforts to solve this puzzle. He pondered economic consequences that might have arisen from marriages between South German royalty, especially the Wittelsbach dynasty, and daughters of the Lord of Milan, Barnabo Visconti: Duke Stephen III of Bavaria-Ingolstadt married Taddea Visconti in 1364; Duke Frederick of Bavaria married Magdalena Visconti in 1381; Duke Ernest of Bavaria-Munich married Elisabetta Visconti in 1395; Elisabeth of Bavaria married Marco Visconti in 1367; Viridis Visconti married Duke Leopold III of Austria in 1365; and, finally, Antonia Visconti married Count Eberhard III of Württemberg, in 1380. The fustian technology might, von Stromer thought, have played a role as a dowry of sorts in these numerous liaisons.26 It is certainly plausible that these dynastic connections could have led to some specialist craftsmen migrating to pursue work opportunities elsewhere after the downturn in previous hotspots of upper Italian fustian production. But only two of the cities north of the Alps that were “early adopters” were among the possessions of these rulers: Vienna, where two fustian makers (parchantmacher) were recorded in 1373, and Landshut, where the historical record mentions two fustian masters (Parchantmeister) in 1375 and 1382. Neither city was exactly a hotbed of innovation. The fact that the cities in Württemberg were not involved and that the Wittelsbach towns on the upper Danube were slow starters seems rather striking. The town of Lauingen, for example, only embarked on its own fustian production in 1412. Merchants there had been involved in the putting-out system in Nördlingen since 1394, together with entrepreneurial families from Augsburg, Ulm, and Nuremberg to whom they were linked by many family connections.27 In this light, it is more plausible that merchants in the upper German imperial cities were the main drivers of the technology transfer: they had more contact with cloth production, and they had already mastered trade with upper Italy.

It is generally accepted that the modalities of transalpine trade became well-established during the fourteenth century. The early pioneers of this trade included a certain Bernardus Teutonicus, from a Regensburg-Munich family, who “sold large quantities of German copper and silver in Venice and ‘made a fortune’ in the process” in the years around 1200,28 and a Burcardus Teutonicus, who sold copper in Genoa in 1190,29 as well as the Upper Swabian cloth merchants who crossed the Grisons passes to reach the western parts of upper Italy, especially Genoa.30 At the end of the fourteenth century, the Runtinger merchants from Regensburg mainly crossed the Tauern Alps to reach Venice.31 Between these two options, we find the pass routes generally utilized by the Eastern Swabian merchants.

Both major axes of the old Via Claudia Augusta led from Augsburg to Venice. One could take the “high road” over the Reschen pass or the “low road” over the Brenner pass. Increasing numbers of upper German merchants frequented the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the house of the German merchants on the Canale Grande in Venice in the early-fourteenth century.32 These pass routes were gradually upgraded to accommodate a higher volume of traffic and trade. The amount of work done on the ascent up to the Brenner pass from Hall to Matrei and on the Eisack Gorge by Heinrich Kunter, a merchant based in Innsbruck and Bozen, around 1314 was particularly striking—although the trickier passages continued to be suitable only for pack trains.33 Cotton transport along these routes was viable: the “Rodfuhr” system of stage transport was in place and systematically expanded in parallel with the upgrading of the routes.34

III. The Black Death as a Trigger

None of these factors explain what triggered the process of technology transfer. On its own, the allure of investing in a mode of production that had proved profitable in upper Italy would hardly have been a major draw, given the significant cost factor for South German entrepreneurs. We can estimate from the accounts kept by the Runtinger company that the expense involved in bringing cotton from Venice to Regensburg must have added some 27–30 percent to its cost.35 But this factor cannot have been decisive, as transporting finished fustians from Lombardy was also an expensive business. The first challenge for those interested in establishing the new cloth as a mass market item north of the Alps was to mobilize the labor and capital needed to produce it. Looking at the background conditions that changed drastically around and after the mid-fourteenth century, due to the Black Death and its demographic effects, brings us closer to the nub of the issue for the first factor, labor.

Here, too, Wolfgang von Stromer’s analysis provides a starting point. He saw the plague as a significant trigger of innovation. Assuming that central Europe was affected by a pandemic in 1348/49, he noted that the “clean slate of the plague disaster was simultaneously an important condition required for an overall climate of innovation,” because the new situation demanded a “new generation of weavers who necessarily had to adapt to new working conditions and a new market environment but were also more easily able to adapt.” He adds that the “looms burned because of the infection risk they presented needed to be replaced, and weaver households impoverished by the deaths of breadwinners could scarcely have achieved this using only their own resources […]. The putting-out system supplied the necessary apparatus.” This is conjecture, of course—von Stromer himself commented that information about the specific impacts of the various plague waves was still lacking: “We would possibly have a criterion to go by if we knew, at the very least, which waves of the plague reached the linen-producing and subsequently fustian-producing areas in the Lake Constance/Danube region and which waves were the most severe.”36

This—identifying the areas hit by the Black Death—is exactly where we need to start, but we can reverse von Stromer’s cause and effect mechanism by postulating that what induced the geographical shift in technology was not the plague, but rather its absence. While the plague is often, right up to the present day, imagined as all-pervasive and ubiquitous—maps tend to show the sense of helplessness its progress induced rather than actual evidence of its actual geographical spread—Manfred Vasold cast doubt quite some time ago on the idea that vast swathes of southern Germany were uniformly affected. There are, admittedly, large gaps in the evidence he marshalled. He can only offer roughly plausible conjectures for some cities, and he does not address rural areas at all due to a perceived dearth of sources.37 Regional history in Augsburg has taken this research further, and it can now be stated definitively that large swathes of Old Bavaria and eastern Swabia were, in fact, unaffected by the Black Death.38 Initial research on the Augsburg tax registers show that the population of Augsburg actually increased significantly during the period in question between 1346 and 1351.39 Analysis of the Liber taxationis, with its precise account of taxes collected by the diocese of Constance in 1353,40 and local research in Memmingen and Kempten subsequently established that the spread of the plague over the Alps came to a halt roughly at the Iller river. For Bavaria, an edition of the accounts of the Benedictine monastery, Scheyern Abbey, that covered the years in question yielded “not one statement […] about losses directly attributable to plague. Even indirect indicators, such as monastery leaseholdings rapidly changing hands or monastery income from leases dramatically declining, are not evident for 1349 or subsequently.”41 More recently, an examination of the oldest accounts of Aldersbach Abbey, a Cistercian foundation near Passau in Lower Bavaria, also revealed “no indicators for a severe drop” in the revenue generated from the monastery’s possessions.42

Analysis of further accounts and land registers (Urbars) confirms this picture for eastern Swabia. The accounts of Cistercian nuns prepared in the run-up to a visit by the Abbot of Kaisheim do not show a spectacular drop in rents paid in money or in grain for Oberschönenfeld, to the west of Augsburg, in the years between 1348 and 1353. The Cistercian Abbey in Zimmern in the Nördlinger Ries also shows continuity in its economic affairs and does not seem to have been affected by any major upheaval.43 Closer to Nuremberg and Middle Franconia, normality also seems to have persisted, as we can discern from the records of Heilsbronn Abbey. With his analysis of local grain markets, Walter Bauernfeind suggested that the possessions of this abbey—distributed over a huge area from the Nördlinger Ries to the environs of Nuremberg—were not decisively affected by the plague until the later waves starting around 1370/80.44

With its rich urbarial sources, the major Cistercian abbey of Kaisheim represents a major “missing link” between the area around Augsburg and the Ries. In addition to the land registers from the 1320s with postscripts reaching into the mid-century, now edited,45 an almost continuous series of further registers exists that list the abbey’s possessions. A full register from 1353 is followed by various others, covering specific areas in the 1360s.46 It is clear from these sources that no major changes took place in the abbey’s extensive possessions between the 1320s and the 1380s. A partial register from 1380/83 does not show any significant changes for the Propstei Baiern rechts der Donau, the priory district in Bavaria to the right of the Danube (i.e. between Augsburg on the Lech und Donauwörth on the Danube). Various names changed in the lists of who held which farm, whether smallholding, tillage field or meadow—as was to be expected with the passing of time—and only two holdings were listed as vacant (vacat). This finding is hardly surprising, since agrarian expansion in the center of East Swabia can also be discerned from the fact that the clearing of meager top lands and the founding of new settlements continued until past the midpoint of the fourteenth century.47

The dots can thus now be joined between the two Franconian cities of Würzburg and Nuremberg—where the situation has long been clear—and the “blank spot” of Augsburg. Old Bavaria, too, or at least its western parts, can now be added to the picture gleaned. How far south this area stretched—from eastern Swabia down toward the Allgäu—remains to be clarified by further research. What is already obvious, however, is that the old idea that the Black Death caused the population to crash in the mid-fourteenth century—with a quarter or even a third of the population dying, as many estimates suggested—is no longer tenable for southern Germany and especially not for eastern Swabia. It must be revised not merely selectively but completely.

Likewise in need of reevaluation, therefore, is the proposition that the transfer of fustian production from upper Italy to southern Germany was due to upheavals related to the plague. Historians must reconsider the demographic factors involved: if the plague spared large swaths of territory in the years in question, these areas were then likely overpopulated relative to the regions that had in fact been devastated by the plague. That would mean that they now had a possible labor surplus, or, to put it more positively, that small farmers there could now augment their income by processing flax and cotton and weaving this innovative cloth.

While the Black Death does appear to have spared eastern Swabia in 1348/49, this does not mean that the region was unaffected by later outbreaks. Various issues with the sources make the interpretation of some details difficult, but Swabia clearly suffered epidemics after 1380. It is known, for example, that Augsburg saw epidemics with a severe mortality impact in 1380, probably experienced a less severe episode in 1389, and was hit again in 1398 and 1407. The number of tax-paying households dropped from 5,202 in 1363 to 3,621 in 1382 and then to 2,957 in 1408.48 But the first fustian boom was well underway by 1380 and even reached a first peak in the first half of the fifteenth century despite the drop in population, according to the amounts of Ungeld collected.49 In addition to the situation within the city walls, scholars would do well to pay more attention than they have thus far to the wider area and the extensive labor pool available in more rural areas.

Cloth production in Augsburg 1400–1804 (Rights: Anke Sczesny)

IV. Factors Driving the Shift in Production

The Black Death clearly led to a drastic decline in population in Italy. In Venice alone, the population is assumed to have been cut in half,50 and many cities in Lombardy suffered a similar fate—although Milan was most likely spared from the first wave and then hit severely by the second wave in or around 1361.51 This steep drop in population had various effects, not the least of which was structural economic change. A process of structural transformation that had been underway since the early-fourteenth century accelerated due to the 1348 pandemic and subsequent plague waves. Labor shortages and falling grain prices led to changes in agrarian production, and the impact of labor shortages on cities was severe. The textile industry shifted production to luxury items like silk and fine woolen cloth, and the overall quantities produced declined.52 This created momentum for cotton weaving to move across the Alps to Southern Germany.

A precise picture of the situation in Venice can be reconstructed from a 1373 capitulary for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi describing the situation. It states that it had recently become usual for Germans to “purchase […] cotton from overseas” and “bring it to Germany and have fustian produced from it there.” Although this fustian was not of the fineness and quality of the Venetian fustagni, the document continues, they were marked with the symbols of the Venetian masters to give them the appearance of merchandise from Venice, “the better to be able to sell them alongside the ‘original wares.’”53 As noted for Augsburg above, the early Swabian fustian did indeed bear the Venetian quality marks of an ox or a lion, the symbols of the Evangelists Luke and Mark. Venice reacted by enacting prohibitions on the export of cotton yarns. They were not very effective and mainly seem to have resulted in German merchants—especially those from Nuremberg, the Stromers in particular—making their purchases in Genoa rather than Venice for some time, as Marco Veronesi recently ascertained.54

This was the wider environment in which the southern German merchants entered the picture as “founding entrepreneurs” alongside the urban and rural textile laborers. A large number of textile workers were available. These were not, however, people from “the social category with the lowest standing and […] lowest level of education, enthralled in the bonds of prejudice and unable to look beyond the horizons of their church towers,” as von Stromer believed.55 They were, rather, people who had to combine their vocational skills with a knowledge of standards applicable to export production and a feel for market developments. Rural weavers must be considered as well as guild weavers in cities: studies have shown that rural weavers around Constance and Augsburg were already playing a significant role in linen production by the late thirteenth century.56

This is not to exclude the possibility that some specialists may have been involved in introducing the new technology, as well. Fustian production demanded a new, more sophisticated weaving technique. The simple weave previously created on four-shaft looms was replaced with a new diagonal twill pattern produced using the pedals of foot-treadle-operated horizontal looms. An illustration from a well-known Nuremberg manuscript, the House Book of the Mendel Twelve Brothers Foundation (Mendel’sche Zwölfbrüderstiftung) shows a weaver working at such a loom.

Weaver: Depiction from the Mendelsche 12-Brüderstiftung (House Book of the Mendels’ Twelve Brothers Foundation), from Stromer, Baumwollindustrie, p. 67 (Rights: Stadtbibliothek im Bildungscampus Nürnberg, Nuremberg, Amb.317.2°,f.4v.)

Some weavers do seem to have come from Italy—fustian weavers going by the name of Mailand (Milan) are recorded in the 1390s in Nördlingen and Regensburg, at least.57 The initial steps toward technological innovation, however, had been taken before fustian production in Swabia got off the ground at all. Around 1300, a weavers’ ordinance in Augsburg mentions Zwillich (drill) as well as linen,58 and drill was a precursor of fustian in technical terms. Plausible reasons underlying the changeover from linen to fustian looms can, at any rate, be identified without invoking the dramatic scenes depicted by von Stromer. It is not necessary to assume that the house contents of plague victims were burned, including their looms, and that this made possible the purchase of new and improved replacements that only merchant-entrepreneurs could afford.

It has already been noted that, from as early as the thirteenth centuh2 of obligations has survived that opens, rather revealingly, with a list of putting-out contracts relating to local fustian production in 1392. The first entry made for the year 1392 reads: Utz Ristinger, Fritz Kungund, Haintz Kranck, Haintz Ristinger und Gall Huggenler und ir erben sullen Hainrich Fuchslin von Nürenberg und sinen erben unverschaidenlich 55 1/2 barchantuch, halb ochsen und halb lew, und sullen im die bezalen, wan diu erst blaich hie abget, ane gnade. (Utz Ristinger, Fritz Kungund, Haintz Kranck, Haintz Ristinger and Gall Huggenler and their heirs inseparably owe Hainrich Fuchslin of Nuremberg and his heirs 55 1/2 barchent cloths, half ox and half lion, and must provide him with them, without any grace period, at the end of the first bleaching period.)59 The five weavers clearly undertook to deliver a certain quantity of fustian meeting ox and lion quality standards by the end of the bleaching period. They had already received the necessary supply of cotton, as can be inferred from other entries, and they would have been able to come by the flax themselves, since it was a local agrarian product sold in urban and rural markets.

Alongside merchants from Nuremberg, merchants from Augsburg soon began to play a dominant role in Nördlingen. The records list four merchants producing 494 pieces through the putting-out system in 1393 and nine merchants producing 978 1/2 pieces in 1394. A single merchant managed to produce 396 1/3 cloths in 1395. Merchants from Ulm and Lauingen got in on the act later, together with families from Nördlingen.60 Augsburg merchants were behind more than three-quarters of the total cloth production listed in this source and appear to have been important for getting the innovation off the ground in these early years in Nördlingen. They also sustained their involvement over the long-term, unlike the merchants from Nuremberg who were initially involved but quickly dropped out.

The brothers Karl and Lorenz Egen, as well as Hans Brun, Hans Rapold, and Ulrich Tott were all prominent Augsburg merchants involved in putting-out, as were Konrad and Heinrich Tierhaupter (Dyrhaupter), Konrad Wiser, Hans Rem, Hans Lang, and Peter Bach. Delving into the status of these merchants as burghers in Augsburg reveals that most of them belonged to the Augsburg merchants’ guild (namely, Egen, Rem, Tott, Brun, Tierhaupter). One belonged to the salt guild (Wiser), and two were patricians (the Herren Bach and Lang). They were almost all among the city’s fifty wealthiest burghers, with only the Tierhaupter coming in lower (ranked at position 117). Most of them held—as has long been known—the most important offices in the city.61 For our purposes, however, the family relationships shaping the make-up of the trading companies are more important. The brothers Lorenz and Karl Egen62 were probably the nephews and successors of the influential merchant Peter Egen (I). Lorenz’s brother-in-law, Hans Brun, and his half-brother, Bartholomäus Welser (III), were involved in the Egens’ company but founded a trading company of their own a few years later, in or around 1411.63 Lorenz was also one of the heirs of the wealthy Selind Dachs. From 1385 onwards, a wealth of references link him to Venice and indicate that he visited the city on multiple occasions. With their combined might, these merchants wielded a considerable amount of capital for potential investments. It seems plausible to see their company among the pioneers driving the establishment of fustian production in Swabia.

An additional connection stretching even further back can be reconstructed in the case of Hans Rem and Peter Bach. Hans Rem presumably worked together with his uncle Sebastian in Treviso before going on to establish his own trading company, one of the leading movers in Augsburg’s Italian trade. He then moved to Ulm, Swabia’s second center of fustian production, in 1398, remaining there for several years.64 This was the very Hans Rem who had put his fortune in cotton in a spectacular 1357 purchase according to his grandson Lukas—although the date Lukas assigned the event seems rather dubious. Rem had family ties with the old patrician family Bach, as becomes clear in another context. Peter Bach, like other old patricians, participated in the acquisition of rural properties.65 In 1362, he and his father Heinrich took over the market town of Zusmarshausen —located near Augsburg and with many rural weavers among its population—from the Langenmantel family with whom they were related by marriage. After Heinrich Bach had divested himself of his share, the entire property gradually came into the hands of Hans Rem, who was married to a Katharina Bach, and Hans Rem in turn sold it in its entirety to the bishop of Augsburg for 1,930 Hungarian florins in 1395.66 This conversion of land ownership to liquid capital probably served to free up resources for the kind of investment in the fustian business that is evident in the Nördlingen book of obligations dating from around this time. The fact that records in Italy exist for the Bachs as well as for the Rems makes this conjecture all the more plausible: Heinrich Bach was one of the Augsburg merchants who already had goods stored in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in 1371.67 Similar instances of land ownership being converted into capital were not rare; multiple cases can be observed.

While this evidence is merely circumstantial, it does point to an overall picture of entrepreneurial thinking leading southern German and especially Swabian merchants to raise the capital required to take over the fustian production previously established in upper Italy by tapping into family connections and liquidating landed property. Other cases will presumably have unfolded in a similar way.

Nuremberg was undoubtedly in a strong starting position at the beginning of this process, as the Nördlingen book of obligations indicates, but Nuremberg was not able to capitalize on its strong initial position and set a process of widespread innovation in motion as the Swabian cities did. Asking why this was the case leads back to the question of the prerequisites for innovation. As has become clear above, Upper Swabia had already become established as a major hub of textile production with broad and deep expertise by exporting Tele de Alemannia—“Swabian linen”—from the thirteenth century onward.

It appears to be important—and the significance of this factor has probably been severely underestimated up to now—that both “town” and “country” were involved in manufacturing this export product. Processing regionally grown flax was rural work, but by 1300, this rural sector had already expanded to encompass several steps of the process including the production of raw cloth of a quality required to meet the inspection standards of finished cloth. This related not least to the production of drill.68 That gave this region an edge when it came to scaling up fustian production to create a product for the masses. As merchant-entrepreneurs could not rely on urban weavers alone, they also drew on labor from rural areas. With the introduction of fustian, rural workers were tasked with spinning imported cotton and producing raw fustian.

The rural weavers (Gäuweber ) listed in the putting-out books of urban entrepreneurs from the turn to the fifteenth century onward show that the weaving of raw fustian was performed, at least in part, in the countryside. For Memmingen, a putting-out contract from 1406 with a rural weaver has survived.69 In Augsburg, the weavers’ guild managed to have weaving prohibited within three German “miles” of the city (i.e., within a radius of 22.5 km) after 1411. Specifically, all transactions with weavers outside the town were banned, regardless of whether they involved supplying weavers with cotton or yarn das zu den barchatten gehöret (that belongs to fustian) or taking delivery of fabric not marked with trademarks.70 Contemporaneous developments in Ulm went in exactly the opposite direction. In 1403, the city council deemed fustian “a foreign knit [!]” (fremdes Gewirk) that did “not belong to any guild at all … but had, from the beginning, been under the authority, regulation, and protection of the council and the city.” Rural weavers were permitted to bring their wares to the town inspection.71 It can be assumed, then, that the rural workforce continued to be an important factor in eastern Swabia’s production environment as fustian weaving expanded. Rural weavers were deployed during cyclical highs and lows, as a sort of buffer against unsteady demand, as they were evidently able to work more cheaply than urban guild members due to combining weaving with small-scale agricultural cultivation. Analysis of demographic trends has shown that a sufficient number of peasants depended on such extra work. Over the decades that followed, competition between urban and rural areas over fustian production continued to gain momentum, prompting an intensive search for solutions not only in imperial cities, but also in territorial towns like Lauingen, Waldsee, and Wurzach.72

The structures that existed in Upper Swabia around 1400 enabled the enormously rapid increase in production to which the production figures for Augsburg and Ulm attest. It seems to have been decisive that these structures were already in place here and that merchant-entrepreneurs were able to tap into them. Entrepreneurs in Nuremberg, on the other hand, do not seem to have been able to draw on labor from a well-established textiles sector in their direct environs. Metalwork had already become dominant there in those years—in a similarly structured proto-industrial network with a similar level of production.73

IV. Summary and Outlook

As the fustian story continued to unfold, two striking developments took place. The area producing fustian contracted more and more until it covered only the Swabian heartlands. Within the core region where it persisted, however, fustian production went hand-in-hand with long-term economic advancement. While Nuremberg continued to trade in fustian, the city did not seek to regain a foothold in its production until quite a bit later, and even then, it was a sporadic effort. Regensburg stopped producing fustian for export after the Runtingers. Other economic sectors dominated in Cologne, Basel, and Vienna74—and this left Swabia from Lake Constance to the Nördlinger Ries. Even here, a process of geographical concentration set in. Over the course of the half-century between 1420 and 1470/80, many fustian-producing towns abandoned fustian in favor of producing other types of cloth. Nördlingen made Loden, for example, a thick, water-resistant woolen material, and Lauingen made Golschen, a blended linen cloth. What remained was the pentagon connecting Augsburg, Ulm, Biberach, Memmingen, and Kaufbeuren and enclosing the rural areas and small towns in between.75

The key factor accounting for the shift of fustian production from upper Italy to southern Germany, and to eastern Swabia in particular, appears to have been the non-appearance of the plague in Swabia. While cities in upper Italy coped with labor shortages by producing more upmarket fabrics, the relative overpopulation in Upper Swabia and the availability of an urban and rural workforce there meant that this area had sufficient workers to meet the demands of mass producing fustian profitably and, indeed, lucratively and had gained skills in the course of linen production for export that could be adapted to produce fustian. The “barchent boom” in the late fourteenth century laid down foundations for eastern Swabia’s emergence as a consolidated region of production that retained this structure until the early seventeenth century and even, with some modifications, until the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century.

As the analysis above has sought to clarify in detail, a considerable number of upper German merchant-entrepreneurs embraced innovation and established widespread fustian production. They purchased large quantities of cotton, arranged for its transport over the Alps, and organized putting-out systems. Raising the necessary capital through trading companies based heavily around family connections was possible, but the significance of selling rural landholdings to mobilize investment capital should probably also not be underestimated. Was this a fourteenth-century example of strategic market thinking on a grand geographical scale? The arguments in favor of recognizing it as such are strong—although it must be admitted that this hypothesis is not supported by direct first-person statements or contemporary theoretical reflections, but only by circumstantial evidence. Many pieces of the puzzle are still missing.




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