TMR 18.01.06 Farmer, The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris (Sizer and Geschwind)

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Michael Sizer, Julie Geschwind

The Medieval Review 18.01.06

Farmer, Sharon. The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris: Artisanal Migration, Technological Innovation, and Gendered Experience. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. pp. 368. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4848-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Sizer and Julie Geschwind /

In this intriguing book by Sharon Farmer, silk is a vector for understanding immigration, labor, luxury consumption, credit, and women's networks in late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century Paris. As she has done in her previous work, Farmer is able to uncover the history of populations elusive to medieval social historians such as non-elite women, immigrants and artisans. Because the sources for medieval Parisian social history are not as abundant or varied as they are for other medieval cities supplied, for example, with notarial records, Farmer must weave together relatively sparse evidence to tell a cohesive story, and so this book is noteworthy for its methodology. Farmer's book expands upon her own work and the work of textile historians such as Mary Schoeser, but provides a more detailed portrait of the medieval Parisian silk industry than any that exists in current scholarship. [1]

Farmer's main sources for this study are the tax registers of 1292-1313, although she also uses guild statutes, aristocratic household accounts, and other materials such as narrative and judicial sources to flesh out the history. These tax registers contain a goldmine of information about a sizeable chunk (probably about one fourth) of the Paris population in this period. Farmer's study is one of the better uses of this data, though Janice Archer's 1995 PhD dissertation, which also uses these records to analyze Parisian women's labor, is another fine example, and employs comparable methodology. [2] Farmer collects the data on immigrants and women silk workers identified by name or occupation in the tax registers, identifying where possible their wealth level and their place of habitation in the city. She compiles these data in a series of detailed appendices available at the end of the book, a useful resource for the scholar of medieval Paris.

Farmer uses this information in her first chapter, "City of Immigrants," to identify around 200 non-elite and non-clerical artisans of Mediterranean origin in Paris. When considering those not counted due to the Gallicization of some names, which may obscure the origins of some, and the fact that those appearing in the tax registers made up around a quarter of the total population, this corresponds to a sizeable immigrant population of close to 1000 in Paris at this time. Not all of these were the wealthy Lombard merchants and bankers who have attracted significant scholarly attention, as many of the immigrants discussed by Farmer had middling incomes and diverse occupations, and there were also several people from Islamic regions. Silk was an important industry for these immigrants, though they were involved in others as well. In all, Farmer characterizes Paris in this era as "a medieval French melting pot" (37).

Farmer traces the trade of silk fibers from a variety of sources, primarily from the Middle East and Mediterranean, into Southern and Northern Europe. Her use of inventories from aristocratic houses and tax assessments of textile workers reveals that Paris was a silk manufacturing and weaving center during this period: the city's silk luxury goods found their way throughout France and abroad. Thus, Farmer paints a much needed picture through her detailed description of the kinds of silk fabrics that were produced, the ways in which the most luxurious silks were woven, and who the end users were. In mentioning some of the names of aristocrats and nobility of France and abroad (52-53) who purchased French silks, Farmer proves that French silks were of high quality.

The increased interest and high demand for silk fabrics in Northern Europe did much to spur the silk industry. The expansion of Paris to be the largest city in Western Europe, the growth of the Parisian bourgeoisie, and the existence of an already thriving wool and linen textile industry further spurred the production of silk textiles. The highest single expense for the nobility was in textiles for various functions and for their households. Silk ribbons, braids, girdles, and headscarves, worn by women to indicate social status, were important in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Parisian fashion. Striped silk fabric was used as linings for both secular and liturgical clothing and as bedhangings. The silk necessary for the weaving of small tapestries, and for cloth embellishment (typically embroidery) of small accessories such as almspurses, was much in demand.

Farmer's description of the various stages of silk production in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Paris lays the ground work for her use of the tax assessments to determine the status connected with each activity. Each of the stages in production varied in terms of skill and complexity, and the women and men involved were paid differently and taxed differently according to their income. The earliest stages in silk production Parisians engaged in were the operations forming the thread from the raw fibers: the cooking, brushing, reeling and re-reeling of the still raw thread necessary for the formation of usable fiber. This phase would also include the de-gumming of the silk (cooking), which had an enormous influence on the results of dyeing. The task of these specific silk workers, or throwsters, was to twist the raw thread which would produce the various kinds of silk fabric. These activities made their work essential to the production of high quality and lustrous silk fiber to be bleached or dyed. Farmer asserts that the throwsters probably outnumbered the total number of silk dyers and weavers primarily because it was not a membership which was limited in number by its guild: a large number of women who show up on the tax assessments were apprentices under skilled mistresses. Farmer determines from the tax assessments that the possible number of throwsters in Paris by the end of the thirteenth century was 900, an astonishing number of (primarily) women who provided this important first step in silk production (49). Such a large number of women might have been required to provide sufficient silk threads to keep up with the demand. Other activities involved with silk textile production were carried out by males, especially the weaving of velvet and very finely patterned silks requiring a complex loom; and as these tasks were carried out in the Mediterranean world (Italy and in Islamic lands) by men, it would have been these male immigrants into Paris who were the most skilled. Commercial dyers in Europe also were predominantly male, and very specific guild regulations governed their production and quality control. Male weavers and dyers were among the most highly paid.

Parisian guilds for each of the activities associated with textile production were less strict in many ways than Italian guilds. Farmer's detailed exploration of the differences between Italian and Parisian guild systems, along with the information on the kinds of silk textiles which were in demand, gives us a greater understanding of how women in Paris were able to dominate several areas of the silk industry. Women silk workers had some rights in guild statutes, though men were often jurors and overseers of their work. The guild for the silk throwsters, a stage in silk production that was performed mostly by women, does include "preudesfemes" (honored women) as overseers along with men. In comparative terms, woman silk workers enjoyed more wealth and autonomy than women in most other fields in Paris including other textile industries, and even compared to silk industries in other regions of Europe. Farmer suggests that the relative power of Parisian silk women may have been due to legal rights and a culture of relative independence for women, as exemplified by Beguine communities, in Paris, as well as the fact that the Paris trades were overseen by the king and his Provost of Paris rather than by local municipal governments as in Flanders or Italy, which were more protective in enforcing the authority--patriarchal and otherwise--of the male merchant elite whom they primarily represented.

Farmer's effort to reconstruct the networks of woman silk workers and their connections with Jewish moneylenders is the most interesting part of the book from a methodological standpoint. She does this mostly by accumulating circumstantial evidence, largely by identifying clusters of silk women and creditors living in proximity to one another, and connecting this with anecdotal evidence that bachelor Lombards were seen as a potential threat to women's honor compared to family-centered Jewish lenders, and that Jews tended to make smaller loans to those lower on the social scale. One wonders if Farmer makes too much of geographic proximity as an indicator of potential relationships; nevertheless, while the conclusions that she draws from this evidence must be tentative, there is no reason to doubt them. Working with notarial sources that allow for a more detailed analysis on a micro-level than is possible in medieval Paris, Kathryn Reyerson has described thriving women's networks in medieval Montpellier. [3] Scholars such as Reyerson, Julie Claustre, and Daniel Smail have used credit relationships to explain medieval urban social networks in recent years, and Farmer's analysis, though with lighter available evidence, continues in this vein. [4] That Jewish lenders, women, and immigrants, people with relatively subaltern status in medieval Paris, would cooperate with one another for mutual economic and social advancement seems reasonable, and emerges as one of the more remarkable and intriguing conclusions of Farmer's study.

The nature of Farmer's sources, as well as the seeming uniqueness of the structures of the Parisian silk trade, requires that her study be a snapshot rather than an account of change over time. Farmer's discussion of the fate of the Parisian silk trade after the early decades of the fourteenth century is necessarily impressionistic due to the lack of corresponding source material suitable for comparison. It seems that the silk trade fell upon hard times in the later medieval period, mirroring a general collapse of the Parisian economy due to war and political instability. Farmer suggests that the episodic persecutions of Parisian Jews, culminating in their final ejection in 1394 by Charles VI, eroded systems of credit important to woman silk workers. Indeed, the much more partial evidence from early fifteenth-century tax registers analyzed by Jean Favier indicates fewer likely immigrant residents in Paris at that time, which he attributes to the "xenophobic violence" that was a feature of revolts--especially those of the 1380s--in the previous decades. [5] As Farmer suggests, one could conclude that Paris's general downturn of economic and demographic fortunes in the fifteenth century might have been related to a decrease in the cosmopolitanism, openness to opportunity, and thriving women's networks that had been an important feature of the earlier period studied by Farmer, when the silk industry, operated in large part by women and immigrants, was thriving.

Farmer's study of the medieval Paris silk industry combines economic, textile, and social history in a way that will interest scholars of all of those fields, as well as open intriguing questions about the relationships of gender, immigration, and economic prosperity that transcend those fields. The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris reveals a fuller and more inclusive picture than we often see of a booming, cosmopolitan medieval Paris in its medieval heyday.



1. Sharon Farmer, "Biffes, Tiretaines, and Aumonieres: The Role of Paris in the International Textile Markets of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries" in Robin Netherton and Gale Owen-Crocker, eds., Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol 2. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006); Mary Schoeser, Silk (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007). A noteworthy study of silk in medieval French literature is E. Jane Burns Sea of Silk: A Textile Geography of Women's Work in Medieval French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

2. Janice Archer, Working Women in Thirteenth-century Paris. PhD Dissertation. University of Arizona, 1995. Our thanks to Kate Staples for bringing this study to our attention.

3. Kathryn Reyerson, Women's Networks in Medieval France: Gender and Community in Montpellier, 1300-1350 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

4. Reyerson, ibid.; Julie Claustre, Dans les geôles du roi: l'emprisonnement pour dette à Paris à la fin du Moyen Âge, (Paris: Sorbonne, 2007); Daniel Lord Smail Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

5. Jean Favier, Les Contribuables parisiens à la fin de la Guerre de Cent Ans: Les rôles d'impôt de 1421, 1423 et 1438 (Geneva: Droz, 1970).

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