The Irish, Scottish and Flemish Linen Industries During the Long Eighteenth Century
Gray, Jane (2003) The Irish, Scottish and Flemish Linen Industries During the Long Eighteenth Century. In: The European Linen Industry in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press, pp. 159-186.
Jean Quataert has described how, in central Europe during the pre-industrial era, linen manufacturing was popularly thought to be a dishonourable profession. The industry has had a similarly poor reputation amongst some historians of the transition to industrial capitalism. Francois Crouzet described linen as ‘an archaic industry, doomed anyway.’ Denis O'Hearn has recently argued that the Irish linen industry was intrinsically ‘semiperipheral,’ insofar as it was characterized by low wages, slow rates of change in technology and productive organization, and few linkages to other economic sectors. During the nineteenth century, ‘the existing level of linen output was simply concentrated from an Ulster-wide industry to the Lagan valley.’ Elsewhere, linen has enjoyed a better reputation. In the Scottish historiography, according to Devine, the linen industry has been regarded as ‘the source of enterprise, capital and labour for cotton, the 'leading sector,' which ushered in the age of industrialisation and future prosperity.’. Mixed claims have been made for the Flemish linen industry. Whereas Mokyr and Mendels argued (in different ways), that linen paved the way for Belgium's relatively early industrial transition, Vandenbroeke and Van Der Wee depicted linen as a source of delay and irregularity in the process. This chapter explores the problem of regional differentiation in linen-manufacturing regions during the era of proto-industrialization and the transition to modern capitalist industry, focussing on the Irish, Scottish and Flemish cases. It critically reviews a number of existing explanations for regional differentiation and suggest an alternative. In the Germanic lands, linen's ‘fateful association with the household’ - and with women's work - led to its poor reputation. I suggest that it was differences in how men's and women's labour was mobilized in the production of linen (from the cultivation of flax to the manufacture of woven cloth) which contributed to regional differentiation in the development of linen producing regions, and thereby led to differences in the transition to capitalism.
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