Call for Papers: Beyond proto-industry – rural textile industries throughout pre-industrial Europe

RHN 76/2016 | Call

Organisers: Prof. Tim Soens, Prof. Peter Stabel, and Jim van der Meulen, Center for Urban History, University of Antwerp
September 2017, Antwerp and Louvain/Leuven, Belgium
Deadline for submissions: 10 October 2016


International workshop and EURHO Round Table
Beyond proto-industry:
rural textile industries throughout pre-industrial Europe

Textile production was one of the major industries in many parts of pre-industrial Europe. During the urban take-off of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, large-scale textile production became concentrated in towns, but from the thirteenth century onwards, the mass-production of textiles shifted (back) to the countryside. Between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, market-oriented textile production became the main industrial activity on the countryside in many European regions. While some forms of textile industry clearly remained a form of by-employment, closely linked to the seasonal cycle of agricultural labour, other regions saw a real specialization in textile production.

Based on this process, Franklin Mendels coined the term “proto-industrialization”, the fast growth and specialization of traditional industry, mainly in the countryside, which he considered a phase that preceded and facilitated the factory industrialization of the late eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries. Mendels’s original study has since been heavily debated, but proto-industrialization as a concept has remained prominent in historiography of the pre-industrial rural economy. However, although the rise of rural textile industries took place in different corners of Europe, and roughly in the same period, regional variation was very important, both with regard to the type of fabrics, the organization of production, the chains of supply and retail, the institutional framework, and last but not least the interaction with the agricultural economy. This regional variation has seldom been explained beyond the classic dichotomy of ‘Verlag’ and ‘Kauf’-systems, generalizing the relationships between rural producers and urban traders.

In this workshop we aim to look at those regions where rural textile production really became a dominant feature. We want to investigate why certain regions witnessed a remarkable expansion of textile production, while neighbouring regions did not. Through a Europe-wide comparison of core regions of rural textile production, a better understanding of the sustainability of rural textile industries and its contribution to regional patterns of economic development might be possible.

Therefore this workshop invites submissions related to specific textile regions of pre-industrial Europe, and addressing one or more of the following research questions:

  • How can we explain the remarkable specialization of some regions in rural textile production?
  • How important was the link with agriculture? Were rural textile industries invariably linked to the fragmentation of agricultural holdings, and the production of an agricultural labour surplus? And where and when did textile industries turn into full-time employment and (semi-)skilled labour?
  • How important were urban capital and urban entrepreneurs in the organisation of rural textile industries? To what extent were rural textile industries based on a relocation from urban activities to the countryside?
  • To what extent was the flourishing of rural textile industries fostered by an advantageous institutional framework? And if so, how did this institutional framework come into existence?
  • To what extent did the social organisation of textile production mirror social and political asymmetries both within rural society and between town and countryside?


We aim to gather European specialists on this theme for a one-day workshop at the University of Antwerp on Saturday, 9 September 2017. Subsequently, the participants are invited for a Roundtable at the Rural History Conference in Louvain/Leuven, starting Monday, 11 September 2017.

The workshop will have financial support of FWO – Flemish Research Foundation, CORN – Comparative Rural History Network and the University of Antwerp.

The University of Antwerp will cover participants’ travel expenses towards Antwerp and provide two days of accommodation. Expenses related to the Louvain/Leuven conference will not be covered.

Those wishing to take part should submit a 300-word abstract by 10 October 2016, to Jim van der Meulen: