Changes in Textile Regulation in Early Modern England, 1550-1640
Early modern British historians have long recognized that by the second half of the seventeenth century the English government’s efforts to regulate the nation’s most vital industry, textiles, had changed markedly from a century prior. Sweeping nation- wide regulations on quality standards, apprenticeship, and wool middlemen had given way to more modest initiatives that were far more localized in scope. This shift took place alongside regulatory attenuation in other areas of the economy as well (such as foreign exchange markets, usury, the internal grain trade, and enclosure) which historians have shown were motivated by an emergent “improvement” ethos that increasingly saw the market and profit-seeking as generating beneficial outcomes for both society and the strength of the nation. As such, the loosening of regulations over textile production are also generally associated with this novel shift in attitudes about the economy. This dissertation aims to build upon, as well as challenge, this current orthodoxy in two ways. First, by fleshing out the precise relationship between the improvement ethos and the regulation of textiles to an extent yet done in the current literature. It will be argued that ideas of improvement altered textile policies primarily by replacing earlier goals of stability and predictability with the novel aim of industrial expansion in order to “improve” the nation’s “balance of trade.” Nevertheless, despite this significant ideological shift, improvement thinkers also fervently believed that the very regulations being relaxed—over quality standards, wool middlemen, and apprenticeship—were necessary to expand the nation’s manufacturing output. Thus, the improvement ethos alone cannot account for these regulatory changes. Therefore, this dissertation will offer a close examination of specific moments in which regulations in these areas were loosened. It will be argued that such decisions came after central and local officials recognized that enforcement could only be achieved at the expense of employment. Furthermore, a close reading of the language deployed in these policy decisions suggests that officials were informed primarily by the persistence of a medieval “commonwealth” culture—the central tenet of which was that social elites must act as caretakers of the people (especially the poor) in return for deference. So as to not violate this officially-endorsed and widely disseminated “public transcript,” governors opted to remove, or not enforce, regulations that threatened to throw the poor out of work. This was done largely out of fear that failing to do so might lead to popular uprisings amid an increasingly fraught socio-economic and political context.
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