Rules, Routines, and the Restraint of Initiative

Today I am going to let M. Paul Rodier show us The Romance of French Weaving with a little tour of Paris on the thirteenth century.  The king, Louis IX, later known as St. Louis, has appointed Etienne Boileau as prevost over commerce and industry.

Drapers' Row, an illustration from The Romance of French Weaving

Drapers’ Row, an illustration from The Romance of French Weaving.  I can’t find its original source.

Along Draper’s Row, the apprentices, with a great clatter, are opening the heavy wooden windows; the upper half serves as an awning over the ledge with the lower half becomes; upon the ledge the bolts of cloth will soon be piled ready for the day’s selling.  It is an excellent counter at which to stand, if the buyer is not too tall, for the jutting second story of hte house will protect him from the rain; if he is tall, he is likely to bump his head against rafter and beam.

Downstairs, the family are at breakfast around the fireplace in warm obscurity.

It is not a small family, for there are, besides the two sons and a daughter, the apprentice and the valets, as the assistants are called to have finished their apprenticeship… While they sit there talking of what enters into the day’s work and into the city’s life, a horn blows at the corner of the street.

You might believe it is a summons to battle, so quick is the change of spirit, for this is the horn of the night watchman blowing “broad daylight” before he goes off duty; it is a sign that work may begin.

And work begins!

The house is full of looms; the weaver is permitted to have three for himself — two for broad cloth and one for narrow — and three for each of his sons.  At five of these nine, the men are at work while the apprentice does the running up and down stairs for the yarns … stored up in the attic, there where the apprentice has his room.

The looms which a weaver may have are limited by rules in order that no one may try to get the monopoly of weaving just because he can afford to hire weavers to work for him.  No one may have any loom outside his own house; if a man has to step outside his door to reach another workshop he is considered to have transgressed the regulations.  His looms will be confiscated, and he himself ostracised.

The noise of five looms all going at once is enough when you think of each house adding its quota of click-clacking, and the “criers” at their daily clamour, advertising their own wares or those of others.  Paris is a lively place on a spring morning!

Suddenly the noise increases to a perfect pandemonium!

The cause of this tumult?  that man who has come around the corner and stopped in front of our draper’s window to look at the cloth.  Drapers’ Row, by some sixth sense, has recognised the presence of a customer.  And as there is a chance of persuading him to come to another window, every draper, standing in his own door, shouts the virtues of his own cloth and very often — I am ashamed to say — unfriendly remarks about the cloth of his neighbor!

Yet there must be some personal reason which brought the man to our draper rather than to any other, for all the cloth along the Row much measure up to the standard set down in the “statutes” as the rules of the Trade were called.  There are rules to control the raw material which enters into the cloth; the way it must be prepared for spinning’ the number of threads set up in the warp; the nature of the weft; the width of the piece when finished; the number of aunes [a unit of measurement which varied from town to town] in the length of the piece before the weaver may take it from the loom; the methods and colours of the dyers!  Nothing is left to the imagination of the weaver, fuller, or dyer.  The consumer’s interest is well guarded, and the reputation of the Paris draper.

…the drapers, willy-nilly, must shut up shop on Saturday, every one of them, and come to the market to sell their cloth and make their purchases for the ensuing week.  This rule was due to the fact that the King got his best tax from the sales at the market-place; and since he protected it this was deemed fair.

The vesper-bell echoes through all the Middle Ages!  What silence falls upon Drapers’ Row after it has rung!  For the work must stop at once; only the folding of cloth and the putting away of tools is allowed.  If a loom is heard then, or later in the evening, in any house, the neighbors look into the matter at once: they send for the inspectors called jurés, who must come, either two or more of them, to inquire into the activity…They must knock at the door and confiscate the cloth and impose a fine — unless it is discovered that the weaver is at work upon a piece of cloth for his own or his family’s use.  Then there will be apologies, since that sort of work at night is permitted.

The same jurés must inspect all cloth before it can be put upon he window-ledge for sale.  First of all they must be certain that it has been woven in this house and nowhere else.  Then the piece which came off the loom must have a certain length — which differs for different sorts of material.  And there must be a certain width, which is regulated by the number of threads in the warp and the width of the selvage.  Al this is written in the book of rules and is taken as the standard without any question….And the judgement of the jurés is usually a sure one, for the reputation of Paris cloth is their greatest concern.

Excerpts from pages 57 – 61

The 1301 manuscript of Etienne Boileau's Book of Trades, from Bibliotheque nationale de France.

The 1301 manuscript of Etienne Boileau’s Book of Trades, from Bibliotheque nationale de France.


Here is the first page of regulations for “Weavers of Cloth” from Etienne Boileau’s Le Livre des Metiers from 1301.  The regulations for French artisans set down in this book lasted for 500 years, and it is available online at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

If you’re interested, but you don’t read medieval French, in 1879 (perhaps for the Paris Exposition?) a print version was available.


The print version of The Book of Trades.

The print version of The Book of Trades.

If you would like to read the rules for yourself, they are available here.

If you would like to read the rules for yourself, they are available here. We textile-types are in Group Four, page 54 (image 82).


Okay, so back to the thirteenth century for one more quick look, one that really sums up the business attitudes of the times:

An enterprising man of Troyes had had the very practical idea that since the kerchiefs used for the head — they were called couvre-chefs — were always cut a certain size, it might be well to weave linen of that width, instead of the usual sheet and tablecloth width.  What more natural?  But this innovation was looked upon as a direct blow at the traditions of the linen-weavers, probably because he was having great success in selling this new sort of linen.  And the merchants appealed in a frenzied way to the King to put a stop to the enterprise.

The manufacturer himself was heard by the kind and he said that he could not understand how this departure from the usual width could do any harm to the line-weavers of Troyes.  Then came the witness for the merchants… The results was in favour of the conservatives!  The kerchief-weavers had to see the work they had begun prohibited!  Initiative, as we can realize from this, was likely to restrain its impulses thereafter in Troyes.  And in all other cloth-towns.

p. 126

This may be the answer to something that puzzled me when I was learning about the Bayeux Tapestry — why it was cut from a wider piece of cloth instead of being woven the right size to begin with.  Maybe that was just the way things were done.

I enjoy the story-tale voice of this book and these layered glimpses of the past, and I hope you have too!