Imports from Flanders in the Medieval Period: Urban and Rural People

Morvern French
Friday 28 November 2014

This posting reports on the results of research undertaken by Morvern French on the trade relationship between Scotland and Flanders in the medieval period. Drawing on archaeological evidence, Morvern suggests that much of the imports from Flanders would have been luxury goods destined for the wealthy elites of society, rather than for ordinary people. The needs of urban and rural communities were met primarily by domestic sources.

The Trading Relationship

Before his death in 1153 David I had established thirteen burghs in Scotland, the burgesses of which were granted monopolies on the export of the staple goods of wool, woolfells, and hides. The development of a network of these privileged trading centres, particularly on the east coast, ushered in a period of booming international trade and prosperity, signifying the beginning of the transition of Scotland from a rural economy to an organised and regulated mercantile system.

Scottish international trade was primarily based in the Flemish city of Bruges, with which Scottish merchants made periodic staple agreements, obliging them to export their staple goods to Bruges alone. The earliest surviving agreement dates from 1359, and the last to 1470. In 1407 Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, also Count of Flanders, appointed a commissioner to defend the rights of Scottish merchants in Flanders – a role that came to be known as Conservator of Scottish Privileges in the Low Countries – showing the high value placed on Scottish trade.

As well as importing Flemish cloth, ceramics, and woodwork, among other manufactures, Scottish merchants were able to purchase at Bruges goods from much of the known world, e.g., furs from Sweden and Russia, precious metals from Bohemia and Hungary, wine from France and the Rhineland, silks from Italy and Spain, and sugar, spices, and alum from North Africa and Asia Minor.

This relationship between Scotland and Flanders is traditionally viewed as one of interdependence: the highly industrialised Flemish textile industry required the vast quantities of wool that Scotland supplied, while predominantly rural and pastoral Scotland needed to import manufactured goods. Flanders’ textile industry was booming in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, at which point Scotland is considered to have reached the peak of its medieval prosperity. In such an economic climate it might be expected that Scottish demand for manufactured goods was met primarily by continental imports.

Contemporary accounts strengthen this view. In the fourteenth century John of Fordun credited David I, initiator of the burgh mercantile system, with bringing to the country ‘outlandish wares’ and replacing Scottish primitiveness with continental sophistication:

He it is that has enriched thy harbours with outlandish wares, and gathered together the wealth of other countries for thine enjoyment. He it is that has turned thy hairy cloaks into costly garments, and has covered thy nakedness of old with purple and fine linen.[1]

Fellow chronicler Jean Froissart, also in the fourteenth century, wrote that:

When the English make inroads thither, as they have very frequently done, they order their provisions, if they wish to live, to follow close at their backs; for nothing is to be had in that country without great difficulty. There is neither iron to shoe horses, nor leather to make harness, saddles or bridles; all these things come ready made from Flanders by sea; and, should these fail, there is none to be had in the country.[2]

Records such as the Treasurer’s Accounts and the Exchequer Rolls detail the vast quantities of Flemish products imported for the Crown, Church, and aristocracy, including tapestries, jewellery, munitions, illuminated manuscripts, decorative tiles, and silken fabrics. Such objects were discussed by Duncan Macmillan in blog posts dated the 31st of October and 7th of November. However, such objects were for the most part restricted to the elites of society, for whom the records were written. The best way to find out about the material culture of ordinary town and country people – unrepresented in the historical record – is to look at the archaeological evidence.

Urban archaeological sites have yielded great quantities of material due to continuous occupation over many centuries. The earliest burghs were established by David I in the twelfth century. Perth is an especially good example due to the extensive excavations carried out there during the 1970s.[3] There is also archaeological evidence for rural people, who made up about 90% of the Scottish population in the medieval period, but disproportionately less than for urban sites as the latter are more commonly excavated.

By concentrating on two types of manufacture perceived as traditional Flemish imports – textiles and pottery – it is apparent that Flemish imports made up only a small proportion of the material environment of ordinary people.


Outside of Perth the textile finds are fairly negligible, but this town is a good case study in what the average east coast burgh in Scotland would have had available to it. The excavation has produced the largest group of medieval textiles in Scotland: 411 samples in total, 403 of which are from the period 1100-1350. Most of the samples are woollen – there’s no linen as it doesn’t survive well – and there are also 31 silk samples, showing that the group includes the property of wealthier burgh inhabitants. Out of a total of 411 samples, none have been definitively identified as Flemish products. The emphasis given to Flemish cloth imports in the documentary records, regarding the elites of society, is not borne out in the archaeological record of the town.

One of the twill textile types excavated has been identified by John Munro as a possible example of the ‘Hondschoote’ serges produced in Flanders and Artois.[4] Most were excavated from late thirteenth and early fourteenth century contexts, when they were at peak production in the Low Countries. However, there are only 87 of these samples. Even if they were Flemish, they were not widespread among the urban population.

Sample of a possible Low Countries fabric. Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland.
Sample of a possible Low Countries fabric. Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland.

There is also a wide range of excavated, material evidence beyond the textile samples, many of which has been found in occupational contexts. For example spindle whorls (fitted onto spindles to maintain the speed of the spin) have been uncovered at various urban sites including Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen, and St Andrews, as well as at rural sites such as Hallhill near Dunbar and Springwood Park near Kelso. Their location in occupational areas and the excavation of drop spindles, which are more portable than spinning wheels, suggest that spinning was carried out in and around people’s homes while they carried out household chores.

These initial stages of cloth production were often carried out in domestic environments by women, and therefore were of lower status than the finishing stages, such as dyeing, carried out by men. Such people were of little concern to those who produced written documents. Early burgh legislation in 1205, for example, referred to the manufacture of dyed or sheared cloth in Perth: processes carried out by men in industrial rather than domestic environments.[5]

There is further evidence that manufacturers in Scotland were capable of performing skilled processes: traces of dyes such as indigo (blue), madder, and kermes (both red) have been identified within the fabric samples from Perth, of which 30% of the total were dyed. Although this does not prove the use of these dyes within the town, the seeds of dye plants such as weld or Dyer’s Rocket (yellow), bog myrtle (yellow), gipsywort (black), bur-marigold (bright orange), and yellow flag (grey-blue/black) were identified. Additional textile tools from Perth include wool combs and heckle combs (used to disentangle wool and flax before spinning) drop spindles, a tenter hook (used to prevent shrinkage on fulled cloth), and a flax breaking mallet.

The cloth that was excavated in Perth was generally of poor quality. However, it is arguable that this was due to the success of the export trade in good quality wool, with the poorer wool remaining in Scotland, and not an indication of an undeveloped textile industry. We know from the handbook of Florentine merchant Francesco Pegolotti that charges for packing, transport, and foreign tolls depended on quantity rather than quality, so it made sense for merchants to export the highest quality wool to make the biggest possible profit.[6] The best wool was therefore sold to Flemish cloth producers and the remainder was available for use on the home market.

Scottish cloth was even exported to Flanders, where it was sold to urban people: the same type of people who were buying it in Scotland. It posed a threat to Flemish manufacturers, causing the Dukes of Burgundy and the Drie Steden – Bruges, Ghent and Ypres – to institute various bans on it. In 1497 Philip the Fair exempted Scottish textiles from a general ban, describing them as ‘of little value… by which the poor and miserable folk are principally clothed.’[7]

Based on the evidence discussed it is arguable that Scottish textile manufacturers, capable of performing various skilled processes, were part of a north-western European ‘textile industrial zone’, rather than one in which Flanders was absolutely pre-eminent.


The documentary evidence for pottery production is extremely limited. There are a few references to potters in sources such as the Treasurer’s Accounts; for example, in the early 1500s money was paid ‘for pottis, [to] the pottair of Bothuile’.[8] The scarcity of written references is surprising given that Scottish wares were being manufactured from at least the twelfth century. The majority of evidence for this is material. In Perth – from 75-95 High Street – over 40,000 sherds were excavated. Foreign imports usually make up no more than 5% of pottery assemblages, although within that Flemish products often make up the majority of imported fabrics.

Kiln sites have been discovered in Scotland, but not enough to account for the vast amounts of pottery found in the burghs and in the countryside. This is because of the rural nature of the pottery industry. It needed clay and water, generally found outwith urban areas, and fire, which was a safety and pollution hazard within towns. This had the double effect of removing producers from the remit of burgh record keepers and removing them from urban sites, which are more likely to be excavated.

Seven kilns for the production of White Gritty ware, manufactured from twelfth to fifteenth centurues, have been excavated at Colstoun near Haddington, although more are believed to exist based on the many local variations in this fabric type. Two rural kiln sites have been identified for Scottish Redware, manufactured from the mid thirteenth to fifteenth centuries: at Stenhouse, Stirlingshire, and at Rattray, Aberdeenshire, of which the latter had at least two kilns, each capable of firing up to fifty vessels at a time. Local variants, however, have been excavated at almost every east coast burgh, as well as in Dumfries and Galloway and Strathclyde. Redwares have also been found at Colstoun, the White Gritty kiln site, and these sherds varied from those found only 20km away, suggesting a highly localised pottery industry spread throughout rural areas and supplying nearby communities.

Some Scottish potters were influenced by Flemish imports. For example, in Perth’s Redware variant known as Perth Local, there are examples of imitation: this jug has an impressed shell pattern, a green glaze and a purple wash: features typical of Low Countries Highly Decorated Wares, a high-end Flemish redware. However, these are exceptions and for the most part Perth pottery shows little outside influence.

Perth Local jug. Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland.
Perth Local jug. Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland.
Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland.
Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland.

Archaeologist Derek Hall has noted that ‘the medieval trade that is best represented in the archaeological record may have been considered so lowly that it is virtually invisible in the historical record.’[9] The apparent absence of potters can be explained by their operation outwith urban areas and outwith guilds, which caused them to be passed over by burgh record keepers. It is clear, though, from the physical remains that Scotland was self-sufficient in pottery production from an early stage.


The archaeological evidence has shown that rather than Flemish and other imports dominating textile and ceramic assemblages, Scottish crafts make up a majority of finds in both urban and rural areas. This is despite a notable absence of these industries from the written record, primarily due to their operation outwith burgh control and often physically outside the burgh.

Although Bruges provided a ready market both for Scotland’s exports and its imports, these imports were not required on as great a scale as has been suggested. Despite high levels of elite imports of Flemish products, for the majority of people – even those in the east coast towns with strong trading links with Flanders – their material environment was primarily made up of Scottish products from the foundation of the burghs in the twelfth century.

Morvern French
November 2014

Morvern is a second year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, and a contributor to the Scotland and the Flemish People project.


[1] W. F. Skene (ed.), John of Fordun’s Chronicle of the Scottish Nation II (1993), p. 237.
[2] Jean Froissart, Chroniques, bk. II, ch. 160. Quoted in P. Hume Brown (ed.), Early Travellers in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1973), p. 11.
[3] The High Street finds for Perth are catalogued in four published fascicules: Perth High Street Archaeological Excavation 1975-1977 (Perth, 2010-2). There is also copious archaeological material to be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
[4] J. Munro, ‘Three centuries of luxury textile consumption in the Low Countries and England, 1330-1570: trends and comparisons of real values of woollen broadcloth (then and now)’, in M-L Nosch and K. Vestergard (eds.), The Medieval Broadcloth: Changing Trends in Fashions, Manufacturing and Consumption (Oxford, 2009), p. 8.
[5] G. W. S. Barrow (ed.), Regesta Regum Scottorum II: The Acts of William I, King of Scots 1165-1214 (Edinburgh, 1971), pp. 430-2, no. 467.
[6] Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, La Pratica della Mercatura (Cambridge, MA, 1936), pp. 258-69.
[7] Louis Gilliodts-van Severen (ed.), Cartulaire de l’ancienne estaple de Bruges (Bruges, 1904-6) II, p. 314, no. 1302.
[8] Thomas Dickson et al (eds.), Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1877-1978) II, p. 361.
[9] Derek Hall, ‘The Scottish Medieval Pottery Industry: A Pilot Study’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 4 (1998), p. 166.

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One reply to "Imports from Flanders in the Medieval Period: Urban and Rural People"

  • Alexander Stevenson
    Alexander Stevenson
    Saturday 29 November 2014, 3.17pm

    This comment relates primarily to the introductory text in italics. It is stated there that Flemish imports were for an urban elite, which is misleading. Demand for imported manufactures, wine, spices and the like came mainly from the royal court, landowners (barons and lairds) and the clergy. The size of even the largest medieval Scottish burghs was small by comparison with England and much of western and central Europe, and there were also relatively few towns overall. There were correspondingly fewer town dwellers and manufacturers. Medieval Scotland's economy was overwhelmingly rural. Though an urban elite was responsible for bringing imports into the country, they were mainly sold to a non-urban elite. Most products in general use would have been locally made, as they were across the world before the Industrial Revolution. Medieval transport costs were very high, and fragile items were much more likely than today to be damaged in transit. So the import market was inevitably slanted towards high-value and less fragile items.

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