Silk was the glamorous end of the mercer’s business. At a time when clothes were staggeringly much more expensive than today’s – a fine doublet might cost half a duke’s annual rents – silk was Europe’s greatest luxury trade.
Silk was not easy to import. It had been produced in the Orient for thousands of years, and imported to Europe along the Silk Road via the Byzantine Empire. From there, silk threads and cloths were brought west by Italian ships to markets in the Low Countries and beyond. Italy, like other Mediterranean regions, also had its own ancient tradition in silkcraft, which had been introduced by Arab, Greek and Jewish artisans between the 9th and 11th centuries. By the 13th century, silk was being woven into cloths for export in Venice, Genoa, Bologna and Lucca. Venice’s elaborately controlled silk industry was praised by one 16th-century Venetian nobleman for being “the everlasting foundation and sinews” of his city. Genoa and Venice were famous for high-quality production interwoven with gold and silver. Bologna made the lighter and cheaper textile, the sandal. Lucca was more versatile, producing both luxury cloths for the elite and fabrics of lower quality. Over the next two centuries, the art of weaving silk threads into cloths on large (broad) looms spread into many other Italian cities.
Italian dominance of the European export market was assured because the old knowledge of silk was being lost in Mediterranean Spain, with the crushing of knowledgeable Moors and Jews in the fifteenth century, and Northern European nations, including the English, had never known how to weave whole silk cloths on a broad loom. What English silk experts could do was to fashion the threads they bought on a much smaller piece of equipment called a narrow loom. With this they could twine lengths of braids, ribbons and cords for purses, girdles and trimmings. They also knew how to spin thread from raw silk, twist and plait the threads together, prepare gold and silver threads for the use of embroiderers, and make elaborate trimmings.
The fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks in 1453 put the European silk market still more firmly into Italian hands. While in the east traders explored new ways of getting their cloths to Europe, eventually settling on Turk-free cities in Syria as safe places for trading, Italian silk cloths reigned supreme. Italian silk accounted for one-third of all French imports in the early 16th century. Production of raw silk in Italy grew and surpassed older centres of sericulture such as Spain and the Near East.
This made for bitter resentment of the Italian merchants who controlled the trade secret of weaving silk, and could charge what they liked for their desirable luxury product. In London this took the shape of repeated anti-Italian riots against the community of “Lombards” living in the city and acting both as silk cloth salesmen and bankers to London mercers, who depended on the Italians for letters of credit to make large-scale purchases of silk cloth in the Low Countries and elsewhere. Dislike of the Italians was fuelled by the Lancastrian Henry VI’s resort to them for money, rather than give business to the English wool merchants who felt it was their due. Resentment of the Italian merchants for trying to sell small made-up silk goods too – the kind London silkwomen could make – was the last straw, and prompted several laws passed in the late fifteenth century to protect English workers from foreigners. One in 1455 that specified that “no wrought silk belonging to the mystery of silk women shall be brought into this realm by way of merchandise.” The law said: “it was shewed in said Parliament by the Silk Women and Spinsters of Silk within the City of London, that divers Lombards and other Aliens, Strangers, imagining to destroy their Crafts and all such virtuous occupations for Women within this land, to the intent to enrich themselves and put such occupations into other lands, daily bring into this realm wrought Silk, wrought Ribbands of silk and all manner of other things touching the same mysteries and Occupations ready wrought, and will not bring in any unwrought Silk, as these were wont to do, to the final destruction of the said mysteries and occupations. It is therefore ordained and established that all such goods, if brought in, shall be forfeited, and that every seller of them shall, for every default, forfeit ten pounds.” The act was extended eight years later, in 1463, and again in 1482 when the prohibition of wearing such foreign small silk goods was also added.
The Italian city states jealously guarded their trade secret, imposing fines and jail sentences on craftsmen who left their homes to travel abroad for too long, or without permits. But inevitably small groups of Italian masters did start spreading the knowledge to Spain, France and England. They were drawn abroad by the promises of foreign princes to give them loans, perks, tax breaks, monopolies on silk weaving and subsidies for up to 30 years – the time it could take to set up a successful industry. By the middle of the 15th century Italian silk artisans were in the largest Spanish cities. Ligurians and Tuscans went to Barcelona in 1451 and by 1476 there was a guild of Italian velvet weavers in Valencia. In France, spinners, dyers and weavers from Florence, Venice and Lombardy settled in Avignon in the middle of the 15th century and started making velvet. King Louis XI tried to set up a Genoese entrepreneur in Lyons with a shop for the production of silk cloths. But after the merchants of Lyons protested against being asked to cover the cost of the experiment, the King moved the silk workshop to Tours, a residence of the royal court. Seventeen artisans made the move. The workshop was still receiving royal subsidies 30 years after it was set up, when it was already relatively successful.
No Italians successfully passed on their knowledge of silk weaving to fifteenth-century London. But there are indications that at least one tried. A note of proceedings in Chancery in the reign of Edward IV lists the case of “George Damico, an Italian, v. John Burdean and others.” D’Amico had been granted a charter from the King and a house in Westminster and was to teach his craft to English apprentices. He had begun to work when a group of Italian merchants denounced him for trespassing and had him arrested. They were the entrepreneurs from Genoa, Lucca, Florence and Venice who dominated the English silk market. It was Lucchese merchants, too, who scared off the Italian Niccolo di Guido from Lyon, making such grave personal threats that he left the French city. The note of the proceedings against D’Amico explains that the “Plaintiff, because he has cunning and experience in weaving cloths of damask, velvets, cloth of gold and silver and other cloths of silk, by the King’s high commandment in a house assigned to him at Westminster, and instructs others in the same mystery, is arrested on several feigned actions of debt and trespass taken out against him by certain merchant Strangers, wherefore he prays a Corpus cum causa to be directed to the Sheriff of London.” There is no further record of D’Amico.