Regulating the Silk Trade in Early Modern Lyon

By Jamie Cumby |

This week’s item is a pamphlet describing the first set of ordinances to regulate the manufacture of luxury textiles in Lyon.  In addition to being a great example of early modern trade protectionism, Lyon’s silk industry was one of the city’s biggest employers.  This royal act, printed by the Lyon master-printer Jean Pullon in 1554, bears a descriptive title typical of these kinds of ordinances:

Ordonnance, & reiglement touchant l’art & manifacture des draps d’or, d’argent & de soye qui se feront en la ville de Lyon & fauxbourgs d’icelle, & de tout le pais de Lyonnois, ottroyez par le roy Henry second de ce nom.

(Ordinance & ruling on the art and manufacture of gold cloth, silver cloth, and silk that is made in the city and suburbs of Lyon, and the entire Lyonnais province, ordered by the king Henry II).

The only copy recorded in the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC 83352) survives at one of our library partners, the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center (FC55 F8448S 554o), which also hosts a digital facsimile.


Silk weavers ordinance from Lyon, title page
Title page with the Royal arms of France.


Lyon’s textile industry, which would later yield revolutionary innovations in loom technology, started on its path to prominence with official sponsorship by Francis I in 1536.  The crown’s original motive, which the language of this ordinance echoes, had been to create a domestic source for luxury fabric that would take the place of foreign, especially Genoese, silk.  To try and encourage workers to take up the new industry, the king created generous incentives in the form of tax breaks and deregulation.

Francis’ venture was incredibly successful, and Lyon was home to some 12,000 silk workers by 1554.  However, the popularity of the new industry, coupled with its almost complete absence of regulation, led to some serious workplace disputes.  The 1554 Ordonnance & reiglement concerning Lyon’s silk manufacturing was a collection of responses to these disputes, which the local city council and seneschal had been fielding since 1536.  They outline a number of common wrongdoings, along with appropriate punishments. The ordinance also established a body of four elected officials from the ranks of the city’s silk workers to inspect workshops and settle complaints.  One regulation forbade tavern keepers, bakers, and similar tradesmen from accepting raw silk as temporary credit.  Apparently, journeymen silk workers had been using the raw materials sent to them by master weavers to pay for rounds of drinks!

Pamphlets like this one were the standard format for printed ordinances in sixteenth-century France.  They were a way to disseminate new laws, announcements, and regulations that harnessed print’s ability to issue multiple identical copies quickly.  It was not unusual to see ordinances regulating France’s trades in the sixteenth century.  But, unlike other royal acts that had wider applications across the kingdom, this particular set of ordinances was specific to Lyon and the surrounding Lyonnais province.   Ordinances that applied across the kingdom, like censorship legislation, were often first issued in Paris, and then reprinted by a variety of smaller, provincial presses for local markets.  In this case, there was only one known printed edition of these ordinances, of which the University of Pennsylvania copy is a very rare survivor!

Printers who issued royal ordinances in sixteenth-century France were free to format their editions as they saw fit, though many shared similar style conventions.  In this case, Jean Pullon eschewed his own printer’s mark in favor of displaying the royal arms of France on the title page (above), and the arms of Lyon in lieu of a colophon. (img 2) (img 3 – pullon’s mark, from USTC, gallica link )


The arms of Lyon in the colophon
The arms of Lyon in lieu of a colophon.


Pullon's normal printer's device
Pullon’s printer’s device was omitted from the ordinance.


Like many French ordinance printers in the years before the Wars of Religion, Pullon was not an officially-sponsored imprimeur du roi.  Rather, he would have been authorized to print the ordinance by local governing bodies.  He likely printed this as a piece of “jobbing” work to help his press remain solvent while he printed larger works on commission for Lyon’s many merchant publishers.  In contrast to a massive folio law book, this octavo pamphlet only needed one and a half sheets of paper per copy (12 leaves), and would have been a good way to earn some ready money.

The copy at the University of Pennsylvania is free from most signs of wear, though, as you can see from the digital copy, the pages have been closely trimmed by a binder. Its simple vellum binding does not give many clues about this copy’s former owners, and it has been rebound at least once since the sixteenth century.  In this case, it seems that the same factors that make it a provenance mystery have helped keep this ephemeral piece of economic history safe from the ravages of time.


Closeup of trimmed pages
The pages of UPenn’s copy have been trimmed.


We can learn a number of things from this pamphlet, not least being the text of the printed ordinance itself.   As the ordinance states, all of Lyon’s master silk weavers were required to display signs reproducing the new regulations in their shops.  This was an important document that, by law, was to be heavily used.  Its rarity gives us a glimpse of that use, in addition to being a valuable piece of early modern official print.


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Jamie Cumby is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.  She is currently a Senior Editor on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, and has been affiliated with the USTC project since beginning her PhD in 2014.  Her ongoing work explores the development of the publishing industry in Lyon before the Wars of Religion, with special attention to the Compagnie des libraires.  She is also St Andrews’ contributor to the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. You can follow her on Twitter at @JECumby.


Images: Pullon’s printer’s device is from the digital edition on Gallica (USTC 116008). All other images are used with permission from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts (FC55 F8448S 554o).

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