previous chapter
Organizing the Society
next section

The earliest stage in this development corresponds to the period of the Gild Merchant, which consisted of all tradesmen of a particular borough. Such a gild is known to have existed in Bristol in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Gild Merchant was an exclusive society whose constitution preserved to its sworn membership the main economic privilege possessed by a chartered borough—the freedom to buy and sell without paying local customs and tolls. Retail trade was its primary concern, and no distinction was made between overseas traders and those who limited themselves merely to buying and selling in the marketplace or keeping shops. Strictly speaking, the gild consisted of one class of individuals, all of whom possessed the same trading rights, and every gildsman was potentially, if not actually, an overseas merchant. The later Middle Ages, however, witnessed a sharp narrowing of the definition. First to be excluded were those poorer elements who used their trading privileges to “color” strangers’ goods under the aegis of their own membership in the borough. Ousted next were the craftsmen, including middlemen and entrepreneurs. Finally the line was drawn between the merchant retailer and the mere merchant.[76]

The development of commercial organization in Bristol followed this pattern closely. In the fourteenth century it had been textile manufacturers, such as Thomas Blanket and William Canynges the Elder, who were Bristol’s leading men. But after the mid-fifteenth century, the history of the merchant community was marked by an accelerating process of exclusion, as a class of merchant dealers who specialized in overseas trade began to differentiate themselves from these industrial entrepreneurs. As late as 1467, however, no challenge was offered to the claims of all Bristol freemen to trade overseas on their own behalf. But in 1500, when Bristol was still a major cloth exporter, this new group of merchant adventurers, as they then began to call themselves, attempted to exclude the city’s clothiers from foreign commerce by prohibiting their fellows from delivering cloth abroad for nonmembers and by permitting mariners to ship no more than three whole cloths in their own name.[77] Nevertheless, at this time no distinction was made between mere merchants and merchant retailers. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the focus was on the growing rivalry between large-scale wholesalers and prominent shopkeepers as well as clothiers and other manufacturers. Many merchants wished to exclude the latter groups from direct participation in foreign trade.

From the start these moves involved an intricate interplay of political choice and socioeconomic development. The establishment of new trading relations among merchants and between them and the rest of Bristol society led to the foundation of the Society of Merchant Venturers to provide common regulations and political protection for mere merchants. The Society, in turn, helped to crystallize the new trading practices and social and economic arrangements into a form of social organization for the city. It is hard to escape the sense that the increased rigidity of the occupational groupings we have observed in our study of social mobility and the growing differences in social background between the merchants and the rest of Bristol society were the consequence, perhaps only partially intended, of the development of the Merchant Venturers. The establishment of this company brought the mere merchants together in new ways, gave them common interests, and made it both easier and more desirable to form family alliances among the membership. As these overseas traders grew in wealth and power after 1552, they became a focus for gentry from Bristol’s hinterland who desired lucrative and influential positions for their younger sons, and for merchants from other cities who wanted to establish a foothold for themselves in this increasingly prosperous merchant community.


previous chapter
Organizing the Society
next section