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The evolution we have described did not occur in an economic vacuum. In large part it was the consequence of the growing complexity of trade and industry in the sixteenth century. Where once a single tradesman united in his own person the production and the distribution of goods, distinct categories of entrepreneur had emerged to perform these services. This process was accompanied by the development of what George Unwin has identified as “three different capital functions” which distinguished the dealer in foreign wares, the overseas trader, and the industrial entrepreneur, who competed with each other to “secure the economic advantage of standing between the rest and the market.”[78] In place of an economy in which every operating unit was a near-replica of every other, there came about a new economic order composed of specialized and interlocking elements. In it the merchant, with his command of credit, access to shipping, and connections in distant markets, was usually able to dominate both the producer and the retailer.

However, these developments were not uncontested. They arose because of the ability of Bristol’s mere merchants to control the city’s government and to use their influence with the Crown as extra-economic resources which in times of genuine economic crisis could be called on for assistance. But what sprang from politics could be countered by politics. Roger Edgeworth, preaching at the time of the Society’s foundation, saw it even at this early moment as a source of dissension in the city. Speaking of the need for unity in the body politic, he told Bristolians:

You haue in this citie erect a certain confederacie, which you call the companye, I pray God it may do well, but I perceiue a certaine mundanitie in it, a worldly couetouse caste to bring the gaines that was undifferent & common to al the marchaunts of this citie into the handes of a fewe persones. Wherefore good neyghbours, loue the whole brotherhed & vniuersal companie of Christes faithful people, diuide it not, & if there be any cantel broken out, pray for them that thei may returne and come home againe to the great flocke and congregation of Christian people, and that they may hereafter loue the whole fraternitie.[79]


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