In the early Middle Ages, when Bristol’s Gild Merchant was transforming the borough into an effective corporate body, the principal line of tension in the city was between its sworn brotherhood of freemen and all non-freemen, that is, between those who enjoyed the liberty to trade freely by retail within the borough and those, whether inhabitant or stranger, who did not. Until the fourteenth century the freemen had a certain unity, despite differences in wealth and power among them, because they had to define themselves against dangers that came to the borough from outside, including threats from the Crown to Bristol’s political independence. By the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, however, the fabric of social life had begun to alter, as various stages of cloth production migrated into the countryside, as the trade in woolens looked more and more to foreign markets, as a class of merchant entrepreneurs differentiated themselves from the other members of the old mercantile community, and as local governance fell into the hands of the borough’s “better and more worthy men” serving on a select council. Moreover, after Bristol had achieved a form of incorporation in 1373, relations between freemen and non-freemen became somewhat less problematic, and the principal focus of the city’s political life turned from protecting the independence of the borough to regulating relations among the freemen. In this era, more than before, the burgesses of Bristol lived according to the ideals of social unity but the realities of social division. They bound themselves in a compact body by oaths promising complete devotion to the city’s commonweal and thorough commitment of their wealth and power to its aid. Yet they resided in a town whose topography segregated them into distinct neighborhoods and whose economy placed them in separate social groupings.
The celebrations of the Feast of St. Clement, patron of the mariners and merchants, on 23 November, and of the Feast of St. Katherine of Alexandria, patroness of the weavers, two days later, were very much a product of this later period. Although there was a chapel dedicated to St. Katherine in Temple Church from 1299, and a gild of weavers from at least the 1340s—and probably a good deal earlier—the grant of the first indulgences to the gild for its chapel dates only from 1384, and the chapel itself became a permanent chantry only in 1392. It is in this same period, that is, the middle and late fourteenth century, that the city acquired its Common Council. Thus it is unlikely that St. Katherine’s Day could have received an elaborate official celebration— gaging both the gild and the civic leadership—before the mid-fourteenth century. About St. Clement’s Day we can be somewhat more definite. The chapel and gild associated with him were founded only in 1445 or 1446. Hence to grasp the significance of this pair of feast days, we must begin with the peculiarities of late medieval Bristol.
Bristol was first and foremost a river port, located at the confluence of the Avon and the Frome, which, in the words of John Leland, “dothe peninsulate the towne.” In consequence, the urban territory in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was divided into three separate segments. In the center, between the two rivers, there were eight small and three large parishes, all completely built up. To the east and south of the Avon, across the bridge that had given Bristol its name, lay three relatively large and also well-inhabited parishes. By the fifteenth century, Bristol also extended to the west and north in an arc of important suburbs beyond its old medieval walls (Figure 3). Jurisdictional considerations further increased this complexity. Until 1373 the river Avon divided the city legally, politically, and administratively, as well as geographically. On its western and northern bank, it lay in the county of Gloucester; on its eastern and southern bank, it lay in Somerset. Moreover, even after Bristol became a county in its own right in 1373, it still stood in two different dioceses, with the fifteen parishes west and north of the Avon subject to the bishop of Worcester and the three parishes to its east and south under the authority of the bishop of Bath and Wells.
Fig. 3. Bristol’s Ecclesiastical Geography, ca. 1500.