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Although we are reasonably certain of who exercised authority in Bristol, we are less clear about what it meant for them to do so and how their understanding of their roles might have changed during the reigns of the Tudors and the first two Stuarts. By any standard, authority is a deeply ambiguous concept.[13] It can refer in a variety of ways to rights. Someone in authority has the right to act and to be obeyed within his jurisdiction. He is at liberty to act, but he need not do so every time the opportunity arises. In terms of rights, authority is a legalistic concept, and we often speak of those holding it as having “legal” or “constitutional” authority. But “authority” can also refer in a variety of ways to capacities or powers. Someone who is exceptionally competent in a given realm is an authority: he has the power to produce results. Through his reputation for expertise he also has the title to be believed and the capacity to influence the opinions and judgments of others. In this way he exercises power over their conduct or action, and he is said to have “moral” authority. His authority not only enables him to act within his areas of competence, but imposes upon him the duty to do so. As an authority he has an obligation to perform right actions; he is not morally free to use his skills on some occasions and to withhold them on others.

For some purposes these two ideas complement one another. He who authorizes an action has a right; he who is authorized has a duty. The former works autonomously to perform as he chooses in the realm in which he is entitled to act. The latter works for the good or the interest of those who have granted him his power, and he must perform this service if he is to meet his obligation to them. This formulation, however, assumes that the fundamental unit of analysis is the individual and that the fundamental question is how individuals come to accept authority. It neglects the way the very concept of authority presupposes the existence of community. It is not enough to claim authority for oneself; it is also necessary that it be recognized by others according to some mutually agreed-upon rules. Otherwise, one is applying force, not exercising authority.[14]

The problem of community proves just as troubling as the problem of authority, since communities are not all of the same type. We can speak with equal clarity of linguistic communities, where large numbers of people residing in different countries share the same tongue, and academic communities, where small numbers working in the same institution pursue common goals in their various disciplines. But to modern social scientists and historians the term has come to distinguish tight-knit collectivities of people living in close proximity in village or town, separated from the larger society and the state. In keeping with this kind of understanding, it is often assumed that authority in a community is what Max Weber called “traditional authority,” that is, authority that rests on “an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising authority under them.” Here is where “moral authority” holds sway. Authority in a more broadly gauged modern society is what Weber called “legal authority,” that is, authority that rests on “a belief in the ‘legality’ of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands.”[15] In this interpretive scheme, the early modern period is often treated as the time when the second type of authority first took hold. It is widely considered to be the era that saw the rise of the bureaucratic state and that consequently produced the inevitable collisions between society and the state. But this new rational form of authority, the interpretation goes, did not succeed all at once. Instead it made itself felt initially only in certain advanced political settings, namely, the great cities of Italy and the courts of the great northern monarchs. The provinces, and especially the provincial towns, remained centers of the older, sanctified forms of authority, subject to the predatory challenges of power-mongering state officials.[16]

But no one living in an early modern English town could have made the distinctions between community and society or traditional and legal authority upon which such an interpretation depends. As used in modern scholarship, these are terms of art. They may help us locate ourselves amid the complexities we study, but they do so by obscuring the uncertainties and ambiguities with which contemporaries lived. They make it difficult to see how those who experienced the changes understood them. If we are to grasp this reality, we must turn our attention to the ways that ideas of authority were represented at the time. In the provincial towns authority was present at every turn, but on certain festive occasions—at the annual election of the mayor, for example—it received particular notice by the townsmen. Here ideas, so difficult to come by in words, were revealed in gestures and actions.


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