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Another, deeper dynamic was also at work in this period to challenge Bristol’s standing as a closed arena. So long as commerce was confined to a few markets in Europe or the nearby Atlantic possessions of the European powers, where only a limited range of export goods could be sold and where only those with established reputations and trading connections could flourish, the members of Bristol’s merchant elite could use the Society of Merchant Venturers to protect themselves from all but the most determined interlopers. But the emerging American trade could not be managed through a regulated trading company, since the colonies had such high demand for small wares and for labor. Moreover, many Englishmen with the necessary supplies and the desire to profit from them had kinfolk and friends among the colonists with whom they could deal confidently on credit. Under these conditions, attempts to regulate trade according to the models of the sixteenth century were doomed to failure.

Once this new reality had been recognized in Bristol, the terms of conflict between the Merchant Venturers and their rivals shifted. Since overseas commerce with the colonies could not be controlled by limiting access to the market, a concerted effort was made to raise the marginal costs of enterprise, at least for those engaged in the lucrative trade in servants. The requirement that every servant leaving Bristol for the American plantations have an indenture allowed the larger traders to compete more effectively against the small, with the goal of driving the part-time merchant completely out of the traffic. Although this effort proved unsuccessful, in large measure because illicit dealing was far too easy, it marked a major shift in understanding. Now, to be a merchant was no longer an issue of training and status but one of wealth. The market was to control who entered and who survived the competition for power and riches.

It was not the Merchant Venturers alone who had come to this conception of the economy. Among the sectaries, whose numbers swelled with small shopkeepers and craftsmen, it became a matter of religious conviction and political wisdom to trade in a free market. The urban market they knew was a regulated market, subject to the political control of those who governed the city. In the 1640s, these sectaries had fought to gain control over this system of regulation in order to make it more equitable. But by 1654 their efforts had failed, and they became the victims of the city government, especially after the Restoration. It now made better sense for them to seek a free market, where their economic successes could be achieved without political hindrance. This strategy was not only a defensive one. Those who argued for it saw in it a way to win support for their point of view as their economic success drew more and more of their old enemies into peaceful intercourse with them, converted many to the virtues of their views, and convinced the authorities to desist from their persecutions. In this competition the sectaries had some advantages. Among themselves they represented a closed community of known and trusted members whose word was their bond. They could mobilize capital and deal together on credit with confidence that their fellows would uphold their promises, thus providing the necessary competitive edge to overcome their rivals. As a result, many of them found it convenient to comply most of the time with the new regulations imposed on their trade. In the end, their views converged with those of their enemies, and the basis for settlement became apparent.

Between 1450 and 1700, therefore, Bristol had become, not only a port specializing in trans-Atlantic commerce, but a society organized after the same fashion as the newly emerging economic order. The city, which in the fifteenth century had been thought the microcosm of a world of harmonies and correspondences, was now for many a network of functional relations, subject to the laws of cause and effect. Just as dealers were to compete for buyers in a free market, ideas were to compete for acceptance and men for power in an open forum. As the gates of Bristol widened, the logic of life moved from a theologian’s dialectic to a political arithmetician’s calculus.

What made this development so significant was the way it reinforced the changes in Bristol’s life wrought by the widening of its economic gates. Bristol had always been a comparatively complex community. From the time it became a great center of cloth manufacture and trade in the high Middle Ages, it had depended on an intricate division of labor. Clothmaking, even in those early days, involved numerous stages of production, many of which were performed by specialists. Overseas commerce also depended on the work of numerous specialists. When combined, these two aspects of Bristol’s medieval economy produced a relatively complex occupational structure. With the collapse of the cloth trade and Bristol’s development as a regional center for imports, this pattern became even more complex. Between the 1530s and 1540s sixty-eight different trades are mentioned in Bristol’s apprentice book; by the late 1620s and early 1630s there are one hundred and four different trades.[46] Although it is impossible to be as precise for the years after 1650, when the apprentice records become much less reliable, it is clear that growth was continuous into the second half of the seventeenth century. New trades such as sugar-refining and tobacco-pipe– making appeared, while older crafts, particularly in metalworking and clothmaking, showed a greater division of labor. We even find such specialized arts as “Gingerbread maker.”[47] In consequence, by 1675 there might have been as many as one hundred and seventy-five or even two hundred recognized crafts within the city.[48] Even the merchants, who never quite became the specialists in wholesale enterprise that some thought desirable, exhibited such a division. Only a small number engaged in trade with all of Bristol’s markets. Most, especially those interested in colonial commerce, concentrated their efforts in only one or two places.

These changes signaled not only a greater complexity of social life within Bristol but a greater degree of integration between the city and the larger economy. Throughout our period Bristol was preeminently a center of distribution. Its role in England was largely to provide a transfer point for goods produced elsewhere, although of course many of its inhabitants devoted themselves to altering those goods in one way or another to make them more marketable. But the seventeenth century brought Bristol an increasingly intricate and specialized pattern of commercial relations, as well as more diverse commodities to buy and sell. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries the city had played a somewhat specialized role in trade with England’s possessions in France. If we visualize a map of commerce on which are recorded Bristol’s markets, with smaller or larger circles depending upon where its enterprise was most concentrated, there would be but few such circles, and only the one marking Bordeaux would be large in size. In this period Bristol’s trade rarely left the well-known ports of nearby France and northern Spain. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, however, the web of commerce was cast somewhat more widely, to cover the whole of the Iberian peninsula and the western Mediterranean, as well as the Atlantic islands off the African coast. Our map would show not only more circles but more large ones as well, as Bristol came to specialize in the commerce of southern Europe. Cádiz, San Lucar, Málaga, Marseilles, Toulon, Leghorn, Madeira, and the Canaries would now have to join San Sebastian and Bilbao and the ports of western France as Bristol’s main points of contact. By the end of the seventeenth century, this picture had changed again. Now the West Indies and the Chesapeake provided Bristol’s principal markets, although the city’s traders never lost interest in their older markets. Hence Bristol’s trade increased in density and complexity with its increasing concentration upon American colonial commerce.

As the development of Bristol’s commerce resulted in a wider and more intricate network of markets, with both an increased concentration of enterprise and a greater number of significant points of contact, the city’s place in the domestic economy underwent specialization of another sort. We can see the changing pattern by looking at the locations from which the city recruited its apprentices. Apprentices usually followed trade routes in seeking service; they made their contacts in those places with which their families had connections. In the early sixteenth century Bristol drew its apprentices from nearly everywhere in England. The main concentrations were in the nearby counties, but many came from the Midlands and there were even a number from the north of England and from East Anglia and the home counties. By the early seventeenth century, the percentages of apprentices coming from distant places had shrunk drastically. Nearly all now came from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset, the Severn Valley, and South Wales, and this pattern persisted into the later seventeenth century.[49] In other words, as trade became denser and more diverse, Bristol’s hinterland became more clearly circumscribed, and the city moved from its indefinite place as England’s second port, a ranking that could only pale in the face of London’s vastly greater trade, to being what W. E. Minchinton has called “the metropolis of the West,” a center serving as the focus for the region’s economy.[50]

These changes in Bristol’s foreign and domestic commerce defined a particular function for it in an increasingly elaborate and interdependent economic order. They meant that Bristol’s prosperity was grounded more firmly in the health of the national economy and in the nation’s ability to protect its trading interests abroad. Moreover, this link between political and economic developments grew stronger in the period. In the sixteenth or the early seventeenth century it was far from unusual for Bristolians to recognize that their welfare depended on national policy and to seek to influence that policy accordingly. The Society of Merchant Venturers existed in part for just such a purpose. By the early 1620s, men like John Guy were well aware that their own prosperity could be deeply affected by economic actions taken in places with which they had no direct trading contact.[51] But John Guy’s memorandum on the crisis of the 1620s was only the forerunner of Charles Marshall’s and John Cary’s more systematic contributions to economic understanding. Guy implicitly recognized that economics and politics were inextricably connected. Later Marshall argued much more directly that economics could be used to direct the power of the state, and Cary wrote in the belief that proper public policy could improve the economy. Increasing interdependence meant that it was not sufficient to look to one’s own narrow interests in devising cures for problems. They now required systematic remedies. Since general solutions could only be political ones, political complexity grew as the economy developed.

It is a commonplace of historical study to conceive of social change according to one of two models: that of entropy, or that of evolution. For those who shared Roger Edgeworth’s and John Browne’s conservative sensibility, change meant declension, a move from order to chaos. For those of John Cary’s outlook, change held the hope of redemption. It brought a possible perfection of order as society moved from amorphous homogeneity to greater organization. Students of the early modern period have usually favored one of these views, either despairing at the loss of community or delighting in the improvement of the age. The story we have told about Bristol, however, has been ecological in character, concerned with the relationship between the city understood as a social organism and its environment. It presents a narrative of change from one kind of complexity to another—from a complexity based on the city’s political integration with the state to a complexity based also on its integration into the emerging Atlantic economy.


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