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In Henry VIII’s reign the population of Bristol had stood at about ninety-five hundred or ten thousand persons, not far different from what it had probably been in the aftermath of the Black Death in the fourteenth century.[52] Late in Elizabeth I’s reign it began to grow, and by the beginning of James I’s reign it had reached twelve thousand or perhaps even a bit higher. In the early 1670s it seems to have been about sixteen thousand, and at the end of the seventeenth century it had exceeded twenty thousand. In other words, the period we have studied shows about a 25 percent increase in population in Elizabeth’s reign, a further 33 percent during the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century, and yet another 25 percent in its last quarter. The next century witnessed a doubling in size, as Bristol’s built-up area burst beyond the boundaries of the medieval city and spread into the surrounding countryside.[53] This history sets the seventeenth century apart as the beginning of a new period in Bristol’s long-term development. No longer was its population essentially stable in size, with every increase in the number of inhabitants almost immediately cut back by epidemic disease, as had happened periodically from the late fourteenth to the late sixteenth century. Even the great plague that killed between twenty-five hundred and three thousand Bristolians in 1603 and 1604 was unable to stop the steady growth of the city. Within five years the population had already made up between 50 and 75 percent of the loss. A second great plague in 1645, which killed three thousand inhabitants in the course of the New Model Army’s siege of the city in that year, also resulted in a rapid recovery. By 1600 Bristol had become a city of ever-expanding numbers, growing in size slowly at first but with increasing momentum. In 1700 it was twice as large as it had been in 1550.[54]

The face of Bristol was transformed as a consequence of this rapid population growth. We have already seen William Smith’s map of Bristol (Figure 1), which he sketched on his visit there in July 1568. It gives an aerial view of the city as it would be seen moving from southwest to northeast. About a century later, James Millerd, a mercer by occupation, executed a detailed plan of Bristol, drawn to scale, giving a similar bird’s-eye view of the city in the early 1670s (Figure 6).[55] Smith’s map shows us a city still largely contained within its medieval walls. To the north, there are large open spaces near the Cathedral and on St. Michael’s Hill; to the east, the Castle still stands as a fortress and the streets running near its walls are only sparsely settled. The Avon Marsh to the west is also relatively undeveloped, as are the lands just beyond Redcliffe and Temple gates. A large amount of open space also remains inside the walls. Throughout the city, in the central parishes as well as the southern ones, were scattered numerous gardens and orchards as well as large expanses of vacant ground, especially along the marshy areas on the river banks. The walls built in Henry III’s reign to allow for growth still left room for substantial development.

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Fig. 6. James Millerd’s View of Bristol, 1673.
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In contrast to this small and seemingly underpopulated city of 1568, Millerd’s Bristol is a large and thriving center. Although only about a third of the city’s territory is substantially built up, and large expanses of vacant land are still to be seen in the Avon Marsh and in the southern parishes, the city center is now fully developed, the Castle has been replaced by a thriving city district, and the extramural districts all show a large number of dwellings. Both Redcliffe and Temple to the south have greatly expanded beyond the old walls. Still more densely occupied are St. Michael’s Hill and the neighborhood around the Cathedral, which seem to have been transformed from thinly populated, almost rural parishes to burgeoning urban districts. The Avon Marsh has also begun a new life; not only has it been carefully landscaped, but King Street has changed from a mere pathway below the city wall into a thoroughfare with handsome houses on both sides. But the most dramatic changes occurred in the parishes to the east of the Castle. Numerous gardens and orchards are still interspersed among the dwellings, but the Old Market, Broadmead, and Horsefair have all become significant new neighborhoods. Most of this expansion beyond the city walls can be dated to the second half of the seventeenth century, following Oliver Cromwell’s demolition of the Castle in the mid-1650s.[56] This picture is confirmed by the hearth tax records of 1671.[57] Again we see evidence of considerable growth in the transpontine and suburban districts. In the early sixteenth century only about 45 percent of Bristol’s population lived in these neighborhoods; at the later date almost 60 percent did so. There were also great gains in the north and east of the city. In 1524 only about 23 percent of Bristolians had resided there. In 1671 almost 35 percent did so, with the largest increase coming in the neighborhoods to the east of the city center.

Hearth tax records also allow us to see something of the distribution of wealth in the city. As in the early sixteenth century, the central and portside parishes were still the richest, but they no longer dominated the city as they once had. In 1524 they accounted for about 54 percent of its taxable wealth; in 1671 the figure was only 44 percent. In addition, the rank ordering of the neighborhoods had shifted. In 1524 the suburban districts were the poorest in the city, judged by mean assessments. In 1671 the transpontine parishes held this position. The portside wards came next. Taxpayers from the rapidly developing suburban neighborhoods now ranked second, behind those in the city center, in the average number of hearths on which they were obliged to pay taxes. The distribution of poverty through the city also shows a striking pattern, although here we cannot make a comparison to the figures for 1524, since the sixteenth-century subsidy rolls for that year did not note the number of paupers in each district. The hearth tax listings for 1671 show that about 20 percent of the city’s population were paupers by the standards of the assessors of the tax. The city center harbored the smallest share of these poor; less than 13 percent of its inhabitants were classified as paupers in this year. The next smallest proportion, amounting to just 16 percent, is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, in the transpontine neighborhoods. Both the portside and the suburban districts had relatively high levels of poverty, with the poor making up just over 19 percent of the population of the former and about 22 percent of the latter.

By 1671, then, Bristol had a social composition rather different from what we observed for the early sixteenth century. In the center we still find high concentrations of the rich and relatively small numbers of the poor. In the transpontine parishes we find a far narrower range of social types living in close proximity. Judging by the numbers of hearths possessed by each group in this district, those able to pay taxes inhabited dwellings not very much larger than those who could not. In these two parts of the city, little seems to have changed in the distribution of wealth from what we saw in 1524, although the evidence suggests that there was perhaps a decline in the number of independent craftsmen and shopkeepers in the transpontine district from the levels of a hundred and fifty years before. In the portside and suburban districts, however, the pattern had broken with the past. There we see significant concentrations both of the well-to-do and of the poor. However, subtle differences also appeared between these two sections of the city. In the portside parishes, where many merchants still resided, the houses of taxpayers were on the whole somewhat larger than in the suburban neighborhoods. In the newly formed Castle district and the other neighborhoods to the east of the city center especially, a picture emerges of a district with a heavy concentration of middling men and women—shopkeepers and artisans—living comfortably but not quite as well as the merchants and ship owners who resided near the port facilities and in the Avon Marsh.

The Restoration period also gave Bristol’s religious geography a new face. To a surprising degree, its dissenting communities concentrated themselves in the districts experiencing new growth. By the 1670s the Baptists had meetinghouses in Broadmead, in the vicinity of the Old Market to the east of the city center, and at the Pithay, near the south bank of the Froome to the northwest of the center. The Quakers, who once had occupied the Broadmead, now had two meetings: one near the Old Market in the Friary in St. James’s, and the other across the Avon in Temple Street. The Congregationalists had a chapel in Castle Street in the heart of the newly formed Castle ward and also met at a house on Philip Street nearby; Presbyterian congregations gathered at John Lloyd’s house on St. James Back, also near the Castle and the Old Market, and at Jeremy Holwey’s house in Corn Street in the city center.[58] Along with the separatists who attended services exclusively at these places, there were almost certainly also occasional conformists to Anglicanism and numerous other laymen who sought spiritual comfort and religious guidance from conformist and nonconformist ministers alike and who would have swelled the attendance at these dissenting meetings from time to time.

According to the surviving figures from the so-called Compton census of 1676, which attempted to tally the number of dissenters over sixteen years of age in each parish, about 11 percent of the city’s population were nonconformists. This figure probably understates the true total, since the Bristol returns are fragmentary and inconsistent in their presentation of the results. Nevertheless, judged by the results for the census as a whole, this was a high figure, since in the province of Canterbury the census showed dissenters to have amounted to only slightly over 4 percent of the entire population. For the diocese of Bristol, excluding the city of Bristol proper, the figure was between 2.5 and 3 percent. Not surprisingly, the heaviest concentrations of the city’s nonconformists came from the neighborhoods in which we find the churches, chapels, and meetinghouses of the dissenting sects.[59] According to the census, about 13.5 percent of the population of the transpontine and suburban districts were dissenters, with the areas around the Castle holding the largest numbers; only about 8.5 percent of the inhabitants of the center and portside neighborhoods were so designated, with the two portside parishes having the smallest share—each with less than 5 percent. Although the city’s old parish structure remained intact, the uniformity it had represented was shattered beyond repair. Bristol was now as complex a place in spirit as it was in economics, politics, and social organization.[60]

We can now return to the image with which we opened our story, the image of the castle and the gate. The early modern English city was always something of both: a stronghold with a distinctive way of life, and a point of communication and exchange. From one perspective, its Guildhall and law courts were its center and its high walls its symbol. They gave tangible form to its existence as a community, a body politic. However, from another point of view, its life focused on the boundaries where this community connected with the larger world. This was as it must be, for every boundary is potentially also a threshold; it is marked not only by barriers but by passing places. Indeed, there could be no meaningful frontier to separate friend from enemy or kindred from stranger without there also being figures who would traverse it. Only in the presence of outsiders do boundaries become necessary; and just as a world of infinite abundance would need no economics, a homogeneous world would be a boundless one.

The ancient Greeks viewed the god Hermes as both the protector of boundaries and the patron of the professional boundary-crossers. He guarded the home ground, making it safe against danger from outsiders, and aided merchants and others who went abroad to trade.[61] In his dual nature he captured the paradoxical character of trade before modern times. Since all commerce depended on the fragility of credit, its practitioners necessarily concerned themselves with the reduction of risk. The common method was to rely on highly restricted credit networks, entrance into which was limited to those of known reputation. Good fame and good name, established through long association with other traders, alone sufficed to guarantee trustworthiness. In this respect a trading community was a closed fellowship that distinguished between brothers, who enjoyed the privileges of full membership, and strangers, who either were required to pay a premium to participate or were excluded entirely. In the high Middle Ages whole towns had operated on this principle. Later, specialized groups of tradesmen, eventually including long-distance merchants, adopted the same idea to protect themselves even from fellow townsmen. But to trade meant to reach beyond one’s own borders, not only to move goods but to participate, at least briefly, in communities where the trader was himself a stranger. For this reason many in early modern England viewed the trader’s activity with skepticism, since his mobility raised doubts about his stake in his home community. By its very nature, a merchant’s life could never be a purely local one.[62]

These conditions left merchants in a state of constant tension, since they could not easily find safe methods for securing their wealth. Even in the sixteenth century, large-scale industry with its demands for fixed capital investment hardly existed, and trade itself was still little more than an adjunct to agriculture. In the absence of banking institutions and of a well-established market in stocks and government debt, traders could do little more than buy property, an opportunity open to only a few. Hence a trader’s commercial investments usually represented the vast majority of his wealth, and it was necessary to turn them over continuously if he was to survive. By the end of the sixteenth century, these severely restrained conditions began to ease somewhat for the Bristolians, as they moved into a wider world of commerce and as domestic trade and industry grew larger and more sophisticated. More opportunities became available for successful enterprise.

Yet the story is far from an epic of victorious expansion. Not only were there periodic crises that affected everyone and highly unstable markets that required constant vigilance, but the lives of individual artisans and merchants were subject to unpredictable disasters, for trade was an inherently uncertain undertaking. No matter how cautious or wealthy the entrepreneur, a great variety of events, often of the most prosaic kind, stood ready to disrupt his affairs and threaten his business establishment. The vicissitudes of wind and weather could destroy his fortune overnight, or the bankruptcy of a customer could create havoc with his own credit.

This dialogue between the need for security and the desire for expansion provided the prime stimulus for development in early modern commercial society. There was no ready and easy way to resolve the tension. Enterprise entailed risk, and no system of security could entirely remove that risk. Moreover, as commercial contacts grew and the market increased accordingly in scope and scale, it became more difficult to control trading activity through coercive organization. Neither the trading fellowship nor the state was sufficient to provide the discipline, especially the credit discipline, necessary for stability. What was needed was a new set of moral imperatives that impelled traders not merely to pursue gain but to pay debts. It has been the argument of this book that the rise of capitalism results as much from changes of this kind in the trader’s spirit as from new developments in the external circumstances in which he worked.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism rightly holds the preeminent place in the study of religion’s relationship to the rise of modern capitalism; he framed the questions and set the agenda for an ongoing and fruitful field of scholarship.[63] For eighty years now, the Protestant work ethic has been revisited time and again by historians of nearly every intellectual bent and ideological persuasion. In the main, this outpouring of research has examined the psychological effects of Protestant, and especially Calvinist, teachings on economic behavior, either to show how it impelled some groups to a single-minded pursuit of investment and production or to deny that it played any such role. Albert O. Hirschman, however, has offered another perspective. “Weber,” he says,

claims that capitalistic behavior and activities were the indirect (and originally unintended) result of a desperate search for individual salvation. My claim is that the diffusion of capitalist forms owed much to an equally desperate search for avoiding society’s ruin, permanently threatening at the time because of precarious arrangements for internal and external order. Clearly both claims could be valid at the same time: one relates to the motivations of the aspiring new elites, the other to those of various gatekeepers.[64]

But the theorists to whom Hirschman and other scholars have referred are not the only figures in the period to make “political arguments for capitalism before its triumph.”[65] As we have seen, the English dissenters made a similar argument, but for a very different purpose. In response to a political challenge that would have crushed them if it could, they advocated a free market, not so much because it would yield universal peace, but because it would bring them universal victory. Only as they found relief from their persecution and made their way in the world did their ideas begin to coincide with those of the “intellectual, managerial, and administrative elite” whom Hirschman properly calls the gatekeepers.[66] The success of the dissenters, moreover, depended as much on their social connections and religious institutions as on their ideology. Their family and business ties, their inability to deal on a large scale with creditors from outside their sects, and their reliance upon their meetings for moral guidance and economic assistance all gave material support to the doctrines of hard work and frugality in which they believed. Ideas and institutions went hand in hand to transform individual psychology into a social force.

Weber and his followers missed this political, social, and institutional framework for religion’s contribution to capitalism. They emphasized only the relation of religious belief to the spirit that underpinned the economy. According to them, Protestant thought, especially English Puritanism and nonconformity, promoted a moral commitment to hard work and achievement and thus led a Protestant to improve his property and to invest his profits, which made for business success in an expanding economy. Most of Weber’s critics have concentrated on this argument, pointing out that, far from encouraging moneymaking, Puritans, like their medieval predecessors, condemned as covetousness the pursuit of private profit. According to this view, only with the Restoration did Englishmen, including the Puritans, come to see the striving entrepreneur as anything but an upstart and a danger. As Paul Seaver has pointed out, however, there is also a third position, namely, that many religious-minded merchants and tradesmen

may have heard the Puritan message in its fullness, have accepted its strictures regarding the temptations and dangers of economic enterprise, and have perceived no contradiction between the values preached and their business practices, because what was in fact preached was supportive of, rather than at variance with, their way of life.[67]

This religion of Protestants, especially in the form of Puritanism and nonconformity, well served the kind of economic world in which the men and women of the early modern period found themselves. For those like the merchant John Whitson in the 1620s or the apothecary Charles Marshall in the 1670s, true Christianity stressed the importance of things higher than worldly wealth. They envisioned life on earth as a struggle to overcome obstacles and resist temptation; final triumph would come in the next world, not this. Disaster, if it occurred, was a test to be met and defeated. In the meantime every possible precaution was to be taken to prevent it. The sense of perspective and duty, reinforced by religious institutions and social networks, gave the pre–Civil War Puritans and the Restoration Baptists and Quakers advantages in the seventeenth century that others lacked. They lived in an economy fraught with danger and risk, but their religious confidence, their personal sobriety and frugality, and their reliance on their brethren’s guidance and assistance gave them the strength to bear whatever came to them.


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