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The forms of overseas commercial enterprise prevalent in sixteenthand early seventeenth-century Bristol would have been quite familiar to the city’s late medieval merchants. The factor, the partnership, the existence of shares in ships, and the dependence on credit that characterized the businesses of Smythe, Aldworth, and Whitson were already well-known in the fifteenth century. What was new was the degree to which the forms had become elaborated over a wide network of trade in a variety of different markets. Because of their relatively unstructured character, these older institutions had proven admirably adaptable to new commercial conditions. For Bristol’s overseas trade, the early modern era had been born without revolutionary changes in accepted practices. But the same cannot be said for the organization of the domestic economy. Here shifts in business arrangements redefined the relationship of trade to the economy and recast the social structure of the city.

We can see the clearest signs of these changes in the ways that the merchants’ relations with the domestic market altered in the sixteenth century. The city’s ancient rules for dealing with strangers required them to bring their goods to a central place to be weighed, to have toll paid, and to be sold only to burgesses, by wholesale, not retail. After 1459, the place settled upon was Spicer’s Hall, named after Richard Spicer, who had given it to the city; later it was called the Backhall. There all persons not burgesses were to bring their woad, woolen cloth, wine, and grocery wares. Sales of livestock and goods were also subject to toll and were to be conducted only in the established open markets and at fixed hours. Private dealings between strangers and burgesses were forbidden; instead, every citizen was to have an equal opportunity to view and purchase the goods. But by the mid-sixteenth century these rules were no more than an ideal continually appealed to but regularly violated. In the 1530s and 1540s, for example, John Smythe maintained close ties with a number of country cloth manufacturers who sold exclusively to him in return for the oil, alum, woad, madder, and other dyestuffs he provided them. His chief supplier, John Yerberry of Bruton, clothier, was even paid directly in woad for his fabrics. Smythe also undertook to finish cloth himself, taking unfinished fabrics from country clothiers and employing Bristol shearmen, tuckers, and dyers to ready it for market. As a result of practices like these, the Backhall was moribund in the sixteenth century, used more for weighing and warehousing goods than for regulating their sale.[55]

The history of the Bristol fairs reveals the same story. The fairs of medieval Bristol, of which there were as many as eight at one time or another, were great open marketplaces. Tolls and customs were suspended to encourage strangers and foreigners to bring their “goodes cattell and merchandiszes” to them. Merchants set up stalls in the Marsh, St. James churchyard, Spicer’s Hall, or the city streets to display wares. Negotiations took place on the spot, without guarantee that every item brought to market would be sold. Goods were examined, prices debated, and agreements reached in full publicity. Private dealings with foreigners may also have taken place, but the essence of the fair was sale in “market overt,” primarily between Bristolians and strangers, made in the presence of other marketgoers and subject to regulations imposed by the city and enforced in the market court. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, this had changed. Although there were certainly still booths and stalls around which buyers gathered to bargain in the manner of an Oriental bazaar, and the market court still survived, a fair was no longer primarily such an open marketplace. It had become, rather, an occasion at which “seller &…byer do appoynt to mete…& there do bargayne.” The great annual St. James Fair took place at Whitsuntide, seven weeks after Easter. After 1529 a winter fair was added, first at Candlemas, in early February, and then, from 1548 on, at the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul at the end of January. Together these fairs gave a distinct seasonal rhythm to inland trade. They provided two established periods, some six months apart, during which merchants from all over southern and western England congregated to place orders, pay debts, and settle accounts. In consequence, the fairs became financial as well as mercantile institutions, used as convenient clearinghouses not only by Bristolians but by merchants of the Midlands, the West Country, South Wales, Ireland, and London, who maintained continuous ties with each other year in and year out.[56]

The Backhall and the fairs, two institutions designed to insure open trading between burgess and “foreigner,” were either circumvented or transformed to serve a new economic order in which private contractual arrangements between townsmen and outsiders were the common pattern. As if to mark this change, the collection of tolls at the city gates was abandoned in 1546; the income from newly purchased monastic properties made up for the lost revenue. Medieval restrictions against strangers trading freely with the city remained in force, but Bristol’s leading men no longer relied on them to protect their interests. They did not usually buy and sell in the city markets, either the Backhall or the fairs, but maintained steady working relationships with individual dealers and customers, with whom they were linked by credit.[57]

Credit again dictated the structure of social relations, this time in a distinctly asymmetrical pattern. Dealings in cloth were almost invariably conducted on account by the city’s merchants. John Smythe, for example, usually deferred payments to his country suppliers for three or, more often, six months. Only for such relatively low-priced goods as “lether corne buttar chese tallow calveskyns” and the like did he and his brethren pay in ready cash. In effect, the merchant received his cloths out of the “clothier’s stok” usually for “halff year and halff year,” which permitted the overseas trader not only to sell his fabrics abroad but to pay his debts with the proceeds of the import trade. The trade depended on a clear division of labor from which each side normally benefited. The clothier was relieved of managing his affairs, with all the attendant risks, in foreign as well as domestic markets. The merchant was saved the difficult task of coordinating the various stages of cloth production at home, leaving him free to worry about the state of sales in distant places. Since the merchant controlled access to the final market abroad, he had the advantage over the clothier, even though he was in the clothier’s debt. However, if accounts were to be cleared and new ventures undertaken, rapid, secure, and profitable marketing of imports was absolutely essential to the merchant.[58] For this reason merchants felt an intense interest in their outlet for foreign wares, the domestic retail trade.

The relationship between merchant and retailer ideally was also a symbiotic one. As the merchants themselves said,

A merchant cannot be a retailer for want of skill and acquaintance of customers, which requires an apprenticeship to bring him to it; neither can he have a fit place to dwell in, for all the houses that stand in place of retail are already in the hands of retailers.[59]


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