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These more complex approaches to early modern urban history have important consequences for research strategy and interpretation. One of the advantages of the localist’s stress on communal solidarity is that the supposed compactness and distinctiveness of each community make it possible to study any particular county or town as a complete social organism having its own interlocking system of social relations. As Alan Everitt puts it, local history is the study of “some particular local community as a whole, as a complete society or organism, with a more or less distinct and continuous life of its own.”[19] Hence it is a field concerned primarily with “structure,” and above all with “social structure,” understood as a systematic arrangement of interconnected parts.[20] In other words, this approach owes a heavy debt to the structural-functionalism of British social anthropology, in the sense that all the elements of the social order are seen to fit together to form a single, integrated system.[21] Such studies begin by assuming the existence of an autonomous collectivity of men and women, the boundaries of which mark the limits of a self-standing society and so help us to restrict the range of our inquiries to sources concerned primarily with relations within those boundaries.

But both Thomas Wilson and John Stowe force us to cast our nets more widely, to consider the community in its context and hence to devote as much attention to events and developments outside its boundaries as to those within them. The members of every society ordinarily are aware of qualitative differences in their degree of personal involvement with others, their formal rights and obligations, and their more informal moral responsibilities and social duties. They commonly recognize a division between Them and Us. But when a community is contained within a larger polity, as were the English towns, the lines of demarcation are often unclear. For there are overlapping levels of authority and overlapping markets, and the community’s boundary is rather more like an open border than a guarded frontier. Men and materials, ideas and influences can pass through in either direction without passport or visa. This means, in turn, that groups within the town were free to form differing relationships to this wider context of action. Hence along with examining the ways the various components of urban society held together among themselves, we shall also have to explore how the city held together with the larger social order of which it was a part, and to look for breakdowns in internal and external relations and for conflicts within the community and between it and the wider world.

This emphasis on the way cities like Bristol were open to the world also has important consequences for the story we shall tell. The structural-functional model employed by localist historians is essentially static. It treats the ways social institutions fit together to make working mechanisms and how social actions promote social cohesion. In this view, conflict is seen as reinforcing the structure of society, because the parties engaged in it compete in the same arena and for the same ends. The theory leaves little room for self-generating change. Studies written according to this model do not completely exclude consideration of change, of course. But change, when it does occur, is understood to come from outside forces. The consequent imbalances in the local social order are then treated as working toward a new equilibrium.[22] But if the inhabitants of a city live in a setting of open relationships, in which different groups could form different connections with their surroundings, change is not the exclusive product either of external forces affecting the stable structures of tradition or of internal contradictions. Instead it must be the consequence of a counterpoint between internal and external developments, in which the processes of change are neither accidental nor inevitable, but the outcome of human intelligences addressing the world as they find it. As Marx says, “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered.” For Marx this confrontation could be a nightmare, but we must also recognize that it could be the wellspring of creativity, as human beings shape and reshape the world “given and transmitted” to them “from the past.”[23]

Finally, our focus on the city’s openness requires us to study social meanings. For structural-functionalists, and for many Marxists as well, only social uses are important. Functionalism begins with the concept of social structure as its foundation; it assumes the existence of a single fabric of social relations to which all action and thought are directed. Ideas have a place in the story only as they reflect society and reinforce it. But if the members of a community live within open borders and participate, through their choices, in the processes of historical change, we can expect to find among them more than one understanding of how society works and more than one set of goals for it. Society can no longer be thought of as a single system which we can observe in its entirety from on high. It becomes instead the product of different and competing viewpoints, which we must understand both jointly and severally if we are ever to put together a coherent story. This can be accomplished only if we take meanings seriously by placing people’s words and gestures in the context of their thought and values as well as of their needs and interests.


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Introduction: The Closed Arena and the Open Gate
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