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Introduction: The Closed Arena and the Open Gate
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In Bristol’s coat of arms the controlling feature is the gate; it makes the connection between the city and the world. But “gate” in early English usage meant not only an opening or passing place in a wall, but sometimes also a way. It could be a road or path—a way to distant places; or it could be a manner or method—a way of doing or living. The word “trade” has a similarly complex meaning. At its root it refers to a course trodden by a person, but by extension it becomes a way or manner of life, a course of action, a mode of procedure or method, the practice or habit of doing something. Hence it is synonymous on the one hand with “craft” or “occupation,” and on the other with “commerce” or “the buying and selling of commodities for a profit.” To trade is both to follow a course and to traffic in goods. Bristol’s life in the late medieval and early modern period was founded on trade understood in both these senses. Its citizens looked for their sustenance to the pathways that led beyond its boundaries, and in doing so they developed a distinctive outlook and pattern of action in the pursuit of their ends.

At the outset of our period, the trade of Bristolians depended upon the annual exchange of English woolens for French wines at Bordeaux. This traffic set the pace of life for the entire city, determining its social structure and its relations with its own hinterland and with the institutions of the English state. Two and a half centuries later, Bristol’s trade touched nearly every important international market, and Bristol itself was an entrepôt of the Atlantic economy. From the fifteenth century, then, Bristol was more and more an open city with wider gateways bringing the world economy into closer relation with the local community. There was also a widening gate as its economy and its social and political structure were transformed. More and more of its inhabitants became engaged in the city’s expanding Atlantic commerce, the networks of trade and credit deepened and broadened, and politics and religion converged with this new economic order. Out of this conjunction emerged new habits and action in society that were the beginnings of a modern form of capitalism, focused on credit and commerce.

For many scholars it may seem inappropriate to study the rise of modern capitalism in this fashion. If, as Eric Wolf says, “the world of humankind constitutes…a totality of interconnected processes” and capitalism touches “the four corners of the globe,” no single case could ever be thought complete enough to serve as an illustrative example, and the only way to study the subject would be encyclopedically, “as a whole, a totality, a system.”[24] But this conclusion depends on how the genre of local history is understood. Among English historians in recent years two main approaches have prevailed. The first involves the search for representative examples of general types. Here the historian, anxious to avoid the pitfalls of antiquarianism, focuses on themes typical of all similar places, not on local peculiarities, and his work aims to illuminate our understanding of broad developments in the same fashion as experimental results in the sciences are supposed to exemplify the truth of general laws. The second form of local study emphasizes the particular, even the unique, rather than the typical or universal. In these works the historian is interested in revealing the diversity of life in a society as it was lived away from the centers of action. Such a history tells us stories that “enlighten us about the common run of chaps” as they lived “at their home address[es].”[25] But neither type suits the study of a large-scale historical process like the growth of capitalism, for the former focuses on the part, not the whole, whereas the latter treats only the variegated periphery, not the unifying core.

There is a third kind of local history, one that searches for the paradigmatic rather than the typical or the unique. Paradigms have achieved a certain currency in recent historical studies. Usually the word means a conceptual model or frame of reference, but as employed in the history of science, it can also refer to a transforming experiment, a procedure and result that change the way problems are viewed and become a pattern for further experimentation. It is a term that implies a relationship between an experiment and its context and that treats the two as integral parts of a process of change.[26] Local history can be like this as well: it can concentrate on the ways a particular place and its inhabitants participated in and contributed to the transformation of an established pattern of thought and action.

In the great revolution in historical learning that accompanied the English Renaissance, local history of this kind was among the first subjects to be extensively studied. Edmund Gibson’s 1695 edition of Camden’s Britannia, for example, lists in its bibliography 162 separate items of local scholarship for England alone, and more still for Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the Channel Islands.[27] Most of these were works in which the author sought to establish the standing of his town or county in the grand history of the kingdom; they were local in their outlook only in that they told the story of a particular place, not in the themes they treated. The purpose of this kind of history was to show the beauties and antiquities of a place and the greatness and virtue of those who peopled it, so that both place and people could become exemplars of the good life and of right action. But this period also witnessed two other momentous developments in the study of society, namely, the rise of “political arithmetic” and of “Whig” history. Both have made genuine contributions to our understanding, the former by showing us that we can measure the dimensions of human life and the latter by showing us that we can see the present emerge from the past. But both accomplished their work by enormous feats of abstraction. To do political arithmetic requires concentration on a limited range of questions and sources and a disregard of those many aspects of society that cannot be quantified.[28] Similarly, to do Whig history demands a neglect of past events, ideas, and social structures that have no demonstrable link to the present.[29] These features have perhaps nowhere been more evident than in the study of early modern capitalism, where various forms of cliometrics, rooted in neoclassical economic theories, often compete with various kinds of teleology in shaping interpretation.

The paradigmatic approach employed in the following chapters pursues a different line in attempting to put both economy and society back into the life of a particular place at a particular time. These chapters treat Bristol as simultaneously typical, in that it helped set a pattern for all who related to it, and unique, in that its history depends on its particular relationship to the world, which changes as its story unfolds. In periods of rapid change, the existence of such places marks the transition from one form of life to another. At those times, when the old rules no longer apply and new ones have not yet come to dominate, the world is made up of a rich array of community types, each combining in its own fashion new ideas and social arrangements with fragments of the old order. Each type, then, can reveal something important about the underlying patterns of change in thought and social interaction.[30]

In many studies of the growth of modern capitalism, however, it has become commonplace to think of the newly emerging world economy as a single structure, in which each region or place has its particular niche either at the core or at the margins.[31] For those who use this model, the perspective is that of an omniscient observer looking down upon the globe from distant space. At that altitude everything appears in an ordered hierarchy, with economic surpluses flowing to the dominating center and new ideas and values flowing to the outlying dependencies. But from such an elevated viewpoint neither the fine details that distinguish place from place nor the everyday comings and goings of individuals will be discernible. The risk is that the structures we see will be rather like the canals of Mars, creations of our eye and brain. These problems disappear if we cease to think of capitalism as a universal structure—a single system or organization—and view it instead as a way of thinking and acting, a form of life. A form of life can exist alongside other forms. It can take shape slowly, emerging in one place and then another until it widens its range sufficiently to link these places together. It can broaden its reach, setting rules for more and more kinds of behavior, and it can deepen in the ways it commits the people living under it to following those rules. Moreover, just as the emergence of a new species of animal will force all other creatures in the environment to adjust their relations to it, the development of a form of life can effect changes in the habits of thought and action of those living according to a different set of rules. The result, however, will be a new pattern of diversity, not a modernized unity produced by the extinction of all but one form.

Capitalism conceived in this way is the joint product of a distinctive point of view and a particular context. It is, then, rather like a language—a set of gestures, signs, and meanings linked together by grammar, syntax, and logic. To comprehend what is said and how its significance has changed over time, however, we need to attend not only to the general rules of usage being followed but, as Hilary Putnam argues, to what the speaker “wants or intends,” which is relative to “the nature of the environment” in which he finds himself.[32] This will be the subject of our history of early modern Bristol, whose Atlantic perspective gives us an excellent vantage point from which to see an urban form of modern capitalism emerge as the fragments of an older social and cultural order combined and recombined with new ideas and social arrangements.


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Introduction: The Closed Arena and the Open Gate
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