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Conclusion: The Widening Gate of Capitalism
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Conclusion: The Widening Gate of Capitalism

For most English men and women of the Tudor and Stuart period, change never brought progress, though it might produce reform, renascence, or restoration. A perfect world was a stable world, unaltered and unalterable in its essentials. To signify this certainty Queen Elizabeth had adopted as her motto semper eadem, “always the same,” expressing her sense that the good and true were good and true for all times and all places. But the era through which she and her compatriots lived challenged the very premises of their thought, including the notion that change always represented either a falling away from perfection or a return to it. Bristol offers us a paradigmatic example of this great transformation, as much intellectual and cultural as social and economic in its character. Bristol’s history between 1450 and 1700 created a center of early modern capitalism out of a medieval commercial town. So fundamental were these changes that to a Bristolian born in the first half of the fifteenth century the world of the late seventeenth-century city, had it been possible to describe it to him, would have seemed almost as foreign and exotic as the cities of China had been to Marco Polo. At the end of the two hundred and fifty years of history we have been reviewing, Bristol had become in its own way a newfound land, as different from the old city as North America was different from the world that John Cabot and his Bristol colleagues had known in Europe.

We have seen how England’s loss of Bordeaux in 1453 marked the end of a long-stable pattern in the history of Bristol’s trade wherein every year cloth was exchanged in Gascony for huge quantities of wine, and how the Bristolians began a series of adjustments in the trade, society, and politics of their city. By the end of the sixteenth century, Bristol’s commerce, driven by its merchants’ quest for the highly profitable and scarce commodities of southern Europe, had come to focus on the Iberian peninsula, and new forms of merchant organization had emerged to exploit this traffic. A half-century later the pattern had changed again as Bristolians, still driven by “Bristol’s hope” for quick turnover and large gains in the luxury trades, transformed their city into an entrepôt of the trans-Atlantic economy. As recently as the 1630s, only a handful of vessels using the port annually had made the journey to and from the American plantations. But by the late seventeenth century about half of the shipping leaving British waters from Bristol was bound for Virginia, the West Indies, or Newfoundland, and a similar portion of the incoming traffic had originated there. As a result of this concentrated commercial effort, American sugar and tobacco had become by 1700 almost as much a staple of the city’s trade as French wine had been in the fifteenth century.

This transformation, so fundamental to bringing Bristol into the modern world, was as much a matter of outlook as of action. It could not have been accomplished without the will and ingenuity to break from the conventions of the past shown by many Bristolians, and it could not have been sustained without the growth among them of a new economic understanding. In Bristol as elsewhere, new economic ideas had been slow to emerge, and no single moment can be named as the turning point. But, fortunately, we can observe the main outlines of this important intellectual transition in the writings of three men: Roger Edgeworth in his Sermons, delivered in the 1540s and 1550s; John Browne in his Marchants Avizo, which appeared in 1589; and John Cary in his Essay on the State of England in Relation to its Trade, Its Poor and its Taxes, published in Bristol in 1695, and Essay on the Coyn and Credit of England: As they stand with Respect to its Trade, which appeared the year following. When looked at closely, these writings reveal a profound change in worldview of which Browne, who wrote in the late 1570s or early 1580s, represents the turning point between Edgeworth’s religious and ethical approach and Cary’s political economy.

As a city preacher in the 1540s and 1550s, Roger Edgeworth found it useful to draw many of his analogies and examples from the experiences of trade and the handicrafts familiar to most of his listeners. His sermons allow us to glimpse their world through its commonplaces. Edgeworth was well aware that this world, which involved the seeking of “gaynes” or “wynnynge,” operated according to ethical principles peculiar to it. “[T]he occupying that well besemyth som man,” he says,

is vnfitting and euil besemyng som other man…A Draper, a Mercer, a Shoemaker, and a hardwareman may stand in the open Market and sel hys ware to the most aduauntage and gaine, thereby sufficientlye to sustayne hym selfe, and hys familye or housholde. A knyght, a squyre, or a well landed manne maye not so do wyth hyse honestye. It were filthye, shame, and dishonestye for hym so to dooe, and hys winning shoulde not bee but fylthye wynnynge…and shamefull gaines.[1]

Nevertheless, even in the commercial environment of the city, the pursuit of gain was likely to be tainted. Covetous men, Edgeworth said, were like moles, blind to godly or heavenly counsel, who would rather descend “headlong” into the depths “to their lucre and aduantages” than feed on the “wine and wastel” of divine wisdom. Their lives were filled with “the temporall woe and paine they have in keping their goodes: for they be rather possessed and holden of theyr goods, then possesseth and holdeth them. And they haue their goodes as we say a man hath a paire of fetters or shackles vpon his legges, more to his paine then to his pleasure.”[2]

For Edgeworth, life in this urban world was fraught with unpredictable risks. It demanded courage as well as judgment and skill. To survive it was necessary to persist in one’s enterprises without regard to uncontrollable dangers and unforeseen losses. Since this was especially true for overseas traders, they became his model for fortitude in the face of adversity. If one or two storms or one or two losses should cause the shipman or the merchant to “abhorte and giue of going to the sea,” he says, “there would at the last no man aduenture to the seas, and then farewell this citye of Bristow, and all good trade of marchaundyse and occupying by sea.”[3] A merchant, although he has experienced many losses by shipwreck, still seeks out “straunge lands” and adventures “on his olde busynes” with a stock “gathered of borowed money, and dothe full well, and commeth to great substaunce and riches.”[4] But because survival required taking advantage of every opportunity to earn profit, this trading community was also a world of temptations to evil. Out of “couetousness to get the penye” men were driven to “sell false or noughty ware, or by false weightes or measures [to] deceiue [their] neighbours.”[5] We have all known “some Marchuntes and other occupiers,” Edgeworth says,

that in their prenticeshippe, and while they were iourneymen or seruauntes haue feared God deuoutlye, and the worlde busilye. And when they haue set vp and occupied for them selues, haue growen to muche riches in a little space, in so muche that within seuen or eight yeres they haue bene able to be shyriffes of the Citye, but when they were fatte, that their prouender pricked them, they haue begon to kycke againste GOD, and to do noughtelye.…They haue take their pleasures moste voluptuouslie, and haue contemned all others dispitefully which is a signe that the feare of GOD was cleane gone.[6]

For this reason, fearlessness in the face of danger could never be enough. It was also necessary to “sticke stedfastlye to thy fayth, doing accordinglye to Gods holye worde.”[7] According to Edgeworth, “He that feareth God will do good dedes, and will eschue the contraries, and his thrifte shall come accordinglye.”[8]

Since it was from God that men “had their thrift,” the only way to assure success was to live according to His will. All citizens were to do “their dutye in their tythes and offeryngs” to Him, keeping themselves “in the feare and awe” of His majesty, and “liuynge charitablye” toward their neighbors.[9] To illustrate these truths, Edgeworth told his listeners a little story. He asked them to consider two young men who had come to a town together as apprentices, “came forth to libertie together,” and set up in their occupations at about the same time. “[T]he one was more expert in his occupation then the other, the more quycke more liuelye, and more pregnant of witte, and he laboured…bothe earlye and late, as the other did, and yet he could not come forwarde, but euer almoste in beggars estate.” After a time the man “that was so farre behind” met his old acquaintance “and marueylynge of the chaunce of them boothe considerynge (sayth he) that when we were yong I was more likely to come forward then thou. And that I labour and studie…as many waies to haue the world, and to come to welthines, and more then euer diddest thou, & yet it wil not be, and the more I labour yet neuer the nere.” He suspected the reason must be that his fellow had “founde some bagges or treasure trouvy, some hid riches that bringeth thee alofte.” The second man agreed that his success was because he had indeed “founde some hydde ryches” and offered to bring his friend to where he “mayest finde like riches.”[10]

On the appointed day, the rich man brought his old acquaintance to church, where the first man “fell on hys knees and saide his prayers deuoutly as he was wont to do,” while “the other man called busily on him to shewe him his treasure. Tarye a while,” said the rich man,

we shall anone haue a Masse or some diuine seruyce compiled or gathered of the word of God, or some sermon of exhortation that may do vs good. Anone a prieste was ready & wente to masse: After masse this poore mannes minde was on the money, and called vppon his frende whiche at the laste aunswered after this maner. Frende, thou haste hearde and sene parte of the treasure that I haue founde. Here in this place I haue learned to loue GOD, heare I haue learned to feare God, Heare I haue learned to serue GOD. And when I haue done my duetye to God, home I go to my woorke about suche businesse as I haue, and all thinges goeth forward and so I am comne to this honeste Almes that GOD hathe lende me, wyth whiche I am well contented, and do thanke God for it, it commeth of God, and not of my deseruynge.[11]

His recommendation to his friend was to emulate this example if he wanted riches. “I see thy fashion,” he said, “thou little regardest God or his seruice, and lesse regardest his ministers. Thou haddest leuer goe to the market then to Masse, and on the holye daye, to idle pastimes, then to heare a Sermon.” Hence, “if thou thriue it is meruayle. And surely if thou prosper and go forwarde for a season, thou shalte haue one mischaunce or another that shall set thee further backwarde in a daye, then two or three good yeares hath set thee forward.”[12]

Skill, diligence, and the capacity for hard work were as nothing in Edgeworth’s economic world. By themselves they could not keep one from beggary. Even a successful enterprise was worthless, since it could not be counted upon as a firm foundation on which to build future successes. The world was simply too unpredictable, too likely to turn one’s days from good to bad in the twinkling of an eye. Only if one foreswore the market for the mass, respected the ministry, and performed the proper godly devotions would one receive a lasting reward. Hence the moral of Edgeworth’s tale was that “[t]hey that feare God haue no pouertie, for eyther they be ryche, or at leaste wyse be verye well pleased wyth that little that they haue, which passeth all gold and precious stoones.…Pietie or mercie with a hart content wyth that a manne hathe, is a greate gaynes and winnynge.”[13] Religious devotion also gave more than contentment with one’s lot; the spiritual merit built up through good works became the treasure upon which one could draw to go steadily forward in one’s everyday affairs. In this sense, the spiritual and material orders were united. God blessed those who gained His favor through their piety. In another way, however, they were radically disjoined, since there was little that one’s earthly endeavor could do to promote one’s earthly reward. Such success as one might have in one’s affairs came, as it were, from grace and not from works.

John Browne shared many of Edgeworth’s assumptions about the nature of the economy and its inherent dangers. The son of a Bristol draper, he was among the early Merchant Venturers in the city. Born about 1525, he was apprenticed in 1538 to a leading merchant, was married to the daughter of another in 1545, became mayor in 1572, and died in 1595. Hence he lived through the sixteenth-century climax of Bristol’s transition from being a specialist in cloth and wine to its new role as the entrepôt of the Iberian trades. His Marchants Avizo was intended as a handbook—or, as Browne himself says, “a patterne”—of merchant practice, designed especially for merchant apprentices in this era of economic change.[14]

Browne does not describe a modern economy. For him, the economy simply lacked the stable and predictable markets in which prices could be set without extensive haggling. As a result, a merchant could only use his “best indeuoure to sell as the time serueth.” If he could not “sel to some reckoning” in one place he took his goods to another “there to sell…as well as you may please.”[15] For this reason, the practice of merchants remained an art, subject to the wisdom of experience where nothing was hard and fast, and the best advice was “to haue good insight your selfe, and to do according as is your hast and necessities for your sales.”[16] No self-sustaining market mechanism could adjust the interests of buyers and sellers and control the dealings of merchants with each other. Browne believed, with Edgeworth, in a providential universe in which God’s visible hand could “destroy both thy bodie and soule.”[17] Trade, in this world, depended on personal relations among the traders, and the preservation of one’s good standing with them was more important than maximizing profit on a particular transaction. In Karl Polanyi’s phrase, the economy remained “submerged…in social relationships,”[18] subject to the unpredictable interplay of individual actions and chance events.

As if to mark this fact, Browne ends his book with “certain Godly sentences” which combine worldly wisdom and sage counsel on human frailty with admonitions to “first seeke the kingdome of God” and “remember often thy Creator.” Some of these sentences stress right actions, as in the admonition that “when thou promisest any thing: be not slacke to performe it, for he that giueth quickly, giueth double.” Others warn of dangers to be avoided from fellow merchants. “Be not hasty in giuing credit to euery man; but take heed to a man that is ful of words, that hath red eyes, that goeth much to law, and that is suspected to liue vnchaste.” For, through proper management of his relations with his fellows, a merchant “may liue with honestie and credit in time to come” and thereby have “prosperitie in all his wayes.” These moral precepts ring with an old-fashioned condemnation of covetousness and all that goes with it. “The godly and diligent man,” we read, “shall have prosperitie…but he that followeth pleasure and voluptuousnesse shall haue much sorrow.” Nevertheless, this condemnation was not in itself a critique of business enterprise. It focused instead on the morality of whoever might acquire wealth, no matter what his social rank or occupation. Did he gain it honestly, or by deceit? Did he act with reason and restraint, or rapaciously? Did he use his profits to maintain his family, to employ others, and to provide charity, or did he turn them to gluttony, wasteful luxury, and dissipation? If he was honest, selfless, and responsible, he was not covetous, even though he might be exceedingly wealthy. Browne’s overall aim was to encourage the merchant to live frugally and without greed, so as to avoid the threats of disaster around him. “Be circumspect and nigh in all your expenses,” he says, “that what you now spare and save…may grow the more to your owne benefit in time to come.” Here Browne differs from Edgeworth, since Browne believes that prudent conduct can limit risks and improve chances for prosperity.[19]

In the course of providing this tutelage Browne gives us a picture of the economy as he understood it. Since he saw its foundation in the exchange of goods, he dwelled primarily on relations among merchants. Nowhere in his book did he instruct the merchant apprentice in how to acquire domestic wares for export or how to dispose of imports once they had reached England. Instead, he focused on the manner in which a group of English traders, mostly from Bristol, worked together to dispose of their wares on the continent and to purchase the most profitable goods they could from foreign dealers. However, Browne had a clear comprehension of the mechanisms that made his economic world work. He knew the importance of foreign exchange and the role of credit, and he understood the necessity of organization and regulation in maintaining the vital networks. But the community of merchants was always at the heart of this world. Its success in mediating between domestic and foreign markets affected every craft—spinsters and sailors, weavers and dyers, landlords and tenants, husbandmen and victualers, grocers, clothiers, vintners, and mercers. If the merchant prospered through God’s blessing and his own prudence, those who depended on him would do so as well.

In other words, Browne had a sense of the economy as an integrated system, though not yet one separate from the larger social world. Its trades and crafts formed a social body in which each part worked to support the welfare of the whole. But his hierarchical ordering of occupations was concerned primarily with social distinction—“degree,” as he says—not functional economic integration. The merchant stood at the apex of a social pyramid, where he was the outlet for surplus domestic goods and the source of scarce foreign ones. His work, although it was of social benefit to each rank beneath him, did not promote the creation of trades and industries; it only redistributed their wares. Its very nature prevented this hierarchy from being a self-regulating mechanism of interconnected parts, since what was valued within it was set by absolute standards of virtue and not by the workings of the system itself. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the virtue of the trader placed some of the responsibility for the general welfare on his experience, choices, and effective actions.

Browne’s moral precepts, though familiar enough to men of Edgeworth’s outlook and their medieval predecessors, were conjoined to a growing sense that the merchant was a public figure, like the gentleman, the lawyer, and the cleric. The merchant’s activities affected the harmony of the commonwealth, because if he neglected his duties or failed in his enterprises those dependent on him would suffer. Hence his work required close regulation and demanded protection. This was a theme of the Commonwealthmen of the mid-sixteenth century, who usually are read more for their criticisms of trade and industry than for their vision of a new social hierarchy.[20] The same ideas became a theme for the merchants themselves as they petitioned for privileges and as they joined the royal court to advise the Crown.[21] Although Browne, writing at the age of sixty or so, appears to have held no hope for political advancement or personal benefit, he shared this new understanding. He looked on his book as the product of his public duty to aid his “profession.” When his profession prospers, he argued, “then common weales in wealth increase,” and everyone gains thereby:

Let no man then grudg Marchants state,
Nor wishe him any ill:
But pray to God our Queene to saue,
And Marchants state help still.[22]
Nevertheless, The Marchants Avizo is not a work of policy. Its chief purpose was “to worke a generall ease to all Marchants: whereby they may the lesse trouble themselues either with writing, invention, or thought of these matters,” and also to “be some stay to young and weake wits: yeelding them therby the more freedome of mind towards their other businesses.”[23] To accomplish these goals, it provided models of accounting procedures and of letters to and from servants sent abroad, drafts of various types of commercial instrument, and guides to weights, measures, exchange rates, and the qualities of certain imported wares.

John Cary wrote, however, with a deep concern for high matters of political economy. The son of Shershaw Cary, a Merchant Venturer, he was also a Merchant Venturer in his own right. Born about 1650, he was admitted to the Society in 1677 and became its warden for the year in 1683. He was briefly a member of the Bristol Common Council in 1687–88, helped to found Bristol’s famous Corporation of the Poor in 1696, and died about 1720.[24] He too witnessed a major transition in Bristol’s history, as the city moved from its focus on Spain and southern Europe to become an entrepôt of trans-Atlantic commerce. Writing in a genre that first became prominent during the economic crisis of the early 1620s, Cary attempted a systematic analysis of the present economic order with the goal of promoting national trade, increasing wealth, and improving government revenues. Of course, he had his own viewpoint, one that, if implemented, would have specially benefited the kind of commerce practiced by his fellow Bristolians. Far from advocating a single interest, however, he adopted the dispassionate and disinterested tone of the public commentator explaining the “Foundations of the Wealth of this Kingdom.”[25] “The general Trade of the Nation (which is the support of all),” he says,

requires as much Policy as Matters of State, and can never be kept in regular Motion by Accident; when the frame of our Trade is out of Order, we know not where to begin to mend it, for want of a Sett of Experienced Builders, ready to receive Applications, and able to judge where the defect lies.[26]

The ends advocated by Cary resulted from his belief that “true Profits” result, not from trade, but from “that which is produced from Earth, Sea and Labour…our Growth and Manufacture.”[27] Therefore, trade that neither exported English products or manufactures nor supplied things necessary to promote manufactures at home, to carry on trade abroad, or encourage navigation

cannot be supposed to be advantageous to this Kingdom, for there must be a difference made between a Nations growing rich and particular Mens doing so by it, and I humbly propose that it may be possible for private Men to be vastly improved in their Estates, and yet at the Years end the Wealth of the Nation cannot be a whit greater than at the beginning.…[W]hilst the thrifty Shopkeeper buys at one Price, and sells at another to the prodigal Beaux, and the industrious Artificer rents his Labour to the idle Drone, and the politick Contriver outwits the unthinking Bully, one raises his Fortunes on the other’s decay, the same for our Outland Trade, if we Export the true Riches of the Nation for that which we consume in our Luxury, tho’ private-Men may get rich by each other, yet the Wealth of the Nation is not any way encreased.[28]

On this basis he rejected the trade with the East Indies, since it extracted England’s wealth for high-priced goods without promoting domestic employments. But he had high praise for trade with the American plantations, which, in his view, had spared England a crisis of overpopulation. “People are or may be the Wealth of a Nation,” he argued,

yet it must be where you find Imployment for them, else they are a Burthen to it, as the Idle Drone is maintained by the Industry of the laborious Bee, so are all those who live by their Dependence on others, as Players, Ale-Houses Keepers, Common Fidlers, and such like, but more particularly Beggars, who never set themselves to work.[29]

The plantations not only employed the poor but encouraged navigation, were a market for England’s own goods, supplied commodities that could be wrought up at home or exported again, and made unnecessary the purchase of similar goods from the territories of other princes.

[F]or I take England and all its Plantations to be one great Body, those being so many Limbs or Counties belonging to it, therefore when we consume their Growth we do as it were spend the Fruits of our own Land, and what thereof we sell to our Neighbours for Bullion, or such Commodities as must pay for therein, brings a second Profit to the Nation.…This was the first design of settling Plantations abroad, that the People of England might better maintain a Commerce and Trade among themselves, the chief Profit whereof was to redound to the Center.[30]

All in all, Cary’s work depicted an economy transformed. Browne, a century earlier, had portrayed a commercial economy concentrated on Spain, Portugal, and France, and on only a handful of commodities—spices, sugar, wine, dyestuffs, oils, soap, iron, and salt—from which the greatest portion of a merchant’s profits ordinarily could be expected. Nothing was said directly about exports, although of course they are mentioned in various of the letters Browne used to give examples of form. But Cary’s economy encompassed the whole world—Asia, Africa, and especially America, as well as Europe, and the domestic as well as the international market—and valued the widest range of raw materials and finished goods, from the small and high-priced to the bulky and cheap. Its foundation lay in the relations between merchants and producers and in the creation through labor of new wealth.

Cary was no less religious than Edgeworth and Browne. Indeed, he is probably best known for his public acts of charity on behalf of the poor in Bristol. He was also no out-and-out free trader in the manner of the Bristol Quakers. He believed in state intervention to protect commerce and industry. Though he thought an outright “Monopoly by Law a thing very contrary to the Genius of the People of England”—something that “seems to barr the Freedom and Liberty of the Subject”—he nevertheless agreed with the old Merchant Venturer theme about the need to prohibit “the Merchant from being a Shopkeeper, or Retailer, and the shopkeeper from being a Merchant or Adventurer at the same time.” If “neither would interfere in the others business,” he said, each “would be better managed.”[31] But in so saying he was offering advice to tradesmen based on his analysis of the workings of the economy, not on a program of regulations and laws. Unlike Edgeworth and even Browne, Cary understood the economy to operate according to its own demonstrable rules. For him the market was a mechanical system, reaching a balance according to a scheme of weights and counterweights and working on a principle of the division of labor in which all the parts were linked by the circulation of wealth. “As the wealth and Greatness of the Kingdom of England is supported by its Trade,” he said, “so its Trade is carry’d by its Credit, this being as necessary to a Trading Nation, as Spirits are to the Circulating of Blood in the Body natural; when those Springs…Decay, the Body languishes, the Blood stagnates and the Symptoms of Death soon appear.”[32] If the economy depended on cogs to direct the wheels, it required only minimum adjustments “to keep them true.”[33]

One influence on Cary’s thinking was his acquaintance with major developments in the natural sciences. His papers even contain descriptions of three comets and a sketch of one of them.[34] He felt comfortable, as we have just seen, with analogies drawn from William Harvey’s path-breaking work on human circulation and had grasped the mechanistic paradigm emerging in astronomy and other branches of science in his day. He probably was familiar as well with the writings of John Locke and his circle; his work obviously owes a debt to Locke’s thinking on the role of labor in creating wealth. But the development of the economy in the second half of the seventeenth century also played a large role in accounting for Cary’s vision. He could easily see in his own city the integration of trade and industry about which he theorized. The plantations alone supplied it with

great Quantities of Sugar, Tobacco, Cotten, Ginger and Indigo…which being bulky for their transporting hither, and the greater Number of ships, imploys the greater number of Handicraft Trades at home, spends more of our Product and Manufactures, and makes more Saylors, who are maintained by a separate Imploy.[35]

The same was true for every trade. “For,” he argued,

if One Raised the Provision he eat, or made the Manufactures he wore, Trade would close, Traffique being a variety of Imployments Men set themselves on adapted to their particular Genius’s, whereby one is serviceable to another without invading each others Province; thus the Husbandman raises Corn, the Millard grinds it, the Baker makes it into Bread, and the Citizen eats it; Thus the Grazier fats Cattle, and the Butcher Kills them for the Market; Thus the Shepard shears his wool, the Spinster makes it into Yarn, the Weaver into Cloth, and the Merchant exports it; and every one lives by each other: Thus the Country supplies the City with Provisions, and that the Country with Manufactures.[36]

As Cary envisioned this interlocking of trade, it extended far beyond the boundaries of England. For example, according to him, the use of Indian calicos drove Silesian and German linens from the market and encouraged those who made them to convert their looms to the production of woolens. This in turn deprived England of a market for woolen cloths and even touched the manufacture of hats, which depended on central European wools for felt.[37] The same principle applied everywhere. In place of Browne’s hierarchical view, in which everyone depended on the merchant to succeed, Cary’s functional view stressed the reciprocity of all economic relations. “I comprehend all transferring of Properties under the general Notion of Trade; the Landlord, the Tenant, the Manufacturer, the Shopkeeper, the Merchant, the Lawyer all are Traders so far as they live by getting from each other, and their Profits arise from the Waxing and waning of our Trade.”[38] The guiding principle was indeed that “every one lives by each other.”[39] The merchant had a vital role to play, because he stimulated production, but he was only one among many, each of whom depended absolutely on his fellows in the division of labor.

Because Cary’s economy was subject to the laws of cause and effect, it was capable of development. “The first Original of Trade,” he tells us,

was Barter; when one private person having an Overplus of what his Neighbour wanted furnished him for his Value in such Commodities the other had, and stood in need of…And as People increased so did Commerce; this caused many to go off from Husbandry or Manufacture and other ways of living; for Convenience whereof they began Communities; this was the Original of Towns, which being found necessary for Trade, their Inhabitants were increased by expectation of Profit; this introduced Forreign Trade, or Traffick with Neighbouring Nations.[40]

This economic evolution created increasingly complex relationships among people. As they came more and more to depend on trade, the “buyer not only sold his commodities at home, but also dispersed them among those who were seated in the Country at a distance…and thence came in a skill and cunning to foresee their Rise and Fall according to their consumption and prospect of supply.”[41] Differences arising among buyers and sellers led next to the need for laws and lawyers, courts and judges, while the advance of “Trade brought Riches, and Riches Luxury, Luxury Sickness, Sickness wanted Physick and Physick required some to separate themselves” to become doctors. “[M]any also of ripe parts were fitted for Service of the Church, others of the State; great numbers were Imployed in providing Necessaries of Meat, Drink and Apparell both for themselves and other People…others fit things for their Pleasures and Delights.”[42] In this way economic growth produced civilization, with its benefits and discontents. As “Mens knowledge increases by Observation,” Cary concluded, “one Age exceeds another…because they improve the Notions of Men.”[43]

Roger Edgeworth could not conceive of improvement in our lives as in any way the consequence of human will. Only an ever-present God, working according to His own judgment of our true wants, could produce worldly satisfaction of them. Although John Browne had a more positive view of men’s ability to cope with the ways of the world, he too looked to God as the primary source of human welfare. “First seek the kingdome of God and the righteousness thereof,” he advised, “and then all things shall be giuen thee that thou hast neede of.”[44] He was also unable to contemplate a world ordered in any other than a static, hierarchical fashion. For John Cary, however, the social world was in a continuous process of change. It had begun in simplicity, but, driven by man’s need to balance existing supplies against his wants, it had grown day by day in complexity. Only the underlying laws of economic action, themselves open to human understanding and application, remained constant.

The history we have been recounting in this book tells of the transition from Edgeworth’s form of economy to Cary’s. But it was also a history that took Bristolians from one form of social and political order to another. Although it was possible at the end of the period to think of political economy, if not economics itself, as an autonomous subject, this was only part of a process of change that was as much social, political, and cultural as it was economic. To citizens of the fifteenth-century city, Bristol had appeared as a replica of the cosmos, an ordered and harmonious arrangement of parts that made a unified whole. Its trade may have extended their reach far beyond the city’s boundaries, but in theory the city remained a compact community of sworn brothers who acted with common interests and for the common good. By the fourteenth century a group of wealthy men, mostly engaged in the overseas trade in cloth, had emerged as a distinct body of civic leaders in Bristol. Although their prosperous circumstances had distinguished them from their fellow townsmen, as citizens they were but members of the commonalty, enjoying equal liberties and franchises with all other sworn burgesses. The loss of Bordeaux, however, and the course of change it helped set in motion had undermined the foundations of this community.

The first signs of a significant shift in social outlook had come quickly. In 1467, when the level of Bristol’s trade stood near its nadir for the fifteenth century, the city government created the first organization exclusively for overseas merchants. Although this special fellowship of merchants, comprised of officers, hall, and regulatory functions, appears to have been short-lived, ending when economic conditions improved, it marked a change and set a precedent. From this moment on, merchants would become increasingly separate from those in other occupations who engaged in buying and selling. In 1500, the idea of a separate fellowship of merchants became even more definite when the newly reformed Bristol Corporation issued an ordinance establishing a company “separate and distincte from every other companyes of handecraftymen.”[45] During the second half of the sixteenth century this concept crystallized further, first with the acquisition of a royal charter of incorporation for the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, and then with the concerted efforts of its members to exclude all but wholesale merchants from overseas trade. The attempt at monopoly became the recurring theme in Bristol’s history until well into the seventeenth century.

At the same time a parallel development occurred in the realm of politics. The medieval borough had long been governed by a mayor, annually elected at a general meeting of the burgesses. It was not until the mid-fourteenth century that a select body of councillors joined him in rule. Until then, government seems to have had a communal form; all major decisions were made at the same sort of general meeting as that which elected the mayor. In Edward II’s reign, when a group of fourteen local magnates set themselves up as a governing body, their rule was met with violent resistance from the townsmen. Finally, in 1344, the city established a Common Council of Forty-Eight, whose members were chosen from among the wealthier men engaged in cloth manufacture and trade. When Bristol was incorporated as a county in its own right in 1373, this body was reformed into a council consisting of the mayor, the sheriff, and forty of the “better and more worthy men” of the borough. At the same time, the mayor became the king’s lieutenant in the city and one of the justices of assize, and the mayor and the sheriff jointly became keepers of the peace and justices of gaol delivery, which linked the city to national administrative and legal institutions. Nevertheless, their elevation to these national offices did not break the mayor’s and the sheriff’s ties to the community. The Bristolians still considered them and their brethren on the Common Council as the representatives of the whole body politic of the town, not its overlords. They served by communal acceptance of their rule, ritually given and received by the shouts of acclaim at the annual mayoral elections and in the festivals of the civic year that followed.

The new Bristol constitution of 1499 altered this delicate balance between the role of royal official and communal representative for these civic leaders. By creating a bench of aldermen, who along with the mayor served as justices of the peace, and by adding as recorder a learned lawyer who was also an alderman, it integrated the city government into the same national regime of administration then emerging in the counties. In consequence, the members of the Corporation more and more were identified by their new status as a separate body of officials within the city, partaking of the authority of royal rule. What made this development especially potent was the way it connected with the changing character of the overseas trading community. Since the leading men in the council were also the leading men in commerce, the power and influence they enjoyed in government could be used to advance their interests in the economy. Time and again the city government intervened to support the leading merchants in their petitions for royal favor and in their quest for monopoly. Bristol had evolved a strongly hierarchical social order in which the great wholesale merchants dominated the economy, interposing themselves between other domestic dealers and foreign markets, and in which the magistrates—who in most instances were the same men—dominated the polity, interposing themselves between the ordinary citizenry and the central institutions of the state.

However, the rivals of the mere merchants among the city’s retailers and craftsmen of the city perceived issues very differently. To them the attempts at merchant monopoly usurped the ancient rights of citizenship, and those who performed this act violated the very bonds of community. This communitarian undercurrent surfaced only occasionally to produce political strife among the citizenry, but it seems to have been present in latent form throughout our period. Whenever the mere merchants’ efforts to secure a monopoly resurfaced, the retailers and craftsmen mounted stiff resistance to the Merchant Venturers’ claims as best they could. Among some of these rivals of the Merchant Venturers, an undercurrent of communitarian social feeling converged with religious ideals of community to create a revolutionary party in the city, anxious for fundamental reform in church and state. Indeed, many of the most radical Bristolians in the 1640s and after came from just those sections of the city’s economy most affected by the monopolistic claims of the merchants. To match the religious passions of some of the enemies of monopoly, among the monopolists themselves a small but powerful group emerged who favored a Laudian view of religion and society and who supported the king with fervor in the battles of the 1640s.

In these ways the central place of a state-supported, regulated merchant company in Bristol’s history contributed to the growing radicalization of the city’s politics. Clashes between rival economic interests, fueled by changing patterns of social mobility and political recruitment, took on increasingly more significance as the ideological edge already apparent in the battles of the 1560s and 1570s transformed the issue of monopoly into one of high morality and linked it to affairs of state. The Merchant Venturers’ new charter of 1639 only added kindling to the flames, since the antagonisms aroused by it became one element in the partisan rivalries of the Civil War period in Bristol. The coming of the Civil War also meant that the Merchant Venturers’ great victory of 1639 was short-lived. Once Parliament’s forces had defeated the Royalists, control of Bristol fell into the hands of citizens with no sympathy for monopoly, while in Westminster little support with which to challenge the new local regime remained for the Merchant Venturers. As the instrument of national economic policy and the product of political conflicts played out in Westminster as well as Bristol, the Merchant Venturers could not help being caught up in the upheavals of the 1640s; they were nearly destroyed by them. Just as the Society’s formation was the local expression of national politics, so was its fate.

It is sometimes said that all politics is local politics, since ultimately it must be played out by people in the context of their daily lives. However, local politics can either draw in upon itself and make the connections and rivalries of local inhabitants the foundation of local affairs, or it can reach beyond its boundaries to participate in the larger world of governmental institutions and political movements. Late medieval Bristol attempted with increasing difficulty to maintain the first kind of politics. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century Bristol was an example of the second type. In ordinary times, the focus of political action was the exploitation of the state for local advantage, but when a national crisis developed, it engaged Bristolians immediately because they were a politically integrated part of the realm.

Moreover, the seventeenth century witnessed a significant transformation in the ways the local effects of politics were experienced in the city. Before 1640, the main political issues concerned the role of the city in the state. The magistrates saw themselves in a coordinated relationship with the central government to preserve order and protect the subjects. They were willing to accept state power so long as it helped to perform these vital functions. When they found it necessary to defend their role as local governors, they were not acting because they considered themselves as buffers against the king but because they saw themselves as essential parts of royal government. Order to them meant the union of authority with property, as expressed in their own leadership of their community, and they feared any use of state power that threatened this union. For this reason they made their political choices by concentrating on what would best promote the maintenance of the national polity as they understood it. In the Tudor and early Stuart years, most of Bristol’s magistrates conceived of this polity as one in which authority was exercised for the king by men rooted in the community, not by strangers with few local ties and no comprehension of local conditions. In other words, during this period they envisioned a political world in which community and state were related to one another as parts to the whole, not as opponents.

This “country” attitude, which the Bristolians shared with many of the gentry, persisted into the Restoration and beyond. But after the Civil Wars the underlying structure of politics was vastly complicated by ideological and religious differences, which on the one hand drew many more Bristolians into the vortex of political conflict and on the other connected the city’s affairs in new ways with national political developments. Religious divisions founded on rival conceptions of universal truth touched men and women in the city who rarely, if ever, had engaged in public controversy. Local politics were no longer confined to the city’s better and more worthy men and their immediate opponents, but now involved many servants and apprentices, craftsmen, and shopkeepers in the lesser trades and their wives and daughters. Moreover, the efforts of the 1650s to regulate the trading activities of the sectaries and the attempts of the 1660s to purge the civic community of their presence were linked directly to shifts in the configuration of national politics and thus tied to extralocal institutions—Parliament, the national executive, and the leaders of sects, among others. When the Army in Bristol came to the support of the radical candidates for Parliament in 1654, when Cromwell ordered the demolition of the Castle and the disbanding of its garrison in 1656, when Sir Humphrey Hooke stood down from his parliamentary seat in favor of the earl of Ossory in 1661, and when the Conventicle Act became the weapon of Sir John Knight’s persecution in 1663, the gates of local politics widened. These events not only confirmed Bristol’s connection with the ever-present powers of the state but also revealed its participation in political conflicts that had their center far outside the city’s boundaries.

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.

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.

Fig. 6. James Millerd’s View of Bristol, 1673.
[Full Size]

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.

“Be not conformed to this world,” St. Paul beseeched Christians, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”[68] In order to make one’s way in early modern England, it was necessary to achieve just such a transformation. Complexities abounded everywhere, and only a self-disciplined soul could provide a true center of stability. In a sense, each individual had to carry his own ordered world within him as he journeyed through the uncertainties. Community could begin only with the understanding that each of us possesses our own identity, our own world, and that to achieve social solidarity required an exchange among independent human beings. But this meant that every person must act according to his own will and judgment and bear his own risks. Insofar as capitalism is the rational pursuit of gain, this kind of ethical individualism is its necessary cultural and intellectual prerequisite. It depends on each person’s recognition that his inner life affects his world; it does not divide him from it. By his actions he can transform it, but he also remains forever open to its shaping influences.

The capitalism born in coping with the new demands of the Atlantic economy and the new conditions of politics in the Restoration was not only a set of beliefs but a system of organization for carrying them out, a way of doing as well as seeing—a distinct form of life. Forms of life have origins just as species do. They connect with past forms. Even though they live in environments different from those of their forebears, they use many of the characteristic features of their ancestors, if for quite unexpected ends. Moreover, just as with the origin of species, the rise of forms of life is unpredictable, contingent both on the nature of their surroundings and on the kind of adaptations they have been able to make. This means that they are not universal. The truths that apply to one form of life will be meaningless or false in others. It also means that they are not eternal. After they come into existence, they can experience catastrophic change or suffer extinction. The form of life whose emergence we have described here, based as it was on an uncertain system of credit, undependable trading conditions, and an unstable structure of politics, did not—could not—long remain as it was. As Britain underwent its financial and industrial revolutions in the eighteenth century and moved toward representative democracy in the nineteenth, the features of this form of capitalism were altered or passed out of use; and Bristol—England’s gate to the Atlantic—lost its central place in the still-widening economy to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and other industrial cities of the Midlands and the North. Nevertheless, Bristol’s contribution was a lasting one, for as it helped to open England to the world, it also helped to teach the world what it meant to live by the disciplines of the market, “ship shape and Bristol fashion.”


1. Edgeworth, Sermons, f. 288v. [BACK]

2. Ibid., ff. 6r–7r. [BACK]

3. Ibid., ff. 13v–14r. [BACK]

4. Ibid., f. 14r. [BACK]

5. Ibid., f. 61r. [BACK]

6. Ibid., f. 61r–v. [BACK]

7. Ibid., f. 125r–v. [BACK]

8. Ibid., f. 61v. [BACK]

9. Ibid., f. 61r–v. [BACK]

10. Ibid., f. 62r–v. [BACK]

11. Ibid., ff. 62v–63r. [BACK]

12. Ibid., f. 63r. [BACK]

13. Ibid., f. 63r. [BACK]

14. Marchants Avizo, pp. v–xi, 3. [BACK]

15. Ibid., p. 48. [BACK]

16. Ibid., p. 11. [BACK]

17. Ibid., p. 56. [BACK]

18. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 46. [BACK]

19. Marchants Avizo, pp. 55–57. [BACK]

20. See, e.g., A Discourse of the Commonweal of This Realm of England, Attributed to Sir Thomas Smith, ed. Mary Dewar (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1969). [BACK]

21. The character of their rhetoric can be gauged from the documents collected in Tawney and Power, eds., Tudor Economic Documents, vols. 2–3. [BACK]

22. Marchants Avizo, p. 6. [BACK]

23. Ibid., p. 3. [BACK]

24. Latimer, Annals, p. 474; DNB, “John Cary.” The DNB account calls him the son of Thomas Cary, vicar of SS. Philip and Jacob, but this is in error: see McGrath, ed., Records, p. 48. Jonathan Barry identifies Cary’s politics as “radical whig”: Barry, “Politics of Religion,” p. 179. [BACK]

25. Cary, Essay on the State of England, sig. A4a. [BACK]

26. John Cary, An Essay on the Coyn and Credit of England: As they stand with Respect to its Trade (Bristol, 1696), p. 30. [BACK]

27. Cary, Essay on the State of England, p. 48. [BACK]

28. Ibid., pp. 49–52. [BACK]

29. Ibid., pp. 66–67. [BACK]

30. Ibid., pp. 67–68. [BACK]

31. Ibid., pp. 41, 61. [BACK]

32. Cary, Essay on the Coyn and Credit of England, p. 1. [BACK]

33. Ibid., p. 30. [BACK]

34. BL, Harl. MS 5540, f. 112. [BACK]

35. Cary, Essay on the State of England, p. 75. [BACK]

36. Ibid., pp. 75–76. [BACK]

37. Ibid., pp. 52–53. [BACK]

38. Cary, Essay on the Coyn and Credit of England, p. 3. [BACK]

39. Cary, Essay on the State of England, p. 76. [BACK]

40. Ibid., pp. 2–3. [BACK]

41. Ibid., p. 4. [BACK]

42. Ibid., pp. 5–7. [BACK]

43. Ibid., p. 17. [BACK]

44. Marchants Avizo, p. 55. [BACK]

45. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 26. [BACK]

46. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 752–63. [BACK]

47. McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, p. 15. [BACK]

48. Based on BRO, MSS 04352 (6), 04357 (1). [BACK]

49. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 502–5; J. R. Holman, “Apprenticeship as a Factor in Migration: Bristol, 1675–1726,” BGAS 97 (1979): 85–92, esp. pp. 86–97. [BACK]

50. Minchinton, “Bristol,” 69–85. [BACK]

51. McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, pp. 140–43. [BACK]

52. For this paragraph and the next see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, chap. 5. [BACK]

53. [J. Rickman], Abstract of the Answers and Returns made Pursuant to an Act Passed in the Forty-First Year of His Majesty King George III Intitled ‘An Act for Taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and the Increase or Diminution thereof.’ Enumeration, 2 parts (London: Parliamentary Papers, 1801–2), part 1, pp. 125–26. [BACK]

54. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 214–34, 250–54. Bristol’s demographic history in the seventeenth century, especially in midcentury, contrasts with that for England as a whole. While Bristol’s population growth probably slowed after 1600 from the rate achieved in the late sixteenth century, elsewhere in England, with the exception of London and a few other major urban centers, the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century was generally a period of stagnation, not growth: Wrigley and Schofield, Population History of England, pp. 207–13. [BACK]

55. For the history of this map, see J. E. Pritchard, “A Hitherto Unknown Original Print of the Great Plan of Bristol by Jacobus Millerd, 1673” BGAS 44 (1922): 203–20; J. E. Pritchard, “Old Plans and Views of Bristol,” BGAS 44 (1922): 334–36. [BACK]

56. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 245–50. [BACK]

57. The following remarks are based on analysis of PRO, E 179/116/541. [BACK]

58. Hayden, ed., Records, pp. 14–18, 105, 133; Mortimer, ed., Minute Book, pp. xxi–xxii; Turner, ed., Original Records of Early Nonconformity, vol. 1, pp. 230, 239, 244, 328, 439, 483, 560, 562; vol. 2, pp. 818–19, 824–25; vol. 3, p. 327; Moses Caston, Independency in Bristol, with brief memorials of its churches and pastors (London: Ward, 1860), pp. 39–52, 82–88. [BACK]

59. Anne Whiteman, ed., The Compton Census of 1676 (British Academy: Records of Social and Economic History, n.s. 10, 1986), pp. 547–51. In her introduction Whiteman makes a cogent case for the general accuracy of the census against the criticisms made by Thomas Richards, “The Religious Census of 1676: An Inquiry into Its Historical Value Mainly with Reference to Wales,” Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmordorion, 1925–26, Supplement (London: Society of Cymmordorion, 1927). But the figures for Bristol pose special difficulties, in part because no returns have survived from half of the central parishes in the city and in part because the results in two important centers of dissent, St. James and St. Mary, Redcliffe, are either misstated or confused. Given the location of Quaker, Baptist, and Presbyterian meetings in its midst, St. James probably had more than one hundred dissenters among its twelve hundred men and women over sixteen years of age. As for St. Mary, Redcliffe, its population of men and women over sixteen was almost certainly considerably larger than the hundred and fifty persons indicated in the return; in 1696 its total population equaled that for nearby St. Thomas, for which the Compton census gives three hundred and fifty persons over sixteen years of age: see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 239–40. [BACK]

60. On this point see Barry, “Parish in Civic Life,” pp. 152–78; see also Jonathan Barry, “Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century Bristol,” in Barry Reay, ed., Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), pp. 59–90; Barry, “Politics of Religion,” p. 165. [BACK]

61. See Norman O. Brown, Hermes the Thief (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1947), esp. pp. 6–45, 78, 85, 108; see also Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 17–56. [BACK]

62. On this theme see, e.g., Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, chaps. 13–14; J. G. A. Pocock, “The Mobility of Property and the Rise of Eighteenth-Century Sociology,” in J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 103–23. [BACK]

63. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958). [BACK]

64. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, pp. 129–30. [BACK]

65. The phrase is Hirschman’s, from the subtitle of The Passions and the Interests. [BACK]

66. Ibid., pp. 129–30. [BACK]

67. Seaver, “Puritan Work-Ethic Revisited,” p. 38; see also Seaver, Wallington’s World, chap. 5. [BACK]

68. Romans 12: 2. [BACK]

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