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New markets and new commodities inevitably called forth new strategies from traders for winning profit and new relationships within the trading community. In the fifteenth century, commercial practices had been quite simple. In the Iberian peninsula a form of “tramping” was followed, in which a vessel laden with export wares sailed from port to port with an itinerant merchant aboard looking for the best prices.[2] Even in Gascony, the most sophisticated sector of the city’s commerce, trade was a type of barter. Cloth, manufactured in or near Bristol, was carried annually in large fleets to Bordeaux to be exchanged for wine, with the French dealers usually paid directly in textiles for the vintage.[3] No elaborate system of credit or arrangement for the clearing of balances was necessary, although the use of loans and reliance on attorneys or factors were hardly unknown. Many merchants combined overseas operations with the maintenance of a workshop or retail establishment, making the merchant community both large and diverse. For example, between September 1479 and July 1480 over two hundred and fifty Bristolians engaged in overseas trade, a very considerable number in a town of only about ten thousand inhabitants. As a result, quite humble men found it possible to enter in significant numbers into the city’s merchant leadership.[4] In the sixteenth century much of this would change. Not surprisingly, the starting place is the connection between clothmaking and overseas trade.

Just as Bristol’s prosperity in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries depended on the cloth trade, the structure of the medieval trading community was founded on cloth manufacture. In the oldest legislation governing this industry, dating from the fourteenth century, we can catch a glimpse of its early organization as its members idealized it. Manufacture was to take place in small, domestic units located within the boundaries of the city, and each producer was to operate independently, not as the agent of an entrepreneur who put out work to him. Weavers not only were expected to keep the instruments of their craft “in halls and rooms next the road,” where only two or three looms could have been worked at one time, but also were forbidden to receive yarn “from anyone except…their husbands and wives.” Similarly, fullers were expected to work only their own cloths, presumably buying them from the weavers, then in turn selling their work to the drapers. Finally, cloth was to be sold primarily in the weekly cloth market held in Tucker Street, which all the city’s merchant drapers were obliged to attend. Only if cloth failed to find a buyer there could it be offered privately.[5]

The wistful tone of these old ordinances makes clear, however, that even at this early date these arrangements survived solely as ideals from a distant past. We can identify two major lines of development in the cloth industry. First, by the 1340s Bristol’s boundaries no longer successfully contained its burgesses’ involvement in woolen manufacture. The combing of wool, spinning of yarn, and weaving, fulling, finishing, buying, and selling of cloth by Bristolians or their employees now took place in the countryside as well as the city.[6] Second, a distinct group of entrepreneurs operating on a large scale had emerged to dominate the industry. To be sure, the industry still sustained a relatively large number of independent producers in Bristol. In 1346, for example, eighty-eight fullers resided in the city, most presumably still using the old walking technique to treat their cloth. But even among these men significant signs of change abounded. Although various ordinances stipulate wages to be paid workers at the stocks and the perch, instruments associated with the older techniques for shrinking and thickening woolens, much of the actual fulling appears to have occurred at mills located in the Mendip and Cotswold hills, with only the “rekkyng, pleyting and amending” of the cloth taking place in Bristol itself. Some of the fullers, then, seem to have become clothiers responsible for organizing the finishing stages of production.[7] At the same time, weaving seems to have fallen under the control of a small group of entrepreneurs, who put out woolen yarn to weavers in both country and town. From other sources we know of the existence of individuals such as Thomas Blanket who maintained large workshops in their own houses, containing “divers instruments for weaving” operated by a number of “weavers and other workmen.” Many of these men participated actively as merchant drapers and as cloth exporters to the overseas markets. Some traded in a wide variety of goods, including dyestuffs, wine, and oil among imports; leather and wool as well as cloth among exports. Thus in place of the antique ideal upheld by the city’s ordinances, we have an industry organized along distinctly proto-capitalist lines.[8]

Unfortunately, it is impossible to reconstruct in detail the pattern of occupations in Bristol during this period. Our best guess is that 20 percent of the city’s population, and probably more, were employed at least part of the time in the various stages of textile production.[9] But we can do somewhat better in establishing an economic profile for the city’s elite, the members of its Common Council. Almost all the fifty-six known councillors from the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth century engaged in overseas trade to some degree, but there was as yet no differentiation of retail shopkeeping from wholesale trading or from the financing of cloth production. Many held properties, usually in the form of tenements and workshops, in the clothmaking districts. They seem very much a group of general entrepreneurs dependent on commerce in cloth, but not yet committed exclusively to overseas trade.[10] Where specialization occurred in this period, it was less in commerce than in real estate and shipping. According to E. M. Carus-Wilson, William Canynges the Younger, one of Bristol’s, and indeed England’s, richest men in the fifteenth century, held “fourteen shops, at least seventeen tenements, a close and two gardens in Bristol, and lands in Wells, the hundred of Wells and Westbury on Trym.” He also owned at least ten ships, which William Worcester tells us directly employed about eight hundred men. Nevertheless, Canynges, once a merchant in his own right, had ceased to trade. Trade in this period, focused as it was narrowly on cloth and wine, exchanged among only a small network of traders in a handful of ports, did not readily lend itself to great concentrations of wealth. For the Bristol entrepreneurs, the only avenues for long-term investment were property and ships, and many of the leading men in the fifteenth century put their hard-earned profits into these ventures as they drew back from the risks of everyday dealings. But for most of the others, trade remained centered on cloth, until the great changes of the second half of the fifteenth century altered this pattern forever.[11]

By the early sixteenth century the social effects of the decline in Bristol’s cloth trade were already quite clear. Judging from apprenticeship records, which give us a rough idea of the demand for labor in particular industries, the proportion of those directly engaged in making cloth during the 1530s and 1540s had fallen to something less than 15 percent (Table 8).[12] About a third of these men were weavers, but they produced mainly cheap cloths, such as friezes, that were a far cry from the fine-quality “Broadmeads” that had made the city’s looms so famous in the fourteenth century. Most of the remainder of the textile manufacturers were engaged in the dyeing and finishing trades. Since the work of several weavers normally was required to employ a single dyer, fuller, and shearman, this imbalance implies that Bristol was receiving the fabrics not only of its own weavers but of country producers as well. Bristol, in other words, had become something of a center for cloth finishers. Many of these individuals used their position at the end of the production process to command the market and to finance and manage manufacture through its various stages. The fullers or, as they were called in sixteenth-century Bristol, tuckers, were especially active entrepreneurs, successfully outmaneuvering the shearmen during a nearly century-long battle for control of the industry. The catastrophic fall in Bristol’s cloth exports and the heavy emphasis upon the manufacture of coarse and cheap fabrics, however, made this victory somewhat pyrrhic. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the place of textile manufacture in the city had fallen even a bit further, despite efforts to build up the industry through production of new, lighter-weight fabrics such as worsteds, fustians, and serges.[13]

8. Distribution of Occupations Among
Bristol Apprentices, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  No. %[a] No. %[a]
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
 Leading entrepreneurs
   Merchants 119 8.51 142 5.22
  Major retailers 145 10.37 317 11.65
  Soapmakers and chandlers 18 1.29 89 3.27
   Total 282 20.17 548 20.13
 Textile production 196 14.02 369 13.56
 Leather production 150 10.73 103 3.78
 Clothing production and other secondary users of cloth and leather 287 20.53 393 14.44
 Metal crafts 121 8.66 317 11.65
 Building trades 35 2.50 197 7.24
 Shipping and related trading and port activities 155 11.09 521 19.14
 Food production and related industries 91 6.51 171 6.28
 Woodworking 18 1.29 20 0.73
 Professional and service industries 42 3.00 68 2.50
 Miscellaneous 21 1.50 15 0.55
  Total known 1,398   2,722  
  Total unknown 7   12  
     Total 1,405 96.43 [b] 2,734 95.86 [b]
Women[c] 52 3.57 [b] 118 4.14 [b]
     Total Men and Women 1,457   2,852  

There is more here than merely a dismal tale of dwindling trade. Beneath the statistics also lie signs of renewal. In the early sixteenth century the city was already characterized by a new and distinctive distribution of occupations. Just as Coventry, Worcester, and Norwich possessed occupational structures typical of textile towns, and Northampton of a leather-producing one, Bristol now had an occupational structure typical of commercial towns, with a heavy emphasis on trade-related crafts. In the 1530s over a third of all apprentices in the city specialized in overseas trade and retailing or in serving the port; the figure would be even higher if we included among the retailing shopkeepers such small craftsmen as shoemakers, tailors, and other clothing manufacturers, many of whom ordinarily sold at retail what they produced. By the 1620s, this pattern had developed further, with almost half of the apprentices employed in commerce, merchandising, and shipping. In this same period, a similar proportion of the city’s freemen came from this sector of Bristol’s economy. Again, these already large percentages would be still more striking if we also counted the small craftsmen engaged in clothing manufacture. Where once Bristol had itself been primarily a center of cloth production and its trade, it had now become a center of more general overseas commerce and regional distribution.[14]

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