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The model of society employed in the foregoing analysis is the social pyramid, with an undifferentiated body of wage laborers at the base and the leading overseas merchants at the apex. In such a social order the number of places available in a given rank is fixed, with only a handful of places at the top. Within this framework the meaning of the term “social mobility” is limited. Strictly speaking, it can refer only to the relative ease with which members of different social groupings attain access to the various positions in society, since no more than a small portion of the population can ever reach the heights. Using this definition, an increase in social mobility denotes an improvement in the chances members of the lower ranks have for social betterment, not a rise in the proportion of the total population achieving the upper reaches of the pyramid, which under our definition is a logical impossibility. Under this interpretation, an increase in social mobility indicates only the achievement of a more representative distribution of social backgrounds through all levels of the social hierarchy.

But a second, broader way of considering social mobility is sometimes confused with the first. If a change upward or downward is observed in the percentage of the population able to reach the pinnacle of society, what has occurred is the development of a new framework of social organization. This kind of social mobility is different in character from the first, since an increase or decrease in the percentage of the population reaching the topmost positions can result only from a change in the proportion of positions at the top. In other words, in order for there to be social mobility in this second sense, the old social pyramid has to disappear and be replaced by a structure with a different shape. The new one could be just another pyramid with steeper or more gently rising sides. But it could also be something closer in form to a Siennese tower, with a small room atop a narrow staircase, or to the Empire State Building, with a small tower perched above a larger one. Or it could be analogous to a modern glass-and-steel office block, with clean rectilinear lines. The degree of social mobility possible in a society in the first of our two senses will depend on this second, structural sense, that is to say, on what form society takes and on the consequent proportion of places in the various ranks.

The social changes experienced in Bristol between the 1530s and the 1630s were of the second type: they were changes in structure, rather than in mobility narrowly construed. During this century Bristol became a society in which the topmost positions tended increasingly to be inherited by those born into high rank. We can see this difference in several ways. Between 1532 and 1542, two hundred and eighty-two men were apprenticed to the diverse group of leading entrepreneurs, of whom sixty-eight, or about a quarter, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, five hundred and sixty-four men were apprenticed in this group of trades, of whom one hundred and fifty-seven, or almost 28 percent, were Bristolians. Taking merchants separately, one hundred and nineteen of them were apprenticed between 1532 and 1542, and one hundred and forty-two between 1626 and 1636 (Table 16).[71] In other words, between the end of Henry VIII’s reign and the beginning of Charles I’s there was a dramatic change in the proportion of merchants to major retailers and soapmakers. In the earlier period, merchant apprentices represented about 42 percent of all those we have classified as leading entrepreneurs, but in the later period they represented only about 25 percent. Whereas the total number of merchants apprenticed in Bristol increased by less than 20 percent—in other words, below the rate of population increase—the total number of apprentices in all crafts almost doubled and the total number of apprentices among the other leading entrepreneurs increased more than two and a half times.

16. Occupations Into Which Bristolians and Non-Bristolians
Were Apprenticed in Bristol, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Bristolians Non-Bristolians Total Bristolians Non-Bristolians Total
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 31 88 119 63 79 142
         % of total known men 8.20 8.63 8.51 6.57 4.48 5.22
         % of category 26.05 73.95   44.37 55.63  
    Major retailers 31 114 145 65 268 333
         % of total known men 8.20 11.18 10.37 6.78 15.20 12.23
         % of category 21.38 78.62   19.52 80.48  
    Soapmakers and chandlers 6 12 18 29 60 89
         % of total known men 1.59 1.18 1.29 3.02 3.40 3.27
         % of category 33.33 66.67   32.58 67.42  
           Total 68 214 282 157 407 564
           % of total known men 17.99 20.98 20.17 16.37 23.09 20.72
           % of category 24.11 75.89   27.84 72.16  
    Textile production 56 140 196 124 229 353
         % of total known men 14.81 13.73 14.02 12.93 12.99 12.97
         % of category 28.57 71.43   35.13 64.87  
    Leather production 51 99 150 38 65 103
         % of total known men 13.49 9.71 10.73 3.96 3.69 3.78
         % of category 34.00 66.00   36.89 63.11  
    Clothing production and other
   secondary users of cloth and leather
85 202 287 146 247 393
         % of total known men 22.49 19.80 20.53 15.22 14.01 14.44
         % of category 29.62 70.38   37.15 62.85  
    Metal crafts 37 84 121 144 173 317
         % of total known men 9.79 8.24 8.66 15.02 9.81 11.65
         % of category 30.58 69.42   45.43 54.57  
    Building trades 7 28 35 69 128 197
         % of total known men 1.85 2.75 2.50 7.19 7.26 7.24
         % of category 20.00 80.00   35.03 64.97  
    Shipping and related trading
   and port activities
26 129 155 193 328 521
         % of total known men 6.88 12.65 11.09 20.13 18.60 19.14
         % of category 16.77 83.23   37.04 62.96  
    Food production
   and related industries
20 71 91 50 121 171
         % of total known men 5.29 6.96 6.51 5.21 6.86 6.28
         % of category 21.98 78.02   29.24 70.76  
    Woodworking 6 12 18 11 9 20
         % of total known men 1.59 1.18 1.29 1.15 0.51 0.73
         % of category 33.33 66.67   55.00 45.00  
    Professional and service industries 15 27 42 19 49 68
         % of total known men 3.97 2.65 3.00 1.98 2.78 2.50
         % of category 35.71 64.29   27.94 72.06  
    Miscellaneous 7 14 21 8 7 15
         % of total known men 1.85 1.37 1.50 0.83 0.40 0.55
         % of category 33.33 66.67   53.33 46.67  
          Total known 378 1,020 1,398 959 1,763 2,722
          Total unknown[a] 1 6 7 5 7 12
            Total men 379 1,026 1,405 964 1,770 2,734
         % of total 93.58 97.53 96.43 93.14 97.41 95.86
         % of category 26.98 73.02   35.26 64.74  
Women 26 26 52 71 47 118
         % of total known women 6.42 2.47 3.57 6.86 2.59 4.14
         % of category 50.00 50.00   60.17 39.83  
      Total Men and Women 405 1,052 1,457 1,035 1,817 2,852
         % of category 27.80 72.20   36.29 63.71  

These figures suggest that either the size or the number of retail establishments grew faster than did merchant firms. But the expansion in Bristol’s trade in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries should have had the opposite effect, since the greater scope and complexity of commerce ought to have resulted either in the taking on of additional merchant apprentices to conduct business in different markets or in the establishment of larger numbers of specialized firms working in conjunction with one another. Given that between the late fifteenth century and the late sixteenth, the number of merchants entering goods in the Bristol customs records had fallen from about two hundred and fifty per year to fewer than one hundred,[72] it is clear that no such changes had occurred among merchant firms. Instead merchants must have relied on journeymen to serve as factors and supercargoes in their enterprises. This conclusion in itself suggests that entrance into full participation in the merchant’s trade was more difficult in the early seventeenth century than it had been in the early sixteenth. What explains the increased demand for apprentices among the retailers? Since nothing about the scope or techniques of the drapers’, grocers’, or mercers’ trade had changed significantly between the two periods, at least as far as we know, it is likely that the larger numbers of apprentices entering those enterprises reflect an increase in the number of retail establishments in Bristol while the number of merchant firms declined or remained at the same level as in the 1530s.[73]

Another change also occurred. In Henry VIII’s reign, about a quarter of all merchants’ apprentices and about a fifth of those bound to major retailers and other large-scale dealers and entrepreneurs were native Bristolians. This proportion did not change in the early seventeenth century for the retailers. In the case of the merchants, however, the ratio of Bristolians to non-Bristolians went from about one in four to one in two and a quarter. That is, at the same time that Bristol-born merchant apprentices were becoming a socially more exclusive group, a higher percentage of positions with overseas traders were being filled by residents of the city, often the sons of fellow merchants (see Table 16). From what family backgrounds did the non-Bristolians come? In the pe-riod 1532–1542, they were a relatively diverse group. Of the eighty-eight strangers apprenticed to merchants in this period, only about 15 percent were the sons of esquires and gentlemen; another 17 percent were from the families of merchants and other leading entrepreneurs. The majority came from the less exalted ranks of English society; the industrial crafts, especially textile manufacture, account for just over 25 percent, and agriculture for just over 40 percent. The same general pattern is observed in this period among the apprentices to major retailers and soapmakers. In Charles I’s reign, however, the picture is significantly different. Of the seventy-nine outsiders bound to merchants, only about 13 percent now came from artisan families and another 13 percent from agriculture. The fathers of the rest consist of about 16 percent merchants, 4 percent clergymen, and over 48 percent esquires and gentlemen. The contrast with apprentices in other leading entrepreneurial occupations is striking. Although about 20 percent of non-Bristolians indentured to major retailers and soapmakers had gentry backgrounds, these trades were filled primarily by the sons of yeomen, husbandmen, and minor craftsmen, not from the rural or urban elite.

These data confirm the picture we have been seeing of Bristol society as becoming increasingly rigid and hierarchical in its organization during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, apprenticeship reveals the process of occupational and social mobility only at second hand. In and of itself it granted nothing but seven years or more of training and labor in the household of a master. Only if the servant established his own business at the end of his term would apprenticeship have contributed significantly to his advancement. In Bristol and in most other corporate towns in early modern England, this transition was accomplished when a young man entered into the freedom of the town by swearing a formal oath to preserve its liberties and abide by its customs. Performance of this ritual and payment of the appropriate fees gave him full rights to trade under the privileges and immunities of the town. This freedom to trade could be obtained in early modern Bristol in any of four ways: by apprenticeship to a freeman, by patrimony, by marriage to either the daughter or the widow of a freeman, or by redemption, which was accomplished by the vote of the Common Council and the payment of a substantial entry fine. Each signified in its own way that the newcomer possessed social connections within the city. Only apprenticeship, however, permitted an individual truly to earn his place. Even though, as we have just seen, family background limited who became apprenticed to whom, once a young man’s years of service were completed his social origins were technically irrelevant. If he had sufficient resources to start a business of his own, his service in his master’s household fully warranted his entrance into the freedom. The other criteria for admission were different in character, since each stressed the newcomer’s social ties, not his training or economic success. Even redemption, which was purchased, depended less on wealth than on acquiring the goodwill of the Bristol common councillors. As a practical matter this meant having the patronage, and usually also the formal surety, of at least one and commonly several well-established and fiscally sound local businessmen. What is of interest for our purposes is the relative importance of apprenticeship to the other three forms of admission. Since the number of freemen who could successfully carry on business in a particular trade or craft was limited by the size and scope of the market, those admitted by patrimony, marriage, or redemption reduced the number of places available to young men seeking their economic independence by apprenticeship (Table 17).

17. Percentage of Freemen Admitted to Leading Entrepreneurial
Occupations by Patrimony, Redemption, and Marriage, 1607-1651
Source: Bristol Record Office, Burgess Book (1607–1651).
Merchants 36.67 33.33 26.09 60.00 66.67 48.89 36.84 40.48 48.48 55.56 45.71 44.71
Other large-scale dealers, major retailers 20.00 24.44 32.14 24.39 23.40 21.05 26.79 18.18 26.67 25.00 34.69 25.27
Soapmakers and chandlers 25.00 35.71 9.09 6.67 8.33 7.14 5.26 20.00 16.67 10.96
    Total 22.09 25.56 31.18 29.85 30.00 30.70 25.84 27.84 29.46 30.59 36.46 28.89

Unfortunately, we have no long series of admissions to the freedom for the sixteenth century on which to base a comparison, but an examination of the relationship between admissions by apprenticeship to admissions by the three other means in the first half of the seventeenth century shows how difficult it was to become a merchant during this period. Although merchants were one of only three groups in which the ratio between apprenticeships and admissions to the freedom was less than two to one, this fact by itself does not tell us whether a larger than average proportion of merchant apprentices attained the freedom of the city, or whether the percentage of admissions by patrimony, marriage, and redemption was higher for merchants than for other trades.[74] The evidence supports the second conclusion. Between 1607 and 1651, nearly 45 percent of all merchants entering the freedom of Bristol were admitted by patrimony, marriage, or redemption. In some periods the figure was almost 66 percent, and at no time did it fall below 25 percent. The most usual standard was patrimony, which accounted for over two-thirds of the one hundred and thirty-one merchants who were admitted in a way other than by apprenticeship. The figures for major retailers and soapmakers show a much stronger role for apprenticeship. Over the whole period, it accounted for three-quarters of new admissions in these trades, falling only once a fraction below two-thirds. This is the same pattern as in the minor crafts and lesser trades, where typically 70 to 75 percent of new admissions were by apprenticeship. In other words, not only were merchant apprenticeships dominated by the sons of leading entrepreneurs and country gentlemen, but entrance into the seventeenth-century merchant community was more dependent upon birth and family than is true of nearly all other crafts and trades. For members of Bristol’s lower social ranks, moving to the top of the social hierarchy was even more difficult than the apprenticeship data reveal.

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