The Forming of the Charitable Institutions of the West of England: A Study of the Changing Pattern of Social Aspirations in Bristol and Somerset, 1480-1660

By W. K. Jordan | Go to book overview

PREFACE

This study bears a direct relationship to a larger work now in progress. The first volume, published in 1959 under the title, Philanthropy in England, 1480- 1660, was an essay commenting on evidence drawn from ten English counties (among them Bristol and Somerset) which together comprised something like a third of the land mass of the realm, about a third of the population in 1600, and perhaps half of the wealth of England in the age with which we are concerned. An effort was made to assess the social problems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to describe the nature of the problem of poverty in this era, and to trace out the heroic measures which men took to secure its control, if not its cure. Though important remedial legislation was enacted, it was our conclusion that men of the age reposed their principal confidence in private charity, gathered in charitable trusts into large and disciplined aggregates of wealth with which extremely effective and enduring social institutions could be founded and maintained. Men of the age by their own efforts and with their own substance gained a large measure of control over the spreading and chronic social blight of poverty and, more importantly, went far towards securing its prevention by a vast enlargement of the ambit of social and economic opportunity.

The reader of this essay may wish to refer to that volume for a fuller explanation of the historical method employed, for comment on its limitations, and for certain conclusions based upon large masses of evidence drawn from the ten selected counties, among which Bristol and Somerset are numbered. In particular, we would emphasize the comments made there on the decline in the purchasing power of money through most of our period, which affects, of course, the statistical evidence presented throughout this work. Generally, however, it may be said that the philanthropic impulse was derived from many sources during our period and that it evoked a steadily and rapidly mounting charitable response which reached a great climax of giving in the first generation of the seventeenth century, when, it is not too much to say, the basic institutions of the modern society were securely established. Men's aspirations underwent a notable metamorphosis in the century following the English Reformation, an almost complete absorption with the secular and visible needs of the society marking this transformation. All regions and all classes yielded, rapidly or reluctantly as the case might be, to these powerful forces of change and to the resolution to build a better, a more comfortable, and a more civilized habitation for mankind.

The second volume of the larger study was published in 1960 under the title, The Charities of London, 1480- 1660: The Aspirations and the Achievements of the Urban Society. This work was concerned with the immensely important contribution of London to the social and moral betterment of the whole kingdom, as London's great and generous wealth flowed out to form new institutions and to safeguard mankind against the terrors of poverty, disease, and ignorance. London, in terms of its size, its wealth, and its lusty confidence, was an urban colossus fixed in what can only be described as a rural setting on a national scale. In this second volume we sought to comment on the vast charitable contribution which London made, to describe at some length the corporate social philosophy of the merchant aristocracy which ordered its affairs, and to measure the social dominance gained by London in this era, as the flood of its charitable generosity literally poured out across the face of the whole realm.

The series will be concluded with a third volume in which three diverse and widely separated rural counties ( Buckinghamshire, Norfolk, and Yorkshire) are studied in detail. Here we shall observe a quite different pattern of social aspirations, a slower yielding to the secular metamorphosis which marks our period, and a surviving parochialism which is most dissimilar to the almost evangelical concern of London with the whole society.

Of the counties which remain, Bristol and Somerset together form an important and a unique entity, well deserving separate treatment and consideration. Bristol, as compared with London, was small, but it was nonetheless throughout our period one of the three or four truly urban complexes in England, and it was dominated by an urban aristocracy of very great vitality, boldness, and imagination. Miracles of social and institutional achievement were wrought by these men in their beloved city in the span of a little more than a century. Somerset, lying next this thriving city, remained notwithstanding one of the most completely rural counties in the realm and exhibited a quite different trend of social and historical development under a wholly different kind of leadership. In microcosm, we have here a social laboratory, as it were, in which we may observe the metamorphosis which occurred as the urban aristocracy of Bristol and the landed gentry of Somerset--the two classes in which the dominant thrust of historical change and social transformation is to be observed in the early modern era--molded and remade the two societies in terms of their own aspirations over a span of not quite two centuries.

The writer is deeply indebted to the American Philosophical Society for a generous grant which enabled him to complete in England the research on Bristol materials and substantially to advance that carried forward in Somerset. He is also most grateful to that old and eminent Society for its assistance in the publication of this essay under its distinguished imprint.

W. K. J.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

-3-

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The Forming of the Charitable Institutions of the West of England: A Study of the Changing Pattern of Social Aspirations in Bristol and Somerset, 1480-1660
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Preface 3
  • Contents 5
  • Iii. Somerset 5
  • Appendix 90
  • Index 95
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