Early modern England was marked by profound changes in economy, society, politics and religion. It is widely believed that the poverty and discontent which these changes often caused resulted in major rebellion and frequent 'riots'. This book argues for the inherently political nature of popular protest through a series of studies of acts of collective protest, up to and including the English Revolution. Authority was always the first historian of popular protest. Explaining the complex relationship between the poor and their governors, the book overviews popular attitudes to the law and the proper exercise of authority in early modern England. A detailed reconstruction of events centring on grain riots in the Essex port of Maldon in the crisis of 1629 is then presented. Urbanisation, regional specialisation and market integration were the larger changes against which disorder was directed between 1585 and 1649. The book discusses the 'four Ps', population growth, price rise, poverty and protest, explaining their connection with population explosion to poverty and protest. The major European revolts of the so-called 'Oxfordshire rising' are then analysed. Popular politics might deploy 'weapons of the weak' in a form of everyday politics that was less dramatic but more continuous than 'riot'. On the very eve of the Civil War, large crowds, with underemployed clothworkers, attacked and plundered the houses of local Catholics and proto-royalists among the nobility and gentry. In a culture that proscribed protest and prescribed obedience, public transcripts could be used to legitimise a popular political agency.
Reconstructing popular political culture in early modern England
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book. The book includes the studies that arose from a larger and continuing project. Each was designed to support an argument for the importance of contextualising crowd actions. The book focuses on social and economic conflicts in early modern England. A consistent theme running through the author's work discussed in the book is reflected in the essays that follow. The theme is the crowd actions were necessarily political and need to be understood in the context of a popular political culture. The book concludes by offering early and later statements of the author's understanding of the context for the exercise of a popular agency provided by the deep structures of the English state.
Popular culture and popular protest in early modern England
In early modern England, the authority was always the first historian of popular protest. At the best, authority's reaction to disorder might show an awareness of at least the immediate causes of discontent, though, such reports would continue to talk of such actions as disorder, denying legitimation to the protest. This is best represented in the reports of provincial authorities. Any reading of the texts produced by authority needs to take into account both the context of socio-economic and political structures and the political culture which informed them. The English Crown went to considerable lengths to publicise to the people, its policies for regulating the pace and process of economic change. In the early modern period, the moral economy was as much that of the Crown as the crowd. Reading crowds thus helps to restore agency to the people in the past.
The complex relationship between the poor and their governors, with the food riot as its epicentre, forms the subject of this chapter. Using legal records as a point of entry into the mental world of the seventeenth-century poor, the chapter covers, in the evidence of the food riot, popular attitudes to the law and the proper exercise of authority in early modern England. It does so within the specific context of a detailed reconstruction of events centring on grain riots in the Essex port of Maldon in the crisis of 1629. The disorder at Maldon has acquired a certain notoriety. The example of Maldon enables us to penetrate the rhetoric of authority and to examine the nature of the magisterial response to popular disorder.
This chapter offers a preliminary indication of the patterning of food riots between 1585 and 1649 in early modern England. Urbanisation, regional specialisation and market integration were the larger changes against which disorder was directed in this period. Since the central government kept an anxious watch on outbreaks of disorder in conditions of scarcity, its records provide a reasonably accurate indication of the chronology and topography of the food riot. These records have been supplemented by, and checked against, a systematic search of central legal and local records. A deadly combination of trade depression and harvest failure (1630) brought a notable increase in disorder in the period 1629-31. In 1629, there was disorder in Somerset and Essex, occasioned by a shared grievance: the export of grain.
The Oxfordshire rising appeared at first glance a crumbling cornerstone upon which to elaborate an argument for the association between distress and disorder in the crisis of the 1590s. It offers valuable insights into the nature of social and political relationships in early modern England. The Oxfordshire rising, though stillborn, had important consequences for the history of early modern England and for how historians interpret that history. Events in Oxfordshire in 1596 were, in the words of a French historian of the crisis of the 1590s, 'la tentative de soulèvement paysan'. They seem scarcely to merit their inclusion in a recent roll-call of peasant revolts in early modern Europe. The failure of the rising is all the more striking. Deciphering this conundrum, will be argued but, can contribute to an understanding of the larger discrepancy between the growth of poverty and decline in disorder increasingly into the seventeenth century.
This chapter focuses on the series of discrepancies between the dominant and widely accepted model of socioeconomic change in early modern England. This change suggests a sharp growth in the proportion of the early modern population that were 'harvest-sensitive', and the more muted record of death and disorder that has emerged from recent studies. The textile communities of Westmorland and the West Riding of Yorkshire were rendered doubly vulnerable as rural industrialisation encouraged population growth in grain-deficient, upland pastoral and harvest-sensitive economies. But where rural industry supplemented household economies that retained an agrarian base, it contributed to a dual economy that offered greater protection against dearth. Protection demanded membership of a community, whose rules and boundaries were defined increasingly by those chief inhabitants for whom growing wealth made redundant the reasons for observing customary patterns of mutual aid against dearth.
For many contemporaries, the social impact of the 1640s could be captured in the image of the world turned upside-down. This chapter looks at the threat to the social order posed by a concatenation of popular disorder and a simultaneous questioning of the structures and ideas by which social order had been maintained. It examines why the 1640s did not in fact see the world turned upside-down. With all sources of authority challenged in a society with long-term stresses exacerbated by the pressures of civil war and the challenge of radical ideas, it did seem that the world might be turned upside-down. English Civil war created new sources of disorder. The chapter discusses these sources in detail. New structures of state authority were created by the Civil War, but these, with their heavy demands, were seen as one of the sources of disorder.
In early modern England, crowd actions were one of the most powerful ways in which the ruled could negotiate the exercise of power. This chapter attempts to recover the broader 'infrapolitics' of the ruled, of which crowd actions form only a part. The starting point for this exercise is a critical engagement with the work of James Scott. Scott's notion of the public transcript can be made to address directly issues of political culture. While the public transcript is largely the work of politically dominant elites, Scott argues that it was the outcome of negotiation between dominant and subordinate groups. A rhetorical strategy, based on popular knowledge of the public transcript, while allowing subordinates to shame and coerce individual opponents, was most effective, when it allowed the ruled to summon authority to intervene on their behalf in the politics of subsistence.
This chapter concentrates on the 'performative violence' in the 1641 depositions, in an attempt to get behind the biases in the archive and to recognise the statements made through the violence. It seeks to bring together and build upon the findings of the distinguished group of historians whose work has done so much to recover the value of the 1641 depositions. The chapter argues that, while both sections of Irish landed and urban society became entangled in the violence, popular participation suggests a greater level of popular political engagement. In what Clodagh Tait has called the 'politics of disinterment', the attack on churches involved the desecration of the Protestant bodies buried there. The chapter recovers the dramaturgy of the 1641 violence. The victims of violence testified within the discourse of godly suffering and racialised representations of the native Irish as duplicitous, barbarous and savage.