Scenes from Common Life

V.G. Kiernan

  • A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England 1381-1914 edited by Christopher Hampton
    Penguin, 624 pp, £7.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 14 022444 0
  • Riots and Community Politics in England and Wales 1790-1810 by John Bohstedt
    Harvard, 310 pp, £12.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 674 77120 6
  • The World We have Lost – Further Explored by Peter Laslett
    Methuen, 353 pp, £12.95, December 1983, ISBN 0 416 35340 1

J.F.C. Harrison has recently told us ‘about the people who are usually left out of history’ – such people as the maid-of-all-work in 1909 whose duties kept her busy from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.[*] Christopher Hampton gives us, in an anonymous 15th-century poem, a lament over women’s perpetual drudgery. His extract from the early feminist Mary Astell, writing in 1721, acknowledges that by comparison with Eastern women, who ‘are born Slaves, and live Prisoners all their Lives’, Englishwomen have an easy servitude, but ‘Fetters of Gold are still Fetters.’ By 1839 there was a ‘Female Political Union’ at Newcastle. Women and their uphill struggle are among leading themes common to both books. Hampton’s is an anthology of writings, stretching from Peasants’ Revolt to Great War, designed ‘to provide material for an alternative history of England which would put the radical progressive views of the people themselves at the centre of the narrative’.

Here the term ‘people’ has a broader meaning than with Harrison: most of the witnesses summoned, from Shakespeare down, belonged to the educated classes. Many of an astonishing procession of writers or speakers – often sufferers in one good cause or another – are household names, on the strength of literary or other fame; many others are buried in the thick shadows of the past, and this rich volume does good service by rescuing them. Each writer is briefly introduced; a twenty-page chronology provides a useful memory-reviver, and helps the reader to appreciate the continuity of much radical thinking – the influence, for example, of 17th-century debates on reformers in the early 19th century, with ideas emerging into daylight once more like a stream long flowing underground.

Grievances of poor against rich, worker against master, are prominent here too. Another anonymous poem, of about 1400, cries out against dodges for defrauding hired hands. Capitalism was a precocious newcomer, up to its knavish tricks betimes. Matters of government and politics occupy more of the foreground. Generous space is devoted to the Commonwealth era, and to Milton and Winstanley, Lilburne and other Levellers, George Fox and other sectaries. Part Five is on ‘The Age of Revolution and Total War, 1789-1848’. Midway through this Shelley was writing of ‘the privileged gangs of murderers and swindlers, called Sovereigns’; in today’s world he would only need to replace monarchs with dictators.

Religion has been closely intertwined with politics, above all in the years of what used to be called the ‘Puritan Revolution’. The vanguard of religious freedom failed to win the masses then, as socialism in the last hundred years has failed; while orthodox Puritanism strove for a moral rigour unpalatable to the man in the street or tavern, the most advanced sectaries sometimes straggled into an equally disapproved rejection of all morality. Lawrence Clarkson describes how when he was the leading light of a flock of Ranters, ‘most of the principal women came to my lodging for knowledge’: the kind of knowledge he imparted to them might be called one version, scarcely the most edifying, of women’s liberation.

Taxation worsened by the costs of the Hundred Years War lit the fuse that set off the Peasants’ Revolt. War and peace have always been a central concern of progressive thinking, though it cannot be pretended that all the luminaries here marshalled took the right side. Shakespeare frequently took the wrong one; and probably few radicals have ever been progressive all round. A county petition in 1780, an expostulation against corruption and misgovernment, alluded to the ‘most expensive and unfortunate war’ then going on; it had begun with the American colonists’ rebellion against George III. Anti-war fervour shines through all the Romantic and radical literature of the epoch darkened by the wars of 1793 to 1815: again there is a close correspondence with what swelling numbers of men and women are feeling today. In a passage that might fittingly have been included, Hazlitt recorded his first meeting with Coleridge, and the youthful poet, ‘an eagle dallying with the wind’, preaching on the horrors of war in the Unitarian chapel at Shrewsbury. Shelley and Byron condemned or satirised war in their own styles. Blake may deserve the palm. He saw and heard in imagination, as we can do with less effort now:

Albion’s mountains run with blood, the cries of war and of tumult
Resound into the unbounded night.

And he had the same sympathy for enemy France, where ‘the pale mother nourishes her child to the deadly slaughter.’

So oppressive were the rich and great, Robert Crowley declared in 1550, that ‘we must needs fight it out, or else be brought to the like slavery that the Frenchmen are in!’ ‘European slavery is indeed a state of liberty, if compared with that which prevails in the other three divisions of the world,’ Joseph Addison wrote in 1712; and if England had not been in at least some way ahead of nearly all the rest of Europe, this long outpouring of inspired thoughts on right and wrong would have been impossible. All the same, freedom of thought was always under attack, milder or sharper; and as Hampton says in his introduction, it still has ordeals to face nowadays when it receives so much lip-service, and its survival depends on ‘the determination of those who are prepared to act’.

One short, tumultuous span of years, when the people’s most elemental needs were in jeopardy, is minutely investigated by John Bohstedt. His method has been to scrutinise ‘an objective sample’ of the more than a thousand riots that broke out during 1790-1810, in order to discover how and why they occurred. They were too commonplace to be unduly upsetting, and it was rarely that magistrates fell back on the Riot Act, more rarely still that any fatalities ensued. It may be conjectured that in the course of the protracted, burdensome, unpopular wars, the government hesitated to provoke its subjects too far. An exceptional case was one at Barrow village, near Leicester, in 1795, a bad year for hunger. The inhabitants wanted to stop grain from being moved out of the district. A local agreement was patched up; intervention by the Yeomanry frustrated it, stones and brickbats flew, and firing resulted in three deaths.

Such episodes were ‘informal tests of power and policy shaped by local social relationships’. Two areas come in for special attention, and offer contrasting pictures. In Dorset ‘food riots were both frequent and disciplined,’ for the reason that they arose in market towns with ‘dense, stable social networks’, capable of neighbourly understanding. ‘Rioters were well-established members of their communities.’ In 1801 General Simcoe, an outsider, was dreadfully alarmed; the county magnates preserved a ‘prosaic confidence’. Manchester was an opposite case, ‘a town of strangers’, of ‘class alienation’ resulting from the advent of industrialism and influx of newcomers; its troubles, in the same crisis years, ‘clearly reflect the breakdown of social networks’. The civic authorities displayed resourcefulness, relying on the soup kitchens as well as sabres, ‘aggressive and efficient philanthropy’. Bohstedt goes beyond E.P. Thompson in rejecting any crude equation between hunger and protest; ‘links between hardship and collective violence’ were on his showing very complex.

The World We Have Lost came out first in 1965, established itself before long as a landmark in research along novel lines, and now after many intermediate updatings reappears in a third edition, incorporating the latest findings, and adding fifteen thousand words to the original length. It may be profitably read along with the new works now seeing the light, since it brings out so strikingly the broad likenesses and unlikenesses between industrial and pre-industrial England, particularly with regard to family life and population levels. Laslett prefers to call the new approach it exemplifies ‘social structural history’, rather than sociology. He dismisses any exclusively economic interpretation as sterile, and believes that ‘certain features of Marxian historical sociology’ have been unintelligently overworked: but he ends by predicting that in the ‘new historical criticism’ he advocates, ‘the Marxian element in sociological thought because of its explanatory power will play a formidable part.’

[*] The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present (Croom Helm and Fontana, 15 March.) The book was reviewed here by Angus Calder.