David Underdown

  • Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England 1509-1640 by Roger Manning
    Oxford, 354 pp, £35.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 19 820116 8

We have been taught to think of the Tudor monarchs as having brought stability to England after the disorders of the 15th century. So they did, in a way. Yet between 1509 and 1640 there were more than three hundred riots in England, many of them occasioned by the enclosure of common land or the denial of customary rights of pasture. Some were large enough to be dignified by the names ‘rising’ or ‘rebellion’, as was the case in the Midlands in 1607; others were small and insignificant, a handful of obscure villagers levelling someone’s hedges and letting their cattle in. Some were led by prominent gentlemen, some by poor husbandmen; some by men, some by women, some by men dressed as women.

The subject takes us into territory hotly disputed by agrarian and economic historians ever since R.H. Tawney published his celebrated Agrarian Problem in the 16th Century in 1912. It has always been clear that the massive change in land-use that occurred between the 15th and the 19th centuries helped to bring English agriculture into the modern world of capitalist production for the market; what historians have disagreed about has been the timing and the cost. Was the cost the virtual destruction of the village community, as rural society divided into the two groups characterised by W.G. Hoskins as ‘the shearers and the shorn’? Or was it, as Eric Kerridge argued in a vigorous assault on the baneful influence of the socialist Tawney, a much more benign process, the cost greatly exaggerated by sentimental historians, who failed to see that the law did in fact protect the interests of the poor landholders in so far as it was reasonable to do so? The rural riots described at such length by Professor Manning were, in this view, simply blind Luddite protests by people defending their own outmoded special interests against the onward march of modernisation and the marketplace, though in some of them agrarian grievances were merely pretexts for the pursuit of violent gentry feuds. Manning inclines to the Tawney side of the debate, though not uncritically, for he has obviously read and assimilated most of the huge body of literature which has accumulated on this subject since Tawney. And in the modern way, he sometimes tends to invoke local differences – one thing here, another thing there – as a way of straddling fences.

Manning has mined a vast quantity of court records (largely from the Star Chamber, the normal venue for riot cases), and his book, sprawling and densely-packed with detail as it is, yields a number of useful conclusions. He reminds us, first of all, of the strength of localist attitudes in the Early Modern world: the determination of villagers to protect their communities against the intrusive activities of strangers. ‘The most typical victim of the enclosure riot,’ he tells us, ‘was the outsider,’ and his book abounds in stories of the nasty things that could happen to nouveaux riches or ‘foreigners’ from other parts of England when they were in too much of a hurry to exploit their new estates. In one Staffordshire village a greedy farmer found that his neighbours had destroyed his grass by driving their hay-wains four abreast through it. His handling of statstics is sometimes rather wooden, but again many of the conclusions are worthwhile, showing, for example, what a small affair the typical enclosure riot was. Only seven out of 107 riots that found their way into Manning’s sources in Elizabeth I’s reign involved more than 30 people (which did not stop the vengeful queen from recommending the use of martial law as the quickest way of bringing such ‘incorrigible rogues’ to the gallows).

The Queen’s bloodymindedness reflects a general shift during her reign away from the relative leniency towards enclosure rioting that had been the rule in earlier years. Land shortage and rising food prices brought increasing misery for the impoverished majority of the population, particularly in the awful decade of the 1590s, when years of harvest failure followed one another in grim succession. The result was a marked increase in all kinds of disorder, a tendency for enclosure disputes which before had been usually restricted to a single village to be of wider scope. The 16th century equivalent of the flying picket made its appearance, and then as now, it provoked a savage reaction on the part of those in authority: pathetic fantasies like those of Bartholemew Steere in Oxfordshire were blown up into imaginary rebellions, couched in the vocabulary of class war, and judges showed their usual ingenuity in expanding the scope of the law of treason. The danger to the interests of property-owners was not entirely imaginary. Both in 1596 and after the more dangerous Midland Rising of 1607, there were some instances of imitative direct action: a rich web of popular folklore about riots and revolts was drawn on, as were memories of the mythic ‘Captain Pouch’ who led the 1607 affair, and of the ‘camping days’ of Ket’s Rebellion in 1549.

The response of Tudor and early Stuart landlords to the galloping inflation that threatened their ostentatious life-styles led them to extract the last ounce of revenue from their estates, often by methods of dubious legality, and Village Riots pulls together some dramatic examples of this process of fiscal seigneurialism. Tenants could be browbeaten or bamboozled into agreeing to the extinction of pasture rights, their ancient customs riddled with loopholes created from ingenious interpretations of precedents in court rolls. If the evidence contradicted seigneurial claims, the rolls had a nasty habit of disappearing altogether – as they did at Petworth when the Earl of Northumberland was trying to get out of debt. The humble tenantry, it must be said, was also perfectly capable of helping inconvenient records to disappear, but it is clear that the combined effects of fiscal seigneurialism and the 1590s dearth did lead to the impoverishment of a good many small farmers. One valuable aspect of Manning’s study is that it provides suggestive evidence about the way in which the location of the worst outbreaks of discontent changed over time.

Why did people do it? Why did they so often risk imprisonment, heavy fines, a spell in the pillory, at worst a hanging, by engaging in this hopeless violence? Professor Manning adequately explains the economic elements in their motivation, but on the broader aspects of the political culture of his villagers he is strangely silent. The enclosure riot, he insists, was not a political act; village rioters, to use the language he borrows from Eric Hobsbawm, were pre-political, ‘devoid of political consciousness’, without a ‘political vocabulary’. He reveals even more clearly some of his own assumptions when he contrasts ‘the ideologically barren environment of the village’ with the more politically fertile and sophisticated urban culture. His rioters only become ‘political’ if they are led by members of the élite (who alone have any real awareness of political issues), or take place in the towns, particularly London – as in the riots against the Duke of Buckingham in the 1620s. (Manning, like too many social historians, does not seem very comfortable with politics, and makes some astonishing statements about the arrival of political stability as a result of the Elizabethan religious settlement and the succession of the Stuarts, as well as minor slips like misdating the assassination of Buckingham’s pet astrologer, Dr Lambe, by two years.) In places he unnecessarily diminishes his own subject, reflecting in the manner of Peter Laslett that every society contains a degree of conflict, and that occasional expressions of it are a matter of routine.

Well, of course, it all depends on what we mean by politics. If, like Hobsbawm, we regard as political only actions which are directed towards changing the government or social order, and not those aimed at upholding them or correcting grievances within them, then we are obviously not going to find much that is political anywhere in the Early Modern period. But why should politics have to do exclusively with change? It is true that only in the occasional major outbreaks like 1549 or 1607 do we encounter anything remotely resembling the class language of modern times, or any serious demands for a change of regime at the top. But politics surely consists of all those matters that concern the public weal, whether of the national state or the local community: and if we accept that broader definition of politics, then Manning’s riots were often very political indeed. They were, of course, directed towards the preservation – or, perhaps more accurately, the resurrection – of an idealised version of a mythically harmonious social order, a ‘merry world’ in which social hierarchy existed to protect the interests and the customary rights of rich and poor alike. That this adulation of a vanished or perhaps fictitious past does not accord with our modern prejudices does not entitle us to dismiss it as primitive.

Manning’s book deals with attempts to defend a traditional conception of the community. Yet he seems to have no interest in the symbolic forms in which that conception was expressed, or the meaning of the ritual acts that he describes. He briefly mentions the many legitimising rituals that rioters employed – ringing church bells, reading ‘official’ proclamations, adopting military order and discipline – but makes very little of them. He notes the use of ritual disguises and blackened faces in attacks on deer-parks in the Kentish Weald during Henry VIII’s reign, but offers no comment on this manifestation of a phenomenon whose 18th-century form is familiar from the pages of E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters. In the course of an interesting account of some 16th-century riots at Finedon, Northamptonshire, he tells us that one lord of the manor had enclosed a path traditionally used for village processions. But he does not stress that this action was a blow aimed at the symbolic heart of the local community.

Ritual and symbolic action in the period covered by this book was a far more serious matter than the cursory treatment Manning gives it would suggest. Without considering it we cannot even begin to penetrate the mental world of these Early Modern villagers, or understand what they were about when they protested against enclosures or anything else. The traditional Shrove Tuesday apprentice riots against brothels were not the ‘antics’ or ‘frivolous gestures’ that Manning labels them, and as Tim Harris has shown, they did not die out at the Civil War. In another revealing sentence, Manning declares that a simple enclosure riot was ‘hardly more than a skimmington, and thus a fairly primitive form of social protest’. This surely indicates a serious misunderstanding of 16th-century rural culture, which was heavily influenced by notions of ritual inversion. If the proper moral order has been turned upside down – by enclosing landlords, greedy expropriators of customary rights, or profiteers who export grain during times of shortage, no less than by married couples who invert it by permitting wifely infidelity or dominance – it must be turned rightside up again by symbolic action. Enclosure riots are drenched in this kind of symbolism.

The meaning of some of the rituals is obvious even in Professor Manning’s account. One riotous procession in Bedfordshire, he tells us, was preceded by ‘a drunken peddlar on horseback while the real leader marched in their midst’. What better way of demonstrating that order and morality have been inverted and must be put right? Others are less obvious, yet receive little discussion. Women rioters and cross-dressing, for example: Manning swallows the official line that when riots were led by women it was because their menfolk, believing that women would receive more lenient treatment from the courts, were hiding behind their skirts. A more thorough consideration of food riots, particularly the well-documented one at Maldon in Essex in 1628, of which John Walter has written a fine account, would surely have cast doubt on this assumption, which in any case neglects the elements of ritual inversion which are so central both to the acceptance of female leadership and to the adoption of female disguises. There are wonderful opportunities for this kind of cultural analysis in many of the Star Chamber lawsuits that Manning so painstakingly reconstructs. As in any lawsuit, the two sides in these disputes are often telling stories that reveal their contrasting values. But they need to be analysed historically.

In the end, Village Revolts fails to do justice to a crucially important aspect of its theme. To be fair to Professor Manning, his book contains an impressive quantity of evidence about resistance to enclosures, and he makes many perceptive observations about it: he suggests, for example, that Thomas Hobbes could have acquired his distaste for popular government by observing the riotous behaviour of the commons in some disputes over common lands during his young days at Malmesbury. The book is not really about riots as much as it is about resistance to enclosures. His final sentence sums it up nicely: the villagers, he says, were ‘vainly attempting to restore a lost world which may never have existed’. The economic aspects of that struggle we are better able to understand, in all their complexity, after reading this book. What we are still no better able to understand is the sort of thing that happened at Datchet, near Windsor, in 1599, when the Star Chamber gave its verdict against a group of enclosure rioters of both sexes. The women were sentenced to be ducked in the cucking-stool, the men to stand in the pillory in the women’s clothes they had worn during the riots.