HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

Lecture 16

 - Popular Protest


Professor Wrightson reviews the basic structures and aims of popular protest: notably food riots and agrarian disturbances. He notes that such disturbances were often surprisingly orderly affairs, rather than chaotic expressions of discontent. They aimed to defend traditional rights (rooted in custom) that participants felt were being threatened, either by food shortages or by agrarian changes such as enclosure. The forms taken by such events reveal a coherent moral order. Professor Wrightson reviews the tactics employed by protestors and the ways in which they constituted attempts to negotiate with authority. Official responses were often equally restrained, although the government was capable in some situations of displaying real severity. He concludes by noting that these forms of early modern popular protest were fundamentally political in nature, and that while agrarian resistance gradually subsided, these defenses of popular custom and rights influenced early forms of labor organization from the late seventeenth century onwards.

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Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

HIST 251 - Lecture 16 - Popular Protest

Chapter 1. Riot [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: Right. Okay. Let’s begin today with a few apparent paradoxes. In one of my earlier lectures I quoted to you at length from the — [laughter]. Okay. Okay. That gives authenticity, right? [Laughter] Okay. Start again. I quoted to you at length from the Tudor Homily on Obedience first published in 1547 with its stress on hierarchy, degree, order, subordination, and obedience. And yet as you know within two years of the publication of that homily in 1547 there was a wave of peasant protest in 1549 right across the south of England and open rebellion in East Anglia, Kett’s Rebellion.

This was a society in which the common people below the level of the ‘middling sort’, the leaders of village society, had no formal political voice. They were, as Sir Thomas Smith put it, “to be ruled over and not to rule others,” and yet not infrequently we find those same common people raising their voices in protest and sometimes in demand. It was a society in which the gentry rulers regarded their social inferiors with a great deal of condescension. The language they used to describe them says it all: the “meaner sort of people,” “the clowns,” “the ruder sort,” “the rabble.” And they expected their deference. Men were expected to uncover their heads before their social superiors, do them “hat honor,” as it was called, women were expected to bob a curtsy, and yet this condescension on the part of the gentry was tinged with anxiety and an expectation of insubordination. As one of them, Sir John Oglander, put it, “the common people are always apt to rebel and mutiny upon the least occasion.”

Well, how can one reconcile all of these paradoxes? Well, maybe the answer is in fact simple enough. Deference and obedience was the norm, it was instilled by precept, it was learned by repeated daily experience, and yet periodically it could perhaps be destabilized by circumstances; a famine perhaps, a particularly callous example of exploitation by a landlord. Things like that could perhaps render people desperate, leading them to rise in a convulsive spasm of anger and despair, and when that happened all good order could be threatened by the mob, what the gentry called the “many-headed monster,” the common people, “the beast with many heads.”

Well, it’s a powerful image and not without historical foundation, and yet to characterize all or even most forms of popular disturbance in early modern England in this way is profoundly misleading. A generation of research on popular protest has shown just how inadequate that stereotype is, and the resulting shift of perception amongst historians is reflected in the kind of language they now use to describe these things. People nowadays talk little about ‘the mob’; they talk more about ‘the crowd’. They talk less about ‘revolt’ and more about ‘protest and resistance’. We’ve moved from the study of ‘riots’ to the study of what people term ‘popular political culture’. Now whether that term is fully justified we’ll see, but the evidence at least reveals that the common people were neither unconditionally deferential to their rulers nor on the other hand were they secretly alienated from the existing social order, but rather, as one laboring man from Northamptonshire in the English Midlands put it on one of these occasions, they could — to quote him, they could “tell well enough how to devise a means to help themselves.” And they could do that within the parameters of the prevailing structures of power and authority within which they were obliged to work because as yet no one had suggested any possible alternative.

Popular protest has been well described by John Walter as being in the first instance a “politics of subsistence,” a politics of subsistence. Its most immediate objectives were frequently the defense or the amelioration of a threatening economic situation. The most obvious case of that was in the case of food riots. These tended to occur in years of dearth; bad harvest years when grain was in short supply and the prices of food rocketed, years like 1587, 1594 to ‘7, 1622 to ‘3, 1631, 1647 to ‘8, and so on. These riots also occurred in years of industrial depression when rural industrial workers in particular who were dependent upon the market for most of their food supplies found that they lacked the income to supply themselves because their employers were no longer able to put out work to them. The 1620s saw some very bad industrial depressions of that kind.

Well, either circumstance, a bad harvest or a year of industrial slump, could produce a sudden and catastrophic decline in what economists refer to as people’s ‘exchange entitlements’ as consumers, or in plain English, they were unable to afford the food that they needed. Agrarian disturbances were rather less predictable, but they occurred sporadically and occasionally in areas, or individual communities, where the manorial tenants, or the local population more generally, were confronted with changes which threatened to undermine the viability of particular patterns of local rural economy.

So, in 1536, as you know, part of the causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace rising were protests against the pushing up of entry fines for land in parts of northwestern England. In 1549, Kett’s Rebellion was rooted in protests against the exploitation of landlords’ grazing rights. But above all in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the grievance which motivated protests was enclosure; enclosure of the land which extinguished rights of common pasture; pasture rights which were particularly valued. So, for example, in the small town of Berkhamstead, which is just to the north-west of London in the county of Hertfordshire, in 1618, several villages existed around a very large area of common land on which they all had rights to graze their cattle and sheep; they had rights to put their pigs into the woodland; they had rights to gather fuel and wild fruits and to capture small animals for the pot, rabbits in particular. The loss of all that, when attempts were made to enclose Berkhamstead common, were deeply resented, and that’s the kind of situation that so often occurred. Now situations of that kind occurred sporadically though sometimes they also came in clusters.

In 1607, there was a wave of enclosures in villages where the three counties of Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, and Leicestershire met in the Midlands up here. That was known as the ‘Midland Rising’ because there was a kind of scattering of riots across the whole area. Or again in 1628 to 1632 there occurred what’s known as the ‘Western Rising’ in the forested areas of the west of England. Those areas were being disafforested and cleared and the land turned into enclosed farms, and much resistance sprang up amongst those who had formerly enjoyed common rights in the woodlands. And finally in the — from the 1630s, in response to the drainage of the Fenlands of eastern England and the allocation of reclaimed land in enclosed farms to those who invested in that improvement, there was a wave of resistance. The people of the Fens to the south of the Wash and in Lincolnshire lost, as a result of the drainage, their grazing rights, their fishing rights, their wildfowling rights, the rights to gather rushes and turf for thatch or fuel, and they bitterly resisted these changes in the so-called ‘Fenland Riots’ which actually sputtered on for over thirty years.

Okay. So we’re dealing primarily with forms of protest against, or forms of resistance to, circumstances which had a detrimental effect upon the household economies of the inhabitants of particular districts, and those circumstances were felt at one time or another all over England and Wales. But there was also rather more to it than that, although it took historians quite a while to appreciate the fact. When people first started looking closely at the records which survive relating to these events, the most immediately striking thing about the evidence was that these risings, revolts, or riots were in fact relatively restrained and relatively purposefully directed.

Perhaps we’d been misled by the very term “riot,” which was often used to describe them in the legal records. That word of course conjures up an image of lurid breakdown of order, but in fact in English law a riot was simply an unlawful act committed by three or more people who had assembled for the purpose. As a result, the reality of those events which are described conventionally as ‘riots’ could be much less harrowing than the image which the term tends to conjure up in our minds.

So, take food riots for example. First of all, they were by no means an automatic response to the existence of a dearth or scarcity of food. They were in fact relatively few even in pretty bad years. Their form was also relatively restrained. Crowds didn’t simply seize food from anyone who had a stock of food to be seized; the gentry or big farmers with well-stocked barns, for example. In fact, food riots were almost exclusively directed at middlemen in the grain trade. They were almost entirely directed against corn dealers. Again, crowds involved in these riots rarely stole food and took it away. More likely they involved the stopping of middlemen who were transporting grain which they had bought up in bulk in the market and forcing them to sell it to the crowd at prices below the inflated market rate; that’s to say at prices which local people thought they could afford. And finally they very rarely involved violence against people. Quite often food riots involved, or were even led by, women who could be quite violent in their language and their threats but rarely physically violent. The object was to prevent the removal of grain, to keep it in the area, and to force those who had it to sell it to local people, rather than to attack them personally.

So essentially it appears to be the case that these were protests against dysfunctions in the developing internal traffic in foodstuffs. Such a trade, especially in grain, was essential to supply England’s growing cities and those areas of the countryside which are often described as ‘dependent areas’ which didn’t produce enough grain for the local population’s needs. But the system of internal trade which was developing was not yet sufficiently well developed to iron out regional inequalities in the supply of foodstuffs which was available in bad years, and in addition that system offered opportunities or temptations to evade the law.

The law stated that the poor should always be served first in the market, at prices which were agreed by the market officers as reasonable, before large-scale commercial dealers were allowed to participate. Yet that law was frequently flouted. In Hertfordshire for example to the north of London, in 1598 the local justices had to deal with the major problem of large-scale dealers who were supplying the London food market intercepting grain before it ever came to the local markets, buying it on the road and removing it immediately to London. Problems of that kind could provoke a great deal of local resentment.

And this kind of situation helps to explain the geography of food riots. They tended to take place in or near market towns in heavily populated areas with many consumers dependent upon those markets. They took place in or around market towns of food-exporting areas where the local poor witnessed commercial dealers buying up supplies at prices which they couldn’t afford, in order to ship the grain elsewhere. And they occurred in areas that such dealers passed through on their way to major urban markets. In particular, one finds a lot of food rioting in the market catchment area of London, in the southeast, and in the southwest around the great city of Bristol; similarly to a lesser degree around Norwich in East Anglia. So these actions were aimed at rectifying quite specific forms of local grievance, a sense amongst local populations that they were being exploited by middlemen in the grain trade and abused. Where there was no such grievance the poor seemed simply to have tightened their belts in bad years or even in some parts of the north and far west to have starved quietly. And those of them who did take action usually did it in a fairly purposeful manner, focusing on achieving a specific end — supplying their own needs at prices that they could afford. Defending, one could say in the jargon, their ‘exchange entitlements’.

Well, similarly, agrarian disturbances present a less lurid picture than the one conjured up by the word “riot.” They certainly often involved large crowds of people who had assembled together to prevent an enclosure, or to reverse it, or to prevent the drainage of Fenland, or to reverse it, and so forth; knocking down hedges and fences, blocking drainage works and so forth. But they were also relatively orderly. Surprisingly often agrarian riots were announced in advance. They were even sometimes preceded by meetings in the local manor court or in the church at which the tenants would agree upon their action. In one village for example called Ryton, R-y-t-o-n, up in the northeast of England, in 1607, the manor court actually required all tenants to turn up with a spade or an ax in order to take down an enclosure to which they objected. They even laid it down in the manor court, as a bylaw, that any tenant who failed to turn up to take part would be fined six pence.

Sometimes these actions were initiated having been agreed upon by a public signal, quite often the tolling of the church bells. They frequently involved the gathering of whole communities: men, women, and children together. Sometimes they were led by local notables. Sometimes the minister of the parish might be the leader. Sometimes they were led by parish or manorial officers, or members of the manorial jury. Sometimes they even enjoyed the tacit support of sympathetic local gentlemen, who might themselves be losing out from a particular enclosure and were content to encourage some action against it, even though they rarely took part themselves. One of the reasons that Oliver Cromwell was so popular in eastern England, in the Fenlands that he came from, was the fact that in 1628 he had defended the rioters in the Fens in Parliament against the innovations that they were protesting against. He was known as the “Lord of the Fens” for his popularity in the area. It didn’t hurt when he later recruited his regiments there.

Chapter 2. Ritualism [00:18:21]

Riots often involved a strong element of ritual. Frequently, they involved the ritual removal of a fence or a hedge. Sometimes those who pulled down fences or hedges did it two at a time to avoid the legal definition of a riot as an illegal act committed by three or more persons. Sometimes the youth, or the women of the community, were to the fore in this action in order to evade severe punishment. It was thought that they would be held less culpable. Sometimes hedges were pulled down by men dressed as women, and this transvestite element in the ritual of rioting is quite fascinating. It perhaps symbolized a world turned upside down. No one could have deceived themselves that these were actually women. They had beards for a start. [laughter] But they dressed as women sometimes, perhaps symbolizing a world turned upside down.

Fences and hedges once they were destroyed were sometimes sawn up and burned, or even ritually buried. Sometimes the land returned into tillage was ritually plowed to symbolize its return to the manorial community, or sometimes where it was common pasture which was being defended, animals were put back onto it by the villagers in order to symbolize their reclamation of their common pasture. And quite often all of this might be accompanied by a rather festive atmosphere. Cakes and ale were frequently prepared to be enjoyed afterwards, often around a bonfire. Music sometimes accompanied the proceeding. There might be dancing. In the Fenlands they enjoyed a game which was known as “Fenland football.” This was the original form of football in which large crowds of young men simply chased across the countryside kicking an inflated pig’s bladder. In the Fenland when they got together for Fenland football, they kicked it across the countryside and destroyed every drainage ditch that they passed in the course of chasing the ball.

It’s interesting also that these actions often took place upon festival days. The rising in the Midlands in 1607 started on May Day. Shrove Tuesday in February was often a popular date. It was a time known for village games which involved rituals of inversion, turning the world upside down for a day. Another popular occasion was Rogation Day, the day on which people perambulated the boundaries of the parish to note the parish boundaries, and that’s something I’ll return to. And again, agrarian risings of this kind very rarely involved violence against people. The crowds might appear very threatening. There were rarely any injuries to individuals. Indeed, those against whom the crowd were rioting or protesting very often kept out of the way.

Chapter 3. Legitimizing Ideas [00:21:38]

So what we’re dealing with are occasions which were often very highly targeted and very purposeful affairs, rather than outbreaks of anarchy and unrestrained violence. It’s equally evident that they were expressive of a kind of moral order, which involved not just defense of the material interests of the community, important as that was, but expressed also a set of values: what E.P. Thompson in a famous phrase described as the “moral economy of the crowd,” by which he meant a popular consensus about the nature of legitimate and illegitimate practices in economic life, involving notions of the proper behavior expected from different sections of the community, and asserting notions of certain popular rights in the economic sphere. Rioters do indeed very often seem to have been infused with a strong sense of the rectitude of their acts. They were sustained in that by certain legitimizing ideas.

As one might expect, in agrarian disturbances the vital legitimizing idea was that of custom. As you know, in any individual manor, custom constituted a kind of local lived-in environment of norms and usages, a collection of rights which people believed to have existed “time out of mind to which the memory of no man is to the contrary,” in the phrase they often used; “time out of mind.” And to that extent custom provided a powerful legitimating rhetoric for actions of this kind. For example, in 1630 when the tenants of one manor in the southwest of England defended their claim to pasture rights in the forests they were able to produce ten witnesses whose average age was seventy-eight, quite extraordinarily old people for this period, who testified to the existence of their customs in the woodlands during their own long lives and in those of their fathers and of their grandfathers, as they had been told when they were children.

But in the changing circumstances of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries custom had become not only a set of long-established rights and practices but also, in a time of change, a potential arena of conflict between landlords and tenants. If the tenants were trying to defend what they took to be the antiquity and reasonableness of customs which protected their interests, many landlords were anxious to explode those claims, or to persuade people, or to pressurize people, into removing customs which inhibited what they saw as ‘improvement’ of their estates. With that kind of conflict of interests, when push came to shove the notion of the sanctity and wisdom of custom strengthened the arm of those who tried to resist claims against local customs which were detrimental to their interests.

In the case of enclosure, they saw themselves also as resisting a kind of innovation which had been declared illegal by various statutes throughout the sixteenth century. The laws against enclosure in fact were repealed in 1624, but the fact that enclosure had for long been declared illegal by Parliament was remembered, and that again gave a sense of legitimacy. And some rioters could even claim a higher authority. As I mentioned, very often enclosure riots took place on Rogation Day. That was the day when traditionally the older members of the village community gathered together with some of the youngest members, in particular young boys, to walk the boundaries of the parish, to ‘beat the bounds’ as it was called. The Church of England even had a special homily for Rogation Day and it had some significant texts. One of them was Deuteronomy 27:17: “cursed be he that removes his neighbor’s landmark.” Another was Proverbs 22:28: “remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” The rituals of walking the boundaries of the parish were all about such landmarks, they were all about such boundaries, such common territories and their sanctity, and they tried to impress upon the young boys who were part of the procession, where exactly the boundaries were. There were various rituals involved in this. If a boundary involved a stream, then one of the boys might be thrown in the stream to help him remember where it was. [laughter] It was common if there were boundary stones to get one of the boys to touch the stone with his finger after which the finger was twisted by one of the older men to give him a sharp pain to remind him. One village practiced sitting little boys on the stones with their bare bottoms. They sometimes even struck a child at particular boundary spots so that they would remember the place. It was all part of the ritual. If such occasions sometimes ended with purposeful attacks upon new-fangled boundaries which had been erected in the form of enclosure and which excluded local inhabitants from formerly common land, then they may very well have had a sense of divine approval for what they did in defending their boundaries.

As for food rioters, they had a strong enough sense of their own right to have food available at reasonable prices. When she was asked what had motivated her to take part in the stopping of a grain shipment in 1629, one woman from Essex said it was, to quote her, “the cry of the country and my own want”; “the cry of the country and my own want.” Grain rioters could also claim, with some justification, to be merely enforcing the law. They could see themselves as engaging in a kind of mass citizen’s arrest of grain dealers who were breaching market regulations, or they could see themselves as enforcing the regulations supposed to be put into effect in times of scarcity which the local magistrates should have enforced. And frequently grain riots broke out where the magistrates had been slow to do so.

Chapter 4. Riot as a Tactic [00:29:01]

So then, rioting crowds had an empowering sense of the rectitude of their actions. But of course they weren’t simply disinterested upholders of custom and law. They were also defending their own interests, and in that endeavor riot was a tactic in a kind of negotiation with local authorities. Very often food riots were preceded by petitioning; petitioning the local magistrates to act to relieve distress and to put into operation scarcity regulations. It was commonly the case, as I’ve already observed, that such riots came after weeks of deteriorating circumstances during which the local magistrates had been slow to act. Hence, you could see riots as being in some sense a kind of “petitioning in strength and in deed.”

Agrarian riots were often in a similar way a particular stage in a process of dispute and negotiation. That might include, for example, initial appeals to people who had set in motion enclosure schemes to desist and give them up. The appeal might come from a local minister. It might come from sympathetic local gentlemen. It might come from the women of the parish. It might come from the manorial jury. If that failed, then there were a number of informal sanctions which could be taken to try to put moral pressure upon those who were engaged in an enclosure. So for example, in 1616 in a village called Over Compton, which is in Dorset down in the southwest, a local enclosing landlord who was called Andrew Abington found a paper stuck on the church door when he came to church one Sunday. The paper read, “Here be Andrew Abington’s Commandments,” and it followed: “Thou shalt do no right. Thou shalt catch what thou canst. Thou shalt pay no man. Thou shalt bear false witness against thy neighbors. Thou shalt deny thine own hand,” that is deny responsibility. And shortly afterwards, Andrew Abington’s Commandments, having embarrassed him at the church door, had been set to music and were being sung around the local ale houses as an effort to humiliate him.

Or again there could be anonymous threats. One landlord in Warwickshire in 1607 received an anonymous letter threatening that action would be taken if he proceeded with the enclosure, and the letter was signed “Thomas Unhedgeall”; Thomas Unhedgeall. Another form of action frequently taken was to initiate lawsuits. Sometimes tenants would get together and pool their resources in a common fund to bring a case. At Neroche Forest in Somerset in the west country, for example, tenants anxious to defend the woodlands “put their purses together,” as it was put, on the advice of the sympathetic steward of another local gentleman, who gave them that advice after an open meeting, and then with their common purse they hired a lawyer to bring a case to try to prevent the enclosure.

When a riot came it was often also a deliberate tactic to get the case heard in an authoritative central court, especially the Court of Star Chamber meeting in Westminster. The Court of Star Chamber, as one of the highest courts in the land, was staffed with councillors who were often reasonably sympathetic to the interests of the local tenantry and who might further their case or force arbitration in the interests of preserving public order. A riot, which could provoke a landlord to bring a case in Star Chamber, was an excellent way of having local grievances heard before an authoritative forum and had the additional advantage of getting it done at the expense of the landlord who brought the case.

So there’s a tactical element in many enclosure riots and that’s, of course, an important reason for their relative restraint. They were a way of calling the authorities’ attention to grievances; a way of putting pressure on the authorities to act and to remedy these discontents. And surprisingly often it worked. Magistrates did put emergency dearth regulations into operation in the aftermath of food riots. Punishments of food riots were usually relatively few and relatively light. Or again Star Chamber or other central courts quite frequently ordered the settlement of particular disputes by a process of arbitration and sometimes indeed they even found for the tenants and forbade the planned enclosure.

But, if action on the part of local people was not restrained in that way it could be a very different story. At Maldon on the coast of Essex in 1629 for example, there were two food riots. The first of them ended in the authorities taking action to put scarcity regulations into effect and punishing very few people and punishing them only lightly. When a second riot took place, the authorities lost their patience. A special commission was sent down from Westminster which tried those involved as ringleaders in the riots and hanged four of them, including the leader of the Maldon riots, Ann Carter, who was known to her followers as ‘Captain Ann’. Or again in the Midlands in 1607 the spread of rioting against enclosure from parish to parish was eventually deemed by the authorities to be so threatening that they defined it as treasonable rebellion. Martial law was declared and the rising was put down with another crop of executions, including the execution of the leader, John Reynolds, known to his followers as ‘Captain Pouch’. He got that name because he had a leather pouch in which he claimed to have authority from the king to oppose enclosures. When he was taken, it was found that his pouch contained his lunch, some bread and cheese. Interestingly, in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography you’ll find both Ann Carter and Captain Pouch included amongst the dignitaries of national history. The — our sense of the past has broadened wide enough to include people who previously would have had no place.

Well, that kind of outcome, if things were deemed to have gone too far, could very sharply remind the common people only too graphically of who ruled in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. And that kind of flat repression of discontent was usually a sign that the authorities had become nervous. And it raises a further point. The usual focus in the literature upon the relative order and the rationality and the tactical good sense of popular protest, and on the usual moderation of response on the part of the authorities, all of this is true. And yet it runs the risk of making it all seem a little bit too neat, a little bit too orderly. I think we have to remember also that there was a good deal of danger in all of this activity; sometimes quite serious danger.

Chapter 5. Riot as Un-political [00:37:50]

One mustn’t forget that the participants in many of these actions were very anxious and sometimes very angry. We mustn’t forget that sometimes what began as a specific, localized, limited, protest could escalate. The outstanding example is Kett’s Rebellion in 1549, which began as an enclosure riot and ended of course with open rebellion and indeed a pitched battle. That was very exceptional. Nonetheless, that possibility did exist. The point is that as a tactic of protest and as a tactic of negotiation with rulers, riot could be a rather dangerous game of brinkmanship. The authorities for their part had to try to contain it. They were expected to respond. They had to retain their authority and their credibility by responding in the right kind of way. The crowd for its part often pushed and menaced, but it had to avoid going too far if it was not to provoke pretty severe retaliation. Acts of insubordination had to be tricked out with the appearance of ultimate deference to authority. The responses of concession and conciliation which the authorities made had to retain the appearance of gracious magnanimity on the part of rulers, concerned rulers. That was the best way to save their face.

It seems to be the case that for the most part this delicate line was held, which is, in a way, a tribute on the one hand to the skill with which the leadership of the crowds conducted their actions and, on the other hand, the skill with which many of the magistrates tried to defuse what were potentially very explosive situations. But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that the protestors were sincere in the postures of deference which they might adopt in the face of authority when they negotiated with them, and it certainly doesn’t mean that popular protest was, as some historians have argued, essentially un-political.

When people describe these actions as un-political what they seem to mean is that they involved no challenge to the authority of the state, and that they were not indicative of any revolutionary attempt to overthrow the established social order. Well, of course they didn’t! Even the most determined of protestors had no alternative model of the social and political order to appeal to. There are no conceptions of equal rights. There are no conceptions of democracy. They had to work within the structures of power and authority in a hierarchical society as they found them. Their objectives were necessarily limited. But that doesn’t mean that their objectives were not ‘political’ in the sense that they were attempting to exert some influence on how power was exercised, influence on how power was exercised within their local communities.

These forms of popular protest one could say, in that sense, were quintessentially political in the sense that they advanced claims by local people to be considered; that they advanced claims to certain rights — to eat, to enjoy the common — rights which they were very aware of even in a social system that permitted them no formal political voice. They could still have some say in defining the terms of their subordinate place in society and they could achieve limited ends in doing so. That matters a great deal. It matters a great deal because it prevented their complete alienation from the existing social order and encouraged them to seek justice where they felt aggrieved, rather than simply exacting from time to time a desperate and bloody revenge — and that mattered. It could matter a great deal in particular when the country fell into political crisis in the 1640s.

And finally, one last point: the historians who write about popular protest very often have, towards the end of their studies, a somewhat elegiac tone. That’s because in the long run the defenders of the customary agrarian order lost. They lost because the world that they — that they were trying to defend was gradually dissolving all around them. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the resistance of manorial communities to agrarian change was very largely over, because such manorial communities hardly existed anymore. Communities of tenants with a collective interest in the customs of the manor had gradually given way to a rural society consisting of landlords, large-scale commercial farmers, and landless agricultural laborers who possessed very few rights to defend.

But, if that was the case, the tradition of protest established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not entirely die. Grain riots certainly continued. They faded out only in the nineteenth century when greater agricultural productivity and modern railway transportation finally ironed out and alleviated the inequalities of supply which had once provoked those local actions. And as for the defense of custom one could say, I think, that aspects of it were transferred into another sphere. Custom might be in retreat in rural England, but in the emerging world of industrial England a new world of custom was being born. It was being born amongst the skilled journeyman workers of the urban trades, amongst rural weavers, amongst coal miners, and seamen in the growing merchant navy. In all of these spheres new customs, the customs of the trade, were being established. And they involved, rather like the older agrarian customs, certain established expectations and practices: expectations regarding fair wages, decent working conditions, the proper relationship which should exist between master and employee. These people, increasingly numerous in the seventeenth century, were the products of an emergent capitalist market economy. They were its children. They didn’t oppose it as such. But they tried to place their own limitations on the demands which it made upon them, as best they could, defending their own place within its structures. I’m speaking of course of the emergence of the earliest forms of labor organization which you find emerging amongst the journeymen and manufacturing workers of the industrial districts from the late seventeenth century. The context had changed, but the essence of the tradition could be said to have continued in new ways for new times. The age of the manor was ending, but the age of organized labor was just beginning.

[end of transcript]

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