‘No political uncertainty, it is not surprising

‘No good end can be obtained by rioting’. How true
was this of the early modern period?

 

   Across the early modern period, rioting was
seen to take a prominent stance in societies. Due to the period being engulfed
with poverty, famine, socio-economic and political uncertainty, it is not
surprising that people would challenge these injustices. Within this essay,
rioting will be portrayed as successful, despite the traditional argument that
is was irrational and didn’t result in much change in society. This will be
done through the interrogation of different historiography and through regional
comparisons, so as to analyse the impact of rioting at a more global scale to
avoid reductionism. Historians have often disputed the success of riots in the
early modern period; whilst beforehand there was the argument that rioters
would riot for vulgar and irrational reasons, there is now new historiography
which pays more close analysis to the crowd and how they were not just a
faceless mob.1
This shows a big development in the history of rioting, which needs to be
addressed. Therefore, it could be argued that rioting did not always obtain a
bad end, in fact, it helped the government address the social problems in
society and legitimize their demands.

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   The earlier interpretations on the success
of rioting holds the view that riots were violent actions pushed by the
illiterate of society, resulting in crime. The consensus of riots during the
time period is put forward by Lambarde when he says ‘the assemblie of many for
breach of the Peace, offereth more daunger and hurt, both generalye to the
Commune wealth wherein it happeneth…’.2
This accentuates the negative attitudes displayed by the elite towards riots in
the early modern period. These attitudes are supported by 19th
century historians when they suggest riots resulted in ‘violence, born of
despair, and greed…belonging to the poor alone’.3
This is extended through Hibbert when he describes ‘the reasons for riot were
of little concern to the mob, which joined in on the fun of looting, the
chances of free drink and free women, or perhaps free food for starving
families’.4
All these historians highlight the fact that riots consisted of the poor being
greedy. However, Hibbert’s statement could be refuted because, if they were
rioting over food for ‘starving families’, it shows the motive for rioting
justified through the fact that society was starving to death. This is also
seen through Plumb’s statement beforehand when it suggests that rioting was
‘out of despair’; it could be understood as a last resort. Despite this, riots justifiably
have been seen to end unsuccessfully and considered irrational, through
examples such as rioting over dearth. Occasionally, in the midst of food
shortages, peasants would ‘not see it as the result of harvest failure, but
the deliberate creation of those who sought to profit by the exploitation of
‘want amidst plentiful’.5
In 1647, the poor of Chelmsford complained about dearth being the result of the
rich increasing the prices of food purposely. Resultantly, peasants would often
violently attack middlemen, in the suspicion that they were exploiting the
poor. This could be one of the irrational beliefs that stereotyped the negative
portrayal of riots. A further irrational belief that resulted in violent rioting,
was when the poor thought harvest failure was due to witchcraft. Mobs would
form to accuse people who they thought displayed powers to inflict evil on
society, something which at the time would have seemed as a more acceptable
riot, because witchcraft was a common belief of the time period. It could be
argued that persecution by the mob, was a successful riot as this would lead to
government prosecution and the conviction of the supposed witch, seen through
how ‘the total number of witches executed in the English witch-hunt is
estimated between five hundred and a thousand, although many more accused
witches died…as victims of mob violence’.6
This is also seen when villagers would accuse their neighbours of witchcraft in
times of financial instability or family rivalries. This demonstrates the power
of the people, as moral agents in society. However, riots in regards to
witchcraft could be an exception in this analysis as the success comes from the
common goal shared with society and the government; the suppression of witches.

Therefore, the success of rioting is limited in this sense.

 

   New historiography of riots suggests that
their actions were in fact successful; this is explained through The Moral
Economy debate. The Moral Economy, which was made popular by Thompson, is the
idea that, the shortage of supply raises prices and at the same time government
tax, therefore the public would argue this to be unfair, resulting in them
stating a more reasonable price. The negotiation occurs through riots. Thompson
argues that this was the legitimising notion of rioters, as they were rioting
for a just cause.7
Modern historians taking the macro-economic view, argue that there should not
be a condemnation of the hungry town people as misguided; it should be seen as a
self-defence mechanism. The legitimacy of these riots could have two important
connotations: firstly, the moral legitimacy, where the rioters acted by right
due to their own needs, and secondly, the practical regard for the law that
shielded them from criminal charges. This helps highlight the effectiveness of
the moral economy and how rioters did not get into much legal trouble from
their actions- does this suggest that riots were on the more successful side of
the spectrum? Walter accentuates that the 17th century common people
were aware of the law, seen through the constables, jurymen, witnesses and
victims, however, occasionally there would be a token hanging of the ring
leader of the riot, so as to assert peace. 8
As a result, this suggests that the outcome of riots did not tend to have a
detrimental criminal outcome, as not many people were prosecuted. On the one
hand, there is criticism towards the Moral Economy suggesting it only
concentrates on rioters’ motivations and local political promotions; the idea
that moral outrage was not the sole reason for rioting. On the other hand, many
see it to ‘be
based on dialogue with its beneficiaries on the principle of ‘communicative
action’9,
using the theory as an understanding of civil society and how they dealt with injustices
in the early modern period. It could be argued however, that the moral economy
is restricted in periods of economic crisis, as the privy council saw itself to
receive many incoming reports in their masses, which resulted in the distortion
and exaggerated reality of the riots. This would lead to no efforts to meet the
peasants’ demands. Nonetheless, the government was lenient when the popular
disorder was at a large scale, as it would force them to attend their
grievances. There has been the concern, that historians resist the government
analysis because of the privy council blurring the lines between the discontent
among rioters and the actual disorder. Therefore, there needs to be more
attention given to government records and how their might be a bias in their
interpretation of riots. In spite of this, it is clear
that some good did come out of rioting, as the moral economy, gave people the
leverage to justify their uprising, and therefore, this would lead to the
government being more understanding of the cause; this is seen through the
outcome of minimal prosecutions towards the crowd.

 

   The disparity between the rich and the poor
in the early modern period could be argued to display riots as successful to an
extent. The notion of the time period, was that God had constructed the world
in accordance to his hierarchical plan, therefore every individual had a
purpose in life. This was the idea that there ‘should be some rich and some
poor’.10
Due to this being a strong ideology being taught at schools, it was very hard
for men and women to think in term of parliament for the people. Therefore,
there is the argument that because of this restrictive ideology, rioting can
only be successful to a certain point as not all rights were achieved or
understood during the early modern period. Another reason why rioting was
restrictive, is through the notion that the lower class did not know how to
take on the elite, as they were too illiterate. Some citizens could not even
spell their own names. Manning supports this view, that protestors were a
‘devoid of political consciousness and their writings or utterances do not
employ political vocabulary’, accentuating riots as ‘primitive or pre-political
behaviour because they failed to develop into some modern form of protest or
participation in the political nation’11.

This could suggest why historians have portrayed riots in a negative stance, as
they might have presented the activity as an unwinnable battle, where ‘the
hierarchical ideology of the early modern period plus the unequal distribution
of power in society go a long way to explain the restrained political ambitions
of ordinary citizens’.12
Despite this, the ruling class did not ignore the worries and concerns of the
rioters, in fact they tended to listen. They never gave rioters harsh
punishments and many didn’t even get imprisoned. Moreover, they also tried to
give solutions to their demands, for example, in 1607, the government responded
to enclosure riots by sending an investigation of their claims. This ended in
their favour, as the Earl of Lincoln was fined in regards to him exploiting the
poor of land. This success was common, and it emphasizes that the government did
not always see rioting as irrational, therefore, it ‘demonstrated…the capacity
of the lower orders for orchestrated political action and the extent of their
self-discipline’.13
This could refute the statement that ‘no good end can be obtained from rioting’
as history has clearly shown that the government were sympathetic to the rioters’
claims, and effectively this resulted in remedies in their favour.

 

   There is the argument that the degree of
success amongst rioters is dependent on regional factors. In agricultural villages, there wasn’t many riots
because the small networks and employer-official relations were too
restrictive. In medium sized towns, riots were a lot more frequent and
disciplined, which led to their eventual success in lowering prices and getting
charity relief with minimal convictions. In regards to big cities, riots were
chaotic, violent and definitely not disciplined, as farmers who supplied these
big cities would spread and take control, which would affect the market place;
the moral economy cannot work within cities. Furthermore, big cities such as
London would have minimal riots because in relation to food, there was always a
supply and therefore riots were not sustainable. This suggests, that the
success of riots was very much dependent on the geography of the habitants in
society, as different environments would change the injustices for certain
populations. Regional differences were also seen through comparisons between
England and France. For both these nations, rioting was plentiful between
1600-1800. The frequency of these riots were seen through the interception of
food shipments, and because the authorities were very active in controlling
this, there was an influx of violent rioting. Root argues that after the 17th
century the English government controlled the rural ruling class which
influenced policies towards laissez-faire for their own interests because it
pushed agricultural producers to promote agricultural productivity. However, in
France, the King would intervene to support provisioning of cities, which would
exclude peasants and as a result, increased the chances of riots.14
Root’s macro-economic view is subject to new debate, but he acknowledges that
agricultural development was affected by more factors which would push the
success of the subsequent riots. Charlesworth argues that there were other
factors impacting the increase in riots: the growth of rural industrial
societies dependent on the market supply.15
Despite this, he is careful about the geographical determinism. Regional
differences have therefore impacted the success of rioting because of the
different functioning authorities across nations.

 

   New feminist historiography has
also brought to light the impact of women in the success of rioting. Women are
now seen to have a very important role in rioting, disregarding the fact that,
during the time period, ‘if women and children assemble of their “own cause”,
it could not be considered a riot under the terms of the law’16. Although
this implies female riots might have been less successful in the sense that
they were not taken seriously, it could be interpreted, that these riots would
not automatically be aligned with the negative stigma rioting received during
the time period. This would help with the success in receiving their demands. Some
even suggest them to be leaders of food riots, as supported by Hammonds when he
called 1795 ‘the year of…the revolt of the house-wives’.17
Thompson also agrees that ‘the initiators of food riots were very often the
women’.18
He thought that this was because women were: most involved in face to face
marketing and most sensitive to price distortions. Southey provides a more
general explanation, which was seen as more cliché amongst contemporary
historians; the idea that women were less fearful of the law, women were partly
ignorant and therefore would use the privilege of their sex to riot19.

However, Humphries, a Marxist feminist, suggests that ‘the prominence of
working class women in the class struggles of the market place derives
precisely from their familiar roles as executors of wage’.20 Southey
could be regarded as gender bias, in comparison to Humphries, as he highlights
the attitudes of women of the time period but condemns them as ‘ignorant’ when
they could in fact be very reasonable in their demands. Contrastingly, Humphries
highlights women’s capability to identify injustices in society. It could be
argued that, due to women’s right to riot in the name of feeding their
families, this made authorities more lenient to push for change in society. So
much was their success, that ‘some male rebels would dress as women in order to
facilitate their rebellion against authorities’.21 This
shows that, when riots were justified in regards to family, the authorities
would attempt to create more solutions to social grievances and show sympathy
to their claims. Women and rioting, for this reason, could be seen to influence
successful rioting, as they were active in the market place and aware of the economic
and social injustices, that was prompted by their domestic lifestyle.  

 

   Overall, it is clear that rioting
did have a successful outcome in regards to rioting, nonetheless, there actions
were limited by actions of the government, gender and regional differences. It
could be implied that, historiography on riots has developed over the centuries
to concentrate more on the social aspects of rioting, in particular, the mob
and their actions towards change. Despite this, there is the suggestion that
the time period would always restrict their peasants’ demands, as their
illiteracy and dismissal by higher orders, made them vulnerable. More attention
needs to be made towards the impact of age in rioting, as this is more subject
to historiography; the idea that a vast number of rioters were young and
unmarried, ‘confirming contemporary fears of licence of liminal youths’.22 Their
lack of authority at a young age posed problems with leadership and therefore
did not make them ‘the nucleus for a successful riot’.23 The
essay statement could be subject to a more traditional historiography of
rioting where there was the notion that riots were always violent, irrational,
and result in crime. Perhaps, violence was needed in riots, so that the
government would be more inclined to enforce change. In conclusion, the success
of rioting was prominent in the early modern period, however, there needs to be
close attention to certain factors which would have restricted this success,
but certainly, some good end did come from some riots.

1
Rude’ G, The Crowd in History: A Study of
Popular Disturbances in France and England 1730-1848, (New York, 1964), pp.

252-57

2
Lambarde (1581), in Jones R, People-States-Territories:
The Political Geographies of British State Transformation, (Chichester,
England, 2011), p. 172

3
Plumb, J.H, England in the Eighteenth
Century, (Harmondsworth, 1950), p. 13

4
Hibbert C, The Road to Tyburn: The Story
of Jack Sheppard and the Eighteenth Century Underworld, (London, 1957), p.

20

5
Walter J. and Wrightson K, ‘Dearth and the Social Order in Early Modern
England’, Past and Present, (Oxford,
1976), p. 30

6
Burns, W.E, Witch Hunts in Europe and
America: An Encyclopedia, (Connecticut, USA, 2003), p. 72

7
Thompson E.P, ‘The Moral Economy of the English
Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past
and Present, (London, 1971), p. 188

8
Walter in Bohstedt, J, ‘The Moral Economy and discipline of Historical
Context’, Journal of Social History,
(Oxford, 1993), p. 273

9
Habermas J (1981), in Gotz N, ‘Moral Economy: its conceptual history and
analytical prospects’, Journal of Global
Ethics, (London, 2015), p. 158

10
Watts I, Essay towards the encouragement
of charity schools, (Ohio, 1728), p. 14

11
Manning R.B, Village Revolts: Social
Protest and Popular Disturbances in England 1509-1640, (Oxford, 1988), p.

2-3, 309-11, 318-19

12
Briggs J, Harrison C.J., Mclnnes A and Vincent D, Crime and Punishment in England: An Introductory history, (London,
1996), p. 82

13
Wood A, Riot, Rebellion and Popular
Politics in Early Modern England, (London, 2001), p. 37

14
Root in Bohstedt, J, ‘The Moral Economy and discipline of Historical Context’, Journal of Social History, (Oxford,
1993), p. 265

15
Charlesworth A, ‘The Spatial Diffusion of Riots: Popular Disturbances in
England and Wales 1750-1850’, Rural
History, (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 1-22

16
Pennington D, Going to Market: Women,
Trade and Social Relations in early modern English Towns 1550-1650, (London,
2016), p. 146

17
J.L. and Hammond B, The Village Labourers,
(London, 1927), p. 116

18
Thompson E.P, ‘The Moral Economy in the English Crowd in the Eighteenth
Century’, Past and Present, (London,
1971) pp. 115-16

19
Southey R, Letters from England,
(London, 1814), p. 47

20
Humphries J, ‘The Working Class Family, Women’s Liberation, and Class Struggle:
The Case of the Nineteenth Century British History’, Rev. Radical Political Econ., (London, 1977), p. 38

21
Scott H, The Oxford Handbook of Early
Modern History, (Oxford, 2015), p. 709

22
Hobsbawn E.J, Bandits, (Harmondsworth,
1972), pp. 31-33

23
Walter J, ‘”A Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’, Past and Present, (Oxford, 1985), p. 107