By the 1600s the English motherland was shipping citizens to its colonies, claiming that it was running out of land to support them. Of course, a relative handful of the population owned vast swathes of land from which they extracted rents to support them in the indolent and luxurious style to which they felt entitled.
They expected these colonists to grub around for natural resources to send back to England and to then provide a market for the finished goods produced there. This model continues to this day in the policies of the International Monetary Fund; a win-win for the powers that shouldn’t be.
The Sir Lord Chauncey Twitasses in England did not like the other 98 percent of the population. They called them “the meaner sort of people” “the clowns” the ruder sort” and “the rabble.” The rabble were expected to show deference in the presence of Sir Chauncey; men were to remove their hats and women were required to curtsy.
One reason Sir Chauncey disliked the rabble was that “the common people were always apt to rebel and mutiny upon the least occasion.” Despite constant pressure to obey and work “in pain and the sweat of their face,” the rabble did indeed rebel now and then, and were then called a “mob” or the “many-headed monster.” Sir Chauncey’s ideological heirs in America still vilify protesters this way.
For most of history, i.e. that which was written down and preserved, we only hear the voice of the upper class. The rabble didn’t have the education or leisure to write any history. But this was about to change.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, following the Homily on Obedience, urging the rabble to accept their position as inferiors, a series of risings swept across England. As a member of the rabble said, they could “tell well enough how to devise a means to help themselves.”
Although these were called riots, the English definition of riot was three or more people assembled to do something illegal. Most of the protests followed petitions for a redress of grievances which were ignored. Many involved citizens actually enforcing laws that officials were failing to uphold, especially in the so-called “bread riots.”
Bread riots take place when people don’t have enough food to survive, yet someone is suspected of hoarding the food they need. Can you blame them? Staying alive would seem to be the least you could ask for. England had laws regulating grain shipments to curb the middleman-speculators, who would buy up all the grain and divert it away from the commoners to somewhere they could get a higher price.
Bread rioters forcibly stopped these shipments-and did not steal the grain, but rather paid the speculator the price that had been set for grain in the first place. The “rioters’ many of whom were women, won sympathy by claiming the moral high ground and refraining from physical violence.
The practice of enclosing the land to exclude peasants (privatizing the commons) had thrown many into poverty while enriching the landlords. Many protests arose from this practice and they were highly organized, often announced ahead of time in church and followed by cakes, ale, bonfires and dancing.
The commoners who lost their grazing rights due to the drainage and privatization of the Fenlands resisted with acts of sabotage for some thirty years. Sabotage is an interesting word, by the way, it refers to “sabot” a wooden clog, which Dutch and French workers were rumored to have thrown into the gears of machinery or used to kick offensive items to pieces.
A few of the risings turned into armed insurrections, like Kett’s Rebellion, which, be warned, almost always end by being brutally crushed. A few protests threatened the establishment too much and the ringleaders were arrested and executed.
Did any of these risings work? We often want to point to one event that changed everything overnight, but it doesn’t seem to work this way. It takes many united people pushing back with the right amount of resistance-enough to get attention but not enough to call the storm troopers down on their heads. And it takes time.
The rioters of that time wanted such radical things as the right for commoners to vote. Their demands seem perfectly reasonable to us now. So yes, their protests did work, over time, though the class war continues.
Open Yale Courses: Early Modern England