Unusually, Wood tries to define politics, coming up with the following definition
politics will be understood to occur where power is reasserted, extended or challenged. Politics is therefore the product of deliberate, human agency and is pre-eminently about conflict and change. In this analysis, politics does not occur where the distribution of power remains static and unchallenged.In other words, the author see politics as a dynamic engagement between people and wider society. Thus changes to material conditions - access to food, or infringements on historic rights - become the subject of wider "politics" for the community.
Wood argues that the early modern state was actually quite limited in its "coercive powers", relying instead on a "broad acceptance" of "widely shared notions of law, custom and patriarchal order" to maintain control. He points out that "the early modern English state operated in a highly legalistic form... early modern rulers could not simply string lower-class dissidents up from the nearest tree". Though Wood also recognises that there are exceptions to this, but these often prove the rule, such as the massacres in the wake of the Western Uprising of 1549 committed under martial law by a local commander. Drawing on the work of Gramsci, and his ideas of cultural hegemony, Wood says that
presumes not only that social power operates to its greatest effect the through the domination of culture, but also that it thereby produces the terms of its own subversion. We also look at how, in order to press claims upon their rulers, subordinates exploited the very concepts that had been designed to win their loyalties: the same notions of law, custom and household order that integrated the early modern polity were also deployed by plebeians in popular politicsThus we see rebellious groups and individuals using the language of the ruling class to justify their actions, appealing to the king over the heads of his lords and advisers, or expecting justice from gentlemen if they present their case fairly. Wood draws on Edward Thompson's work, noting how he argued
There is a sense in which rulers and crowd needed each other, watched each other, performed theatre and counter theatre to each other's auditorium, moderated each other's political behaviour. This is a more active and reciprocal relationship than the one normally brought to mind under the formula 'paternalism and deference'.This perhaps helps explain why rarely in the early modern rebellions (the noted exception is the Peasants' Rebellion of 1381) do the rebels clamour for radical change. While revolution is in the air simply because large numbers of people are in arms, their is rarely an enormous desire for change. Actually what is taking place (classically during the Pilgrimage of Grace) is an mass struggle for the maintenance of the status quo. Indeed this helps to explain why those taking part in rebellions often came from all strata of rural life. Gentlemen pressed into joining rebellion, who then (at least for a time) appear to commit themselves whole heartedly to the cause. Wood notes for instance, that in times of food shortages in England, food riots were common. But the participants rarely rioted for the distribution of free food. Instead they forced vendors to sell at a fair price.
This is particularly true of rural events during the English Civil War. Wood examines in detail the "clubmen" of the First Civil War those rural movements which often originated in attempts to protect food and land from marauding Royalist and Parliamentary Armies. While these seem superficially radical they "conservative: suspicious of innovation, hostile to outsiders, defensive of the established place off the united village community within the larger polity". Wood contrasts these to the radical Levellers and Diggers, who had more radical visions of an alternative society, but he points out that they also often focused on the village and small town as the way to organise society, imagining a sort of Utopian agricultural community, albeit one without landlords and rulers.
Wood notes how, particularly in terms of Digger statements, their language was often rooted in historic ideas and demands that would not have been out of place in 1549 or 1536, but go much further. This has less to do with demands to kill the gentlemen or the rich (a common enough cry for many centuries) but more to do with a vision of collective transformation of society. As one group of Diggers declared
Therefore you of the poorer sort, understand this, that nothing but the manuring of the common Land, will reduce you into a comfortable condition.Through the book Alan Wood places great emphasis on the language of ordinary people and their rebellions. While this isn't really a history of those rebellions, there are many details here that will point the reader to further information and sources. He concludes,
Over the course of the early modern period, we have charted an uneven, contested, messy process by which the legitimising language of community and the institutional apparatus of parochial organisation passed into the hands of parish elites... But we have also seen how local resistance to the exercise of social power helped to form collective plebeian identities within individual villages, 'countries' and regions.This brings to mind Marx and Engels' famous quote about the history of early class societies being that of class struggle. Alan Wood has placed such struggles, both open and hidden, at the heart of his attempt to understand the dynamics of the early modern period. While his book might not be accessible to those who haven't got at least some knowledge of the period, it is a fine introduction to an formative period of English history that deserves a wider readership.
Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Caraman - The Western Rising 1549
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace
Gurney - Gerrard Winstanley