Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Andrew Charlesworth - An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900

Rebecca rioters in 1843
This short "atlas" describing rural protests is a surprisingly useful book for those trying to understand the dynamics of protest in Britain's rural areas and, in particular, how communities responded to the development of the capitalist mode of production and the changes that took place in the countryside as a result. The book is broken up into small sections, many authored by key historians of the subject. In fact many of the authors within have had other works reviewed on this book, or have written key texts on their subject I'll get around to sooner or later. Some of the links are below.

The book focuses on what are described as "direct collective action", such as mass protests, food riots, demonstrations and so on. These range from riots against high prices of food, to demonstrations against militia recruitment and turnpikes. The book covers many forgotten events (who today has heard of the Midlands Revolt of 1607, or the 1596 rising?) but sometimes is short on detail. One thing that does come across though is that despite the beliefs of the authorities at the time or often simple analysis by historians since, most rural "direct collective action" was not simply blind rage and frustration and landowners or the wealthy. Many of the protests were heavily organised attempts to protect the interests of the mass of the rural population, to fight unjust laws and pricing, or even to protest at symbols of wealth that represented the enforced changes communities were experiencing.

One of the latter examples is the sustained protests that took place from 1640 to 1740 which targeted deer parks. In part these were protests against the loss of land or access to common rights. But mostly:
Where forest communities opposed the presence of deer parks, they were resisting the social and economic repercussions of landscapes created for pleasure and social prestige. Indeed, deer parks were singled out for attack immediately before and during the Civil War partly because they were symbols of aristocratic power.
These protests often involved hundreds of individuals and lead to the loss of thousands of deer. Many of the parks never recovered.

While the book has much of interest and is a good summary of events like the Rebecca Riots or the Swing protests, I found the maps confusing and of little use - not least because they were often based on limited knowledge. That said, this is a key work for those, like myself, immersing themselves in this topic.

Related Reviews

Turner - Enclosures in Britain 1750 - 1830
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World

Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For

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