Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2
Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics
ONE of the remaining mysteries of British history is the proliferation of urban and rural uprisings in the early-to-mid-sixteenth century. These near-insurrections include the anti-tax tumults of 1525, the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, and the Kett and Cornish rebellions, both of which took place in 1549. In all of these episodes, plebeian rebels succeeded in holding whole counties despite the attempts of the authorities to crush them. In the most successful protest, led by Robert and William Kett, rebels succeeded in capturing the important cities of England’s most developed region, East Anglia, and only succumbed after three days of street-fighting in Norwich. Even if it is accepted that the history of all class societies has been a history of class struggle, there is still no agreed law to explain the chronological distribution of struggles, or why insurrections have occurred at one moment, and not the next.
In this context, socialist historians can only welcome the publication of Wood’s book. The author of Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics employs a form of Marxist historical analysis, based loosely on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and openly expresses his debt to other left-wing historians, including E.P. Thompson and Brian Manning. The book is accessible. Written like a good textbook, it does not assume too much prior knowledge of academic controversy on the part of its readers. It also makes the original point that early-modern protest has a continuous history, leading from the troubles of the sixteenth century, through the revolution of 1649, to the later rural protests that accompanied enclosures.
Many of the protests took place in small villages. Andy Wood reveals a sympathetic understanding of the complexities of local politics. Many readers of this journal would subscribe to the claim that the most important historical process for understanding this period is the triumph of a nascent bourgeoisie. Wood emphasises instead the ability of individuals to choose with which great interest they should be associated. Such an emphasis on complexity – cloying when applied by post-modern sociologists – comes alive when the historian has green fingers. I especially enjoyed Wood’s discussion of the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536. This huge protest has often been described as a Catholic uprising, but Wood’s account ends by emphasising the grassroots demands of the rioters: ‘Caught by a group of rebels in October 1536, the gentleman Henry Sais was ordered to swear the rebel oath to be true to God, the King and the “true” Commons. Answering that he would swear to the first two, one of the rebels retorted “and not to us?”.’
Wood enjoys telling the story of the sixteenth-century rebels, examining their protests with a lively contempt for court sources. There is a valuable discussion of the use of the ‘middling sort’ to explain the events of 1649. The only thing which is missing is a real explanation of why so many protests did take place between the 1520s and the 1540s! Alone this book will not transform our understanding of early modern protest. But the task which the author set himself was more modest – to reawaken interest in a still under-examined period from the history of protest – and in this goal he succeeds. Perhaps the long-dormant habits of academic interest in socialist history are stirring again.
Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011