Durham Academics Q&A Four

Professor Andy Wood

Professor of Early Modern Social History


Joe: Having studied under you for my entire time at Durham it seems to me that you place immense value on understanding the memory of early modern people. Why is understanding how early modern people saw the past so key to understanding the period?

Andy: What always strikes me with early modern senses of the past is how sort of immediate and powerful they are compared, perhaps, to the ways in which things are remembered in the twentieth and twenty first century. Obviously, in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth century, there’s no such thing as a discipline of history, you don’t have universities teaching history until the late nineteenth century and there’s no sense of there being a discipline of history until the late nineteenth century as well. Arguably, part of the point of the discipline of history, as it develops in the late nineteenth century, is to develop a sense of distance from us and the past, whereas I think early modern people see themselves as much closer to the past, it’s much more bound into their senses of identity, community and political culture, and their economic relationships, their sense of the landscape; all of that’s embedded in their, at times numinous, sense of the past, which is really powerful for them but can be kind of hard to recapture.

Joe: Just talking about this sense of memory, and how it affects people’s behaviour, you were among the first historians of early modern England to fully recognise non-elite groups as political agents. How did memory, and a sense of the past, influence the political action of non-elite groups?

Andy: Well this comes back to this idea of custom. A lot of what we might think of as popular politics, at least in the years before the English Revolution, is local politics, is village politics. So, you get lots of riots that occur in the period that are prosecuted before law courts, and thereby generate information, where, for example, poorer people might go and knock down some enclosing walls or ditches, or fences, or hedges, that are separating them from the land which, they believe, they have access to, to pasture their cattle or collect fuel. They then get prosecuted for riot because they’ve knocked these fences down and the result of that is that you then get these witness statements, depositions as they’re called, where the older people of the community (typically men, about 95% of depositions are given by men) speak about the entitlements that they’re claiming on common land and speak about the boundaries and history of that community and the history of the conflicts over those entitlements, so there’s a close relationship between memory as a legitimating force underlying popular protest and crowd protest more generally and all of that explodes in 1549 in the so-called ‘Commotion Time’ where you get these large-scale rebellions across pretty much the whole of England south of the river Trent.

The most important document that comes out of the 1549 rebellions are a list of rebel articles that are drawn up on Mousehold Heath outside Norwich by the Norfolk rebels under the leadership of Robert Kett. So it’s part of the famous Kett’s Rebellion, and as far as we can tell what happens is that the leaders of the rebellion, the rebel council that’s led by Robert Kett, sit down and try to work out a set of general demands, so they demand, for example, they say, ‘We pray that all bondsman should be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood shedding’, so it’s an appeal back in Biblical times to Christ’s manumission of mankind on the cross at Calvary. So, it’s an appeal to the past in that respect, an appeal to an ancient Biblical past, but what’s critical about it is that they don’t demand the bondmen of Gimingham, or the bondmen of Blakeney, or the bondmen of Holkham be set free they demand that all bondsmen be made free. That’s one of the few moments in the years before the English revolution where that localism breaks down and people start articulating general demands, but they do so critically on the basis of an appeal to the past. So, I would say the past operates as a legitimating force within popular politics, it’s one of the really important presences within early modern popular political culture and remains important into the nineteenth century, at least in rural areas, in ways that modern historians can’t always recognise.

Joe: That’s a really interesting counterpoint to my next question, this idea of history and recalling the past as central to these ideas of localities breaking down, because in your studies of early modern English industry, you’ve championed a class analysis of the period. How significant was this collective memory to the establishment of group identity and solidarity in England’s industrial areas and in its mining communities?

Andy: Well, my first book, The Politics of Social Conflict, was based, at least in part, on my PhD, which covered the social, economic, and cultural history of the Derbyshire mining communities in the seventeenth century and the book then expanded to cover the period 1520-1770. So, it was a study of these very peculiar mining communities where the miners made the claim to be able to dig for lead ore wherever it was found within an area called the King’s Peak which was an about a third of the county of Derbyshire. So, it overwrote the right of private property, so if you were a farmer you could wake up one morning and find a bunch of lead miners digging holes in your fields, and people get very upset about this, so it sets off a lot of riots and legal cases.

It also raises questions about who controls property rights within the Peak and again, unsurprisingly, the miners appeal to the past in legitimation of their claims. They talk about key decisions by the miner’s law courts, called the barmote courts, which regulate the industry, in 1557 and in 1549 which legitimate free mining, but they also talk about quo warranto proceedings from 1288 which are the first lists of the miner’s articles under which they govern their industry and stretch back to the thirteenth century. So, the miners have got this deep sense of history and its embedded in this documentary consciousness even though most of them are illiterate, but it’s also embedded in a sense of landscape which underwrites this very assertive, very bolshy political identity, so that by the late sixteenth century if you’re a member of the gentry and you take on the mining communities you know that you’re taking on a bunch of men, and we are exclusively talking about men because it’s a very gendered community, who are going to stand up for themselves, who are going to be difficult.

So, in no way, by no means do they compare to the alleged conservativism and deference of early modern rioters that historians like Keith Lindley talked about in his study of the fenland riots of the mid seventeenth century. These people aren’t conservative, they’ve got a vision of the society they want to organise, a regional vision, so it’s not localised but it’s not national either, it’s a regionalised sense of political identity which they are attempting to assert in a way that is actually, by the end of the book, by 1770, the miners are still at it, they’re still fighting away over these rights in the 1770s. 

Joe: You’ve spoken a bit about how, given the challenges of the elite, miners started relying increasingly on a written culture to try and assert their claims, but just more broadly, what impact did the increasing literacy and written culture of the early modern period have on more informal systems of memory and did these trends limit the political agency of plebian groups?

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve got this situation by the mid or late sixteenth century where oral tradition is being counterposed by written documentation by lords, so the older people of the community will say, ‘a hundred years ago things used to be like this and I know that because my grandfather used to tell me that he used to common on the moor or that this is where the boundaries used to be’, and then the lord’s attorneys would come in and say ‘ha ha, you may have a hundred year old oral tradition, but we have written evidence that goes back four hundred years that demonstrates the opposite’ so the result of that, by the late sixteenth century, is that tenants, miners, commoners, poor people, middling people are searching out documentation that relates to their communities, often copying it so they’ve got a number of different copies, and placing that material in a village chest in the parish church often with a set of locks so that one will be held by the Lord’s bailiff, one will be held by the churchwardens, one will be held by a minister, one will be held by the richer people of the parish so that no one person can go and fiddle around with the documentation.

Eventually, by the 1950s, that parish documentation ends up in county record offices, so it survives, that’s how we know about it. But just to give one example which is a bunch of depositions and witness statements given in 1594 by the old men of the village of New Buckenham in central Norfolk, their depositions are given to the Court of Exchequer so there’s copies of their depositions, where they’re talking about traditions and boundaries and history of their community, which are in the National Archives in the Exchequer archive. But the people of New Buckenham also make paper copies of these depositions and place them in the parish chest so that subsequent generations in the seventeenth and eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries if their rights and privileges are being threatened can go to the parish chest and refer back to that material. So again, there’s a kind of politics to literacy that’s going on with that example of New Buckenham in which ordinary people are searching out written documentation which relates to the history of their community. Nowadays, as I say, the province of historians or local genealogists working in county record offices, but that material was written and preserved for a quite different purpose than academic historians use it today, its material full of political electricity really.

Joe: Moving on a little bit from this area, but back to something you mentioned in your previous answers, you’ve made it very clear that for early modern people the past was a very present force which influenced their behaviour; in what ways did the natural and built environment contribute to this sense of connection with the past, and how could this inform political behaviour?

Andy: Yeah, well the classic way in which a sense of the landscape informs people’s sense of local community and the local polity are the bounds of the village or town. The bounds might be the boundaries between parishes, they might be boundaries between manors or lordships, they might be boundaries between hundreds, which are accumulations of parishes, in towns, again they might be boundaries between parishes, or they might be bounds within the whole of the borough, round the whole of the town. So, people have got this complicated mental map but it’s difficult for us to recapture today. They can look across the fields in their village and say, ‘well that field’s freehold, that field’s copyhold, that field’s leasehold, that field’s freehold as well, and we’ve got the following rights on that field but not on that field over there’, so their sense of rights is embedded in the sense of the landscape and they read the landscape that is much richer and more complicated than I think we do today. They’re very aware of the significance of these boundaries because customary law is what’s known as lex loci, which is Latin for ‘local law’, it has to operate within specific jurisdictions, so if you’re trying to make a claim to, say, take fuel from the village common, you have to show where the boundaries of the common are. So, what you’ve got is a sense of entitlement, which is also a sense of the law and the past, vested in this sense of the landscape, so, in particular, that sense of the village boundaries. This complicated map, you might call it a palimpsest, of different boundaries, is the world in which people are defining their sense of rights and entitlements.

Joe: Do you think that those kinds of political practices like walking the bounds and the understanding of the local community on such an intimate, personal level fade when written culture comes to cement itself. Are those practices as necessary and are they as commonly practiced when literate culture comes to increasingly dominate the means by which people engage politically?

Andy: I don’t think so. I think in a lot of communities those senses of boundaries are still powerful in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You’re still getting written accounts of the bounds being drawn up in the Industrial Revolution period. I think that what really changes people’s sense of space is large-scale parliamentary enclosure from the 1770s onwards which reaches a kind of crescendo during the Napoleonic Wars period, 1793-1815, when large parts of the country are being enclosed by the enclosing walls and ditches and hedges, in a kind of massive way, a reworking of the landscape, and that is quite damaging to people’s sense of an embedded past within the landscape because the landscape itself is undergoing largescale change. And that feeds over into nineteenth century working class radicalism because enclosure is understood as a kind of metaphor and is understood as a form of theft on the part of the rich against the poor, which underwrites a radical project that is new to the earlier nineteenth century in which famously E. P. Thompson wrote about in ‘The Making of the English Working Class’. So, what I ended up arguing in a number of pieces that I’ve written about early modern memory, is that the endpoint for early modern memory comes to a parliamentary enclosure and at that point, the formation of a new sense of the past, which provides the ground for class identities, national class identities, in the nineteenth century.

Joe: I suppose that brings us to our final question, relating more to the present: has the political behaviour of early modern people and their understanding of the past, had any lasting impact on the political behaviour of people today?

Andy: Well, it’s a funny time isn’t it. I think we live in a sort of post-industrial age where we’re sort of more separated from a sense of the past than earlier generations. That said, I’m struck, living in County Durham, by the extent to which people in the county refer back to the Miners’ Strike of 1984 and back to the General Strike of 1926, in a lot of these mining communities, the memory of strike is still quite bitter. What struck me during the strike in 1984 was the ways in which the National Union of Mineworkers used memories of 1926 and 1919, and earlier disputes, to justify the politics that they were advancing in 1984. Oral history interviews done with old miners talked about how people who had scabbed in 1926, who were still alive in the village, no one would drink with them, so they were ostracised from the village community. Or how in 1926 they’d been led by people like A. J. Cook and so you’d have these depictions on miners’ banners of Cook alongside Kier Hardy, alongside Marx, alongside Arthur Scargill, which is a kind of, from the government’s point of view in 1984, a kind of devilish combination. So, what struck me when I was young, when I was involved with the miner’s strike when I was a kid, was the ways in which memories operated within mining communities that reached back quite a long way to justify the politics they were advancing in 1984. And there’s a great anthropological study done by an American anthropologist called June Nash, in 1969, called ‘We eat the mines and the mines eat us’ which is a study of Bolivian tin miner’s culture and what she finds is that the Bolivian miners in the 1960s who she was interviewing, many of whom were communists, spoke in detail about the history of their communities reaching back to the days of the Spanish conquest, and talking bitterly about the times in which their ancestors had been employed as slaves in the local tin mines and then would talk about nineteenth century strikes and massacres by the Bolivian army, that were embedded in local memory. So, you can find this kind of stuff in anthropological, as well as historical, contexts and one of the things I’ve always been keen on, as you know, is reading anthropology, not necessarily because it provides us with the answer, so much as it poses questions for historians and it gives us contexts in which to set in opposition, perhaps, to the stuff that we’re digging up in the early modern period, or the nineteenth century, or whatever it is. So, I’ve always been keen to kind of read around the anthropology not least because the literature on popular memory for the early modern period is still quite limited, which I quite like because I get quite grumpy reading historiography, I’m much more a documents man.

Conducted by Joseph Callow, Editor