Against repeated evidence that rural workers not only could conceive of alternative social worlds and did protest their lot, social commentators in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England often asserted that such protests were either mere rebellions of the belly — the reflexive reactions of the animal — or the acts of the instigated. As Hannah More, in her patronising Village Politics (1793), attempted to ‘prove’, the seduction of the seditious words of Tom Paine was incomplete, for Tom Hod the village mason could not understand the complexities of politics let alone decode the Rights of Man.1 ‘Instant’ histories of the so-called ‘Swing riots’ of 1830 — against the mechanisation of agricultural practices and the immiseration of rural workers at the hands of penny-pinching farmers and poor law officials (see Chapter 6) — were also quick to assert that this most intensive and widespread of all rural rebellions could not have been the work of agricultural workers and artisans alone. The mythical leader of the Swing rioters, ‘Captain Swing’, was variably reported to be a decayed small farmer, the son of a tenant farmer, and a former farmer with Irish connections, his followers either smugglers, ‘the most lawless men in the village’, or simply those mindlessly swept along.2 Even against attempts by Victorian antiquaries to better understand the major revolts and rebellions of medieval and early modern England,3 the protests of Georgian England obdurately remained in the scholarly mind the work of foreigners, Jacobites attempting to restore the House of Stuart to the monarchy, revolutionary Jacobins attempting to mimic the 1789 French Revolution, and the asinine.
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- Introduction: Understanding Rural Protest
Carl J. Griffin
- Macmillan Education UK
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