English food riots in eighteenth century

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"The food riot in eighteenth-century England was a highly-complex form of direct popular action, disciplined and with clear objectives," argues the historian E.P. Thomspson.[1] While other scholars had interpreted food riots as apolitical "rebellions of the belly," Thompson insists that rioters had agency and that their crowd actions had coherent political content. Specifically, the rioters resisted the excesses of market capitalism and wanted to protect an earlier "moral economy" that protected poor people's rights to subsistence.

Riots broke out in 1709, 1740, 1756-1757, 1766-1767, 1773, 1782, 1785, and 1800-1801.[2] Poor folks rose up most immediately in protest of rising food prices.

"Initiators of the riots were, very often women," Thompson observes. In 1693, a large crowd of women went to the Northampton market with knives, determined to get corn at fair rates.[3] In December 1800, the government introduced the Brown Bread Act banning millers from making anything but wholemeal flour. Women stormed a mill and cut the meal cloth into a thousand pieces. "As a result of such actions, the Act was repealed in less than two months."[4]

Rioters championed the "moral economy of the poor”—embodied in statute law, common law, and custom law—that said the following. Farmers should bring corn in bulk to the market and sell directly to consumer. Markets should be controlled, and the poor should buy what they need before dealers are allowed to start buying from the farmers. Millers and bakers should work for a fair allowance rather than for a profit.[5] This vision did, to a large extent, reflect an actual economic arrangement that had existed prior to increased market liberalization.

The main effects of the riots were long-term. Over hundreds of years, fears and threats of riots kept prices down. Actual uprisings, however occasional, gave these threats real power.[6] Playing on this fear, the poor commonly made threats against the rich. For example, a 1766 letter said in rhyme:

...there is a small Army of us upwards of three thousand all ready to fight & I’ll be dam’d if we don’t make the King’s Army to shite If so be the King & Parliment don’t order better we will turn England into a Littler & if so be as things don’t get cheaper I’ll be damd if we don’t burn down the Parliament House & make all better[7]

  1. E.P. Thompson, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," Past & Present 50 (1971), 78.
  2. Thompson, "The Moral Economy," 79.
  3. Thompson, “The Moral Economy,” 115.
  4. Thompson, "The Moral Economy," 82.
  5. Thompson, "The Moral Economy," 83.
  6. Thompson, "The Moral Economy," 120.
  7. Thomspon, “The Moral Economy,” 127.