Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Historians and Riots

Mousehold Heath, site of 1549 Norwich camp
Photo by Evelyn Simak

On the morning after the worst of the English riots this month, I was rather unimpressed to hear the BBC newsreader announce in the 7am headlines that the UK had woken up ‘to the aftermath of the worst rioting seen in Britain for years.’ Well, how many years? The worst riots since Brixton in 1981? Or since the 18C London Gordon riots? Or the 16C London Apprentice riots? It’s hard to understand events around you if you lack any comparative perspective at all.

At times of national crisis or alarm, there is a certain expectation of historians to use their expertise to speak intelligently about present events. Most historians are, however, wary of making comparisons between past and present phenomena (e.g. riots) which might come across as glib or banal, like a bad undergraduate 'Comparative History' essay. The most prominent historian’s intervention in the riots debate so far, that of Dr. David Starkey, wasn’t a happy one – his comments about underclass culture on the BBC’s Newsnight have caused a storm of controversy. (David Starkey on the riots)

Unlike many of my Oxford colleagues, or indeed Dr. Starkey,  I’m not a research expert on Tudor England, but for what it’s worth during the August Riots I kept walking around my house muttering ‘it’s just like 1549’. 1549 not only saw major rebellions in the West Country and East Anglia, but also – as Amanda Jones demonstrates in her forthcoming book 'Commotion Time' -- witnessed protest/rebel camps springing up all over England, in 25 different counties, from Cornwall to the Pennines. For contemporary elites, it was a terrifying and totally novel experience of popular disorder, which spread like a virus. The camps of 1549, like the August 2011 riots, were so geographically widespread, numerous and piecemeal that it was (and is) difficult to synthesise them into a single narrative. Historians, you might not be surprised to know, have always been massively divided about the causes of the 1549 ‘commotion time’ – culprits include enclosure of common land (causing economic hardship), violent support for or dissent from the Reformation, the break-down of local feudal relationships, the rise of new economic groups, or alienation caused by government centralisation, etc. But at the time, of course, contemporaries blamed simple human greed and wickedness - they talked of a moral crisis.


  1. The LA riots of 94 were much more severe than this year's UK ones, as far as I remember. I lived in a suburb (not even where things were actually going on) and I could actually smell the smoke from it from home. School was cancelled for one day (I think it was just one day) out of fear. I don't want to make light of this year's events, but there was a rather palpable sense of fear [and lovely comments about 'why are we destroying our own neighborhood when we should go loot the rich kids in Beverly Hills' (not an actual quote, but this was the exact sentiment of somebody who was interviewed on tv), which of course was rather comforting for those of us living there. On this occasion, I didn't notice any sense of fear.

    I doubt there's much of a moral crisis, but opportunism does have a tendency to run wild rather generally in society (excuse the cynicism). In 94, some kids at my high school actually had conversations about joining the looting on some day as if it were a fun excursion and normal way of hanging out.

  2. Sorry, I meant 1992. In 94, some school was cancelled because of the earthquake.

  3. Thanks for the article, and hyperlinks are always good - please use more! I have to agree with you on that comparison - although I would like to think that the 1549ers actually had some genuine grievances (whether against religious reform in the West Country or local economic conditions in the back-end of East Anglia).

    The connection allows the imagination to roam... Just picture gangs in hoodies and jeggings united by social networking actually besieging regional capitals as their Early Modern predecessors did. Somehow, smashing in a couple of GAPs and burning some wheelie-bins suddenly doesn't seem quite as impressive...