|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
Gordon riots? Or the 16C London Apprentice riots? It’s hard to understand events around you if you lack any comparative perspective at all. London
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.