Popular Protest and Rebellions

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POPULAR PROTEST AND REBELLIONS. In the early modern period, the vast majority of Europeans lacked a formal voice in the major governmental decisions that affected their lives. Kings ruled without much contact with their subjects, towns were governed by oligarchies of well-to-do families, and rural villages were run by a few of the richest landowners, who were often in league with the village lord. Ordinary people did have many opportunities for everyday sociability, such as parish committees, citizen militia forces, guild procedures, occasional convocations of all the heads of household, and festive celebrations. On rare occasions they might even see the monarch processing through their streets or attending a ceremonial Mass. But when taxes were raised, war was declared, property laws were modified, or food prices became exorbitant, most people had no formal channel for complaint.

Nevertheless, people did have opinions about how things ought to be done, and they were perfectly capable of taking matters into their own hands if justice was not carried out to their satisfaction. Lacking official input in the decision making process, people adopted a language of protest that mixed tradition and initiative, violence and restraint. This popular protest was a significant phenomenon all over early modern Europe.

Forming a precise definition of "popular" involvement is not easy. Ideally this concept should encompass movements in which everyday men and women expressed their own points of view. These would be instances when the commoners agitated on their own behalf, expressing moral indignation at the violation of community-held values or intervening through direct action to change the course of events. Such activity should be distinguished from upper-class rebellions, in which popular crowds played a subordinate role. Even genuine popular movements often had assistance from elite leaders. Thus there was no hard line between elite-inspired and autonomous popular protests; instead there was a spectrum of possible combinations. "Popular protest and rebellions" should be defined as attempts by ordinary people to influence, or comment upon, issues decided by governments.


Before the 1960s historians paid little attention to popular uprisings, with the exception of a few inescapable episodes such as the 15251526 German Peasants' War or the Comuneros Revolt of 15201521 in Spain. In their books, historians devoted a paragraph or two to such events, describing them as unfortunate excesses arising from desperation. The rebels were presented as ignorant, crude, and impulsive, or at the very least misguided, and history focused on the rich, the powerful, and the successful.

This picture has changed dramatically. A generation of historians has come to realize the importance of focusing on the history of the common people, not only because these people did most of society's hard labor, but also because the story of the past would be superficial without considering the impact of events on the largest segment of the population. The tide began to turn in the 1960s when a first wave of historians reexamined well-known historical episodes and learned more about people fighting back against their oppressors. As the historians looked deeper for new evidence, they found many instances of popular protest. Such uprisings were everywhere they looked, especially in England and France, where most of the early research took place. René Pillorget found 532 incidents of protest in the single French province of Provence between 1596 and 1715. Buchanan Sharp found more than 40 food riots in the west of England between 1586 and 1631. Pieter Bierbrauer identified 125 German peasant revolts between 1336 and 1789, more than half of which took place after 1525. Jean Nicolas and a team of French researchers located 8,528 incidents of protest in France from 1660 to 1789. The majority of these incidents were relatively minor in scope, but the everyday events were arguably just as influential as the major outbursts.

Historians first attempted to fit these episodes into the story of the developing bourgeois revolution. While virtually all of the protesters had succumbed to superior forces of repression, these "primitive rebels," historians argued, had made a difference by establishing traditions of resistance and by striking fear into the hearts of those in power. Their failure to prevail could be explained by a poorly developed class consciousness, by precocious timing, or by the rebels' inability to develop a viable blueprint for bringing about social change. Conservative historians responded that this analysis was pure romanticism. Most revolts were openly led or encouraged by leaders from elite groups. Thus popular rebels were just pawns in their larger power games. Furthermore, the conservative historians argued that focusing on uprisings gave undue attention to exceptional cases and obscured the fact that, most of the time, people accepted the system and lived by it.

The grandfather of the analysis of popular revolt was Friedrich Engels (18201895), who wrote the classic Marxist account of the German Peasants' War. Writing in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848, Engels argued that the Peasants' War had been a premature revolt against feudalism, which had failed because the German bourgeoisie was not prepared to lead the struggle. The issue was published in a major study by Günther Franz in 1933. But the real pioneers in the study of the rebellious crowd were Georges Lefebvre, who attributed a positive collective purpose to the crowds in the French Revolution, and Georges Rudé, who made a science out of crowd study by analyzing the social identity of those arrested. Rudé showed that eighteenth-century crowds were composed of respectable individuals from the urban lower classes: minor officials, artisans and their journeymen and apprentices, wives and children, laborers, and market women. Connected by local networks of sociability, crowds acted like an impromptu community and exercised rudimentary politics by focusing their attention on specific targets. This important insight was a reaction against the old theory that crowds were an irrational mob with a single mind bent on destruction. The studies of the crowd were an important step, but they had limitations. The sociology of the crowd is dependent on the occupational categories used in arrest records, and it fails to address the question of the actors' motivation and to explain the forms of action they chose to use.

In France in the 1960s the discussion of popular protest was the subject of a great debate about the nature of early modern social structure. A Soviet scholar, Boris Porchnev, who had access to a large collection of detailed letters written by the French king's provincial agents in the period 16201660, found in them evidence of widespread riots against tax collectors and other authorities. Porchnev used this rich source to argue that these uprisings were an expression of class conflict in which a heterogeneous plebeian population was transferring its resistance from the local nobility to the representatives of the state because the state had taken over the nobility's role of extracting value from the peasants. Like Engels, Porchnev concluded that the essence of absolutist France was class struggle, and that the Revolution was only held off because of the cooption of the bourgeoisie by the absolute monarchy.

Roland Mousnier, a French expert on the seventeenth century, took up this challenge. Using similar documents, he attempted to demonstrate that there were in fact no classes at all in seventeenth-century France. Society was organized into "orders" and "estates," which were groups based on common levels of esteem. Whereas Porchnev said revolts were expressions of class difference, Mousnier argued that they were conflicts between the modernizing state and vertical alliances of nobles, commoners, and laborers defending traditional privileges. Porchnev saw the crowds as protesting spontaneously. Mousnier said that crowds were incapable of spontaneous revolt. Faced with a standoff between these contradictory interpretations, scholars did more research and concluded that the answer was not one or the other position, but rather a combination of both. This analysis of revolts as indicators of social structure produced much valuable research, but it drew attention away from the culture of the rioters themselves.

To avoid the classification of crowds by their occupational composition or their adherence to a certain kind of social relations, one must look at their behavior anthropologically, that is, as a language expressing a specific set of values and objectives, often in terms of symbolic meanings. Two practitioners of this approach stand out: E. P. Thompson, who analyzed the culture of the pre-industrial British working class of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in terms of the level of class consciousness it had reached; and Natalie Zemon Davis, who pioneered the study of popular rituals and their meaning. While Thompson saw grain riots, enclosure riots, and poaching in royal forests as forms of resistance to the rise of capitalism, Davis understood ritual behavior like charivari or Carnival as an expression of community values related to fertility, adolescence, and the purification of the community.

Another way of approaching the study of crowd actions is to use quantitative methods to find patterns in the location, time of day, type of complaint, size of group, or methods used by a succession of protest movements. To develop causal connections, these patterns can then be correlated with variables such as harvest yields, the incidence of warfare, or level of taxation. Many such studies have been conducted, and they generally confirm that popular protest was connected to hard times, and that its incidence was higher in some regions than in others. But without including other dimensions of the problem, such studies only illuminate the context of the protest and not its substance or why it took place where and when it did. A more promising approach is that of historical sociologist Charles Tilly. He was interested in linking the changing nature of crowd protest to what he called "large processes," namely the rise of capitalism and the rise of the modern state. By this interpretation, the "repertoires" of popular action, that is, the ways in which people protested, changed in response to the nature of the forces they were contesting.

A new wave of scholarship has abandoned symbolic meaning in favor of political expression, or "popular politics." This approach was pioneered in the German-speaking world and was heavily influenced by Jürgen Habermas's theory of the public sphere. Attempting to escape the rigid dichotomy of ruler versus ruled, these scholars, led by Swiss historian Peter Blickle, focused their attention on the ways ordinary people could become involved in the political process. This approach is particularly well suited to early modern Germany, where many small states had a variety of systems of consultation and representation. Blickle focused on the local and regional demands drawn up by the peasants in 1525. He asserted that they were inventing alternative political forms, which were derived from their experiences with existing representative bodies. Blickle also organized a program of international conferences, at which experts assessed the potential strength of popular politics under three related categories: communities, the strength of which provided the backbone for protest; representation, which took many forms and was often indirect; and rebellion, which could also be an effective resource. Thus, recent scholarship has reacted against the idea of the people being powerless through its emphasis on multiple forms of interaction between rulers and people.


Popular protest was endemic throughout Europe, as Table 1 indicates. But lists cannot convey the wide range of styles, forms, and sizes of popular disturbances. It is useful to distinguish between peasant uprisings and urban revolts. Peasant uprisings involved thousands of angry men in military formations who ultimately would have to be put down by military force. Because peasants lived in dispersed villages, their uprisings were planned in advance. At the same time, their objectives had to be stated in writing and publicized for them to have any impact, since there was no immediately accessible individual on whom they could blame their grievances. So a set of demands would be drawn up at some kind of general assembly, often with the aid of literate allies. Examples are the Twelve Articles of the Upper Swabian Peasants in 1525 or the Manifesto of the Peasants of Angoumois in 1637.

The history of Hungary is filled with peasant revolts. In that country, resistance to the Turks and opposition to the Habsburgs was sometimes initiated by the peasants and sometimes led by the ferocious Magyar nobility. There were also recurring conflicts between lords and serfs. In 1514 peasants, artisans, and students were eagerly enlisting in a planned crusade against the Turks when the nobles, fearing a liberated peasantry, canceled the campaign. The peasants turned on their masters and raised an army of thousands that swept across the country capturing castles until it was stopped by a superior noble army. Their leader, Dosza, was burned alive, thousands of peasants were hanged, and the Hungarian diet passed a law binding the peasants perpetually to the soil. In 16721685 and in 1697 an army of warrior peasants rose again. In 1703 they initiated the uprising that became the unsuccessful war of liberation from the Habsburgs after its leadership was assumed by Ferenc Rákóczi.

An English example of a peasant insurrection was the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536. Protesting the dissolution of the monasteries, high taxes, and general misgovernment by Thomas Cromwell (c. 14851540) and the ministers of Henry VIII (ruled 15091547), the gentry of Lincolnshire and York began a rebellion that was joined by thousands of people from all walks of life who swore an oath to God and king and marched under the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ. The city of York was occupied by 30,000 disciplined soldiers who set up a dissident government of the north. They negotiated a truce with the king, then disbanded and went home. None of the royal promises were kept. Of note are the incredible orderliness of this movement, its elite leadership, and the participants' strong belief in the right of their cause.

Some peasant revolts took the form of waves of separate but related attacks on local objectives. The German peasants in 1525 and the French peasants in the Great Fear of 1789 attacked the castles of their lords. Letters from Brittany in 1675 convey the nature of the fear that swept the upper classes during such a movement: "These people are still very stirred up in Lower Brittany. They have killed a gentleman and burned the houses of others on pretext that they were extortionists. My lord, there is no safety in the countryside for anyone. The parishes are murmuring on all sides . . ." wrote an agent of the king. A priest sympathetic to the peasants reported that in one of "a thousand inhuman acts," they had dragged a noble out of a church by his hair and thrown him half dead into a ditch.


Urban riots were shorter and more focused than peasant revolts. Because walled cities had crowded, narrow streets, urban rioters tended to go after specific targets that symbolized their grievances. Crowds would storm through the streets shouting slogans, attack persons or property, form armed companies, take hostages, occupy the city hall, or seize strategic towers. Along with the major urban uprisings came a host of lesser disturbances, and many signs of simmering discontent: the appearance of anonymous manifestos on doorways and public walls, muttering heard in the streets, sabotage of the work of detested officials, and passive resistance through noncompliance.

Urban crowds could form spontaneously, provided the participants shared a common set of values that they felt had been violated, and provided there was a specific incident or experience to set people off. Such an event would require considerable preparation,

Selected Instances of Popular Protest and Revolt in Early Modern Europe 15001780
Date Location Event
1502 Speyer, Germany Bundshuhe revolt
151314 Berne, Lucerne First war of Swiss peasants
1514 Hungary Peasant army led by Dosza sweeps the country
1515 Carniola, Carinthia, Stryria Peasant War in Inner Austria
1517 Baden, Alsace Bundshuhe revolt
1520 Castile Comuneros revolt (league of towns)
152330 Denmark Peasants revolt against their new status
1525 Southern Germany German Peasants' War: Peasants unite to overthrow government representatives
1525 Lavenham, England Crowd of 4,000 demands tax relief
1526 Salzburg, Austria German Peasants' War: Peasants revive their war
1529 Lyon, France La Grande Rebeine: Attack on grain stores and houses of the rich
1536 North of England Pilgrimage of Grace against Protestant religious reform
1548 Saintonge, Angoumois, France Revolt of the Pitauds
1549 Midlands, East Anglia, England Kett's Rebellion against enclosures
1566 Netherlands Iconoclastic riots against Catholic images
156970 Hungary led by George Karacsonyi
1573 Croatia General revolt in Croatia and parts of Styria; 60,000 peasants demand rights, end of tithe, 4,000 executed
1573 Carniola, Carinthia, Styria, Austria Peasant Uprising
157375 Norway Peasants in revolt; uprisings in Trondheim province
157980 Romans, France Carnival of Romans, peasant risings in region
1579 Normandy Revolt of the Gautiers
1585 Naples Urban bread riots crushed by Philip II
1586, 1596 Troyes, France Two urban revolts against taxes
1588 Paris Day of Barricades: Crowds support duke of Guise over King Henry III
1588 Steyer, Austria Lower classes; spreads to countryside against lords
159193 Ukraine Kosinsky leads rebellion around Kiev, Bratslav
159395 Limousin, Périgord, France Revolt of Tard-Avisés (peasants)
159495 Upper and Lower Austria Peasant Uprisings
159497 Reichstenstein, Austria Lutherans against war tax; 4,000 peasants
1596 Midlands, England Laborers rise
1597 Hungary Peasants rise against demands of nobles, very orderly.
160507 Rettenberg, Augsburg Peasant uprisings
1607 Midlands, England Revolt against enclosures
1607 Hungary 20,000 Haiduks (bandits) and serfs; against lords as part of rebellion against Habsburgs
162627 Upper Austria "War" led by nobles against Catholic repression, death taxes; 12,000 peasants killed
1627 Troyes, France Urban riot against the "gabelle"
162832 England Skimmington revolts: 3,000 tear down forest enclosures
1630 Lyon, France Urban riot of weavers
1630 Aix-en-Provence, France Urban riot (Cascaveoux)
1630 Dijon, France Urban riot by vinegrowers (Lanturelu)
1632 Lyon, France Urban riot against taxes
163236 Machland, Austria Martin Limbauer revolt; executions in Linz 1636
163334 Benediktbeuren region, Upper Bavaria 10,000 peasants put down by Swedish and Imperial troops
1635 Bordeaux, France Urban riot against "gabelle"
1635 Agen, France Violent urban revolt against tax farmers
1636 Saintonge, Angoumois, France Assemblies of peasants
1637 Périgord, Quercy, France Revolt of Croquants (peasants)
1639 Lower Normandy, France Nu-pieds revolt
1640 Catalonia Villages revolt against Castille
1641 Troyes, France Urban riot against taxes on merchandise
1642 Stour Valley, Colchester, England Crowd attacks houses of gentry
1645 Montpellier, France Urban revolt: women and men riot against new taxes
1645 Wiltshire and Dorset, England 4000 Clubmen and Levellers against royalist troops
164748 Naples, Palermo, and Sicily Masaniello Revolt in Naples over bread, taxes, spreads to Palermo and Sicily
1648 Moscow Crowds encouraged by Boyars sack government buildings, result is a new code of feudalism
1652 Granada, Cordoba, Seville Crowds attack officials, establish a sort of commune
1653 Swiss Cantons Conspirators hold meetings, then 3,000 march on Lucern; they swear a general oath, 250,000 men
Selected Instances of Popular Protest and Revolt in Early Modern Europe 15001780
Date Location Event
1657 Châlons-sur-Marne, France Urban riot against tax on serge
1658 Sologne, France Revolt of Sabotiers
1659 Aix-en-Provence, France Urban revolt, St. Valentine's Day Revolt
1662 Boulogne, France Revolt of Lustucru
1670 Vivarais, France Rural revolt led by Roure
1675 Bordeaux, France Large urban uprising against new excise taxes
1675 Rennes, Brittany, France Urban protest against excise taxes, peasant revolt against lords (Bonnets Rouges)
1685 England Popular support for Monmouth to usurp throne
1697 Hungary Peasant revolt in Tokaj region
1703 Hungary Peasant war against serfdom becomes national liberation movement
1710 London Sacherevell riots
1736 London Rioting against hiring of cheap Irish workers
1750 Paris Rioting over rumors that police were abducting children and deporting them to the colonies
1766 Spain Uprising causes king to flee the capital for several months
1766 West of England Waves of food riots
1768 London Biggest of a series of Wilkite riots in favor of liberty and John Wilkes
1775 France, region around Paris "Flour War," a wave of grain riots
1780 London Gordon Riots against toleration act for Catholics
source: Hughes Neveux, Les Révoltes paysannes en Europe XIVe-XVIIe siècles Paris, 1997, 29298; Henry Kamen, The Iron Century: Social Change in Europe 15501660, New York, 1972, 331385; William Beik, Urban Protest in Seventeenth-Century France: The Culture of Retribution, London, 1997; and diverse mentions.

not in the form of conspiratorial planning, although this sometimes occurred, but in the form of talk: people complaining about the injustice of a current abuse until a consensus emerged regarding who was to blame and what should be done about it. The classic case is the British grain riot analyzed by E. P. Thompson, who inaugurated the concept of the "moral economy" of the crowd. When emerging capitalist market forces caused the traditional rules of the marketplace to break down, the crowd took matters into its own hands by confiscating the grain and selling it at a traditional price, then turning the proceeds over to the owner. The crucial elements here are belief in an accepted, traditional norm; intervention by the crowd to regulate the system, not to damage it; and attacks focused only on violators of the accepted norm, with no general, indiscriminate violence. Grain riots took place all over Europe.

This concept of moral economy has been extended to include any crowd motivated by moral indignation and measured objectives. In France this concept can be applied to the many revolts against tax collectors, who were often private contractors (traitants) collecting the king's special taxes for their own profit. Here the moral economy turns into what can be called the "culture of retribution." Rather than regulating an abuse, like a new tax, over which they had no control, crowds went after a person or object that symbolized the abuse, with the aim of inflicting punishment. If the movement continued to develop, the crowd's targets expanded to include the authorities responsible for the abuse or the rich citizens who backed it financially.

The violence of these riots was strictly measured, and its purpose was to humiliate the offender. In many cases he escaped with minor bruises, duly chastened. In some cases, if he were actually caught, he might be beaten or killed. Torture of a living person was rare, but a dead body was fair game for ritual mutilation, dragging through the streets, or dismemberment. All of these seemingly cruel measures mimicked official justice; thus they may not have seemed particularly brutal in the eyes of the perpetrators. Such acts were essentially attempts to humiliate and insult. In the largest revolts, an initial wave of attacks was followed by a strong counterreaction by the authorities. This, in turn, caused larger riots enveloping whole sections of the city, along with threats uttered against the city's elites or attacks on the jail to release the prisoners.

In Bordeaux in 1675, popular crowds angered at a tax on pewter attacked and destroyed the houses of two pewter merchants who were reported to have paid the new tax. They then accosted and beat to death a man who was said to be the assistant to the royal intendant in Bordeaux, and who may have provoked them. There followed a ritual parade, in which the rebels dragged the body up and down more prosperous streets of Bordeaux, knocking on the doors of royal officials, and culminating at the house of the man's supposed boss. There they placed the body in the boss's carriage and set fire to it while the entire building was pillaged.

In 1750 the people of Paris sent the same sort of symbolic message during riots sparked by rumors that the police were rounding up children of the poor and transporting them to the West Indies. A crowd murdered a man known to be a police spy and, after parading him through the streets, deposited his bloody body at the door of the police commissioner.

Actions like these were part of an international language of gestures, at least in southern Europe. In Naples in 1585 at a time of high bread prices, a crowd seized a man named Starace, who was supposed to represent them in the city council, and paraded him through the streets seated backward in a chair while crowds jeered. They then killed him, dragged his body through the streets by the feet, mutilated it, castrated it, sold off the body parts to the highest bidder, and pillaged his house.

English protests followed a similar pattern, although the English, who seemed to have more of a national orientation and more constitutional options for participation than the French, focused less on retribution and more on petitioning authorities. The Gordon Riots of 1780 in London are an example of this. These demonstrations were initiated by Lord Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, as part of a lobbying effort to get Parliament to repeal the 1778 Catholic Relief Act. On 2 June 1780, fifty thousand persons turned up in St. George's fields and marched peacefully to the Houses of Parliament to petition for repeal. When Parliament turned a deaf ear, the crowd became unmanageable and began acting on its own. Five days of rioting followed, in which hundreds of buildings were pillaged and major monuments, such as Downing Street, Lambeth Palace, and the Bank of England, were threatened. Catholic chapels and schools were torn down, the houses of members of Parliament who were on the wrong side of the issue were targeted, and eventually the protesters besieged the prisons and released the prisoners. When troops were finally brought in to restore order, over two hundred people, including women and children, were shot in the streets. Despite the destructiveness of the riot, the crowd's behavior, as analyzed by Nicholas Rogers, corresponds closely to the expected model. The members of the crowd acted on their own. Except for some deterioration in the last phase, their actions were deliberate and focused. They limited themselves to targeting prominent Catholics and Catholic institutions, and they were well informed about which these were. The motive of the rioters was essentially political: to bring about a change in the law, not to attack all Catholics.


In addition to values relating to subsistence, survival, and tax extortion, crowds also protested troop disorders, arrests of criminals for whom the crowd felt sympathy, legal actions, and occasionally labor grievances. In England a very important objective was tearing down the hedges and filling in the ditches to stop enclosures.

Another source of conflict was religion. During the German Reformation, Protestant minorities frequently bore witness to their faith by gathering publicly to worship, occupying a church, or attacking symbols of idolatry, like statues of saints. The wave of iconoclasm that hit the Netherlands and the north of France in the summer of 1566 is a famous example. For months people had been flocking to incendiary sermons by Calvinist preachers in woods and fields outside the walls of cities. On 10 August in a tiny town called Steen-voorde, the audience stormed out of the church after a fiery sermon and broke into the nearby Abbey of Saint Lawrence, where they smashed pictures and statues. This first blow set off a wave of vandalism that swept across the region. On 20 August the cathedral in Antwerp was occupied by an enormous crowd of excited believers. Men started climbing up the pillars and making their way across the vaulted ceiling with hammers, smashing every image and dumping the broken pieces down into the nave. The next day all the other churches in Antwerp were attacked. In two weeks almost two hundred churches and monasteries were attacked over the whole region.

Such movements might have enjoyed the support of sympathizers within the city council, or they might have represented a challenge to the constituted authorities. In France, where the Huguenots and the Catholics were forced by circumstance to live side by side, there were frequent confrontations over rituals and symbols. Quarrels arose over the deference shown to a statue of the Virgin Mary, the location of burials, and jurisdiction over the last rites of the dying. Each faith claimed to be purifying the community in the name of God by persecuting the other party. It is interesting to note that the punishments meted out by religious crowds were remarkably similar to the treatment of tax agents. When the duke of Guise, leader of the Catholic party in the French Religious Wars, assassinated Admiral Coligny and his followers on the night of Saint Bartholomew in 1572, the victims' bodies were seized by celebrating Parisians who triumphantly dragged them through the streets.


Women played a prominent role in most riots. They were closely associated with bread riots and other protests involving family and subsistence. But they also turned up everywhere except in formal military operations. Women served as the conscience and moral repository of the community. They were often the first to cry out publicly when an abuse surfaced, and many a riot was set off by just such a cry. Their boldness was partly predicated on the knowledge that as "weak and helpless" women, they could not be held responsible for their actions before the law. They could be seen encouraging the men wherever roofs were being stripped and rocks were being thrown. Women were active in every country, but they were especially strong in the Dutch Republic. When reminded that they had no vote, women demonstrating before the town hall in Rotterdam in 1747 snarled "Here we do!" In Oudewater in 1628, when a crowd chased a tax farmer into the city hall, women cried out "Let us sound the drum and send our husbands home. We will catch the villain and beat him, as we cannot be tried for fighting." At a demonstration in Rotterdam in 1690, women formed a female military contingent in front of the stathuis (city hall). They carried sticks and clubs on their shoulders and appeared "ready to storm the gates of Hell."


All of these instances, rural and urban, admirably fit a classic definition of collective action. The participants had opinions about politics and they challenged authority in a logical, informed way. Their action was legitimized by widely held values that might even have been tacitly shared by local elites. The crowd always went after specific targets that were perceived as being either the real culprit or someone or something associated with him. The action was designed to correct the abuse or to punish the abuser. Their frame of reference was local. They did not generally question the king or the system in general. In fact, the demonstrators usually believed that the king would agree with them if only he knew their plight. Their punishments, though sometimes brutal, were extremely selective. They knew their enemy and they left other people alone.


In recent years there have been a number of critiques of the kind of analysis outlined above. Critics argue that it is too simplistic to speak of the crowd as having a single voice and to attribute honorable motives to all its actions when different participants may have had different intentions. New studies are punching holes in the old generalizations by finding exceptions and by demonstrating the ambiguity and complexity of the participation and the motivation behind popular revolts. Some have cited cases that do not fit this mold, often using the intense scrutiny of a microhistorical approach. Others are looking critically at the nature of the discourses from which we get our information on popular rebellion.

For example, a study by Hughes Neveux questions the very concept of a peasant uprising, charging that it is a cultural construction imposed on a set of diverse episodes that have no common denominator. Another example is John Walter's intensive study of the well-known series of attacks by crowds on the houses of the English gentry in the Stour Valley in 1642. These attacks are usually cited as prime examples of class conflict. A crowd of poor, angry commoners took the opportunity to attack the homes of the rich. In fact, this description, repeated by historians since the event itself, expresses the Royalist view of the Parliamentary opposition. Lucas was a Catholic and a Royalist who was rumored to be raising support for the king. His attackers came from nearby Colchester and may have been supported by the town corporation itself. In fact, the riots were the culmination of years of conflicts between the Lucas family and the town of Colchester. There were elements of anti-Catholicism and class hatred in these attacks, but there was a host of other reasons why the sides lined up as they did. Like many confrontations, this one had a long history that is not captured by studying the actions of the crowd alone.

Another example is David Martin Luebke's study of the peasant wars in Upper Austria between 1725 and 1745, called the Saltpeter Wars. The villages of the county of Hauenstein were struggling against the exactions of the powerful monastery of St. Blasien, which dominated the area. One might expect that this was a classic conflict of lord versus villagers, with the solidarity of the collective peasantry being a major source of strength in its struggles for independence. Instead, the community was split into two warring factions named the salpeterisch faction and the müllerisch faction. There was no identifiable economic or social difference between the two groups, but they attributed to each other completely different personalities and reputations derived from their different interpretations of the relationship of law and custom in their struggle with the monastery. Luebke's study thus calls into question the concept of community that is central to early modern social history.

These studies do not negate the fundamental insights of the previous analyses, but they do suggest pitfalls and avenues for further exploration. Whatever the approach, there is one central point on which there is now general agreement: that ordinary people were intelligent critics of the world around them. They were involved, they made themselves heard, and they did make a difference.

See also Class, Status, and Order ; Comuneros Revolt (15201521) ; Food Riots ; Naples, Revolt of (1647) ; Peasants' War, German ; Popular Culture ; Pugachev Revolt (17731775) ; Rákóczi Revolt ; Revolutions, Age of .


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William Beik

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Popular Protest and Rebellions

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