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Urban Crowds


Michael P. Hanagan

Urban crowds comprise a large number and great variety of human social interactions. A broad survey of European history reveals that crowd behavior has been shaped by transformations of the state system, the character of urbanization, and the composition of urban populations. Urban crowds have been one of the oldest objects of social analysis. Generally theorists have condemned the crowd as prone to irrationality and violence, although this view has never gone unchallenged.


The dominant classical view, based on philosophers such as Plato and the historical accounts of Tacitus and Procopius, portrayed the crowd as an unthinking mob. Almost all the conceptions of crowd behavior articulated by nineteenth-century crowd theorists can be found in Tacitus's analysis of the Roman mob. In the late 1880s the conservative historian Hippolyte Taine's monumental history of contemporary France (Origines de la France contemporaine; Origins of contemporary France) drew the attention of the developing social sciences to crowd phenomena. Appalled by the Paris Commune of 1871, Taine delighted in presenting the gruesome details of crowd atrocities during the French Revolution and argued that such behavior was endemic in democracies. Within a decade, the French sociologist Gustave Le Bon had ransacked the writings of a host of innovative predecessors to create the field of "crowd psychology." Le Bon listed three characteristics of crowd behavior: a psychic unity giving the crowd a sense of almost unlimited power, a collective mentality yielding suddenly to powerful emotional appeals, and a very low level of intelligence sinking to the level of the lowest common denominator of its participants. While urban crowds were Le Bon's prime example of crowd behavior, he believed his principles applied to all human assemblies from juries to legislatures. In 1960 Elias Canetti attempted a reconstruction of this intellectual tradition by emphasizing the crowd's transcendence of individualism, but Canetti's ignorance of historical context and penchant for facile generalization limited his influence in the contemporary reshaping of theories of crowd behavior.

A more favorable view of crowd activity originated in the Renaissance in Niccolò Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Machiavelli portrayed the uncorrupted Roman crowd as the last repository of civic virtue and the only recourse against tyrants and a degraded aristocracy. His views influenced Montesquieu, who celebrated the English crowd's role in maintaining that country's mixed constitution. In the nineteenth century, the great French historian Jules Michelet was a foremost exponent of the Machiavellian view. Posing the rhetorical question of who participated in the siege of the Bastille, Michelet responded, "The people, the whole people."

Only in the twentieth century did historians and sociologists such as George Rudé and E. P. Thompson introduce a new perspective on crowd behavior based on the actual study of crowds, primarily in turn-of-the-eighteenth-century England and France. The result was a striking early achievement of the "new" social history. Uncovering a variety of records about the individual identity of crowd participants, Rudé examined the composition of protesting crowds, while Thompson concentrated on crowd demands and their social context. Their investigations challenged images of the crowd as primal and irrational and also the view of the crowd as the collective conscience of an entire society; instead they portrayed protesting crowds as composed of relatively better-off members of popular communities responding to specific threats to their communities and acting according to widely shared popular cultural assumptions. Sociologists studying contemporary crowds have also challenged some of the basic postulates of earlier crowd theorists. Questioning images of the "lonely crowd," Clark McPhail has shown that crowds are not generally composed of isolated, atomistic individuals subject to the manipulation of talented orators; rather, small groups of friends generally join together in the formation of crowds. Small group ties persist within crowds and condition an individual's response to speakers and the actions of other crowd components.


Begun by Rudé and Thompson, the study of historical crowds became an important theme of historical analysis, and works at the end of the twentieth century have enabled historians to discover secular patterns in crowd behavior. For a survey of some of the findings of crowd historians, a few definitions are helpful. An "urban crowd" refers to a number of people, say ten or more, who are not part of government, assembled for some common purpose in a publicly accessible place within a densely settled site of three thousand or more inhabitants. The three chief types of crowds are extrinsic, claim-making, and commemorative. "Extrinsic crowds" are the unintended but inevitable consequence of time- and space-restricted services, usually connected with commerce, entertainment, or routine religious observance. Crowds thronging to markets, fairs, or balloon ascensions are examples, as are concert audiences and attendees at Sunday religious services. With an extrinsic crowd the services in question could be provided privately without serious decline in the value of the services. Thus, in the nineteenth century the replacement of open stalls by private shops lessened the crowd character of many growing market towns without affecting the fundamental purpose of commercial exchange. A Catholic mass retains its full meaning with only the celebrant present.

In contrast, numbers are necessary to claim-making and commemorative crowds, and poor attendance amounts to failure of the claim. "Claim-making crowds" make claims on at least one person outside their own number, claims that if realized would affect the interests of their object. Claim-making crowds have taken many different forms. At one time or another, the seizure of grain, cessation of work, pulling down of houses, mass demonstrations, invasions of common land, rough music, and naval mutinies were all recognized forms of claim making. Recognizing a claim-making process required familiarity with the social and cultural context on the part of both claim makers and the objects of their claims. When employers first saw most of their workers withdraw in concert from work, often leaving unfinished material to ruin in stilled machines and, subsequently, marching around factory gates with signs, shouting insulting names at loyal workmen, these actions struck many of them as personal betrayal, criminal disruption, or attempted extortion. Only in time did the "strike" become a recognized form of claim making, with laws distinguishing legal from illegal actions and with both employers and workers carefully scrutinizing each other's behavior to distinguish routine from nonroutine behavior in order to gauge relative strength or weakness.

"Commemorative crowds" pay tribute, witness events, or assert an identity openly. Examples are sports rallies, religious revival meetings, and coronation processions. Because the political purposes of commemorative crowds are not always explicitly stated and the intentions of their organizers may differ considerably from the mass of participants, they deserve special attention. Commemorative crowds often demonstrate the extent of support for a particular identity and may implicitly support political claims; insofar as it discusses commemorative crowds, this essay deals with implicitly claim-making commemorative crowds.

The ritual actions of commemorative crowds and authorities' attitudes toward them may implicitly express claims more effectively than explicit claim making. In Northern Ireland in the 1990s, sectarian Protestant determination to preserve a "Protestant state for a Protestant people" was asserted publicly through parades commemorating battles such as those of the Boyne (1690) and the Somme (1916) and Protestant holidays such as Reformation Day. To demonstrate their predominance, hard-core Protestants insisted on their right to march through both Protestant and Catholic communities, and Northern Irish authorities generally supported their claims. Meanwhile Catholics, who emulated the Protestants in the use of parading, were allowed to celebrate such holidays as St. Patrick's Day and the anniversary of the Easter Rebellion (1916) by marching only through Catholic areas. In an effort to resolve the conflict resulting from Catholic resistance to Protestant parades through their neighborhoods, British politicians attempted to work out impartial procedures for granting parade permits. In turn, this led to confrontations between political authorities and sectarian Protestants who opposed both the limitations on their parading and, much more important, the concept of a nonsectarian political administration in Northern Ireland.

As in the case of Northern Irish parades, a clear line cannot always be drawn between various categories of crowds. Until the nineteenth century, almost all claim-making crowds emerged from extrinsic and commemorative crowds. Market days, fairs, Sunday church, processions, and carnivals were the only legitimate public assemblies and offered the best opportunities for the development of claim-making crowds. In early modern European marketplaces, Monday was often a favorite day for bread or grain riots. Grievances were discussed and participation pledged after Sunday church services that brought together community members; the actions were carried out the next day, which many urban workers took off or on which they worked irregularly.

From 1500 on, population growth combined with urbanization increased both the average size and frequency of extrinsic urban crowds. Nineteenth-century social theorists proclaimed their own time as preeminently the "age of the crowd" and insisted that the crowd was becoming the dominant force in modern society. Yet such claims cannot be sustained, for in fact crowds played an important political role at almost all stages of European history after 1500.

Perhaps the single most important factor affecting the character of claim-making crowds was the nature of the political regime. Since commemorative and claim-making crowds are significantly shaped by state transformation, this essay examines their characteristic features in the era of composite monarchies, sovereign states, and consolidated states. It also looks at how changes in urban population and its distribution caused by commercialization and industrialization affected the character of crowds.


In 1500 composite monarchies dominated Europe. These were cobbled-together unions of previously separate political units that retained the important political institutions of preceding regimes and were typically territorially dispersed. Fragmented sovereignty and overlapping jurisdictions were characteristic features of composite monarchies. The claims to legitimacy on the part of the central authority were frequently weighed against the competing claims of regional or local authorities, and small territorial units often strengthened their positions by playing off the rival claims of king and emperor.

Already by 1500 the European state system was characterized by permanent military competition, and military success was strongly affected by economic development; money fueled western European war machines, and the search for money inevitably brought tax collectors and royal financial agents to town. In the sixteenth century, towns in western Germany, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and the Baltic used their financial power to mobilize troops and maintain a large degree of independence from the territorially large but capital-poor states surrounding them. The autonomous power of many cities combined with conflicts among rival polities about their respective rights led to the emergence of political spaces for direct negotiations between authorities and crowds. These spaces tended to disappear with the rise of the sovereign state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but were revived and expanded with the growth of consolidated states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the era of composite monarchies, the distinctive features of claim-making crowds, both commemorative crowds with implicit claims and explicitly claim-making crowds, were their origin in non-claim-making crowds combined with their ability to negotiate directly with rulers or to take independent authoritative action.

For a look at a commemorative crowd, Mardi Gras 1580 in the Dauphiné region of southeastern France, as described by Le Roy Ladurie in Carnival in Romans (1979), offers a representative case. At the time France was in the midst of its seventh religious war since the accession in 1560 of ten-year-old Charles IX under the regency of his grasping mother, Catherine de Médicis. In the chaos produced by the confrontation between Catholics and Protestants, normally quiescent popular forces organized to influence power. In the Dauphiné peasant leagues mobilized to protest unjust taxation, and in the city of Romans, urban artisans challenged the oligarchical elites' monopoly of urban political power and also protested the incidence of urban taxation. The monarchy's preoccupation with the religious wars forced local elites to act directly on their own behalf; to reassure the king about the propriety of their own actions, they exaggerated the Protestant ties of their artisanal enemies. Elites used the Mardi Gras crowd to articulate a response to popular demands. Mardi Gras provided a public forum for assembling their party, expressing their concerns, and declaring their intentions. Antoine Guérin, royal judge and political boss, organized the celebrations; by means of parade floats and dramatic performances, he expressed the elite's hostility to rebellious artisans, their fear of artisan cooperation with rebellious peasants and local Protestants, and their determination to use violence against the insubordinate artisans. Toward the end of Mardi Gras, the elites called on their henchmen to put into practice the murderous intentions expressed initially in carnival.

Turning from western Europe in the midst of religious wars, one finds a good example of a claim-making crowd in eastern Europe and the Baltic region in the period immediately after the Thirty Years' War. Although the situation of divided allegiances that marked Mardi Gras in Romans represented a thirty-five-year break in the continuity of the French monarchies' drive toward centralized power, dual allegiance was a permanent condition in the independent city-state of Reval (modern Tallinn) in the second half of the seventeenth century. In terms of everyday politics, a mercantile oligarchy ruled the city but recognized the Swedish king's overlordship. Oligarchical rule was far from absolute. Public petitions presented to the city council were the normal method for presenting artisanal demands, and artisans had real bargaining power. City rulers generally depended on the urban population to enforce the law, and adult males often possessed arms as members of the city militia. Artisanal petitions were seriously considered and rejected only when they conflicted with the interests of the merchant oligarchs, which they often did. Merchants were willing to loosen or remove restrictions on the entry of nonguild, migrant workers to the urban market, a move that would make the goods that merchants sold cheaper by reducing the cost of labor. Serious divisions arose due to the merchants' stance, and artisans rioted. In 1662 a group of artisans attacked twenty soldiers that the city council had brought in to repress such riots. Artisans also appealed to the Swedish king, who, in response, made concessions to them as a way of retaining popular support in the distant city.

Together, the commemorative Mardi Gras crowd in Romans and the claim-making artisans in Reval capture essential features of crowd action in the composite monarchies of early modern Europe. Claim-making crowds generally emerged only from extrinsic or commemorative crowds, and the conditions of their emergence powerfully shaped the character of their claims. Claim-making crowds frequently employed violence. Mardi Gras parodies hardly encouraged compromise, and petitioning often assumed the character of an ultimatum because it was unconnected with the give and take of daily political interaction.

The dual sovereignty of Reval, with an urban oligarchy close at hand and a distant but powerful Swedish king, represented a very common feature of European urban life; in such situations, crowds were able to manipulate competing sovereignties. The diversity of structures and the fragmentation of sovereignty within composite monarchies allowed for the creation of "political spaces" in which popular crowds could actually negotiate with authorities and extract political concessions; but the possibility of popular political power contained a threat that might move elites to respond with terrible violence, as evidenced by the incidents in Romans. Even in France, local elites' control of the most powerful administrative positions allowed them a great deal of room for independent maneuver, especially when the monarch was occupied elsewhere. While the conditions for the emergence of claim making did not promote compromise or conciliation, the political context for claim-making crowds provided favorable opportunities for concessions; these contradictory situations often resulted in violence and, in the long term, created pressures for the limitation of popular claim making.


Under the pressure of war, conflicting claims to sovereignty were resolved by the emergence of sovereign states, mainly constitutional or autocratic monarchies but also confederations and independent city-states. In these states, sovereignty tended to be concentrated in a single geographic and institutional location, although the central power continued to operate through a variety of intermediary institutions, autonomous municipal councils, freewheeling legal institutions, and quasi-independent clerical establishments that all acknowledged the central power's ultimate dominance but still possessed a great deal of decision-making leeway. Major political thinkers of the period such as Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes championed the view that sovereignty should be located unambiguously in a single institution, preferably a monarchy. Their insistence that sovereignty could not be divided, however, was easily refuted by a simple survey of the contemporary European state system. Thus their views were not so much assessments of what existed as the founding propositions of the ascendant sovereign state.

As composite monarchies collapsed, the formation of the Dutch republic and the Swiss confederation represented the triumph of confederations of independent cities and small autonomous regions. But if cities dominated the Dutch and Swiss territory, territorial states dominated cities in England and France. Ultimately, territorial states proved more successful in mobilizing troops than were city-states or confederations. Although they succeeded in dominating cities, however, English and French monarchs also had to come to terms with urban financial elites. The power of these elites grew as an expanded international trade linked urban consumers to colonial markets and encouraged the growth of urban networks linking cities throughout states.

The development of networks of cities in western Europe provided a dramatic contrast with eastern Europe, where cities were few and urban elites weak both politically and financially. The weak commercialization of the eastern European countryside and the orientation of eastern European landlords toward selling their grain directly on international markets gave eastern European urban elites much less of a commercial role and consequently much less bargaining power than their western European counterparts. The military monarchies that emerged in the area depended on the forced recruitment of serf labor, not on paid mercenaries or conscripts; lacking wealthy urban bankers, these monarchs depended on coercion. The annexation of Reval in 1710 by Peter the Great ended that city's dual sovereignty and lessened the opportunities for independent crowds. In England and France commercial ties and financial concerns tightly connected cities, and channels of communication that served commerce could also effectively transmit political information throughout the nation and indeed throughout all western Europe.

In the era of sovereign states, commemorative and claim-making crowds changed in important ways. Claim-making crowds were less likely to negotiate directly with rulers; instead they allied with or sought to enlist powerful intermediaries who might intervene on their behalf. Crowd action typically focused on remedying immediate grievances and often employed violence, but having carried out their actions, crowds typically appealed humbly to powerful local figures to confirm their actions.

Harris's study, London Crowds (1987), presents a splendid example of a commemorative crowd used in implicitly claim-making ways. He studies attempts to rally support for and against the Exclusion Bill, a proposal to deny the royal succession to the Catholic duke of York, later James II. In November 1680, on a day celebrating the accession of Elizabeth I, a London crowd, supported by a Whig club, carried an effigy of the pope seated in his chair of state through the City. At Temple Bar the effigy was burned on a giant bonfire. Urban crowds were able to carry out such symbolic actions because urban policing largely rested with part-time, unpaid local officers, constables, beadles, and watchmen, who served in rotation. In theory these officers were property holders, but some hired replacements. As a result many local officers represented the poorer rather than the richer urban population. In an emergency these officers were entitled to call on any passerby for support. If worse come to worst, six regiments of trained men could be called on; in practice, however, it was impossible to coopt passersby to repress a procession with which they sympathized, and even the regiments' loyalty was far from totally reliable. In the weavers' riot of 1675, some regiments even seem to have gone over to the weavers.

Although urban crowds acknowledged the monarch's sovereignty, they still reserved the right to express their opinion. But the issues at stake were no longer demands that could be settled directly by negotiations between crowds and rulers; the fate of the Exclusion Bill proposed in Parliament depended on divisions within the English elite. While crowds could not exert their influence directly, crowd opinion still represented a legitimate expression of opinion as acknowledged even by its opponents. The Tory response to Whig efforts to mobilize crowds against the duke of York was to mobilize crowds in his favor. A variety of crowds and popular political perspectives existed in the City of London. While many in London were disappointed by the restored Stuart monarchy's failure to reduce taxes, the London population was not notably sympathetic to religious sectarians. As the government tightened its grip on the government of the City of London, Tory crowds mobilized. In 1681 at Westminster, a crowd organized by the scholars at St. Peter College dressed up and burned "Jack Presbyter" in effigy.

In 1795 in Exeter, Devonshire, an English claim-making crowd can be seen in action as described in Bohstedt's Riots and Community Politics (1983). On market day forty or fifty people assembled and forced a farmer to sell wheat and potatoes considerably below market price. Two days later, at the next market day, the crowd reappeared to seize wheat and potatoes; but this time the mayor intervened, and under his auspices the commodities were sold at compromise prices somewhere between their market price and that set by the previous crowd. In the same region, other crowds mobilized during this period and events like those in Exeter were repeated.

Bohstedt's study locates the Devonshire crowd in the larger framework of English popular protest and reminds us that crowd action depended on far more than a shared sense of popular grievances—it hinged as well upon the existence of social and political structures that facilitated popular mobilization. Bohstedt shows that southwest England was the favored location for such food riots. The area was heavily commercialized and was the major supplier for the English fleet. Thus, at a time when food prices were rising, the inhabitants of the area's small towns, who purchased their food in the markets, witnessed large food convoys supplying the fleet. More important, the prosperity of the small-town economy of the area was a product of a population of prosperous farmers who served as an intermediate social layer between day laborers and artisans and the great landlords who leased land to the farmers and controlled the local administration. Food riots presented an opportunity for landlord officials, the mayor, or the justice of the peace to intervene and secure local popularity by championing the people against gouging farmers and urban traders. Such tactics depended crucially on the presence of an urban economy and of middle-class buffers between great landlord and landless laborer. In the Yorkshire countryside dominated by villages and lacking strong intermediary classes, landlord justices of the peace could not condone food riots because such actions would directly challenge their rule. Accordingly, repression of riots was fierce, and agrarian discontent was liable to manifest itself in anonymous letters rather than food riots.

While rulers increased their control over territorial states, crowds were confined to the margins of state politics. In the era of composite monarchies crowds could find political space to bargain directly with authorities; in the era of the sovereign state such possibilities dwindled. As in London, the closest a crowd could come to challenging politically the central authorities was in the great capital cities, the seats of centralized sovereign power, but even here the challenge was indirect, confined to demonstrations of implied approval or disapproval, and strongly influenced by powerful elites.

Although the relationship between crowds and central authorities had become attenuated, crowds still played an important role in local politics where political authorities yet possessed considerable leeway to respond independently to crowd demands. In Europe and the Americas, much protest involved attempts to take on-the-spot action to put right a perceived violation of popular morality; violence was often an implicit or explicit element in such actions. Hungry urban crowds invaded bakeries to sell bread at a just price. Crowds protesting tolls destroyed tollgates. Unpopular administrative actions resulted in attacks on administrators. Protest was typically bifurcated, with vigorous popular action at the local level combined with humble appeals to higher authorities to support crowd actions. At the local level crowds acted militantly, but the crowd's political role was usually restricted to local struggles for traditional rights; crowds were seldom in a position to raise completely new demands or to seek the incorporation of their demands into the law.


Finally, after 1700 consolidated states developed that were territorially continuous, centralized, and differentiated and that monopolized coercion within their borders. These enjoyed a new and more direct relationship with their populations. The consolidated state abolished intermediary institutions and governed directly through its own officials. Initially, the consolidated state came into the daily life of ordinary Europeans in the form of the tax collector and the recruiting officer, but it slowly established itself as educator, health officer, and caretaker. In return for the increasingly heavy burden of taxation and conscription, the state conferred citizenship on its population and bestowed a whole series of new rights as well as a new sense of national identity. As states expanded their fiscal demands and widened conscription, citizens in turn demanded expansion of their rights. Among the most important rights that citizens demanded was the expansion of suffrage.

Meanwhile the character of cities was changing; industrialization created new cities and transformed the artisanal and commercial core of many old ones. A casual proletarian labor force emerged, permanently settled in the city. This growing proletarian labor force lacked both the personal and collective resources of the artisan; they often did not even own their tools and lacked guild organizations. While artisanal protest dominated most of the period under consideration, the problems of urban proletarians came to the fore in the twentieth century.

Consolidated states affected profoundly the character of commemorative and claim-making crowds. Unlike the crowds previously discussed, crowds within consolidated states were able to constitute themselves and to take action on their own initiative. They had considerable freedom to select the conditions under which they would mobilize and an increased ability to select their tactics. They also were able to make demands directly on those in power. At the same time, crowds were less likely to be able to act autonomously, and their actions were limited by the political parties and formal organizations that were often instrumental in organizing them.

May Day represents an important example of the commemorative crowd in the era of the consolidated state. In 1889 the founding meeting of the International Socialist Congress in Paris set the date as an international labor day. Like so many of the affairs of the "International," May Day celebrations were organized at the national level by national political organizations. The earliest May Day celebrations also involved claim-making crowds, as formal demands for the eight-hour day and other socialist reforms figured heavily in the celebration. Strikes for an eight-hour day often were launched on 1 May and settled in the days and weeks following. Legal enactments in the wake of World War I made the eight-hour day a reality in many countries. Long after their original demands had been won, however, labor organizations and socialist parties continued to organize massive demonstrations on 1 May to demonstrate working-class strength. So powerful had May Day become in popular consciousness that rivals of the socialist movement sought to coopt it. The Catholic Church proclaimed 1 May the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and in Germany the Nazi regime proclaimed it National Labor Day to encourage the incorporation of workers into their own ranks.

Strikes and demonstrations are the best examples of claim-making crowds in the era of the consolidated state. In August 1969 Italy was on the eve of its "hot autumn" of massive working-class upheavals. As analyzed in Tarrow's study, Democracy and Disorder (1989), production workers in the industrial zone of Mestre, Venice's link to the mainland, went on strike against the petrochemical giant Montedison. They demanded reorganization of the company's incentive plan and an equal pay increase for all grades of workers. Students joined workers on the picket line to demonstrate their support. New tactics were introduced: workers struck every second day, thus avoiding a loss of pay, but at the same time totally disrupting the plant's integrated functioning. When the company finally resorted to a lockout, a huge column of workers and students occupied the train tracks and the station, proclaimed a general strike, and announced their intention of closing off railway access to Venice. Within a day the company settled the strike with a generous across-the-board pay increase.

May Day crowds in France and the petrochemical strikes in Venice illustrate the new features of crowd activity in the era of the consolidated state. Tilly has labeled the characteristic features of modern protest as autonomous, cosmopolitan, and modular. Neither May Day parades nor strikes typically originated in extrinsic crowd celebrations or in commemorative crowds formed for other purposes, but rather were autonomous protests in that the protesters took the initiative in setting the time and place of their action. The form of the protest was also different from that of earlier crowds. Both May Day and the strike were cosmopolitan forms of claim making in that their participants regularly exceeded a single locality. In the form of general strikes, the protest form could extend through an entire nation, and the range of the May Day parades was international. Both strikes and May Day parades were also "modular" forms of protest in that they could represent a variety of kinds of claims. Where grain riots were almost inevitably associated with a rise in bread prices, the new forms of protest could be used to demand extensions of the suffrage or an end to imperial rule in European colonies, as well as to demand higher wages and the eight-hour day. Indeed, one of the first challenges faced by authorities and trade union leaders confronted with the French general strike of May–June 1968 was to find out exactly what it was the workers wanted.

A key element of both May Day parades and strikes that distinguishes them from previous manifestations of crowds was the presence of an organized police force. No longer relying on unpaid watchmen recruited from the population to enforce the law, states instead hired professionals who began to develop tactics of crowd control. Police having become the urban authorities charged with handling crowds, policing profoundly affected the character of crowd activity. The difference can be seen partly in the official responses to the revolutions of 1848 and to the mass protests of 1919–1921. In 1848 most European cities lacked a large professional police force. When large crowds gathered demanding reform, the only force large enough to respond was the army. Unfortunately, armies were not trained in crowd control. Shoot or do nothing were pretty much the options available to them. Almost always, the soldiers shot, and the resulting deaths produced the revolution's first martyrs as well as the proximate cause for building barricades. Police handling of general strikes and mass demonstrations in 1919–1921 was often brutal, but in western Europe it lacked the murderous violence of 1848 and helped to prevent revolutionary situations from becoming actual revolutions.

If claim-making crowds gained enormous freedoms within consolidated states, they were also constrained in entirely new ways. Increasingly, formal organizations served to coordinate crowd protests and to formulate collective demands. Legally recognized trade unions, social movements, and socialist parties often possessed independent connections to power that helped to protect crowds from threats of police brutality; yet crowds also lost a great deal of freedom to articulate their own demands. More and more, crowds served as the mute witness for the popularity of claims formulated by others. The negotiations between the political leaders standing on the balconies of city halls and the crowds assembled below—either roaring their approval or bellowing dismissal, as was characteristic of 1848—was replaced by disciplined demonstrations, previously coordinated between formal organizations and police authorities and limited in their political expression to slogans and posters preapproved by sponsoring formal organizations. Insofar as claim-making crowds continue to play an important role in modern politics, they are relatively domesticated crowds, quite different from those of Reval in 1662 or Paris in 1848. Having acquired new rights vis-à-vis the state, crowds have increasingly been subordinated to the purposes of formal organizations.

Every European age has been the age of the crowd. Over five centuries, crowds have played an important role in European history; it is only their structure and orientation that have changed.

See alsoAbsolutism (volume 2);Festivals (volume 5);Police (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


Barrows, Susanna. Distorting Mirrors: Visions of the Crowd in Late Nineteenth-Century France. New Haven, Conn., 1981.

Bohstedt, John. Riots and Community Politics in England and Wales, 1790–1810. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated by Carol Stewart. London, 1973. Reprint, New York, 1998.

Favre, Pierre. La Manifestation. Paris, 1990.

Harris, Tim. London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II: Propaganda and Politics from the Restoration until the Exclusion Crisis. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Harrison, Mark. Crowds and History: Mass Phenomena in English Towns, 1790–1835. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Carnival in Romans. Translated by Mary Feeney. New York, 1979.

McClelland, J. S. The Crowd and the Mob: From Plato to Canetti. London, 1989.

McPhail, Clark. The Myth of the Madding Crowd. New York, 1984.

Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French Revolution. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Tarrow, Sidney G. Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy, 1965–1975. Oxford, 1989.

Rudé, George F. E. The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730–1848. New York, 1964.

Te Brake, Wayne. Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics, 1500–1700. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Thompson, E. P. "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century." Past and Present 50 (1971): 76–136.

Tilly, Charles. Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758–1834. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

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