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Brian Manning

A Voice for the Poor

(September 1996)

From International Socialism 2:72, September 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Christopher Hill
Liberty Against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies
Penguin press 1996, £25

There was much talk of ‘law’ and ‘liberty’ during the English Revolution of 1640–60, but Christopher Hill in his new book asks the questions ‘whose law?’ and ‘whose liberty?’ The law was made in parliament by big landowners, with a few wealthy merchants; it was administered by judges and lawyers drawn from well-to-do families, themselves landowners, and by juries composed of lesser property owners. But most of the population owned little or no property. During the 16th and 17th centuries in England ‘the poor’ included more than ‘the casual victims of misfortune or old age’. ‘The poor’ became ‘a substantial proportion of the population’ and ‘a permanent class with no hope of escape from their poverty’. Driven from access to the land and its resources they became paupers, vagabonds or wage labourers: ‘By the end of the 17th century life-long wage labourers were probably a majority of the population.’ ‘The poor’ were not represented in parliament, they had no share in making legislation but ‘were legislated against’, and the function of the law was to protect property, secure liberty for property owners and keep ‘the poor’ in order. The law was not their law, nor was liberty their liberty.

’The poor’ are the subject of Hill’s book. He seeks to recover from the literature of the period – plays, ballads, pamphlets – what may have been their views and attitudes. He maintains that playwrights may occasionally give accurate expression to the outlook of the lower classes, that ballads may ‘give us the history which commoners knew, history from the commoners’ point of view’, and that during the revolution ‘pamphlets written by people with no university education – by women even’, may make public for the first time the opinions of some of the populace.

This is a highly desirable enterprise and it is executed ingeniously and deftly. Hill shows his great skill in finding hitherto unsuspected relationships between different phenomena and in drawing out new meanings by cross-referencing numerous writings. Nevertheless, his evidence is inevitably drawn to a large extent from people who were outside the groups whose views he seeks to recover. Some historians will query the validity of his method and whether his sources do reveal the outlook of what he agrees to be an ‘inarticulate’ and ‘silent’ majority. This attitude gives such historians an excuse to avoid the questions which Hill asks, and it is worth noting that all he claims for his book is that it raises some questions. His provisional answers give a voice to ‘the poor’ of 17th century England, and I am persuaded that it is an authentic voice.

Hill’s hypothesis is that various groups among ‘the poor’, some small, others large, saw ‘the law’ as the enemy of ‘freedom’, and sought freedom from ‘the law’. Vagabonds (estimated to number 80,000 in the early 17th century) were ‘masterless men’ – and women – of no settled abode, following the open road, living by begging and stealing, outside society and its settled family and household structures, free from control by the church and the state – until they were caught and punished. They had an independence and a freedom of sorts, more than the landless peasants who remained in their villages. Some literature romanticised them, but Hill comments:

In real life I do not suppose that many people chose to be beggars, then as now. But the open road and the greenwood offered more romantic possibilities than today’s city pavements. Politicians and pamphleteers who had themselves never to face beggary, then as now, portrayed them as idle scroungers. Those whose unemployment and begging had been forced upon them had to make the best of a bad job. I suspect that plays and ballads in praise of a beggar’s life were not often composed by beggars.

Pirates and highwaymen carved out areas of freedom from and against the law, and could achieve heroic status in popular eyes. Hill gives a fascinating account of pirate crews as partners in co-operative enterprises. They were not wage earners under a hierarchic structure of authority, but shared the risks and the profits in an egalitarian and democratic milieu: ‘Captains were often elected, and were answerable to their crews; decisions on policy and disciplinary punishments were democratically taken.’

Whereas pirates operated in collectives, highwaymen were individuals, often ex-soldiers and runaway apprentices (there were also highwaywomen). The literature which depicted them as ‘gentlemen of the road’ taking from the rich and giving to the poor, as in the popular legend of Robin Hood, may have reflected or influenced their behaviour. Smugglers and poachers provided valued services for their neighbours, who did not respect the laws against their activities. Piracy, highway robbery, smuggling and poaching were all strategies developed by the impoverished to survive without submitting to the discipline of full time wage labour increasingly being imposed by the advance of capitalism.

The main arena of conflict, however, was between the law imposed by the ruling class and the customs of traditional rural communities. ‘Freedom’ for the mass of poor peasants ‘meant living according to traditional customary rules, accepted unquestioningly from time immemorial’. Struggles occurred over enclosures, which were pushed through by landlords and the bigger peasant farmers, and backed by the law. Customary rights to access to common lands, forests and wastes were extinguished. The poorest were thus deprived of ancient rights to have pasture for a few sheep or cows, to dig peat or take wood, and to collect nuts and berries. They lost an important part of their subsistence, which had enabled them to be at least partly free from dependence on wage labour. Now they were forced to become full time wage workers: ‘The law in the 17th century aimed at turning the mass of the peasantry off the soil and forcing them into wage labour to produce wealth for their employers and their country, though not for themselves.’ The series of game laws passed by parliaments from the 14th to the 18th century also exemplified the conflict between law and custom. Villagers were deprived of what they regarded as traditional customary rights and hunting was made a monopoly of the landowners and a badge of their class. Resistance by means of poaching was an aspect of class struggle between peasants and landowners.

Hill regards the English Revolution as ‘a turning point’. He illustrates this by reference to the abolition of feudal tenures and the Court of Wards by the victorious parliamentarians at the end of the civil war, an act confirmed after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. He rightly says that the importance of this has been ‘unaccountably neglected by historians’. It relieved large landowners from costs to their estates when the heir was a minor and from dependence on royal favour to avoid the worst consequences of such a minority; it made them absolute owners, less dependent on the crown, and more disposed to make long term capital investments to integrate their estates into the growing capitalist market economy. He notes the increased severity of the game laws after the Restoration and the taming of the religious dissenters who had been at the heart of the defeated radical revolution. He describes the struggles against enclosures, the dispossession of poorer peasants and the growth of full time wage labour, as central to the transition to capitalism. However, he does not consider whether the Revolution removed obstacles to these developments and accelerated them. His study is confined largely to the poor and how they coped during the period of transition; it is not intended to be a study of the Revolution as a turning point. However, struggles for freedom from the law do impinge upon the Revolution, a point which Hill occasionally makes clear but does not explore.

In several previous works Hill has explained the failure and defeat of the radicals in the Revolution; now he turns to the mass of the poor and their defeat by the ruling class in their struggles for freedom from the law. On this his conclusion is important:

Potential supporters of freedom from the law, or those whose self-interest should have led them to support freedom, were almost certainly a majority of the population. But they were unorganised outside their communities, perhaps unorganisable except in moments of extreme crisis; and they had no conception of politics apart from what had traditionally existed, and myths of a freer past.

Some of them fall into the categories of Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘primitive rebels’ and ‘social bandits’.

Hill’s social framework is loose, but the fluidity in the social structure at the time of his study provides some justification for this. Sometimes he speaks of ‘the permanent poor’, sometimes of an ‘underclass’, also sometimes of a ‘sub-class’, and sometimes of a ‘proletariat’. He extends his social framework upwards by including separatists from the Church of England, who ‘felt that the worship enjoined by the state church was contrary to the Gospel’ and broke the law ‘in order to be free to worship as they believed God demanded’. These people do not fit easily with the other groups which impress me as forming the main thrust of his study because they were not driven by want or seeking to preserve customary rights, and they were ideologically more sophisticated. However, in view of my earlier comments I cannot object to them being there because they had the clearest link with the revolutionary struggles of the mid-17th century.

Christopher Hill always relates the past to the present. His refrain ‘liberty for whom to do what?’ resonates from the 17th century to the end of the 20th, and remains the key to unlocking the class nature of the state and society. A main theme of his book is the struggle against wage labour, and although some historians may think that he exaggerates popular hostility to wage labour, I think he has made his case. He notes that the wage earners eventually found protection by creating trade unions, but this was also the end of the struggle against wage labour, for it ‘marked an acceptance of the permanence of wage labour’ and of capitalism. This also meant accepting reform rather than revolution. He believes that the law is no longer as ‘blatantly and unashamedly class-slanted’ as it was in the 17th century: ‘Democratisation has made the law seem less alien’ and ‘the ideal of a law which represents the wishes of the community has changed attitudes’. ‘When we don’t like laws today we organise to try to get them changed.’

Who but Christopher Hill would delight at least this reader by concluding a major study of 17th century English history with the following paragraph:

The law, like the doors of the Ritz Hotel, has long been open to rich and poor alike: only the poor don’t often think of mentioning it publicly because the Ritz Hotel is beyond their reach. Today we glamorise train-robbers rather than pirates. As I write these words London traffic is blocked by crowds observing the semi-state funeral of the gangster Ronnie Kray. Always the streets of our cities are lined with homeless people sleeping rough; but no less a person than our Prime Minister reassures us that there is no justification for anyone to offend the delicate sensibilities of well-housed, well-paid and well-fed citizens by indulging in begging. Beggars may even discourage foreign tourists from visiting London, he moans. In the national interest they must disappear – to somewhere where they will not be visible. Some may see evidence of progress in the fact that we no longer flog the impotent poor out of town.

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