Common Customs – A Review of Andy Wood, The Memory of the People

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There are some issues on which, it’s fair to say, the British Left has pretty unassailable arguments.

It’s hard, for example, to dispute the suggestion that not everyone wholly enjoyed the Thatcher years; or that oil companies and banks might not necessarily always act for the greater good of society; or that Peter Hitchens is a moron.

To many, the issue of Parliamentary enclosure is one of these Great Indisputables. When the old common fields of rural England were fenced off in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was naked class robbery. It destroyed the common right of the English peasant, ruined their access to the landscape for sustenance and pleasure. It was, in short, a sort of English equivalent to the Highland Clearances. A historic wrong done by the rich and the powerful to the weak and the poor.

For historians, of course, the issues are much more complex. There is the argument that enclosure brought greater prosperity, and so was a harbinger of the wealthier world that has allowed us to abolish child labour and create a powerful welfare state. There is the suggestion that enclosure was only important in some parts of the country, largely the Midlands: in the South West, the South East, and the North, most land had been enclosed for ages already. In fact, most enclosure took place ‘by agreement’ before the eighteenth century, and before Parliament stuck its nose in.

And there is the suggestion, made most forcefully perhaps by the Cambridge historian Leigh Shaw-Taylor, that in most cases, most of the poorer rural labourers didn’t have much in the way of common rights anyway. Over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they had been gradually excluded from the commons by their richer farming neighbours.

Professor Andy Wood, a historian who would proudly consider himself part of a radical tradition of English social historians, going back to Richard Tawney via Edward Thompson, has relatively little truck with this kind of argument. To him, enclosure was a disaster for ordinary men and women, not just because it took common rights out of their hands, and thus earnings out of their pockets, but because it created mental hedges – boundaries of the mind that pushed neighbours and social classes apart.

But his latest book, The Memory of the People, is not just about enclosure.

It looks at agrarian custom more generally, arguing that ‘custom’ – broadly speaking the traditional organization of local economies and ecologies – acted as a repository of social memory that was broadly inclusive. Custom was of the people, for the rich as well as the poor.

As Wood points out, it was complex, intensely localized, and had many, many different strands. Land tenures, rights of common, tithe and tax practices, even boundaries between villages, were understood by ordinary people with reference to custom – to living practice, ‘time out of memory of man’.

Custom was also – in many senses – really quite democratic. By basing ecological decisions on custom, villagers and townsmen were giving real political power to ordinary folk. For it was they – not the bureaucrats – who were custodians of the social memory that kept custom alive.

But, to Prof. Wood, the early-modern period saw this democratic local law under sustained attack (admittedly in complex ways). From the state, from the growing use of the written word, and from capitalism.

Unlike an earlier generation of radical scholars, Wood doesn’t fall into the trap of ascribing the attack on custom purely to the rich. In fact, it was often local yeomen-farmers, keen to exclude their poorer neighbours, who did the dismantling. But the narrative is quite a familiar one: new economic and political contexts caused new alignments of power, the poorest lost out, and the older medieval community was dissolved, replaced by the harsher, more individualist world of modernity. One suggestion is particularly striking. This was that when the early-modern poor resisted, they were trying to restore what had been lost within memory. By the late eighteenth century resistance had become all about hurting the rich – damaging an agricultural landscape that the poor felt wasn’t theirs any more. The burning of farmers’ barns and the maiming and killing of their livestock were the real symptoms of this. It’s something early-modernists should set about testing.

It’s a beautiful book, written with real passion but also humanity: part elegiac for a lost world, but all based on some serious scholarship. In a social history landscape where the domination of Early English Books Online and a handful of published diaries is starting to get boring, it’s great to see so much actual archive work. If it’s not necessarily social history with a muddy pair of walking boots, then it’s at least history with dirty archive gloves. It is relentlessly clever and stimulating – all agrarian historians will have to decide what they think about it. But it should be read more widely too – particularly by those who are complacent about modernity and the ‘advancement’ of human society.

Inevitably, though, there are parts that jar.

Wood uses insights from anthropology and social theory quite freely. James C. Scott, for example, is mentioned more times that Thomas Wolsey, Gerrard Winstanley, and John Wildman put together.

This is fine, to a point, and to his immense credit you never get the sense – as you do with some social historians – that this is mere window dressing. But it still runs against the age-old problem that comparisons between, say, medieval East Anglian peasants and twentieth-century Indonesians beg questions. A lot of questions.

At its worst, such anthropologically-inspired history bulldozes the distinctiveness of societies, past and present.

To take a particularly egregious example, having considered the way in which peasants turned irritating labour obligations into opportunities for festivity, Wood (in a footnote, p. 295) states that ‘The curious relationship between forced labour, the pastoral and the harvest is best discussed’ in R.D. Abraham’s book Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Slave South (1992). It’s not that we can’t learn something from comparing medieval English peasants with the slaves of the American South. But to write of ‘the’ relationship is surely to go too far. Working a few days on your lord’s home farm as part of your rent was undoubtedly annoying. It wasn’t the same as being a slave. Perhaps it’s unfair to unpick a footnote like this, but it is indicative of a wider approach to History that has deep problems to it.

Reading all this, the slightly mischievous thought did cross my mind that Prof. Wood should have spent a bit less time reading about Andean tribesmen and more about the intricacies of his sources. There is no mention of the technical literature on the Court of Exchequer (which provides his main material), for example, and only a passing reference to the standard work on the Elizabethan court of Chancery. At one point he seems to treat courts leet and courts baron as identical types of institution, whereas there were crucial legal distinctions. More than once he writes of Star Chamber as an ‘equity’ court – a forgivable imprecision, perhaps, rather than an outright error, but it’s an important one, especially once we’re in Elizabeth’s reign. By this time Star Chamber had stopped hearing suits in equity and was functioning largely as a criminal court, something which had important bearing on how we use its records.

More seriously, his main material is gleaned from deposition evidence from the central law courts. This is wonderful stuff, the written testimony of thousands of ordinary men and sometimes women. Indeed, the book marks one of the most impressive attempts to draw from it around. But there is a major problem: depositions were almost always compiled in response to leading questions (‘interrogatories’) put together by the litigants and their attorneys. This means that there is a huge question as to whether the statements made by witnesses are truly their own, or whether they’re simply saying what the lawyers wanted them to. Ironically, perhaps, witnesses were showing most ‘agency’ when they replied ‘he knoweth not’ to an interrogatory they didn’t like. It is difficult to say whether we can really get at the ‘memory of the people’ through these sources.

The book ends with what might generously be called a polemic (a less forgiving reader would call it a rant) about the impact of Parliamentary enclosure. This was the part I found most unpalatable. In a book that had repeatedly emphasized that custom was locally specific and diverse in scope, the final chapter completely papered over regional differences, and focused almost wholly on enclosure. To be sure, in many communities, this picture of lost rights and angry labourers has much to recommend it, but Wood simply glosses over the evidence that – in many cases – this cosy prelapsarian landscape had disappeared long ago. In doing so, he falls into the same trap that he (unfairly) accuses Leigh Shaw-Taylor of succumbing to.

In another mischievous moment, I wondered if the last chapter originated – Kubla Khan-like – in a vivid dream in which Prof. Wood was haunted by the ghost of E.P. Thompson, sitting like an ugly goblin at the end of his bed, haranguing him for writing a book that was insufficiently angry and radical.

Either way, it was an odd way to finish what in other respects is a truly excellent piece of scholarship.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Wonderful site, thank You !!

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