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The Law and the Lower Orders,
This review is from: Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (Paperback)
Since its 1975 publication "Albion's Fatal Tree" has been widely (though not universally) regarded as a classic of historical writing, in particular that branch of history that is known as "history from below". This 2011 edition from Verso corrects the lamentable situation where it has been out of print for a number of years. In addition to the unchanged text from its initial release, the three surviving members of the five original contributors (E.P. Thompson and John Rule having died in 1993 and 2011 respectively) Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh and Cal Winslow write individual introductions reflecting on their time working with E.P. Thompson at Warwick University in the early 1970's, as well as the reception the work had at the time from established historians of Eighteenth century England.
Of the six essays two are the work of Douglas Hay: "Property, Authority and the Criminal Law" looks at the primary role of Law has in protecting both property and buttressing the authority of England's rulers. In particular it examines the role of the death sentence and, over the course of the century, the increasing chance of clemency being granted (followed by transportation), and how this affected popular attitudes with regard to the legitimacy of the ruling classes. His "Poaching and the Game Laws on Cannock Chase" is a detailed study of poaching and the response of "qualified" owners in a particular locale during the eighteenth century. This is a classic of its kind, and one that E.P. Thompson would emulate and take further with regard to Windsor and its environs in his Whigs and Hunters published in the same year.
A trenchant as ever Peter Linebaugh contributes "The Tyborn Riot Against the Surgeons" which details the struggle over the friends and family of those who ended up swinging from the gallows at Tyborn, and the Surgeons who wanted their corpses for the advancement of the science of anatomy. Other related issues touched upon include the attitudes of the lower orders to hanging, the rituals they adopted on their appointed day, and the responses of those who turned out to watch.
"Sussex Smugglers" is Cal Winslow's excellent account of the conflict between the state and smugglers in eighteenth century Sussex. A conflict that at times approached the level of a guerilla war. This is followed by John Rules "Wrecking and Coastal Plunder" which looks at the customs of coastal communities with regard to their perceived rights to plunder wrecked ships, their conflicts with the authorities. He also examines some of the myths around the practice, such as the largely fictitious belief, which functioned to stigmatise a practice that many Britons regarded as acceptable, that ships were onto rocks for the purposes of plunder.
The collection closes with E.P. Thompson's "The Crime of Anonymity" which analyses the phenomenon of anonymous letter writing by eighteenth century plebs for purposes ranging from blackmail to enforcing norms of behaviour on those who had authority over them. The increasing incidence after Paine and the French Revolution of anonymous handbills and the chalking of walls with messages of a more general political nature is also touched on. Thompson cites from many of those letters which are one of the few examples from the eighteenth century of the lower-orders speaking for themselves that have survived for posterity.
"Albion's Fatal Tree" is quite simply a brilliant and exemplary work of Social History. The many quotes cited, from above as well as below, bring the period to life for the reader. This was a period of great change, as England was becoming an increasingly commercial society, poised to enter the Industrial Revolution. The lower orders, as in all periods of change, generally suffer the most and the underlying reality that flows through this work, is that much that was customary to them, and provided them with a part of their livelihoods (from access to commons, to poaching and smuggling) was either being lost to the inexorable process of enclosure, or being treated before the authorities in increasingly brutal ways as the massive rise in "crimes" regarded by a property owning parliament as Capital makes clear. The fact that they fought back, had some successes though in the longer term the odds were stacked against them, forms the core of this book. The examples they provide of solidarity, guile and no-nonsense activism is often inspirational and undoubtedly part of its appeal. Thoroughly recommended.
Other books by the authors of "Albion's Fatal Tree" worth reading would include E.P. Thompson's three major works: The Making of the English Working Class, Whigs and Hunters and Customs in Common. Peter Linebaughs The London Hanged is a dense, detailed but fascinating account of the life's, livings and "crimes" of those who were hanged from the late seventeenth century onwards. The late John Rule is always worth reading, his two books on the eighteenth century Albion's People: English Society, 1714-1815 and The Vital Century: England's Economy, 1714-1815 are fine general studies of the period and none the worse for being unashamedly academic in the best sense of that word. His The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850 is a brilliant and comprehensive account of the Labouring classes in the period that leads up to and establishes an Industrial England.