What might a general theory of riot, public protest and insurrection look like? The introductory injunction to historians to attempt an answer to this question frames this ambitious collection of essays on the history of British and French crowd actions. Beyond general statements that surmise ‘people who were involved in [crowd actions] were never powerless’ or that the ‘universal interest, the very goal, of those engaged in these movements was to bring about improved living conditions and conditions of life’, there are few definitive clues to guide the reader towards an answer. The volume is torn between adumbrating the specific histories of particular crowd actions and a desire towards general theory. Such a critique is merely a recognition that the problem of successfully pursuing a comparative history of crowd action is an unenviably difficult task. And, the editor, Michael T. Davis, should be commended for gathering together a diverse range of leading experts—including historians, political scientists, activists, legal scholars and anthropologists—to inform any attempt at a general theory. The framework for the volume’s comparative perspectives is competently provided by Jack Fruchtman, Jr’s brief introduction. For the purposes of this collection, ‘crowd actions’ are taken to be more than just non-violent gatherings of individuals. Rather, crowd actions that contain spectacles of violence and, by definition, are riotous provide the most significant comparative thread that unifies each of the essays. To be eligible for analysis, crowd actions must pose ‘a direct and immediate challenge to established authority’. One small problem arises from the focus on ‘riots’ or, more generally, violent crowd actions: the title of the volume is potentially misleading. There are good historiographical reasons for focusing upon crowd actions over, say, ‘mob violence’, and the introduction works hard to make those reasons apparent. However, the decision does create expectations about the collection’s purpose that are not quite made clear. Nonetheless, Fruchtman, Jr helpfully weaves definitional issues with illuminating examples from across the chronological period covered by the volume. In this way, he enacts the comparative spirit that drives the subsequent chapters. The success of this collection resides in some excellent individual contributions, and it would appear that the authors were given a good degree of freedom to interpret the remit of the volume. Some chapters focus on a single, specific uprising, for example, Mark O’Brien’s discussion of the English Peasant rising of 1381, Nicholas Roger’s analysis of the Gordon Riots of 1780 or Raphaël Canet, Laurent Pech and Maura Stewart’s account of a series of Parisian riots in France in November 2005. Other chapters encompass entire centuries, including Penny Roberts and John Walter on sixteenth-century France and seventeenth-century England, respectively. Further chapters are comparative within themselves. Most notable is John Bohstedt’s comparison of food riots and provisions between early-modern England and France, the Irish Famine and World War I. Also noteworthy is Jeff Horn’s essay on machine-breaking in Great Britain and France during the Early Industrial Revolution. Such efforts are most welcome and help to realize the ambition of the volume. However, these chapters are a little hampered by the necessarily introductory flavour of each contribution. Intriguingly, Tadzio Mueller and Sian Sullivan’s chapter on counter-globalization movements provide French and British case studies of wider global movements. With their extensive discussions of US and Mexican manifestations of counter-globalization protest, the chapter does strain the coherence of the volume. Yet, it is important for demonstrating how pre-modern and modern forms of crowd actions differ in terms of their international settings. General coherence is sensibly provided by three chronological parts: part one draws together ‘Riots from the Middle Ages to the Age of Revolution’; part two explores ‘Riots in the Industrial Era’; and the final, third part, contains ‘Riots in the Modern World’. To a degree, these are arbitrary and comply with conventional periodizations and no attempt is made to justify these divisions. A concluding chapter that attempted to draw together the insights of each chapter—difficult though that would be—may have been a welcome addition. Overall, Crowd Actions in Britain and France from the Middle Ages to the Modern World is a compelling and much-needed collection. There are too few multi-authored, multi-disciplinary and longitudinal comparative studies of protest and the crowd actions that constitute them. The diversity of contributions speaks of the fecund possibilities and results of this collaborative approach. Whether a general theory is desirable, let alone possible, remains to be seen. What this volume does demonstrate is the continuing resilience and solidarity of activists engaged in political, social, religious and economic struggles, and an important appreciation of how people experienced power and authority across time and space. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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