People and the price of wheat

E.P. Thompson’s article “The Moral economy of the English Crowd in the eighteenth century“, warns against what he refers to as a “spasmodic view of  popular history.”  Quick reactions to cursory lines of questioning can create simplistic views of history that might look logical at first, may cause the acceptance of simple truisms, like, ‘when people are hungry they riot.’ I for one have never agreed with this practice, because it removes the aspect of rational choice from the participants in the event. Riots like any other event are not simple things. As Thompson goes on to show with a more complete line of inquiry, the food riots in England during the eighteenth century, were not just a matter of people inevitably turning to violence from hunger.

Thompson’s research sets the stage for complex negotiations between the growers, the millers, the bakers, and the consuming public. Easily demonstrating the fallacy of relying on simple blanket explanations. For example, assuming that the uprising in eighteenth century England were as simple as the supply and demand economy braking down, leaving people with no food, and so they began to riot, has great logical appeal, but it does not hold up to any close scrutiny. Thompson does acknowledge that there may be truth to these ideas, but nothing is ever so simple, and he takes past historians to task for having such a narrow focus. They ignored the class hostilities that brought the crowds together, and the long-standing traditions by which the mob rallied themselves to action. Some of these lingering issues can be solved with his notion of legitimation. As Thompson explains it, “By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs; and in general that they were supported by the wider consensus in the community.” Something his detailed research into the pamphlets and essays of the time seem to bear out.

Here is the main lesson a historian can learn from this essay. Do not simply look on the surface for answers, if you do, the conclusions you draw will most often be, at best incomplete, and at worst totally wrong. E.P Thompson, by digging deeply into not only the surface economic theory, but into the writings of the public at large, created a whole new outlook on the history of eighteenth century England, and its people.

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