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.


2 thoughts on “People and the price of wheat

  1. I agree with your summation of needing to look deeply into historical questions and evaluating all possible sources before making a conclusion, even if the facts gathered so far create a logical answer.

    E.P. Thompson is writing in 1971 so the concept of history from “the bottom up” is still relatively new though the same could be said of today. Before the public is taken into consideration the statement that:

    supply & demand economy suffering + people are hungry = riots

    makes alot of sense. In a way what that statement says is true but it’s important as historians to now consider the personal and individual motivations of the time. There are many complex branches to a narrative and Thompson successfully found these clues in the formation of her argument. She didn’t provide senseless data or overwhelm us but instead simply used the sources that pertained to her specific argument while broadening our view on a topic that could easily be glossed over as something pertaining only to the economy. Humans are more complex than that and sometimes we aren’t logical. As historians we should be wary of oversimplifying or necessarily looking for a linear equation when history is anything but.

    In summary, where we are cautioned against assuming too much of the word “riot” we too should be careful about assuming too much about our sources and previous stated facts about history.

  2. I definitely agree with your “main lesson a historian can learn form this essay.” He analyzes the bread riots by studying patterns in human behavior, popular actions, and morality and relates it to simple economics. In addition, regarding the Kimberly Guaderman essay, I would have liked to read more about why other societies did not allow more women to be economically involved. I realize this is due to patriarchal trends, the development of gender roles, and centralized authority. Different regions develop differently due to various causes and if she were to address this issue the essay would have been extensively longer. She had a topic and she stayed focused throughout her research. However, now that it is evident women in Quito were able to obtain individuality and personal success most commonly through the textile industry I think it would be interesting to study why in many other countries women were not able to obtain this kind of recognition simply due to their gender. I feel maybe this essay is a little incomplete because comparing and contrasting the economic status of women in Quito to another region or country of the world would have made her argument a lot stronger. I think this relates to your argument that historians should look farther than what is just on the surface for answers. What does everyone think?

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