Disaffection and Everyday Life in Interregnum England
Studies in Early Modern Cultural, Political and Social History, Volume 29
Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017
Hardcover. xii, 285 pages. ISBN 978-1783270453. £65
Reviewed by Laurent Curelly
Université de Haute-Alsace Mulhouse
The cover image of Caroline Boswell’s book, a reproduction of an oil painting by Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger, The Yard of an Inn, is an apt illustration of its contents. It features a tavern scene in a rural setting with patrons variously drinking, socialising and enjoying good fellowship. Two seemingly disgruntled men are addressing a party sitting at a table, possibly keeping them abreast of whatever news has come their way. Although Boswell’s study focuses on Civil War and Interregnum England rather than Flanders, it is about ordinary people living ordinary lives. This makes this book compelling reading.
Boswell studies the way the politics of everyday life intersected with revolutionary politics in the 1640s and 1650s. She traces the origins of crisis and rebellion to quotidian forms of disaffection and frustration, a far cry from the grand narratives of yesteryear. She is concerned with common people’s experiences of, and response to, political change. Thus, the book explores the lived experiences of those years and shows how national tensions interacted with interpersonal relationship and everyday sociability, causing division within local communities. Borrowing her theoretical framework from the academic fields of popular politics and the social history of politics, Boswell highlights the interplay between individual agency and larger political, social and cultural forces in mid-seventeenth-century England.
What makes the book even more engaging and intellectually rewarding is that Boswell discusses the way cheap print enhanced connections between everyday grievances and national politics. She is right to emphasise the role of ephemeral print – in the form of newsbooks, pamphlets, broadsides and petitions, to name but a few media – in the development of a shared political culture and the formation of public opinion, thus confirming the existence of a “public sphere”, in its Habermasian meaning, in seventeenth-century England. Her analyses of the recuperation of popular disaffection by the royalist press in post-regicidal England are especially stimulating. Cheap print and various forms of popular culture helped to weave together connections among a whole range of individuals who did not necessarily have much in common but began to share discourses of protest.
Because Boswell is interested in the nitty-gritty of social experience – she has a keen eye for detail, which she retrieves from printed texts as well as archival material – she relies on a great many case studies – perhaps too many, and the reader may be overwhelmed by such a profusion of anecdotes. To her credit, however, Boswell never loses track of her argument, and her findings are neatly stitched together in the conclusion. The first part of the book describes “sites of disaffection” – in other words, places where grievances were typically expressed – while the second part studies “objects of disaffection” – by which are meant the people who bore the brunt of the grievances voiced by individuals and local communities.
Boswell engages with recent scholarship on the social history of politics, influenced by the so-called “spatial turn”, as she first takes the reader to the streets and marketplaces of Interregnum England (chapter 1), and then to inns, taverns and alehouses (chapter 2). She finds expressions of dissent in these spatial contexts, where ritualistic practices were performed on a regular basis, such as festive celebrations, public funerals or the raising of toasts. Such seemingly innocuous practices could become heavily politicised and give rise to transgressive attitudes. Places like a marketplace or an alehouse could turn into spaces of public disaffection, political confrontation and social unrest. It was especially plebeian speech acts that challenged social norms and made everyday social rituals potentially subversive.
Boswell moves on to discuss those that attracted strong criticism from individuals and local communities. She begins with soldiers, whose presence was often resented throughout the country, whether troops were quartered in people’s homes, garrisoned in localities or simply marching across parts of England (chapter 3). She examines the army’s effects on the micro-politics of everyday life. Again, her attention to detail makes sense when, for example, she gives an account of the royalist pamphleteer John Crouch’s report of a scuffle between a group of Londoners and a troop of soldiers in his scurrilous newspaper The Man in the Moon. Anecdotal evidence has greater significance than meets the eye when it helps to uncover the new social and political dynamics created by soldiers’ intrusion into spaces of sociability. Another figure that was reviled in the revolutionary decades was the excise-man. Boswell has a whole chapter about him (chapter 4). Although she treads a path that social historians have trodden before her, she makes a novel contribution by assessing the role of cheap print in shaping the public image of the excise-man and spreading resentment further afield, notably when, by providing narratives of resistance to the collection of taxes, royalist pamphleteers jumped on the bandwagon. The last figure that Boswell mentions – the “fanatic” – belongs to a loose category that straddles politics and religion (chapter 5). The term was commonly used in the late 1650s to refer to religious radicals, especially Quakers. She points out that the word was employed by royalist authors to describe anyone who held an extreme political and religious position and that the label was also used by religious radicals eager to distance themselves from other sects and dissociate themselves from excessive enthusiasm. These are successful pages. The term “fanatic” was fluid; Boswell could have remarked that it came to replace other labels, such as “Levellers”, which had gained currency in the 1640s, as part of a language of invective that shaped the discourse of popular disaffection.
Where Boswell’s book makes a powerful contribution to the existing literature on Interregnum England is not only in its analysis of everyday experiences in relation to larger political issues but also in its discussion of the transformative use of print. Cheap print made it possible for routine popular practices to take on a truly revolutionary quality. Boswell could have concluded more forcefully that political participation in the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century owed a great deal to a revitalised language of disaffection.
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