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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 599-602
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Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain
Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders
Nicholas Rogers. Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Pp. xii + 291. $75.00 cloth.
Don Herzog. Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Pp. xvi + 559. $29.95 cloth.
Viewing history from "below" has become a commonplace since the groundbreaking work of social historians such as E. P. Thompson, George Rudé, and Eric Hobsbawm, which focuses on popular disturbances, crowd behavior, and pre-industrial social movements. Scholarship emphasizing popular culture, from Stallybrass and White's Politics and Poetics of Transgression to Tim Harris' London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II, has also expanded the field of inquiry and motivates continuing study. The works under consideration here fall into this tradition. Both books feature [End Page 599] descriptions of famous riots and other incendiary events as well as analysis of continuing structural and ideological changes in the public sphere. Both books emphasize the dramatic impact of the French Revolution on British cultural life. However, these works contrast sharply in methodological point of view. Nicholas Rogers' study spans from the Jacobites to the Jacobins, seeks to document the goals and means of popular activity, and underscores the intricate and often ambiguous dance between popular collectives and structures of authority. Don Herzog emphasizes the period from the French Revolution to the Reform Bill, but concentrates on the forces of reaction to social change, and how leading voices in British culture fought the democratic tendencies and perceived anarchic onslaught of the lower orders.
Although they work from different critical perspectives and across different disciplinary horizons--Rogers is a historian, Herzog a lawyer--both authors in their respective ways catalogue the slow movement of the British people from subjects to citizens. Rogers begins with an introduction delineating the history of crowd studies, from French post-1871 crowd historians such as Taine to more recent historiography, including sociological and anthropological approaches. With each, he examines contributions with a critical eye; in looking at the nascent field of crowd psychology, for example, he notes how Gustave Le Bon and others connect individual to group pathology and make an analogy between criminal and crowd behavior fraught with preconceptions. Rogers moves on to Lefebvre and historians who chronicle "the underlying rationality of crowd action." He argues for seeing crowd action within specific chronological and geographical contexts, as opposed to seeing all crowds at all times as pathological manifestations of a collective mind. Rogers also holds to the tenet that the "mob" must be reconstructed not through broad archetypal imagery and suppositions, which imagine crowds merely as horizontal or homogenous, but in Perry Anderson's words, as "a changeable coalition composed of different categories of urban and rural wage earners, small producers, petty traders, and unemployed whose frontiers could vary according to the successive conjunctures that crystallized it."
Rogers briefly discusses the seventeenth-century inheritance of crowd activity as a starting point, with each chapter building on the insights of the previous to follow the chronological development of popular activity. The first chapter argues that popular Jacobitism was less a serious belief and more "an idiom of defiance" against the Whig order that ran across hierarchical boundaries and led to broad public protest. Rogers comments on the protean quality of Jacobitism, not just as overt tumult or politically sanctioned, carnivalesque crowd activity, but also as exhibited in transgressive rhetoric and subversive laughter. The second chapter, which deals with the military mobilizations and food shortages of 1756-1757, shows the continuity of these earlier practices motivated by new causes and concerns. Issues of dearth become intertwined with activity in the political arena, as unpopular legislation, such as the Militia Act, leads to insubordination; concurrently, crowds refuse to accept high prices from grain sellers. Rogers emphasizes that protests often conflate varied motivation, leaving social and political leaders confused, but with a sense that rioters tend to increasingly take...