Wednesday, November 9, 2011

London's Burning

Today we're fortunate to have a guest post by Scott Jenkins, a postgraduate at Swansea University (UK). Hopefully, this will be the first of many more posts. Welcome, Scott!
Between the 6th and the 10th of August 2011 rioting engulfed England’s capital London and widespread looting was reported in several other urban centres across England. The press gleefully reported the incident, with minute by minute accounts, interactive maps showing flashpoints of the disturbance and long sweeping aerial shots of buildings ablaze. In the meantime politicians and community leaders fell about one another in a rush to condemn those responsible, and the British judiciary worked through the night processing those 3,100 individuals arrested.  In the end five people died, sixteen others injured and a total of £200 million worth of property was damaged.
The riots began after the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29 year old man during an attempted arrest. A peaceful march was arranged by friends and family of the deceased. This peaceful protest deteriorated shortly after nightfall into rioting and looting. The following evening the disturbances were repeated but this time the violence was more widespread with similar and significant outbreaks reported across the city. Night after night this pattern was repeated, and copy-cat riots engulfed the city centres of Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham and elsewhere. 
These seemingly unconnected incidents, by people who mostly had not known the victim or had close association with the issue which supposedly sparked the violence was roundly condemned as ‘pointless’ and with ‘no justification’, ‘needless and opportunistic’ crime.  The Prime Minister David Cameron, spoke of the ‘sickening scenes of ...looting, vandalising, thieving and robbing’. The majority of politicians blamed a ‘small minority’ who were causing the trouble, who seemingly did not fear the agents of law and order.  A ‘tough crackdown’ was promised and the use of water-cannon in the UK mainland, hitherto unprecedented, was under discussion by senior politicians and Scotland Yard.[1]
In the aftermath of the rioting numerous intellectuals stepped forward to espouse their own explanation or interpretation for the events, and the motives of the protagonists. The historian David Starkey appeared on BBC current affairs show ‘Newsnight’, and like a Mary Whitehouse for the 21st Century, blamed the riots on the effect of rap culture. "A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion" he said, in an analysis which appeared as outdated as it was utterly irrelevant.[2]
Yet this got me wondering, my own field of historical research is concerned with massed urban unrest committed by swarms of seemingly lawless youths. The students who attended Oxford University in the Middle Ages had a reputation for violence, looting, thieving and robbery which by comparison makes the London rioters seem positively law abiding.   Similarly this behaviour has been dismissed by historians without any attempt at engaging with cause or motive. 
On the evening of February 10th 1355 two students of Oxford, Walter Spryngheuse and Roger de Chesterfield were drinking in Swyndlestock Tavern.  The two students complained about the quality of the wine on offer to the vintner, John de Croydon. A heated argument ensued and during the exchange one of the scholars threw his wine vessel in John’s face. The townsfolk in the pub quickly leapt to John’s aid, and urged him not to put up with such abuse. The bailiffs asked the two students to make amends, which they refused. The Chancellor of the University refused the Mayor’s request to arrest the scholars. The mayor was impotent to act against the students himself as a result of the clerical privileges which ensured no scholar, except for the most serious of crimes, could be tried outside the Bishop’s court. Instead of making amends, and submitting to justice, the scholars rang the bell of their church, St. Mary’s, and were armed as if for war. They chased the townsfolk, and the Mayor’s justices from street.
The following day, the Mayor of Oxford rode to complain to the king, Edward III, who was by good fortune residing near the town at the time. The Chancellor ordered his scholars to go back to their studies, and while some did, others closed the gates of the town, set fire to buildings and robbed the homes of Oxfords townspeople.  The town retaliated, breaking up a determination of Austin Friars and ambushing scholars at play in Beaumont Fields, killing some. In the meantime the Mayor had gathered to him a band of peasants from the outlying villages, who marched on the town under a black banner. The scholars resisted the attack for a while, but were eventually put to rout. The following morning it was this time the Chancellor of the university who rode to the King. While he was away the town took revenge upon the scholars, some were scalped and left in the Bocardo (the town’s prison), and the scholars’ homes were looted. A procession of Friars called for peace between town and gown, and even this was attacked resulting in many deaths.  The scholars at Oxford fled from their homes and schools and returned to their home towns. The town’s victory was complete.[3]
What do these two events, separated by over 650 years and 60 miles have in common?  On both occasions the spark which caused the original disturbance was soon forgotten in an orgy of violence and looting.   Both involved the actions of a number of lawless youths, and a large amount of looting, arson and assaults. Yet the events which took place in Oxford escalated and involved reprisals by the townsfolk, something which did not happen to anywhere near the same extent in London. Several members of the communities’ involved did speak out against the rioters. One such individual, Pauline Pearce, became an internet sensation as The Heroine of Hackney, when she was filmed chastising the rioters. She later went on to criticise the historian David Starkey for his comments Vis-à-vis hip-hop.[4]  Three men were run down in a hit and run attack in Birmingham while attempting to defend their community. Internet site Amazon reported an increase in sales of baseball bats and truncheons as people attempted to arm themselves in order to defend their homes and businesses.[5] Users of social networking site Twitter organised mass clean-ups of the areas affected which did much to ameliorate tensions within the community, and almost a million users of Facebook joined a group ‘supporting the [London] MET[tropolitan] police against the rioters’.
Some of the clashes between rioters and vigilantes had a distinctly ethnic dimension, as Sikh and Muslim communities armed to defend their places of worship from the rioters, at the same time the Right Wing ‘English Defence League’ was mobilising football casuals and racist thugs in an attempt to cynically capitalise on the perception of the rioters being predominantly black.
On both occasions the seeming disrespect for the law on behalf of the rioters engendered outrage and encouraged individuals and groups to take matters into their own hands. The difference in the level of violence in Oxford has been explained by some historians as a result of the ubiquity of weapons, or the violent tenor of the age, but both of these explanations are inadequate.[6] The modern world is far more violent than the medieval (the death toll from the holocaust, the savagery of trench warfare, the detonation of nuclear bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima) and the ubiquity of arms would only increase the severity of injuries sustained; rather than inspire vigilantism.
The difference between medieval Oxford and modern London is the multiplicity of identities. Violence is not random, nor is it sense or meaningless to the actor. Victims may be chosen at random, but they are chosen. They are chosen because they are identified with some supposedly legitimate grievance or because they represent some aspect of the intended victim.  The violence which took place in medieval Oxford was between two completing bodies, the university and the town. Their identities were acquired and strengthened through numerous rituals and ceremonies, the boundaries of which were clearly demarcated both in dress, speech and lifestyle. This meta-contrast strengthened the antagonism between these two groups; an antagonism which was by 1355 at least 150 years old.  Throughout this time both sides had engaged in tit-for-tat struggle and a battle to dis-empower the other corporate body. The riots of St Scholastica’s Day, 1355 represent the watershed moment, the peak of a large and long fought campaign for economic, political and judicial superiority. The reprisals against the scholars, the invasion of the rustics from the country and the expulsion of the university members represent the last ditch effort of the town to end this conflict; to once and for all settle the long standing grievances.
The limited reprisals during the London riots suggest that the riots were not the flare-up of long standing conflicts, ethnic jealousies, or tensions between established identities. Political parties and protest groups tried to associate the violence in the immediate aftermath with the resistance to austerity measures, or to portray the rioters as the result of a ‘broken society’ in ‘moral collapse’. That this political football was possible shows there was no unified interpretation of motives of the individuals involved.[7] It is without doubt that when scholars and townspeople fought with bow and arrow in Oxford’s High Street they were aware of past grievances and aware at least in some vague sense, of who they were fighting, and what they were fighting for.
This flies in the face of the notion of medieval Oxford students, and the violence they engaged, as being ‘gang’ violence, a term which was also used again and again to describe the London riots.  Recent research by NatCen, published by the Cabinet Office, has suggested that among the rioters in London there was no single unified cause or ideology. We must, however, take care to separate the motives of individual rioters, with the underlying causes of the riots, whatever these may have been. The riots were seen as an exciting, liminal, event like a ‘wild party’ or ‘a rave’.  This does not in itself deny a political ideology, anyone who has read Robert Darnton’s wonderful analysis of ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ will know that having fun, a sense of carnival, can still be rooted in and a response to, social pressures.  There was also the thrill of obtaining ‘free stuff’, stuff which ordinarily would be outside the realistic aspirations of the participants. Lastly, the report suggests, the handling of the shooting of Mark Duggan was seen as an example of the lack of respect shown by police to young black people.[8]
The report is far more complex than the summary above, and criminologists and sociologists will undoubtedly debate its relative merits and demerits in the months and years ahead.  What is clear is that the violence was not senseless, it was not meaningless, ‘needless and opportunistic crime’. The violence which occurred was the result of the breakdown in order, a prerequisite for carnival , and created a space for individuals to express their dissatisfaction with society as they perceive it, as they have experienced it. Similarly the violence scholars engaged in throughout the Middle Ages was not senseless gang violence, but the expression and defence of their identity. If we continue to look at violence as ‘meaningless’ or ‘spontaneous’, if we do not learn to separate ‘cause’ and ‘motive’ when discussing it, we can learn nothing from it. And our analysis of such riots will be as shallow as David Starkey’s blaming ‘hip-hop’.

[3] The details of this event are taken from numerous, often conflicting, sources. For an introduction to the event and its wider significance see H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936)
[6] An excellent summary of the historiography surrounding academic violence, and violence more broadly in the middle ages can be found in Dean, Trevor. Crime In Medieval Europe, 1200-1550. (London: Pearson, 2001).
[7]  For Conservative interpretation see David Cameron’s comments in:  For more liberal interpretation see


The Ikes of the North said...

Wonderful post! Thanks for drawing the connections and showing the differences between the Middle Ages and today. There's a lot to chew on with this post and I shall be thinking about it all day. Thanks!

Matthew said...

Very interesting! Concerning the "tenor of the age" explanation, Steven Pinker has made a fairly good statistical argument that the medieval world was in fact much more violent than the modern one. See his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He summarizes his argument in this WSJ article: