Friday, 13 March 2020

Disaffection and EverydayLife in Interregnum England. By Caroline Boswell. Studies in Early Modern Cultural, Political, and Social History. Boydell Press, 2017.

“There is no locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead, there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.”

Michel Foucault,

May the weary traveler turn from life's dusty road and in the wayside shade, out of this clear, cool fountain drink, and rest

R. E. Speer, “Robert Burns,” Nassau Literary Magazine 43 (1888): 469.

“Cultural Studies originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism”.

Paul Bond

Disaffection and Everyday Life is a significant addition to our knowledge of how the English Revolution and the subsequent Interregnum impacted the daily lives of "ordinary people."

Caroline Boswell's work harnesses previous work by other social and political historians such as Christopher Hill and David Underdown. She gives us a much closer approximation of how national politics impacted the daily lives of the population. Her book shows that there was a significant radicalisation amongst the poorer sections of the population.

Through her formidable study of the mass production of pamphlets situated in a large number of urban archives, she was able to get at "the heart of popular experiences of revolution." As Carla Pestana states in her review of the book “anyone who has read the social history of seventeenth-century England produced over recent decades knows that scholars have unearthed a rich archive of confrontations in marketplaces, animated disagreements in taverns, and riots in the streets. Such moments of social and political tension come to the attention of the authorities, make their way into court documents and other sources, and await industrious modern researchers' efforts to come again to light.  Numerous works recount such tales, in order to understand attitudes toward gender, economic justice, and a host of other issues. In these sources, the voices of common men and women emerge, mediated though they are by the often fraught occasions that caused them to be recorded.[1]

Much of the material uncovered showed that rich people on both sides of the barricades still used everything in their power to retain or grab back their wealth. Boswell highlights the case of Sir Arthur Haslerige's treatment of his tenants.

The Royalist’s exploited the state of flux in society during the Interregnum in order to seek the overturn of the revolution and re-establish the monarchy. Utilising popular drinking venues Royalist balladeers and pamphleteers spread their propaganda far and wide.

While Parliament also used the printing presses to counter the Royalist propaganda, they were not averse to using military force to suppress discontent. Boswell relates how Colonel Hewson ordered his troops to fire at London apprentices playing football in 1659, killing at least four of them.

While Boswell is careful not to exaggerate the hostility to the Cromwellian regime, the significant amount of discontent amongst the population was an indication of the narrow social base that Cromwell rested on. The army played a pivotal role in keeping things under control. There seemed a general hostility towards the soldiers, who were  "despised" for their heavy-handed action[2]

While Boswell has collected a formidable array of information, her reading of the numerous pamphlets is at times uncritical as this example from a previous essay shows “In January 1650, the royalist pamphleteer John Crouch described a scuffle between a group of Londoners and a troop of soldiers in his scurrilous newsbook The Man in the Moon.  Though Charles I’s execution had been carried out a year before, Crouch continued to employ tropes long drawn out by royalist pens in an attempt to undermine the nascent Commonwealth. Themes of subversion, sexual slander and humiliation pervade this anti-Puritan narrative. Crouch related how ‘two or three Companies’ of ‘Rebell’ soldiers had seized a group of stage players on St John’s Street. Having deprived the players of their garb, the troopers marched them to Westminster for breaking Parliament’s ordinance against stage-plays. One soldier stayed behind the crowd with design of gaining ‘some plunder’, at which time he happened across a ‘skimmington’ riding near Smithfield Market. This popular shaming ritual involved a man imitating the army’s Lord General Thomas Fairfax on horseback. The ‘General’ held a skimming ladle while ‘Baskets’ of Colonel Thomas Pride’s ‘Graines’ were held out in front of him. Fairfax’s ‘Doxie’ sat behind him, her face to the horse’s tail.”[3]

Her account of the shooting at the football match relies heavily on Royalist news pamphlets as does much of the book. While there was undoubted dissatisfaction amongst the poorer section of the population, it is hard to figure how much Royalist publications fabricated this.


Boswell’s book is part of a veritable cottage industry of works that examine the social and cultural history of the Seventeenth Century. Even a cursory look at her footnotes and bibliography, it is clear as Carla Pestana points out Boswell “plumbs the rich records of English localities to uncover arresting stories. The book includes many vignettes. Altercations in streets, taverns, doorways of private homes, and elsewhere all came to the attention of authorities who recorded them for Boswell's perusal. She offers a thoughtful and sensible analysis of these altercations and their meanings, by and large.”

Her use of an eclectic mixture of historians ranging from Steve Hindle, Michael Braddick, Andy Wood, while a delight for the reader shows a historian who has yet to establish her take on the debate. The book also has shades of John Morrill' s(1976) Revolt of the Provinces about it.

As John Reeks points out, “Morrill's argument that national politics "took on local colours and [was] articulated within local contexts" has become Boswell's "intersection" of "quotidian politics" with the "politics of revolution". Nevertheless, the fundamentals are very similar, and the disaffection of Boswell's 1650s bears more than a passing resemblance to what Morrill uncovered for the 1630s and 1640s.”[4]

While acknowledging a debt to the past left-leaning historians such as Christopher Hill, Boswell’s historiography is also heavily influenced by modern-day genres of Linguistic Cultural and Spatial turns. All these genres emanate from the Post Modernist school of historical study, and all three are hostile to a Marxist understanding of historical events.

John Reeks writes he “was left with no clearer understanding of the difference between a "site" and a "space" at the end of the book than at the beginning, or the historical significance of such distinctions. At times this tendency reads like amusing idiosyncrasy, but it can also give rise to mind-bending tautology: "to understand the politics of disaffection, we must consider how disaffection transformed – and was transformed by – the politics of everyday life".

The application of Cultural Studies in British universities is now very pervasive. It would seem that every new book that comes out has a dash of Cultural Studies about it. Many of the conceptions contained within the genre are borrowed from the Italian left-wing figure Antonio Gramsci, particularly the latter’s notion of cultural hegemony in addressing popular culture as a preferred sphere of political activity.

As Paul Bond points out in his obituary of Stuart Hall “Cultural Studies originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards.”[5]


The book is exceptionally well-researched and contains valuable material for future study but I agree with John Reeks that Boswell needs to cut out the Spatial Turn language and just present her readership with “ a straightforward piece of political history”.

[1] Reviewed by Carla Pestana (University of California, Los Angeles) Published on H-War (January, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
[2] Page 145
[3] Popular Grievances and Royalist Propaganda in Interregnum England-Caroline Boswell- The Seventeenth Century -Volume 27, 2012 - Issue 3
[4] John Reeks (2019) Disaffection and everyday life in Interregnum England, The Seventeenth Century, 34:1, 129-130
[5] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism
By Paul Bond-5 March 2014-