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The Moral Ecology of the English Crowd? Resisting Landscape Change in Rural Somerset and Dorset, c. 1780–1850

Event type
British History in the Long 18th Century
Event dates
, 5:15PM - 7:15PM
IHR Wolfson Room NB01, Basement, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Leonard Baker (University of Bristol)
020 7862 8740
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed widespread attempts to ‘privatise’ rural England. Through acts such as enclosure or the ‘stopping-up’ of country lanes, rural elites sought to reshape and redefine the countryside. In counties such as Somerset and Dorset enclosure has been likened to a civilizing mission, with agriculturalists recasting animal and human bodies ‘out of place’ as both economically inefficient and morally corruptive. Unsurprisingly, local communities fiercely opposed these material and cultural transformations. Recent scholarship on enclosure protests has therefore moved away from solely focusing upon mass riot, stressing the importance of ‘everyday’ resistance and the centrality of rural communal relations. This paper studies the intersections between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ protest, highlighting how resistance towards landscape change was enacted through a variety of repertoires.  

Adapting Karl Jacoby’s ‘moral ecology’ model, this paper argues that a belief in an ethical and ‘harmonious’ environmental state drove protests such as trespassing, hedge-breaking and tree-maiming. Rooted in notions of sustainability, reciprocity and fairness; the ‘moral ecology’ of protestors detailed how individuals were supposed to interact with their community and the ‘natural world’. Subsequently, resistance towards landscape change was not only conducted symbolically but also physically reshaped the land to provide tangible reconstructions of threatened lives and practices. A human or animal body ‘out of place’ momentarily revived customary claims whilst simultaneously remaking the landscape to align with communal expectations. Crucially, conflict over landscape change was not a binary duel between capitalist landowners and impoverished labourers. Instead, within every rural community multiple competing ‘moral ecologies’ existed, each seeking to establish their own ‘ideal’ rural society.