Given its size, A Fiery and Furious People could, in certain circumstances, be described as a blunt instrument. But if readers should decide to use James Sharpe’s book as a weapon, they should first read it in order to gain a fine-grained understanding of their violent impulses.
Its title is derived from a contemporary description of the rebels engaged in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, yet both violence and restraint are embedded in English culture. Even in the supposedly barbarous Middle Ages, often portrayed as a hybrid of Monty Python and Ingmar Bergman, state- and church-sponsored restraint, along with the emerging administration of justice, ruled feudal society. But Sharpe is at ease with the messy, ambiguous reality of English history and avoids broad-brush cliché. His understatedly witty prose gently guides readers through interpersonal and collective violence from the medieval era to the 2011 English riots. He also considers how pamphlets, newspapers, literature, film and other media shape our reactions, and in particular how they shifted the focus of societal revulsion to violence from the religious to the secular.
Blending visceral reality seamlessly into a narrative rich with vivid examples gleaned from a wide range of official, scholarly and cultural sources, there is much in this book that is highly relevant to contemporary debates. We read of the revulsion to violence, and subsequent decline in English homicide that followed the bloodbath of the English Civil War, the decline in stabbings and the rise of the fist fight, the rise and fall of highway robbery and much more. Yet while change is one of the author’s major concerns, he also highlights some violent consistencies – for instance, in relation to domestic savagery, which is charted here not only in terms of male violence within households but also in relation to mothers and infanticide.
Sharpe indicates that over the centuries violence was never the sole preserve of the lower orders, yet the embedded brutality of the English elite seldom invoked a punitive response from the courts. Indeed, the elite pastime of duelling ended only with the emergence of middle-class sensibilities during the Victorian era. The carrot of relative prosperity and the appeal of a stake in a socially ordered commercial society, along with changing notions of masculinity, feature strongly in Sharpe’s analysis. Via sociological and criminological research, these themes continue into modern times in his consideration of some of the violent consequences of post-industrialism. In these latter sections, and indeed throughout the book, Sharpe avoids constructing templates for prediction, but instead, and with some humility, contrives to offer relevant theoretical teasers, alongside sometimes counter-intuitive explanations.
The richness of this wonderful book is testament to nearly 50 years spent working on the history of violence. However, Sharpe is not content with merely displaying his competencies in an astonishing variety of archives. Most importantly, he succeeds in humanising a wide variety of savagery from the Middle Ages to modern times, as outlaws, garrotters and highwaymen join generations of drunks, spouse-beaters, football hooligans and many others in a fascinating and rare example of a beautifully crafted scholarly work that introduces the reader to a nation’s visceral underbelly.
A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England
By James Sharpe
Random House, 768pp, £30.00
Published 8 September 2016