Hunting and the Politics of Violence before the English Civil War.
It has long been recognised that throughout the early modern period, hunting enjoyed a social, cultural and political significance that greatly exceeded the economic value of the animals hunted. Roger Manning's Hunters and Poachers, for example, suggested that during the peaceful years of the early seventeenth century, hunting served as a symbolic substitute for war for the nation's great families. Brian Manning and Buchanan Sharp situated hunting conflicts in a rather different context, reading attacks on deer parks as a form of popular protest against one of the most potent, and resented, symbols of privilege. Daniel Beaver's elegant and insightful study of hunting makes an important contribution to this literature. Starting from the premise that hunting conflicts embodied a more complex set of political concerns than either of these formulations admit, Beaver provides a much richer and fuller understanding of what was really at stake when neighbours and communities engaged in acrimonious conflicts over woodland and deer during the half-century that the nation drifted towards civil war.
After a brief introduction, the book's first chapter investigates some of the symbolic meanings of the hunting, revealing how a correct understanding of the ceremony of the hunt served as a marker of gentle status, and how gifts of venison and hounds operated as a form of non-monetary currency between king, aristocracy and gentry. The major contribution of Hunting and Politics, however, lies in the four extremely detailed case studies, or micro-histories, of hunting conflicts in Stowe, Waltham Forest, Windsor Forest, and Corse Lawn Chase between 1590 and 1642. Each case study is supported by a close and careful reading of the surviving archival records, gathered from the swanimote, Star Chamber, and Chancery courts and private papers. Beaver's unrivalled knowledge of these archives permits him to formulate a many-layered argument about the place of these forest conflicts in the wider political context of Stuart and Caroline England.
Deftly demonstrating that these tumultuous events cannot be neatly slotted into a social conflict pitting peasants against landlords, or a political division between crown and parliament, Beaver goes on to explore what was involved in these attacks on deer and woodland. Though the events in Stowe, Waltham, Windsor, and Corse Lawn were each very different in nature, a number of common points gradually emerge. Beaver repeatedly traces the tumults of 1642 back to local events in the early seventeenth century, demonstrating the deep historical, and peculiarly local, roots of each of these woodland conflicts. In place of a more familiar two-way clash between rulers and ruled, Beaver argues that during the early Stuart period, forest law had largely managed to reconcile the competing claims of three different constituencies to woodland resources: Crown, gentry and commoners. It was at best an uneasy peace, however, and one that became seriously unbalanced when Charles I sought to extend his claims during the 1630s. At the same time, Beaver explores the highly symbolic significance of hunting and venison, highlighting the very public airing of neighbourly grievances in an arena he appositely labels a 'theatre'. No less importantly, these case studies contribute to debates about the relationship between local politics and national tensions. Beaver probes how far these parochial grievances embodied broader issues of state, eschewing easy parallels between forest politics and subsequent political allegiances during the civil war, and highlighting instead how these forest communities enjoyed a long tradition of engagement with political matters of national importance.
There is a difficulty, however. Centuries of afforestation, disafforestation and royal charters had divided England's hunting land into a complex network of forests, chases, warrens, parks, and purlieus each with their associated, and highly specific, legal status, as well as an army of different courts and officials to preside over disputes. A very brief description of some of these terms is offered on pp.25-9, but for many readers this short discussion will be insufficient to understand the very detailed and complex case studies that follow. It is of course harsh to condemn a scholarly work for not assuming great ignorance on the part of his reader, yet the point does seem relevant in this context. The book's stated aim is to situate these hunting conflicts "both in the making of the Caroline regime and in its crisis during the early 1640s," and making some allowance for those readers less well versed in hunting and land law could only facilitate communication with a wider audience.
Let us not close, however, on too a negative note, nor pass over the very real achievement of this slim book. This is a book for the committed reader, but Beaver's deep research and thoughtful analysis amply reward the reader's efforts. This is an important book which provides a new perspective on the social and geographical reach of national politics and imaginatively uses episodes of conflict in the forests to unpack some of the tensions that culminated in the outbreak of civil war.
University of East Anglia
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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