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Writings of the Luddites.

Writings of the Luddites. Ed. by KEVIN BINFIELD. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2004. xxx+279 pp. 35.50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-8018-7612-5.

This very welcome book provides an introduction to Midlands, Northwestern, and Yorkshire Luddism, together with transcripts of Luddite documents from each of those areas, listed by date, with commentary. Notes, bibliography, and index commence on page 239; pages vii-xxviii are occupied by a handy list of documents; a preface and methodological notes from the editor; and a foreword by Adrian Randall. It is all, that is to say, 'solid matter'. Often addressed to alien 'higher' classes, the documents emerge as exemplifying three forms: petition, economic analysis, political analysis. One welcomes Binfield's dislike of formulating definitions at the expense of collecting evidence: though one might have welcomed a conclusion, or at least a retrospective summary of the documents cited. Nor is the promise to evolve a critique of the rhetoric of these documents (many turned up by Binfield's own sturdy efforts) really followed through.

Questions of rhetoric would, of course, have led into some misty areas: though Binfield's strict citation-based approach eschews more absolutely than perhaps quite necessary the powerful, though untraceable, penumbra of associations gathering round the notion of 'King Ludd'. Binfield's definition is fine in his own terms: 'Ludd was an organic eponym, derived from and embedded in Nottinghamshire and framework knitting traditions' (p. 39), but the name's magic may have been wider and deeper than that. Binfield notes Ludd's difference from Robin Hood: the latter a gentleman, though outlawed; the former the embodiment of the popular will. One might also add that whereas Robin is a fantastic escapee to the greenwood, pining for the return of the invisible crusader Richard I, Ludd functions in the labyrinth that is landscape under the pattern-making impulses of the human will, and in the built labyrinth that is the defensible city. Legend has it that Ludd built London in imitation of his native Troy. Londoners were familiar with 'Ludgate', recalling some cult millennia older than St Paul. London, England's New York, is a city with grittier memories than those memorialized in its neighbour Westminster. Like Washington, the latter is the artificial creation of legislators and official mythographers: but London ('Luddein') remembers its rioting apprentices; its Smithfield martyrs; the summary execution it dealt the corrupt ministers of the all-too-visible Richard II. Northerners recall Luddenden, a pocket of cultivation on the fringe of merciless moor; north Midlanders Lud Church, the rocky crevice associated with a massacre of Lollards, though (like the caves of Delphi) of far more ancient mystery than they. One would not guess from Binfield's account how deeply Ludd pervaded and (see innumerable websites) still pervades the national consciousness. Binfield comments convincingly that 'Ludd seeks less to overthrow a government than to effect the repentance of the old one' (p. 31). A conclusion might have ventured the opinion that, given the profoundly radical-conservative nature of English discourse, always both retrospective and prospective, the Luddites exemplify a long struggle, not to abolish or transcend human limitations, but to put them effectively to work for the common benefit. Hence the threatening, yet ethically rooted, nature of many of these documents.

In the Romantic context, retrospective and prospective issues weave their own tragedy in Luddite writings: on the one hand they survive as record of the rich otherness of languages formed by class and locality; on the other they initiate the task set before working-class leaders: of out-arguing the governing class in its own language. To have conserved so many of them in one volume is a noble work.


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Author:Hardman, Malcolm
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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