Friday, 22 August 2014


Yesterday, I tried to show that violent law enforcement exacerbates, rather than diminishes popular violence.

There's another logic to the Ferguson riot violence - which now seems to be abating - and it's horrifyingly simple.  If you have no other way to make your voice heard - if you are part of a marginalised group, if the law offers you little redress, if you do not have the financial means to fund your political preferences - violence can seem like the only way.  And it's striking that this should be the case in what is lauded as the world's greatest democracy.

I've been working on an article on the St Scholastica's Day riots in Oxford in 1355.  On 10th February 1355, two students named Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield went out together for a drink at a tavern.  Angry at the poor quality of the wine they were served, they complained, quarrelled with the tavern-keeper, and threw their drinks in his face.  The students proceeded to beat the tavern-keeper, and the brawl swiftly widened.  The chancellor refused to arrest the students, who instead rang the bell of the University Church, summoning 200 others who joined in the violence against the tavern-keeper, his friends, family, and even the mayor.  On the second day, the students continued their violent rampage through the town, burning houses, robbing the townspeople, and closing the gates of the city.  At this point, the townspeople gathered themselves to retaliate in the most brutal terms.  They attacked the students with bows and arrows, beating and killing any scholars they could find; on the following day, the townspeople were joined by people from the countryside in ever more brutal attacks on students, killing, maiming, scalping any they could find.

Oxford University Church (image from wikicommons): the bells of this Church were rung at the start of the riots.

The violence was clearly started by the students, but the violent retaliation of the townspeople was brutal and horrific (and the town continued to pay, literally and metaphorically, for its misdeeds for years afterwards).  

Why did the townspeople behave quite so violently?  Clearly it was partly because students were a pain in the neck.  But more than this, it was because the townspeople had effectively been deprived of any other means of redress.  The king had been anxious to secure every possible privilege for the students, and to protect them from economic exploitation by the townspeople, with the result that the townspeople felt marginalised and excluded.  And this was felt in a very concrete sense in the jurisdictional status of the townspeople.  Whereas the students were exempt from any but the university Chancellor's court, the townspeople were obliged to appear in this court for any case where a student was also involved: it seemed clear that they would always therefore lose out, as this court was clearly heavily weighted in the University's interest.  Decades of scholarly privileges had marginalised and excluded the townspeople, and violence was pretty much their only remaining means of expression.  Incidentally, the motif of scalping students wasn't just mindlessly brutal: the jurisdictional privileges of students came from their clerical status, status which was signified by their tonsured heads: so the scalping was a brutal protest against the total judicial disenfranchisement of the townspeople.

None of this justifies violence: far from it.  But again and again, it is clear that everyone must be given a chance to speak and a chance to be represented.

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