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Riots in Eighteenth Century Europe

Updated on June 22, 2010

Great dissatisfaction was felt by the people in eighteenth century Europe, especially in the lower classes of France and England. This led to the widespread outbreak of riots which were extremely common in Europe at this time. To understand why riots were so prevalent, it is best to examine the living conditions of these people to find where the swell of dissatisfaction came from. The price of bread and the amount of tax placed on the poor were common cause for discontent in both France and England, but there were other reasons for riot that were exclusive to only one of the countries. Other than the superficial reasons for dissatisfaction amongst the lower classes there is also the underlying ideological clash that is summed up in E.P. Thompson’s theory of ‘Moral Economy’. To get a full idea of the rioting it is also important to not just look at the reasons behinds the riots but also the characteristics and distinct patterns they followed.

Adrian Randall describes popular protest as an ‘argument continued by other means.’ The most frequent and effective form of popular protest in the 1700s was rioting. Lower classes were forced to riot because of their perceived poor treatment; they did not regard rioting as a solution but rather as a way to make their voice heard. In France contempt for the bourgeois and ruling classes was at times reaching the point of hatred. France was still under the power of monarchy and many unjust rules were placed on the poor. The peasants paid proportionately more for their housing than the rich and there were laws against begging even though about one fifth of urban inhabitants resorted to begging. Most of the population of France lived on rural land as peasants and were forced to pay tithes by the king, though their biggest worry was that of quality and price of bread. Bread was the basis of many European’s diet and in France, lack of bread was the only misfortune the King could be held accountable for.

The plight of the worker in France was also a source of great disgruntlement. As can be seen in Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ changing working conditions led to discontent with the masters of workshops by apprentices and journeyman alike. The proliferation of government backed printing houses in the late seventeenth century meant lesser number of shops but with larger work forces. Journeymen now found it hard to rise to the ranks of master and found many of their jobs were being done by day labourers. There was also deterioration in the relationship between apprentices and masters, as is seen in ‘The Great Cat Massacre’, where the cats are treated better than the apprentices. This was not just individual to the print industry, as farmhands and journeymen of all industries were paid poorly, which when coupled with rising bread prices was cause to riot.

Eventually the craftsmen and peasants started to take a greater interest in government, though the labouring poor were excluded from the assemblies that elected the deputies to the Estates General. Because of this limited political involvement, the people’s frustration was best expressed through rioting. As the feeling of unjust suppression raised so did the amount of violence against the ruling class. Apprentices, journeymen and other members of the labouring poor attacked those carrying swords or who looked like a member of the ruling classes. Oral rumour often incited riots as well, though not always fairly. This disdain for the French ruling classes would by the end of the century grow into a revolutionary cause.

The class system was not as rigid or oppressive in England at the time, but there were many other reasons to riot for English people. This period of time has been called the ‘most riotous century in London’s history’. The English shared some of the same grievances with their French counterparts such as taxes and general bread complaints but the environment of London was much more susceptible to rioting than that of Paris. The overcrowded streets meant that small public disputes could escalate into riots as others joined in. Londoners would use rioting to police each other’s behaviour. This sort of rioting may be seen as having no great cause and only and outcome of the rowdy environment, however George Rudé suggests it was not just the plebs who were rioting and that all urban riots had political undertones.

England of the eighteenth century was a tumultuous time in terms of political leadership. The Hanoverian accession early in the century was unpopular with some and brought about a restoration in Jacobitism protest. The Exclusion crisis of the previous century also inspired the ongoing party politics duel between the Whigs and the Tories. Nicholas Rogers suggests that the clear and determined political beliefs being shown by rioters showed an increased understanding of politics by common people. The new medium of print media allowed radical pamphleteers to incite crowds into riot. This can be seen in the reaction against Whig leader Robert Walpole for attempting to increase taxes to cover military costs. This led to Walpole backing down on a proposed wine, tobacco and salt tax. Rioters in England were expressing their concern that their birth rights were being violated by rulers who were limiting their freedom.

Randall’s notion of a ‘Free Born Englishman’ is very important when trying to understand the rioters’ mindset. He suggests that it is the ‘defence of liberty’ that underpinned the riots and gave them a ‘legitimising notion’. This fits with E.P. Thompson’s theory of ‘Moral Economy’. Thompson’s theory fits well when explaining the most prolific form of riot, the bread riot, but he also uses it to explain other forms of popular discontent. Bread riots were often born out of allegations of price fixing and withholding grain, to make extra profit. While these practises are unfair and illegal, Thompson suggests that rioters were protesting against the emerging capitalist market system as a whole. He says that millers and bakers were traditionally seen as ‘servants of the community’ but their role had changed as they search for extra profit. This clash of modernity versus tradition can also be seen in ‘The Great Cat Massacre’, as lives of workers became harsher as production values rose.

Gordon Riots
Gordon Riots

So it may be the ‘Moral Economy’, that provided people with what Randall calls the ‘first and central characteristic’ of riots, the legitimising notion. Thompson also provided the riots with three defining characteristics. The first being the anonymous tradition, meaning acts of protest could be carried out without an individual being personally persecuted. The second characteristic he calls counter-theatre; the use of symbolism and ritual during protest. Finally he mentions how riots escalated quickly and with direct action. It is the second characteristic of counter-theatre which is perhaps of the most importance, as it again is used by rioters as a legitimising notion.

Randall suggests that symbols were used to persuade public opinion in the way of the protesters. These symbols were taken from past stories and events to provide context and reason for what the riots hoped to achieve. It was the notion of using history and precedence to provide legitimacy. This can be seen in the use of symbols in the battles of party politics between the Tories and Whigs and the emergence of popular Jacobitism in England. Whig and Tory anniversaries were cause for riot and celebration amongst the people of England.Tories aligned themselves with the Jacobites in order to protest against the Whig’s support of the Hanoverian monarchy. They wore sprigs of oak and green ribbons in homage to Charles Stuart’s escape from the Battle of Worchester and burned effigies of Jack the Presbyter and Oliver Cromwell as well as King George with devil horns. In retaliation Whigs wore orange ribbons for William of Orange and paraded Warming Pans in remembrance of the rumours surrounding the birth of the Old Pretender. Not all use of symbols in English riots was about showing political allegiance though. Protesters often made attempts to dress like fox hunters or the military while carrying flags and playing drums and horns. They used these symbols associated with the wealthy and military to perform a sort of role reversal.  The notion of a world turned upside down has its roots in Carnival, a festive season popular in Western Europe, especially in France.

Carnival lasted from Christmas to Lent and Peter Burke describes it as a time of great indulgence in food, sex and violence. The people of France drank heavily and dressed up as devils, animals and creatures of mythology. This season of status reversal was used as a release and to quash protest against social status restrictions, symbolism was used to stop any outrageous behaviour. However serious protest still existed in other parts of the year and this drew upon Carnival symbolism and ritual. ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ can again be drawn upon to prove this, as the workers hold a mock trial for the cats, something commonly done for people during Carnival. The Carnival tradition also crossed into English political elections, as they involved over indulging in food and alcohol, the ritual of triumph, fighting and chairing the successful candidate.

Most riots followed ritual or a pattern but not all involved the use of symbolism. Rudé suggests that many food riots followed the same pattern, often culminating in mass property damage but rarely human injury. This can be seen in Nicholas Rogers’ description of a bread riot from 1756, in which 500 men assembled in Wherrybridge and pulled down a large corn mill owned by a man they labelled a ‘great engrosser of corn.’# Rogers also describes another riot from two days later, where men destroyed mills in Tamworth, which effectively ruined the corn being produced. While this may seem counterproductive this harks back to Randall’s statement that rioting was not seen as a solution but rather as something forced upon the people in Europe because of unhappy living conditions.

It seems dissatisfaction with the quality of life in Europe in the eighteenth century was the main cause of widespread rioting. It is definite that this stems from the tough conditions imposed on the peasants and workers in France and the landowners and poor in England by the authority of the ruling classes. Something else is also at play however, namely the ideological shift that evolved in the eighteenth century, a time of enlightenment and the beginnings of an industrial revolution. The so called beginnings of modernity clashed with the traditions of the people of Europe, causing unrest and discomfort as they struggled to adapt to an ever changing lifestyle. This may have been why the crowd adopted symbols of the past when rioting, to stir up nostalgia and use familiarity to gain support. This also helped provide substance to the protest as lessons of the past provided legitimacy. Rioting in France evolved into revolution and in England the perceived threat of modernity was eventually accepted leading to decline of widespread riots that were seen in eighteenth century Europe.


Darnton, R. ‘The Great Cat Massacre’, in Making Modern Europe 1660-1815, (Hobart, 2010).

Shoemaker, R. ‘The London Mob’, in Making Modern Europe 1660-1815, (Hobart, 2010).

Thompson, E.P. Customs in Common’, in Making Modern Europe 1660-1815, (Hobart, 2010).

Thompson, E.P. ‘The Moral Economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, Past and Present, 50 (1971).

Burke, P., Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, (London, 1978).

Hubert, G., After The Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (USA, 1998).

Kaplow, J., The Names of Kings: The Parisian Laboring Poor in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1972).

Randall, A., Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England (Oxford, 2006).

Rogers, N., Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain, (Oxford, 1998).

Rudé, G., Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century: Studies in Popular Protest, 2nd ed. (Britain, 1972).


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