Customs in Common is the remarkable sequel to E.P. Thompson’s influential, landmark volume of social history, The Making of the English Working Class. The product of years of research and debate, Customs in Common describes the complex culture from which working class institutions emerged in England—a panoply of traditions and customs that the new working class fought to preserve well into Victorian times.
In a text marked by both empathy and erudition, Thompson investigates the gradual disappearance of a range of cultural customs against the backdrop of the great upheavals of the eighteenth century. As villagers were subjected to a legal system increasingly hostile to custom, they tried both to resist and to preserve tradition, becoming, as Thompson explains, “rebellious, but rebellious in defence of custom.” Although some historians have written of riotous peasants of England and Wales as if they were mainly a problem for magistrates and governments, for Thompson it is the rulers, landowners, and governments who were a problem for the people, whose exuberant culture preceded the formation of working-class institutions and consciousness.
Using a wide range of sources, Thompson shows how careful attention to fragmentary evidence helps to decode the fascinating symbolism of shaming rituals including “rough music,” and practices such as the ritual divorce known as “wife sale.” And in examining the vigorous presence of women in food riots from the sixteenth century onwards, he sheds further light on gender relations of the time.
Essential reading for all those intrigued by English history, Customs in Common has a special relevance today, as traditional economies are being replaced by market economies throughout the world. The rich scholarship and depth of insight in Thompson’s work offer many clues to understanding contemporary changes around the globe.
Edward Palmer Thompson was an English historian, writer, marxist and peace campaigner. He is probably best known today for his historical work on the radical movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular The Making of the English Working Class (1963). He also published influential biographies of William Morris (1955) and (posthumously) William Blake (1993) and was a prolific journalist and essayist. He also published the novel The Sykaos Papers and a collection of poetry.
Thompson was one of the principal intellectuals of the Communist Party in Great Britain. Although he left the party in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he nevertheless remained a "historian in the Marxist tradition," calling for a rebellion against Stalinism as a prerequisite for the restoration of communists' "confidence in our own revolutionary perspectives". Thompson played a key role in the first New Left in Britain in the late 1950s. He was a vociferous left-wing socialist critic of the Labour governments of 1964–70 and 1974–79, and during the 1980s, he was the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe.
E.P. Thompson, a scholar-activist, may be one of the most underestimated figures of the twentieth century. He certainly played a far greater role in ending the Cold War than anyone in Washington, while at the same working as a historian to bring to light the “common” people of his own national past. If part of your heritage is from England, you owe yourself a look at his work, especially if you think of your ancestors as particularly rational, orderly, and unsuperstitious.
EP Thompson's works are a huge favorite of mine. His historical research, methodology and writing style continues to inspire even today. In Customs in Common, Thompson studies the complexities of relations between the plebian and patrician groups in late 18th century Britain, and within this cultural domain, he explores the political complexities of subsistence moral economy of the peasants in a pre-industrial society. In addition, he also has written on plebian rituals and rites in the forms of rough music and wife sales, and offers an insightful look on these pubic spectacles which despite their ambiguous mythic origins, offered a symbolic vocabulary through which customs and norms were both challenged and reinforced. Of course, the most classic essay is probably the one that studies how time and clock keeping became tyrannical means through which the 'undisciplined' pre-industrial workers were slowly transformed into factory wage workers suitable for the demands of the newly rising industrial capitalist system in the nineteenth century. I think my only grievance with the book is Thompson's obsession with discrediting female scholars of gender history, as being too obsessed with seeing only patriarchy and oppression of women in their historical studies. Though I am myself not familiar with the works of feminist scholars that he consulted, I doubt they would have resorted to such monolithic assumptions. The relevance of gender history and any other subaltern history has been to make visible presence of those of whom early history considered unworthy, and to acknowledge their significance in formation of current social categories and relations of race, gender and caste. So for Thompson to take offence of criticism by feminist scholars over his wife sale essay seems a little petty. In fact, I would venture that some of his arguments regarding the patriarchal content of rough music and wife sale are not at all novel and can be easily gleaned with sufficient data. Nevertheless, he is one of true greats of history for me. His work has inspired me to work harder on my sources and think more critically but with some heart and purpose. And his work on the English working class in the 18th and 19th century remains a seminal work. A must read for any aspiring historian.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
E.P. Thompson is a joy to read; he writes so well and is always able to stick something witty in with what he's trying to explain. This book is a compliation of many of his essays, including "Patricians and the Plebs," "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," and "The Sale of Wives!"
Interesting look at the commons and customs of the people who lived on the commons and were slowly pushed off them. really obscure at times--things i've never heard of--but also very interesting. I feel that the writing was academic and dry at times, but still thought provoking with copious research. Wanna know more about the commons? I recommend.