We are in a season of protest. Taking to the streets or the picket line is an ageless method for communicating our disapproval. But everything else about protest in the digital age is quite new. Try taking a stand without a Twitter account.
Four hundred years ago another radical development in communication technology introduced a culture of protest so new that it fuelled the Civil Wars. The printing press created a public sphere in which the vociferous and sneering drowned out the measured and questioning.
The printed pamphlet and sermon were some of the period’s least elegant forms of argumentation, but they reached a wide audience and succeeded in whipping up national hatred for the king. Print was also a Protestant form. Few English Catholics would ever see their work in print except via clandestine continental presses.
However, hiding beneath the chatter of print was a form of British protest that survived from the Catholic past. Festive and local, pre-Civil War protesters belonged to the illiterate realm of the folk hero. Many were working-class poets or performers, all sharper in wit than their betters.
In 1619 Penny of Wisbech refused to lie down for the rich landowners of Essex bent on draining the fens. Fen folk lamented the disappearance of a unique way of life dependent on the water. Penny’s protest ballad adopts the voice of a fish bewailing the transformation of wetlands into arable fields and calls on local men and women to take up arms against the King’s men.
Penny is recorded as leading “a rowdy crowd of nearly 2,000 people of the common sort”. Shaking their stilts and skatches they stood in the centre of town reciting the song of the fish:
“Come brothers of the water!”
They’ll sow both peas and oats, where no man ever thought it.
Where men did row with boats, ere undertakers bought it.
For they do mean all fens to drain and waters overmaster.
And they will make of bogs and lakes for Essex calves a pasture.
Less is known about the itinerant Welsh minstrel, Robin Clidro. In the ordinary dialect of the Vale of Clwyd he wrote a mock-elegy about a band of native red squirrels who marched all the way to London to protest the deforestation of Marchan Wood. Both Penny and Robin adopted the voices of lowly creatures to argue that the biggest losers in the Crown’s destruction of ancient landscapes were in fact the local people.
In London, John Taylor the water poet was no environmental activist but a critic of class privilege. By day he carried players and playgoers across the Thames to the south bank. By night he wrote verse about labouring Londoners, in their own dialect. Although meagre with praise for most men of standing, Taylor applauded his customer Will Shakespeare for rising to the top of his field without a university education.
In his great poem “In Praise of Hemp Seed”, Taylor used the recycling of hemp as a metaphor for the human equality beneath differences in social status. From hemp came paper, shipping materials and the clothes of every class of person. Nothing was wasted in those frugal years; the same piece of hemp could reappear in countless forms.
“Who can tell from whence these tatters spring?” the poem asks. The very paper on which his poem is written, he observes, may once have been a monarch’s shirt or a ship’s sail. Perhaps “the linen of a Tyburn slave” holds “more honour than a mighty Monarch have … though he dyed a traitor most disloyal, his shirt may be transformed to paper-royal.”
The poem also records Taylor’s high-profile stunt of rowing to Kent in a paper boat with dried fish for oars. He arrived safely, though with his vessel dangerously engorged.
Less concerned with critiquing the system, two women vigilantes took a stand against male sexual violence. They wore breeches, smoked pipes and carried swords.
Mary Frith, the inspiration for Middleton and Dekker’s character Moll Cutpurse, was a south bank busker and a defender of the innocent. Or was she a drunkard and the head of an organised crime network? The inconsistencies between hagiography and legal record suggest she was both villain and hero.
Across the Thames, the Lancashire-born Long Meg of Westminster was a giantess who could lay a man flat with one box to the head. She started her career as a bouncer at the request of a female publican but was soon renowned for defending the vulnerable in any roadside encounter.
These were the local heroes of the past. If they were here today, we wouldn’t know it. The internet would drown them out.