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Crime, Poverty and Protest in England and Beyond, 1500-1800


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Dr Brodie Waddell
  • Assessment: an 800-word coursework assignment (20%) and 3200-word essay (80%)

Module description

Between the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution, England seemed to be a society constantly on the verge of crisis. For both rich and poor, the threats appeared to be coming from all sides. Recurrent crime waves endangered their lives and property, whilst rising poverty and inequality put many working families at risk of destitution. Often, the response to these mounting tensions took the form of public whippings and hangings alongside violent riots and occasionally full-scale rebellion.

In this module we encourage you to dive into the tumultuous world of early modern England to better understand how these pressing concerns - crime, poverty and protest - influenced life at the time and how they have been interpreted by modern scholars. We will explore topics such as:

  • the investigation of murders
  • the hanging of thieves at Tyburn
  • the rising threat of vagrancy
  • the impact of the Elizabethan poor laws
  • the tactics used by rioting crowds.

We will also address more unusual offences such as witchcraft, smuggling, counterfeiting and highway robbery, which captivated contemporaries and continue to fascinate us today.

Crime and protest in the early modern period have generated rich records, and every class will focus on a new set of primary sources. To understand crime, we will read trial records and legal handbooks alongside sensationalist pamphlets, broadside ballads and selections from The Beggar’s Opera (1728). For poverty, the class will discuss pauper letters, workhouse regulations, fanciful woodcuts and contemporary accounts of vagrant subcultures. Protests will be examined through both official reports and dissident narratives of the events, allowing us to compare how the same riot might be interpreted in very different ways.

By looking at these vivid contemporary documents, we will be able to better understand why some historians have described the judicial and welfare system as a ‘ruling-class conspiracy’ used to terrorise the poor and why other scholars have offered more optimistic counter-narratives.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be equipped to:

  • discern the connections between early modern debates about social issues and those of today
  • think critically about the continued salience of past concerns about violence, theft, destitution and dissent in the twenty-first century.