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The Journal of Peasant Studies
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Whigs and hunters: the origins of the Black Act, by
Nancy Lee Peluso
To cite this article: Nancy Lee Peluso (2017) Whigs and hunters: the origins of the
Black Act, by E.P. Thompson, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:1, 309-321, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1264581
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AGRARIAN CLASSICS REVIEW SERIES
Whigs and hunters: the origins of the Black Act, by E.P. Thompson
Nancy Lee Peluso
Claim and counterclaim had been the condition of forest life for centuries.
Thompson (1975, 31)
Poaching has always been endemic in any forest area, and has no doubt been coeval with the
Thompson (1975, 57)
What was often at issue was not property, supported by law, against no-property; it was alterna-
tive deﬁnitions of property-rights: for the landowner, enclosure; for the cottager, common
rights; for the forest ofﬁcialdom, ‘preserved grounds’for the deer; for the foresters, the right
to take turfs …. When it ceased to be possible to continue the ﬁght at law, men still felt a
sense of legal wrong: the propertied had obtained their power by illegitimate means.
Thompson (1975, 261)
And if the actuality of the Law’s operation in class-divided societies has, again and again, fallen
short of its own rhetoric of equity, yet the notion of the rule of law is itself an unqualiﬁed good.
Thompson (1975, 267)
Edward P. Thompson was a British cultural historian, scholar of agrarian change and doc-
umenter of the complex, transformative class struggles of eighteenth-century England. His
second major book, Whigs and hunters: the origins of the Black Act, was published in 1975,
more than a decade after the huge success of his ﬁrst book, The making of the English
working class (Thompson 1963). In Whigs and hunters, Thompson demonstrates the myriad
ways that the forests and ‘chases’(hunting grounds) of southeastern England became key
sites of massive legal, environmental, and social transformation and contention at this early
moment in the nation’s history of capitalist social relations. In the 41 years since its publication,
the book has attracted a veritable ‘cult’of scholarly admirers among political ecologists and other
researchers of agrarian-environmental change,
drawn to it in part by the perpetuation of similar
conﬂicts over land and resource control in our own times –with all the world as their stage.
At the heart of Thompson’s argumentation was a view of the law, in its many and
diverse forms, as both a medium of expressing social and political struggle and as insepar-
able from those struggles. ‘For law was often a deﬁnition of actual agrarian practice,asit
had been pursued “time out of mind”’ (Thompson 1975, 261, emphasis in original), he said,
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
For a few examples, see Peluso (1992); Neumann (1999); and Kosek (2006).
This review forms part of JPS’s‘Agrarian Classics’review series, in which leading scholars revisit
classic works in agrarian studies to examine their legacy and contemporary relevance. These
reviews bring older works - both well-known and underappreciated - into dialogue with current theor-
etical debates, political struggles, transformations in global capitalism, and trajectories of agrarian
The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2017
Vol. 44, No. 1, 309–321, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1264581
summarizing in a concluding section of the book what he had demonstrated in many com-
pelling and dramatic examples throughout. While the book is renowned in agrarian studies
for its vivid illustrations of the struggles over common, customary, private and royally con-
ferred property rights –and the diverse norms, customs, practices and laws comprising,
shaping and challenging them –it was the 11 pages on the rule of law at the end of the
book that generated an immediate and vigorous debate. That debate continues to have rel-
evance in part because of the book’s nuanced and rigorous examination of the events in
eighteenth-century England’s woodland areas and rural commons constituting what
Marx called ‘original’or ‘primitive accumulation’(Marx  1976, 784–87), and in
part because of how these events foreshadowed contemporary expropriations more fre-
quently conceived of today as accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003).
The short essay proclaiming the ‘Rule of Law’as an ‘unqualiﬁed human good’(267)
came in the wake of Thompson’s 300-page analysis of extant archival material pertaining
to claims and conﬂicts over speciﬁc forests and chases in England’s Windsor, Hampshire,
Berkshire, Richmond and Enﬁeld. Changes in forest practices, laws and enforcement
included new ways to privatize commons and customarily held resources, and the rendering
of some customs as transgressions against private property (in most instances only recently
formalized) as capital crimes. The Black Act,
passed in 1723, made the shooting of red and
fallow deer, and the exercise of many long-standing common and customary rights in and
around the forest, punishable by death, without the beneﬁt of clergy (270–77).
The numerous episodes of ‘claim and counterclaim’detailed through accounts of rural
people’s changing lives and means of livelihood before and after the notorious Act’s
passing clearly demonstrated that the law favored the forest bureaucracy and the Royal
Family, as well as the nouveau riche who were buying their way into the forest. This
was not a simple ‘before and after’or ‘impact’study: rather, one of Thompson’s great
accomplishments is how effectively he builds a compelling narrative from numerous acts
of claiming and reclaiming forest resources across several periods of political-economic
change, including the making and breaking down of physical enclosures, passing new
laws or enforcing old ones, killing deer, setting up informants and spies, posting notices,
organizing, making appeals, donning of costumes, and, of course, ‘blacking’–the appli-
cation of black paste or paint to the face as a form of disguise. Thompson, in fact,
showed time and again that the law’s enforcement and expansion placed lesser burdens
on gentry than on common forest dwellers. Given such ﬁndings, many structural Marxist
scholars were confused and angered at Thompson’s concluding reﬂections on the radical
possibilities residing in the ‘rule of law’. He had shown throughout the book –convincingly
and repeatedly –that the law was being used to the beneﬁtof‘the ruling class’, even as the
composition of that class was changing (260). Why, then, did he turn around at the end of
the book and call the rule of law ‘an unqualiﬁed human good’(263)? This question per-
sisted even though Thompson laid out his argument clearly in the book’s concluding
remarks, stressing his belief that the universality of the rule of law –if it could be realized
–offered the only possibility of justice for the less powerful in an inequitable society.
Thompson went further by demonstrating throughout his text that ‘“law”was deeply imbri-
cated within the very basis of productive relations which should have been inoperable without
this law’(261). For him, law and agrarian practice could not be separated. ‘How can we dis-
tinguish between the activity of farming or of quarrying and the rights to this strip of land or
The Act is reprinted in the ﬁrst appendix to the book (Thompson 1975, 270–77). It details very
clearly the speciﬁc acts that are considered crimes after 1 June 1723.
310 Nancy Lee Peluso
to that quarry?’(261). The devil (of the law) was to be found in the very details, complexities
and conﬂicts of everyday life, the panoply of norms-in-practice, and the variety of values and
ideologies that lay beneath the customary uses and the common rights (often granted through
laws) that hadbeen fought for and practiced in agrarian contexts for hundreds of years –manyin
conﬂict with one another, as indicated in the epigraphs at the outset of this review.
Thompson’s intervention was explicitly aimed at his more ‘structuralist’colleagues
who regarded the law as part of the ‘superstructure’of social forces, seeing it as separate
from the more fundamental productive forces and relations through which lives and liveli-
hood-seeking were played out (266–67). On the contrary, Thompson insisted, the law and
productive practice were tightly imbricated in ways that seemed to go unacknowledged by
members of this structuralist camp. Three years later, he would expand this claim into a
much longer book: The poverty of theory (1978). Yet, lest his message be misunderstood,
in the conclusion of Whigs and hunters he asserted that he saw a tremendous ‘difference
between …[the exercise of] …arbitrary power and the rule of law’(266). Thompson
extended his claims beyond the speciﬁc places and times in English history that he had
addressed in this book by pointing to other historical actors in diverse times and places –
including those subjected to British imperial rule and violence –seeking radical change
through the vehicle of the law: ‘If the rhetoric was a mask, it was a mask which Gandhi
and Nehru were to borrow, at the head of a million masked supporters’(266).
The gauntlet E.P. Thompson threw down, and the challenges countered, continue to resonate
with contemporary debates about forest politics, conservation and development policy, green
grabs and land grabs, property and access, and legal pluralism in environmental politics, political
ecology, agrarian-environmental studies and associated disciplines. However, across the many
years that I have taught this book in graduate seminars on political ecology and agrarian change,
students’hearts and minds have been captured by much more than the last few pages of the book,
and it is on these contributions that I will concentrate in the remainder of this review.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the book has helped me to demonstrate a historian’s means of
writing ethnographically, even though the data come from ‘ﬁeld sites’unfamiliar to ‘ﬁeld’
ethnographers –the archives of parishes, private individuals and government libraries. My
students are more likely to conduct ﬁeld research among marginalized, dispossessed and
disenfranchised people using and claiming contemporary forests, ﬁelds, hunting grounds
and conservation zones, or marine and fresh water ﬁsheries. Nevertheless, the book presents
the kind of evidence that contemporary ethnographers seek through interviews and obser-
vation, as Thompson collected and followed all manner of complex and juicy stories
through devoted sessions at long wooden tables in quiet halls. His references to his isolation
during his study and his narrow theoretical ledge also evoke feelings of solidarity among his
readers. Thompson seems to have thought himself an ethnographer as well, describing in
his preface his own venturing into the early eighteenth century’s legal and agrarian politics:
‘I was like a parachutist coming down in unknown territory: at ﬁrst knowing only a few
yards of land around me, and gradually extending my explorations in each direction’(16).
Much of the book is spent documenting the lives and travails of forest dwellers during
the decades straddling the turn of the eighteenth century. This period was perhaps the height
of the enclosure movement in England, during which the wealthy and politically connected
enthusiastically ‘enclosed’,‘hedged’or privatized for their own individual use and access
the common ﬁelds, pastures, peat turfs, woodlands, rivers and ponds to which the bulk of
rural people had always enjoyed customary, common and use rights, if not actually ‘from
For more on the rule of law and Thompson’s stance on it, see Cole (2001).
The Journal of Peasant Studies 311
time immemorial’then at least for centuries. Moreover, these were ‘legal rights’, often
taking written form and recognized widely in practice –their recognition was not in ques-
tion. The ﬁrst few hundred years of enclosures were achieved through the building of
hedges or fences to bound or consolidate previously common property under individual
private claims. These frankly audacious claims could be made by royals, their courtiers
or others in royal favor; gentry who expanded their holdings, literally gentrifying the
forests; or wealthy newcomers who had beneﬁted from the South Sea Bubble (not the
last ‘bubble’the capitalist world would see!). The assertion of these claims was replete
with just a few winners and many losers.
Enclosures at once reduced the extent of commonly held lands and resources and the
number of claimants to them, marginalizing previous users and occupants. The legal mech-
anisms for enclosure also changed over the centuries, until Parliament passed the Enclosure
Acts in 1831. In assessing the effects of all this privatizing and en-title-ing, the biographer
of capitalism before it became an ‘ism’, Karl Marx, had no qualms (and plenty of evidence)
asserting that the beneﬁciaries (owners) of those enclosures had stolen those resources from
commoners, cottagers, tenant farmers, foresters (the word Thompson uses for ‘forest villa-
gers’), and other rural residents (Capital, Vol. 1, chapters 46–47). Thompson’s narrative
gives his readers a visceral experience of those times: it is through individual and collective
lives that he recounts the social and legal episodes and events transforming the eighteenth
The themes and ﬁndings of Whigs and hunters link the violent realization of private
property in eighteenth-century rural England with distressingly similar experiences in
sites across the globe in the twenty-ﬁrst century. The Black Act as a legal or policy instru-
ment of the eighteenth century resonates easily with the politics and political economies
scholars encounter in diverse sites of engagement, and Thompson’s account offers an
important lesson about how ‘the abstract’rises out of the concrete lived experiences of
everyday life. In the contemporary world, think about the death penalties imposed by
‘shoot on sight’edicts issued by state actors and institutions and their conservation
allies, the incarcerating power of the word ‘terrorist’in national politics around the
world, and the ongoing evictions and dispossessions of resource-dependent people who
are counted in a new-yet-old global category of ‘the poor’. Is there a forest in the world
that does not have a history of violence in its understory? Specters of failed and trammeled
common property, disputed customary claims, and both emergent capitalist and non-capi-
talist production relations populate the pages of Whigs and hunters as frequently as they
haunt or deﬁne the ﬁeld sites of today’s agrarian researchers.
These connections led me to re-read Whigs and hunters for this review with the speciﬁc
goal of identifying some of the issues that plagued Thompson’sbeleaguered characters and
resonated with environmental and agrarian conﬂicts in the present. As I did, I kept asking
myself: how is it that the words and experiences of eighteenth-century England’s forest
denizens can reverberate across centuries, nations, empires and worlds and remain relevant
to far-future and far-ﬂung generations of small farmers, indigenous peoples, pastoralists,
hunters and ﬁshers, as well as to contemporary students and teachers of agrarian and
environmental change? The answer lies in the fact that Thompson’s claims may pertain
to the productions of new frontiers of private property and capital investment in the eight-
eenth century, but conﬂicting land uses, contentious power relations and property rights are
the mainstay of agrarian capitalist relations then and now: wringing blood and life-force
from whatever social relations exist on the land prior to their arrival. Not without a ﬁght,
312 Nancy Lee Peluso
In discussing the blurred boundaries between legal and illegal acts in moments of either
agrarian warfare or superﬁcially peaceful coexistence, Thompson elucidates the salient and
manifold forms of dispossession and class formation that took place in English forests.
Although, as indicated, enclosure in England had a history that began well before the
late seventeenth century when Thompson’s tales begin, Whigs and hunters nonetheless
plays the role of an origin story, detailing the speciﬁc ways the ‘ﬁrst’enclosures and
their material and theoretical chums, ‘privatization’,‘criminalization’and the creation of
‘surplus’labor come about through speciﬁc processes of ‘dispossession’, a theme taken
up by other scholars and extended by them to the analysis of other natures, resources,
places and empirical contexts after the turn of the 21st century. The book provides continu-
ing inspiration for understanding the origins of resource conﬂicts in the inner workings of a
particular ‘Great Transformation’(Polanyi 1944), speciﬁcally, the classic enclosure of ‘the
social’by a society characterized increasingly by marketized capitalist relations.
Like struggles over land, forests and governance elsewhere in the world today, the
struggles over the English forests depicted in this book were place-based, symbolic and
material moments of struggle between centralized and localized sites and ofﬁces of resource
governing and control. Following the practices of the House of Stuart that preceded them in
rule after the Restoration (see below), the Hanoverian kings –via key Whigs of the time –
reinvigorated the forest bureaucracy as a local institution of forest rules enforcement,
despite the contradictions between forest and statute laws and those between longstanding
common rights and newly imposed private property claims. ‘Blacking arose in response to a
reactivation of a relaxed forest authority’, Thompson writes (1975, 38), but when the Hano-
verian Kings and the Whigs of the times decided to take back the forest, they named their
Black Act after the disguises used by the local competition: gentry and their local allies.
Forest conﬂicts here were peppered with the frequent illegal actions of the keepers of the
law, including forest ofﬁcers, judges, lawyers, gamekeepers and sinecurists (e.g. Thompson
1975, 38), and the courts were unable or unwilling to enforce the laws when Royal prero-
gative was challenged (34–35). Indeed, an entire chapter, ‘The politics of the Black Act’,is
devoted to the ways that certain well-positioned or well-placed actors in and around the
national government used the Black Act and its less bloody precedents to acquire proper-
ties, to change the law, and to take advantage of the political economic uncertainties of the
times by using what was essentially a property law to eliminate (literally) their enemies
(190–218). Similar episodes and conspiracies have generated contemporary analyses of
‘shadow states’(e.g. Reno 1995;Harriss-White 2003; Cribb 2011), ‘the politics of the
belly’(Bayart 1989) or even ‘dispossession by “extra-economic”means’(Glassman
2006), not to mention the repertoires of violent and illegal repression deployed in resource
struggles the world over.
Thompson’s empirical examination of struggles over forest-based enclosures focuses
on three broad cases. The ﬁrst case, in Windsor (yes that Windsor), has the most extensive
forest and the most extant evidence, and echoes loudest in the present. There, one set of
contenders was constituted by the Royals and their entourages, allied with the local
forest bureaucracies of gamekeepers and wood-wards who managed royal claims to
forest timbers for ships and the deer reserved for the pleasure of the king. It is worth
noting that ship-worthy timbers were among the ‘strategic resources’of the eighteenth
This list of references on violent resource control and conﬂict could be a long one, but for a start, see:
Hecht and Cockburn (1989); Peluso (1992); Neumann (1999); Peluso and Watts (2001); McElwee
(2004); Bobrow-Strain (2007); and LeBillon (2014).
The Journal of Peasant Studies 313
century, just as oil, cobalt, uranium and other substances fueling war, trade and society are
today. Hence the claims of the ruling royal house and the ‘need’for legal ‘protections’of
the material resources parallel similar security claims heard in the halls and chambers where
contemporary governments make resource acquisition strategies. Then as now, there was
inﬁghting and competition among allied actors. Forest ofﬁcials, for example, formed a dis-
tinct interest group according to Thompson; he makes it clear that they were not only ‘the
king’smen’(Thompson 1975, 96). A second set of powerful competitors were landed
gentry who owned extensive manors and were busy converting forests to lawned estates
with decorative fruit trees and private chases, transformations that excluded tenants and cot-
tagers who had previously held customary and common rights. The expansion of these
gated estates was not amenable to commoners’cow or sheep grazing activities, their pro-
duction of crops such as corn, or even local hunters’traversing the space in pursuit of
small game. Further complicating matters, gentry and the royals had to contend with a
new class of wealthy folks made rich by clever investments in trade and exploration
by the provision of expensive services –merchants, lawyers and some military men.
These competitors were buying their ways into the countryside, often through purchasing
‘ofﬁces’therein. Thompson discusses the many variations on conﬂict and cooperation
across this general triad of ruling class contenders whose roles, power and controls over
land and resources were changing. In short, they were ﬁghting against each other and
against the commoners and other country people who had long depended on the forest’s
resources to survive. Indeed, Thompson shows that those who resisted most publicly –
those who disguised themselves by blacking their faces and who secretly posted public
statements about deplored injustices –were more often gentry and those just ‘below’
them in class hierarchies of the times (e.g. substantial farmers, yeoman, craftsman, trades-
man, innkeepers and the like), and not the rural poor. He also asserts that the lines between
these classes were not clear but blurred through temporarily convenient alliances between
otherwise strange bedfellows, which presents still-relevant insights and questions for ana-
lyses of rural class differentiation.
The second case Thompson examines is in Hampshire, a region with patches of forest
across a more extensive terrain dominated by Episcopal Church and college lands (Peluso
and Vandergeest 2001). Whereas Windsor had been a largely contiguous ‘political forest’
(Peluso and Vandergeest 2001), dotted by patches of settlement (a town, two villages and
numerous hamlets, and cottagers lived within the bounds of Windsor Forest), Hampshire
was anything but a contiguous tract of forest cover. In Hampshire, moreover, Royal
claims were more laxly enforced or revived after the Reformation and almost half the
lands were in private hands (119). The stories from Hampshire are of resurging land con-
trols by holders of feudal-era religious properties, including ofﬁcers of the Church, and in
the occasional forest track, and of course those who opposed their resurgence, from which
they stood to lose their access to these lands. The claims of former serfs, tenants, com-
moners and hunters dominate these chapters, while the Royal claims and presence are
more like soft but menacing music in the background. In Hampshire we are treated to a
very short story about ‘King John’–one of several alleged ‘Kings of the Blacks’. This
assumed rufﬁan (or ‘terrorist’, choose your term) was associated with several gruesome
incidents, but when so accused by a beleaguered woman, he pulled off one of his black
leather gloves to reveal a smooth white hand: demonstrating authoritatively that he was a
‘gentleman’. Although an unapologetic Black, King John was never captured or even
This was the age of mercantile trading companies such as the East India Company.
314 Nancy Lee Peluso
identiﬁed after his short ‘reign’(as far as Thompson could ﬁnd in the archives), but he
stands as an important and symbolic character in the story and in the reportage of the times.
In Windsor, much more ado was made about the deer than about the timbers important
in Hampshire. In both, the forms of theft of rural resources from the many, and their redis-
tribution to the few, involved negations of the complicated use and common rights prevail-
ing in earlier times. In Windsor what predominated were not only the building and
expansion of deer parks for the king and his court favorites, but also the gentry’s construc-
tion of their own private deer parks, the enlargement of ﬁsh ponds, and the criminalization
of wood cutting without a license, even on one’s own land. Perquisites (or ‘perks’) associ-
ated with the ofﬁces in the forest bureaucracies were also expanded, bestowing fee-collec-
tion rights upon the gamekeepers, under-keepers, constables and ofﬁcers of the forest and
statute courts, all of whom managed physical access to the resources in one way or another.
Huge jolts of cash thus fattened the purses of rangers, overseers, gamekeepers and under-
keepers who, before these ofﬁces were coveted by the already rich or up-and-coming, lived
on rather paltry salaries. These perks were much like the stock options and other ﬁnancial
beneﬁts reserved by and for the OGs
of Silicon Valley tech ﬁrms in the state of Califor-
nia’s own late-capitalist era. Tellingly, the 1720s were the years when ‘the comparison of
statesmanship and criminality became common coinage’(216–27), particularly among con-
temporary satirical writers –authors of, for example, The beggar’s opera and Gulliver’s
travels –who wrote in satire what the muzzled press was largely unable to do, even as
men of the highest ofﬁces (except Walpole) were impeached for corruption (217). As
lands in Hampshire were enclosed and privatized, commoners rapidly lost their customary
rights of access to the resources necessary to their subsistence: the rights to cutting turfs (for
fuel) in peat lands, collecting or cutting and selling wood, ﬁshing in streams, hunting small
game and birds, and grazing the occasional cow, sheep, or work animals on common pas-
tures. Tenants or freehold farmers lost their access to open ﬁelds to which they formerly had
common rights. Yet it was they who suffered the most dire consequences of the Black Act,
especially in the years after its initial passing.
Richmond Park and Enﬁeld Chase could together constitute a third case example in
which the initial contexts and the nature of subsequent developments differ from those
of Windsor and Hampshire. In part this is because they are so close to London –easily
accessed by horse or on foot. It is here, however, that Thompson recounts the machinations
of some of the biggest players of all, who were very active in the years immediately follow-
ing the passing of the Black Act. These players included Alexander Walpole, the key
advisor to King George I who in 1725 acquired the Rangership of Richmond Park (it is
his picture that graces the cover of the paperback version of Whigs and hunters). Thompson
says he included this short chapter in the book because it is in Richmond and Enﬁeld that
Walpole and several other prominent and powerful men realized their own private claims to
the parks, wastes and chases, over the protestations of customary claimants from four sur-
rounding parishes to the area’s peat turfs and ﬁrewood (188). For Walpole, the Ranger’s
post was not only a lucrative inheritance for his son, but a perch from which Walpole vig-
orously repressed the poor who depended on the park and chase lands for materials to heat
their homes and cook their food. Eventually he went even further, enclosing the Crown’s
land and holding it as a private estate. Richmond and Enﬁeld are therefore not signiﬁcant
as prototypes of urban forests and parks, but rather as ﬁgurative ponds where the very big
ﬁsh came to eat up the small fry –and gobbled up much of the other food. These particular
‘Original gangster’is a common street term referring to a founding member of a street gang.
The Journal of Peasant Studies 315
‘local’contests were important as comparisons to those in the parishes in Windsor and
Hampshire because, as Thompson pointed out,
At the level of affrays between poachers and keepers there was some equality in the contest.
But at the point where the petty seriously inconvenienced the great, then the entire apparatus
of power and law could be brought to the side of the latter. (188)
Although Whigs and hunters predates the rise of political ecology as a ﬁeld, it is in
many ways an exemplary model of it. Thompson effectively presents a political ecology
of the transformations unfolding in eighteenth-century British forests, marshalling strong
evidence that conﬂict was both on the rise and becoming more complicated. Conﬂicts
are documented between and within classes and in both rural and soon-to-be urban
forests such as Richmond and Enﬁeld (sites now largely swallowed up by the city of
London). Again, it is important to stress that the Blacks turned out only rarely to be
from the lowest classes of commoners; rather, as Thompson says, ‘The heart of Blacking
lay in the middling orders of the forest: a few gentry sympathizers, more substantial
farmers, more again of yeomen and tradesmen or craftsmen, and a few of the poorer fores-
ters’(94). Their ‘antagonists’were ‘the forest bureaucracy and their allies’, who he shows
to be ‘men of private substance’(94) who also held appointments as gamekeepers and other
ofﬁcials. Among these, not surprisingly, Thompson uncovers much internal competition.
For example, some gamekeepers held their positions by means of ‘inheritance’, forming
a kind of ‘caste’, in Thompson’s terms (95). Some gamekeeper families were ‘rising to
the status of gentry and landholders in their own right’(96), through which we see realign-
ing class positions and sites of control over the resources of the forest within the formalized
The spoils system of these years may have been awarding not only the titular posts of rangers
and keepers to noblemen and generals, but also the posts of under-keeper (several of which
were becoming almost hereditary) to gentlemen, professional men, and the sons of forest ofﬁ-
cers who had climbed to that status. The actual work was performed by servants. (97)
This amounted to a privatization not only of the rights and the lands, but also of the
ofﬁces themselves. Moreover, the ranks of the urban upper classes were expanding with
the newly monied and propertied who were elbowing in, some enjoying their recent enrich-
ment by buying licenses from the Court at Eyre ‘to hunt all game except deer within the
forest’(98). Not surprisingly, it was more than irksome to the country people, not to
mention life-threatening, that:
merchants, lawyers, army ofﬁcers [from London] …could bring down to the country fashion-
able sporting parties at weekends, when the local farmers and gentry were being presented in
the forest courts for taking game on their own lands. (98, my emphasis).
It was precisely these sorts of relationships and practices that were imbricated with the law,
and that constituted, as Thompson stressed, part and parcel of production relations: the law
could not be separated from practice through an analytic of ‘superstructure’.
The forest conﬂicts that Thompson brings to life reverberate in contemporary environ-
mental politics’frequent debates over alleged ‘crises’of ‘over-population’,‘ecological col-
lapse’and ‘resource curses’, all predicted to generate civil and other kinds of wars over
resources. The conﬂict between recreation and subsistence hunters just discussed resonates
with the injustices experienced and expressed by forest- and savanna-based peoples who are
316 Nancy Lee Peluso
today forbidden to hunt small game, while safari hunters colonial and contemporary are
allowed to take (or ‘cull’) big game from their customary territories. Thompson located
these same kinds of crisis in chronic conﬂict, in this memorable paragraph:
Farmers and forest ofﬁcers had rubbed along together, in a state of running conﬂict, for many
decades and they were to continue to do so for many more. What appears as crisis …was in the
broadest sense political …the ‘crisis’, while arising from forest conditions, was accentuated by
political intrusions from outside. What was at issue was not land use but who used the available
land: that is power and property-right …. The forest ofﬁcialdom, by enlarging and reviving
feudal claims [of the royalty] …to forest land use –essentially claims for the priority of the
deer’s economy over that of the inhabitants –were using the deer as a screen behind which
to advance their own interests. (99)
‘Power and property right’are tied to land use in a later passage, however, when
Thompson makes the case that land use also mattered, as it was entangled with property
rights and power:
In Winkﬁeld …the lords of the manor were making new ﬁsh-ponds, perhaps in old quarries
and peat cuttings [the customary domains of the middle and poorer forest denizens]; and
perhaps these –or the ostentatious landscaped parks which were becoming the rage among
the gentry –were inundating common land and obliterating valuable common-right assets.
In reﬂecting further on the contemporary resonances of Whigs and hunters, one of the
things that stands out most is the politics of the forest itself; in particular, how Thompson
identiﬁes these forests as political entities not just ‘wild natures’or biological tracts of
woody species (28–29). Rather, ‘a forest has its own complex economy; and where
forest settlements had become numerous, the competing claims of red and fallow deer,
lesser game, hogs, cattle, sheep, and human demands for timber, ﬁring and transport,
were subject to intricate regulation’(28–29). In short, it was a complex society embedded
within and constitutive of a larger complex society.
Thompson was clear that the creation of deer parks was not for the sake of the deer but
to set aside a species of game animals for the Royals and their entourages to chase –and kill.
Nevertheless, the ‘nature’of that resource, the deer, required its needs attended to, which
meant caring for extensive habitats. The deer needed foraging areas but did not have
good sharing skills. Red deer especially –the species preferred by the king –did not
take well to the presence of certain other animals, including sheep and horses owned by
gentry and some of the more substantial yeoman farmers (30). For everyone who grew
crops, the deer were a nuisance: leaping over hedges and high fences and devastating
farmers’harvests, for which little if any compensation was offered. Further, the creation
of deer parks created another level of competition between old-school gentry and newco-
mers buying land and titles (to lands and lordships) in the countryside. It is not lost on pol-
itical ecologists that the surpluses invested in the British countryside for private use and
gain came from capitalist speculation, trade and violent extraction in other parts of the
world, some already colonized, others just under attack.
Forest residents felt some of the restrictions on access to land and other commonly held
resources more harshly than others. There were hunting curfews, restricted days to hunt,
and restrictions on dogs, including ‘clawing requirements’–according to which three of
a hunting dog’s paws were to be chopped off (!) if the animal were kept to join ‘the
poor man’s hunt’(31). Forest dwellers were not supposed to own bows, engines, guns,
The Journal of Peasant Studies 317
nets or snares. No woodcutting without a license was allowed, even on private land. No
fences too high for deer to leap over (or any that were topped with sharpened pales)
could be built to keep deer from foraging where they wished –even if that meant a
farmer would lose a year’s crop (42). The ‘chases’–the deer’s constructed habitats –
were maintained year round, and the gamekeepers kept better track of the deer population
than the parish kept track of the humans (55).
Some inﬂuential legal models were established; both forest law and civil law were
locally enforced, but forest bureaucrats, rangers and keepers reported to the staff of the
royal house in power at the time. One of the things that struck me most when I ﬁrst read
Thompson in the late 1980s was that equivalent laws to those in eighteenth-century
England had been established and enforced in the mid- to late-nineteenth-century forests
of colonial Java (Peluso 1992), colonial Burma (Bryant 1996), colonial Tanzania
(Neumann 1999) and colonial India (Guha 1990; Saberwal 1999; Sivaramakrishnan
1999). Further, in all these cases, foresters carried over the colonial-era forest laws to
their respective post-colonial national contexts.
Another striking feature of Thompson’s discussion is how he located historical actors
and their strategies in the contentious politics of their times –including the politics of
class formation –and in historical trajectories repeatedly marked with political and agrarian
violence. The Black Act is an instance of formalized state violence against the king’s own
subjects, imposed in the reign of the ﬁrst Hanoverian King, George I. References to vio-
lence and transformation throughout the book invoke Oliver Cromwell’s‘Commonwealth’,
the ‘Glorious Revolution’, and the ‘Restoration’of the Stuart Kings. It was a newly restored
Stuart –Charles II –who expelled some of the forest farmers installed during Cromwell’s
era, and who also restocked and extended parks before the Hanoverian Kings and their
Whig allies revived the forest law even more enthusiastically (38–40).
If there is a critique
to be made of the way in which Thompson tells this story, it is his assumption that readers
will understand the brieﬂy made references and innuendos to these larger political econ-
omic moments and actors in English history. While we might mark Whigs and hunters
as an example of studying up –remembering his article coining the memorable term
‘history from below’(Thompson 1966; see also 1975, 16) –reviewers of such a manuscript
today would surely insist upon footnotes to these references, if not in-text explanations.
For example, Thompson alludes to but provides no explanations of how to locate key
players such as the aforementioned King Charles II, his son James II (after whom the notor-
ious ‘Jacobites’were named) or Queen Anne (the last monarch in the Stuart line), or how
and why the much-derided Hanoverian Kings came to take the throne (by agreement with
the Stuarts). Thompson never makes it clear that the allegedly bloodless ‘Glorious Revolu-
tion’was a move to maintain a Protestant monarch on the throne –or that the Protestant
monarch (William of Orange) was the brother-in-law via his wife Mary of the late (Catho-
lic) Queen Anne and James (also Catholic: see comment on Jacobites, above). These were
quite the family feuds. Even more importantly, he does not directly explain that both the
Stuarts and the Hanovers needed to restore their claims to rule because Cromwell’s army
had disposed of the monarchy during the Commonwealth period, nor that upon their
return they immediately re-claimed (or ‘grabbed’, one could say) the rural resources
described in the book. The master of manipulation, Alexander Walpole, who was later
Oddly, however, the London Plague of 1665–1666, from which people living in the city ﬂed, is not
mentioned as a source of migrants to forest areas –or vagrants as they might have been called then,
even though the plague clearly forced people to leave.
318 Nancy Lee Peluso
dubbed the ‘ﬁrst Prime Minister’of England, is also an actor without grounding for the
uninitiated, at least until the chapter on the Black Act’s politics near the end of the book.
Perhaps none of these quibbles would matter if Thompson had not made comments
about the global relevance of the events on ‘this small island off the coast of Europe’
(1975, 258). For a global audience, a better playbook to the political drama would have
Nevertheless, for many reasons, and with a few modest reservations, I continue to
assign this unique book, knowing that I will have to endure student groans about the
detail on the one hand and the scarcity of political context on the other. Most eventually
realize that they are reading about the putative ancestors of the people they study and advo-
cate for today. Thompson demonstrates the differential legal treatments for customary clai-
mants who use forest and heath resources for subsistence or commercial ends (e.g. the peat
turfs used for heating and sale), another set of practices and conceptualizations that echoes
forward to contemporary conﬂicts over indigenous peoples’rights to resources that they
wish to sell. He shows the classed effects of the criminal prosecution of woodcutting and
hunting –hanging or ‘transportation’for some (the poor), and the payment of relatively
insigniﬁcant ﬁnes by others (the rich). And in foreshadowing critical conservation narra-
tives of the late twentieth century, he states unequivocally that deer enjoyed such elevated
status in the law and agrarian practice that their lives were valued more than farmers’whose
crops the deer were eating on a regular basis. In this, he further develops a theme that he
brought to the world’s attention in other works: how changing political economies could
generate claims to moral economy (Thompson 1963,1971,1993).
Thompson was thus a scholar of historical agrarian change who questioned his research
subjects as best he could, as he encountered them in local and national archives. He wrote
about their lives to make their travails with law and social transformation visible to current
and future students of commons and enclosures, and the agrarian-environmental politics
that comprise them. In the book, struggles between ‘local’and ‘central’government insti-
tutions and actors took speciﬁc forms, and in its many pages of glorious detail, we see how
England’s most powerful and public ﬁgures did not enact these conﬂicts in the courts or
major cities alone. The detail elegantly demonstrates the complexity and mobilities of
players, positions and alliances, even if, in the end, it was largely the powerful forces con-
nected to the ‘center’that occupied and controlled the countryside’s land and what was left
of the forest.
The struggles over England’s fading forests and of their inhabitants, Thompson showed,
were relevant to, grounded in and symbolic of other social dynamics within the changing
political economic contexts of their times. They would be worth reading about in a
future that constructed contexts both familiar and foreign to this dawning capitalist
world; events that would retain their relevance, even as ‘the last imperial illusions of twen-
tieth century fade[d]’(259). Thompson saw his subjects as thinking, complex people, ‘not
as stupid as some structural philosophers suppose[d] them to be’(262) –a nearly ﬁnal
comment in a position statement that he knew would generate a debate on the rule of
law. Given the running commentaries and dry observations Thompson provides on this
hodge-podge of people and their foibles, it is ﬁtting that he ended his famous essay with
a pun about his beleaguered but shrewd historical subjects, asserting: ‘They will not be
mystiﬁed by the ﬁrst man who puts on a wig’(262).
Read this book: I recommend it for political ecologists, agrarian historians, critical and
mainstream conservation scholars, scholar-activists working on conﬂictual resource man-
agement, and ethnographers of the effects of large- and small-scale land acquisitions,
past or present. At the very least, Thompson helps us realize that today’s accounts of
The Journal of Peasant Studies 319
land grabbing, enclosure, and encroaching capitalist and state controls on land and
resources are stories foretold –if different in their details –as are myriad subversive efforts.
I am grateful to Tony Weis for his engaged editorial comments on this review, which improved and
tightened it even as it expanded, to Annie Shattuck for suggestions from an early read, to Scott
Prudham for an interjection of inspiration around the academic debates discussed as part of this
review, to Jeffrey Paige who ﬁrst suggested I read this book long ago, and to my graduate students
in political ecology who often made me justify assigning it –but who, upon reading all or part of
it, admitted its relevance to contemporary agrarian-environmental politics.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
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Nancy Lee Peluso is Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy and professor in the
division of Society and Environment, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Manage-
ment, University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Rich forests, poor people: resource
control and resistance in Java (University of California Press, 1992) and co-editor of New frontiers
of land control (Routledge, 2012); Taking Southeast Asia to market: commodities, people and nature
in a neoliberal age (Cornell University Press, 2008); Violent environments (Cornell University Press,
2001); and Borneo in transition: people, forests, conservation, and development (Oxford University
Press, 1996 and 2006). She teaches and conducts research in political ecology, focusing on land and
forest politics in Indonesia, and has carried out research in rural Yogyakarta, Central Java, East Java,
East Kalimantan and West Kalimantan. Her current research focuses on labor migration, property
relations, and land transformation in small-scale mining and upland forest areas of Indonesia.
The Journal of Peasant Studies 321