“They Wandered Out of Their Knowledge….”

Coming to terms with the commons means a willingness to learn a new language and the alien worldview that it makes possible.  That is one of the great lessons that I have gleaned from reading histories of English commons and the enclosure movement. 

I realized this anew upon reading an essay by historian Peter Linebaugh, “Enclosures from the Bottom Up,” in the December 2010 issue of Radical History Review.  (Alas, the essay is locked behind a paywall, but fortunately, a website called “Envisioning a Post-Capitalist Order:  A Collaborative Project” -- which Radical History Review has a hand in – has posted a downloadable pdf version of the essay here.)   

Linebaugh -- the great scholar of the commons and author of The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2006) – has a way of conjuring up entire ways of knowing that have disappeared.  I was struck by two passages describing the folkways of commoners. The first links “body-snatching” with the commons, a conjunction that made me start.  It turns out that, amidst a civil rebellion in Otmoor, near Oxford, England, in the 1830s, a rallying cry of the commoners was “Damn the body snatchers!” 

Linebaugh explains:

It was widely believed that the authorities were complicit in ‘burking,’ the grim practice of kidnapping and suffocating people, especially young people, and selling their bodies to medical schools.  The practice takes its name from an Edinburgh resurrection man, William Burkie, who was hanged in 1829.  In 1831, five hundred medical students in London would have needed three bodies apiece for their anatomical training, about fifteen hundred cadavers a year.  Seven resurrection gangs of body snatchers flourished in London at the time, and one man, John Bishop, sold between five hundred and a thousand over the course of his career.  The poet Thomas Hood expressed popular anxiety,

The body-snatchers they have come

And made a snatch of me.

It’s very hard them kind of men

Won't let a body be.

The founding of the London police in 1831 was resented, Linebaugh explains, because it was seen as an unconstitutional establishment of a standing army.  But it was also resented because people believed that the police were in cahoots with the surgeons of London’s medical colleges in allowing burking to flourish.  The taking of land and the taking of bodies were seen as closely associated.  Only a few months after the Otmoor rebellion, Linebaugh writes, “three burkers were arrested in London for the murder of an Italian boy.  As the horror of the deed rapidly spread, the police were widely believed to be in league with the surgeons of many of London’s distinguished medical colleges.”

Enclosure and burking:  the focus of both may change over time, but there is clearly a need for such terms in our time as well.  The range of modern-day enclosures has been well-documented.  As for burking, the U.S. Government’s “extraordinary renditions” of alleged terrorists and the aggressive data-mining of our personal information by governments and corporations are surely modern-day forms of burking.

Another passage in Linebaugh’s essay jumped out at me because it gives a glimpse into the different worldview of the commons.  He writes:

Commoners had their own language, most evident in the poetry of John Clare (1793-1864), himself a laboring commoner.  A distinct epistemology informed the minds of the commoners working the land…. In Clare’s autobiography, written in the early 1820s, he describes how as a child he walked across Emmonsailes Heath and got lost.  “So I eagerly wanderd on & rambled along the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of a new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one & shining in a different quarter of the sky.”  This points to an epistemology and an orientation dependent on the unenclosed. 

In his book Remains, published in London in 1824, Bloomfield remembers Tom Paine going for a walk with his sister “to Fakenham Wood, in search of nuts; and being by themselves, they wandered out of their knowledge, and knew not the way out again.”  They got lost.  Clare puts more into the phrase than just not knowing how to get back.  The sun was in a different place in the sky, and the wild flowers forgot him.  The loss of the common meant the loss of his whole world.  Since we are on the verge of losing ours (clearly, we have gone out of our knowledge), we might pay those commoners more mind.

The whole of modernity might be captured in that simple phrase, We have wandered out of our knowledge.  We have lost track of the wild flowers, who know us not any more.  We have lost track of the commons.  So it is that history can inform our future.  Read the entire essay here.