In the summer of 2011 several English cities witnessed explosions of very public violence. Rioters, for the most part young men, smashed windows, looted shops, set fires and threw stones at the ranks of armoured police who descended on them. Afterwards, most people responded in one of two ways. Right-wing politicians and commentators lined up behind David Cameron to condemn ‘mindless violence and thuggery’. On the left, the story was about inequality, unemployment and bad policing. With a few honourable exceptions, nobody asked the rioters.
People who do violent things usually have some sense of why they do them. We might not like their reasoning, but we can’t properly understand violence without it. Sticking with the riots as an example, the left-wing narrative clearly has a lot to be said for it, with interpretations backed up by solid data on urban deprivation. But it lacks the voice of the Londoner in his mid-20s who said, ‘When no one cares about you you’re gonna eventually make them care, you’re gonna cause a disturbance.’ For him rioting wasn’t an instinctive reaction to big structural forces – it was strategic, a sensible thing to do under the circumstances.
If the violence you want to understand happened a long time ago and all the participants are dead, you can only chase the faded echoes. Most records of past violence are legal, so the voices of victims and witnesses predominate. Usually their testimonies were written down by a clerk who shaped them into the right kind of language for a court case, layering testimonies with the voice of the law to create the stylised, repetitive texts I read in the archives.
On the 28th of May 1740, John Bennet was on his way home from the ‘Race ground’ in Norwich when Ben Kett, a shoemaker, attacked him from behind. Before Bennet could react, Kett had ‘struck up his Heels’ and ‘shuft him into a Thick Hedge’. Then, once he’d extricated himself, Bennet was hit in the face, which ‘cutt his Eye brow very deep & also his Cheek & made him bleed very much’. For the coup de grace, Kett was then joined by another man and the two of them beat Bennet with sticks, giving him a gash in the head ‘two Inches long & very deep’. Unconscious, Bennet was only rescued by the appearance of a stranger passing by.
What was this about? Between them, the victim and the court clerk crafted a testimony which gives precise details about the nature and extent of the violence (the trip, the shove, the beating, the dimensions of Bennet’s head wound) but no information at all about why it took place. I could speculate: did Bennet and Kett have a dispute at the ‘Race ground’? Was it about gambling? Had one of them cheated the other? Bennet wanted to present his attackers in the worst possible light, so emphasised the horror and the harm. This makes sense – horror and harm are why violence matters. But without an explanation, how can you hope to stop it happening again? Like the 2011 rioters, Ben Kett had his reasons; he wasn’t motiveless or mindless. Without his voice, I’m left flailing in the dark.
Jonah Miller is a PhD student in the History department at King’s College London. His research examines topics of violence and masculinity in early modern England.