Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-sjtt6 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-23T09:02:44.244Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

9 - ‘A Standard which can never fail us’: the Golden Rule and the construction of a public transcript in early modern England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2017

J. C. Davis
University of East Anglia
Alexandra Shepard
Reader in Early Modern History, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow
Amanda J. Flather
Department of History, University of Essex
Andy Wood
Professor of Social History at the Department of History, Durham University
Keith Wrightson
Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History at Yale University
Mark Knights
Professor of History at the University of Warwick
Steve Hindle
W.M Keck Foundation Director of Research, The Huntington Library
Phil Withington
Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield
Get access


Characterised by depth and resourcefulness, a willingness to engage with competing contemporary discursive strategies and an insistence of the specificities of time, place and circumstance, John Walter's archival research has offered a fresh approach to ‘popular’ politics in early modern England. His findings document the crowd's desire to demonstrate order and rationality, their political savviness and their quest for negotiated outcomes. Designed to secure an appropriate response from the authorities, their actions were informed by considerable knowledge of the law and threatened violence only after the exhaustion of other means. Accordingly, their protests commonly mimicked administrative practice, and they took upon themselves the implementation of existing codes of mutual obligation when their governors failed to do so. Underpinning their capacity to act was a sense of mutual obligation as the basis of social cohesion. That sense has been described by the anthropologist James C. Scott, in language adopted by Walter, as the ‘public transcript’.

Where coercive and bureaucratic resources are scarce, Scott argues, rulers must seek some degree of cooperation, participation and collaboration from those over whom they bear rule. To achieve this, their ‘rule ’ may be legitimated and popular collaboration sought through a shared public transcript offering some guarantees of security, protection and even well-being to the ruled. The powerful may also be constrained by reputational needs and their desire to uphold the theatre of power. In turn, this bestows some leverage – the weapons of the weak – upon the subordinate in their negotiation and renegotiation of the realities of power. Their collaboration is essential to governance but it comes at a price. Both Scott and Walter have emphasised ‘the politics of the everyday’ as the crucible in which the nature and terms of the public transcript have to be worked out and renewed. It is in the quotidian processes of renegotiation and adjustment that the codes of mutual obligation are tested and reinforced. Though they can retain their significance in great social crises, they may also be overwhelmed by violence in such exceptional upheavals.

What has not been so systematically explored is the construction and dissemination of the public transcript. Out of what material is it made and how is it brought to pervade popular discourse? For it to fulfil its function, the public transcript has to be widely endorsed, condition everyday behaviour and be accessible – and acceptable – to all sections of the community.

Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats