Early modern government, conscious of its limited powers of repression and of the potential consequences of social and economic change, subscribed to the image of the people as ‘the many-headed monster’, ‘likely to mutiny and rebel on the least occasion’. Many historians, noting the grievances of the victims of change and subscribing to an economically determinist reading of the causes of protest, have shared this belief in the ubiquity of popular disorder. But the reality of protest was, nevertheless, rather different. Awareness of the limited coercive powers at their disposal meant that in their handling of the people and protest early modern governments and their local officers were capable of a more nuanced approach. The theoretical acceptance of a commercial society lagged behind the realities of economic change, and in consequence both Church and government could share popular hostility to the consequences of an increasingly capitalist economy. In turn, popular protest often defied the contemporary stereotype of collective violence unleashed in riot and rebellion. That protesters employed a broader range of tactics and strategies has encouraged more recent studies to emphasise the negotiative politics that lay behind protest and to talk of a popular political culture informing protest. And finally, and paradoxically, in the longer run the restructuring of society that economic change sponsored in this period helps to explain some marked changes in the pattern of collective protest, including the disappearance of large-scale rebellions and (arguably) the eventual ‘pacification’ of much of the countryside.
Early modern governments lacked a substantial bureaucracy, professional police force and standing army. To govern the country, they were therefore forced to rely on the unpaid service of landed and civic elites such as sheriffs and magistrates, and parochial elites of farmers, traders and craftsmen as constables and churchwardens. Where rulers and ruled agreed about the proper priorities of government, this could be a very effective means of maintaining order – the gentry and middling sort lending their authority and power to implementing the orders of royal government. But early modern governments were aware that where class interest cut across consensus then a dependence on propertied elites could itself cause disorder.