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This book has influenced an entire series of books on understanding the evolution of natural resource policy and culture. It is especially important in understanding the development of laws and policy about wildlife. It is, to use a worn-out phrase, a seminal work. This book is not for casual reading at all. In fact it is a difficult and very scholarly treatment of a period in English history that has repercussions into present day policy in the United States.
Dry, academic, convoluted and somewhat dated -- it was written in the 1970s, at one point referring to modern opinion of "the fuzz", i.e. the police (p. 260)-- but still worth reading if you like this sort of thing. My only caveat is that it would have helped if I knew more about English history (particularly the Whigs, Walpole, the 1720s, the South Sea [Economic] Bubble etc.) and/or legal history, as some background in these is assumed.
Having given "Whigs & Hunters" four stars, I should add that it took about 3 months to slog through. In the end, the effort was worth it. Part social history, part legal history, it's a very interesting look at this particular British law -- the Black Act -- including the context in which it was enacted, and the socio-political fallout. Thompson (a self-described Marxist) contends that the Black Act was mostly unwarranted, an over-reaction of the newly wealthy to (what they perceived as) a threat to their authority in the form of encroachments on "their" lands. The Black Act, for example, made it a capitol offense to poach or cut trees on someone else's land (or even to cover one's face with a kerchief, as this was taken as a direct threat of malfeasance against the gentry); in other words, you could be executed for cutting down a tree or wearing a kerchief over your face. In contrast, a wealthy landowner was able to purchase a whole village and force out all residents so that he could make it into a garden or hunting park (as happened in more than one instance), this in a time when families had lived in the same village for generations, farmed the same land, fished the same streams, etc.Read more ›
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The Lawyer replies to the Squires question - "Yes and with great lenity too; for if we had called it a young tree they would have been both hanged." The quotation (which sits at the beginning of this book) is from Henry Fieldings excellent Joseph Andrews. The law under which the two persons might have been strung up for stealing a "young tree" was the infamous Black Act of 1723 which at a single go increased the number of capital crimes by about fifty. This Act and the circumstances in which it arose are the focus of E.P.Thompsons "Whigs and Hunters".
Thompson volunteered an essay for inclusion in the seminal collection on Crime in the Eighteenth century- Albion's Fatal Tree on the Black Act of 1723. After 5 years of research he produced not an essay but instead this extremely fascinating book which covers a number of issues relating to early 18th Century England. Rather than accept the apparently "obvious" reason for the Act which was ostensibly to deal with organised gangs who were committing depredations in the Kings Forests, stealing Deer, timber, turfs and peat Thompson digs deeper. He reconstructs from the available documents of Forest Courts, Assize Courts, private correspondence of those involved a picture of the area in which the disturbances that led to the Acts were greatest. The area in question is situated - roughly - between Windsor and Southampton including the Forest of Windsor and the Forest of Bere.Read more ›
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