The reactivation of traditional protest repertoires in land use conflicts

A pre-modern repertoire of collective action associated with anti-enclosure struggles has been reactivated by contemporary social movements engaged in urban property conflicts.  Traditional rituals of public shaming and folk justice that once upheld a moral economy of common property rights have become a manifestation of public concern over the deregulation of development planning. In this post I want to understand why these traditional protest methods now appear so appropriate to land use conflicts in Britain.

Among the folk repertoires reactivated in contemporary land use disputes is the ritual of beating the bounds, a customary perambulation intended to instil collective identity, which has re-emerged in England as a popular form of protest among local communities opposing the loss of common land and rights of way. Promoted by the Open Spaces Society, itself an organisation founded in opposition to the loss of common property rights, what was an annual religious ceremony has become a means of generating support for landscapes threatened by unwanted property development plans.

Beating the Bounds in 2017 in Liverpool, organised by the Save Allerton Priory Campaign 

In southern Scotland, the traditional Common Ridings that celebrate the defence of common land rights have acquired renewed significance as local communities reclaim the collective ownership of land enclosed and privatised by the aristocracy in the seventeenth century. Campaigners against urban sprawl in southern England have abandoned the protest march to revive the traditional folk justice parade of the charivari or skimmity and challenge the land use decisions of planners and developers through rituals of public shaming. What makes these forms of collective action relevant? And what connection is there between opposition to unwanted development and a history of common property rights?

Traditional repertoires of protest were rooted in an economy of common property rights that enabled the poorest households in rural settlements and some urban centres to sustain a non-waged economy that reduced dependence on paid employment. Many of these customary property rights depended on the collective memory of a community and on the continual renewal of oral traditions. The annual perambulation of the bounds of the parish, known as beating the bounds, served both as a mnemonic device to ensure those rights were remembered, and as the means by which they could be defended. Participants in the procession ritually beat at markers, invoking sound, sight, and touch to ensure the memory of the line of boundary was passed on through the generations. The bounds were beaten to the accompaniment of music, song, and chants, with food and drink served at memorable points along the route, concluding with feasting to lubricate the mnemonic systems.

 The most famous of folk justice protests was the charivari as it was known in medieval France, “riding skimmington” or “riding the stang,” as it was called in England and Scotland, or more generally a “riding”. A charivari or skimmington was a carnival of public shaming intended to maintain the social norms of the moral economy. Its original function was to punish sexual transgressions and the charivari took the form of a rowdy public procession, with effigies mounted on horseback or on a pole carried on the shoulders of the crowd, to the accompaniment of rough music, a cacophony from the beating of pots and pans and the raucous playing of instruments.

The skimmington or charivari was an instrument of community self-governance deployed to discourage breaches of custom that also could be quickly rallied to demolish the fences, walls and hedges of the enclosures that began to privatise common land in the late medieval period One of the purposes of the beating the bounds procession was to guard against enclosure of common land and to challenge any unauthorised change in the customary boundaries. Processioners might carry tools to demolish any private enclosure on common land and break down walls or fences that obstructed access. The beating of the bounds could, and occasionally did, erupt into direct action when common rights were threatened.

In 2017 in Liverpool, the Save Allerton Priory Campaign used the beating the bounds tradition to raise awareness and appreciation of the benefits of a green wedge, or corridor of open land leading from the city to the countryside, that was protected by local planning policy but subject to hostile planning applications by major property companies. Around 40 people took part in beating the bounds of Allerton Priory Park and the open land of the green corridor, drumming with sticks of willow at the corner stones, stone pillars, and stone walls around the perimeter.“I made up a chant,” said the organiser. “We sang it to the tune of one of the Beatles songs, just to imprint it in the mind where the boundaries were of the green wedge, and then refreshments at the end in the church hall: lots of tea and cake.”

Traditional beating the bounds processions were often recorded in a formal written account of the perambulation, describing the linear route of the parish boundary without reference to maps but noting prominent features in the landscape. In Brighton in 2018 the Save Whitehawk Hill campaign used a beating the bounds procession to protest against plans to build apartment blocks on common land. There is a contemporary memorial of the boundary walk in Beating the Bounds at Whitehawk Hill: a photo essay

Faced with the unwelcome prospect of 10,000 homes built on fields adjacent to a conservation area, amenity groups in the village of Ifield in Sussex organised a beating the bounds procession in 2023 as a means of galvanising opposition. In reclaiming and rediscovering an ancient boundary, the Ifield amenity groups found an effective means of demonstrating to their constituency the threat presented by the planned development. 

“It is only when you physically walk the footpaths and bridleways that weave through the landscape that you appreciate the scale of what is being proposed,” said a member of the Ifield Village Association. “You realize that you’ve walked for an hour and you’re walking through what will become housing. And it’s an important thing, seeing what it’s like on the ground.  You’re going through countryside, some of it is hedgerow, some of it is open field, past woodland with little streams, and views across the vale to the sandstone rise in the Central Weald, and then you’re saying, well, this is all going to be rooftops.” 

Beating the bounds for the Save West of Ifield Campaign

Save The Area North of Dorchester (STAND) staged a Skimmity Ride through the streets of Dorchester in April 2022 as part of their campaign against plans to build over 4,000 new houses and a new highway in an area of the Dorset countryside known globally as ‘Hardy Country,’ for its association with the novelist Thomas Hardy. Led by a Town Cryer, followed by a drummer, and the STAND banner, a procession paraded effigies labelled ‘Developers’ and ‘Planners,’ back-to-back on a donkey, through the town to the accompaniment of rough music from the ringing of bells, the hammering of pots and pans and a cacophony of human howls of derision.

A Skimmity Ride through Dorchester organised by STAND. Photo by Alastair Nisbet

The carnival elements of the Skimmity Ride were vital to mobilising support for the aims of the STAND campaign but also signalled the campaign group’s frustration with the formal, authorised modes of engagement in land use planning policy. STAND, who oppose the development on environmental grounds and are campaigning for more social rented and low-cost homes, feel the legitimate planning concerns they raise are given little weight by the local authority. A STAND campaigner explained: 

“Back in the day, how could people protest? How could they express their opinions? They didn’t have the vote, and if they tried something, they were going to be done in by the Riot Act and Peterloo and all the rest of it. Their hands were tied. And we now have the vote, and we’re invited to consult, but we know that, by and large, what we say is disregarded if it doesn’t suit the whims and fancies of officers and leaders. And so, we’re just as frustrated today, and I think that was what triggered the Skimmity Ride as a form of demonstration.” 

Folk routines of public shaming like the Skimmity Ride emerged to uphold and protect a moral economy of common property rights that had a strong ethical code governing land use. Social movement theorist, Donatella della Porta (2017: 253) maintains that these pre-modern repertoires have been reactivated “as powerful instruments to restore a broken moral order.” Contemporary land use planning policy has its own moral economy and ethical code. The public interest it upholds rests on a shared understanding of the need to restrict private property rights. In reactivating folk repertoires of protest, amenity groups uphold a moral order in which property developers have public responsibilities, their rights are constrained by obligations and their land has other – and more than human ­– beneficiaries.

Donatella della Porta (2017) Afterwords: Old and New Repertoires of Contention. In: Favretto, I. & Itçaina, X. (eds.) Protest, Popular Culture and Tradition in Modern and Contemporary Western Europe. London, Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 249-260

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