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Kevin Binfield, ed. Writings of the Luddites. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2004. ISBN: 0-8018-7612-5. Price: US$49.95.

  • Kyle Grimes

…plus d’informations

  • Kyle Grimes
    University of Alabama at Birmingham

Corps de l’article

Kevin Binfield's wonderfully edited collection of Luddite writings is a surprising book. Before opening the volume, I had assumed—like most literary and historical scholars I suspect—that Luddism was not an especially significant source of writing at all, that the Luddites expressed their discontents through direct, sometimes violent action rather than through language, written or otherwise. To some degree, this view is accurate. Insofar as writing published to a general reading audience is concerned (and excepting such tangential anomalies as Byron's "Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill"), the Luddite contributions tended to take the form of public proclamations or open letters "To the Gentlemen Hosiers" or "To the Framework Knitters" that appeared in organs like the Nottingham Review. But beneath this slender public surface lie a number of unpublished works—anonymous or eponymous petitions and threats to notorious employers and government officials, for example, or songs and ballads and letters expressive of the weavers' plight. In reading through such materials one begins to realize a far richer and more sophisticated network of laborers than the current image of Luddites as quaint technophobes will allow.

Indeed, one of the chief values of Binfield's book is its definitive repudiation of a common misperception about the Luddites, one that survives in the contemporary use of the term in reference to persons skeptical of computer technology: that the Luddites were chiefly motivated by their sense that technological advances in the weaving industry threatened to destroy their dispersed network of small looms housed in individual cottages. But the Luddites were not simplistic technophobes who lashed out against the instruments of modern manufacture that threatened their more traditional livelihood. While some Luddite protests may have taken the form of attacks on machinery, the real issue often had to do with the declining quality of manufactured goods which they felt made the weaving industry itself vulnerable to "the Hands of Foreign Artisans" (109) and, given the payment practices for individual weavers, caused serious abatement of wages. Further, the Luddites viewed the actions of the mill owners as operating directly counter to custom, law, and such founding documents of the trade as the 1663 Charter of the Company of Framework Knitters. Luddite protests therefore were not the acts of persons who were economically disenfranchised by technological and economic advances which they could not fully understand and to which they were slow to adapt. To the contrary, Luddite acts of protest found meaning in a discourse produced by knowledgeable agents who saw their trade endangered by a greedy and bungling management that was flooding the market with materials of substandard quality. In an environment of severe restrictions on free speech and even more severe penalties for anything resembling an organized collective labor movement, frame-breaking was about the only way the Luddites could make their point, but that point was not really about the frames themselves. Instead, the idea was to borrow the "constitutional idiom" (to use James Epstein's phrase) typical of the popular political radicalism of the early Regency and adapt that discursive formation to the specific economic circumstances and legal status of the handloom weavers.

The emphasis on this eclectic adaptation of legal, constitutional, and even riotous or revolutionary discourses to the immediate local conditions has a good deal to do with the organization of the book itself. Binfield's collection consists of a Foreword by Adrian Randall, a lengthy Introduction—which, in itself, is a significant contribution to the historical scholarship and interpretation of the Luddites—and then three geographically defined central sections offering documents respectively from the Midlands (Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire), from the Northwest (Manchester and its environs), and Yorkshire (chiefly the West Riding). Each item, from the more substantial public declarations and petitions to the seemingly unassuming private letter, is prefaced by a commentary which frequently displays Binfield's detailed and meticulous knowledge of the historical milieu. This distinction into geographical regions is more than a mere organizational convenience; rather, it constitutes one of the defining characteristics of Luddite writing itself. As Binfield puts the case: "Luddite writing is best considered not as a totality but rather as a set of discourses generated under unique local circumstances" (17). The result is one of the most surprising aspects of the book. Binfield succeeds in demonstrating through a formally diverse collection of primary documents how a distinctive "genre" of public discourse emerges in response to the idiosyncrasies of very local practice, particularly after the movement is consolidated into a unity under the name of "Ned Ludd."

The book is not without its methodological difficulties however. One of these, inherent in the discussion of genre formation above, is the unavoidable problem of defining Luddite writing in the first place—after all, not all Luddite documents specifically refer to the eponymous leader of the movement, and not all documents that do refer to Ludd do so for the purpose of advancing some recognizably Luddite cause. What is more, Luddite writing emerges during a period when expressions of economic and political "disaffection" were common both in the metropolis and in the counties. Under these circumstances, how does a scholar define the limits of the subject? Binfield is keenly aware of this methodological/generic problem. He resolves it by identifying certain "aims and methods" which are associated with the Luddites and then choosing "not to include documents that do not fall under one of those criteria" (xxv). The inductive logic here risks a certain circularity—the "aims and methods" are derived from the documents and then taken as defining characteristics, but this only works if one has already defined a set of documents from which to derive the "aims and methods." There is likely no solution to this dilemma, and Binfield's selection certainly does testify to a local coherence among the three geographical areas here represented. Nonetheless, one wonders how the view of the "Writings of the Luddites" offered here might be different if this initial theoretical formation had itself been differently adjusted.

This is, finally, a minor quibble. Binfield's scholarship is impeccable and his knowledge of local historical detail sometimes astonishing. The documents collected here offer for the first time a view of persons whose lives and whose cause have become practically invisible in the selective misrepresentation that has come down to us in the twenty-first century. In the Preface, Binfield defines his purpose using a phrase from E. P. Thompson—he aims to rescue the Luddites from "the enormous condescension of history" (xix). The book succeeds beautifully in this task. It is a major work of cultural, economic, and historical scholarship that will stand as a model for both rigor and sensitivity in our efforts to understand the under- and misrepresented of the Romantic period.