The Underclass, Underculture  & History From Below

'The Whole World Needs A Jolt' at SaltSpace gallery, High Street, Glasgow. 12th - 17th April.

Documentation & Writing. 

(scroll further down for writing.) 

From the left, a bubonic plague victim of 1348 and the plague doctors of the 17th century in amongst a sea of dead bodies. The plague doctor was more common on the continent, mostly in Germany, France, and Italy, and supposedly influenced the mask of the Commedia dell'arte stock character, Pantaloon. The other two images on the right depict two common devices of the early modern era - the pillory and the stocks (with pillory). Overwhelmingly used on the lower classes as part of a clamp down on freedom and empowerment, these forms of public shaming were used on anyone from a petty thief to someone speaking out and inciting rioting. These images relate to each other over several centuries, since the Black Death indirectly empowered the lower classes, while the rise of corporal and capital punishment attempted to disempower them.

A wall display of mostly vagrants, thieves, beggars and dissenters who were branded for petty crimes or just being 'free', as a form of surveillance from above. This display is an ongoing project in itself and partly influenced by South African artist, Marlene Dumas. Next to that is a contorted bubonic plague victim. The Black Death is an important turning point in history; creating mass depopulation, and completely upturning society like never before or since.

A concertina display depicting a history of revolt from the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (The Great Rising) and the explosion of rebellion across Europe in the same decade (such as the Maillotins of Paris, 1382, and the Ciompi of Florence, 1378 - 82, who also held a workers' government, if only briefly), through to the early modern era with the Bundschuh Conspiracy, Kett's rebellion and the German Peasants' War, on to the Haitian Revolution and the Rebecca Riots; but also depicting significant events, political and cultural, such as the end of serfdom, the Atlantic Slave Trade, Individualism, the enclosures, the printing press, and the European Witch Hunts. The books displayed are a selection of the various sources from where my ideas and themes have developed.

The sculpture and collages surrounding it depict the scarecrow. An icon of folk culture and 20th century popular culture, but with a mysterious and vague past, the scarecrow as a rudimentary form of technology became a more familiar sight across the land after the Black Death, since prior to this farmers would use human labour (usually their children) to scare vermin, crows and other pests. Although a notoriously ineffective piece of technology, for me the scarecrow along with the undeniably revolutionary printing-press symbolise the transition from manual labour to a much needed reliance on technology, whilst also symbolising the shift from rural to urban and Medieval to early modern. The scarecrow is ideally a rural crucifix symbolising the death of Feudal serfdom; and the printing-press symbolises the birth of a new age where the concept of change becomes more frequent.

The Whole World Needs A Jolt:

The Century Of Death, Vagrancy, The Great Confinement & Festive Misrule.


A crisis appeared during the calamitous 14th century when two of humanity's worst catastrophes occurred within 30 years of each other - the Great Famine (1315-22) and the Black Death (1348-51) - producing mass depopulation on an unimaginable scale. This depopulation produced a knock-on effect of political, religious and social turmoil which effectively dismantled the Feudal structure and arguably the end of serfdom. It also drastically reduced the labour supply which, in turn, increased the need (of desperate landlords) for the scarce remaining labour force, and this came with a higher wage demand which these landed elites could not meet, so farmers and labourers would flea the estates in search of work elsewhere. Marxist historian, Christopher Hill highlights this in his book, 'Liberty Against The Law': "the catastrophe of the Black Death was followed by a century of declining population. There was a shortage of labour, land was unoccupied, and so a splendid opportunity was offered to serfs to liberate themselves by running away and settling elsewhere on uncultivated land.”

So, vagabondage was a route out of serfdom, and although it had existed in various ways and was generally accepted prior to the Black Death, it became a continuous and more concerning problem, with authorities implementing restrictive laws – notably the 1349 Ordinance of labourers and the 1351 Statute of Labourers, which threatened a wage cap, price controls and restriction of movement; and sumptuary laws that prevented the lower class from purchasing and wearing clothing (such as furs) similar to the nobility, even if they could afford to (due to a prosperous harvest year, or, in this instance, what the Black Death had indirectly allowed.) This was all an attempt to tackle this increasing vagrancy 'problem', and keep the lower classes in their place. However, these laws and their future variants were never all that successful at controlling the mobility of labourers and masterless men, and with ever increasing taxes and the gradual threat of land enclosures, it wasn't long before this reign of oppression became the focus of, and was angrily countered by, an explosion of revolt throughout the century: the Jacquerie in Paris, in 1358; the Peasants' Revolt of 1381; the radical preaching of the Lollards in 1381 (predating the Reformation by well over a century); the lesser known Maillotins (the Hammermen of Paris) of 1382; and the Ciompi of 1378-82 (who eventually held government, if only briefly, in Florence.) - and all significantly on a wider if not national scale, rather than the more provincial peasant/landlord level conflict of previous centuries. Importantly, out of this late medieval crisis developed the previously fragmented idea of class consciousness into a more solid and powerful concept.

This reduced labour force created a shift from a reliance on manual labour to an increasing and much needed reliance on technology over the following centuries, and two significant “labour-saving devices” – the scarecrow and the printing press – perfectly symbolize this transition, as well as the overall transition from medieval Feudalism to the early modern era; a symbolic death and rebirth, if you like. The scarecrow became a more familiar device throughout rural Europe after the Black Death, replacing the previous bird-scarer role usually occupied by a farmer's child, and later became a folkloric and cultural effigy of rural life (and 20th century popular culture) - a rural crucifix to symbolize the death of Feudal serfdom. The printing-press, on the other hand, is considered a revolutionary machine, replacing the scribes of costly and laborious manuscripts and disseminating all forms of radical pamphleteering and books in various vernacular, both underground and mainstream, and increasing the literacy rate in the process – the birth of a new age.

It's important to note that the printing press using movable type, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440s, produced a print culture that went hand in hand with other concepts of the new age such as individualism, and was a founding aspect of modernity according to Marshall McLuhan: “With Gutenberg Europe enters the technological phase of progress, when change itself becomes the archetypal norm of social life.” Prior to this mass production of the printed word, the act of reading was usually communal and projected aloud throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but with the privatization and individualization of the printed word, reading became a solitary and silent act – the prayer book being a prime example, allowing individuals to personalize their own interpretation of the word of God.

Initially, the very poor, vagrants, 'mad' people, the unemployed, beggars, thieves and generally those who were desperate, were assisted and kept alive by charity in monasteries and almshouses. This was arguably during a 'culture of poverty' and a somewhat more charitable way of life; not necessarily for the benefit of the poor, but to give the nobility and authorities credibility and a social respect for doing such a charitable gesture. The authoritative mindset was that whilst it gave a veneer of the privileged having a humanitarian conscience, this kind of charitable society, on the other hand, kept the unemployed, idlers, and beggars from causing too much social disorder – a class compromise, perhaps, although not entirely successful. Either way, this form of welfare came to an end with the Tudor dissolution of the monasteries (1536-41) and a shift away from social hospitality rights.

Following on from medieval state measures into the interregnum period between the end of Feudalism and the beginnings of Capitalism (roughly a 350 year period), there was a growth in corporal and capital punishment, public humiliation, and gradually more brutal forms of incarceration which were the state orders of the day. Stocks, initially used in medieval gaols, were ordered to be built in every town by the Statute of Labourers for the detention of runaway servants and labourers. In a statute of 1495, vagabonds and beggars were to be set in stocks for three days and nights, surviving on bread and water. The pillory was employed against frauds and beggars with signs or documents stating their offences. A. L. Beier's 'Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem In England 1560-1640' suggests that of all the forms of punishment used to deal with vagrants, none were as common, cost effective and efficient as whipping. Putting a beggar or idler on trial or sending vagrants to a house of correction was expensive and troublesome, whereas a thrashing and a passport saw them off to be someone else's concern. These begging licences and passports (easily counterfeited, usually by the lower clergy since the majority of the population were illiterate) were in circulation from the 14th century not long after the Black Death, with the purpose of controlling wages and monitoring the whereabouts of beggars. Human branding was another form of surveillance, with particular symbols indicating a particular crime – such as V for vagrancy on the chest, R for rogue on the shoulder, T for thief on the hand, B for blasphemy on the forehead, and SL for seditious libel (inciting rioting) on the cheek. The authorities increasingly applied even more prohibiting vagrant and labour laws against the able-bodied beggars and outcasts; forcing them to work where possible or otherwise be sanctioned, resettled, or incarcerated in establishments which sought to reform through hard labour: charitable hospitals, workshops, and correction workhouses (such as Bridewell hospital, which later became a generic term for a workhouse and institutions alike). These restrictive and brutal measures gradually being put in place throughout the centuries were all part of a crusade from above on lower class freedom and empowerment.

During the 18th century, transportation became a popular form of punishment amongst the elite to deal with the criminal class. Initially shipped to plantations in Maryland and Virginia, with some to Newfoundland and parts of Jamaica and Canada, the vast majority of convicts were notoriously sent to Australia from 1787 onwards. Compared to the millions of African slaves who were enslaved for life, convicts were transported to hard labour for an average of 7 to 14 years. With an ever increasing criminal class in England, the authorities, out of concern, considered transportation as the best way to deal with this stain on society. Many political radicals were sent to the penal colonies, and one of the most notorious was Thomas Muir. A radical Scottish lawyer, Muir was sent to 14 years hard labour at Botany Bay, Australia, for sedition. However, after 2 years he escaped via a vessel heading for America, and after reaching Vancouver Island he was arrested and put aboard a ship heading for Spain, during which time the ship encountered a British warship and was struck, with Muir being severely injured in the process (left eye and cheekbone damaged). Once arrived, the Spanish authorities let him go and he made his way to revolutionary France where he eventually died. Fighting for universal suffrage and against conscription amongst other reformist ideas during a very politically radical period across Scotland, Thomas Muir was leader of both the Friends Of The People and the United Scotsmen during the 1790s, and described by Lord Advocate Robert Dundas as 'the most determined rebel in Scotland.'

The most iconic motif from the late medieval/early modern era is arguably the Danse Macabre, and perhaps best reflects symbolically (along with the lesser known Apocalypse Tapestry of the 1370s) the catastrophe and death endured during the 14th century. Considered the first modern cultural genre, the Dance of Death, as it's otherwise known, appeared out of its vague history during this century of Famine, war and pestilence, and came at a time when religious faith gradually began to fracture and people started to be more accepting of the concept of death. Scotland can lay claim to the earliest known visual examples of the Danse Macabre in the UK - stone carvings at Rosslyn Chapel.

Into the early modern era, the main staple of folk culture was carnival which, although traditionally specific to Shrovetide (the day before Lent), gradually became a catch-all term for festivities and Saints' days throughout the year. Considered as a safety valve from above to prevent revolt from below by providing a space for 'letting off steam', it was also believed to be a cover for revolt by dissenters taking advantage of the relaxed laws during that time, or even a starting point for revolt with the intention of eventually spilling out into everyday life. In any case, a subversive phenomenon in whatever capacity - upturning social norms, if only mockingly and symbolically (such as role-reversal), where social status is dissolved and spectators are non-existent because everyone is involved as part of a social body; reduced to their basic bodily functions of eating, drinking, fucking and shitting.

Other examples of this 'vulgar' culture include the provincial humiliation of Charivari, where locals would hound out and parade a wrong-doer within their community accompanied by bashing pots and pans (rough music); singing and dancing, at times frowned upon or criminalised from above; whistling, which went hand in hand with peasants and their manual work, but declined at the advent of industrialisation due to stricter working conditions, and to machinery noise drowning out and ending its communal spirit; drumming, considered by polite society as a symbol of low social status and, at times, banned by authorities; laughing, a symbol of carnival and festival, and contrasting the seriousness of authority and upper class life; and cant (or slang), a coded language of variant styles used by the underclass - thieves, vagrants, hawkers etc., in some way deceiving authority.

As well as the underclass having their own rich and varied coded slang and dialects, which would consist of a mixture of terms and words, with some being corruptions of their origin, there are also derogatory terms and words used today which originate from the middle ages, that have a deep-rooted class hatred. Take the word 'villein' for instance, which originally meant farmhand or peasant, a derivative of which (villain) has come through the centuries to mean ugly, and then since the rise of film and TV into the 20th century (and popular culture in general), to mean bad guy/nemesis, or words such as 'pleb' and 'vulgar'; 'pleb' deriving from the Greek 'plethos' meaning common people, and 'vulgar' deriving from the Latin 'vulgus' also meaning common people. These examples make evident an inherent underlying class hatred of the lower social classes embedded in the language we use.