Effigies in protest

Last week I was writing up my research on the use of effigies in popular protest.

This proved serendipitous timing given the events of the past week. Here is the Yorkshire Post's report on the burning of effigies of Margaret Thatcher in the former mining town of Goldthorpe.

According to Charles Tilly's typology of the development of protest, effigy burning was an 18th century form of local customary and rural protest that should have died out by the 19th century, with its more 'modern', bureaucratic, less violent collective action directed at parliament.  Yet effigy burning was very much a part of 19th century urban popular protest, and as we have seen this week, continues today.

Effigy burning was of course part of the regular customary calendar on 5 November, but it also featured regularly during elections and increasingly in the early nineteenth century, in a wide range of protests and campaigns.

Why do people make and burn effigies in protest?

There are, I think, two types of effigy:

1. the symbolic, meant to represent a hated figure who wasn't necessarily known personally by the crowd, but represented a wider issue, policy or group.
2. the personal, meant to represent a local figure well known to the crowd, who had committed a specific misdemeanour against their community.

No1 type of effigy (especially of nationally-known politicians or military men) are often burned in the central public space in a town: the marketplace, outside the town hall, etc.

There is often much carnivalesque theatre involved in these sorts of effigies: a mock-trial, with local people playing the parts of judge, jury and executioner, and very elaborate dress of the figure, surrounded with symbolic emblems and sometimes in-jokes about their character. Here we see the crowd have a wicked sense of humour. The bottles of milk in the Goldthorpe effigies of Thatcher are a perfect modern example of this.

No2 type of effigy represents a darker and less jubilant type of protest. These sorts (sometimes of local magistrates, police, or in 1837-8, new poor law guardians) are often hung drawn and quartered then burned not in the main public space, but in front of the individuals' houses.

They are therefore meant to induce fear in the represented in a much more direct way. They are (as Carl Griffin has shown in his study of the fear in the Swing Riots) a form of inflicting disembodied pain. Sometimes these effigies are violently hit and attacked by the crowd before 'execution', therefore representing real anger and providing a psychologically cathartic experience for the protesters. There is some element of this anger and pain in the Goldthorpe example, though not as fierce and direct as the effigy burnings that occurred during the height of campaigns, as in the anti-new poor law movement.

Effigies were also often paraded around the town before their final 'judgement', not just in a show of force, but also a subversion of the civic and patriotic parades enacted by the figures they represented.


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