Atlantic History Crowds in the Atlantic World
Thomas J. Humphrey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0214


Crowds and crowd actions are a critical component of Atlantic history. Historians often refer to crowd actions or riots waged by Europeans or European colonists as “rough music,” charivari, or skimmington. Those same historians often refer to riots waged by enslaved people as “revolts.” However people referred to it, and none of these terms fit perfectly, organized crowd violence grew out of people’s desires to punish members of theirs who violated the community’s standards for social, economic, or political behavior. They used violence to correct people’s deviant behavior as well as to reinforce the community’s standards of acceptable behavior. In that way, crowds both prescribed and proscribed legitimate behavior in their communities. Crowds attacked bigamists and adulterers. They confronted men who beat their wives too much as well as merchants and shopkeepers who tried to line their pockets at the expense of others in their community. They assaulted people who threatened the community’s general health and welfare, and crowds invoked violence to protest attacks on the social or political hierarchy of their community. Finally, and importantly, people in the early modern Atlantic world used violence to attack leaders of those social and political hierarchies when those leaders tried to enrich or to empower themselves at the expense of others. These crowds usually followed a pattern of behavior and adhered to traditional, ritualized patterns of violent punishment familiar to European and African inhabitants of the Atlantic word. They attacked specific people for particular behavior or to achieve a specific goal, and they inflicted often-horrifying violence on people and property. Their point made, their goal achieved, crowds usually dispersed and victims went home, if they could. Where authorities sometimes prosecuted crowds of Europeans and European colonists, authorities used terrifying violence when enslaved people rioted or rebelled. Since the 1960s, historians of early modern Europe and the Atlantic world have turned their attention to crowds and crowd violence. They have faced an uphill task. Few instances of crowd violence survive in the record. Historians must thus probe what remains of the record to determine how crowds behaved and why people violently and ritually attacked others in their communities. What they show is that violence, while effective, was often a last resort.

General Overviews

Discussions of crowds in the Atlantic world usually start with Lefebvre 1965, a piece that originally appeared in 1934. In it, Lefebvre distinguished crowds that formed for specific purposes from groups of people who came together for more ordinary reasons. Rudé 1965 followed Lefebvre but organized a more explicit and inclusive description of crowds as a group of people who acted together. The work insisted that crowds be discussed as part and parcel of the society and culture of a community because of how they expressed that community’s aspirations. Instead of focusing on the radical nature of crowds, Tilly 2003 zeroed in on how crowds often promoted a counterrevolutionary agenda. In much the same way, Thompson 1971 and Thompson 1993 (cited under Crowds and Theory) focused on crowds asserting a more conservative, popular perspective of what the community thought was right. For Thompson 1993, crowds were fluid and adapted their traditions to new issues. Davis 1975 illustrates some of the reasons for that flexibility by tracing the roots of crowd rituals to their religious bases. Crowds also used festivals and parades, which were often religious in origin, to voice their social or political discontent. American historians such as Alfred F. Young have traced the connections between European traditions of crowd action and insurgency in North America (see Young 1984, cited under Geographical Studies: North America). Where Young cites social unrest as the motive for political insurgency, Gilje 1996 argued the emerging political culture in the United States gave people the freedom to form crowds and voice their discontent.

  • Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated by Carol Stewart. New York: Seabury, 1978.

    While the book is not traditionally scholarly, Canetti builds on Lefebvre 1965 to study crowd behavior broadly. Cannetti outlines the ordered behavior of crowds in terms of broader power structures to show that as urban wage laborers increased in number in industrial societies, groups of workers looked and acted more like a crowd. In that way, workers forever stood for the possibility of a crowd, and their presence frightened the targets and potential targets of their discontent.

  • Davis, Natalie Zemon. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503621183

    A collection of essays that studies how the French lower class updated cultural traditions. Davis studies how the rites inherent in Catholicism and Protestantism, festive play, women, and print culture influenced the traditions created in early modern France. In doing so, the essays reveal that some crowds formed around shared religious perspectives, relationships, and gender.

  • Gilje, Paul. Rioting in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.

    Gilje’s impressive work on crowds in the United States after the American Revolution builds on the idea that people formed crowds deliberately and not on impulse. He ties rioting to the rise of democracy and capitalism by arguing that the Revolution produced a political and social culture in which people felt free enough to take riotous public action.

  • Lefebvre, Georges. “Revolutionary Crowds.” In New Perspectives on the French Revolution. Edited by Jeffry Kaplow and translated by Orest Ranum and Robert Wagoner, 173–190. New York: John Wiley, 1965.

    In this critical study of crowds during the French Revolution, Lefebvre establishes the importance of crowds as agents of political and social upheaval. For Lefebvre, the crowd followed its own agenda during the French Revolution, a set of goals related, but not tied, to those of leaders of that event. Notably, the members of the crowd did not lose their individuality even as members of the crowd. Originally printed in 1954 (“Foules révolutionaires,” in Etudes sur la Révolution Française. Paris: Presses de France).

  • Pencak, William, Matthew Dennis, and Simon P. Newman, eds. Riot and Revelry in Early America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

    This collection of essays includes some of the first systematic analysis of crowds in the British North American mainland colonies. The essays largely draw on the work by Alfred F. Young and E. P. Thompson and provide an outstanding introduction to crowds, crowd violence, and “rough music” in early America.

  • Rudé, George. The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730–1848. London: John Wiley, 1965.

    In this critical study of crowds, Rudé studies who participated in the rioting that characterized these two countries. He compares how groups of people became crowds in cities such as London and Paris with how rural people formed crowds and resorted to violence throughout the countryside.

  • Thompson, E. P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50.1 (February 1971): 76–136.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/50.1.76

    The phrase “moral economy” was used by a variety of 18th-century writers, who argued that businesspeople were increasingly putting profit ahead of the general welfare. Thompson argued food rioters invoked the concept when they protested high prices of food usually associated with free markets. Thompson argued that common perspective contrasted sharply with the increasingly prevalent profit motive.

  • Tilly, Charles. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511819131

    While crowds often behaved unpredictably and violently, Tilly finds some root causes for crowd actions when he examines the broad geography of Europe over a long period of time. While broad in scope, Tilly’s work highlights those conditions that inspired, and continue to inspire, people to seek popular solutions when officials fail them.

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