by James Boyce
Broadly we experience the Fens, today, as a handful of historic names and reserves under the curation of outfits like the National Trust. The region is for the most part tame, densely packed with some of England’s most productive agriculture.
It’s a stark contrast to the area’s historic reputation as dangerous, mythologised swampland that could swallow the unwary, a trope which is interrogated in this excellent social history by James Boyce.
Roughly covering the north-west of Suffolk, western Norfolk, eastern Cambridgeshire and a large stretch of Lincolnshire, the Fens are presented in Imperial Mud as encapsulating a cohesive region with a distinct culture.
Particularly interesting from an anarchist perspective are Boyce’s notes on how a less centralised form of living helped it to eschew full integration and hold out against multiple attempts at enclosure well into the 18th century.
Boyce places “Fennish” culture as tending to identify with the wetlands themselves rather than with the four counties they were divided between. Much of this, he argues, stemmed from geographical circumstances which granted self-sufficiency while resisting efforts to tame and apportion land for arable or larger-scale pastoral use.
He begins with a quick skim through ancient history, from the first Millennium, through paganism and later dealings with powerful church holdings such as Ely and Ramsey, and into the higher medieval period, covering the 1000-1300s as manorial systems emerged, but largely failed to reach into the waterways.
Relative stability lasted through to the early modern ages and for Imperial Mud the real story begins in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when enclosure of the commons, and particularly the use of drainage technology to enable it, began to accelerate.
Initial signs of these oncoming storms are noted via Fennish participation in Robert Kett’s 1549 Rebellion, which drew 16,000 men and women from the wetlands, and the expulsion of sheep from the Frampton commons in 1580, but the real start point was in 1601, when that year’s Drainage Act set off protests and widespread direct action.
Resistance was registered in Soham, Lakenheath and Mildernhall with efforts to drain Cambridgeshire’s Great Level seeing serious resistance across two decades.
From this battle on, the Fens were home to a long series of revolts and upheavals which lasted through to the end of the 18th century and in some cases into the 19th, pitching the emerging power of State and capital against the customs and adaptations of the Fennish.
Boyce frames this conflict as, essentially, internal colonialism, a microcosm of the greater global British imperial project with parallels to indigenous struggles elsewhere. He notes for example that:
“The Fennish were not individual agents focused only on maximising personal wealth … rather they were a pre-modern people defending their country, culture and community; the relationships that defined their world.”
He stresses that mutual aid was common, allowing people to survive on small plots of land relative to other parts of England. Less closely examined, though worth looking at, is the network of collectively produced boundaries which aimed not to geographically divide the land but to avoid over-exploitation. Quotas were set on what should be extracted – how many thousands of eels and birds, reeds for thatch, peat for the fires etc – then enforced both by locals and reeves (officials acting as part magistrate, part bailiff).
This co-operative form of living, in Boyce’s reading, allowed the region to remain economically strong and enabled a robust defence.
The author cites anthropologist James C Scott in describing this phenomenon. In The Art of Not Being Governed Scott outlines geographical factors – remoteness, difficult terrain – which restricted south-east Asian empires from penetrating into the Zomia highlands. Parallels with the Fens are easy to find. Local ruling abbots for example routinely propagandised the Fens as byzantine, unsafe and miasmic, reflecting the troubles they had policing the region.
Wetlands were extraordinarily difficult terrain for horse and heavy infantry, but simplicity itself for residents with their stilts and punts. Indeed the stilts and waters themselves became a symbol of resistance during enclosure battles, as drainage ditches got filled and landlords’ workmen were held below refilling weirs by locals’ long poles, half-drowned as a warning not to return.
Inevitably the story winds to a tragic end. The march of capitalist progress and technological power overwhelmed Fennish defences, forcing countless people into penury and landlessness. In their turn, many of the unhomed emigrated and were subsequently used to subjugate land in the Americas.
But Boyce sounds a note of optimism. The buried past of the Fens, if not the Fennish, is not so far away. With climate change and the region’s tendencies to revert without human intervention, the wetlands could well re-emerge.
Boyce’s work is presented in a calm, academic hand, but his sympathies are clear, as are the lessons he draws from the 200-year period he focuses on. And while this tale of how “Englishness” was constructed on the bones of the wrong kind of English people is historic, it speaks to the cultural hegemony which creeps through society today. A strong regional accent, a home on wheels, a left ideology alongside many other “wrong kinds” are still pummeled and forced into molds built by our ruling classes. Everything outside is miasma, unclean, to be drained.
They do so because, next time, that long barge pole might hold them under for good, while their works are washed out to sea through broken dams.