Clothworkers and Social Protest: The Case of Thomas Deloney
Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 32(1) (2001)
Thomas Deloney, a prolific balladeer and impoverished weaver, was twice wanted for arrest by the London authorities in as many years for writing documents that criticized government policy. The two texts— one, a letter regarding the nuisance of immigrant weavers, and the other, a ballad complaining about the scarcity of grain—were both written at the height of Deloney’s balladeering in 1595. Both publications respond directly to what Deloney saw as challenges to his silk-weaving profession: immigrant silkweavers infringed upon the rights of the native workers while grain shortages detracted from the health of the cloth industry. Crop failures of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and particularly those of the years 1595–1597, which also coincided with depressions in the cloth trade in overseas markets due to the conflict with Spain, had a deleterious effect on the clothworkers who relied on the grain market for provisions. In these publications, Deloney combines his two careers—writing and weaving—and in so doing proposes that clothmaking is crucial to the makeup of England and should be recognized as such by the government. By taking these two inflammatory, if minor, documents seriously as the immediate context for his next literary effort, Jack of Newbury (1597), we begin to understand the crucial contribution that Deloney’s work made to the culture of protest in the difficult decade of the 1590s and, importantly, to early modern nation formation.