Two hundred years ago today, on March 11, 1811, a riot broke out in the marketplace of the Englich city of Nottingham. Later that evening, a group of men marched into a Nottingham suburb and smashed up machines that made stockings (so-called "stocking frames).
Little did those men know that they were commencing a movement -- which came to be known as "Luddism" -- that would be known to us today.
The word "Luddite" gets thrown around a lot these days, and it has come down to us as a term for those who actively oppose the advance of technology in human affairs.
Indeed, the first impulse that led me to the topic was my observation that the term "Luddite" -- like any other term that has wound its way from a specific historical moment into a mainstream term that resonates centuries later -- likely has a much corrupted modern meaning, and that even a cursory excavation of the term would yield up a story that was much more interesting than our contemporary notion of Luddism as a blindly anti-technological movement.
My hunch has not only been proven right -- but it has yielded up a treasure trove of material that will resonate in an America that is exhausted by war, outsourcing its jobs, cheapening and destroying its manufactures and busting its unions though political means.
Luddism had a number of regional strains -- most famously, the "croppers" of Yorkshire whose violence against the so-called "gig mills" that destroyed their trade is legendary for its stealth and its brutality. But as I shape the play, I have decided to focus on its origins in Nottingham -- where the issues were more complex and where the town's Luddite movement was highly selective and staggeringly effective in selecting its targets and isolating itself from detection.
I have also developed a great amount of material for the play about how the Romantic poets of the day --Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and George Gordon, Lord Byron -- reacted to the movement.
What I'm hoping to do over the next three or four months is let Balkans via Bohemia readers follow along as I finish my research and write the play. I am also going to follow along over the next few months as various Luddite anniversaries, ahem, crop up. I have also created an open Facebook group that will provide shorter updates and tidbits.
It all started 200 years ago today. I hope you'll follow along as I excavate what Luddism was all about and try to translate it into a dramatic work that will speak to a larger audience.
(Image is a poster of a reward offered by officials in Nottingham to apprehend Luddites in that city.)