Shannon McSheffrey: ‘Documenting the London Evil May Day Riot, 1517.’

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Shannon McSheffrey chose a slightly different approach to the theme of history in conflict. That is: she looked at the ways in which the recording of an event can be about forgetting as well as remembering. Her case study was the Evil May Day in London of 1517, a riot that was a protest against the number of immigrants residing and working in the city. The archival documentation of the Evil May Day is the most striking. Though the riot itself and the aftermath must have consumed the City – through the month of May public the City witnessed show-trials of the rioters and spectacular executions of perhaps forty of the rioters in the City’s most central places – there is very little evidence in the civic archives about Evil May Day. The riot against immigrants in London was a deeply embarrassing event for the city as a corporate government body, and a form of corporate amnesia was the response.

Although we cannot always know what was omitted, sometimes other surviving evidence offers a glimpse at a deliberate refraining from recording certain things in official records. Guild and legal documents indicate that the mayor and aldermen were busy issuing decrees and trying to establish order on the night of the riot itself and in the days and weeks that followed, but none of those were copied into the usual registers for such orders. Instead, the civic records for the day before the riot and the weeks that followed had some oblique references to the handling of the king’s reaction to the violence, but otherwise were filled with the City’s ordinary business of property transactions and petty trade disputes sensibly settled by the wisdom of the court of Aldermen. If all we read were the official archival records of the City of London, we would think that business continued as usual in May 1517. We know from other evidence, however, that these were extraordinary rather than ordinary times: the crown ordered that the bodies of the executed – some dismembered as traitors – remain on scaffolds in marketplaces and at the City gates. The crown meant for the consequences of the riot to be imprinted on Londoners’ memories: the City’s record-keepers, by contrast, responded by pretending it wasn’t happening.

Though historians used to think of civic records as administrative registers simply documenting the processes of urban government, we’ve come to understand them as carefully managed to preserve a particular view of a city’s governing class. In the case of London they emphasized consensus amongst the oligarchs and orderly obedience of the governed, whereas the mayor and aldermen had nothing but egg on their faces after Evil May Day. Though this obliviating tactic obviously didn’t entirely succeed, it was a tried, true, and effective documentary strategy, and it certainly has to a significant extent suppressed the memory of a low point in London’s civic life.

Shannon McSheffrey is professor at Concordia University. Her work focuses on a broad range of themes, including law, mitigation, gender roles, civic culture, marriage, literacy, heresy and popular religion in late medieval England. She is writing a book on Evil May Day. An article, ‘Disorder, Riot, and Governance in Early Tudor London: Evil May Day, 1517’, is forthcoming from the English Historical Review in 2023.

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