September 18, 2013

Documents that Changed the World: The Riot Act, 1714

News and Information

The Riot Act, circa 1714

The Riot Act, circa 1714

When does a gathering of people become a riot?

In the United Kingdom it’s when local authorities say so, according to the 1714 Riot Act, the topic of the latest installment of the Documents that Changed the World podcast series.

Documents that Changed the World is an ongoing podcast series created by Joe Janes, a professor in the University of Washington Information School. In the series, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known.

The Riot Act, Janes noted, allowed local officials to decide that any gathering of more than 12 people was “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together,” and thus a “riot.”

It’s tempting to think of The Riot Act as an oral document, Jane said, but it’s a printed work like most any other, except in one key detail: It has to be read aloud to be valid, and as close to the miscreants as safely possible. Janes noted that as court decisions specified, the act had to be read in full — including the all-important closing phrase, “God Save the King!” — to be considered valid.

And once labeled out loud in this way, those gathered had to disperse — under penalty of death.

Documents that Changed the World

Linguists call such things “speech acts,” Janes wrote — “things we say that cause something to happen, or to change, or to be,” as with a judge pronouncing officially that a couple has become married. However many people gather, and however riotously they act, they aren’t a riot until the sheriff says they are — out loud and within earshot of the gathering.

Why this odd document for his series? Janes said he knew vaguely about the phrase “read the riot act,” but got curious to learn about its origin.

“The oral nature of it is fascinating, especially the idea of exactly how someone is supposed to get a ‘riot’ to be still and pay attention while you tell them they’re a riot and that they have to disperse,” Janes said, adding,  ”I wonder how that went in practice.”

Janes said he was also interested in the “transformative” nature of the words. “Said in the right circumstances by the right person, because of their legal standing, they have tremendous force,” he said.

“As I say in the piece, it demonstrates the power we give words and how profound that can be.”

Janes continues to produce installments of the series, and all of the podcasts are available at the Information School website as well as on iTunes, with more than 45,000 downloads there so far, and counting.

Previous stories in the “Documents that Changed the World” series:

 

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