Disorderly Debates: Noise and Gesture in the 17th-Century House of Commons


  • Jason Peacey


This article explores the atmosphere and behaviour of the house of commons during the 17th century, and endeavours to recover evidence about noise and gesture, decorum and disorder. Such evidence is rarely recorded and is difficult to interpret, but it is, nevertheless, possible to demonstrate that the House was often much less orderly and polite than contemporaries would have liked to admit, and than historians have often suggested. This evidence is largely absent from the official Commons' journals as well as from most private diaries, but it is occasionally recorded in contemporary news reports, and more obviously in the diary of Thomas Burton, and it highlights the numerous occasions on which proceedings fell into silence or descended into noisy uproar, as well as the occasions when interventions were made with gestures rather than words. At times, this aural and visual culture involved humour and harmless fun, but at others, it reveals personal tensions and political animosities that might otherwise not be apparent from recorded speeches. By drawing attention to such evidence and teasing out its meaning, this piece argues that historians have too often succumbed to the tendency to accentuate consensus and downplay conflict in 17th-century parliaments.