There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that a prospective research student who confessed to wanting to work in the field of popular disturbances was asked by a famous constitutional historian ‘Why are you interested in these bandits?’ It is a question unlikely to be framed in quite the same way today; perhaps not even asked at all. Few areas of social history have attracted more attention in recent years than the study of popular movements. It may be an exaggeration to suggest that interest in ‘the deserter, the mutineer, the primitive rebel, the rural bandit, the market rioter, the urban criminal, the pickpocket, and the village prophet’ dominates every Senior Common Room and Examination Hall, but one knows what Richard Cobb meant when he spoke of the almost ‘alarming respectability’ which the subject has attained. 1