There's an old, rather tasteless joke: "The peasants are revolting!" "Yes, I agree, they smell like cows." This blog post isn't about the joke. Rather, it's about fourteenth-century peasant reactions to oppression.
There had been very little of what we would call class consciousness for most of the Middle Ages; that is, people on a manor or in a village or city had thought of themselves as a unit, but they didn’t think of those living on the next manor or in the next village or city as being inherently similar to them. This changed in the fourteenth century.
Now, for the first time, peasants in one area began to think they had more in common with peasants in another area than they did with the rich and powerful close to whom they lived. And they were intensely angry at the rich and powerful.
The result was not just the kind of rebellion that had occurred intermittently, when for example peasants on a particular manor felt they were being treated grossly unfairly and fought back. This was widespread revolution, where peasants across large territories decided they needed to work together.
The elites had brought it on themselves. In response to crop failures and a decreased number of farm workers after the outbreak of the Black Death, landlords attempted to crack down, enforcing rents and labor dues and making new demands, such as freezing wages for day laborers. Taxes were also being imposed throughout England to pay for the war with France. The peasants, not surprisingly, were not about to put up with this treatment. Questions began to be asked: What gave the powerful the right to be powerful?
It had long been assumed theologically that a hierarchical social organization on earth mirrored that of Heaven (God, archangels, regular angels, and so on), and that divisions of power and wealth were a sad necessity due to humanity’s sinful nature, the only way to keep all that sinning in check. But now some people started saying openly that such divisions of power and wealth were themselves sinful.
In England, where the revolts became the fiercest, a popular little ditty went around, “When Adam dug and Eve span [past tense of to spin], Who was then a gentleman?”
The biggest revolt started in in 1381 in southeast England, led by a firebrand named Wat Tyler and by a radical cleric, John Ball. Peasants, villagers, and townspeople joined together, burning manorial rolls and court records. They reached London, convinced that King Richard II (seen below, a teenager at the time) would sympathize with them if he only knew what was going on.
Initially the young king negotiated with the revolutionaries, though one must wonder how sincere he was. Wat Tyler’s group killed a number of leading figures, including the archbishop of Canterbury, then supposedly used his head as a football. Having had enough, the crown cracked down, and the rebellion was brutally crushed, and its leaders killed.
Although no further peasants’ rebellion was as big, there continued to be smaller ones. They were all put down, but in response concessions were quietly made, as those in charge realized that maybe the rebels did have a point. There were no more attempts to impose taxes on peasants to pay for the war. By the late fifteenth century, English peasants were much better off than they had been earlier.
Note: I believe in non-violence. But one does indeed need to stand up to oppression.
© C. Dale Brittain 2018
For more on peasants and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.