Lovelies, it is a dark time here in the UK. Our last election has gone very badly indeed for those of us who want to protect the vulnerable and build a better world. It can be difficult to watch a status quo which harms us reassert itself, especially when many of us have worked very hard to overturn it. As the dust settles and we collect ourselves in the face of a bitter reality, I have started thinking about how this feeling is nothing new, and there are some positives that we can think about.
As a brief perusal of this blog will show you, a lot of my research focuses on medieval society writ large. A lot of this is because I am interested in what normal people did and were doing. Am I interested in one-off powerful people as well? Absolutely! I like Emperor Charles IV, or Hildegard of Bingen, or Jan Hus more than the next person. However, what I find interesting about people like that is how they manage to impact the world around them, because it is the world around them that has my devotion.
I wrote, in brief, on twitter the other day about how my devotion to the “small lives” in medieval history is one of the reasons for my political engagement. I work on people who were on the peripheries of their society and who ours don’t consider worthy of commemorating. I study sex workers who were run out of town in Prague for causing a nuisance. I work on upstarts trying to reorganise their society for the betterment of the downtrodden. And of course, I work on ordinary people in cities and the most ordinary people of all in the medieval period – peasants.
As I will never tire of reminding people, if anyone in your family came from Europe, your family were peasants. Yes, they were. Some 85% of the medieval people were peasants. For the uninitiated, that means that they lived in the countryside and produced agricultural materials, i.e. they were farmers of some kind or another.
The thing about being a peasant is it was rather a lot of work. Each season brought with it varying work to be done, something which is immortalised in medieval “labours of the months” which were sort of romanticised illustrations of the work that peasants carried out at various times. At any giving time peasants were ploughing, sowing, reaping, carding wool, fattening pigs – you name it. And they were doing it in a world where a lot of the time you had to sew your own clothing, and even make your own cloth in some circumstances. In other words, it was a lot.
Peasants did of course have days off, and actually maybe more than we do now, as most religious days were mandated as free time. However, if you were keeping bees, or chickens, or sheep, or cows, you had to keep them alive 24/7. You can’t just be like “Sorry homies, it’s Michaelmas” and wander off. So yeah, a lot of work. Talk to any farmer you know for more information.
Another difficulty for peasants was that a lot of them weren’t free. The great majority of peasants were serfs, as in about 75% of the population. This meant that technically they couldn’t make a lot of life decisions because they were conceived of as tied to the land. They were sold as part and parcel of the land that they lived on, sort of as a feature of a particular place. This meant that as a serf you couldn’t, for example, decide that you wanted to move down the road. You couldn’t decide that you wanted to decamp to the city to seek your fortune. You could often be required to serve a labour tax which is called variously, the corvée in French, or the robota in Czech. This meant that every year you would have to do work on the land of whoever owned yours. That might be a lord, or a king, or a monastery.
As you might guess this state of affairs wasn’t something that peasants were all that in to. However, they didn’t have a whole lot of say in that. Society – and stop me if you have heard this one – was set up to aggregate wealth, status, and power to the top echelons only. This was justified, more or less, on religious grounds. Kings and the Holy Roman Emperor were seen as having attained their positions due to divine grace. God wanted them to rule, and so they did. The peasants and poor were similarly seen to have been presented with their lot by an all knowing and involved God.
Sounds hopeless, right? Well, not always.
In the fourteenth (aka best) century there were a number of developments which show us that even against these impossible stacked odds, ordinary people rose up to question the necessity and morality of this design. I am talking, of course, about the peasants’ rebellions.
The peasants’ rebellions, it can be argued grew out of a very specific situation. The Black Death had been doing its thing for some time, and Europe-wide, about 60% of the population had been killed. Now that figure fluctuated from place to place. On the Italian peninsula, for example, where people lived closer together, and where a vigorous international trade meant that the yersinia pestis bacteria had been introduced from the Black Sea early on, those numbers are even higher. Contemporary chroniclers state that, for example:
… in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead […] And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city.
In Bohemia, in contrast, where you would need to walk germs in, very few people died. The Kingdoms of England and France were hit fairly hard, however. We know from records in England that entire villages were lost after so many people died that it was not sustainable to keep a population going there.
With people dying all around, survivors were suddenly in an interesting position. There simply weren’t enough people to continue on in the way that they had previously. The extremely low remuneration that they received for agricultural labour seemed excessive when there was no one to carry it out. They began to argue that they should be paid more. Similarly, when there were fewer members of the gentry to come hunt you down if you chose to leave the land you had been assigned to, why not risk a dash for freedom?
The rich people were not happy about this. As the largest land owners were the crown and the nobility, they attempted to freeze wages at pre-plague levels and make it a crime to refuse work with an Ordinance of Laborers in 1348 followed by a 1351 Statute of Laborers.
The frustrations of the common people erupted to the point that in 1381 a group of rebels from the county of Kent rose up under the direction of Walter “Wat” Tyler (d. 1381) and marched on London, which they saw as representative of corrupt royal authority. Outside the city on Blackheath they were met by the 14 year-old King Richard II (1367-1400) and a group of royal delegates who attempted to persuade the rebels from attacking.
As a counterpoint, the Lollard priest John Ball (1338-1381) delivered the peasants a sermon which made direct complaints about what he saw as the unnatural and unholy nature of society. He called into question the morality of the ruling class, asking
When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gentilman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord …[We are] uprooting the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future.
Fuck yes, comrade.
The next day, while Richard hid in the safety of the Tower of London the rebels attacked the city, killed every royal representative they could find, tore the Marshalsea prison to the ground and released its occupants, and attacked several other jails. They also burnt the Savoy palace, resident to Duke John of Gaunt (1340-1399) to the ground, destroying all of his expensive possessions rather than looting them for they declared they were “zealots for truth and justice, not thieves and robbers”.
The rebels drew up a list of demands and sent them to the king. This included a list of officials to be handed over to their control for execution, that serfdom be abolished, and a general amnesty for all the rebels. Richard duly sent out charters abolishing serfdom, but sent no officals.
Now this is all cool as hell, as many important historians have noted. Sadly, it also didn’t last.
A few days later, with the rebels still in London Richard met Tyler and the crowds on Smithfield. A scuffle broke out, and Tyler attacked the mayor of London, was stabbed repeatedly, and died. This kick-started rebellions across the kingdom, with attacks on Church, royal, and noble property in Suffolk, Cambridge, St Albans, Beverly, Norwich, and eventually York, among other places.
When the rebellion was more widespread the militarised nobility were more easily able to counter it. A rag tag group of commoners were no match for men on horseback in full plate armour. Guess what happened next? The rich killed everyone and totally reneged on their promises to abolish serfdom, with Richard’s evil ass saying to the rebels “rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher.”
Not only was another world not possible, but this one was about to get worse for those who survived and only the rich would benefit.
I know you all feel me.
Now this should not have necessarily surprised the peasants of England, given that a similar rebellion – the Jacquerie Revolt – had taken place in France in 1358. There French peasants, exhausted by the Black Death and crushed by the on-going warfare on their doorsteps attacked noble and bourgeoise targets in Rouen, Rheims, Senlis, and Montdidier. Lacking the cohesion of the later English effort, they were eventually defeated with massacres of peasants at Meaux and Reims.
Even with this example, and knowing that their movement might be crushed, still the English peasants saw an opportunity to fight for a better world, and they took it.
Did the movement work for them? Well, no. But it did make a point. It showed the nobility that peasants were not a group that would always placidly accept their lot in life. They could be powerful. They could organise, and when they did, they were able to make demands. Ultimately, only widespread violent repression was able to crush the peasants and their egalitarian message.
But this rebellion was also a guiding light. The Hussites, inspired by a religious message with direct links to the Lollards who preached during Tyler’s rebellion, would successfully rise up and repeatedly defeat waves of imperial armies who attempted to stop them from implementing a new societal vision, some of which involved honest to god communism. Perhaps the English and French were unable to free themselves, but they were able to show others that fighting for a better world was in and of itself possible, if not necessarily preordained to work.
I am thinking about those peasants right now while I am looking at London outside of my window. I am thinking about the fact that some six hundred years later I am still thinking about what they were fighting for. I am thinking about the fact that as a historian I can see that although their rebellion was stymied, they did manage to secure better rates of payment for themselves, and also more rights to move away from serf holdings, eventually. I am thinking about how they must have felt when they were told that their lives held no importance in comparison to those of the rich who they were literally bound to serve. And I am thinking about how they kept going, because they had to.
These small lives made a difference in the long run. I am sure that was cold comfort at the time, but by refusing to be ignored, by advocating that they too deserved a life that was rich and rewarding the peasantry eventually shifted European culture.
We have suffered a setback, and those who care nothing for the poor and the disenfranchised are set, once again, to make their lives infinitely more comfortable as a result of our suffering. However, we exist, our ideas exist, and a better life is possible, no matter how they fight it. These ideas are bigger than any one rebellion, any one election, any one setback. As hard as it is, and as dark as it seems, we have to keep moving forward, together.
In the words of John Ball,
“My good friends, things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord, and all distinctions levelled; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.”
Give us bread, but give us roses.
 Richard B Dobson, The Peasants Revolt of 1381(Bath: Pittman, 1970), p. 375.
 Alastair Dunn, The Great Rising of 1381: the Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution (Stroud, Tempus, 2002), p. 86.
 Nigel Saul, Richard II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 74
For more on normal people in the medieval period see:
On the bull semen explosion, animal husbandry, and how medieval people were nicer to cows
On women and work
A short history of Jan Hus, the Protestant leader you’ve never heard of, or, Martin Luther jacked Hus’s whole style