On finding inspiration for change

Every day I wake up with the grinding worry that some non-historian has had a very mad medieval history take, and every day that is true. Sadly, yesterday was one of those days once again as some basic wrote a bad take in The New York Times about how the Black Death allegedly improved conditions for workers. This, of course, is something I have rebutted at length, both on here, and also in The Washington Post (because ya girl is fancy now). It is one thing to complain about how this is bad history that has been roundly debunked, as I do that all the time. However, today I want to talk a little where in medieval history we can look for good news.

See, the thing about rubbishing these takes is it makes me feel as though I am just a giant pessimist. I understand that we have all been through a lot of terrible stuff and that there is a need in our society to assure ourselves that suffering will inevitably be rewarded. It’s a sort of historical wishfulness, and a belief in a sort of inevitability that history itself is what changes society.

But here’s the thing, history doesn’t change anything – people do. And this can be any number of individual persons who are ordinarily disempowered, which is why today I wanted to specifically have a look at women in the late medieval period who got involved to try to change their world.

Now, as I have already stated we can’t say that rebellions were successful in bringing about the change that they demanded. Still, I think it is useful to have a look at them to have a look at how the disempowered fought back in order to learn from them and avoid the mistakes that they made, and a great person to look at and learn from is one Margery Starre, who took an active role in the Peasants’ Revolt.

Regular readers hardly need reminding about the Peasants’ Revolt (which Luke and I have also covered over at the podcast, just by the by), but it bears repeating that it was an armed uprising against the general status quo where serfs were unable to negotiate for wages, choose where to live, had to pay a fee is they wanted to get married, and you know, essentially the bundle of issues that I have discussed at length elsewhere. Eventually these conditions were considered so intolerable that there was an armed march to London, whereupon the peasants sacked the city, burnt down the Savoy palace, and freed debtors from prison. Just absolutely the best sort of stuff. No notes.

From The Ferrell Roman de la Rose, Morgan MS G.32, f. 95 v.

Sadly, they were soon violently crushed by royal and noble forces, but not before Margery Starre apparently called her fellow peasants to arms in Cambridge while throwing the ashes of burnt documents in the air and shouting “away with the learning of clerks! Away with it!”[1] This is interesting because it is a direct attack on those with royal and Church privileges. Medieval universities were Church institutions, and often specifically endowed by the king with special rights. This did not always leave commoners happy because wealthy students and clerks could essentially get away with mistreating locals as they were considered under the jurisdiction of separate legal systems. So, when Margery burnt a bunch of clerks’ stuff she was directly attacking the theoretical systems which underpinned the system that disempowered her. In short, this is some queen shit. It also shows us that people we consider ordinary could critique their own circumstances and directly oppose them. We can learn from her.

Now before you go saying, “Well sure that is one woman who was willing to lead a rebellion, but that is just a blip”, I am here to tell you that Margery was hardly an outlier. Some thirty women appear on the pardon rolls which record the names of the peasants who thought it best to take up the amnesty that was offered them to by King Richard II (1367-1400)after all the peasant slaughter in the name of the status quo started. While it is true that these names may appear following a false accusation of taking part in the revolt, even a false accusation shows us that it wasn’t unthinkable that a woman would be involved in the fighting. Otherwise, such accusations couldn’t be made.

Similarly, we see records from the Court of Common pleas that show women were involved in some of the most direct violence of the rebellion. One woman named Johanna Ferrour was listed as a “chief perpetrator and leader of a great society of rebellious evildoers from Kent” who she was alleged to have lead “to the Savoy in the country of Middlesex and, as an enemy of the king, burned the said manor; she seized a chest containing one thousand pounds belonging to John the duke of Lancaster, and then she put the said chest into a boat on the Thames and made off with it, all the way to Southwark, where she divided the gold between herself and others.” Not content to lead armies and redistribute wealth to her comrades, Johanna got up the next day and apparently arrested the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Treasurer Robert Hales and sentenced them to death, and apparently had “dragged them out of the Tower [of London where they were hiding]” herself.[2] 

From Diebold Schilling’s, Spiezer Chronik, Bern, MS.h.h.I.16 f.112.

While all of that is unassailably cool, we have no record of Johanna actually being convicted of the crime of being awesome. Her husband was acquitted, which may indicate that she was also the victim of a campaign to make her look incredibly sound, but also criminal. Once again, a woman having these charges levelled at her is indicative that such things were considered in the realm of the possible.

While Johanna was absolutely a legend, she was not necessarily an outlier. Across late medieval Europe peasants continued to revolt, and women continued to play a part in those revolts when they did. In 1386, English peasants again revolted in Romsley, Worcestershire, against their landlord the local Abbot. One of their leaders was Agnes Sadler, who alongside her brother John atte Lych and a certain Thomas Puttway spoke on behalf of the villagers who refused to do any more service for their lord. They triumphed and managed to reduce the demands that the lord was able to make of them, though the fight would continue into the next century.[3] 

By the fifteenth century, when the Kingdom of Bohemia was in open revolt against the Church and the Holy Roman Empire during the Hussite Wars, women from across the social spectrum became involved. In 1420, Hungarian troops reported that they had captured some one hundred and fifty six armed women, who had cut their hair and dressed as men in order to take up the fight. In particular, women from the Taborite faction of Hussites, a group drawn from the surrounds and city of Tabor who were dedicated to the eradication of the social order and setting up a communal society, seem to have advocated for particularly violent forms of all-out war. In the same year, the rebels took Říčany castle, and afterwards the military captains of the Hussites wished to spare the lives of the women and children within. It was reported that the Taborite women specifically argued that their enemies could not be spared and should, instead, be burned to ensure that the new world could rise from the ashes.[4] Working women, and peasant women more specifically, thus could not only be seen as involved in politics, but some of the fiercest advocates of a more equal world.

The Vengeance of Berenice of Cappadocia. From Boccacio, de mulieribus claris/Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées, Bibliothèque Nationale MS Français 599 fol. 63. 

Why am I telling you all this? Well, the thing about social change is it happens when people actively oppose the those that are attempting to oppress them. It doesn’t happen just because of a demographic shift. It doesn’t come about as an inevitable force which sweeps away oppressive rules. It happens because people organise. All of these women put their lives on the line in even worse circumstances than we are facing on the off chance that they could change their world and society. All of these women were considered as infinitesimally powerful in comparison with their oppressors, and still they got out there and fought for the change they needed.

If we want our working conditions to improve as a result of the on-going pandemic, we need to actively get involved in the struggle to do just that. Luckily for us, we have options like joining a union, or starting a mutual aid group. We don’t actually have to violently attack our oppressors to initiate change. But, you know … horses for courses. At any rate, we can’t rest on outmoded and disproven historical myths to save us, we have to look to each other. So let’s get to it.

[1] Sylvia, Federico, “The Imaginary Society: Women in 1381.” Journal of British Studies 40, no. 2 (2001): 159. 
[2] Ibid., 168.
[3] Zvi Razi, “Family, land, and the village community in later medieval England”, Past & Present, 93:1,(1981), 35.
[4] Jaroslav Goll (ed.), Fontes Rerum Bohemicarum, V, (Prague: František Palacký, 1893), pp. 477-478.

For more on peasants in the medieval period, see:
On collapsing time, or, not everyone will be taken into the future
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

If you are enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon for more exclusive content. If not, that’s chill too!

Want more audio medieval history? Check out my podcast, We’re Not So Different.

My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now in the Americas, and available for pre-order in the UK, Aus, and NZ.

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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