14th Century – Popular Rebellions

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

Peasants’ Revolt, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, (1381), first great popular rebellion in English history. Its immediate cause was the imposition of the unpopular poll tax of 1381, which brought to a head the economic discontent that had been growing since the middle of the century. The rebellion drew support from several sources and included well-to-do artisans and villeins as well as the destitute. Probably the main grievance of the agricultural labourers and urban working classes was the Statute of Labourers (1351), which attempted to fix maximum wages during the labour shortage following the Black Death.

The uprising was centred in the southeastern counties and East Anglia, with minor disturbances in other areas. It began in Essex in May, taking the government of the young king Richard II by surprise. In June rebels from Essex and Kent marched toward London. On the 13th the Kentish men, under Wat Tyler, entered London, where they massacred some Flemish merchants and razed the palace of the king’s uncle, the unpopular John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. The government was compelled to negotiate. On the 14th Richard met the men of Essex outside London at Mile End, where he promised cheap land, free trade, and the abolition of serfdom and forced labour. During the king’s absence, the Kentish rebels in the city forced the surrender of the Tower of London; the chancellor, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, both of whom were held responsible for the poll tax, were beheaded.

The king met Tyler and the Kentishmen at Smithfield on the following day. Tyler was treacherously cut down in Richard’s presence by the enraged mayor of London. The king, with great presence of mind, appealed to the rebels as their sovereign and, after promising reforms, persuaded them to disperse. The crisis in London was over, but in the provinces the rebellion reached its climax in the following weeks. It was finally ended when the rebels in East Anglia under John Litster were crushed by the militant bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser, on about June 25.

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National wars exacerbated already existing tensions in society, which themselves eventuated in civil strife. The traditional scholarly consensus is that the first half of the fourteenth century was not half so bad as the second half. This is in some ways a misinterpretation or at least a simplistic generalization, as we shall see when we turn to Flanders and summarize the results of recent research on that region. But before we do so, we need to take a look once more at Flanders’ neighbour to the south, the kingdom of France

In 1320, the famine had not yet abated in northern France when King Philip V made known his intention to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. The fervour the declaration excited was enormous. If anything, this would be the gesture that would reconcile God and the Christian people. Around Lent and Easter, before the Crown could assemble its forces for the expedition (in fact, it never did assemble them), groups of would-be crusaders, many low-born, began to gather in the extreme north of the realm. Their inferior status and the presence of herdsmen among them gave rise to contemptuous references to them as pastoureaux, shepherds, men hardly fit for war.

The leaders in this Shepherds’ Crusade are a shadowy group, perhaps including some defrocked priests, who justified their taking up of arms as any commissioned crusader preachers would have done. But the contingents, poorly disciplined and bearing grievances against the upper orders of society and the state for failing to raise a crusading army, soon turned their wrath on other Christians. In Paris some of the would-be crusaders attacked the Châtelet, the headquarters of the royal official who governed the city. They continued to garner support from the lower and sometimes middle classes, although their enemies slurred their male supporters as ne’er-do-wells and the women as whores.

Violence spread throughout the kingdom, even into the deep south. Hundreds of Jews, only recently (1315) readmitted for a price to the kingdom after their expulsion in 1306, were massacred at various places or forced to convert. And although a number of princes and, of course, the Crown ultimately brought forces to bear to eradicate the crusade-turned-rebellion, the final remnants of the pastoureaux escaped into Spain. It was to be only a minor breather, for there they were efficiently dispatched by troops loyal to the Crown of Aragon.

The uprising of the pastoureaux was brief; that of the lower classes in Flanders was not. Social violence of a limited sort had already occurred during the Great Famine in Flanders, because of perceived violations of the moral economy, the deeply embedded view that, despite the profits to be made, the exploitation of less well-off citizens by wealthy ones, particularly in crisis times, was illicit. Hoarding in order to inflate prices artificially was a clear violation of the moral economy. The existence of under-supplied urban markets, the high price of food, and the necessity of lower-class townsfolk to go into debt to meet their minimal material requirements gave rise to suspicions, especially with regard to middlemen. Rumours of river barges full of grain and granaries stuffed to the rafters provoked deadly riots and, then, reprisals against the rioters, as for example in the town of Douai, where the ring-leaders, among whom women figured prominently, had their tongues cut out for having instigated the violence.

Incidents of this sort, bloody and disturbing to social peace as they were at the local level, were isolated in the famine years. What happened in Flanders in the aftermath of the famine and the dislocations occasioned by the long series of Franco-Flemish wars and the economic repercussions of the Anglo-French wars (blockades and piracy) were two periods of more sustained social movements that rent the fabric of urban and rural culture, changing it forever. The first was the Peasant Revolt of 1323–8, the second, the movement that culminated in the van Artevelde regime from the 1330s onwards.

The succession of agreements that had brokered the oft-shattered peace between France and Flanders early in the fourteenth century imposed both mandated and unexpected burdens on the Flemish peasantry. Indemnities intended to placate the ultimately victorious French and redeem captive Flemish nobles fell hard on the rural dwellers already severely hit by natural disasters. In addition, the returned nobles naturally set about to bring their estates back into productivity, a process that incurred suspicion and outright hostility from many peasants. However bad the period before 1322 had been, what it had provided, in the deaths of so many Flemish lords and the captivity of so many others, was a relief from or relaxing of traditional seigneurial rents and other forms of exploitation. Moreover, the return of the count of Flanders from captivity in France had a similar effect on the towns, most especially Bruges. The count expected to regain (perhaps to strengthen) his authority and powers and curtail urban privileges, or so it seemed to the lower and middle classes. Revolt flared briefly in the winter months of 1323.

Efforts to contain the violence and reach a negotiated settlement seemed successful at first, but the calm established was more apparent than real. More than two decades of deepening social cleavages between the aristocracy on the one hand and the lower and middle classes on the other came to the surface once again in late 1324. With it came the seizure of power by the lower orders in Bruges from both comital authorities and the urban patriciate, whose position in other towns, too, was increasingly precarious. No attempts by the count to turn the tables seemed to succeed. Indeed, he was captured by the rebels, and thereafter other towns, like Ypres, came under the control of revolutionary governments claiming to represent the interests of the lower classes – weavers’ governments, they have been called.

Forces hostile to Bruges, marshalled by the patrician oligarchy in Ghent in particular and its aristocratic allies, counter-attacked, but with little evident success, and the rebellion-cum-civil war persisted. Even Ghent went through a phase in which its weavers tried to orchestrate a coup, although fruitlessly. Through all the vicissitudes of 1324 and 1325, there were incidents of arson, especially directed at aristocratic residences, and there were massacres of suspected and would-be enemies on both sides.

Needless to say, France intervened. The weapons it used were multiple. The Church served by interdicting the rebel regions. The Crown tried to split the rebels, seeking to strike a deal with those who were in favour of releasing the count. This succeeded; it also responded to overtures for a compromise settlement that would forgive some of the leaders of the revolt if they agreed to lay down their arms, allow their fortifications to be razed, and repent of the introduction of new anti-aristocratic modes of governance, like the rebel captains (hoofdmannen), who had achieved considerable power in Flanders.

There were a great many rebels who were willing to go along with this. There were many others who were not. In those regions under the control of the latter, a reign of terror ensued. Mass executions took place of those either hostile or simply indifferent to the aims of the rebellion. Particularly targeted were nobles who fell into the extremists’ hands. The stories that some of them were forced to execute their own families seem well substantiated. Conditions continued to deteriorate during 1327.

The French then felt they had no choice but to intervene and assembled a huge army. There is little doubt that if the Flemish rebels had concentrated their forces they would have been a match for the French, but they could not be sure where an attack would come from, and they had to be alert for their enemies in Flanders itself who might fight rear actions against them. In the event, a large, but not overwhelming assortment of rebels took up a hill-top position in Cassel in August 1328. The French arrived, having laid waste the lands in their path. Surveying the difficulty of attacking uphill, they delayed, a tactic that proved to be greatly to their benefit, as the Flemish decided to try to annihilate them with a sweep down the hillside which proved disastrous. When the bodies were counted, at least 3,185 rebels lay dead. In the aftermath, their property was confiscated and other rebels taken into custody elsewhere in the county were executed and/or lost their property as well.

The rebels had sought ‘a world without corruption’, ‘a world without privilege’ (TeBrake, 1993). At their ideologically most lofty, these were surely the aims of the rebels. On the ground, they sought relief from taxes and the heavy indemnities that had become a recurrent fact of life in Flanders, as France or some set of aristocrats had to be paid off to seal every truce in the long war. Most of the peasants were already free in a legal sense, but they also wanted to prevent the imposition of financial obligations that would have reduced them to a form of financial servitude. Weavers, finally, may have wanted equality, but they would probably have settled for something like greater respect, better wages, more opportunities for advancement, price controls, etc., if the situation had not otherwise got out of hand.

The forces arrayed against the rebels were no less high-minded. They read their enemies’ sloganeering as nothing less than a threat to overturn society and hierarchies otherwise sanctioned by God, and they called on the Church to denounce the rebels and their usurpations and to do everything it could to sanctify the violence carried out to re-establish social order. The forces of repression considered themselves virtually equivalent to the holy crusaders of the century before.

The bitterness and hatred had a lingering impact on Flanders. Rebels and their descendants remembered the vicious repression; nobles and patricians remembered their humiliation, the almost ritualistic imposition of violence against their families. No longer was there basic trust among the constituent groups of medieval Flemish society. Indeed, it might be argued that Flemish society ceased to be medieval at all, as all traditional organic metaphors of political co-ordination failed to articulate the real loyalties of real people in Flanders.

This helps explain the other, less violent phase of Flemish revolutionary activity, the establishment of the van Artevelde regime. Ghent had remained ‘loyal’ to the comital party in Flanders during the troubles, but the loyalty was conditional, in the sense that the city expected its relative autonomy and economic position to be respected by other cities, its hinterland, and the count. No one seemed wholly willing to accept Ghent’s vision of itself as the head of Flanders. Nonetheless, the city was in the fortunate position in the 1330s of coming under the inspired leadership of Jacob van Artevelde, who managed to reconfigure internal urban alliances in the face of the count’s attempted encroachments on the city’s privileges.

International politics also allowed van Artevelde a role. Strategically located for the receiving of imports from England, raw wool mainly, the city’s support seemed crucial to the French, who were intent on injuring England’s export trade during the opening years of the Hundred Years War. In fact, despite some significant French gestures to the burghers of Ghent, van Artevelde came more and more under the spell of the English, ultimately welcoming Edward III to the city and recognizing his claim as king of France. In other ways, too, partly by playing an international game, partly by his astuteness in local comital politics, and partly because Ghent was supplementing its precarious income from cloth-making by becoming a major grain staple city, van Artevelde brought Ghent to a tentative hegemony in Flanders.

The long-term outcome of this story is beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say that the terrifying violence in Flanders in the 1320s and the destabilization and strange political formations of the 1330s and 1340s were early harbingers of what was to come in many places in Europe: rural and urban violence on a scale nearly unimaginable – the French Jacquerie of 1358, the Florentine Revolt of the Ciompi of 1378, and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, among them. However, what happened in Flanders was not only the first but the most sustained of all fourteenth-century revolutionary disturbances. Its human cost was also certainly the highest – by several orders of magnitude.

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