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1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt
1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt
Juliet Barker
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
528 pp., 29.95

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Tom Shippey

"Away with the Learning of Clerks!"

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

The events of 1381 have long fascinated historians. To Marxists, "the peasants' revolt" was one of the great "might have beens." For them, the rebels' demands—abolition of serfdom, "recognition of a man's right to work for whom he chose at the wages he chose"—would if granted have created a socialist state half a millennium before Marx. To Protestants and the more apocalyptically minded, the demand for seizure of the wealth of the Established Church looked forward to the Reformation and the Levellers of the English Civil War. Demand for the execution of all lawyers has left commentators more uncertain.

Even historians who did not have a predetermined response, however, were thrilled by the drama recounted in several contemporary chronicles: the march on London by the rebels of Essex and Kent, the seizure of the Tower from which the king's chancellor and treasurer were dragged to their deaths (the chancellor also being the Archbishop of Canterbury), most of all the confrontation at Smithfield, where the 14-year-old King Richard faced the rebel leader Wat Tyler. Tyler spoke too boldly to the king, and the mayor of London knocked him off his horse, to be finished off by one of the king's squires. But as the rebels (all of them trained to arms, as was then compulsory) began to bend their longbows, Richard rode forward and shouted out that he would be their leader now: on their loyalty, they were to leave the field immediately, which they did. Only to suffer terrible reprisals once the magnates of England got their forces together.

In her deeply researched and exceptionally well-illustrated book, Juliet Barker indeed tells the story, but unpicks many of the assumptions behind it. First, she insists, it was never a "peasants' revolt" at all. Many of the individuals involved can be traced in the copious surviving records of the English 14th century, and the rebels included men of considerable wealth and standing. Thomas atte Raven of Kent, who joined the march on London, had been a Member of Parliament three years before. William Spalding was keeper of the king's manor at Eltham. William Sampson owned 137 acres in Suffolk, 72 horses and cattle, 300 sheep, 100 pigs, a share in a ship and goods valued at £65 12s. and 8d.—all confiscated, but he still had enough stashed away to buy himself a pardon. The appeal of the revolt was by no means universal, but it was certainly widespread.

Not, however, among contemporary chroniclers, all of them clerics and almost all of them monks, that is to say members of what were by then richly endowed communities, notoriously harsh on their tenants and equally famous for soft living and extravagance (as one can see from Chaucer's portrayal of a stereotypical monk in The Canterbury Tales). To such men, all the rebels were just rustici, hicks from the sticks, "a bestial mob, ignorant, illiterate, barely capable of cogent language." The severe fright the monks had got did not predispose them to objectivity. One might add that their failure to learn from the revolt left them with few supporters at the time of their dispossession by Henry VIII.

What, then, were the revolt's real aims and origins? To an Englishman nowadays, some of it sounds depressingly familiar. Military adventurism had been a complete failure. The government's inability to balance its budget had led to ever-increasing taxation. There was a tax on parishes in 1371, where the government's calculations proved embarrassingly wrong: they'd counted on there being 45,000 parishes in the country, when there were only 8,600, so the levy had to be increased five-fold. (Nowadays we have computers to make mistakes like that.)

So in 1377 Parliament tried a poll-tax, the first ever, fourpence a head from every soul in the country over the age of 14, a good day's pay for a laborer (though nothing to a monk or a magnate). Encouraged by the success of this, Parliament tried again in 1379, and again in 1380, but by this time there was widespread under-reporting even by the tax-collectors. It was another 600 years before anyone tried to levy a poll-tax again, in 1989, and its failure was one of the factors that brought down Mrs. Thatcher.

Meanwhile, Barker shows well how utterly confusing the legal system had become. Two men living in the same village and farming the same amount of land might have widely different demands made on them, for one was in theory free, and the other in theory unfree, and so liable to work his lord's land as well as his own, and pay all kinds of customary dues (as well as his tithe to the Church). For him, all financial disputes would fall under the jurisdiction of his lord's court, where he could be sure the odds were stacked against him. Issues of morality went to the bishop's consistory court, which could fine him or flog him. Only professional lawyers had a hope of changing matters, and (again we hear contemporary echoes) justice was slow, expensive, and incomprehensible.

One of the least surprising things about the revolt, then—Barker mentions it many times—was the bee-line the rebels made for legal documents of all kinds, which they invariably burned, even if the savvier ones did their best to have them replaced by new grants and charters, self-dictated. Their main demands, however, looked at dispassionately and with a modern eye, were not unreasonable: abolition of villeinage; one law for everyone, "the ancient royal system of criminal justice" which the rebels associated with the 1285 Statute of Winchester; a clear accounting of where their taxes had gone (one might remember that the auditors have not passed the accounts of the European Union for 20 years); and in the towns, freedom to buy and sell without tolls or monopolies: demands which, if granted, might as readily have set up a capitalist revolution as a Marxist one.

It nearly worked. Richard himself, the boy-king, seems to have meant it when he granted the rebels all their requests at Mile End on June 14, giving them letters patent under his own seal—30 clerks were set to work writing them out—and a royal banner for each county. Even after the revolt was over in November and the reprisals under way, he astonishingly asked Parliament to ratify his abolition of villeinage. It was his revocation of that abolition which was forced on him, by the magnates, not his initial grant to the rebels.

One of the sad facts about the revolt is that many of the deeds which led later to hangings and executions were done by men who thought, not unreasonably, that they were acting with the king's approval and authority. The rebels, like Robin Hood—stories of whom start to be mentioned at just this time—remained steadfastly loyal to the king, and faithful Christians. It was the officials of king and Church who provoked them, and even Parliament agreed that these were "for the most part too fat in body and in purse, and too well provided, and their benefices ill managed."

It's true that beheading the Archbishop of Canterbury, and men like Sir John Cavendish (a lawyer) and John de Cambridge (prior of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds), was lynch law, and the rebels' street theater—they put the heads of the last two on poles and made them pretend to kiss and whisper to each other, to show how they thought the law was perverted by the great ones—was never going to be forgiven. But one does not have to be a Marxist to see that it was the inertia of a corrupt system which provoked the atrocities.

There are many other individual stories peeping out from Barker's account. One of the men who dragged the archbishop out to his death received a pardon for another rebellion nearly twenty years later, because King Henry IV (who had by then deposed Richard and had him murdered) remembered that on that day in 1381, when he too was hiding in the Tower, John Ferrour had saved his life "in a wonderful and kind manner." Ferrour murdered the archbishop, but he saved King Richard's young cousin. One wonders how. As one wonders who let the rebels into the garrisoned Tower in the first place. Reality then must have been as complex as Game of Thrones.

There is only one point where this reviewer would query Barker's notably even-handed account. Modern literates, accustomed to dealing with paper every day of their lives, underestimate how infuriating documents were to the illiterate. There are a number of poems from this period—historians don't read medieval poems, that's the English department's job, if it's anyone's any more—which give wholly convincing pictures of solid, respectable members of society driven to desperation by documents they couldn't read, assessments they couldn't challenge, payments for which they never got a receipt. The most enduring image of the revolt may be the old woman Margery Starre dancing round the bonfire of papers in Cambridge market square, shouting "Away with the learning of clerks, away with it!" Nowadays, of course, it would be IRS computers.

Tom Shippey is the author of J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Mariner Books).

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