The Peasants’ Revolt: England, 1381

Last week, we scrambled through the mud of medieval England meeting the serfs. Or as they were also called, the villeins. You will, of course, remember every word I wrote, which is good because I don’t and someone should take the trouble. 

We ended, as any good miniseries does, on a cliffhanger: Individual serfs–by no means all of them, but some–were challenging their place in the system, trying to prove in court that they weren’t serfs.  When that starts to happen with any consistency, I claimed (and, of course, I know these things), it’s a sign that the system’s starting to crack. An increasing number of people didn’t fit into the old slots, but society was doing its damnedest to keep them stuffed in there. 

Obviously relevant photo. This is Fast Eddie, free cat of this village. He is relevant to everything that matters.

In The English Rebel, David Horspool says that before democracy (or anything that passed for it) wandered onto the scene, popular rebellions seemed to pop out of nowhere. The country’s rulers knew next to nothing about the people they ruled, and the ruled had no way to make their voices heard. Self-preservation advised them to keep their opinions to their unworthy and unwashed selves. So basically there were no tea leaves for the experts to read. Tea hadn’t been imported from Asia yet anyway.

Still, there were hints for anyone who knew how to read them. One of them was those scattered people going to court to prove they weren’t villeins. 

Another was—. Well, let’s back up a second. The Black Death had swept through the country, leaving a labor shortage. That happens when, oh, maybe a third of a country’s population dies. And farm laborers and artisans noticed that friends and co-workers were missing. How could they not? 

So what did they do? They took off, looking for better pay, better work, a breath or two of free air. Or they stayed put and tried to get a better deal where they were.

If you ruled the country, you could take those as hints or you could follow the example of those wise those caring people who actually did rule the place and pass the 1351 Statute of Labourers, freezing wages, restricting movement, and punishing offenders by, variously, putting them in the stocks, fining them, and tossing them in jail. And doing twice as much of it if they broke the law again.

It’s worth mentioning that while wages were frozen, prices were rising.

The statute’s goal was to contain the “malice of servants,” which was doing “great damage of the great men, and impoverishing of all the said commonalty.” All you laborers, back in your uncomfortable little slots. The stability of the entire society depends on you shutting up and acting like you’re making that space work for you.

Interestingly enough, the statute also covered unbeneficed priests–priests who didn’t have a church appointment, which meant they didn’t get the income a church appointment brought with it. I haven’t found any information on why the statute applied to them or how it affected them. Maybe unbeneficed priests were considered the laborers of the church and had their pay fixed along with everyone else’s. I might as well confess that I didn’t read the full text of the statute. It listed so many job categories–hostelers, harbergers, workmen, servants, dairymaids,tailors, tawers of leather, and assorted others–that I got too dizzy to read on. 

But never mind that. Can I offer you a warning instead, just in case you wake up some morning and find you’re the ruler of a wildly unequal society (and aren’t we lucky not to live in a world where they’re easy to find)? Be careful about letting the everyday poor make common cause with people whose education has set them up to nurture an expectation or three. Because when those two get together, they make an explosive combination, and unbeneficed priests (along with artisans) were strongly represented in the Peasants’ Revolt, even though it’s still called the Peasants’ Revolt, not the Peasants’, Artisans’, and Unbeneficed Priests’ Revolt. 

The people in charge of England at the time not only didn’t have the advantage of my advice, they didn’t see people going in search of higher pay as a hint of trouble to come. So they followed up on the Statute of Labourers by introducing poll taxes, which were taxes on “each person in the land, both male and female.” 

Isn’t it nice to see women mentioned for a change? 

The phrase poll tax comes from middle English. Poll meant head. If you had a head, it was taxed. Or it was if you’d had it long enough, because the tax did have a minimum age limit. It’s unseemly to tax newborns.

Poll taxes were imposed in 1377, 1379, and 1380, and the last one triggered the rebellion–or it helped to, in a last-straw kind of way. It was a flat tax–the richest and the poorest had to pay the same amount: a shilling from everyone above the age of fifteen. That was three times the amount of the poll tax that came before it.

To translate that, with complete accuracy, into modern terms, a shilling was a shitload of money. Or it was if you were poor. So if you couldn’t scratch up a shilling, you could pay by handing over your tools, your seeds, your cow. And if it left you unable to feed your family, maybe you should have thought it through before you grew such an expensive head.

Why all the taxes? Because England was in the middle of the Hundred Years War with France. (How do you respond to a disaster like the Black Death? Why, you keep right on fighting an endless war.) England was more or less always at war with France. Let’s not go into the reasons. It was like smoking: one of those habits that’s hard to give up. And like smoking, it was an expensive habit. That’s why all the taxes.

In response to the third tax, 450,000 people magically disappeared from the record books and the government appointed a commission to find them and collect all those missing shillings, one by one by one. In three Essex villages, Fobbing, Cottingham, and Stanford-le-Hope, a royal commissioner ran into trouble. A hundred or so people gathered, refused to pay, and when he tried to have them arrested ran him out of town.

Then they “went to the woods for fear of his malice,” according to a contemporary chronicler. By the time another commission came to arrest them, they’d gone from town to town, gathering support. The commission thought better of the job and left the rebels in control of the county–some 50,000 of them according to a contemporary estimate, although you might want to think twice before you take medieval numbers seriously. It’s better to think of that as a poetic way to say “a lot of people.”

The rebels sent letters to Kent, Suffolk, and Norfolk, calling on people to rise with them, and they may have been written by John Ball, so let’s take a minute to talk about him. He was a priest who for some time had been preaching the coming of a classless society and backing up his argument by drawing on the same religion that normally backed up the existing class hierarchy. 

“When Adam dalf and Eve span,” he preached, “who was then a gentleman?” 

Dalf? That’s means  dug, although I’ve usually seen it as delved. Span means spun

Ball was excommunicated in 1366 but went right on preaching, although not in churches anymore. He preached in churchyards and open marketplaces, and every so often he was thrown in jail for it.

Even though being excommunicated meant people weren’t supposed to listen to him, it didn’t seem to have dented his popularity. When the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, he had enough of a reputation that the rebels broke him out of Maidstone Prison and he joined them.

And now, instead of going backward let’s take a stop to one side:

In Kent, the rebellion was sparked not by the tax but by a dispute over whether or not a local man was a villein. It was one of those court cases I mentioned earlier, although I can’t tell you why this particular one sparked the rebellion instead of half a dozen others. But it did and local rebels seized the local castle. After that, some half of the rebels said, “Job done,” and went home, but the other half stuck around to burn records “so that once the memory of ancient customs had been wiped out their lords would be completely unable to vindicate their rights over them.” 

Burning the records seems to have marked a turning point in the rebellion. It took on a larger aim, and it’s at this point that Wat Tyler emerged as a leader. Not much is known about him. He might have fought in France–which also says he might not have. We’re doing well to have his name.

It’s hard to put all this together in any sort of coherent narrative. The chroniclers of the time were universally hostile to the uprising, and the rebels didn’t leave much in the way of documents. Their letters calling for risings are an exception, and they’re rich in imagery but light on concrete detail. In modern English, part of one says, “John the Miller hath ground small, small, small / The King’s son of heaven shall pay for all.”

If you’re going to invite me to a local uprising, could you please be more specific? I appreciate the poetry and all, but I’m a who-what-when-where-how-and-why kind of person. But the people who received the letters must have understood, because rebels gathered from across the southeast. One strand of rebels headed to Canterbury, where they demanded that the monks elect a new archbishop. They also executed a few folks, who were handed over to them by “the people.”

Which people? Dunno. How enthusiastically or unwillingly did they hand them over? Dunno that either.

Eventually the various groups of rebels gathered outside London, although other parts of the country also saw uprisings. Chroniclers of the time estimate the London group at 100,000. Modern historians, who are more accurate but nowhere near as much fun, guess the number at 10,000, but that was still bigger than most armies of the time and way the hell more than the government could call up at short notice.

England had no standing army at this point, remember. Or–well, why should you remember? They didn’t. New information. If they wanted an army, they called up aristocratic warriors, and they called up the armed free men under them and little by little an army gathered itself. 

Unless, as occasionally happened, it didn’t. But even at its best, it took time, so the rebels had the advantage.

The rebels included free and unfree peasants, tradesmen, laborers, unbeneficed priests, artisans, and some minor gentry, including a knight or two. Their enemy–as they saw it–was the king’s government and advisers, not the king himself. They were loyal to the king. 

Across the Thames from London, they attacked the Marshalsea prison, setting debtors and felons loose. They attacked the archbishop’s manor, where they burned more records. Then guards opened both London Bridge and the city walls to them, either out of fear or sympathy–we’ll never know. 

Inside the city, the rebels were violent but well focused, and they were joined by “the commons of London.” They opened more prisons and burned the much-hated John of Guant’s Savoy Palace without looting it. In the lawyers’ section of the city, the Temple, they destroyed both property and records, beheading eighteen individuals who were targeted for reasons that, as far as I’ve been able to find out, are lost to history. 

Some sources say the violence was more widespread and included slaughter of Flemish residents. When in doubt or anger, blame the immigrants. The point Horspool makes, though, isn’t that the rebels were saints but that they had effective leadership. This wasn’t simple rioting, it kept a political focus. 

The King–Richard, in case you care, who was all of fourteen–and his advisers hied their asses to the Tower of London, which had (and still has) its own set of walls. There his advisers went into a collective meltdown and couldn’t come up with any advice to offer their kinglet. It was the kid who decided to talk with the rebels. 

Which he did, at Mile End, while a few rebels somehow got into the Tower and executed a handful men they particularly hated, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Well, they had called for him to be replaced.

Meanwhile, out at Mile End, the rebels presented their demands to the king: “that henceforward no man should be a serf nor make homage nor any type of service to any lord, but should give four pense for an acre of land. They also asked that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant.” 

The king said, “Yup, sounds fine to me,” and the meeting broke up. The killing in London continued that day and the next. 

Richard called the rebels to meet again and spoke with Wat Tyler, who (apparently; remember, we’re getting the story from a limited range of chroniclers who weren’t journalists) again presented their demands, expanding them to include an end to outlawing, the dividing up of Church goods, allowing provision for the clergy, and no lordship except for the king’s. 

Again the king agreed and issued pardons and charters of manumission–a way of releasing people from serfdom. 

Then the mayor of London tried to arrest Tyler, who stabbed him through his armor. The mayor stabber Tyler in the neck, someone else in the king’s entourage ran him through, and Tyler fell off his horse and called on his followers to avenge him.

How did everybody stab everybody when they were on horseback? No idea. Maybe we’re talking about swords, not knives. Maybe they were closer than I imagine them. Again, we’re getting the story from medieval chroniclers and they weren’t journalists. For all I know it’s not hard to stab someone when everyone’s on horseback. I have a shocking lack of experience with this.

The rebels, in spite of their overwhelming numbers, hesitated. This was the king–the person they’d pledged their loyalty to. The good guy who was surrounded by bad counselors.

Or they didn’t hesitate but drew their bows. As usual, accounts differ. The most common one is that Richard rode toward the rebels, calling that he would be their captain and leader, renewing his promise of freedom and pardons.

Whatever the exact events were, the rebellion was effectively over.

The charters of freedom were promptly forgotten. Rebel leaders were executed. John Ball was hung, drawn, and quartered, and his assorted body parts set outside London’s walls. I mention that in case you’re inclined to focus on the rebels’ violence. It was far from one sided. When the government finally gathered up an army, it marched into Essex, where there was still some resistance, and slaughtered five hundred rebels and killed a hundred more later on. Or some other large numbers, since we’ve agreed that any number over one is unreliable.

And the king’s promise? It disappeared without leaving so much as a puff of smoke behind. He now told rebel envoys, “You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live and, by God’s grace, rule over the realm, we will strive . . . to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity.” 

The Statute of Labourers was reinforced in the next few decades. England never formally abolished serfdom. It died out, but slowly.

On the other hand, no one tried to impose any more poll taxes. And, as these things tend to do, the legend of the rebellion lingers on, often in romanticized form.

Life at the bottom of the heap in medieval England

Let’s visit the England of the middle ages. 

Why should we do that? Because making the occasional visit to the past is good for us. Finish your spinach and we’ll be ready to go. 

Medieval England was shamelessly hierarchical and society was generally thought of as being divided into three parts. We’ll start at the top, since they would have: The clergy were in charge of people’s spiritual wellbeing. This probably meant telling them all the ways and reasons they could end up in hell, but I don’t have a source for that, I’m just guessing. The clergy also prayed, which was considered a contribution to society.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

The warriors–for which you can read the aristocracy, upper and lower–fought when they were called on. Or at least they were expected to. If you rummage around in all the loose bits of history that no one bothered to file, you’ll find times when they were called on and said, “Sorry, I’m washing my hair right now.” That belongs in a different tale, but it explains why “at least they were expected to” snuck in at the top of the paragraph. 

Finally, at the bottom of society, the peasants, the laborers, and the and-so-forths kept everyone fed and housed to and and-so-forth’d, and they did whatever the other two groups told them to, because who were they to ask questions or have ideas of their own? 

And these divisions were sanctified by religion, which permeated every aspect of life. They would have been almost as self-evident as the knowledge that if you drop things they fall.

Hang onto the almost from that last sentence. This is a two-post visit and we’ll need it when we get to next week’s section.

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen—. 

But I need to interrupt myself here so I can apologize. We’ll be short on links today; I’m working largely from books. You remember books? They’re what came before pixels. 

Keen quotes the fifteenth-century Order of Chivalry, which said, “To the knight it sufficeth not that he be given the best arms and the best beast, but also that he be given seignory,” which Keen translates as lordship over lesser men. 

That includes women, of course. Look inside any medieval man and you’ll notice flocks of tiny, unacknowledged, and unquestioning women, cooking the food and washing someone else’s dirty linen. Not to mention sewing, spinning, planting, winnowing, weeding, brewing the ale, and looking after the chickens and cows. And if the family was high enough up on the social scale, embroidering.

Funny how they could do all that and still not be noticeable. I’m delighted that in our happy time we’ve left injustice, hierarchy, and inequality in the past. 

Giving us a wider glimpse of society, Master Ralph Acton wrote, “When God could have made all men strong, wise and rich, he was unwilling to do so. . . . He willed these men to be strong and healthy, wise or rich, that they might save their own souls by helping others through love of them: those others he willed to be weak or foolish or in want, that they might save their souls by enduring hardship in patience. Hence God says, the poor ye shall always have with you.”

Who was Master Ralph Acton? Possibly a fourteenth-century scribe. Also possibly somebody who didn’t exist, in which case we don’t know who wrote that. But the writings themselves do exist, and for our purposes that’s good enough. They reminded the reader that society’s divisions were created by god, so all its inequalities were for the best. 

Occasionally somebody would notice that the three-part division was a little rough and would work out a more detailed picture. The twelfth-century John of Salisbury structured society as a human body. The priesthood was the soul, the king was the head, the warriors were the hands, the laborers and craftspeople were the feet.

And the people who collected taxes? They were the intestines. 

Did he notice the implications of that? Your guess is as good as mine, and mine is that he did. Throughout history, tax collectors haven’t managed to collect much love.

John’s system included a few more body parts, but by now we have enough.

In the countryside, most people were villeins–peasants bound to the lord. And now that we’ve introduced them, to hell with the hierarchy, they’re the people we’re going to spend our time with. In 1290, they made up 60% of the rural population–or to be more accurate, of the rural population living on arable land. They weren’t just bonded to a lord, they were also bound to the land itself. Some definitions draw a line between a serf and a villein. Others count them as the same thing. Let’s not split hairs. We’re using the terms interchangeably here.

And by we, of course, I mean I

Villein, for all you word hounds out there, is the origin of the modern word villain. Not because the villeins were evil but because they were thought of (not by themselves, of course, but by the people who counted themselves as their betters) as uncouth in “mind and manners.” From there, it’s a short distance to being no good at all–a complete villain. 

The key to villeinage was the land. If the lord sold the land, the villeins went with it. But from about 1200 on, he (and lords had a habit of being he’s, although they could also be churches, monasteries, convents, or the very occasional she)–. Let’s start that over: After roughly 1200, he couldn’t just pick them up and sell them separately from the land. The kind of slavery that saw people bought and sold outright was common in Anglo-Saxon England–that’s before 1066, when the Normans stomped in and conquered the place–but became less common afterward. You can mark the shift as starting when William the Conqueror (the big, bad Head Norman himself) imposed a ban on selling slaves to other countries. 

It’s not clear why the shift took place. Morality might have driven it, but it wouldn’t have hurt that serfdom accomplished pretty much the same thing as slavery. And riding herd on villeins might have been easier than riding herd on slaves. 

So villeins weren’t free, but they weren’t exactly slaves either.

At the heart of the feudal system was the manor, which was run by the lord. Each manor had its own rules governing the relationship between lord and villein, and some were harsher than others. The tenants knew the rules as well as the lords did, since although the rules favored the lords heavily, they kept him from having complete, arbitrary control over their lives, leaving him only partial, semi-arbitrary control. 

Now let’s toss in another source, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock. 

The manor was made up of (1) desmesne land, which was farmed for the lord’s benefit; (2) land farmed by villeins, who paid for it by, among other things, farming the demesne; (3) land farmed by free tenants, who paid their rent in cash; and (4) common land, used by tenants in carefully defined ways. 

Villeins owed the lord a set amount of service, and the lord had the right to decide what services he wanted from them during that time. On one estate in the twelfth century, villeins owed five days a week. They might also owe a portion of their crops and animals, and they might owe cash on top of that. 

Villeins couldn’t marry or sell their property without the lord’s permission. They might owe tallages (unpredictable amounts of money that the lord could claim), wood silver (a fee for access to the lord’s woods), boon work (extra services at plowing and harvest times, just when the tenant’s own land needed the most work but who cared about that?), and heriot (the family’s best animal being owed to the lord when the tenant died). They might have to grind their grain at the lord’s mill, at the lord’s price. They might have to pay a fine for having taken part in some forbidden sexual activity–and any imaginative sexual activity was forbidden, along with a lot of activities that didn’t take much imagination. (The link there is to an earlier post on the subject.)

Surprise, surprise, this particular fine fell on women more often than on men. Suddenly they were noticeable.

The list goes on, but you get the picture. 

Villeins could and often did pay a cash rent as a substitute for service. Basically, they were buying back their time. But that didn’t make them free. They were still villeins.

Most serfs could also make wills and buy and sell land if they paid for the privilege. They could be evicted, but until the enclosure movement came along that was rare. (Again, the link’s to an earlier post. The enclosure movement wanders in about halfway down.) The tendency was for tenancies to be passed from one generation to the next–for a fee. If you think of anything a villein might want to do as involving the lord’s permission and a fee, you won’t go far wrong. 

I said serfs couldn’t leave the land. I should have said they couldn’t leave it legally. If they ran away and managed to live in a town for a year and a day, they became free. It’s an odd loophole in the system, and I don’t know its origin. But if they were caught and returned, they were subject to the lord’s justice. There are records of serfs bound in chains to keep them from taking off again. 

The lord ran the manor court, which had the right to impose physical punishments or fines for any act that broke the rules of the manor. And, conveniently enough, any fines the court imposed went to the lord.

Yes, of course the manor courts were impartial and justice was served. I hate it when you get cynical.

Now let’s complicate the picture. Free tenants lived among villeins, in the same villages. Keen paints a picture of village life in which two hierarchies intertwined and people’s social status depended not just on whether they were free or bonded but also on their prosperity. And the two didn’t necessarily line up neatly. A free cottager could be desperately poor. A villein could be prosperous, although most weren’t. It all depended on how much land a person had. A small minority might have upwards of thirty acres. The poorest free cottagers might have no more than a garden and depend on working for others to keep themselves and their families fed.

Telling a free man (which may also mean a woman; I’m not sure) from one who wasn’t free was a complicated business, and it came up in court cases, since only free men could use the royal courts. Villeins were stuck in the (utterly impartial) manor courts. It also came up because people looked for all possible loopholes to so they could be ruled free.

And here you need a warning about health and safety. Or truth in advertising. Or something along those lines. I’m compressing a long time period into a short space. When you compress time, sometimes you get wine, sometimes you get spontaneous combustion, and sometimes you get inaccuracies. So keep in mind that the royal courts weren’t in existence for the whole medieval period, and that even once they sprouted out of the damp ground of medieval politics, they didn’t sit there unchanged until the country rang a huge bell and the medieval period ended. Like any mushroom or bit of government, the courts grew and changed. As did the conditions of rural life.

Now go have a glass of wine and try not to set anything on fire.

To establish whether a person was free, the courts looked at all the things a villein might owe his lord. Did he have a pay a fee to give his daughter in marriage? Did he have to show up a fixed number of days to work for the lord with no clue what work he was going to be doing? Did he pay tallage? If the answer was yes, a serf he was and a serf he remained.

An assortment of people challenged their status as bondsmen, but what they were challenging was their individual status, not the system of bondage itself. Still, when a fair number of individuals pop up and say, “I don’t belong in this category,” you can take that as a sign that the system’s beginning to crack: The old categories don’t fit the realities of life.

Which is probably a good place to tell you that next week we’ll watch the system sprout a big honkin’ crack. In other words, we’ll look at the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

I do love a good revolt.

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