The 14th century stands out for its succession of devastating disasters that rocked Medieval Europe. It smashed the old certainties of feudalism, and it set the scene for one of the most important moments in English history: the Peasants’ Revolt. We’ll try to examine the dislocation of the 14th century from the point-of-view of the generation born in 1300 CE, as they dealt with famine, disease, and loss — and as they gradually learned that they could change the world.
The Peasants’ Revolt: The Time of Monsters
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was one of the most important events in Medieval England. It marked a moment between two worlds: when the unshakeable bedrock of Medieval life was split apart by world-ending cataclysms, yet the rising post-feudal society had not yet matured. Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci made a famous pronouncement on this cusp between worlds that is usually rendered thus:
“The old world is dying; the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”
The 14th century was a time of monsters unlike any other. In only a couple of short generations, the stability of High Medieval Europe was shattered by a succession of natural disasters, devastating diseases, famines, and wars. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 had its roots in this rolling social, economic, and political crisis. The seeds of the Revolt were sewn by generations of Medieval people who had their faith in the eternal institutions of their world — the Church, their monarchs, and the feudal social order — shaken apart by the harsh realities of an uncaring and arbitrary world. Here, we shall look at the 14th century as a time of chaos and disorder, which laid the foundation for the end of feudalism and the birth of the modern.
A Generation of Sorrow
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Of all of the generations in medieval history, those born in the opening years of the 1300s probably had the roughest of the entire era. They were born into a reasonably prosperous world, with large powerful kingdoms that were beginning to rival the complexity and interconnectedness last seen under the iron fist of Rome — but by their teenage years, they were plunged into the Great Famine. Beginning with a series of bad harvests in 1315, by 1317 the whole of Europe was deep in an agricultural crisis, with as much as 80% of European livestock succumbing to disease. Basic food staples skyrocketed in price, and while the peasantry was reasonably well-placed to weather the crisis through subsistence farming, the urban population was vulnerable.
Somewhere between a tenth and a quarter of city-dwellers died between 1315 and 1325, bringing to an end the rapid population expansion that began at the start of the High Medieval Period (the mid-11th century). The generation born in 1300 would have lost friends and family members to starvation, while barons and knights could still afford to eat, and priests’ prayers and supplications were not enough. These were the fathers and grandfathers of the Peasants’ Revolt.
The Black Death
Surely one great crisis was enough for a lifetime. But it was not to be. As our early 1300s generation approached late middle-age, a cataclysm swept Europe that has not been equaled even in the darkest depths of the 20th century. There is an enormous amount that can be said about the Great Plague of 1347-8. Traditional estimates have placed the death toll at a third of all people in Europe, but modern estimates put the number closer to one-in-two. In short, the Black Death ended the world and left only stunned survivors in its wake. Though the vast majority of the revolutionaries who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt will always remain obscure because history is written by the victors, we know that two of its leaders, Wat Tyler and John Ball, lived through the Great Plague, being around 8 and 12 years of age respectively.
A Regal Reaction
Obviously, the world did not actually end — but the Black Death left discredited and understaffed institutions struggling to maintain their power in its wake. The response of the 14th century English monarchy, post-apocalypse, was in large part the proximate cause of the Peasants’ Revolt. In the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, feudal lords were faced with an enormous labor shortage: a third or more of the workforce had died in the course of a few seasons. This represented an enormous shift in social power away from the nobility into the hands of the peasant class: now, their labor was in demand and they could, for the first time, exercise some free choice in where they worked. Many landowners began to offer to take rents in the form of money instead of in the form of crops. This threatened to dissolve the entire feudal structure, which was built on bonds of loyalty and service, not cold hard cash.
To suppress this emerging market, King Edward III instated two pieces of legislation: the Ordinance of Laborers in 1349, and the Statute of Laborers in 1351. These stamped down on wage inflation, decreeing that no laborer could be paid more than they had been before the Plague and that a peasant’s lord always had the first claim to their labor.
Although in practice rural earnings did increase somewhat after the Black Death, it was clear that this legislation was successful in maintaining the old order, and at the same time, rampant inflation in urban markets alongside economic fragmentation meant that urban workers suffered an enormous crunch in real wages. This created a 14th-century powder-keg of dissatisfaction, in which the future revolutionaries seethed at the injustice.
“Who Then Was the Gentleman?”
Not only was the monarchy left scrambling to reassert ancient feudal rights in the face of an enormous macroeconomic shift, but there was also disquiet in Heaven itself! The Black Death had a devastating effect upon the 14th century Catholic Church — not only did it face significant spiritual questions about how the Christian God could permit such a terrible thing to occur but the priesthood itself was also devastated by the disease. In their roles as frontline workers who would frequently minister to the dying and the dead, as well as providing the only real healthcare and palliative assistance available to the masses, priests were disproportionately likely to die from the plague. The Church was suddenly uniquely hampered in its ability to provide spiritual guidance, right at the moment that it was needed most. This is not to say that there was the mass rejection of religion by any means — but rather it deflected the spiritual lives of Europeans down a different trajectory, which was no longer wholly under the control of the Catholic Church.
In the English context, the decades before the Peasants’ Revolt saw the first glimmers of the English Reformation: a movement that espoused the rejection of Papal authority, the embracing of iconoclasm, and the democratization of the word of God through English translations of the Bible. John Wycliffe was the prime name in this early period; in the 1370s, he and his followers were working feverishly on a translation of the Bible into English, when it had only ever been taught by priests in Latin. It is no coincidence that one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt, John Ball, was a dissenting priest and a follower of Wycliffe. Ball’s radical liberation theology rejected the rigid orthodoxy of feudalism, and it is he who is the origin of the famous phrase: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”
The Peasants’ Revolt: The Crisis Comes to a Head
Although he had been incapacitated for several years, King Edward III died in 1377, leaving his 10-year old son Richard II wholly under the regency of the publicly reviled John of Gaunt. Gaunt had taken hold of the reins of the state as Edward ailed, and by the time Richard ascended to the throne, he was a hated figure, associated with all of the injustice that dictated the lives of the peasantry. At one point, he even had a narrow escape when was nearly torn apart by an angry mob in London. Edward had left the kingdom’s finances in a dire state: the enormous cost of the opening phases of the Hundred Years War left the coffers badly depleted and the Crown heavily in debt to financiers.
Gaunt’s response was to levy a new type of tax from 1377: a poll tax, from the Middle English poll, meaning one’s head. This was a tax paid by every individual in the land, with a discount for married couples. The tax was initially levied at a flat rate per head of the population, disproportionately hitting the poor. Initially, it raised enormous amounts of money. Quickly, however, John of Gaunt decreed further and further taxation. Even though these extensions were progressive, with seven graded bands depending on seniority of class, tax collectors were expected to raise four times as much in total as the original tax. In practice, this resulted in bailiffs and sheriffs targeting the easily shake-downable, and even the restoration of serf-like conditions in some areas. This alarmed the angry, increasingly politically conscious mass of peasants, and they began to imagine a world without these constant injustices.
Thus, on the eve of the Peasants’ Revolt, we can see that it did not erupt out of the blue, an ignorant expression of ignorant people: it was the considered, reasoned response to the greed and short-sightedness of a discredited elite in the aftermath of an apocalyptic crisis (I am fully confident that there are no historical parallels to be drawn from the 14th century which can shed light on current events).
In The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Song of the “Cutty Wren”, we will see these gathering clouds burst, as the dispossessed mass of peasants, craft workers, and the urban poor attempted to seize control of their own fates — with historical consequences that shaped the modern world.