Thoughts on: England Arise – Juliet Barker’s book on the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’
I’ve reached the concluding chapter. So before I read Barker’s conclusions, what are my own? That the ‘peasants’ revolt’ was caused by two new developments in society: social mobility and a money economy.
Society had been based on the idea of ‘a place for everything and everything in its place. That’s an excellent way to organise a workshop, pretty good for a kitchen but drastic for a living room, which is primarily about social interaction. It’s not a good way to organise a society – sooner or later, some people are going to feel its unfair.
Medieval society had not been based on money. A money economy requires literacy. If the agreement is to pay 4d an acre in rent for land, then someone needs to work out how much land each person has got, perform the necessary multiplication and then check that the money has been paid – accurately. The villeinage system had worked on a much simpler basis – being a villein you had to work so many days per week on the landlord’s personal land in return for your own landholdings – the amount of work you had to do came from your status as villein rather than the amount of land you had – which in theory would have been the same for everyone in the village. That just wasn’t working any more, particularly as some villeins held a lot more land than others. Because they’d bought extra! There was also the assumption – through all landholdings from the lowest to the highest – that ownership of land was for life and NOT inheritable. Of course in practice, people did inherit but it had to be agreed with the next level of society up (landlord, Manor Lord, Noble, King) and a fee would be charged for their agreement.
What medieval society was based on, in the lack of literacy and money, was mutual exchange of service and loyalty- administrated via the agreed seriousness of oaths. This had been disturbed, for some time. by the growing (indeed, growing very fat!) landholdings of the church – which was literate. The Church recorded everything in writing, for the Church it was not an oath of service which held it all together, it was the written record of previous agreement – the Charter. While ownership of land was by service and loyalty, the idea that it had to be re-negotiated each time the land passed to a new generation made some sense – the new tenant has to make the same oath of service and loyalty in order to retain possession of the land. A Charter for land, particularly on a money basis, is much more fixed. If the rent on the land comes to X shillings and is recorded as such on the Charter, then the land can be passed on, by inheritance or indeed by sale to someone else, who, receiving the Charter, knows that their rent is fixed at X shillings.
And Villeins, people who’s life was fixed in terms of so many days of service to the manor lord in return for a fixed acreage, were buying land by charter. They were moving into the bottom rung of the Gentry. In terms of today’s ‘class analysis’ (very anachronistic I know) they were becoming a new ‘lower middle class’. Not only that, but literacy was spreading – and it was reaching all classes. Barker’s book refers to villeins who had become bailiffs – a task which required literacy. At the same time as reading Barker’s book I’ve been reading a novel about the Alexandrian crusade (1365), where the appointed papal legate for the spiritual leadership of the crusade was (Saint) Pierre Thomas, a Bishop and trusted right-hand-man of the Pope. I looked this man up and found that he had started life as a villein. So even in the Church, where the strictures against social mobility were just as powerful as in secular life, and literacy was vital – even here it was possible to rise to the very top. If Pierre Thomas hadn’t died he was in with a chance of being selected as a future pope. The most important feature of the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was the recognition of the importance of documentation – both to oppress and to provide new freedoms. Everywhere they went, the rebels destroyed documents: charters, muniment rolls, court records. And what they demanded were new charters: of manumission, of landholdings, of rights. They wanted this new way of doing things, by having agreements written down so that they could be enforced, but enforced for them, not against them.
The free landholders wanted change too. They too were rising, and finding their raise blocked by the new officialdom. There was a massive increase in the number of oppointed officials, operating on behalf of the crown in every area: sheriffs had always been there (shire-reeves) but now there were also Coroners, Justices of the Peace, Members of Parliament (the early Commons) and especially Tax assessors and re-assessors. Since there was at that point no administration capable of paying salaries to these officials, nor any system of accounting or auditing which could check their collection of funds, the Roman system was used. That was a system which had been used in the Roman Empire, officials were appointed to collect a given sum – if they could collect more – that was their income. This is a system which gives a licence to corruption – and while there will, surely have been honest officers (I live in hope that in any system, at any time, there are some decent people) there were many who made the fullest possible use of that licence to be corrupt. And this class of people too, wanted to see Charters used to give them freedoms, not to restrict their growth and development. The lands they had bought were by charter, but any development tended to be restricted by charters held against them – as in Great Yarmouth, where the borough had been extended by charter to give the town rights over nearby ports – preventing those who were operating out of those ports from doing so.
And above everything else, in some ways more powerful than the king, was the church. Holding more than a third of the land, and with a powerful administration in every locality. In every area the rebellion turned against the church. Not only that, but the church was even oppressive of its own people. There were many clerics involved among the rebels. The repressive class structure was operating even more powerfully within the church as elsewhere. While particular examples (like St Pierre Thomas in Europe) do occur of people rising from humble beginnings within the church, in general, even in the monasteries, if you were born humble then you were limited to the role of ‘lay brother’ – a servant to the (supposedly) holy. And they joined the rebellion in places too. Among the priesthood, there were the rich and powerful who sometimes held the livings of a number of parishes – leaving in their place, to look after the parish, a very low paid cleric who could barely survive. The contrast for these priests must have been something they were very aware of.
As the people who were getting to be better off, but still had no power, began to push against what we would nowadays call a ‘glass ceiling’ the Lords, the Knights, the more powerful among the Burgesses and the authorities of the Church began to push back. The Statute of Labourers was passed in parliament (the Knightly class and the Burgesses) to force the freemen, and those villeins in process of escaping the conditions they were subject to, back towards the conditions of villeinage. And that was on top of a process by which anyone who held some land by villein tenure could be forced to surrender any land they bought by charter to villein tenure too. The successive and ever-increasing taxation to fund ever-failing war was merely the trigger, the match to the flame. The real issue was a drive for increased social mobility from the people who were starting to do quite well in the new, money-oriented culture, but couldn’t stand up against the corruption and power-hunger of the next level up.
In general then, the rebellion appears to have been, not the poor rising against the rich, but the developing ‘middling sort’ rising against the powerful and corrupt who were doing everything possible to keep them down. In anachronistic terms, the lower middle class rising against the upper middle class.