THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Resistance and Revolt
The focus of rebellion in fourteenth-century England is usually on the Rising of 1381, due to its expansive geographic locations, the composition and numbers of its forces, and its extreme violence. But resistance by the laboring classes to the demands of those in power began long before the Rising and continued long after, in rural and urban environments. And not all resistance was collective or violent.
In the countryside, resistance by individuals was often passive as peasants strove to loosen oppressive control by the manorial lord and his officials. One method of avoidance was bribery, but that was not possible for many and often ineffective. The other extreme was leaving one’s landholding and village to escape the lord’s demands, often on account of poverty. Though not without consequence, ranging from fines to imprisonment, peasants could refuse to accede to a number of demands, such as payment of rents, taxes and subsidies, or performance of services for the lord, often to work their own land and maintain their livelihood.
Some refused to maintain buildings or allowed their animals to trespass on the lord’s lands. An act as simple as the illegal use of handmills for grinding grain to avoid the fees charged by the lord on his mill, which the villeins were constrained to use, became “a symbol of class struggle . . . [and] resistance to seigniorial exploitation” (Hilton, Class Conflict 4). Hilton also sees self-government through village bylaws as a “symptom of peasant self-assertion” (Bond Men 90).
Maddicott’s study of various forms of demands on the peasantry covers the years 1294-1341, but stresses that the greatest burdens fell during years of heavy taxation, such as between 1336-41. Direct taxation through levies on marketable moveables such as agricultural produce was a mainstay of military funding. The tax was often inequitably applied to the detriment of the poor, and under-assessed in reports by corrupt tax collectors who kept the difference between the tax levied and actually paid. Nonpayment of taxes was subject to penalties, and unpaid levies could be demanded at any time, occasionally disrupting agricultural production (11-12), particularly if the tax collector made double or repeated demands for the same levy as seen in Song of the Husbandman.
Maddicott notes that while the levy on moveables might have been a “grievous imposition,” purveyance was more damaging (14-15). The system of purveyance was resisted, as king’s officials theoretically “purchased” peasants’ goods for use by the monarch, but the payments were often withheld or based on partial value of the goods. Surrender of plowing beasts, seed corn and other goods that would deprive a landholder of resources to grow crops was sometimes refused in order to avoid falling into the poverty that could result.
During times of military activity (which was frequent), villages were expected to provide peasant recruits as well as to fund their wages and equipment. Though refusal brought serious penalties, individuals refused to muster, particularly during crucial agricultural cycles.1
Individuals acted collectively in local groups. One way to seek remedy for oppression or unfair treatment was the lawsuit. Groups formed to present their case, as well as to pool funds for legal expenses. Legal actions were not always successful, and when the case presented against the abbot of Halesowen by his tenants in the King’s Court failed, the tenants assaulted the abbot and his clerics, for which they were excommunicated (Hilton, Class Conflict 59).
Thus, not all group resistance was peaceful. Violent conflicts are evident in the thirteenth century, such as the village revolt against arbitrary tallage at Mears Ashby, Northhamptonshire in 1261, and another at Harmondsworth, Middlesex in 1278 (Hilton, Bond Men 88). In 1290 at least sixty-six persons assaulted the king’s common minister, who came to help the sheriff of Norfolk force the prior of St Stephen’s, Hempton, to perform their services (Hilton, Class Conflict 59). Success in petitions and suits for matters such as rent and service reduction hinged on a peasant’s status, as the unfree man had no standing, so without legal redress violence was employed against authority figures charged with controlling villeins. An ongoing conflict over the tenants’ refusal to use the lord’s mill, objections to restrictions on the leasing of lands, and their denial of bondage progressed from open defiance to violence, which led to imprisonment, submission and fines (Hilton, Class Conflict 59). Hilton points out that peasants fought not only for rights, but for their dignity as well (65).
Group action could involve cooperation between peasants from different manors. When three persons and their supporters were charged with stealing goods from the bishop of Worcester and assaulting his servant, they were also accused of conspiring with the bishop’s serfs to help them avoid performing their services. In another instance, a man at Elstwick, arrested for allowing his beasts to trespass on his lord’s lands, was rescued by men from Newcastle and elsewhere, and such rescues of miscreants by friends were not uncommon (Hilton, Class Conflict 60).
During these pre-Plague years, fear of rebellion was expressed, and Maddicott explains that none on the scale of the Rising of 1381 occurred for several reasons: passive resistance could be effective, economic conditions were not as conducive as those caused by depopulation after the Plague which favored the lower classes, and a leader was lacking (65). However, small group resistance was a good organizational training ground for later events.
Discontent increased after the Plague, when labor shortages and economic conditions resulting from depopulation presented opportunity for higher wages, employment mobility and concomitant advantages for the peasantry. The legislation that attempted to control wages and prices and therefore block peasants’ advancement led to violence such as organized attacks on the sessions of the Justices of Labourers in Middlesex in 1351, Lincolnshire in 1352, and Northhamptonshire in 1359 (Hilton, Class Conflict 65). Generally, however, the ordinances and statutes were ineffective as the law of supply and demand ultimately prevailed.
The focus has been on the peasantry, but classes higher on the scale could also resist demands of the crown to protect their interests. When tax collectors approached Sir Stephen Bassingbourne of Herefordshire in 1339, he beat them with his sword and threatened them so that they were unable to levy the tax (Maddicott 52). Such refusal, whether through violence, bribery or royal protection, forced the burden onto the rest of the community. There were complaints in parliament that heavy taxation and purveyance caused landlords the loss of rental income from those too burdened to pay (Maddicott 71). Six men at one of the Ramsey manors, Houghton, were convicted for withdrawing their own laborers from the lord’s autumn boon work (Hilton, Class Conflict 61). It is likely that these were prosperous peasants who employed poorer villagers, and did not want to disrupt their own harvest production.
The peasantry is a focal point not only because the country was primarily agricultural, but because the economy rested on its production. Urban workers had some similar grievances as rural, such as control by authority, restrictions on advancement, wages and working conditions but their methods of resistance differed.
For example, in Canterbury, which had close ties with its rural environs, resistance to the ruling elite’s authority and oppressive governmental policies began long before the Rising. Strains and violent incidents flared in the late 1320s and early 1340s in defense of local privileges and liberties. Social conflicts worsened during post-Plague reconstruction. In the 1360s and 1370s, conflicts arose in the city between the elite and middling and laboring groups over such matters as employment, trade, and taxation, and in the 1370s and 1380s there was resistance to the reestablishment of authority. In Canterbury, as in other cities, the burden of warfare added to resentment, as both funds and manpower were demanded for local defense in addition to national taxation.
A central area of conflict in most cities was between craft masters and journeymen and the ruling oligarchy of the town, usually wealthy merchants. Conflict festered, particularly post-Plague when wages and mobility were, as in the countryside, restricted by legislation. Generally, the guilds controlled the working conditions of the craftsmen, which were both protective and restrictive.
One way of attempting to gain independence was the formation of new guilds by groups of craftsmen.2 These were viewed with suspicion by city government, which included the mayor and aldermen, and were deemed illegal as well as subversive to social order. The commons petitioned parliament in 1388 to abolish guilds and fraternities and seize their property in order to eliminate potential rebellious groups (and gain some income to fund the war), such as members of a fraternity who were indicted in 1387 for violence and suspected of extortion and trade monopoly. The petition was rejected, but an inquiry into the organization and properties of guilds and fraternities was conducted in 1388-89 and their certificates examined (Barron and Wright 118).
The suppression of new guilds and fraternities by the ruling oligarchy was supported by craft masters, but the relationship between the two groups was conflicted. As Hilton explains, craftsmen resented mercantile political power and access to materials and products, while at the same time needed support to control guild members, especially after the post-Plague labor legislation (Class Conflict 82).
Craft masters therefore often sided politically with the city governors, and the tension between master and journeymen surfaced, particularly during mayoral elections, at which there were frequent riots of journeymen throughout England as a movement to gain power over their working conditions (Tardif 354). For example, guild members protested at the election for mayor of London in 1384 and were brought before the mayoral court by the guild masters. In 1365, cordwainers were charged with rebelling against their masters and awaited the election of a new mayor to redress their wrongs, as apparently they perceived the present mayor and craft masters as confederates (Tardif, 353-4). With these and other tensions, it is not surprising that urban workers joined the rebels during the Rising in order to address their own complaints.
The Rising of 1381
Man beware and be no fool:
Think upon the ax, and of the stool.
The stool was hard, the ax was sharp,
The fourth year of King Richard.
On the Evil State of England
The short-lived revolt, which lasted through June and July, broke out in Essex then Kent, with rebels from both forces converging. With Wat Tyler as leader, they marched toward London from Canterbury, while other Essex men approached the city from a different direction and camped at Mile End. An assembly of rebels at Blackheath awaited the king, who approached up the river but turned back when he saw the crowd. Tyler then led an assault on London, destroying houses, including John of Gaunt’s palace, The Savoy, attacking administrative and governmental centers and officials and other figures of authority, burning documents, freeing prisoners, and beheading as they went.
Richard II, aged fourteen, met with them at Mile End and granted their petitions and conferred freedom. Some rebels left the city, while the next day Tyler presented demands, to which the king agreed. But hostilities broke out and Tyler was killed. Richard granted pardons to all and sent them away. Similar rebellions occurred in other locations, but once they were brought under control the king revoked the charters of freedom he had issued and began judicial proceedings against the rebels. Though there was no mass reprisal and a general amnesty was demanded by parliament, the leaders were tried and executed.
While rebellion was felt in many areas of England, the concentration of participants in the Rising were from the southeastern counties of Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk. Conditions varied between the counties, but they were fused together in reaction to the poll tax of 1381, the third in four years, which most historians acknowledge as the catalyst, but not only cause, of the rebellion. They agree that discontent arose from the recognition of the possibility of an improved socioeconomic situation post-Plague and being hampered in the attainment of that advancement. Court and manorial records reflect the peasants' reluctance and/or refusal to perform work based on their wish to escape villein tenure, obtain casual work, and earn higher wages.
Many of the rebels’ demands were recounted by often hostile chroniclers, but Hilton suggests their reports need not be dismissed as “mere hysteria” or gross distortion, since there is some consistency between their accounts of the rebels’ aims, which were also consonant with contemporary ideas of resistance in Europe (Hilton, Bond Men 227-29). Among the demands, although some varied with location, were freely contracted labor service and an end to enforced labor; freedom for peasant trade; low rents (land at four pence an acre); and common rights to pasturing, hunting and fishing. They sought freedom from serfdom with no obligation to serve the lords, including attendance at manorial court.
There was severe hostility towards the central justice and legal system, which resulted in the destruction of records and indiscriminate attacks on lawyers, justices and jurors. Existing law was to be rejected and replaced, created and administered by the people. The rebels also desired the dissolution of the church hierarchy with only one bishop, the abolishment of all monks except two houses of religion, distribution of clerical property among the laity, and payment of tithes only to a priest poorer and worthier than his parishioners.
There was also a general dissatisfaction with royal government and administration, particularly of the war and the misuse of the heavy taxes collected to support it. The destruction of John of Gaunt’s palace may have been an attack on the crown, the aristocracy in general, and/or the duke, who was associated with mismanagement of the war and the levying of taxes and was personally disliked for his ambition and haughtiness (Goldberg 179-80). But the actions of the rebels during the event suggest not only some organization and discipline but hint at an ideology; it was reported that as the contents of the mansion were burned, a looter was seized and thrown into the fire with his booty by the rebels, who claimed to be “zealots for truth and justice, not thieves or robbers” (Knighton 215).3
A precise portrayal of the participants is difficult to achieve due to lost, incomplete and biased records and reports and other documentary deficiencies. However, a general profile can be projected from existing records. Although there were a few gentry and clergy and some landless servants and poor at the extremes, the main body consisted of middling and small holders, some of whom may have also been wage earners, and artisans and petty traders.4 Most were villeins, and a few were freemen.
Although the forces behind the Rising were complex, wage control and taxation were at the forefront. While poll taxes are not considered the primary or sole cause, there is no question that exploitative and inequitable taxation was one of the foremost factors in both rural and urban unrest. Knighton, who damns the rebels as “servants of Satan,” nevertheless shows sympathy for the commons who were “gravely harassed” with “ever new and all but intolerable burdens incessantly laid upon them, without hope of redress, unable longer to bear the injury of such oppression” (215). He tells how tax collectors in Kent, Norfolk and other counties “shamefully mistreated” village folk by publicly inspecting young girls under their skirts for proof of sexual activity, a degradation families avoided by paying the associated tax whether their daughters were guilty or not, and were understandably provoked (209). City dwellers also had grievances against taxes (and their collectors) as recorded in an indictment prepared by members of the Beverley commons who had been charged with violating the Statute of Labourers.
Also known as the Peasants’ Revolt, here the rebellion is referred to as the Rising in acknowledgement of the participation of urban as well as rural dwellers.5 Rebellious activity occurred in towns and cities from south to north; in some only urban inhabitants formed forces, and in others they joined with rural rebels out of sympathy, to redress their own personal grievances, and/or to take action against long-standing antagonisms such as disputes over wages and work hours. Ironically, the organization of rural and urban folk for military purposes facilitated their ability to coalesce for insurrection. So when rebel forces came to the city from Maidstone, townsmen, mostly from the middling and lower ranks of tradesmen and craftsmen, were moved to action, both in concert with their rural neighbors and independently.
In cities where the rebels were exclusively urban, like Scarborough, Beverley and York, major towns with extensive liberties, government was ruled by small, elite oligarchies. Despite considerable socioeconomic, political and geographic differences between the three boroughs, there were some shared goals, such as limiting oppressive local authority, and removing undesirable civic officials. In York, the leading citizens were merchants and traders who were unconcerned with the interests of the commons and at odds with each other. The rebels were mostly craftsmen dissatisfied with a governmental system in which they had little power. Disturbances there, as in other areas, preceded the 1381 revolt, as in the rising in 1380 over mayoral misconduct, and continued thereafter.
In Beverley, government was ruled by a few rich merchant families, with struggles between burgesses and disputes over jurisdictions, forms of government, and liberties. Here, the commons wrested power and restructured the government, but it was reclaimed by the elite. The commons’ greatest complaint was taxation, which was administered by members of the elite, whose exploitation fused rebellious opposition. Scarborough was governed by shipbuilding families devoted to their private interests who refused to contribute to the defense of the vulnerable seaport and laid the burden on the commons.
Since the rebels’ goals and demands ultimately were not met, the Rising seems to have been ineffective, but the fact that another poll tax was never again levied demonstrates that the strength of the folk did not go unheeded. In parliament, the commons focused on the role of misgovernment and corrupt officials and warned against future revolts if the oppression was not controlled. (29-30). Despite the failed aims of movements such as the Rising, Hilton suggests that “the concept of the freeman, owing no obligation, not even deference, to an overlord, is one of the most important if intangible legacies of medieval peasants to the modern world” (Bond Men 235).
The foregoing discussion on taxation, purveyance and military obligations is summarized from J. R. Maddicott, “The English Peasantry and the Demands of the Crown, 1294-1341,” Past and Present
(1975), which is worth reading in full.
2 See Richard Tardif, “The ‘Mistery’ of Robin Hood: A New Social Context for the Texts,” Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999) for a discussion of the formation of yeomanry guilds and fraternities and their relationship to outlawry.
3 The ban on looting was also recorded by Walsingham and in John Ball’s letters (St Albans Chronicle 418n, 419).
4 Hilton’s observations that the “ruling circles of some smaller towns tried to use the rebels for their own ends” (Class Conflict 144) and that the rich peasants who participated were large-scale market producers concerned with their profit margin (145) raises the point that all classes from lord to villein were, to some degree, protecting their own economic interests.
5 Hilton emphasizes that it was a “plebeian rather than exclusively a peasant uprising, or, as it was put at the time, a rising of the ‘commons’” (Class Conflict 143).
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