Almost as soon as the Great Revolt of 1381 finished it became part of the myths and legends that have inspired those who fight oppression and exploitation. Many readers will know the famous couplet popularised by the radical priest John Ball that questioned the whole medieval order, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”
Generations of radicals have told the story of Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball. As Juliet Barker points out in this excellent new history, it took 600 years before another government dared to introduce a poll tax in England. Few of the many histories of the Peasants’ Revolt have quite the grasp of the original source material that this one does. The accounts of the uprising written in its aftermath are often contradictory about events, timings and locations.
Barker’s meticulous study of the material leads her to overturn some cherished ideas. No “authoritative” source even has John Ball in London during the rebellion, and the famous speeches attributed to him at Blackheath calling for an end to serfdom and the death of those “great ones” are later accounts designed to justify repression by reminding the contemporary ruling class how dangerous the rebels were.
Nonetheless the story of the revolt is astounding. Within days of the first uprising against tax collectors in Fobbing, Essex, hundreds of villages were in revolt and thousands were breaking prisons open to release people. They burned court rolls and manorial documents, the legal documents of serfdom, and killed hated and oppressive lords. What is clear is the uprising of 1381 represented mass anger — not simply at the imposition of another unfair poll tax, but at the whole feudal system.
Controversially Barker suggests that the teenage King Richard II was much more in sympathy with the rebels’ aims than previously thought. It is true that the rebels thought, in common with many other European peasant uprisings, that the king was a good man surrounded by corrupt and greedy ministers. Hence their watch-phrase “with King Richard and the true commons”.
The turning point of the revolt came when Richard granted extraordinary concessions to the rebels at Mile End, enabled groups to depart London for home carrying documents that they understood to mean the end of serfdom, and the right to execute “traitors”. This had the effect of both spreading the revolt by giving it legitimacy, and bringing on board those who might otherwise have been hostile.
Barker sees these concessions not as a tactic by Richard and his ministers to defuse the rebellion, but rather as the act of a sympathetic king. She argues that his 18-day delay in annulling the Mile End letters demonstrates this, and it took pressure from his ministers to convince him not to allow the destruction of serfdom in England. I’m not convinced by this. Richard’s actions at Mile End seem like a classic example of an embattled ruling class making promises that they have no intention of honouring. Few kings in the Middle Ages, even ones of only 14 years of age, would be so naive as to legislate away the basis of their wealth and power, even with their capital burning around them.
The year 1381 marks a high point of class struggle, though Barker argues that this was not a peasant rebellion. She criticises Marxist historians such as Rodney Hilton, who wrote classic studies of the uprising, for treating the peasants as a single class. Barker argues that because the revolt was often led by the village elite, as well as artisans and craftsmen, it is wrong to characterise it as a “peasant revolt”. Indeed she refuses to use this more common name for the 1381 rebellion. Again this is a mistake.
Revolutions often draw in individuals from across class boundaries, but, by and large, in 1381 the mass of those taking part came from the poorest and most oppressed sections of medieval society. This was why the destruction of court rolls was common across England. It is also why demands such as the “abolition of all lordship except the king” were raised early on.
Barker is right to point out the central role of the urban population, particularly in London and towns such as St Albans, as well as the involvement of wealthier figures (many of whom had particular axes to grind). But this does not negate that the central dynamic of the 1381 revolt was that tens of thousands of those at the bottom of society, who were still intimately connected to the land, were trying to overturn the social order.
Despite these criticisms, I have no hesitation in recommending Barker’s book. It is a well written and thoroughly researched book which will stimulate further study of 1381 and its context, and should inspire a new generation of activists.