June 14: The Peasants Are Revolting


During Wat Tyler's rebellion, in 1381, the peasants could have easily killed Richard II. It was a pretty serious rebellion (not least because it would have deprived hammy, gay-seeming actors of a Shakespearean role to play in repertory). Well, why did it happen? Froissart, anticipating the Wall Street Journal editorial page by 600 years, gives us the reason right at the start of his Chronicle: "There was never realm nor country in so great adventure as it was in that time, and all because of the ease and riches that the common people were of, which moved them to this rebellion."

It's the ease and riches, people! You want your commoners to be well fed enough to work, but not so well-fed that they can leave the fields and rebel without fainting. Although I wouldn't have been surprised if Froissart had attributed the rebels crazy beliefs to hypoglycemia:

...for they were neither angels nor spirits, but men formed to the similitude of their lords, saying why should they then be kept so under like beasts; the which they said they would no longer suffer, for they would be all one, and if they laboured or did anything for their lords, they would have wages therefor as well as other.
Froissart thinks this is so crazy it's not even worth refuting -- it's self-evidently crazy. Wages for peons! What's next, complaints about social inequality? Whoops:
We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff 2 and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates...
No need to drag religion into the class war, and indeed the troublesome priest who gave this sermon was thrown into prison by the Archbishop of Canterbury. (Of course, I'm one to talk, I have guys come and do my own lawn and stuff. But they do get wages, I'm told.)

Of course, just when one wants to sympathize with the doughty peasants, possibly wearing jerkins, they give us a long hot summer, medieval-London-style:
Then the captains, as John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler, went throughout London and a twenty thousand with them, and so came to the Savoy in the way to Westminster... And when they entered, they slew the keepers thereof and robbed and pilled the house, and when they had so done, then they set fire on it and clean destroyed and brent it. And when they had done that outrage, they...went straight to the fair hospital of the Rhodes called Saint John’s, and there they brent house, hospital, minster and all. Then they went from street to street and slew all the Flemings that they could find in church or in any other place, there was none respited from death.
As it turns out, a revolution is not a tea party, even at the Savoy. (Also, Wat Tyler: Flemings::Lou Dobbs:Mexicans, I guess.) Tensions are high; three of London's twelve alderman take the rebels' side, and they demand the king:
...then the king sent to them that they should all draw to a fair plain place called Mile-end, whereas the people of the city did sport them in the summer season, and there the king to grant them that they desired; and there it was cried in the king’s name, that whosoever would speak with the king let him go to the said place, and there he should not fail to find the king.
And our excerpt ends, a cliffhanger. Perhaps the editors of the DRG won't tell us the ending so that, as good Americans, we might not have to see the pro-Royal, anti-people clampdown that followed, according to Wikipedia:
... Sir Ralph de Standish, one of the King's squires, drew his sword and ran it through Tyler's stomach, killing him almost instantly. Seeing him surrounded by the King's entourage, the rebel army was in uproar, but King Richard, seizing the opportunity, rode forth and shouted "You shall have no captain but me.", a statement left deliberately ambiguous to defuse the situation. He promised the rebels that all was well, that Tyler had been knighted, and that their demands would be met - they were to march to St John's Fields, where Wat Tyler would meet them.

This they duly did, but the King broke his promise. The nobles quickly re-established their control with the help of a hastily organised militia of 7000, and most of the other leaders were pursued, captured and executed, including John Ball and Jack Straw, who was beheaded. Following the collapse of the revolt, the king's concessions were quickly revoked.
"Put that in your pipe and smoke it," he might have said, but they were 200 years away from having tobacco.

0 comments: