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Peasant revolts

Learn about popular uprisings in late medieval Europe. Why did people rebel against authority and did they achieve anything in doing so? Were these really peasant revolts?

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] in this video I want to look at popular uprisings in late medieval Europe. So we're talking about between roughly the 14th and the 16th centuries. And these are sometimes known as peasants' revolts, and we'll talk a little later about whether or not that's a really an appropriate term given who actually participated in the events. But for now, we'll refer to them as popular uprisings, which means that they involved a lot of common people. As we look at these events, we want to keep two questions in mind, sort of big-picture questions. The first is why did people choose to revolt against their government? And especially after about the 1320s, we see a huge number of these popular uprisings in a way that just didn't happen prior to this point. So why did this happen? Why did people rebel? And secondly, we want to think about were these uprisings successful? And if so, what does success look like in these circumstances? So I want to start with a specific example, and that example is the Peasants' Revolt in England. This occurs in the year 1381. So we have a picture here, and this is a picture from The Chronicles of Jean Froissart, and he is writing his chronicles of what's going on at the same time that these events are occurring. So it's a contemporary account. The picture is actually from later. It's added back into the Chronicles later, so the picture is not entirely accurate of the period, but it does give us a sense of what it might look like for the king to be confronted by thousands of angry subjects. But to go into what they were doing there, I want to start with a quote and this again comes from The Chronicles of Jean Froissart that I mentioned and this is a quote that he attributes to John Ball. John Ball is an English priest who is preaching at this time and is considered maybe one of the instigators, one of the people who helps start this revolt in 1381 and part of that is he's spreading ideas that challenge the existing authority structure. And he goes on and says, "Ah ye good people, "the matters goeth not well to pass in England," and that's kind of an old-time way of saying things aren't going well in England. And then he goes on and says, "Nor shall not do till everything be common "and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, "but that we may all be united together "and that the lords be no greater masters than we be it." So what he's saying there is we have this structure of society in England where there are the gentlemen, the people who are part of the nobility, and they have this access to political power and economic power. And then we have all these other people who have to basically do work to support this nobility. And he says we should really all be equal and things aren't going to be well in England until we are. So that's a pretty radical message especially for a medieval European country. And he goes on and askes this question and says, "What have we, what have we the common people deserved or why should we be kept thus in servage, servitude or bondage, "We be all come from one father "and one mother, Adam and Eve, "whereby can they say or show that "they'd be greater lords than we be." And what he's doing there is making an appeal to the Old Testament of the Bible and saying that everybody is descended from the same pair of people. So we all really are equal in that sense, so why is it that the nobility have access to this greater power and wealth. I should point out that this idea of challenging the social hierarchy is not the only thing that's motivating rebels in the Peasants' revolt in England here. There are a lot of other factors, and we'll talk about those a little later. So when we talk about medieval European society, before this point we have a structure that has three estates, three levels or classes you could think of this as. And we have the clergy which are priests or friars, and basically anyone involved with the church and that is the group of those who pray. You have the nobility and this is going to be your Knights, your people who are in control of large tracts of land that they hold in service to the king and to the kingdom and those are the people who fight. And then at the bottom you have the people who work, which is including most of the population. Remember this is a low technology agricultural society. We're talking about probably 90% plus of the population is involved in agricultural production in some way. So this is the largest chunk of society and they refer to that as the peasantry. So to recap that your your model is you have those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. The society needs all of these roles to function properly, so all of them are important. So we want to think about how do we go from this situation where we have this relatively stable social order where the different estates are seen as more or less equally important members of society to what we see in England in 1381 where the people rise up and challenge the authority of the king. So there are three broad areas of analysis that we can use to better understand why we see these popular revolts breaking out throughout the 14th century. The first one of those is demographics or the study of population. And we have two major events that significantly impact Europe's population here. The first one is the Great Famine which occurs between 1315 and 1317, and that refers to a sequence of poor agricultural harvests due to poor weather for agriculture at this time. The other event that has a major impact on Europe's population is the outbreak of the plague, the Black Death it's called, which occurs between 1347 and 1349 here. And this ends up killing between a third and a half of Europe's population. So what you see is a big increase in how much it costs to hire workers. And you actually see in England for example, in 1349 and 1351, you see a couple of laws passed that try to keep workers wages at pre-plague levels. So it's a response to the fact that there are now fewer workers and that makes workers more expensive. On top of that, you also have the Hundred Years' War going on between England and France. It starts in 1337 and drags on actually for more than a hundred years, but that's the name they've given it. But that's expensive. That costs both governments a lot of money to keep fighting and maintaining militaries and so at the same time that you have these economic problems and struggles, you also have government's raising taxes on people to try and pay for this conflict. And the last thing that helps explain some of these uprisings these popular uprisings, we saw a little bit already in John Ball's quote, but we have religious and cultural issues going on as well. The mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans who are friars, who go around and preach to common people and preach the value of poverty and simple living. So when you have nobility who are living very lavish and extravagant lifestyles, you have some some pushback against that as being perhaps against the popular religious attitudes of the time. I mentioned at the beginning that we would talk a little bit about whether or not a peasant revolt was the proper name for these events. And we have in 1358 an event, known as the Jacquerie, which is a popular uprising in the north of France spurred because of issues relating to the Hundred Years' War, actually. And the Jacquerie gets its name from the fact that common people kind of generically called, Jacques Bonhomme, like a regular guy was a Jacques Bonhomme, and then that just translates to something roughly like, Jack Goodfellow. So what you see is the elites, the clergy, the nobility are applying this notion of being a peasant, of being a commoner, in kind of a derogatory or insulting way to anyone who's not part of the nobility or the clergy. And remember that when we said what a peasant really is it refers to a rural agricultural worker. These revolts, these uprisings, included a lot more than just rural agricultural workers. What they're trying to do is to dismiss the uprising as just bad behavior from people who don't know their place in society. But in reality, it's much more complex than that. So hopefully this starts to give us a sense of why did people revolt against the government at this time. We had these demographic changes that lead to these economic changes, and that leads in some ways to changes in how people view their roles in society. To think about whether or not these were successful, we want to think about more than just military success, because the fact is most of these popular uprisings lost militarily-speaking. The government had more than enough manpower and money to put down these popular uprisings. So when we think about whether or not these popular uprisings were successful, we want to think about did they lead to any major changes in the social or political structures. Even if they didn't win military victories. And in most cases, we do see some of those changes start to take shape.