Socialist Worker

The struggles that shook the old feudal order

In the second part of our series Jonathan Maunder looks at poor people’s challenge to feudal lords

Issue No. 2147

Thomas Muntzer

Thomas Muntzer


The changes that took place within feudalism between the 10th and 14th centuries created the basis for a different logic of production – one based on commodity exchange rather than an immediate consumption.

Much of this potential was wiped out as feudalism went into crisis between the 14th and 16th centuries.

But the possibilities were not completely destroyed, and throughout the crisis different social classes fought to determine which logic of production, and which interests, would prevail.

An outbreak of bubonic plague in the mid-14th century halved the rural population.

This had the effect of enabling peasants to flee their lord more easily as they could find alternative work in the towns.

The lords tried to resist this decline in their power, increasing restrictions and pressure on the peasants.

This sparked explosions of struggle, including the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England.

Thousands, led by Wat Tyler, took control of London for a short time to demand the abolition of serfdom.

The urban poor joined the insurrection, opening the city’s gates to the rebels.

The only way for society to get out of the crisis was to push forwards with the new methods of production that had taken root before it began.

Semi-capitalist production methods, such as industrial agriculture and the leasing of land to wealthy peasants who would then set other peasants to work, developed in the countryside.

Production organised along capitalist lines in industries such as printing, papermaking, shipbuilding and coal mining, developed in parts of western Europe.

The cities of Florence, Venice, Bruges, London and Nuremberg rose to prominence.

But these trends in Europe were uneven. Many of the merchants and richer artisans integrated themselves into the feudal order rather than directly challenging it.

But the changes did undermine the dominant ideology that feudalism was a divinely ordained and unchangeable order.

This helped inspire a wave of struggles among the poorest sections of society who were no longer prepared to meekly accept their fate.

In 1415 Jan Hus, a radical preacher from Bohemia, eastern Europe, was burnt at the stake at the behest of the pope.

Hus had agitated against corruption in the church and challenged the pope’s claim to be the sole interpreter of god.

His execution set off a rebellion in Bohemia by peasants and lower-level artisans.

They rallied behind the slogan, “All shall live together as brothers. None shall be subject to another.”

The rebellion was finally crushed in 1434 after 13,000 rebels were killed.

In 1524 a massive rebellion swept Germany as peasants and the urban poor took control of cities. They attacked monasteries and castles. The insurgents, led by radical preacher Thomas Muntzer, demanded an end to serfdom and the authority of the church.

The revolt was defeated, with tens of thousands of peasants killed and the 28 year old Muntzer tortured and beheaded.

These revolts from below did not create a new society, but they shook the feudal order and undermined the dominant ideology.

By the 17th century Europe’s ruling classes had plunged the continent into war.

The erosion of the old order by the spread of the market and commercialised production techniques caused friction between the powers.

Some wanted to stamp out any move to a new system, while others wanted change but were willing to make cynical compromises.

The old order won out across much of Europe. Bohemia was thrown backwards to economic, political and ideological stagnation.

Two places in Europe – Holland and England – broke with the old society.

In Holland, the merchants had won independence from the Spanish empire and established an independent republic based on capitalist production methods.

In England, a revolution led by parliament saw King Charles I executed in 1649.

The abolition of feudal tenures in 1646 was confirmed in law by 1656.

This proved to be a revolutionary peak after which Europe experienced 100 years of relative calm.

The feudal structures holding back capitalism had been substantially, but not completely, broken.

It would take another great revolutionary upheaval to finally open the floodgates to capitalism.


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