I picked up this little book because I had just been reading about Cromwell and recognised the title as one of the slogans of the English Revolution, but the book is about an earlier revolt, one that I knew very little about – the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. As I read the account of this inspirational rising I realised why the revolutionaries of the 1640s revived the slogan.
Fourteenth century England was a harsh place if you lived at the bottom of society. The lives of the peasants were dominated by work. This was true of all the peasants but the situation of the unfree peasants or ‘villeins’ was miserable. They had a social position barely above animals, and the Lords of the Manor had control of every aspect of their lives – they could not even leave to work elsewhere. It was said of villeins they owned ‘nothing but their bellies’. It wasn’t just the lords who oppressed them; the church reached into every area of the peasants’ life, ‘socially, economically and mentally’; the taxes were heavy – up to two thirds of their produce; and the power of the confessional ensured they would be paid. This was a world that had changed very little for hundreds of years, but it was about to be shaken to its core and from a source the rulers least expected.
Mark O’Brien gives a fast, exciting account of the revolt. He explains the background to the uprising; the labour shortage caused by the Black Death; the injustice of the poll tax levied on every person over 15 years of age. But this book really comes alive when he writes about the ideas that fed the revolt and the courage of those individuals who attempted to spread those ideas – people like John Ball.
John Ball had been preaching equality for over 20 years. Nothing could silence him, not harassment from the authorities, not many a year in prisons. He would preach in the market place on a Sunday as people were leaving church. He is worth quoting: ‘My good friends, things can not go well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common… when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.’ These ideas raised the imagination of the villeins beyond the harshness of their daily lives, fusing their anger with a utopian vision, creating a revolutionary consciousness, one that was about to burst into life.
Read the book for the story of the revolt, but what stood out for me were the bravery and discipline of the peasants – there was no looting. Wat Tyler, the elected leader, insisted the aim was not personal gain but the destruction of feudalism itself.
The level of organisation was also impressive. Bulletins were sent around the country, targets were carefully selected for destruction – the peasants destroyed the legal documents that recorded their status, free, unfree, taxes owed etc. This was no blind rebellion but an organised attack on the social basis of serfdom.
The rebels went on to take London, welcomed by the population. They met with the king himself forcing him to concede to their demands.
For the lords and courtiers this was unimaginable – it was as if the beasts of the field had risen up. They were never to view the peasants in the same way again, and although they were eventually defeated, the peasants too were never to view themselves in the same way. The villeins had not won their freedom this time but had changed history and themselves forever, and within 50 years villeinage had disappeared from England forever.
Mark O’Brien has done us all a real service. The Peasants’ Revolt comes alive in this book, forgotten heroes like John Ball and William Grindecobbe breathe again. But most of all he acknowledges the debt we owe to them. No wonder the revolutionaries of the 1640s revived their slogan.
A film that deserves its acclaim
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