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Book Review: 1381- The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt

By (October 11, 2014) No Comment

1381  cover1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt

by Juliet Barker

Harvard University Press, 2014

British historian Juliet Barker, in her 2005 book Agincourt, took an incredibly familiar and much-studied subject and, through a combination of painstaking research and clear, strong prose, worked the minor miracle of making it seem entirely new, and she worked a similar miracle in her massive volume on the lives of the Brontes. So it should come as no revelation that her new book, about Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in 1381, is a stunning performance – but even so, the sheer heft and confident inquiry of the thing out-does even Barker’s own previous excellent work. The book, with its bland American title 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt and its bland cover, was called England, Arise in the UK and sported a good, evocative cover, but the winning text thankfully remains the same.

The basic story of the Peasants’ Revolt should be as well-known to British schoolchildren as that of Shays Rebellion should be to their American counterparts, and hence is utterly unknown to both: local resistance to the collection of a poll-tax in Essex started an avalanche of rebellion against taxation and oppressive serfdom throughout the heartland of the England of King Richard II, with large bands of determined and well-organized rebels eventually marching on London under the leadership of such now-famous names as John Ball, Wat Tyler, and Jack Straw. Barker has some well-founded questions about why these men are so much better-known than more powerful and influential organizers of the revolt, but her dramatic instincts are too keen (sharpened, no doubt, by prolonged exposure to all those Brontes) not to pause and show her readers the hovering moment when the Kentish rebels gathered at Blackheath “had a spectacular panorama of London lying before them”:

The marshy south bank of the river Thames was a semi-rural patchwork of fields and woods, with the palaces, gardens, and parks of royal and episcopal manors fronting the river, culminating in the archbishop’s palace at Lambeth to the west. Immediately below them lay the royal manor of Greenwich on a peninsula in one of the many loops in the river Thames as it wound its way lazily past the city on the opposite bank. From their vantage point the rebels would have been able to see right across the city: rising above the mass of lowlier buildings, the solid mass of the White Tower of the Tower of London some five miles away; the soaring spire of St Paul’s beyond it within the city walls; and, farther west, round a further bend in the river, the distinctive twin towers of Westminster Abbey.

The main problem with her much-studied subject, Barker immediately announces, is that it wasn’t really a “peasants’ revolt” at all:

As with so many neat and enduring labels, including the Black Death, this was a name bestowed by nineteenth-century historians who equated the chroniclers’ description of the rebels as rustici, meaning rural or country people, with peasants and serfs in particular. The problem with this term is that it is no longer simply a description of agricultural labourers or subsistence farmers, but has acquired a politically charged meaning which elevates the universalities of dogma above the differences of the particular.

“The differences of the particular” fill this engrossing book; those rebels poised over London refused a relayed royal request that they disband, and Barker sifts a large array of sources to pinpoint exactly what they did and why once they surged into London proper. But she’s also excellent at providing the wider background of the long-stewing discontents that moved these men to treason in the first place, and she also looks further back, writing with her sharp and enjoyable prose about some of the deepest underlying social causes of those discontents – and inevitably coming to that founder of the modern conception of the national state:

Edward III’s reign had seen an exponential expansion in the role of these keepers of the peace, not least because the gentry, sitting in parliament as members of the Commons, had demanded it. Royal justice, in the form of professional judges sent out on circuit from the central courts in London, was in great demand because it was open to all free men and deemed more impartial than private manorial courts, giving all litigants a chance of winning, even against their social superiors. Paradoxically, this also caused problems because it could spring nasty surprises by riding roughshod over local custom.

england, arise coverEventually, out of desperation, young Richard II met with the rebels himself at Mile End and granted whole swaths of their demands, only to, as Barker quotes, “revoke, quash, invalidate and annul” his agreements once the rebels had withdrawn from London without burning it to the ground. Richard cancelled all his concessions and ordered that the rebels return to their ordinary duties “without contradiction, complaint, resistance or difficulty.” Violent unrest continued to flare up for months, but fourteen-year-old Richard was implacable in stamping it out, although Barker makes an intriguing case that the king actually sympathized with the rebellion that nearly cost him his crown. His reactions were essential to giving the whole upheaval its character, according to her:

At the heart of the revolt, in every sense, were the concessions made by Richard II at Mile End. It is difficult to imagine what would have happened if he had refused to grant them. Would the rebels have sacked Westminster itself? Or taken the boy-king hostage? But the fact that he did grant them and was then so slow to revoke them gave the rebellion legitimacy …

Whether this reading-in of sympathy is right – or whether Richard was being well-advised to promise any temporary danegeld in order to get these particular Danes off his doorstep – it’s certainly true that Barker shows throughout a refreshingly appreciative understanding of Richard himself, whom she characterizes as “autocratic, vindictive and capricious” by nature but still “capable of selfless acts of kindness, particularly towards those who could not reciprocate.” In the popular imagination, he’ll always be the villain of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, but it’s nicely complex that he’s not the villain of this, by far the best history of that rebellion ever written. American readers should overlook the title-cover combination and dig right in.