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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
This rhetorical rhyme, made famous by the English Medieval Lollard Preacher John Ball, illustrates what many throughout the course of human history have believed: the rich get richer while doing less while the poor get poorer while doing more. Whether this is true or not is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the fact remains that history is replete with examples of those who have challenged the social and economic divisions of their time in an effort to balance the scales of justice.

Of course, the obvious example for us today is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is presumably operating under the assumption that the current economic state of affairs in the United States are unacceptable. Whether the "99%" has a legitimate argument or not has become a hot topic in today's political discourse and is likely to be an issue in the upcoming 2012 Presidential election. Do the "99%" have a case to be made? Who knows. Again, it is all in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I am not a fan of either the Occupy movement or the Tea Party movement (for personal reasons) but the fact remains that protests over alleged economic inequality is a big deal to a lot of people

And America is far from unique when it comes to protest. As stated before, humans have long argued over issues of economic inequality and perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon is a surefire Hollywood script in the making: the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

To understand the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 we need to place it within the context of its time. In 1350, England (and most of Europe as a whole) was finally beginning to emerge from the devastation left behind in the wake of the Black Death, which had claimed the lives of at least 1/3 of the continent. In addition, the Black Death created serious and severe economic problems for almost all survivors. Church resources were severely drained as were the pockets of the noble classes. With the labor force dramatically reduced, peasants were able to (in some cases for the first time ever) demand higher wages and better working conditions from the ruling class. Nobles, who before the Black Death were able to exploit the working masses, were forced to temporarily acquiesce to the demands of the peasantry.

This temporary (and relatively small) empowerment of the peasantry was not destined to last. Urged by the complaints of the nobles, King Edward III (and later his successor, Richard II) increased poll (census) taxes while at the same time passing laws that restricted peasant demands and fixed wages to pre-Black Death levels. In addition, nobles who belonged to large groups like the Knights Hospitilar, which controlled vast amounts of wealth and capital, were given tax breaks by the king, who depended on these nobles for his support.

Of course, this blatant show of favoritism for these elite, noble "corporations" did not sit well with the peasantry. In consequence, men like John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw emerged from the working ranks to inspire resistance against the ruling elite. These men, and thousands of others like them, staged public protests throughout England. No doubt inspired by the works of early Lollards like John Wycliffe, and having felt the horrific pressures of the Black Death, these peasants stood defiant to a ruling class that they believed no longer cared about their needs. This Medieval "99%" (a far more oppressed 99% than that of today) would eventually storm different locations that represented oppression in their eyes. For example, on June 14, 1381 a mob of nearly 20,000 stormed the Tower of London and executed Simon Sudbury (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and Robert de Hales (the Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitilar). These men, who were essentially the Medieval equivalent of corporate CEO's, had been some of the most vocal supporters of increased poll taxes and peasant restrictions. Needless to say, this "Occupy London Bridge" movement was meant to send a clear message. These sentiments would later be captured by Medieval Writer John Gower, who in his work Vox Clamantis, called the protesters "heathens", "angels of anti-Christ...who according to foolish ideas...believe in a world with no Lords." In his work Geoffrey Chaucer in his Nun's Priest's Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized one of the peasant leaders (Jack Straw) when he wrote:

Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meinee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille,
Whan that they wolden any Fleming kille.
And though the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 ended with the murder of its leaders and the suppression of the masses (King Richard II actually lured men like Jack Straw and others into meeting with him in London only to have them executed), most agree that the revolt marks the beginning of the end for Medieval serfdom. Though it would take centuries, the upper class nobles were made to understand that they could not treat commoners as chattel. Slowly but surely a sweeping wave of change (in the shape of the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and further economic opportunity brought on by Mercantilism) overcame Europe. Medieval kings and lords no longer maintained their monopoly on the "99%."

Is the same likely to happen today? Who knows. Only time will tell. Certainly today's economic oppression is not the same as that of our Medieval ancestors. Perhaps John Ball's poetic lines are as meaningful today as they were more than 600 years ago:

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well done...and fairly accurate. One part that should be added is about how the assizes and court records were systematically rewritten after the fact primarily to explain away the 'unavailability' of the Knights and their respective armies at the time of the disturbance. Also, it might be wise to keep in mind that although the charters for the remission of servitude were signed and issued, these were immediately retracted...and wide scale political retribution ensued! Peace.