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Popular revolts in late-medieval Europe

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Popular revolts in late medieval Europe were uprisings and rebellions by (typically) peasants in the countryside, or the bourgeois in towns, against nobles, abbots and kings during the upheavals of the 14th through early 16th centuries, part of a larger "Crisis of the Late Middle Ages". Although sometimes known as Peasant Revolts, the phenomenon of popular uprisings was of broad scope and not just restricted to peasants. In Central Europe and the Balkan region, these rebellions expressed, and helped cause, a political and social disunity paving the way for the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

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  • Popular Politics & Public Opinion in Late Medieval Paris
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>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. >> Janice Hyde: Good afternoon. Welcome to the John With. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. My name is Janice Hyde, and I am privileged to serve as the interim director of the Kluge Center. Before we begin today's program, please take a moment to silence your cell phones and other electronic devices. Thank you. I'll also make you aware that this afternoon's program is being filmed for placement on the Kluge Center website as well as on its YouTube and iTunes channels. The John W. Kluge Center is pleased to host this afternoon's program, which will showcase the work of one of its resident fellows. The Kluge Center is a vibrant center for scholarship on Capitol Hill that brings together intellectuals and researchers from around the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another, to distill wisdom from the Library's rich collections, and to interact with policy makers in the public. The Center offers opportunities for senior scholars and post-doctoral fellows to do research using the vast collections of the Library of Congress. It also offers free public lectures, conferences, symposia, and other programs, and it administers the Kluge prize, which recognizes outstanding lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences. To view past programs or to learn more about the Kluge Center, please visit our website at Today's program is entitled Popular Politics and Public Opinion in Late Medieval Paris. It features scholar and current Kluge fellow, Michael Sizer. Dr. Sizer is a historian with interests in political culture and philosophy, cultural history, interdisciplinary studies of literature and ideas, urban history, the history of revolt and revolution, particularly appropriate today. He received his PhD in medieval French history from the University of Minnesota in 2008, and during his graduate studies he was also a fellow of the [foreign language] at the Sorbonne in Paris. Dr. Sizer's research at the Library of Congress has focused on late middle ages in France, one of the most tumultuous periods in European political history. It was a time marked by revolts, riots, popular preachers, processions, and other engagements of the people in the political realm that was unheard of in previous times according to one chronicler of the period. In celebration of Bastille Day today, Dr. Sizer will discuss the popular politics of late medieval Paris, 1380 to 1422, and what bearing it may have on the way we understand popular political culture today. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Michael Sizer. [ Applause ] >> Michael Sizer: Hello everyone. So thanks for being here and thanks to the Kluge Center for having hosted me these past several months. It's been a great experience. I'd like to thank in particular Travis Hensley, Mary Lou Riecher [phonetic]. Also, Erica Spencer at the European Reading Room and also the Rare Books Reading Room. Staff and also the other fellows who it's been really fun to interact act. It's really exciting to be able to research in this setting and give this talk here with the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building out the windows. You know, I think it has definitely affected and inspired my thinking on the very deep and long history of the relationship of governments to their people. And everyone knows that the Library is the best place in the world to do research on the history of the Americas or the United States, but it's also the best place in the U.S. to do European history, and I feel very lucky to have been able to do that. I'm also very thrilled to be talking on Bastille Day because I'm going to be talking about other earlier rebellious Frenchmen and Parisians, and I promise you a riot at a Bastille. The Bastille survives this riot, but it won't survive, obviously, the one that we commemorate today in 1789. All right, to start with, let me give you just one example of a chronicler's description of Parisian popular opinion in the period under study. In February 1383, at the time of fiscal insecurity and popular discontent over taxation, the Duke of Anjou [phonetic], serving as regent of France, unwisely decreed that a new tax should be levied. As part of the process of making such a decree official required that it be proclaimed publically, royal officials searched around for a town crier to proclaim the tax in the market places of Paris. Fearing physical harm, no one volunteered until finally one man agreed to do it in return for a significant payment. The chronicle of the monk of Saint-Denis relates what happened next. Taking all precautions for himself, the crier assembled the people, first entertaining them with slick words and then loudly proclaiming that someone had stolen golden plates from the king's palace and that the king would give praise and reward to those who returned them. And as he had excited the crowd to laugh at this almost unbelievable item and seeing that the crowd was distracted and engaged in many uproarious conversations, he quickly spurred his horse and proclaimed that a tax was to be raised the next day. This unexpected news disturbed the minds of those in the audience, who filled the city with vague rumors, most saying it was a false tale and other astonished, waiting to see the outcome. Thus, the spirit of rebellion grew, and they bonded together using terrible words, conspiring the death of those who decreed the tax. The conventional scholarly consensus following Jurgen Habermas is that one cannot truly speak of a medieval public and that a proper public only developed under the historically specific conditions of the enlightenment and that the political sphere was a restricted one dominated by status and spectacle prior to the modern age. The episode described here however depicts a Parisian crowd that was far from passive in the face of official authority in the public space and furthermore that employed its own modes of spreading information, formulating opinions, mobilizing and taking action. The crowd here is also politically sophisticated, able to understand, sort, and evaluate information easily and is not fooled by the crier's rouse. Perhaps most interesting is that the forces of authority know that the crowd is this way and that they are operating in a tense and tenuous context, an unstable situation out of their control. This passage is by no means unique, references to an active and engaged Parisian populous occur frequently in all sources. Still, this is a rather typical example of public opinion in that we have, in that it only provides just a hint of a bigger picture and raises as many questions as it does answers. Many of our examples of a sort of medieval popular political action and public opinion come in tantalizing but incomplete chunks like this. But at the same time, we cannot ignore these hints as they suggest a quite different way of how medieval politics operated from the elite-centered, top-down model that still dominates the scholarship. When hints such as these are put together and aggregated, we can get a clearer picture of late medieval political culture in which the popular class has played a significant and even decisive role. This process of collecting and making sense of little chunks of evidence like this in order to make a comprehensive composite picture of how these phenomena operated has been what I've been engaged at the Kluge Center for the past several months, and in my previous time here, several years ago and doing my dissertation research and also at the National Archives in Paris. I have also been trying to situate this evidence within a wider context of late medieval political action, one that incorporates and explains popular involvement in politics in a way that puts it at the center of that [inaudible] political culture. This talk will present some of the results, which are still preliminary, still being sorted and figured out of this research. So why late medieval Paris. Let's have a nice picture of people unloading boats on the Sienne. Late medieval, by this I mean 14th and 15th Century Paris, is a great place to look if we want to answer for some of these questions. There are several reasons for this. The city, likely the largest in western Europe, was inhabited by men and women throughout the social spectrum and thus offers an opportunity to see how both elites and non-elites participated in politics. As a center of learning with the University of Paris, and as the site of the royal government with its army of scribes as well as a commercial hub with a thriving merchant class, the city was unusually literate, perhaps up to 20 percent or higher. The time period was tumultuous, featuring frequent revolts. Major popular uprising occurred in 1356 through eight, 1380 through 1383, 1413 and 1419. Civil war from 1407 through 1435 and occupation by the English from 1420 to 1435 in the context of the hundred years war. This [inaudible] was both cause and result of an unusual degree of engagement in political life by the popular classes, and the question of their involvement was hotly debated. From a broader perspective, this period is crucial, in the formation of the French nation state as the power of impersonal institutions of authority were advanced alongside the king's direct rule and the integration of the popular classes when political society was both a source of power and disruption for the expanding state. Paris, as capitol of one of the largest of these new forms of centralized state, was a vital stage for the play of these new forms of political power. Furthermore, this period's history of popular opinion and politics is a particular interest as it predated the invention of the printing press and yet displays some of the features of political culture associated with post-print era. Political pamphleteering, popular participation, propaganda, lots of P's, and ideological debate in all 14th and 15th Century Paris is an excellent laboratory for observing premodern, preprint popular politics. So I struggled to think of various ways, points of entry to explain in this short lecture the rather complicated and broader political culture that contextualizes all the examples I want to show you and that also could allow me to bring to the fore some of the bigger historical and theoretical issues that are related to this inquiry. I think the best way to do that is to go over some of the late medieval meanings and associations connected to the key words in this discussion, the people, populous or [foreign language] and public. Let's start with people. The word populous has a long history, stretching back to Rome where it generally referred to the populous Romani [phonetic], the mass of male citizens where authority was thought ultimately to rest, but which by the imperial period was seen as a largely abstract entity with no active force in political affairs. The [foreign language] of Justinian [phonetic] from the sixth century, which would become quite influential on late medieval law defines the people as indicating the entirety of citizens including patricians and senators, while other terms such as vulgus [phonetic] or plebeians denoted solely the lesser multitude. This meaning continued into the medieval period although to this sense was added the sense of a mass of believers, the populous could be the Christian flock. In both cases, they are passive. They're presence as a crowd validates the authority of the powerful one who was before them, whether prince or priest, who was acting upon them and who was thus distinct from them. It's main meaning was to denote a mass of undifferentiated citizen subordinates. The sense of the term essentially persisted throughout the middle ages, but in the late medieval period, a new set of associations was added to it. In some ways this borrowed from the ancient Roman republican idea that the people were the ultimate source of sovereignty. Late medieval jurists and political thinkers such as Marsilius of Padua [phonetic] and the influential Bartolus of Saxoferrato, who derived their arguments from Roman law placed sovereignty in the populous although the implications of this were variable. In general, though condemnation of tyranny were well articulated and abundant in medieval political theory, most medieval jurists stopped short of saying that the people could overthrow an unjust prince, arguing instead that resistance must be undertaken in the words of Aquinas, who is representative of the commonly shared view of medieval intellectuals, "not through the private presumption of a few, but rather by public authority," meaning barons, lords, etc. I don't want to get too far into medieval resistance theory here except to say that unlike what is sometimes assumed, the middle ages produced abundant and very varied versions of it and that several were based on the premise that ultimately care and concern for the people was an important if not fundamental factor. This was accompanied in the late middle ages by an ethic of sympathy for the suffering of the poor found in all sorts of sources. The common saying [inaudible], the voice of the people is the voice of God, first attested by Charlemagne's court advisor, Alcowen [phonetic], who was denouncing what he said was a commonly held idea, reflected a sort of sacred power of the people's judgement. Supplicants in pardon letters from late medieval France characterized themselves as "poor laboring men." In order to elicit sympathy, royal decrees often declared that the king is issuing a law due to having heard "the cries of the people." Chroniclers often deplore the suffering of the poor and [foreign language], the lesser people, to indicate the plight of the realm and as an implicit critique of leadership. The Bourgeois of Paris, the name given to an anonymous chronicler of 15th century Paris, who was more likely a cleric than a Bourgeois, invokes the pathos of the suffering poor frequently in his account. Here is one example. Alas. The great pity of going through the city of Paris because truly one could see more men asking for alms than anyone else who cursed their lives 100,000 times per day, in crying often and assuredly in a raised voice, alas, alas, true and gentle God, when will you stop for us this heavy sadness and this melancholy life and this damned war. Note how the alas of the Bourgeois is immediately echoed by the cries of the impoverished Parisians. The chronicler and the [foreign language] speak with the same voice. When he wants to condemn the duke of Berry [phonetic], who had joined the [foreign language] party hostile to the more popular, especially in Paris, Burgundian [phonetic] party in 1412 during the civil war, the Bourgeois says, "He was more cruel to the little people than any serasan [phonetic] tyrant." Political theorists writing advice for princes, called mirror of princes literature, also argued that the protection of the poor was crucial to valid and proper rule and even stressed the common humanity under god that both kings and peasants shared. The most poignant example I found of this, though there are several, comes from a text I read in February in the Library of Congress' Rare Books Room, and it's from the [foreign language] information for kings and princes, which is a late 14th century French translation of an earlier Latin text written by an anonymous Dominican. In a section on royal clemency and dealing with recalcitrant serfs, it says, and this is somewhat hasty and rough translation, "To serfs, one must not place punishment with too much rigor but gently. Because even though they are serfs, they are God's creatures, and in this we must consider them as men and as friends because we are all formed from the same elements and have the same birth. We are called to the same heaven, and we are from the same blood, redeemed. We all have a faith and a mind, and we all go to the same purpose. There is not serf or freeman in God, and we are all of God. Though I find this to be an exceptionally eloquent and poignant expression of this idea of a common humanity, the sentiment was not unique and became an increasingly important idea in the late middle ages, helping validate the inclusion of the people in political life. This phenomenon should be seen alongside an increased evaluation of vernacular written culture, which signaled the moving away from the more exclusive clerical culture of the earlier period. Okay. So what is the medieval idea of the public. The most important thing to remember is that while in modern speech the opposite of public is private. In medieval parliaments, the opposite of public, publica, publicus, public [phonetic] was singular or particular. This reflects a different nuance of the word's meaning. In the middle ages public meant pertaining to all or common with its opposite particular meaning pertaining to one individual. A prostitute was a public woman because she made herself available to all, this is the real meaning of a common woman, rather than to a particular husband. Chronicler [inaudible] articulates this difference clearly in his condemnation of the behavior of rival court factions. "Rivals in the civil war induced him, the king, to do their singular will and pleasure without having regard together through deliberation for the public good of the realm." This last quote includes the most common usage of the word public in the later medieval period, that of the public good or common good. This concept came from Aristotle, whose works were translated into Latin in the 13th Century in French and the 14th Century, and the influence of Aristotle can't be understated in the late Middle Ages. By the late Middle Ages the term or common good was ubiquitous. Late 14th Century poet Ustach Deshawn [phonetic] provides as good definition as any in one of his poems. What is the common good? That which can relate to the profit of all, young and old, to keep the law his country and his own. Nichola Arem [phonetic], who translated Aristotle's politics into French in the 1370's and who also glossed the text explained "The common good is also like a collective holy thing." On the one hand, the concept of the public or common good justified the increase of royal power over a much greater slice of political life than had been possible before. Indeed by the late Middle Ages the French royal government had attained both the ideological and logistical authority and power to make it the unquestioned center of the realm's political universe. In the late Middle Ages into the growing influence of Roman law, royalist medieval jurists and thinkers were successfully advocating for a conception of royal sovereignty that was stronger and more centralized than previous, adapting the Roman law formula to argue that [inaudible], the king, his emperor, and his realm, enabling the application of wide-ranging Roman imperial powers encoded in law to the king. This was accompanied by the growth of impersonal, bureaucratic, financial and legal institutions of royal government, which enabled extensive war powers, coaptation of local courts, the extension of a concept of treason, and the implantation of permanent royal taxation in the mid-14th Century. The idea of the public good was mobilized for this purpose as well, justifying the king's abrogation of local rights and prerogative in favor of his own. Every encroachment, taxation, expanded war powers, overturning unfavorable judgments in local courts, ignoring municipal liberties could be and was justified by invoking the public good. The kind and his royalists theorists did not have a monopoly over this concept however for the public good could be invoked against the king to criticize his actions and to invalidate his decisions. The chronical of Jean Jouvenal des Ursins gives but one example, when Parisians reject a tax levy in 1405. In this time, one spoke loudly of the queen and my lord of Orleans, saying that it was by them that lump-sum taxes (tailles) were made, and sales taxes (aides) raced about and were raised without anything being done and none of it used for the public good and quite loudly in the streets once cursed them and said many words. As this example shows, the king and his court could be held accountable for their failures to uphold the public interest while claiming extensive powers allowed for the royal government to assume a greater and greater share of political life, it also meant that they were subject to public scrutiny to a greater degree than before. The king's morality, disposition, and comportment because his office was central to the maintenance of the public good became objects of scrutiny and censure. The thriving mirror of prince's literature commented extensively on the importance of the king maintaining his moral character as this was linked to the performance of his public office. Cruelty, gluttony, and other sinful behaviors were not just a question of personal salvation anymore but were of public importance. The court in particular was a flashpoint for criticism. Though the king's person was sacrosanct and he was rarely the object of direct criticism, his officials were not, and they were often blamed for the king's conduct or for perceived failings in royal governance. Courtiers were frequently the target of popular uprisings. The most blatant example of this in Paris is when the revolutionary provost of merchants, the head of the Parisian municipality elected by the town's bourgeois, Etienne Marcel gathered a crowd of men who burst into the Palace [phonetic] Royal, and this is early 1358, and while the regent Charles cowered in the corner in horror, slaughtered his two leading marshals before his eyes, one on his bed, the victims' were decapitated, then dragged out of the palace, leaving blood all over the royal chambers and stairs and display in the courtyard visible from the regent's window. Marcel, whom one chronicler says claimed-- oh here's a picture of it, this is a modern representation of the killing of the, you can see the [inaudible] how he's like sat, and that's Marcel pointing. Marcel, whom one chronicler says claimed to have acted "concerned for the public good" explained to the cowering [inaudible] that the killings of these "false, wicked" traders was done "by the will of the people." These actions were a display of the power of the commons intended to intimidate as when Marcel warns the [inaudible] that the marshals were killed to avoid greater perils. Here's a picture of Etienne Marcel's revolt, and he's having the Parisians clear the Louvre of weapons during his uprising. So potent was this dynamic that it became the engine for late medieval political intrigue, those courtiers who are marginalized in the constant scramble for courtly prestige and access to the king and the decision making and revenue controlling areas of government could go outside the court and appeal to the public. They usually did so on the grounds of immorality and the misuse of public funds by court insiders, which the populous was only too happy to support. The result was a recurring cycle of scandal and purge in late medieval France, a source of considerable instability in the government and discord in the realm as a whole and generally the defining feature of most revolts. In this way, the popular element and it's sense of guardianship over the public good was a central feature of the politics of the day in a way that is underappreciated in most scholarship, which focuses on the rivalry and decision making of powerful figures. All right. So that's kind of the context that I feel is important, and I tried to make that as short as possible because now it's more fun, we're going to talk about some of the examples. What forms of popular political expression are revealed in the sources? There are many different types, and I will not be able to discuss them all today. For the sake of easy comprehension, I divide them in what I'm trying to write, into two categories, the formal, the listed, the official, and the informal, listed, and unofficial. Forman or official modes of expression were those generally overseen or favored by forces of authority. Informal or unofficial ones were generally outside of their control, and sometimes operated against their wishes. In the formal category, we have, among other things, representative bodies, such as the estates general, the municipality, petition, processions and ceremonies, moral and political literature, and sermons. In the latter category, the informal, we have rumors, speech, news, songs and festivals plotting and revolt. It should be noted that these categories are not hard and fast. Many of these elements listed here, festivals for example, could fall into both categories depending on the situation, and many of them overlap. Municipal institutions could often express the interest of their community through petition for example. I just grouped them there for the purposes of discussion. In the interest of time, I don't want to cover the formal, official modes of communication today. The only thing I want to say about them, and it is an important thing to keep in mind, is that although these modes of interaction were generally overseen by royal or aristocratic officials and those allied with them, it does not mean they were fully predictable or controllable. We see that petitions from various interest groups had a real effect on royal legislation, which often reproduced verbatim the petitioners words and royal decrees. Processions and ceremonies were often carefully orchestrated and extravagant spectacles, but they relied on the audience's participation and bestowal of good graces, which in some cases was not forthcoming. Crowds could confront the king with petitions, heckle, and simply not participate in the expected numbers or with palpably luke-warm enthusiasm, which was recorded by chroniclers. As much of these events represented opportunities for the powerful to display and enact their power, they were seen by the people as a rare chance to have an exchange with their sovereign. So let's talk about some examples. Let's talk about speech. As stated before, though late medieval Paris was unusually literate, the predominant mode of communication was oral. Parisian's were famous for their speaking. The Duke of Berry [inaudible] grumbles in 1413 that they are a "people full of rumor." And famed 15th Century poet, Francois Villon declared "there is no tongue like the Paris tongue." The oral public's fear has several differences compared with that dominated by writing. Speech acts are bound by space and time, which reduces their effect and makes them subject to immediate place of power. The oral sphere is more determined by the social differences and personal charisma of those occupying it. But it's ephemerality also raises possibilities as it is more elusive and fluid. From the modern perspective, we tend to see written communication as democratic and connected to the greater possibilities of expression. In the late middle ages, however, writing was not democratic and often served to calcify and domesticate the thriving oral-based exchange mechanisms. Let's look at some examples. Keep in mind it is rare to have the contents of speech acts although I have a few of those rare examples, but other examples allow us to see hints of their form as well as their ubiquity and importance. So I want to go back to the monk of Saint-Denis for my first example here. I really like this one because of its sonic imagery and the way it describes and mobilizing crowd. This is kind of similar actually to the one, and it's from the same revolt, the mallet wielder's [phonetic] revolt in March 1382 as before. So the riot that he's about to describe began with the rough treatment of a woman selling water crest in the la saille [phonetic], the city's marketplace, by a royal tax collector. Seeing this, the Paris crowd beat the tax collector to death. From this small incident, the uprising grew rapidly throughout the city, represented in [inaudible] chronicle, the monk's chronicle by the cries of the people. This crime having been perpetrated, the tumult now could not sustain itself in the marketplace but soon pervaded all the city. From all places one ran to the marketplace with immoderate haste, converging from all directions into a crowd. A loud clamor with a raised up from everywhere and resounded in all ears so that the dire venom of sedition could be spoken everywhere, next some men with confused minds and deserving of divine punishment went through the neighborhoods and crossroads of the city shouting out horrible words equipped with the weapons and swords that the popular furor could supply, calling "To arms for the liberation of the fatherland." This is the Maillotins Revolt. It's called that because the rioters went and got a bunch of hammers that were stored in the city's arsenal, and so they used hammers, which were decidedly nonaristocratic weapon. Knights used swords. And so they used hammers in their revolt, and here's them hammering people and things. The people expressed the power of their numbers and their uniformed will to the loudness of their collective shouting because this power went as far as shouting distance combining with cry, the cry, with movement to their city spaces expanded their reach of the people in rebellion. So that's an example of the power of the sort of oral community has expressed in this chronicle. It's a rather extreme example. What were the regular channels by which information circulated? Marketplaces such as the aforementioned [inaudible], taverns, prominent city squares, bridges, cemeteries, and churches were common meeting places where ideas were frequently exchanged. Instructions for town criers, who were to disseminate orally the king's decrees indicated the places in Paris where the greatest number of people congregated and thus the announcements would have the greatest effects. These were before Saint Genieve's church-- [ Foreign Language ] Before the palace, before the chateleigh [phonetic] in LaSailles [phonetic] at Port-- [ Foreign Language ] And so on, a letter of remission describes how in July 1413 during the [inaudible] uprising in Maillot [phonetic] near Paris a chamberlain and a companion "went together to the gate of the market to hear the news." Orem's [phonetic] translation of Aristotle's politics mentions how "all manner of people converse in the market and in the city, and because of this congregations and assemblies are easily made." Hers a marketplace picture. Here's men discussing the purchase of an Oxford. Maybe they're also discussing politics at the same time. To this quote of Aristotle's that Orem translates, he also adds a grumbling gloss, warning of "the mob or a multitude of merchants found in marketplaces." Taverns were particularly rife with gossip, rumor, and discussion. Here's a tavern. Guilbert de Metz' [phonetic] 15th Century description of Paris said there were 4000 taverns in the city. There probably weren't that many. And here are few sample tavern names, just because they're fun. The deer's horn, the Griffin, the helm, the armed man, the striped assistant, the two axes, the three axes, the bear on the line and the wolf's tail. So these people would congregate in these taverns with their names and their beautiful signs that depicted these things I just described. The point is that these were all important places where people of all social strata mixed and normal cultural codes of honor and respect for hierarchy were loosened. Not surprisingly, some of the most shocking and subversive snatches of everyday people's speech that comes down to us in the sources were spoken in taverns and then recorded when their unfortunate speakers went on trial for their words. Here are some examples. These are my favorites. In 1379, Jean Loast [phonetic] declared that he wished "that the king was dead and that his soul in paradise and happy peace could be throughout the realm, and it was a sin that he continued to live." In 1398, a certain Jean de Begne [phonetic] was accused, as it turns out falsely, of having complained of over taxation and called the king insane, and he said that the king's brother, "played dice and loved whores," which was true. My favorite example comes not from Paris but from Orleans, but I included it anyway because it's too good. In 1384 in the aftermath of failed revolts that shook the entire realm including Paris and Orleans, Guillium Lejup Onye [phonetic], the roadmaker, said, "Shit on this king and shit on that king. We have no king but God. Do you think they acquired what they have justly? They burden me again and again, and it weighs on them that they can't have all of our things. What affair is it of theirs to take that which I have gained with my sewing needle. I would rather have the king and all kings die than to have my son hurt even his pinkie finger. Do you think it was a good idea for Guillium to say that? No. He was pardoned actually, but he got a fleur de li [phonetic] engraved in his forehead. The royal symbol, the fleur de li. The authorities knew of subversive speech prevalent in taverns. The Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold tried to use the network of Paris taverns to his advantage around 1400, "to put the hearts of the people against the queen and the Duke of Orleans, the king's brother. He had false lies spread by scults [phonetic] and in taverns about them." A systematic regime of espionage in the taverns of Paris to prevent the youth from plotting or being idyll, for this led to revolt, was advocated by a political philosopher and some called the proto-feminist, Christine de Pizon [phonetic]. She was maybe a proto-feminist depending on your view, but she was not politically progressive in other ways. And this plan was once again advised by the Arman Yacklad [phonetic] government in October 1413 after the [foreign language] uprising had been quelled. They say that "the provost of Paris should send 30 or 40 good and sure sergeants to walk often around the city and in taverns and other places to listen, inquire, search and hear if they find or know anybody murmuring, plotting betrayal, saying or doing anything that could be the cause of disruption of peace." The 1383 Parisians planned for resistance as well as an abortive 1417 plot to open Paris to the Burgundians were hatched in taverns, is tangible evidence that the authorities were right to be wary. In addition to these informal modes of spreading news and information, more formal modes of speech also existed in these faces in the street. Popular preachers commonly circulated through Paris competing with street performers, peddlers, and the cries of sellers of all sorts of wares for attention. Most street preachers were connected to an official organization, and the right to preach was officially guarded only for those sanctioned by the church. The university had a powerful weapon to move public opinion with its phalanx of preachers from the student body and faculty. This university preacher brigade was a powerful and important tool of the secular authority such that the threat of a preacher strike was a major weapon of intimidation by university officials. Also, the king found himself frustrated in keeping the university in line ideologically and was forced to issue what were most likely ineffectual warnings against the university's preaching when he found himself at odds with their political views, most notably in the twist and turns of the policy of the subtraction of obedience towards the [inaudible], papal schism, it's a real mess, but when the king and the university disagreed with one another, university would preach against the king's policies. One prominent popular Parisian preacher, theologian, Pierre-aux-Boeufs, here's a preaching scene. This is actually January Husband, it's bohemia rather than Paris, but I like the picture. One prominent Parisian preacher, theologian Pierre-aux-Boeufs complains of the way that he has to compete for attention in the city's streets. "There are many who never tire of listening for the length of a day to the jokes and japes of a performer and his game of pantomime or to hear a prolix [phonetic] romance. " Because of this, preachers had to adapt accordingly and filled their sermons with fiery images, sometimes condemning the rich and powerful. In one of his sermons, Pierre-aux-Boeufs deplores the laziness and decadent clothing of the rich and equated poverty with holiness. He further says, due to their rapacity, they (the rich) show themselves hard, rigorous and cruel towards the poor. The hard and evil words of the poor hear sometimes at the doors of the greedy rich stripped of all mercy, these harsh refusals that they there can be called rightly hard stones hurled at God. The sources refer to the presence of many preachers who captivated the city for months with their public sermons on morality held in the streets or Saint Innocence Cemetery before great crowds such as the Franciscan brother, Richard, in 1429, who was said by the bourgeois of Paris to have drawn five to 6000 for his moralizing sermons. When Brother Richard was giving these sermons, no doubt he had the famous painting of the dance of death for which Saint Innocence Cemetery was well known for centuries as his backdrop, reinforcing the theme of the equality of all human beings before God and judgment. Nonprofessional preachers can get and audience. [Foreign language] mentions, "A crazy man captivated audience in the Palace [inaudible]" in 1410, claiming he could heal the king's insanity. The king was insane from 1393 to 1422, a long time, probably schizophrenic. And that caused a lot of problems too. Aside from Brother Richard, the bourgeois mentions the well-attended preaching sessions of a recluse named Jean La Vouyeur [phonetic] in 1442, and the Chatleigh [phonetic] registers state that [foreign language] would be hanged as a thief in June 1390, pickpocketed a woman distracted "by a sermon" at Saint Innocence Cemetery. Political leaders would sometimes give large speeches to assembled crowds as well. Recognizing their power, both sides in the civil war employed their own preachers. Prior to this, there was the remarkable speech war in 1357 and 1358 between Charles the Bad of Navarre and his rival, the [inaudible] regent Charles, the same one who was cowering in the corner earlier, later, King Charles the fifth at the time of the Etienne Marcel uprising in Paris. Charles the Bad had scaffolding erected. This is a picture of this, supposedly. It's kind of a strange picture, but Charles the Bad had scaffolding erected in the [foreign language], an open field where normally jousts and other events were held, and had his men spread word of the coming speech in the days leading up to the event. Around 10,000 are said to have shown up at eight or nine in the morning of November 30 to see the demagogic Charles the Bad give a speech railing against royal officers and other injustices perpetrated by the royal government for Castro-esque four to five hours. Not wishing to be outflanked, the young dofan [phonetic] gave a speech at the Palace de Grave [phonetic] on 11 January to "a great crowd of people" in which he declared that he was "ready to live and die" with the Parisians. The speech worked. "The words of the [inaudible] were so agreeable to the people that he had the greater part of them in favor of him. Another example of spreading information and commentary about contemporary politics was through song. Music was a major part of medieval cultural life, and people played and sang as a group activity or enjoyed watching street performances. Because music and songs were part of the people's participation in political ceremonies, it is not surprising to find that music could be injected with a different political context out of satire. A ruling from 1395 prohibits Paris minstrels from singing "neither in the squares nor elsewhere" any [inaudible], rhymes or songs that make mention of the pope, king, or lords of France. The monk of Saint-Denis describes how some Parisians sang "injurious songs" outside the window of the Countess of Henolt [phonetic] as she dined after arriving to the city as an ambassador for John the Fearless in 1414. One chronicler in 1347 comments that a song called "I Failed Her to Whom I Was Given in Love" was sung "everywhere in France" about the young count of Flanders, Louis, who abandoned his fiance, the daughter of the King of England at the altar, thus touching off a political scandal and war. In 1413 in the context of the vicious civil war in France, a judicial record tells that [foreign language], who snuck into the town of [inaudible] near Paris was arrested for playing subversive songs on his harp in a tavern and for having a written version of "A Ballad Against Those in Paris" in his pocket. The printing press is given a lot of credit for the role it played in spreading ideas during the reformation, and so it should, but it is also important to realize the elements of pamphlet culture existed in Paris before Gutenberg's invention. The widespread use of paper, a cheaper alternative to parchment, began in the 14th century, making writing more disposable and accessible. Orality retained its importance in aspects of law and government but increasingly writing had become necessary, rather than an ornamental accompaniment to these procedures, and have permeated civic life as well. It must be remembered that in this period orality and literacy were not mutually exclusive worlds or processes. Written texts were often read aloud to audiences, and thus a large amount of people could share in a textual experience even if they could not read. Political broadsides have been discussed as a feature of English, political and urban life as a major vehicle for the spread of the Lollard heresy in the same period. But it is almost certain that they existed in France and Paris as well. A few of them have come down to us as they were designed as ephemeral, but sources give several indirect references to them. The political debate over the papal schism, which fed into the political disputes of the civil war had occasion efforts the control opinion in 1397 as this ordinance states quote that "no person regardless of status or condition be not so daring or bold in secret or openly, directly or indirectly in deed or in speech to preach, orate, make or write letters or any other sort of writing or anything that can bring or create any harm or obstacle to the above said vote of succession neither in the manner or means to proceed with it or in its practice. Also, in 1406, anyone found with a copy of a University of Tulet letter arguing that the king could be deposed as a heretic if [inaudible] pope was to be executed. There was considerable concern over seditious letters in the civil war period, and efforts were made to intercept them before they could reach their audience. Such letters were probably intended to be read in taverns and churches by sympathizers, but copies of them would also be hanged up on church doors and other places as Nichola de Bay's [phonetic] description of a provost of Paris decreed banning the practice in July 1404 indicates. The royal condemnation of the Cabotian [phonetic] rebels after the revolt was crushed in September 1413 lists as one of their major crimes that "many defaming letters were made and sent to many persons affixed to church doors and published in many places." Though he was considerably well connected, and that's not exactly a member of the common people, it is noteworthy that the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, engaged in a large scale publicity campaign directed by University of Paris theologian John Petit [phonetic] for his justification of tyrannocide, a treatise defending his recent assassination of the king's brother, that's the guy who likes dice and plays with whores. Luxury copies donned in leather were sent to prominent lords as gifts from John the Fearless, but cheaper copies were also produced for distribution. Petit and his secretary, John Johannes [phonetic] used the treasury office of the College of Roueaux [phonetic] of the university for the copying campaign in 1408. Twelve students at a time would take dictation from Johannes to produce numerous additions, which were then sent out throughout Paris and the realm. I promised riots of the Bastille, and I will deliver, but before that, I think it is important to remember that if we're talking about popular resistance to a royal authority, and not all, in fact, not most of popular political engagement was adversarial to the crown must be said, even in these tumultuous medieval centuries, it is just as important however to talk about more humble, everyday forms of resistance than big revolts. Rather than take the risk of open revolt, townspeople from the Parisian [foreign language] were most likely to engage in the sort of everyday resistance activities famously analyzed by James Scott in the study of modern Malaysian peasants, foot dragging, dissimilation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, and sabotage. By their nature, such acts are likely to escape mention in sources, but there are some references. I think a most instructive reference to kind of every day sort of resistance that we encounter comes from a July 1388 ordonnances. Every day there is committed and perpetrated many crimes, excesses, evils, and ill deeds, and that many times and often it has occurred and occurs that some of our Officers and Deputies when the case requires it to make rulings, enforcement, or other matters of justice, have rebellions, defiance, obstacles, and disobediences given to them. And what is worse, many of our officers, procurers, and sergeants in exercising their said offices and duties and otherwise, in hatred or contempt of them, have been greatly injured and cursed or very badly beaten, mutilated, and wounded and some dead and killed. This comes in the context of the crown attempting to label royal officers in a legal extension of the royal person. Thus they personified the king and therefore any act on them was an act of treason. We can see here once again that the people obviously drew a clear distinction in their minds between king and officers, a distinction that the crown tried to erase but to little effect. All right. Riot at Bastille time. Obviously the most sensational and therefore most documented expressions of popular politics in this period were instances of revolt. As I mentioned earlier, these were frequent in the late middle ages, once generation in Paris. Scholars [inaudible] in how and what they mean and how we were to compare them to modern-day revolutions, and those are big in great questions, but it would take a whole other lecture to begin to address them. What I hope to do here is to describe one riot that was part of the 1413 Caboshian [phonetic] revolt so you can get a picture of what these events looked like and some of the dynamics that were in play that echo what I have already talked about. Briefly, the Caboshian revolt was an uprising in which aristocrats, university men, trade gills, and rank and file Parisians all participated in a loose alliance based on a common ideology of antagonism towards the growth of taxation, the state bureaucracy, and the increased centralization of government power in the court. It took place in Paris in 1413. It is named for Simon Cabosh, the slaughterhouse worker, who was one of the movements leaders as it was the Paris butcher's guild that was at the forefront of the movement. Following a contentious estate's general meeting in January and February in which the estates rejected calls for taxation and instead demanded reforms and purges of wicked courtiers, a commission was established to draft a set of decrees that would reform the royal government. This would be issued in May and is now called the [foreign language]. In late April following the riot I'm about to describe, the Caboshian seized power through the organs of the Paris municipal government and militia and by physical control of the king, again, the tragic Charles the sixth who was incapacitated by schizophrenia and the dofan, the 13-year-old Louis of Guien [phonetic]. Once in power, they purged the government of disagreeable courtiers and tried to win other cities in the realm to their cause. Alarmed by their excesses, the University of Paris, the Duke of Burgundy and other initial sympathizers abandoned the movement in July, and the movement collapsed in August 1413. So this is an incredibly complicated history, but let's just focus for now on the night of April 28. On this night, the butchers, as heads of the city militia, rallied 3000 armed Parisians in the Palace de Grev [phonetic], entering the hotel de Ville [phonetic] and seizing the town standard to leave them as they marched. Over the course of the next several hours, 20,000 more joined them. These numbers are provided by chroniclers, and they are probably exaggerations. A crowd of 23,000 would represent at least 10 percent of the Parisian population in this time and would have been the size of London's population by itself. So these numbers, we have to doubt, but in any case we can guess that the participation of everyday rank and file Parisians was significant. The monk of Saint-Denis Sandonen [phonetic] describes the riot as "the popular commotion instigated by most sordid men and later the participants as plebeians and the popular classes." Once assembled, the crowd marched to the Bastille. They did so because they knew that Pierre de Czar [phonetic] from a prominent Paris bourgeois family and former provost of Paris once popular but now hated had taken refuge there. The Bastille also had both tactical and symbolic importance to the city of Paris. It had been constructed here, we see it, in the 1370's by Charles the fifth and his authoritarian provost of Paris, Ug O Brio [phonetic], as part of that king's aggressive building program intended to assert symbolic royal power and ownership over the city's physical space following the Etienne Marcel revolt of 1356 to eight. He was scarred for his whole life by that incident that I described earlier when the marshals were executed in front of him and he wanted to have an extensive building program that would kind of assert his power. As an extension of the Saint Antoine gate, it was a key strategic defensive threshold between the city's interior and exterior, which contributed to the Parisians' concern that it was being used for a planned assault on the city. So in 1789, the Bastille was in the middle of the city. In 1413, it was right on the edge of the city. For these reasons, the Bastille was seen as an intrusion on the Paris community sense of peace. When they arrived, the Parisians camped out in front the fortress and "swore an oath not to leave until they had taken the fortress by force." Another chronicle says that they threatened to demason the fortress, which I love. I love that. The angry crowd was temporarily mollified, however, and the Bastille given a 376 year reprieve, when the Duke of Burgundy, beloved by the masses arrived and arrested Pierre de Czar. The Parisians were not done, however. Still amassed and a large crowd, the Parisians marched to the dofan's residence at San Paol [phonetic] and demanded an audience. The dofan's counselors advised him to charge out his gates wearing a Fleur de li flag, but the teenage Louis could not muster the courage to do so against the armed and angry throng outside. He was 13. It would have been hard. The Parisians draped the city stand over the fleur de li on the gate of the dofan's residence. The dofan Louis addressed the crowd to his credit, saying that they should return to their jobs. From the Roux St. Antoine, Jean de Troyes [phonetic] representing the Parisians who cheered him on, he was a surgeon, and surgeons in those days weren't the reputable doctors that they became-- anyway, Jean de Troyes announced that they had come for the benefit of the realm and demanded that the dofan's wicked counselors be delivered to them immediately, producing a scroll of 50 named "traitors" that they insisted the dofan's chancellor read aloud. They also attacked the dofan's moral character saying that he spent too much time in "indecent nocturnal parties" and that they feared that his lack of guidance and discipline in his youth would lead him to the same sickness of his father. They said that if the demands were not met they would "rip everything to pieces" and the dofan's hotel. When the dofan's chancellor Jean de Ville read the scroll of traitors, the first name on it was his own. At this, the dofan withdrew into his residence and refused any more discussion. The Parisians immediately stormed the dofan's hall by smashing down the door and then "raced through its halls in all directions and rifled through all his records and sized everyone they found, sending many noblemen in the dofan's court to prison. The violence then spread throughout the city as Parisians rounded up other suspected traitors and arrested them and ransacked their homes. Though the night of April 28 with an intense and extreme in its confrontation with royal authority, in essence it's continued the themes I have already tried to explore today, and the animated late medieval Parisian popular opinion in my quiet times as well. We see the Parisians able to mobilize quickly, probably through word of mouth facilitated here by the militia deputies who could neighborhood by neighborhood to spread the word. But they also produced a scroll of traitors showing their familiarity with writing and the inner court workings no doubt disgruntled courtiers assisted them in the drawing up the scroll. We see the implicit claim to represent the public good by arming for the city's defense, justified by their use of the militia organization and their marching behind the city standard and also their desire to remove threats to the city by pulling suspected traitor, Pierre de Czar from the Bastille. We see them using claims of the dofan's immorality as a way to justify arrest of his courtiers and curbs on his autonomy. Through their physical penetration of the dofan's hall, we see them claiming the space as subject to public scrutiny, a public space rather than a personal one of the dofan's. We see from a broader lens this crucial dynamic referred to earlier that court intrigue could be animated by alliances with the popular classes. In all, we see the most spectacular manifestation of what was a fundamental aspect of late medieval culture, the central and tumultuous role of the people engaged in political action. So, I'll stop there. [ Applause ] So, are there any questions, anybody have any comments? Yeah, sure, Tom? [ Inaudible Comment ] Well thanks for that question. I actually had a huge chunk on Habermas that I removed just because it wasn't working for this lecture. I wanted to talk about the sources. And it's hard to answer in a short thing. But yes it's a big part of what I'm going to try to talk about. Habermas was very explicit in that he said that what he was describing was part of a very contingent political history, structural features of the 17th century and the 18th century in Europe, and this was essentially that the people, bourgeoisie especially, could enter the public sphere, they were private individuals who could enter a public sphere as a public people and voice their sort of universal opinion using reason in order to advance their opinions in kind of a neutral plane with everyone else. The means for this was in cafes and salons and newspapers and things like that. So the structural elements that Habermas talks about were not in evidence in the 15th century, 14th century in Paris. Although some of them were. I mean, some sort of insipient versions of that were. And Habermas doesn't say much about the Middle Ages. He sort of hints at it. Other people kind of coming after him had filled that picture in, but what Habermas does say is that, oh gosh, there's so much to say. I'm going to try to keep this as short as I can. He says that what's crucial is that there is a line between the government and the people. There's the government and the civic society. And what traditionally people like Habermas and other's says is the Middle Ages didn't have that line. The Middle Ages had all these intermediate entities, lords, other jurisdictions, and all of these people so that the public, what would be the public's sphere, was filled by all these kind of intermediate things, and the medieval sort of political story was thus not one with a line between government and people but actually a whole bunch of nodes of power. I think Habermas talked about status, sort of walking around with the nobility rather than-- so that's Habermas' argument. And he said what I'm describing is not an ideal type but a specific event. A lot of people have criticized Habermas. I think that the best criticism of Habermas is the feminist criticism for example that points out that what he describes as a universal public sphere was in fact very heavily gendered. There were all sorts of rules of playing in the public sphere that, you know, they talk about it being governed by reason but in fact there are all sorts of kind of social identity, related, gendered things that were restraining it. And Nancy Frasier, her argument's great. And other people have also come in, not just me but other people have talked about how there are many different kinds of public sphere, you know, the very thing that Habermas didn't want. I have sort of articulated arguments why there are actually many of them and that Habermas is a little too sort of Euro-centric and kind of modern-centric in his thing. What I would say against the still strong and still potent argument is that in the Middle Ages we see, and I think the court is the key, we see antagonists, people defining themselves as subjects and as marginalized from kind of royal government as subjects, and then the court is this object of frustration, animosity, hatred, and so in some ways you see what Habermas was talking about, which was a line between the government and the people. But this co-exists with all of these other sort of political affiliations that Habermas was talking about, that people have talked about since de Tokeville [phonetic] and Marx, you know. So, but I think that because you do have those kind of, that kind of dynamic between Court and people, you are seeing sort of this kind of early version of people considering themselves as a kind of a public against the government. Now is it governed by reason? I think I've already answered this question for a long time, so I'm sort of reluctant to be there. No, I mean there was a sort of, there was a culture of reasonableness that people try to advocate, but it wasn't as sort of blown up, and it's kind of celebrated as it was in the enlightenment. And I guess I would go back to Nancy Frasier's argument and the argument of others that this kind of ethic reason was itself, a kind of cultural construct that couched and hid all of these kind of sort of gendered and other ways that there was excluded and included people. That was a long answer. I'm sorry everyone, but it's a really good question, and it's really complicated stuff. Did I kill every-- yeah? >> [Inaudible] politics, so but I notice that [inaudible] royal taxation would be a political issues [inaudible] and so forth, and I [inaudible] ever a perceived public interest or, yeah, public interest on the spending side such that you would find a tax ear marked for a particular activity [inaudible] or more acceptable or less than the object [inaudible], so on the spending side, what was understood to be [inaudible] a worthy activity [inaudible] the subjects would kind of go along, and the other thing that I was kind of curious about one might [inaudible] conflicts is to have a good [inaudible] a good outside [inaudible] and the English were sort of [inaudible] and I kind of wondered what role they played either rhetorically or in actuality as [inaudible] these things, you know, the French would put all [inaudible] come together [inaudible]. >> Okay. Two good questions. So the story of taxation is quite complicated, but the original, sort of medieval structure of taxation as sort of exactly what you're talking about, that taxation had to be for a specific purpose, and so originally leaders would raise a tax for building a wall, for paying for my son's wedding, for very specific purposes. And for a war most often. Okay. And so this was the tradition, and leaders always had to articulate what that purpose was, municipal leaders had to articulate what that purpose was, and there was an expectation of a kind of cause and effect. In the 14th Century the war became the hundred, well the term the hundred years war was a later term applied to the war, but there was basically a kind of endless war with the English, and in the context of the endless war with the English there was also an endless need for funds. And so the French government, the royal government kept collecting money for war against the English such that they just finally said guys, let's just do this every year. We always need money. We're running out of money. And when they tried to do that, that's when the most serious, I mean I would call it a revolution, the Etienne Marcel uprising, when the crown tried to impose permanent taxation, and it was in the king got captured at the battle of [inaudible] by the English, and to pay his ransom because the English extracted a huge ransom for him. The crown said we just need huge amounts of money. And in the face of that, Etienne Marcel, the provost of Paris, I mean the provost of merchants in Paris, and the estates general, you know, created a very significant resistance reform movement, and they tried to have the estates government essentially, state's general essentially govern the country. So the resistance to this kind of permanent taxation was pretty serious, and it was, they never, they never stopped being serious. I mean this taxation problem continued. What stopped it is kind of the answer to your second question, or what changed the game, which is, after all of these revolts that I'm talking about and the civil war especially between these two parties, the Burgundians and the Armonex [phonetic], so kind of a complicated story, but basically the Duke of Burgundy assassinated the king's brother in 1407, and these two factions sort of fought, and they fought for years. When that happened, and with all these revolts happening, France was severely weakened, and the English invaded under Henry the fifth [inaudible] 1415, they occupied France and northern France in 1420 an in the treaty of Troyes in 1420, Henry the fifth's son, Henry the sixth, Henry the fifth of England's son, was to take over the crown of France, so this was disaster. And in this, and this is happening, you know, ten years after the events I'm describing, in this context you have the dofan, who has got his little enclave, and that's when Joan of Arc appears. Okay. And I think you can say that that changes the equation for many Frenchmen and that is the external enemy around which they are able to mobilize. That being said, I always insist that you must understand that even with Joan of Arc, even with the English occupying most of France, that there were a lot of people in France who we would call Frenchmen, including the Parisians most notably, who didn't like Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was an Armonac, she was kind of on the other side. Joan of Arc was burned by the Burgundians, the English captured her but handed her over to the Burgundians to burn her, and so this idea of Frenchness that was being mobilized successfully by the dofan and by his party was eventually able to kind of overcome some of this kind of fractiousness, but that even in Joan of Arc's time it was not a sort of done deal. So, that was long answer too. I'm trying to not have long answers. Yes sir? [ Inaudible Comment ] Well there's tons of popular mobilizations in Europe. [ Inaudible Comment ] No, it's not unique, but the university of Paris in this period mostly because of the papal, politics of the papal schism in which there was a pope in Rome and a pope in Avienne [phonetic], became really, really politically active and kind of exercised its muscle more than I think most university, most universities and other places did. [ Inaudible Comment ] Well, I mean, so the University of Tullos [phonetic] and the south of France was kind of a very different political context, but the University of Tullos issued what I described here, this letter in 1406 saying that the king was a heretic for supporting the Aviennial pope. So, yeah, they would get involved. The University of Orleans would also get involved in the uprisings there in the 1380s and the Italian universities, some of these jurists, and I don't think they weren't sort of directly in the street the way the University of Paris people were, but a lot of their jurists are articulating, as I sort of alluded to, justifications of government as, you know, being based in the popular sovereignty, and Marsilius of Padua, you know, is the most sort of strident version of that. He basically kind of almost a republican in this period. But no, I don't think overall it's nothing compared to University of Paris. >> Thank you very much. >> Okay. [ Applause ] >> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at



Before the 14th century, popular uprisings (such as uprisings at a manor house against an unpleasant overlord), though not unknown, tended to operate on a local scale. This changed in the 14th and 15th centuries when new downward pressures on the poor resulted in mass movements of popular uprisings across Europe. For example, Germany between 1336 and 1525 witnessed no fewer than sixty instances of militant peasant unrest.[1]

Most of the revolts expressed the desire of those below to share in the wealth, status, and well-being of those more fortunate. In the end, they were almost always defeated by the nobles. A new attitude emerged in Europe, that "peasant" was a pejorative concept, it was something separate, and seen in a negative light, from those who had wealth and status.[2] This was an entirely new social stratification from earlier times when society had been based on the three orders, those who work, those who pray, and those who fight, when being a peasant meant being next to God, just like the other orders.[2]


Michele di Lando, placed in the office of gonfaloniere of Florence by the revolt of the Guild-less Ciompi
Michele di Lando, placed in the office of gonfaloniere of Florence by the revolt of the Guild-less Ciompi

The main reasons cited for these mass uprisings are: an increasing gap between the wealthy and poor, declining incomes of the poor, rising inflation and taxation, the external crises of famine, plague and war, and religious backlashes.

The social gap between rich and poor had become more extreme,[2] the origins of this change can be traced to the 12th century and the rise of the concept of nobility. Dress, behaviour, courtesy, speech, diet, education — all became part of the noble class, making them distinct from others. By the 14th century the nobles had indeed become very different in their behaviour, appearance and values from those "beneath".[3]

The nobles however also face a crisis of declining income.[2] By 1285 inflation had become rampant (in part due to population pressures) and some nobles charged rent based on customary fixed rates, based on the feudal system, so as the price of goods and services rose from inflation, the income of those nobles remained stagnant, effectively dropping.[2] To make matters worse, the nobles had become accustomed to a more luxurious lifestyle that required more money.[2] To address this, nobles illegally raised rents, cheated, stole, and sometimes resorted to outright violence to maintain this lifestyle.[2]

Kings who needed money to finance wars resorted to devaluing currency by cutting silver and gold coins with less precious metal, which resulted in increased inflation and, in the end, increased tax rates.[2]

The 14th century crisis of famine, plague, and war put additional pressures on those at the bottom.[2] The plague drastically reduced the numbers of people who were workers and producing the wealth.[2]

Finally, layered on top of this was a popular ideological view of the time that property, wealth and inequality were against the teachings of God, as expressed through the teachings of the Franciscans.[2] The sentiment of the time was probably best expressed by preacher John Ball during the English Peasant Revolt when he said, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?", criticizing economic inequality as human-made rather than a creation of God.

Notable rural revolts

The rebellion of György Dózsa in 1514 spread like lightning in the Kingdom of Hungary where hundreds of manor-houses and castles were burnt and thousands of the gentry killed by impalement, crucifixion and other methods. Dózsa is here depicted punished with heated iron chair and crown
The rebellion of György Dózsa in 1514 spread like lightning in the Kingdom of Hungary where hundreds of manor-houses and castles were burnt and thousands of the gentry killed by impalement, crucifixion and other methods. Dózsa is here depicted punished with heated iron chair and crown

Notable urban revolts


Defeat of the Jacquerie
Defeat of the Jacquerie

Different historians[who?] will use different terms to describe these events. The word peasant, since the 14th century, has had a pejorative meaning. However, it was not always that way; peasants were once viewed as pious and seen with respect and pride. As nobles increasingly lived better quality lives, there arose a new consciousness of those on top and those below, and the sense that being a peasant was not a position of equality. This new consciousness coincided with the popular uprisings of the 14th century.

Research by Rodney Hilton in the 1970s showed that the English Peasant Revolt of 1381[4] (or Great Rising) was led not by peasants, but by those who would be the most affected by increased taxation: the merchants who were neither wealthy, but not poor either. Indeed, these revolts were often accompanied by landless knights, excommunicated clerics and other members of society who might find gain or have reason to rebel. Although these were popular revolts, they were often organized and led by people who would not have considered themselves peasants.

Peasants is typically a term used for rural agrarian poor while many uprisings occurred within towns and cities by tradesmen, thus the term is not fully encompassing of events as a whole for the period.

For historical writing purposes, many modern historians will use the word peasant with care and respect, choosing other phrases such as "Popular" or "from below" or "grassroots", although in some countries in central and eastern Europe where serfdom continued up to the 19th century in places, the word peasant is still used by some historians as the main description of these events.


  1. ^ Blickle, Peter (1988). Unruhen in der ständischen Gesellschaft 1300-1800. Munich: Oldenbourg. ISBN 3486549014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Teofilo F. Ruiz. Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal, Ch. "An Age of Crisis: Popular Rebellions", Course No. 863 The Teaching Company, ISBN 1-56585-710-0.
  3. ^ Elias, Norbert (1978). The Civilizing Process. New York: Urizen Books. ISBN 0916354326.
  4. ^ Hilton, Rodney (1988). Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Peasant Rising of 1381. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415018803.

Further reading

  • Mollat and Wolff, The Popular Revolutions of the Late Middle Ages, 1973 ISBN 0-04-940041-X
  • Fourquin, The Anatomy of Popular Rebellion, 1978 ISBN 0-444-85006-6
  • Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., ed. and trans., Popular Protest in Late Medieval Europe: Italy, France and Flanders, Selected Sources Translated and Annotated, Manchester University Press, 2004.
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