The Uprising of 1381

[Click on image to enlarge] Both Chaucer and William Langland show a plowman as an ideal representative of the laboring estate. The Plowman in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (NAEL 8, 1.231, lines 531–43) lives in peace and perfect charity. Piers Plowman, the titular hero of Langland's poem, enters near the end of Passus 5 to show the pilgrims the way to Saint Truth (NAEL 8, 1.341-43, lines 537–642). He explains to the knight the proper division of labor according to estates theory: "I shall sweat and strain and sow for us both, / And also labor for your love all my lifetime, / In exchange for your championship of Holy Church and me" (NAEL 8, 1.334, lines 25–27).

These portraits starkly contrast with those of peasants drawn in late-fourteenth-century chronicles and in the work of the poet John Gower. The labor shortage after the Black Death, which wiped out over a quarter of the population of Western Europe, had led to inflationary pressure on wages and a decline in revenues. Government attempts to enforce wage controls and to exact arbitrary and unjust poll-taxes (head-taxes paid equally by everyone regardless of income)[Click on image to enlarge] caused a great deal of dissatisfaction that erupted in June 1381 in the rebellion often referred to as the Peasants' Revolt but more recently as the Uprising of 1381 (NAEL 8, 1.11). Although the origins of the rebellion were rural, the rebels were not all peasants in the sense of agricultural laborers bound to the land. They included small landowners, tenant farmers, artisans, and members of the lower clergy. The rebels moved through the countryside breaking into houses of officials and burning documents. Admitted by sympathizers through gates in London Wall, they burned down the palace of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster — a patron of Chaucer's and father of the future Henry IV — who was extremely unpopular because of his high-handed treatment of the commons. They were able to lay hands on the archbishop of Canterbury, who was the lord chancellor of England, and the lord treasurer, both of whom they beheaded on Tower Hill as "traitors" to the country. And they killed entrepreneurs in the wool trade from Flanders — famously remembered in Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, where the peasants chasing the fox make such a hideous uproar that "Jakke Straw and his meinee >> note 1 / Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille / Whan that they wolden any Fleming kille." >> note 2 Eventually the government regained control, the rebels were dispersed, and their leaders executed.


Fourteenth-Century Chronicles

[Click on image to enlarge] The participants in the failed Uprising of 1381 did not, of course, write their own history. Most of what is known about the rebellion comes from clerical chroniclers, who wrote about it out of deep shock and outrage, and from judicial records of the trials of rebels. The rebels' own voices survive only in a chant attributed to them — "When Adam delved [digged] and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?" — and in a series of cryptic utterances quoted in English by Henry Knighton and Thomas Walsingham, writing in Latin. Several of the slogans in these English statements are found in sermon literature that predates the rebellion. They are all that survives of what might be called a literature of protest. One scholar has suggested that they were letters or manifestos posted by the rebels in public places — for example, on church doors. >> note 3


From Henry Knighton's Chronicle

There were 20,000 men in this crowd of rebels. These were their leaders: Thomas Baker (the first mover and afterwards principal leader of the revolt), Jack Straw, Jack Milner, Jack Carter, Jack Trewman. Jack Milner spoke thus to his fellows:

[Click on image to enlarge] Jack Milner asketh help to turn his mill aright. He hath ground small, small. The King of heaven's Son, He shall pay for all. Look thy mill go aright. With the four sails and the post stand in steadfastness, with right and with might, with skill and with will. Let might help right and skill go before will, and right before might, then goeth our mill aright. And if might go before right, and will before skill, lo, then is our mill misadight [wrongly set up].

Jack Carter prays you all that ye make a good end of that ye have begun. And doeth well and ay better and better, for at the even men herieth [praise] the day. For if the end be well, then is all well. Let Piers the Plowman, my brother, dwell at home and dight [provide] us corn, and I will go with you and help that I may to dight your meat [food] and your drink that you none fail. Look that Hob Robber >> note 4 be well chastised for losing of your grace, for ye have great need to take God with you in all your deeds, for now is time to beware.

Jack Trewman doth you to understand that falseness and guile haveth reigned too long. And truth hath been set under a lock, and falseness reigneth in every flock. No man may come truth to but [unless] he sing si dedero [if I shall give]. Speak, spend, and speed, quoth John of Bampton. >> note 5 And therefore sin fareth as wild flood. True love is away that was so good. And clerks for wealth work 'em woe. >> note 6 God do bote [provide a remedy], for now is time.

First letter of John Ball. >> note 7 John Ball, priest of Saint Mary, greeteth well all manner men and bids 'em in the name of the Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, stand manly together in truth, and helpeth truth, and truth shall help you. Now reigneth pride in price, and covetousness is held wise, and lechery without shame, and gluttony without blame. Envy reigneth with treason, and sloth is taken in great season. God do bote, for now is time. Amen


From Thomas Walsingham's Chronicle of England

[Click on image to enlarge] Letter of John Ball, sent to the commons of Essex. John Sheep >> note 8 sometime priest of Saint Mary of York and now of Colchester greeteth well John Nameless and John the Miller and John Carter and biddeth 'em that they beware of guile in borough and standeth together in God's name. And biddeth Piers Plowman go to his work and chastise well Hob the Robber, and taketh with you John Trewman and all his fellows and no mo [more]. And look shape you to one head and no mo. John the miller hath yground small, small, small. The King of Heaven's Son shall pay for all. Beware ere ye be woe. Knoweth your friend fro your foe. Haveth enough and sayeth ho [stop]. And do well and better and fleeth sin, and seeketh peace and hold you therein. And so biddeth John Trewman and all his fellows.


John Gower, from Vox Clamantis, Book 1

John Gower (ca. 1330–1408), a wealthy landowner, wrote long poems in French, Latin, and English. Chaucer dedicated his romance Troilus and Criseyde to the "moral Gower"; the epithet "moral" has stuck to Gower's name and well describes his three main works — the Mirour de l'Omme (Mirror of Man), Vox Clamantis (Voice of One Crying Out), and Confessio Amantis (Lover's Confession) — all of which inveigh against the corruption of the times. Both the Mirour and the Vox are estates satires, that is, they attack the vices of the different estates. In the Confessio, the lover (a persona of the poet) confesses to a priest called Genius, who tells him stories illustrating the seven deadly sins. The Mirour, the French poem, was addressed primarily to a bilingual upper-class audience; the Vox,, the Latin, to a clerical audience; and the Confessio, the English, perhaps following Chaucer's lead, to all educated readers. Gower seems to have completed the Mirour and most of the poem that he entitled Vox Clamantis before the Uprising of 1381. Those events so upset him that he set about to write an allegory of the rebellion, which he made the first book of the Vox. Vox Clamantis refers to the saint whose name Gower bore, John the Baptist, whom all four gospels refer to as "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness" (Matthew 3.3, Mark 1.3, Luke 3.4, John 1.23) who will prepare the way for the Lord, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 40.3. Gower thus identifies himself with the prophetic voice of John the Baptist as well as the apocalyptic voice of John the Evangelist in the Book of Revelation. He cast his allegory in the form of a dream vision, a popular poetic genre in the fourteenth century, also employed by Chaucer. In this genre, the poet's vision in the dream may be religious or romantic, and it is often preceded by a joyful description of spring, such as that which opens the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (NAEL 8, 1.218). Gower's Prologue begins with a highly ornate description of a spring day that is followed, however, by a restless night, toward the end of which the poet falls asleep and has a nightmare vision in which a series of domestic animals turn into monsters.


It happened in the fourth year of King Richard, when June claims the month as its own, that the moon, leaving the heavens hid its rays under the earth, and Lucifer >> note 9 the betrothed of Dawn arose. A new light arose from its setting. * * * Phoebus >> note 10 glowed warm with new fire in the sign of Cancer. He fertilized, nourished, fostered, increased, and enriched all things, and he animated everything that land and sea bring forth. Fragrance, glory, gleaming light, splendor and every embellishment adorned his chariot.

* * *

Then everything flourished, and there was a new epoch of time, and the cattle sported wantonly in the fields. Then the land was fertile, then was the hour for the herds to mate, and it was then that the reptile might renew its sports. The meadows were covered with the bloom of different flowers, and the chattering bird sang with its untutored throat. Then too the teeming grass which had long lain concealed found a hidden path through which it lifted itself into the gentle breezes.

* * *

[After a delightful day the poet goes to bed.]

Sleep did not then soothe my eyes, and gone was my first heavy sleep, which the awakening of my frightened mind drove away. Indeed, my hair stood on end, and my flesh trembled, and the hollow of my heart grew weak, and my sense was carried away like water. * * * Finally darkness had closed my eyes. So, when the greater part of my wasted night was spent, sleepiness suddenly overtook my weary eyes. I took a little rest while Lucifer called forth its fire at dawn, and then I had a dream-vision.

While a dull sleep bound my motionless limbs, my spirit itself was indeed stolen away. I thought that I was going to gather flowers in the fields. * * * And I had not gone a long way when nearby I saw innumerable terrifying monsters, various rascally bands of the common mob, wandering through the fields in countless throngs. And while my eyes gazed upon the crowds and I was greatly amazed at so much rowdiness, behold, the curse of God suddenly flashed upon them, and changing their shapes, it had made them into wild beasts. They who had been men of reason before had the look of unreasoning brutes. A different shape marked the different mobs and so marked out each in its own form. Dreams have significance; hence it is that I shall unfold these marvels. More on guard, therefore, by now I was thoroughly frightened.

I saw rebellious asses carried away by sudden revolt, and no one checked them by the bridle. For their vitals were filled with the raging of lions in search of their prey. The halter had no effect on their unruly heads, as the wandering asses jumped through all the fields. Indeed, their braying terrified all the citizens, as they loudly redoubled their usual "hee haw" again and again. The asses were violently wild and untamed, and each which had been useful lost its usefulness. They refused to carry sacks to the city any more and were unwilling to bend their backs under a heavy load. They did not care for the field grasses on the hillsides, but instead they now wanted greater delicacies. They drove others from their homes and wrongfully wanted to get the horses' rightful place for themselves.

The asses now took it upon themselves to enjoy jeweled saddles and always to have their manes combed. * * * The ass fashioned himself as covered with a lion's skin, and his vainglory overstepped its bounds.

* * *

Behold, with them came oxen, which no one then dared to prick with a goad; indeed, everyone was afraid of them. Contrary to its rightful duties, the ox refused to have a plowman and unexpectedly did not now allow itself to be led. By pushing with its horn, the ox which yesterday had gently been led by the horn to plow the fields was raging today. Those which had recently been tamed now refused their bounden duty, with forehead threatening and horns raised aloft. They declared that they were no longer willing to be yoked to the plow, but they wanted to bear their free necks upright. Now they did not eat chaff or coarse straw, but they sought out where the better grain was. Nature forsook their tranformed shapes and had caused the oxen to be like monsters.

* * *

And afterwards I saw dogs standing about and barking as if there were tens of thousands, and the fields shook with their voices. The winged herald of dawn >> note 11 had sung his song when the raging anger of the dogs struck the air. The morsel which fell from their masters' table was not food to these dogs, and they did not like any kind of bones. Instead they demanded better fare for their throats, they devoured any- and everything fat when they met up with it. But notice, well-bred dogs were not in company with them; they were worthless ones which had no training. They neither went hunting nor rejoiced at the sound of the horn, and they persisted in nothing unless it was lowly. They did not want to run through the woodland to catch the hare, nor to chase stags in their swiftness. Instead, they tried to bark at men's heels from behind, and caused them much loathsomeness.

Cut and Cur ran swiftly together through the alleys, abandoning their wretched kennels for destruction. Even the shepherd's dog was on hand, and the one which guarded the church by barking at night; these two made trouble again and again. The broken chain loosed its dog to go free, the dog of every bakery and kitchen alike. And I saw the butcher's huge mastiffs coming, nor did the dog at the mill stay at home. The stable could not keep these old howlers from coming to join with their fellows. A one-eyed dog was there, and a three-legged one limped behind as if by stealth and barked as their companion. And then a snarler with a rough voice deserted the dung heap and panted to get new quarters. They were such that no one could stroke their backs, touch their tails, or hold their heads. For they, always angry, bared their teeth at you, and their rough disposition contained no affection at all.

* * *

[The poet dreams of bands of cats and foxes, domestic birds, and flies and frogs.]

When this great multitude of monsters like wild beasts stood united, a multitude like the sands of the sea, there appeared a Jackdaw, >> note 12 well instructed in the art of speaking, which no cage could keep at home. While all were looking on, this bird spread his wings and claimed to have top rank, although he was unworthy. Just as the Devil was placed in command over the army of the lower world, so this scoundrel was in charge of the wicked mob. A harsh voice, a fierce expression, a very faithful likeness to a death's head — these things gave token of his appearance. He checked the murmuring and all kept silent so that the sound from his mouth might be better heard. He ascended to the top of a tree, and with the voice from his open mouth he uttered such words as these to his compeers:

O you low sort of wretches, which the world has subjugated for a long time by its law, look, now the day has come when the peasantry will triumph and will force the freemen to get off their lands. Let all honor come to an end, let justice perish, and let no virtue that once existed endure further in the world. Let the law give over which used to hold us in check with its justice, and from here on let our court rule.

The whole mob was silent and took note of the speaker's words, and they liked every command he delivered from his mouth. The rabble lent a deluded ear to his fickle talk, and it saw none of the future things that would result. For when he had been honored in this way by the people, he quickly grabbed all the land for himself. Indeed, when the people had unadvisedly given themselves into servitude, he called the populace together and gave orders. Just as a billow usually grows calm after a stiff breeze, and just as a wave swells by the blast of whirlwind, so the Jackdaw stirred up all the others with his outrageous shouting, and he drew the people's minds toward war. The stupid portion of the people did not know what its "court" might be, but he ordered them to adopt the laws of force. He said, "Strike," and one man struck. He said, "Kill," and another killed. He said, "commit crime"; everyone committed it, and did not oppose his will. Everyone he called to in his madness listened with ears pricked up, and once aroused to his voice, pursued the prescribed course. Thus many an unfortunate man, driven by his persuasive raving, stuck his hand into the fire again and again. All proclaimed in a loud voice, "So be it," so that the sound was like the din of the sea. Stunned by the great noise of their voice, I now could scarcely lift my trembling feet. Yet from a distance I observed how they made their mutual arrangements by clasping their hands. For they said this, that the mob from the country would destroy whatever was left of the noble class in the world.

Wat calls, Tom comes to him, and Sim does not loiter behind. Bet and Gib order Hick to come at once. Col rages, whom Geff helps to do damage. Will swears to join with them for mischief. Grigg grabs, while Daw roars and Hobb is their partner, and Lorkin intends no less to be in the thick of things. Hudd strikes while Tebb threatens those whom Judd tramples on. Jack tears down houses and kills men with his sword. Hogg brandishes his pomp, for with his noble bearing he thinks he is greater than any king. The prophet Ball teaches them; a malicious spirit had previously taught him, and he then constituted their deepest learning. I recognized a great many of the madmen by these names, and there were a few others I remember. Time and time again they cried out with deep voices of monsters and they kept making various noises in various ways.

Some of them bray in the beastly manner of asses, some bellow the lowings of oxen. Some give out horrible swinish grunts, and the earth trembles from their rumbling.

* * *

On my right I then thought I saw new Troy, >> note 13 which was powerless as a widow. Ordinarily surrounded by walls, it lay exposed without any wall, and the city gate could not shut its bars. A thousand wolves and bears approaching with the wolves determined to go out of the woods to the homes of the city. There was no monstrous thing or species on earth whose fury could hurt the land but that it came forth and multiplied.

* * *

Behold, it was Thursday, the Festival of Corpus Christi, when madness hemmed in every side of the city. Going ahead of the others, one peasant captain urged them all to follow him. Supported by his many men, he crushed the city, put the citizens to the sword, and burned down the houses. He did not sing out alone, but drew many thousands along with him, and involved them in his nefarious doings. His voice gathered the madmen together, and with a cruel eagerness for slaughter he shouted in the ears of the rabble, "Burn! Kill!" What had been the Savoy burned fiercely in flames, so that Lancaster did not know which path to take.

* * *

The high priest Helenus, >> note 14 who served Troy's Palladium >> note 15 at the altar, perished when struck by the sword. He prayed beforehand that his life be spared him, but he did not move their cruel hearts for the better. What he said was quite sufficient, if grace might have touched their ears, but his words carried no weight. Whatever he said in warning examples went right out their ear, and the false-believing crowd was the deeper in villainy. Then the shouting resounded and a mighty tumult promptly arose and produced a great deal of sedition.

* * *

When a great assemblage had gathered together from all sides, the tremendous crowd rushed into mortal conflict. At the same time there were those who stood farther off, awaiting the end of the affair. One or two of them said, "This prisoner is to die. He is to suffer capital punishment, and let his blood be on our heads forever." >> note 16 Words to the contrary of these were then spoken, but finally the chattering voices condemned the man unanimously. After the altars of the deity had been profaned, the enemy held every side and sprang to the death of the presiding official. Feeling no pity the murderers shouted. "This man shall be killed at our hands." Laying their hands on him, they cut through his neck with a scythe. No faith in Christ feared justice there. The official, however, bore all the villainy patiently, and after suffering such great wrongs, was at rest.

* * *

Four men plotted an agreement for Thomas' >> note 17 death, and a hundred thousand brought about Simon's murder.

* * *

[The poet tells how in terror he took refuge in the Tower of London, allegorized as a ship. The rebels' breaching of the Tower is described as a great tempest. The poet and the others in the Tower pray for divine help, and their prayers are answered.]

There was an outcry in the skies, there were tears and frequent groans, and the gods did not neglect to show mercy. But Neptune, who is god of the sea, demanded sacrificial offerings to calm the sea. Our gifts in conjunction with our prayers prevailed; because of the gifts the god listened more kindly, and he gave approval to the solemn promises of our prayers. When the mighty tempest of the swelling sea was raging furiously, and fatal dangers lay in sight, there was a certain Mayor William >> note 18 whom a righteous spirit deeply moved in the thoughts of his heart. This man held the sword by which that proud Jay fell, and he made peace with it. A single bird perished so that a thousand thousand lived again, and the god stopped up the raging mouths of the sea. Even though it was late and after the mischief was done, the wretched, suffering ship was forced to take up arms. The Jay was dead!

* * *

[The crowing of the cock awakens the poet.]

Viewing the world more clearly with my waking eyes, and observing that the daylight had grown stronger now that the clouds had been dispelled, I perceived that the madmen had been subdued under the law of old and that a new mode of law had repaired the broken course of events. Patting my body's unharmed limbs, I rejoiced that my shoulders still supported my head. Friendship flourished as of old, and wrath's onslaught fled away, and at this time the rights of man were restored.

* * *

So when the peasantry had been bound in chains and lay patiently under our foot, the ox returned to its yoke, and the seed flourished beneath the plowed fields, and the villein ceased his warring. Similarly, Satan's power lay prostrate, overwhelmed by divine might; but nevertheless it lurked in hiding among the ungovernable peasantry. For the peasant always lay in wait to see whether he by chance could bring the noble class to destruction. For his rough, boorish nature was not tempered by any affection, but he always had bitterness in his hateful heart. In his subjection the lowly plowman did not love, but rather feared and reviled, the very man who provided for him. Their very peace and quiet stirred up these men, so that this goading fear became more sharply whetted in them and their burden weighed heavily upon them. The intelligent man who guards himself will not be deceived: because of past injuries he is wary of future misfortunes. Yet God's right hand performed a miracle in order that that wrathful day might pass me by.

* * *

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