Written by Liam Blackshaw. Edited by Emma Ward.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx issued an indictment of the European peasantry’s perceived inability to develop a sense of class-consciousness, stating that they were ‘incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name’. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and its subsequent adoption as a symbol of the political left, provides one of the starkest historical examples of this prediction being turned on its head: that of the rural classes developing rudimentary class consciousness and engaging in violent resistance to the perceived illegitimate incursions enacted by the sovereign. The novelist and socialist activist William Morris immortalized the Peasant’s Revolt in his 1888 novel A Dream of John Ball, which characterizes the participants as egalitarian reformers, with Morris remarking in an earlier article that ‘they were fighting against the fleecing then in fashion – serfdom’. Despite this glowing adulation, there exist many disparities between the struggles of the European peasantry and later socialist revolutionaries, especially in regard to the Revolt’s ideology and its representation as a diametrically based class struggle, which epitomises the difference between reality and perception within historical memory.
The Peasant’s Revolt is often considered an early instance of lower class solidarity, with historian Michael Postan asserting that it is famous ‘as a landmark in social development and [as] a typical instance of working-class revolt against oppression’. The representation of the Revolt as a class-based struggle, in which the monolithic groups of ‘peasantry’ and ‘ruling class’ are faced off in binary opposition, is both an oversimplification and misrepresentation. Rather, Late Medieval society was complex and offered multiple ways to vertically transcend the social hierarchy, and didn’t as closely represent the horizontally stratified order that formed in the wake of modern capitalism. Political unrest was generated not via simple class struggle but by a complex medley of tumultuous economic and political circumstances. The previous decades had seen increased economic opportunities for rural labourers which became once more restricted following the levee of a poll tax to pay for the crippling war with France; this was coupled with political unrest aroused by the Statutes of Labourers that entailed the use of punishments for those peasants who actively sought higher wages. The city of London was a locus of political instability at this time, with clashes between royal and provincial authorities over judicial matters, which engendered further peasant alienation with the system of serfdom, the ruling classes and the centralized legal system. The Revolt encompassed people from many levels of the scheduled caste system, with grievances stemming from the assault on financial autonomy and the jostling for political position, within a context of a fissured social elite, which allowed for many (but certainly not all) member of the ‘lower classes’ to resist in a more violent and tangible way. The ‘peasantry’ at this time was by no means monolithic as many remained loyal to the old system, which was praised by William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, who rather prophetically asserted that lords let ‘Loyalty be judge/And have power to punish’ those workers who were greedy and disobedient. The Revolt’s human composition contained many intricacies and details, and as such cannot be perceived within the framework of the diametric model so often found within traditional socialist discourse.
The ideology of the Peasant’s Revolt also reveals certain discontinuities between itself and the socialist legacy it bequeathed to posterity, which in turn hints at a larger historiographical question which distinguishes between a revolt and a revolution. The latter is often seen as a modern phenomenon, which envisages a complete restructuring of the social order by seizure of the instruments of the state by a group of revolutionaries, as with socialist revolutionaries who foresaw the usurpation of the capitalist system with their own form of state governance. The intellectual legacy of the Peasant’s Revolt is not one of drastic progress but of minor change, as they sought not to destroy and rebuild the existing social order but to enact some sort of mutation within the existing polity. John Ball’s speech delivered at Blackheath perhaps best embodies this ideological conundrum: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men…the time is come…in which ye may cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty’. Whilst this speech contains many of the egalitarian notions which challenged both spiritual and secular hierarchies, it is also evidence of the Revolt’s essentially conservative character. The peasant leaders were ardent supporters of the monarch, who they believed had been himself manipulated by ‘naughty men’ and separated from his subjects, and invoked calls to recover ‘liberty’ as though it were a privilege that required reclaiming, a position more in line with English constitutionalism than the innovatory ideas adumbrated by John Locke three hundred years later. By inspiring the rebels to think in terms of a biblical framework by using the genesis story as his foundation, Ball was clearly looking backwards as opposed to forwards when it came to articulating his ideology, with J. H. Elliott asserting that pre-modern revolutions were characterized by a desire to ‘return to a golden age in the past’, an idea evidently not concomitant with the more radical and utopian views expressed by the peasants’ socialist admirers.
Whilst there is undoubtedly a gulf between the reality and the perception of the Revolt, it still remains a compelling political symbol. It is a testament to the meaning that memory, and perception via a collective consciousness, can endow a particular historical event with, and shows that it is more the ethos or spirit of a symbol (rather than how closely one’s struggles are mirrored) that dictates its potency.