peasant revolts in the 14th century

Stirling Argabright AP European History Mr. Voros September 8, 2012 Peasant Revolts in the 14th Century Jean Froissart’s accounts of the peasant uprisings of the fourteenth century in France and England greatly challenged the mindset of Medieval Christendom. The Jacquerie and The English Peasant Revolt of 1831 both extremely contradicted the way of living set by the great chain of being and the three pillars that supported Medieval Christendom, since the peasants attempted to rise above the estate they were bound to and equalize themselves with those in the aristocracy by using violent revolt.

Though it didn’t work, it put a dent in the pillars that supported Christendom at the time and tested how strong the great chain of being actually was. The peasants of France revolted in 1350 in the Jacquerie because they viewed the knights, earls, squires, and other nobles as evil people who were treating them unfairly and felt that it would be better for everyone if they were killed. They began to rampage France, marching from town to town, killing the nobles, pillaging the women and children, and burning their houses to the ground. As they marched across France their numbers continued to increase dramatically. The knights and squires fled before them with their families. They took their wives and daughters many miles away to put them in safety, leaving their houses open with their possessions inside” (Froissart 151). During this rebellion, the nobles were scared to death of these poorly armed peasants, so much so that they abandoned all their possessions to flee out of their path and into safety. The great chain of being portrayed the aristocracy as being well above the level of the peasants, and this was accepted as a fact then, but when the peasants rebelled, these same people cut and ran to escape them.

Eventually the Jacquerie was put to a stop, but not before the peasants had gathered thousands of others to rebel with them, and burned or destroyed hundreds of castles and houses. The revolt was put to a stop when the noblemen under attack sent word to their friends in nearby cities, who showed up and helped ultimately slaughter most of the peasants who participated. “When they were asked why they did these things, they replied that they did not know; it was because they saw others doing them and they copied them” (Froissart 153).

Most participants did not even know why exactly they were doing the things they did, but joined in against the aristocracy in hopes of wiping them out completely, wiping out those who were above them on the chain and should have ultimate power over them all. Most peasants at the time would not even think of challenging those superior to them, although when they did, many others seemed to support their actions, even though many did not as well. Froissart’s opinion on the Jacquerie was very biased against those peasants who rose up in hopes of destroying the aristocracy.

He viewed them as evil men and described their actions as treacherous and immoral. “Their barbarous acts were worse than anything that ever took place between Christians and Saracens” (Froissart 151). The English Peasant Revolt of 1381 took place “because of the abundance and prosperity in which the common people then lived” (Froissart 211). The peasants believed they were being treated unfairly by the nobles, and thought that if they rose against them, they could reach an agreement and a sense of equality with those higher on the great chain of being as them.

This challenged the mindset of Medieval Christendom in the sense that most people just accepted the inequality there as a fact, and did not dare challenge fact, but this revolt used a new way of thinking, a way that did not consider the unfairness fact, but rather a hurdle that could be overcome with some work. So the peasants marched to London, in hopes of gaining followers and then negotiating with the King in a more peaceful way than the Jacquerie in France in 1350, though their peaceful intentions quickly faded.

The peasants then all stormed London and demanded to speak with the king, a request that was eventually granted. “’We want you to make us free for ever and ever, we and our heirs and our lands, so that we shall never again be called serfs or bondmen. ’ The King answered: ‘That I grant you’” (Froissart 221). The peasants speak to the king directly and he grants them freedom, and, for just a short while, they are closer to equality than ever before in great defiance of the morals of that time, although he would take these words back later.

A good amount of peasants were satisfied with this and left, but many more were not. Later, the King left to flee London, only to run into a gathering of those peasants who were in the rebellion. One of their leaders alone, Watt Tyler, made a fool of the king and even took his blade, but was killed when reinforcements arrived. This went strongly against the institutions of Medieval Christendom, because for a moment a mere peasant was above the King and his men, ordering them on what to do and even joking with them.

The King then broke up his following with words, and put many peasants to death in the days following as punishment for the rebellion. Froissart is still biased against all the peasant rebels as he describes The English Peasant Revolt of 1381, but does not make them out to be as evil as he did the French peasants who rebelled in the Jacquerie. He even downplays the horrendous crimes they committed at times, but still the fact does not change that Froissart has an obvious stance against these men.

Both of these rebellions went against the great chain of being in the sense that they muddied it, for during the events of the rebellion the peasants and aristocracy became closer to the same than they ever had before, and ever did after until the Renaissance. The revolts had a lot in common, but there was one major difference: during The English Peasant Revolt of 1381, the peasants who were revolting had formulated a plan and knew almost exactly what they wanted to get out of their actions, where as the Jacquerie in France was more of just a senseless killing and pillaging spree.

Both rebellions also put a dent in the manor, because so many peasants and serfs were killed but also because peasants began to think more clearly and defy nobles, therefore it was harder to have workers for your land. The revolts both started a change of thinking though, that the estates could be challenged, maybe not completely overcome, but at least challenged and tested, which contradicted greatly with the mindset of Medieval Christendom before these events. I pledge that this essay is my work and my work alone, except for the quotes taken from Froissart. – Stirling Argabright

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