Brexit And The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

Brexit and the causes and possible consequences of Brexit have been on my mind. Brexit has been on everyone’s mind. There is a great divide between those who want Brexit at any cost and those who want Britain to remain in the EU.

One thing that interests and worries me is how much of a danger this divide represents to the stability of the social order.

It is not an idle question.

Nigel Farage, one of the architects of the desire to leave the European Union, has talked about blood on the streets if Brexit is not delivered to the British people.

He has an axe to grind, of course, but there is a question of what would or will happen if Brexit goes ahead and the economy tanks as badly as some say it will, or if Brexit is reversed.

There is something else. I wonder what those Brexit promoters in the upper reaches of the Conservative Party think? I am talking about those who have read history and who have a grasp of economics.

What on Earth as they thinking?

The Peasants’ Revolt

That brings me to a book – The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 edited by RB (Barrie) Dobson.

It is edited by him (rather than written by him) because the bulk of it is court records, Council records, trial records, ecclesiastical records, and the commentaries of contemporary commentators.

Most were written in Latin or Norman French and have been translated by Professor Dobson.

The Peasants’ Revolt is not unique. There were revolts going on in continental Europe throughout all this period. But England was a case apart.

English society rode the changes in economics, the changes in society, and sailed on. That is, it sailed on with just one major rip in the continuum, and that was the Peasants’ Revolt on 1381.

The reasons usually given for the rebellion are the poll taxes that were imposed. A poll tax is a straight tax. It does not relate to ownership of a property or a business. It is a tax upon mere existence.

Another reason given for the rebellion was a complaint about the high life that the church and the court hangers-on were living at the peasants’ expense.

What brought the situation to a head was that the population had been reduced – maybe by as much as 40% – by the Black Death that reached Britain in the 1350s.

With gaps in the towns and the countryside, prices rose and a new kind of tenant appeared – men who had the money to step in to take up tenancies from the rural landlords.

They did so as contractual tenants, a simple exchange of occupation of the land in the return for rent paid as money.

Villeins and Fedualism

Those rental contracts were completely different to the system of rights and obligations of villeins – those who held land from the Lord of the Manor under the feudal system. Those villeins, or peasants, were bound to the land and one step up from slaves.

That status put them at odds with the new breed of contractual tenants. That difference risked a wholesale breach in the social fabric in the countryside.

But the taxes also exposed another threat to stability, namely that rising prices meant things were going well for some, and that the poll tax hit them at a time of rising expectations.

Add to that another factor, the failure by the authorities to protect the population. Britain was at war with France in what is known as The Hundred Years’ War. The war was a war with gaps – a series of conflicts that lasted from 1337 to 1453.

On the English side was the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England. They claimed the right to rule the Kingdom of France and were opposed by the French House of Valois.

The conflict is not so surprising. The English kings were originally Norman, and held lands in France. In some ways it was a family quarrel.

The peasants’ complaint was that French and Castilian ships came up the Thames regularly and carried out brutal tip-and-run raids, and seemingly without fear of reprisal.

And then came the poll tax, a tax imposed by the King to finance his wars. Not everyone was liable to pay (beggars, for example, were exempt), but with rising prices after the Black Death, people who had been outside the taxation net in earlier times were now caught in it.

So those were the complaints – rich people and the clergy living high on the hog, and failing to protect the populace. And just when things were getting better economically – along comes the poll tax to send them sliding to the bottom again.

When Adam Delved And Eve Span

During the Peasant’s Revolt, the priest John Ball asked, rhetorically, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” He meant, of course, ‘Who made you the boss?’

But of course, anyone who wants to grab the crown is free to do it if they can.

A Marxist would say that in the 1380s the clergy was the mouthpiece for the propaganda of the ‘proper’ order. Which is why the clergy and the local dignitaries were a prime target of the mobs that sprang up, simultaneously in different parts of England.

The revolt was bloody, with many killed by the mobs and many executed by the authorities. The duplicity of the King and Lords in promising an amnesty and then hanging the leaders of the revolt can be looked at two ways. On the one hand one could argue that one can use any ploy to outwit rebels and bring them to justice. On the other hand, one could argue that these rebels are the people of England and deserve fair treatment. Which way should a king behave?

Britain’s Opportunity To Declare Itself

Now when I think of Brexit, it sounds like we have been here before and the situation is ripe for exploitation. I see Jeremy Corbyn waiting in the wings like Lenin arresting the Provisional Government in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. I see Nigel Farage claiming the crown to the Right and calling for a mass uprising to deliver on the promise of Brexit.

I am no nearer to understanding why those grandees of the Conservative Party are pushing to bring about Brexit.