From the June 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the midst of the most apparently solid and unchanging social structures, the cry for change is ever present. Six hundred years ago this month, in a feudal English society which gave legal and moral backing to the omnipotence of a mighty king and his ruling class of baronial landlords, a movement of resistance emerged to take on the established relationships of power. The existence of such a movement proves the essential contention of Marxist historical materialism: where there is a division between those who own and control the means of wealth production and distribution and those who do not there must be a class struggle.
To the contemporary observer, feudal society seemed to be rigidly unshakeable by popular dissent. The king had the right to own all land. The aristocracy were permitted to control areas of this land in return for feudal obligations, such as the payment of money or produce, the provision of peasants to fight in the king’s wars and the maintenance of the church and the law. The church, in return for the control of extensive lands, provided the king and the landlords with an efficient propaganda machine which morally, justified their class privilege in terms, that the most humble could comprehend. To oppose the church was heresy and the punishment for heretics was to be burnt alive. To deny that the ruling class were the divinely appointed masters of society was heresy. With such constraints upon them most people conformed.
Most people were peasants, dependent for their livelihoods upon the permission of a manorial lord to work on the land he controlled. Production was not primarily for the market as it is now, and neither was it simply for subsistence. The peasant had to work not only so that he and his family could have a pittance to ensure their survival, but also so that the barons, the bishops and the monarch could live in parasitic luxury. The peasant bore the burden of all the classes above him in the well-known feudal social pyramid. If he was a serf he was legally bound to work his master’s land for a certain number of days each week, leaving his spare time to work on the common land to provide for his own needs. There was a thin line between slavery and serfdom; at least a slave-owner had to feed, clothe and shelter his possession, whereas the so-called free peasant was often left to starve after he had satisfied his master’s needs.
Like capitalism today, one of feudalism’s main stabilising factors was the belief of most people that it would never change. Just as today there are workers who cannot conceive of a society in which they are not employed for wages, so under feudalism the vast majority of peasants believed that God had created the social structure for evermore. But the material contradictions thrown up by social formations have a habit of driving people to desire change. Resistance to the status quo is never the result of abstract ideals being conceived of by thousands of people, but arises from ideas which are the direct result of day to day experience.
Six hundred years ago the experiences of the peasants led to a mass movement of resistance to the poverty of their condition. The main immediate cause of the Revolt was the fall in the peasant population following the bubonic plagues of 1349, 1361, 1369 and 1375 which resulted in a serious shortage of—and therefore greater demand for—labour. Following the government’s Statute of Labourers, there was a widespread attempt by landlords to increase rents and feudal duties in order to compensate for their loss of tenants. If these did not serve to economically cripple the peasants, the successive government poll taxes to pay for the king’s wars were the final straw. In 1380 a tax of one shilling a head to pay for the king’s war with France led to rebellion. In May 1381 the rising began in Essex and soon spread to Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire .
The Peasants’ Revolt was more than a spontaneous outburst. Throughout the fourteenth century popular criticism of the feudal state was emerging. Geoffrey Chaucer’s cutting literary condemnation of the abuse of clerical power in The Canterbury Tales was part of a general disillusionment with the clergy’s claim to privilege. John Wycliffe and his Lollard supporters had burned for their questioning of church theory. The years leading to the Revolt produced some of the best versions of the Robin Hood folk legend about the robbery of the rich by the poor in order to get back some of the wealth which had been stolen from them. One ballad, of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough and William of Cloudesley is one of the most readable stories of class war—concerning three outlaws who take on the entire population of Carlisle—which this writer has had the pleasure to read. Social dissent was even spreading to the universities. John Bromyard, a Dominican friar and Chancellor of Cambridge University wrote that
The poor for their good works are not rewarded, but are so oppressed by the rich and powerful that however true a case a poor man may have against a rich man in this world, it will nonetheless happen to him as it did the lamb at the hands of the wolf . . . the poor man, indeed, if he steals the rich man’s food is hung. The rich man is not punished at all for seizing the goods of the poor, even when he is worthy of the gallows.
William Langland’s Piers Plowman, while not a radical poem, served nonetheless to describe the intolerable conditions of
. . . the poor in the cottage
Charged with a crew of children and
with a landlord’s rent.
What they win by their spinning to
make their porridge with
Milk and meal, to satisfy the babes—
The babes that continually cry for
This they must spend on the rent of
their houses . . .
Accompanying the immediate factors leading to the Revolt were dreams of a communistic future. Indeed, these were Utopian in vision and often based upon such notions as a popular monarchy or a religious brotherhood. Perhaps the greatest of the fourteenth century cries for Utopia was the anonymously written and extremely popular poem, The Land Of Cokaygne. Ignored by most modern literary critics as a harmless anticlerical satire, Cokaygne was a wonderful vision of a communist Utopia:
In Cokaygne we drink and eat
Freely without care or sweat
The food is choice and clear the wine
At fourses and at supper time,
I say again, and I dare swear,
No land is like it anywhere,
Under heaven no land like this,
Of such joy and endless bliss.
All is day, there is no night,
There is no quarrelling nor strife,
There is no death, but endless life;
There no lack of food or cloth,
There no man or woman wroth.
The most amusing feature of the poem is
That geese fly roasted on the spit,
As God’s my witness, to that spot,
Crying out, “Geese, all hot, all hot!”
Every goose in garlic drest,
Of all food the seemliest.
Many of the peasants, artisans, merchants and lower clergy who participated in the Revolt of 1381 ultimately sought a society of human equality. When they reached London they showed that they meant business by executing the chief government Ministers, including the Chancellor and the Treasurer. On June 14 at Mile End in London, the peasants’ leader, Wat Tyler, demanded of King Richard II that
The property and goods of the holy Church should be taken and divided according to the needs of the people in each parish . . . and that there be no more villeins in England, but all to be free and of one condition. (As noted at the time by the historian, Froissart.)
The devious king conceded the demands, but within a day Tyler was murdered and the concessions were withdrawn. G. Kriehn’s definitive Studies in the Sources of the Social Revolt of 1381 (American Historical Review 1902) shows how the trickery of the king and the murder of Wat Tyler were intentional state policies designed to break up the peasants’ movement and defend the status quo. The day after the Mile End meeting (June 15) the peasants gathered at Smithfield to present an even more radical set of demands. But by the end of June 1381 the Revolt was suppressed and the concessions all withdrawn. The peasants had shown their political muscle, but they were unable to strip the king, and his tenants-in-chief, the barons, of their right of ownership. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the new merchant class was able to enact some of the peasants’ demands (such as the dispossession of church lands), but the great demand for a society of equality has yet to be fulfilled.
In the most famous chronicle of the Peasants’ Revolt we are told of
A crazy priest in the county of Kent, called John Ball, who for his absurd preaching had thrice been confined in prison . . . was accustomed to assemble a crowd round him in the market place and preach to them. On such occasions he would say, “My good friends, matters cannot go well in England until all things be held in common; when there shall be neither vassals nor lords; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. How ill they behave to us! For what reason do they hold us in bondage? . . .And what can they show, or what reason can they give, why they should be more masters than ourselves? They are clothed in velvet and rich stuffs, ornamented with ermine and other furs, while we are forced to wear poor clothing. They have wines, spices and fine bread, while we have only rye, and the refuse of the straw; and when we drink, it must be water. They have handsome seats and manors, while we must brave the wind and rain in our labours in the field; and it is by our labours that they have wherewith to support their pomp. We are called slaves, and if we do not perform our service we are beaten, and we have no sovereign to whom we can complain or would be willing to hear us. Let us go to the King and remonstrate with him, he is young and from him we may obtain a favourable answer, and if not we must ourselves seek to amend our conditions”. (Froissart, Chronicles of France, England and Spain)
It is exactly six hundred years since our ancestors went to their rulers and pleaded for justice. The reformist Left of today are still doing the same thing. (Incredibly enough, in Socialist Worker (4/4/81) we are told that the Peasants’ Revolt “inspires all progressive people today”.) But six hundred years after the Revolt is it not time to learn an important lesson? We, the “crazy” workers who are called impossibilists for our “absurd preaching”, are still surrounded by a society of acute class inequality in which the oppressed and impoverished believe that history has come to an end and capitalism is here to stay. For six hundred years we have sought favourable answers from those whose interests are not ours; it is now time for us to seek to change our condition and build for ourselves and our children an obtainable Cokaygne.