From the February 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard
The change from the Feudal system to the Commercial or Capitalist regime was the instance of political struggles which brought about the English Revolution, the French Revolution, and the German Empire. The development of commercialism was also accompanied by risings of the peasantry. We will consider first of all the most important of these risings in the order of their occurrence.
After the Roman Empire spread and.absorbed the greater part of the known world, it became more and more unwieldy. The increasing wealth of its constituent parts bred a tendency towards local government and a revolt against the exactions of the Papal Court. The rising bourgeoisie of the towns found themselves heavily drained by taxation to support a power that was becoming a hindrance instead of an aid to them. The religion of the Roman Empire, with its numerous holidays, feastings, and taxations for religious purposes, stood in the way of the full and free exploitation of the labouring class by the fore-runners of the factory lords. Their opposition consequently expressed itself in a rebellion against some of the tenets in the creed of the times.
All social movements except that of the modern proletariat, have had the glamour of religion cast over them, and the exploiters of the peasantry and sweaters of the town labourers were not behindhand in finding their religious apologist.. In this capacity they were well served by the time-serving Martin Luther. Before Luther came to the fore, however, the commercial class had made considerable progress in England; we will, therefore, proceed to outline the conditions that led up to the English Peasants’ Revolt, which arose as a consequence of the emergence of Capitalism.
When the Normans under William landed in England they found the manorial system of land tenure in vogue. Three quarters of the people lived on agriculture; the rest were townsfolk, gentry, and Churchmen. There were 9,250 villages or manors, three-fifths of each being waste, i.e., untilled common land, one-fifth pasture, and one-fifth arable. After the Conquest each manor was held by a lord or baron owing allegiance to the king. Nominally all the land of England belonged to the Crown. In actual fact, however, the baron had control of his particular property. Nearly half the population were villeins .or peasant proprietors, tilling land in separate plots with rights to the use of the common land, and obliged to till the land of the lord of the manor in return for his military protection.
The commencement of the Crusades in the 13th century brought about a change in the relations of lords and peasants. Foreign trade and the taste for finery were developed through intercourse with the East, while the expenses of the crusading expeditions accentuated the need for money on the part of the lords. They consequently introduced the system of commuting rents in kind and labour rents, for money rents, the latter becoming general by the time of the Great Plague
In 1348 the Black Death swept over England, carrying away one-third of the population. There consequently arose a great shortage of labour and the labourers found themselves in the “Golden Age” of the wage slave. Wages rose to a very high level. This state of affairs did not suit the landowners, so, with the help of their friends, the legal fraternity, various measures were tried, among them, the “Statute of Labourers,” to keep down wages. Heavy penalties were to be inflicted on those who demanded higher wages than before the Plague. All their efforts were useless, and finally they hit upon the plan of driving the peasants back into villeinage. They tried to enforce the exaction of the old labour rents, in spite of the fact that the peasants had either purchased their holdings or had had the rents commuted into money rents, while the free labourers had either purchased their freedom or been granted manumission. Incontestable documentary evidence (which in most cases did not exist) was demanded to excuse the peasants from labour rents. The revolt of the peasantry all over England, consequent upon these conditions, was precipitated by the harsh method of collecting the poll tax.
Luxurious living and disastrous military undertakings had brought the treasury of the proprietary classes low. “The French war ran its disastrous course: one English fleet was beaten by the Spaniards, a second sunk by a storm and a campaign in the heart of France ended, like its predecessors, in disappointment and ruin. It was to defray the cost of these failures that the parliament granted a fresh subsidy, to be raised by means of a poll tax on every person in the realm. To such a tax the poorest contributed as large a sum as the wealthiest, and the injustice of such an exaction set England on fire from sea to sea.”—“A Short History of the English People,” J. R. Green, Vol. 1, p. 236.
For a long time previous to this the Lollards, the poor priests who were disseminating the teachings of Wycliff against the established religion, had taken up the cause of the peasants. They tramped through the country spreading rebellious views among the labourers. “The storm which no politician of the time anticipated, burst on June 10th, 1381. The uprising of the upland folk was simultaneous. It extended from the coast of France to Scarborough, all through the Eastern towns. . . . On the West it extended from Hampshire to to Lancashire.”—“Six Centuries of Work and Wages,” p. 256.
What followed is illuminatingly summarised by Gibbins in his “Industrial History of England,’ p. 78:
Almost simultaneously the peasants showed their combined strength, and a large body of them under Wat Tyler marched upon London. It is well known how they met the young King Richard II. at Mile End, and demanded of him the petition which shows the real meaning of the movement: “We will that you free us for ever, us and our lands,” they asked, "and that we be never named or held as villeins." "I grant it," said the King, with regal diplomacy, and they believed him. But they very soon learned how vain a thing it is to put one's trust in princes for after the peasant armies in the various parts of England had quieted down, and the Essex men among others claimed the fulfillment of his royal promise, Richard openly broke faith. "Villeins you were," said the King, "and villeins you are. In bondage shall you abide, and that not your old bondage, but a worse!"
After the promises of reform the peasants dispersed to their homes, satisfied that their demands were going to receive attention. This was what the ruling powers were waiting for. They proceeded to exact vengeance for their temporary humiliation.
The promises exacted by force were broken as soon as that force had disappeared. Wherever the peasants demanded the fulfillment of the pledges they were met with threats and hangings. A large army was put into the field by the ruling classes and the revolt was punished by the hanging of Ball, Straw, and thousands of their followers.
I would recommend a study of the result of this rising to the “Economic power” theorists. While the peasantry were organised into a fighting force they held the key to the situation and could dictate terms. But they had to depend for their living upon tilling the soil, and had therefore to disperse to their homes after being a short time under arms. As soon as they dispersed their power was gone, and they could be massacred at the leisure of the masters. The ruling classes through history have laid to heart this fact, and have always endeavoured to keep an organised force at their disposal to put down discontent. It must also be borne in mind that the military power has undergone a tremendous development since the time of the Peasant’s Revolt. The day of mob marches on London has long since gone by. The only way for the working class to become the ruling power is to gain control of the permanent fighting machine so that they can use it for their own ends.
The suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt did not result in a return to villeinage. Other economic forces were operating to nullify the effect of the Plague. The labourers were again brought to heel by the introduction and rapid growth of sheep farming on a large scale (which necessitated the employment of a comparatively small amount of labour) and the rapid increase of the labouring population consequent upon the higher wages and resulting plenitude of the means of life.
The discoveries in the 15th century of Columbus, Cabot, and Vasco da Gama, together with, the Crusades and, later, the buccaneering exploits of the English sailors, gave a tremendous impetus to foreign trade. Sheep farming had become the mainstay of the English trade, and the profits made out of this lucrative industry set the land-owners thinking out schemes for its expansion. They set about doing three things. They evicted as many as possible of their smaller tenants; they raised the rents of their larger tenants so that ordinary farming could hardly be made to pay; and finally they commenced enclosing the common lands. The condition of the people about that time was further adversely affected by the debasing of the coinage and the resultant rise in prices.
It may be interesting to remind the reader at this juncture that at one time, as we have already shown, three-fifths of the land of England was the common property of the whole people. As the population of England now, with the exception of a comparatively small class, is landless, it therefore appears that the ruling class have, in actual fact, robbed the working people of three-fifths of England since the Norman Conquest.