Was the Peasants Revolt of 1381 the result of organised political action or a spontaneous response to the hated poll tax?

Painting depicting the end of the peasant's revolt as Walworth kills Wat Tyler

Painting depicting the end of the peasant’s revolt as Walworth kills Wat Tyler.

In 1381 the exploited classes of England erupted in a rebellion which surprised and for a time overwhelmed the ruling class; the rebels were able to execute a number of hated figures in the royal court, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury. How could this happen? One old answer rooted in the judicial records was that a ‘Great Society’ had organised this lightening strike of the mass against the elite. Rodney Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381(London 1973) , is a foundation text for the Marxist analysis of the revolt, its causes, nature and significance. Hilton comprehensively rejected the notion of a ‘Great Society’ organising the revolt.

It certainly seems like an anachronism, as if a revolutionary party existed amongst fourteenth-century peasants and artisans. Moreover, the notion served nineteenth-century historians as a way to distract from serious analysis of the society and economy of the time; rather the revolt was just the creation of a few nasty malcontents and ‘evil men’, as the medieval chronicler Froissart called them. However Hilton was able to show that it was the class nature of medieval society that led to 1381, as well as so many other medieval peasant movements. The rising was not merely the accidental creation of the corrupt imposition of the poll tax, as some historians would have it, nor was it any kind of ‘provincial’ rising, uniting the classes against a faction of the aristocracy. Rather it was the product of long-standing class struggles in the countryside over the feudal power of landowners, whether secular or ecclesiastic, and it was clearly led and directed by the exploited themselves.

These lines of analysis are some of the key strengths of Hilton’s work, which make the book still essential to study of the late middle ages. However, it is worth taking another look at the idea of a ‘Great Society’ which had supposedly directed the risings in Kent and Essex in particular. Hilton rejects the idea on the grounds that the Latin phrase found in the judicial records of the revolt could be translated as meaning various ‘big gangs’ rather than a single organisation. The picture Hilton gives is of a revolt which began ‘spontaneously’ and which developed organisation locally and haphazardly, creating these ‘gangs’ which attempted to direct events. It is Hilton’s attachment to the idea that villagers rose up in two counties ‘spontaneously’ which is problematic. He even refers occasionally to peasants revolts as being ‘elemental’. This is an unfortunate choice of words, implying an unconscious, mechanistic explosion of peasant rage, which is less than rationally human. And yet elsewhere in Bond Men, Hilton is able to demonstrate the originality and even sophistication of peasant demands and conceptions, and shows also the longstanding culture of religious dissent that lay behind the rebellion’s ideology; ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’.

Hilton is far from alone in tending, even against his better judgement, to lapse into a view of peasant struggles as being unconscious, primitive, and essentially mechanically determined. Some similar assumptions can be seen in Eric Hobsbawm’s work on the last phase of English rural rebellion, the Swing Riots beginning in 1830. E. J. Hobsbawm and George Rud√© in Captain Swing (London 1969) give an account of the labourers’ protests against low wages and the elimination of commons rights which involved machine-smashing amongst other incidents of quite restrained violence against the gentry and its property. Here again the assumption that a peasant movement is at base spontaneous and ‘elementally’ un-organised actually leads Hobsbawm to miss the significance of the sequence of events in 1830-1, as we shall see.

At root of both Hilton’s and Hobsbawm’s misinterpretations is an unbalanced determinism; the same kind of determinism that sometimes led historians to plot urban riots against the exact rise and fall of bread prices. But all actions by an exploited class are conscious and organised to some degree. Not least because rebellion is dangerous and apt to be punished severely, it would have taken argument and serious practical and ideological justification to organise the kinds of action involved in either 1381 or 1830. Then as now it took the conscious activities of a minority among the exploited to turn class resentment, or localised outbreaks, into serious class war.

It turns out that in the case of 1381, something very much like a ‘Great Society’ must have existed prior to the rebellion because the events in Kent and Essex were, on closer inspection, highly co-ordinated and clearly planned. This is how the people took the gentry and authorities so completely by surprise that the King in London was left almost alone to face the rebel army. In a little known article by the left-wing early-medievalist, Nicholas Brooks (‘The organisation and Achievements of the Peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381’ in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis, eds. H. Mayr-Harting and R.I. Moore, 1985), noted that the impression left by Hilton, among other historians, was that the revolt ‘developed almost unintentionally, and that rural small-holders, bondmen and artisans were not capable of the elaborate planning necessary to realise their radical political and social aspirations’. He points out however that it only took two weeks for the insurgents to enter London after the initial outbreaks, which took place in both Kent and Essex on the same day and unfolded rapidly, comparing favourably with ‘that of the most highly trained infantry armies of later times’:

‘The synchronised assembly and movement of the insurgent forces in the two counties did not fit by chance into so neat a pattern. Decisions had to be taken and orders sent about meeting places, about dates and about targets; these decisions had to take account of the distances to be covered by each band on each day and of the time that would be needed to open gaols and to break into properties and destroy [tax] records. Every vill that sent men to the assembly-points had to be contacted in advance. . . the fundamental plan for bringing out the two shires simultaneously and moving next day to the county towns and to London on the following day must have been planned in advance by some form of central high command’ [p. 260].

Brooks bears out this analysis in painstaking attention to the timing, geography and choice of targets in all the key events in both counties. In contrast to other accounts, Brooks reveals that the documents clearly show the rebels were mounted; this was no primitive rural rable. Importantly, Brooks also notes that there is good evidence that the radical demands for the abolition of serfdom, and the effective annihilation of aristocratic government, existed right from the start of the rebellion. This is not the relatively blind agenda of an ‘elemental’ movement that developed its demands and programme in the course of the rebellion, as Hilton supposed.

A parallel critique of the Swing riots has been provided by Andrew Charlesworth in Social Protest in a Rural Society: The Spatial Diffusion of the Captain Swing Disturbances of 1830-31. Here a geographer’s approach to the timing and patterns of events revealed a great deal more co-ordination in the Swing ‘riots’ than Hobsbawm and Rud√© allowed. Limited by a tendency to analyse from a deterministic perspective, Hobsbawm saw the Swing events as evidence of the age-old (and therefore unchanging) banditry type of rebellion by the peasantry. In fact, the pattern of events shows the agricultural labourers gathering and planning, at a local level, and deliberately spreading the movement, rather than the movement spreading spontaneously by example. Hobsbawm allows that contact with the great upswing of the radical politics of the period 1815-30 was significant but misses the extent to which village radicals led and organised the protests. Politicised areas in conscious relation to radical politics were at the heart of the movement, and were the most determined in the face of the authorities’ crackdown.

Hobsbawm’s picture of the rebellion was of an isolated and backward one. Inadvertently this construction gives ammunition to those right-wing liberal historians who tend to see every popular movement as inherently ‘reactionary’ and standing against progress (the same charge has been laid against 1381). Charlesworth’s analysis, emphasising the labourer’s organisational agency is a suitable antidote; they were responding creatively to new conditions, not blindly thrashing against modernity.

There is a delicate dialectic between analysis of determining structural forces and of the class struggle as the engine of history. Both Hilton and Hobsbawm in these instances paid too little attention to the agency of exploited classes. In all circumstances economic conditions and structures may limit our choices, but without the conscious, dedicated agency of the activist-inclined amongst the exploited, no class struggle would have ever had dramatic moments such as the Swing riots, let alone 1381.

A final point needs to be made before finishing. Historians who lack sympathy with rebels of the past unerringly find that their movements can be dismissed as failures, defeats, and even pointless reflexes against the march of history over their bodies. Hilton, a trifle cautiously, does point to the need to look at the results of the revolt in the long-term. Its proximate defeat did not mean that it was without positive results. Later research, not least by Hilton himself, has strengthened the argument that the revolt not only hastened, but may have precipitated the abandonment of serfdom. The revolt inspired further widespread local struggles, which if less spectacular, became a persistent warning to the ruling class. No mass movement can be dismissed on the basis that it failed to immediately achieve its key aims. It needs to be seen in the long-term context of its impact upon not only later struggles, but also the apparently unconnected decisions of ruling classes. Most of all however the study of past rebellions show how history is made from below.

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