All  
Modern day uprising. Credit: Ciudalia / Adobe Stock

Uprisings After Pandemics: It Happened Before and May Happen Again

Print

As a professor of medieval Europe, I’ve taught the bubonic plague, and how it contributed to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising.

The death of George Floyd has sparked protests fueled by a combination of brutal policing, a pandemic that has led to  the loss of millions of jobs  and centuries of racial discrimination and economic inequality.

“Where people are broke, and there doesn’t appear to be any assistance, there’s no leadership, there’s no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness,” African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor  told The New York Times .

Medieval England may seem far removed from modern America. And sure, American workers aren’t tied to employers by feudal bonds, which meant that peasants were forced to work for their landowners. Yet the Peasant Revolt was also a reaction brought on by centuries of oppression of society’s lowest tiers.

And like today , the majority of wealth was held by  an elite class that comprised about 1% of the population . When a deadly disease started to spread, the most vulnerable and powerless were asked to pick up the most slack, while continuing to face economic hardship. The country’s leaders refused to listen.

Eventually, the peasants decided to fight back.

In this 1470 illustration, the radical priest John Ball galvanizes the rebels. The British Library

In this 1470 illustration, the radical priest John Ball galvanizes the rebels.  The British Library

Clamoring for higher wages

Surviving letters and treatises express feelings of fear, grief and loss; the death tolls from the 14th-century plague were catastrophic, and  it’s estimated  that between one-third to one-half of the European population died during the its first outbreak.

The massive loss of life created an immense labor shortage. Records from England describe untilled fields, vacant villages and untended livestock roaming an empty countryside.

The English laborers who survived understood their newfound value and began to press for higher wages. Some peasants even began to seek more lucrative employment by leaving feudal tenancy, meaning the peasants felt free to leave the employment of their landowning overlords.

Rather than accede to the demands, King Edward III did just the opposite: In 1349, he froze wages at pre-plague levels and imprisoned any reaper, mower or other workman in service to an estate who left his employment without cause. These ordinances ensured that elite landowners would retain their wealth.

Edward III enacted successive laws intended to ensure laborers wouldn’t increase their earning power. As England weathered subsequent outbreaks of the plague, and as labor shortages continued, workers started to clamor for change.

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Public domain

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Public domain

Enough is enough

The nominal reason for the Peasant Revolt  was the announcement of a third poll tax in 15 years . Because poll taxes are a flat tax levied on every individual, they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. But similar to the protests that have erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death, the Peasant Revolt was really the result of dashed expectations and class tensions that had been simmering for more than 30 years.

Things finally came to a head in June 1381, when, by medieval estimates,  30,000 rural laborers stormed into London demanding to see the king . The cohort was led by a former yeoman soldier named  Wat Tyler  and an itinerant, radical preacher named  John Ball .

Ball was sympathetic to  the Lollards , a Christian sect deemed heretical by Rome. The Lollards believed in the dissolution of the sacraments and for the Bible to be translated into English from Latin, which would make the sacred text equally accessible to everyone, diminishing the interpretive role of the clergy. Ball wanted to take things even further and apply the ideas of the Lollards to all of English society. In short, Ball called for a complete overturn of the class system.  He preached  that since all of humanity constituted the children of Adam and Eve , the nobility could not prove they were of higher status than the peasants who worked for them.

With the help of sympathetic laborers in London, the peasants gained entry to the city and attacked  and set fire to the Palace of Savoy , which belonged to the Duke of Lancaster. Next they stormed the Tower of London, where they killed several prominent clerics, including the archbishop of Canterbury .

A bait and switch

To quell the violence, Edward’s successor, the 14-year-old Richard II , met the irate peasants just outside of London. He presented them a sealed charter  declaring that all men and their heirs would be “of free condition,” which meant that the feudal bonds that held them in service to landowners would be lifted.

 

Richard II exerts control over the rebel mob during the Peasants' Revolt. Public domain

Richard II exerts control over the rebel mob during the Peasants' Revolt. Public domain

While the rebels were initially satisfied with this charter, things didn’t end well for them. When the group met with Richard the next day, whether by mistake or intent, Wat Tyler was killed by one of Richard’s men, John Standish. The rest of the peasants dispersed or fled, depending on the report of the medieval chronicler.

For the authorities, this was their chance to pounce. They sent judges into the countryside of Kent to find, punish and, in some cases, execute those who were found guilty of leading the uprising. They apprehended John Ball and he was  drawn and quartered . On Sept. 29, 1381, Richard II and Parliament  declared the charter freeing the peasants of their feudal tenancy null and void . The vast wealth gap between the lowest and highest tiers of society remained.

American low-wage laborers obviously have rights and freedoms that medieval peasants lacked. However, these workers are often tied to their jobs  because they cannot afford even a brief loss of income .

The meager benefits some essential workers gained during the pandemic are already being stripped away. Amazon recently ended the additional US$2 per hour in hazard pay it had been paying workers and  announced plans  to fire workers who don’t return to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, between mid-March and mid-May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos  added $34.6 billion dollars  to his wealth.

It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism – where the richest 1%  now own more than half of the world’s wealth  – are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe.

When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we’re seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable.

Top image: Modern day uprising. Credit: Ciudalia / Adobe Stock

This article, originally titled ‘ Uprisings after pandemics have happened before – just look at the English Peasant Revolt of 1381’ by Susan Wade was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Comments

I am quite teachable but I realise today that 90% of that which I was taught at school was rubbish. Maths and Art except.
I don't need links, I need someone who really knows the truth. That which I posted is an opinion and I admit that I am not entirely convinced of my point of view.
I will also admit that there are many subjects that I do not know. Take Gravity for example I do not know what it is but then neither does the rest of the world.

I'm actually a molecular biologist with a strong background in virology. Like I said. You frighten the hell out of me. Not because of what you say, but because I'm worried just how many think like you.

this isn't the time or place for me to link after link and teach to try to help. Because 1) I know smart people like you know just enough about science to be dangerous and 2) it would be a fruitless waste of time on my part. Of course viruses are not alive. Neither are prions. But I dare you to go on a diet of brains and see what happens.

Army of Nobunaga.

"The truth shall set you free."

Thoth101's picture

Guillaume I think you are on to something. In fact this whole reality may be nothing more than an illiusion for the soul to experience a 3rd dimensional experience. I do think thought does create our reality. The controllers seem to know that which is why the propaganda on the mainstream media does very well in controlling peoples thoughts and actions. Even the education system starts controlling our thoughts little on up to make us good little worker bee’s without asking questions.

Thoth101's picture

Army of Nobunaga the only thing to fear is fear itself.

Pages

Next article