When we read and learn about Medieval History, the stories are dominated by kings, queens, princes, dukes, popes, bishops, and knights. In other words, by the rich and powerful.
This is true for most of history. They say history is written by the winners, and the rich and powerful usually won their way to the top. But the reality is that this group of people represents a small fraction of the population, often no more than one to five percent.
So what about the lives of the regular folk? What were they like?
In truth, we don’t really know. There are far fewer written records produced by the “commoners” because fewer “commoners” could write, and there fewer resources to document what happened (paper, pens, printing presses, etc.). But the events of the 14th century help shed light on what it might have been like to be a regular person in the Middle Ages.
Specifically, the Peasant Revolt of 1381 in England, as well as some smaller rebellions throughout the rest of Europe, remind us of the harsh inequalities present in Medieval society and how relatively powerless the average person was when it came to changing their lot in life.
The Multiple Crises of of the 14th Century
Let’s set the stage for the Peasant Revolt of 1381 AD.
Overall, this was a rough century to be alive, whether you were rich or poor.
It started off with a massive famine. Heavy rains followed by cold temperatures ruined crops all over Europe in the early 14th century. By 1315 AD, things were dire enough that famine was widespread. The price of staple crops such as wheat grew by more than 300 percent, and around 80 percent of livestock herds died due to lack of food.
With so little food around, and with what was around being so expensive, people died in large numbers too. In England, it’s estimated that around 10-15 percent of the population died as a result of the famine.
For the first time in centuries, the population of Europe decreased.
Things got a little better in the following years, but by 1350 AD, the situation was much, much worse. A new disease, known at the time as the Black Death, which we now know was the Bubonic Plague, was running rampant across Europe and killing people by the droves.
It’s estimated that Europe lost between 30 and 50 percent of its population while some areas lost up to 80 percent.
Impacts of the 13th Century Horrors
Massive death from famine and disease obviously had much larger impacts on society as whole. But these impacts weren’t all negative, at least not at first.
For one, it dramatically reduced the number of people able to work in the economy. This worked out to be good for the people who did survive the horror show that was the 14th century. It allowed them to be more demanding from the nobility and achieve certain freedoms that were previously unattainable.
For example, peasants were granted the ability to work for different lords. Previously, they were bound to one lord and were forced to work for him under a system known as serfdom.
This shortage of workers also gave them the right to earn wages for the first time. Previously, they were paid in goods, or simply with the right to live on the land that technically belonged to the lord. But with so few workers around at the end of the 14th century, they were allowed to earn money for their work, which also gave them some more freedom.
Lastly, with the right to charge wages, and a lack of workers, peasants were in the driver’s seat and could demand more for their labor.
Things were looking pretty good if you weren’t dead.
The economic gains that came out of the 13th century terrors were also accompanied by a shift in mindset. People had started losing faith in their leaders, both the monarchies and the Church, after these crises.
After all, they went along with a wildly unequal society under the belief that those in power would keep them safe. When they were unable to do this, people started questioning the ability of both kings and God to look out for their best interest.
The Response to Crisis by the English Monarchy
In England during this time, while peasants were making some progress in the wake of the Great Famine and the Black Death, the nobility was struggling. Their power rested on their wealth, and their wealth came from their land, i.e. farming. And who did all the farming? The peasants, of course! But now that the peasants were freer than before, and charging more for their labor as a result, this was cutting into profits and hurting the ruling classes.
This was no good, so they did what they always did: they turned to the King for help. And since the king’s power relied on the nobility, he answered the call to help out his fellow rich people.
He did this by creating a law that limited peasant wages. He basically said “You think you’re more valuable because there are fewer of you than before?! Think again!”
This was a good move for the nobility. But peasants, who had never before had this much bargaining power with the upper classes, were NOT happy.
To make things worse, the Crown was at war overseas, mainly in France, trying to reclaim lands they saw as theirs. To pay for this expensive war, the king imposed new, higher taxes. And everyone had to pay the same amount, no matter how rich or poor they were.
These two laws were a huge slap in the face to the poorest members of society. Not only did they effectively reverse the progress they had made in the wake of disaster, but they also made them poorer by forcing them to pay taxes for foreign wars that had little to do with them.
Peasants In Southern England React: The Peasant Rebellion of 1381
No peasants were happy with the state of peasant affairs in the 14th century, but the new laws from the king made them even unhappier. So, in 1381 AD, people started to take action, particularly in southern England. They banded together as mobs and started wreaking havoc on the countryside. They burned farmlands and looted the big houses of the nobles.
This wasn’t necessarily the first time this happened, but what made the Peasant Revolt of 1381 significant was that lots of people joined in. The widespread discontent brought on by a century’s worth of natural disasters and made worse by the king made rebellion a really attractive idea.
They were also well organized and had a clear leader, a man named Wat Taylor.
But the peasants knew that burning some land and breaking into some houses wasn’t going to do much. To make real change, they needed to get in front of the King. So, they banded together and marched on London, reaching the English capital in June of 1381 AD.
King Richard II, who was only 14-years-old at the time, granted them an audience and listened to their demands. The peasants wanted the following:
- the total abolition of serfdom
- a repeal of labor laws limiting wage increases brought in after the Black Death
- free fishing and hunting rights for all
- more peasant participation in local government
- the Crown should be the only authority in the counties, not local lords
- the redistribution of the Church’s riches, especially of the great abbeys
The Response from the King
Most of these demands were absurd for the time. Serfdom had already been basically abolished, but the rest were just preposterous. Redistribute the wealth of the church? Good luck with that!
While absurd, these demands represented the plight of the common person at the time. They felt abused and undervalued, and they saw how the unequal society in which they lived was making things worse.
Yet despite making sense, the absurdity of these claims caused Richard II to respond to the rebellion quite ruthlessly. Wat Tyler was killed on the scene, and many of the other participants were rounded up and hanged. Records indicate at least 150 people went to the gallows that day.
Richarch II then mobilized his army and sent it to the countryside. By November of 1381 AD, the rebellion had been squashed.
So much for moving up in the world.
Not a Uniquely English Experience
The Peasant Revolt of 1381 in England gets a lot of the attention when it comes to social unrest during this period. But that’s largely because this was the best documented revolt of the century. They got an audience with the king and this got them into the history books.
However, this was not a uniquely English experience. Societies all over Europe had been affected in a similar way, and peasants across the continent responded in kind. There is evidence of rebellions in Spain, Poland, and Switzerland, just to name a few.
Ultimately, the revolts occurring in England and around the rest of Europe were a sign of the changing tide in Medieval society. The disastrous 14th century actually created conditions for the life of peasants to improve, but the response by the nobility served as a harsh reminder of the social inequalities present at the time.
While unable to make any meaningful change in their condition during the 14th century, the peasants of Europe were about to embark on a journey of upending the European social order. Feudalism was dead or dying and a new era, one of increased political representation and more equality, was firmly on the horizon.
Written by Matthew Jones