Life for a medieval English peasant (as for the lower-classes everywhere else) was death by a thousand humiliations, oppressions, injustices, and that particularly larcenous depredation visited upon those who have little or no money -- unfair taxes.
So when the English government once again, as it did every year, ran out of money to prosecute its totally unjustified, wasteful, impractical and endless farrago -- the war in France (think Iraq, or Vietnam) -- the king's advisors came up with a splendid idea: Let's put a head tax on every peasant in the country.
This way, the reasoning went, we won't have to ask the merchants to pay for the war, as we did last year; or the church to cut us in on the rents imposed on tenant farmers to grow the nation's food (think 'real estate'); or, good gracious no, the wealthy private land-owners then called 'the nobility' (think billionaires). Let's tax the serfs. We hear some of them are doing well these days.
In fact, the serfs, called 'villeins' by the laws that bound them, had for some been making progress in freeing themselves from the chains of the ancient oppression of serfdom because in the previous century the killer plague called the Black Death reduced the country's population by between a third or even a half. By the laws of economics, the reduction of the supply of labor significantly increased its value. It became hard to insist that a commoner was 'bound' entirely to the service of Lord X, when Lord Y in the next estate over was willing to pay him twice as much to help with the harvest. So commoners had succeeded in loosening the bonds of the feudal system. But while many were improving their material lot, it is hardly accurate to say the peasantry was getting fat. Fat remained the condition of lords and churchmen.
The rebellion against the new 'poll tax,' as it was called, imposed upon them in the summer of 1381, is described by author Dan Jones in "Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381" (published in 2010) in these words:
"... a sudden and violent uprising against the country's richest and most powerful lords... the Peasants' Revolt was one of the most astonishing events in the Middle Ages. Led by the mysterious general Wat Tyler and a visionary preacher called John Ball, the Peasants' Revolt was organized with military precision, and fired by genuinely revolutionary zeal of the sort that we seldom associate with this far-removed period of history."
I picked up his book because while I have often come across references to this early political and social crisis, I knew little about the course of events. I wanted someone to take me through the historical record. The record, as reported and interpreted by Jones in this book, lives up to his judgment: "astonishing."
Huge 'armies' of unlettered commoners -- or 'mobs' -- marched on London, pulled hated officials, including some of the king's closest advisors, out of their homes, hiding places, or cathedrals, even -- shockingly -- the Tower of London, and cut off their heads in public. They also burned down their mansions, sometimes even dragging targeted victims out of churches. For England's ruling class it was a week-long 'reign of terror,' to make an obvious comparison to another revolution, that Jones for some reason does not take up.
The 'mob' remains an image of evil in American iconography, because of its tendency to visit base instincts upon helpless victims. Mark Twain analyzes, ridicules and condemns the mob in "Huckleberry Finn" and elsewhere. Atticus Finch stands up to one in "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- everybody's favorite 20th century morality play -- and saves an innocent black man's life (temporarily).
But when the 'law' being taken into the hands of a society's clear, oppressed majority is simply the creed of privilege that 'superior birth' imposes on those 'inferior' by birth for the benefit of the few to the clear detriment of the many -- well, then my sympathies tend to march along with those who call for the guillotine.
The march of the peasants from the countryside and villages surrounding London who sought freedom from the oppression of 'the law' was led by those few names that have come down in history: Wat Tyler, John Ball, and Jack Straw.
The first was a man with sufficient organizational skills and command presence to keep an army of untrained, unlettered men armed with farm implements from dissipating into widespread looting and drunken rioting when, as it appeared, and was in fact reality for a few days, the city of London was defenseless against them. The state's armed forces were engaged in those expensive border wars, in both France and Scotland. The king's men of military experience were off with them; his remaining advisors counseled conciliation toward Tyler's demands; the king himself (Richard II) was a young teenager; and what forces he had stood by while several of his closest advisors, hated by the rebels, were called out as 'traitors' and murdered.
The balance of power only changed when the King gave leave to London's sheriff to gather his men of arms, renounce all conciliation, and attack the peasants' leaders. The sheriff's men murdered Tyler during a negotiation session (generally not considered the sporting thing). Leaderless, the rebel mass began to fragment and proved unable to stand up to the assault of greatly outnumbered, but far better armed handfuls of knights and soldiers. The upper class wins, in effect, because they're better equipped and far more accustomed to visit violence upon their enemies.
Loosed by a now vengeful king, the forces of the state, both military and judicial, then inflict a long reign of terror on the social class and regions responsible for the rebellion -- thousands (Jones estimated between 1,500 and 7,000) die through punishment raids and the legal lynching of what we now call 'show trials.'
After reading this account, I remain impressed by the egalitarian impulse of the rebels, at least of the more far-seeing ones. Why should some men be born to lives as 'lords' to live at ease off the labors of others? The argument of the state is that the social order is God-given. This is the Middle Ages for you, when the tyranny of the popular mind is the business of religion.
In order to overthrow or even modify the status quo, you have to break the ancient bad-faith conjunction of church and state. It's a long road between 1381 and the American Revolution and the French Revolution, whose leaders will say 'No, God does not desire King George (or King Louis) to impose his will over all his fellow men and women. That's merely an arrangement a few humans have concocted.'
What will stay with me the longest from the political morality play and bloody theater of the Peasants' Revolt, is the shrewd, compelling teaching of the rebel priest John Ball. His attack on the religious justification of the class system is beautifully expressed in two lines:
"When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who then was the gentleman?"
Nothing in your Bible, Ball reminds us, justifies social or economic injustice. And the institutions of state, society, and the church are all ultimately the creations of human beings. We may change them as we see fit.