Monday, June 15, 2009

Revolting peasants and 'whores of the devil'

On this day in 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt reached a climax with the meeting between King Richard II and the rebels at Smithfield in London, during which their leader Wat Tyler was killed. Having cut a swathe across southeast England, the revolt’s leaders Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball, along with thousands of followers (which included people of the yeoman and artisanal classes as well as peasants), had descended on London with the intent of confronting the king. The Anonimalle Chronicle records their demands -
That for the future no man should be in serfdom, nor make any manner of homage or suit to any lord, but should give a rent of 4d an acre for his land. They asked also that no one should serve any man except by his own good will, and on terms of regular covenant.

The focus of the rebels’ ire was not so much the king himself. He was only 14 and, the rebels said,
had been led astray by wicked councillors, chief amongst them the regent John of Gaunt (Richard’s uncle), Chancellor Archbishop Sudbury and the treasurer Sir Robert Hales. Along with demanding and end to villeinage, the rebels wanted these councillors removed from office. Dissatisfied with the king’s response to their stipulations, the rebels had rampaged through the city of London for several days and much destruction, looting and killing ensued. The Fleet and Newgate prisons were broken open, John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace was burnt, Sudbury and Hales were executed, and the rebels raided the Tower of London itself.

The Peasants’ Revolt and its social, political, cultural and economic contexts makes for highly productive research partly because a rich vein of sources survives that enables in-depth study from diverse perspectives. The written evidence alone includes tax records, legal statutes, trial records from multiple jurisdictions, writs of inquiry, petitions, the Rolls of Parliament, and the detailed pardons issued by the king after the event. Several chroniclers have also left us na
rrative accounts of varying reliability.

There is still much debate about the deeper long-term causes of the rebellion, but most scholars agree that the imposition of a third poll tax on a population already paying heavily for unsuccessful foreign wars was the immediate spark that caused diffuse grumblings and isolated rioting to ignite into organised insurrection. The revolt has been the subject of historical analysis from broadly socio-economic, political and religious perspectives but for me, another interesting aspect emerges when it is viewed through the lens of gender.

While most historical accounts up until the 1980s (at least) discuss the revolt as an almost wholly male enterprise, source documents including trial records and pardons show women were very much active participants, and even instigators and organisers of rebellion.
At left, for example, is an extract from a commission of Oyer and Terminer (‘hear and determine’) held in Essex directly after the revolt to seek out those responsible. Amongst the people accused of riding armed through the countryside and inciting the commons to rise against the king is one “Nichola Cartere who was lately taken as wife by William Dekne of South Benfleet”*. In another case, records from the court of King’s Bench describe Johanna Ferrour as the “chief perpetrator and leader” of a rebel group from Kent who burnt the Savoy and executed Sudbury and Hales**.

For me, these accounts raise a whole swag of questions about women as active agents in insurrection. Just for starters, on what grounds did they claim their authority to lead men in an armed conflict and why were men apparently willing to follow them? Were they acting alone or as part of a couple or family group? Were their motivations personal (vengeance and/or monetary gain) or broadly idealistic/political? How did officials react to their challenge, and was this reaction different in regards to women rebels versus men rebels?

The chronicles of the revolt also use distinctly gendered language to frame the rebellion. Thomas
Walsingham, for example, describes the rebels as “whores of the devil”, and language that represents rebellion through images of out-of-control women appears throughout the other chronicles and official accounts. This doesn’t so much reflect the writers’ preoccupation with actual women as rebels as it does the common medieval association of threats of political and social disorder with a peculiarly feminine sexual disorder. In this sense, while women as individual actors may have been largely absent from medieval sources for political history, the feminine was very much present in discourses about power.

In another example from the Walsingham chronicle, the king’s mother Joan of Kent (sister-in-law and influential supporter of the hated John of Gaunt) suffers what reads uncomfortably like a metaphorical rape when the rebels invade her bedroom*. They “search the most secret places there at their wicked will”, lay on a bed and demand that Joan kisses them, and drive their swords into the bedclothes in gestures that are unmistakably phallic. The king’s men (and by association, the king) seem helpless in the face of this masculine sexual aggression, and stand by passively while the rebels stroke “and lay their uncouth and sordid hands on the beards of several most noble knights”. This gendered discourse emerges again in the tracts and documents that advocated and justified Richard II’s deposition in 1399.

What do these representations of rebellion tell us about the dynamics of gender and power in late medieval England? There seem to be oppositional ideas at work here that that connect conceptualisations of the masculine and feminine to political ideology that defines and shapes the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of authority (although anything more than a cursory look reveals complexities that go well beyond these simple binaries). Histories that approach the Peasants’ Revolt from traditional political or socio-economic perspectives that overlook the role of women and dismiss gender as a valid frame for analysis risk missing the opportunity to create a greater depth of understanding of how discourses of gender and sexuality shaped (and continue to shape) political ideology and practice.

Image: The rebel leaders John Ball (on horseback) and Wat Tyler meet outside London, from a late 15th century edition of Froissart’s Chronicle.

* From the permanent online exhibit at the British National Archives.
** On this and other cases involving women as perpetrators and leaders of the revolt, see Sylvia Federico, “The imaginary society : women in 1381”.
*** On this incident and its wider implications, see Mark Ormrod, “In bed with Joan of Kent: The king’s mother and the Peasants’ Revolt”.


magistra said...

I think there's an interesting divide here between the approaches that gender historians and women's historians might take. One route, outlines in your article, leads to looking at political ideology in a new and constructive way. But I can hear in my mind Judith Bennett saying 'But what about the actual women? Shouldn't we be concentrating on trying to find more of them and more out about them?' Do we need to try and have both these approaches or is one more likely to be productive than the other?

Bavardess said...

I agree with you about the importance of looking at the lives of actual women, and certainly there seems to be an enormous amount of source material about which the question hasn't even been asked yet. I don't see why we need to take an either/or stance re: approaches, although depending on the available source material, one may be more productive than the other.

For me, things get really interesting when you apply both types of approach to explore the intersections between ideology (and, broadly, representation) and reality. I want to know how political ideology shaped the lives of non-elite women (for example, through the law - secular, ecclesiastical or customary), and also how and to what degree real women appropriated, subverted and re-defined ideology to meet their own needs in different times/places.