Monday, April 30, 2007

15: The Peasants Are Revolting

We might be forgiven for imagining that medieval life was short, dull and muddy, but books and TV documentaries pop up from time to time to revise that view for us, and tell us there was a lot more going on than we think... but it's hard to be convinced, when all the evidence favours the view that there was no TV or radio, no Facebook, no theme parks, no iPads or DVD players, no cinemas or nightclubs (though plenty of knights and, I daresay, clubs). The printing press was a long way off and what few handwritten books there were were in Latin, apparently for the express purpose of not distracting the peasants.
So what did everyone do with their time? Very little, I imagine, except pull up carrots and cabbages and go to church to thank God for the privilege. This was the order of things and the hoi-polloi had no reason to think it ought to be any different, or ever had been.
Science was centuries away, so the only view of how the world worked came from the church, handed down to the peasants by the friendly local priest, who no doubt would have them soundly whipped if they failed to turn up to listen to his message of God's love, or chargrilled if they voiced any reservations.
Said message, when it wasn't expressed by anyone with their own agenda, could be summed up as 'Be nice to each other and God will be nice to you' - a thought that must have given much consolation on many a muddy carrot-pulling day.
What the millions of faithful hardworking carrot-pullers thought about it in 1347 when the Black Death reduced their number by two-thirds probably hasn't been recorded in any great detail, since most of those who might have recorded it got despatched with an equal lack of prejudice, but it's a safe bet that many of them must have wondered if it was something they said, or failed to say, in church.
What else could it possibly be? The very idea that such wholesale, not to mention unsightly, slaughter was simply an accident of nature was probably beyond the medieval imagination. God WAS nature, and this could only be a manifestation of his judgment.
Consequently, things must have been made worse by thousands of plague-ridden peasants huddling together in churches apologising for they knew not what, instead of keeping their distance.
Estimates vary over the proportion of the population of Europe that were carried off by the Black Death over the two or three years of its reign of terror, but the figures you hear most range from half to two-thirds. Soberingly, that means that if you were living in Europe in 1345, chances were that you would be dead in 1348.
There must be many more, and stranger, tales and tragedies of those years than could ever be recorded or imagined. One man had the sense to wall himself up inside his house with a supply of food and water until the threat had passed. He survived. An eight-year-old girl in Norway or Denmark or some such place inherited an entire village, having been the sole survivor.
If those who got sick and died horribly felt hard done by (and who wouldn't?), those who survived must have felt somewhat privileged. God must like THEM. And this might have had something to do with the Peasant's Revolt, which was led some years later by one Wat Tyler.

There's a popular misconception that economics is a human invention that has something to do with money.
In fact, the whole universe runs on economics. Seas and deserts become hotter or colder, richer or more barren, because there is this much sunlight or that much rain. Stars and planets move in their orbits because there is this much gravity acting upon this much mass. Now, thanks to the plague, there were only so many peasants to pick so many carrots, and the balance of power had shifted just a little.
The workforce discovered that if one landlord didn't want to pay them just that little bit more for tending his farm, the one down the road, who was desperately short of help, would. The problem was that the ancient 'feudal system' whereby everyone in society knew his place and did what he was told by the next man up the ladder, did not permit any upstarts to rock the boat in this manner. You had to mind your place and like it.
So began what might be regarded as an early experiment in communism. Jack Straw and his buddies rallied the peasants and marched on London to present their case to the king. In the middle of town, Straw marched right up to the teenage Richard II, and in true communist form, chummily addressed him as a brother.
Whereupon Richard, or possibly one of his followers, (exercising the diving right of kings to at least defer the laws of the universe) sent him to meet his Father, leaving the rest of to wait another 500 years for Karl Marx.

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